by Vince Keenan
Paul Clarke’s The Cocktail Chronicles is often my first and only stop when researching a drink. Clarke began writing about spirits and mixology in 2005, making him an eyewitness to the current cocktail revival’s Big Bang. His blog quickly became a flagship destination for the drinking demimonde. Now executive editor of Imbibe magazine, Clarke has distilled a decade-plus of interest into his first book. The Cocktail Chronicles: Navigating the Cocktail Renaissance with Jigger, Shaker & Glass (Spring House Press, August 2015, available from Amazon or Indiebound) is a status report from someone who not only documented the early 21st century spirits scene, but contributed to its development.
Clarke’s compendium of over 200 recipes divides the drinks into three categories. He opens with cocktails delivered from obscurity by contemporary bartenders, like the Last Word. Next comes the quintet of classics—Daiquiri, Manhattan, Martini, Negroni, Old Fashioned—doing double duty as muses and bridges, surviving in traditional form while inspiring a range of variations. Lastly, Clarke spotlights several dozen modern cocktails that epitomize the era.
The book is punctuated with breezy yet informative tutorials on essential ingredients written in Clarke’s witty style: “Even today … openly advocating absinthe can spark degrees of skepticism and wariness similar to those that greet passing references to fetish porn or the admission of a fondness for dubstep.” In the dark days when the Old Fashioned came standard with mashed cherries and seltzer, “all that was needed was the garnish of a smoldering Pall Mall to make the tragic picture complete.”
But the author is willing to ruffle feathers. “Yes,” he writes, “I put a goddamn Cosmo recipe in this book,” because the drink “had a hell of a run.” He sings the praises of the rococo prose style and adventurous nature of predecessor Charles H. Baker, Jr., author of The Gentleman’s Companion: Around the World with Jigger, Beaker & Flask, then notes, “Baker’s recipes typically suffer one major drawback — the drinks quite often suck.” Throughout, Clarke champions experimentation and accessibility. “After all, cocktails are supposed to be fun.”
Clarke launched the book with a lecture at Seattle’s Rob Roy, and he started by questioning his own Baker-inspired subtitle. “ ‘Renaissance’ is a weighty tag for something happening in bars,” he said, preferring ‘revolution’ with its connotations of sticking it to the man. Original wisdom — “Toss a little champagne into any cocktail and it’s 10 percent better” — mixed with reflection on the recovery of lost flavors as Clarke observed, “The first time I tried orange bitters, it was a religious experience.” While admitting that “it’s strange to end a lecture on revolution by counseling caution,” Clarke then did so, offering a prescription for the future. “Creativity isn’t the problem, it’s being ostentatious. When I see a bartender go over the top, I think, ‘You’re not helping.’” In cocktails as in so many things, simplicity equals longevity.
The lecture was illustrated by a trio of tipples, one from each category in The Cocktail Chronicles, prepared by Rob Roy owner Anu Apte and her talented team. The once-forgotten East India is an inspired riff on the Brandy Cocktail, adding notes of pineapple and maraschino for a taste Clarke rightly regards as “luscious.” The infusion of cinnamon in Alex Day’s Boukman Daiquiri elevates an everyday favorite, while the Gin Basil Smash from Germany’s Jörg Meyer exemplifies Clarke’s preferred straightforward approach.
“Above all,” Clarke said at his lecture, “a drink has to be approachable.” That’s also an apt description of The Cocktail Chronicles, an engaging primer for anyone interested in what fostered the current climate of creativity – and what might happen next.
East India Cocktail (shown above)
- 2 oz. brandy
- 1 tsp. curacao
- 1 tsp. pineapple gomme syrup
- 2 dashes maraschino liqueur
- 2-3 dashes Boker’s bitters (or substitute Peychaud’s or Angostura)
Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist and a cherry.
Recipe by Alex Day, originally for Death & Co., New York City
Death & Co.:
- 1 ½ oz. white rum (Flor de Caña recommended)
- ½ oz. Cognac
- ¾ oz. lime juice
- ½ oz. cinnamon syrup*
Shake. Strain. Garnish with a lime wedge.
Recipe by Jörg Meyer, Hamburg, Germany.
- 2 oz. gin
- ¾ oz. lemon juice
- ¾ oz. simple syrup
- 3-4 sprigs fresh basil
Muddle basil in shaker. Add remaining ingredients. Shake. Strain into ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish with a basil leaf.
* Clarke recommends B.G. Reynolds brand cinnamon syrup or the following recipe: Combine 16 oz. sugar and 8 oz. water. Whisk over medium heat. When the sugar has dissolved, add 3 coarsely crushed cinnamon sticks. Simmer for five minutes, then cover and remove from heat. Let cool to room temperature, and strain before use.
Vince Keenan is the associate editor of Noir City, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation. His book Down the Hatch, collecting essays featured in Slate and usatoday.com, is a Kindle bestseller. He writes about cocktails and popular culture at blog.vincekeenan.com. An ex-pat New York Mets fan, he lives in Seattle.