As an avowed wonk about all things spirited, I have a secret shame involving books about cocktails and drinking. I have more than a few, including most of the current “must haves” of the past decade: Wondrich’s Imbibe and Punch, Morganthaler’s The Bar Book, The PDT Cocktail Book, the Death & Co. book, Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari and Potions of the Caribbean…the list goes on. The shame isn’t in owning all those books–the shame is that most of them sit on my shelf, awaiting a dose of quality reading time that never seems to come. I do read tons of blogs however, and I’ve discovered more than a few recipes and stories from Paul Clarke’s Cocktail Chronicles blog since the cocktail bug bit me nearly a decade ago. So when I learned that Clarke, editor of Imbibemagazine had his own book coming out, The Cocktail Chronicles: Navigating the Cocktail Renaissance with Jigger, Shaker & Glass, my first thought was, of course, “I need it!” My second thought was, “Will Paul’s book befall the same fate as the others on my shelf?”
In the (far too distant) past, I avidly consumed books about technology and programming – I even wrote a fewmyself. But with the advent of a rapidly searchable internet, I’ve found I prefer the buffet style of learning: It’s easy to survey what’s available, with a low level of commitment, and I can take as much or as little as desired. Well-written blog posts are often the perfect vehicle for learning — I’ll decide later if I want to dig in deeper and read an entire book about rum. (Yes, I have. More than one.) Ditto for a well-written magazine column. When Esquire arrives at my house (Mrs. Wonk will have you know that it’s her subscription, and she’s been an avid reader and subscriber for—gulp—25 years), the first thing I flip to is David Wondrich’s column–no matter who’s on the cover, and no matter how scantily clad. On the other extreme, books that are especially heavy on recipes or techniques to the exclusion of background stories get monotonous. Sure, The Savoy Cocktail Bookis an essential piece of cocktail history, but good bedtime reading it’s not.
As such, it’s important to know what sort of experience you’re setting yourself up with when you pick up a book about drinking. The Wondrich and Jeff Berry books are travelogues through a slice of time, painting a detailed picture of a particular era, with the recipes acting mostly as signpost along the way. Other books like Morganthaler’s The Bar Book focus on techniques — great for reference, but you need to be pretty devoted to read it cover to cover.
The meat of Paul’s book is essentially a series of one-pagers on a wide variety of drinks, spirits, and ingredients. Some warrant several pages, but at no point do you feel as if you’re reading a master’s thesis. Think of it as a parade of stories about classic drinks such as the Gimlet, Blood and Sand, Old Cuban, and Penicillin. Interspersed frequently between the “feature” recipes are sidebars divided into three categories:
- Cocktail Essentials: Primary spirit categories, e.g. gin, brandy, whiskey, bitters
- A Taste Apart: Accent spirits, e.g. Amer Picon, sherry, Falernum
- Cocktail Style: Categories of drinks, e.g. Tiki, Flips & Fizzes, New Orleans
Within the sidebars are additional recipes related to the topic at hand. While the sidebar recipes are equally compelling, they just don’t get their own individual description.
Chapter One, called “Notes from a Renaissance in Progress,” starts (as one would think) with an engaging account of the cocktail revolution we’ve experienced over the past 15 years, including Paul’s firsthand account of starting the Cocktail Chronicles blog, and meeting the legendary Murray Stenson for the first time back in 2005 at Zig Zag, long before the Last Word became a cocktail nerd passphrase. The rest of chapter one is a very quick spin through of basic bar techniques and glassware. The brevity of these descriptions are fine, as the book is focused on the recipes – there are plenty of other more detailed references out there on how to shake, express an orange peel, and so forth.
Chapter Two (“Not Forgotten”) begins the parade of recipes and sidebars covering classics like the Sazerac and Sidecar. Chapter Three (“Muses & Bridges”) spends a bit more time on five classics that are the inspiration for numerous other beloved drinks:
- Old Fashioned
Chapter Four (“Staying Power”) focuses on more contemporary cocktails–“and a few that just might be built to last,” in Clarke’s words– including some of my particular favorites, such as the Chartreuse Swizzle, the Old Cuban, and the Single Village Fix. Tiki gets an extended treatment here, including recipes for the Mai Tai, the 1934 Zombie, and the Jungle Bird.
Chapter Five (“Bottles, Tools & Tips”) provides a quick rundown on various bar tools as well as name-brand suggestions for recommended representative spirits in each major category. I’d argue that the discussion of glassware from chapter one belongs here in chapter five, but that’s a minor quibble. As for the spirit recommendations, I found myself nodding enthusiastically at each category’s suggestions: Rum is the spirit nearest and dearest to me, and Clarke’s recommendations were spot on. The remainder of the chapter discusses other ingredients (citrus, syrups, etc.) and a list of resources for further cocktail enlightenment.
The writing style is upbeat and engaging – at no point did I feel as if I were slogging through an endless list of only vaguely related topics. Although not over the top, Paul shows some much appreciated attitude at times. Referring to legendary cocktail writer Charles H. Baker Jr., Paul concludes: “Baker’s recipes typically suffer one major drawback – the drinks quite often suck.” And in the sidebar, “Drinks of Empire, Cocktails that flowed from England’s global sprawl,” he asserts: “But just as baseball, Hollywood films, and political dumbfuckery have become wildly popular international exports, the cocktail has also found ardent fans – and picked up enduring influence – far from home.” You also have to love that a recipe for the oft-lambasted Cosmopolitan is included in his pages: “Yes, I put a goddamn Cosmo recipe in this book.” Like Morganthaler, Clarke has no qualms about standing up for a pretty pink vodka drink—well-executed, of course–that he believes in.
Since most of the recipes are classics (or aspiring classics) they (thankfully) don’t require a home science lab or three days’ advance notice to make wacky ingredients, e.g. Zebrawood-smoked pineapple/chipotle foam. Given my only slightly excessive home bar, I can make just about any recipe in this book. The wackiest thing he suggests making on your own is falernum – a syrup with rum, cloves, lime peel, and a few other ingredients. Seriously, every home bar wonk should make it at least once.
Although there are no photos, only stylized line drawings, The Cocktail Chronicles is otherwise very modern, name-checking the DTO(“Daiquiri Time Out”) and bars that have risen to prominence in the past five years. Being a Seattleite like myself, Paul isn’t afflicted with “anything of significance only happens in New York City” syndrome. There’s plenty of love and callouts to west coast bartenders and their recipes. If you’ve read the Cocktail Chronicles blog and are concerned that the book is just a rehash of Paul’s posts, there’s no need for concern. I spot-checked a number of drinks in the book, comparing them to what he wrote on the blog, and there was almost zero overlap – the book reads like completely fresh content.
While The Cocktail Chronicles doesn’t tread into virgin territory in the pantheon of books about drinking, it’s highly readable and especially well-suited to the newly minted craft cocktail home bar enthusiast. If you enjoy David Wondrich’s short pieces, such as what he writes for Esquire(and I certainly fall in that camp), it’s a good bet you’ll enjoy the Paul Clarke’s The Cocktail Chronicles as well.