I recently received a copy of Artisanal Cocktails for review. I was quite excited by its arrival as I had seen it in Barnes and Noble and wanted to buy it. My wife was less pleased at its arrival, as it was the cocktail book she had chosen to give me for Christmas. I get the book, and make out like a bandit. She gets to go back to the drawing board.
Artisanal Cocktails is written by Scott Beattie, who presides behind the mahogany at Cyrus Restaurant in Healdsburg, California. Divided into four seasons the book presents a panoply of mostly original cocktails, each tuned to a season of the year, based on taste or availability of ingredients. Beattie also provides clear instructions for producing all of the complex homemade ingredients and garnishes used in the drinks.
As I have said before, a great modern cocktail book must have attractive photography, and here is a book with that in spades. In fact, were it not a little small for the genre, Artisanal Cocktails is as much a coffee table book as a cocktail book. The photography is not merely pretty, it is stunning. The cocktails Beattie builds are photographed and laid out in a magnificent manner. Sara Remington, the photographer, has achieved the amazing task of getting me to look for more of her work to read and own. Just feast your eyes on the Blackberry Lick and the Fraser River Sour.
Beattie’s introduction is interesting reading. It chronicles his progression from ordinary commercial bartender to big-time mixological artisan. Although he presents his journey of discovery as a lonely and personal accomplishment, it really is more a microcosm of much of what has happened throughout the cocktail world during the last ten years. For those who haven’t perceived, or who reject, what has begun over the last decade, this story puts a human face on a trend that I don’t think is in danger of going away anytime soon.
Beattie’s cocktail methodology and philosophy takes much of the complex construction, long ingredient lists, and the fetish for complex sub-assemblies found in the Tiki genre, and applies them to the more traditional western structured cocktail arena. What results are drinks that are anything but traditional. There are a few exceptions, such as the Gin and Tonic or the Pimm’s Cup, but most of Beattie’s cocktails are Dale Chihuly bowls to the Pfaltzgraff stoneware of a Rum and Coke.
Those sub-assemblies I mentioned are Ohh- and Ahh-inspiring dehydrated or pickled garnishes, a host of interesting syrups, and the humbly titled Ultimate Pickling Liquid, to name a few. He presents some other provocative ideas I intend to try, such as making a chiffonade of some leafy ingredients, rather than muddling them. The sheer work entailed in his cocktails gives legitimacy to the title word Artisanal, which I had thought before reading to be pretty overblown.
But this same sometimes byzantine complexity also leads to the book’s greatest, though not remotely fatal, flaw. Most of the cocktails Beattie presents are well beyond the scope of the reader to duplicate. And for a variety of reasons. I found myself frustrated many times in the first part of the book as I’d read a drink that appealed greatly to me, and I was forced to confront the fact that I just wasn’t going to be able to try it. A majority of the recipes call for specific brands of liquor, usually small-batch, regional brands. I pout a bit to be told to use a brand I have no hope of getting, and not told what, if any damage that will be done by substituting an alternate, national bottle. Many other recipes call for obscure or local produce that make them all but useless to anyone who dwells outside of California’s agricultural cornucopia.
(Update—Gabriel, in the comments, describes the photography as being
serious drink porn. This is very apt. Particularly so in the case of this particular illustrated cocktail book. You look at the pictures, think
Ooo, I want! and know simultaneously that you cannot have….)
And if time and geography do allow the reader to try many of Beattie’s cocktails, those lovely sub-assemblies will consume enough time and resources to make the final production a once-a-year piece of performance art. What if you go through all that, and find that you or your guests don’t like it?
In short, this is not a reference book. But I don’t think it means to be. Just as a portfolio of an artist’s work is not meant as a guide for others to duplicate the contents, neither (really) is Artisanal Cocktails. But the book is also more than just a portfolio. Beattie shows the reader a lot of tools to use to construct cocktails, and his writing provides an excellent look at his creative process. If you want to try your own hand at creating cocktails of the
Beattie School, he gives you a lot of insight into how to begin.
So what do we make of Artisanal Cocktails? It is not a reference book… at all. It is not a book that you give to your friend who has expressed an idle desire to move beyond his usual Boilermakers. It is a fabulous addition to the library of the serious cocktailian, however. It is simply beautiful and a joy merely to leaf through. It’s recipes will tantalize and perhaps even taunt the mixologist who reads it. And for the creative and talented bartender, of either the home or professional variety, it provides a wealth of thought provoking ideas to use to build your own craft.