It’s not unusual for a new cocktail book to come out. These days, it’s not even unusual for a very good cocktail book to be published. But a new book that I’ll not only use regularly in my own home, but also unhesitatingly recommend to friends who don’t make their living in the drinks industry? That’s a rarity. Paul Clarke’s newly released The Cocktail Chronicles is that book.
If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you might remember Paul from Mixology Monday, the monthly “cocktail party” he initiated years ago to inspire creativity and exploration within the community of cocktail bloggers. Paul was one of the first to make a go of cocktail blogging, launching The Cocktail Chronicles blog in 2005. (My own site launched in 2003 — take that, Paul! — but he beat me to blogging about mixing drinks.) The cocktail world was a much smaller place back then, and a lot of the writers in it were brought together by these monthly blog round ups. (Looking back, some of the drinks from those days should stay in the past. I believe my first MxMo contribution was a combination of Scotch, amaretto, and cigar-infused whipped cream, which I don’t think I’ll be reviving any time soon.)
As Paul notes in his new book, few of those early blogs rarely, if ever, update anymore, though some of the writers have moved on to bigger things. Blogging itself has declined in importance. Or depending on how you look at it, blogging is more important than ever, having infused itself into mainstream journalism and popular social media. We’re all bloggers now. But at a minimum, blogging has lost its cachet as a distinct medium and the esprit de corps that united the people that wrote in it.
The publication of The Cocktail Chronicles seems like an apt occasion to revisit some of the traditions of the early days of cocktail blogging. I’m going to indulge in three of them: Participating in Mixology Monday, getting excited about a new spirit, and writing very much past deadline.
This month’s Mixology Monday (which was actually last Monday), is hosted by current MxMo chairman Fred Yarm. For the momentous occasion of MxMo C, the 100th edition, the theme is “Cocktail Chronicles, a fitting tribute to the guy who started it all:
But what does Mixology Monday “Cocktail Chronicles” mean? I figured that we should look to Paul’s magnum opus and digest the theme of it all — what is timeless (or potentially timeless) and elegant in its simplicity. Paul commented in his interview, “[it]’s wonderful to see that level of creativity but simplicity is going to be the glue that continues to hold interest in the cocktail together. The moment that we make cocktails too difficult or too inaccessible to the average guest, the average consumer, then we start losing people.” Paul does support a minor tweak of a major classic as well as dusting off a lesser known vintage recipe like the Creole Contentment; in addition, proto-classics like the Chartreuse Swizzle and the Penicillin intrigue him for their potential to be remembered twenty years from now. Moreover, he is a big fan of the story when there is one whether about a somewhat novel ingredient like a quinquina, the bartender making it, or the history behind a cocktail or the bar from which it originated. Indeed, I quoted Paul as saying, “If I write about these and manage to make them boring, then I have done an incredible disservice. So I feel an incredible obligation not only to the drinks themselves, but to the bartenders who created them, and also to the heritage of cocktail writing to try to elevate it.”
There’s a lot to like in Paul’s new book, but what stands out the most is how accessible it is. I enjoy reading a lot of the recent cocktail books, but they’re often not the sort that I can casually flip through to find a new drink to make. The Cocktail Chronicles features more than 200 recipes. While they’re not basic, they use bottles of spirits and bitters that any enthusiastic cocktail drinker is likely to have on hand or be able to easily acquire. They rarely call for much homemade preparation, esoteric liqueurs, or overly specific identification of brands. It’s the kind of book that works as both a guide to standards of the modern cocktail renaissance and as a jumping off point for discovering overlooked drinks.
Skipping through the book, one of these for me was the Savoy Tango. I was recently sent a new bottle of sloe gin from Spirit Works Distillery in Sebastopol, California. (Sample bottles seemed to show up with more frequency in the golden age of blogging.) When I started writing about cocktails, good sloe gin made with real sloe berries was impossible to find. Cocktail bloggers would have been ecstatic to try it. Just a few years later, we enjoy an embarrassment of riches when it comes to well-made spirits. This is a really nice sloe gin, with a bright fruit and acidity, and I wanted to find a new cocktail in which to take it for a spin. Thankfully The Cocktail Chronicles features two sloe gin cocktails, neither of which I’d encountered before. The Savoy Tango, from the Savoy Cocktail Book, particularly caught my eye:
1 1/2 oz sloe gin (Spirit Works)
1 1/2 oz applejack (Clear Creek apple brandy)
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
With just two ingredients and no garnish, this sure doesn’t sound like much. But it’s a surprisingly good drink, the kind one could easily pass over unless a trusted guide recommended it. That’s exactly the sort of cocktail one finds in Paul’s book, which is full of these accessible and delicious recipes. The book doesn’t get too deep into history, technique, or rare ingredients, but it’s perfect for finding easy-to-make drinks that stand the test of time, along with just enough background and instruction to introduce them. For readers looking for one book to guide them through the new standards of the cocktail renaissance, The Cocktail Chronicles is the one I’d recommend. Cheers, Paul.
(And thanks also to Fred for hosting and keeping Mixology Monday alive. I’ll try to be on deadline next time around.)