My husband David and I have always loved food and drink. We would plan vacations based on the restaurant where we wanted to eat. We once spent an evening with friends tasting fifteen bottles of Oregon Pinot Noir, just because we could (well, truth be told, I was writing about it, but what an excuse!) This was about ten years ago when classic cocktails weren’t even on our – or most people’s – radar, especially in Los Angeles. Then, Chef David Myers decided to reinvigorate his cocktail menu at Sona, one of L.A.’s most influential restaurants; David was so excited about these new drinks that he would literally bound out of the kitchen to mix us a Penicillin or a Bramble on the spot.
These drinks rocked our world, not only because of the bold flavors but because of the camaraderie they seemed to inspire. We couldn’t stop talking about these concoctions – how they were made, how the true character of the spirit shone through, how they, in short, made us really, really happy about drinking. We wanted more. Then, we discovered Ted Haigh’s “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails”. This was the “more” we’d been looking for. Haigh’s book encapsulated all that was great about cocktails – the flavors, the history, the creativity, and the sheer sexiness of the world in which they exist.
I think it’s the sexy part that really got us hooked. Let’s face it. James Bond sipping a Martini is a lot cooler than a fraternity boy with a Jack and Coke or a Jell-O Shot. Unfortunately, that Jack and Coke is at lot easier to “mix” and to drink than, say, a Corpse Reviver #2. Haigh (aka Dr. Cocktail) manages to sum up this dilemma up beautifully: “As a culture, we are quickly forgetting how to appreciate flavors other than the simple childlike ones.” Enough with being simple children we said; bring on the real drinks — drinks where you can actually taste the alcohol (that’s part of the point, isn’t it?) and which have a story to tell. With its offering of obscure but tasty cocktails and their even more obscure histories, Haigh’s “Vintage Spirits” helps separate the men (and women) from the boys (and girls). If there is only one classic cocktail book you are going to own, this is it.
Why Haigh’s book? Obviously there are thousands of cocktail manuals out there. Today, with the resurgence of cocktail culture, you can get excellent reprints of many turn-of-the-century guides and, of course, choose from tons of modern “how to” books by professional bartenders. In fact, if you Google the words “cocktail books”, you will be rewarded with no less than 22,500,000 hits. It’s enough to make the at-home bartender pack up his jigger and strainer and pop the top on an MGD. It’s also why “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails” should be your go-to guide. For 2010, a new, deluxe edition of the book sports a spiffy spiral binding, durable hardcover, and larger format to highlight the glossy, almost Technicolor photos of cocktail ephemera. It also updates what’s happened in the cocktail universe since the 1994 first edition and adds a useful back-of-book resource on the Jerry Thomases of the Cocktail Internet.
Back on the sexy side, the new edition contains twenty additional classic recipes, bringing the total to 100. Let’s face it, how could you not want to make a drink called the Crimean Cup a La Mamora or the Boulevardier? And I defy anyone to pass up the Japalac, unfortunately named for a quick-drying varnish of yore. True, many of these drinks use esoteric ingredients like Parfait Amour (spices, vanilla, orange, flowers) and Swedish Punsch (a rum-based liqueur ), but Haigh’s enthusiasm for these oddities is contagious because he doesn’t just use them in the drinks, he tells us why we should not just use them but cherish them too. “Be brave,” he says. “Try (them) for the flavor.” And, if you’re worried about not having recipes for some of the go-to drinks of all time – the Bloody Mary, the Manhattan, the Tom Collins – Haigh includes them in a little section called “Extra Credit”. I wish my teachers had been so kind.
Recipes and historical footnotes aside, the real reason I like this book is because I like Ted Haigh. He’s irreverent — according to him, the reason drinks with egg are not made that often these days is because they “annoy the guy who washes the dishes”. He’s opinionated – he has no problem adjusting measurements or tinkering with ingredients in order to make a drink taste better (in his opinion, of course). And, he’s humble. He knows that he has a place in the cocktail revival, but he’s quick to give credit where credit is due. I’m not the only one who thinks Doc, as he is often called, is the Bee’s Knees. The 2010 edition of “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails” won the Tales of the Cocktail Best Writing Award, besting some stiff competition. When the cocktail big-wigs endorse something, you know you’re in good company.
Haigh gives us a lot of quote-worthy material in his book, but a few comments stand out. First, cocktails are an acquired taste. In other words, tastes get more sophisticated as we get older. Second, cocktails are special and should be treated with respect. And, third, we – the drinkers – are the ones who will keep the cocktail culture evolving. I couldn’t agree with you more, Doc. Besides, as far as I’m concerned, any book that has a recipe for Fish House Punch has a home on my bookshelf.
- Another reason to prefer short glasses (economist.com)
- Tony Sachs: Old Tom For A New Century: A Long-Lost Spirit Makes A Comeback (huffingtonpost.com)
- Latest cocktail trend is to low-alcohol drinks (sfgate.com)