It was that rarest of all rare birds, a San Francisco summer day that started warm and stayed that way through sunset and into dusk. Indeed, last Wednesday evening was balmy as Brooklyn, a day for sundresses and sandals, popsicles and a tall cool drink after dark. Inside the dim environs of Bourbon & Branch, it was downright tropical, with a sweaty summer heat not even a couple of jumbo-sized fans could mitigate.
Still, no one at the launch party for Left Coast Libations: The Art of West Coast Bartending: 100 Original Cocktails was complaining. After months of miserable chilly fog, it was finally, finally tank-top weather, just for a night. Against a backdrop of flocked wallpaper, rows of books, and gleaming liquor bottles, Ted Munat and his co-author Michael Lazar were making the rounds of the room, showing off copies of their brand-new, self-published paen to the West Coast's most inventive bartenders.
Now a snappy, 160-page hardcover, the book started out as something more like a church cookbook, a little self-produced tome created by Munat and his brother Charles, with a handful of bartenders' bios alongside recipes for their favorite original creations. Munat, who blogs about cocktail culture at Le Mixeur, passed around the first version at Tales of the Cocktail, the boozy New Orleans celebration & cocktail conference. Naturally, the bartenders loved to read about themselves. The only problem was the recipes; while other pros could usually decipher the often cryptic instructions, the average guy with a shaker and a bag of ice wasn't going to get a good-tasting drink out of these jottings. Enter Michael Lazar, a high-tech guy turned cocktail obsessive, who jumped in to spend some 2 years testing and refining the recipes to make them workable even for amateurs.
Then again, this is definitely a bartenders' book for bartenders. As a snapshot of a particular moment in cocktail culture, it's invaluable. And in a few years, just like the outfits in Flashdance or the haircuts in Liquid Sky, it will be a cautionary tale, an artifact of a sleeve-gartered, molecular-mixology, pre-Prohibition-obsessed post-post modernism where bitters reigned, gin ruled, St. Germain elderflower liqueur flowed, no one ever asked for a Cosmo or a vodka tonic, and recipes for Smoked Cider Air, Basil Foam, and (yes, really) Smoked Ice were given with complete sincerity.
And then there's the Thomas Keller factor: just like hot-shot chefs, top-shelf bartenders often have the freedom (and budget) to ferret out obscure liquors and create labor-intensive, in-house garnishes and flavorings. A glossary with sourcing information would be very helpful; instead, if you don't already have bottles of Velvet Falernum and Amaro Montenegro in your cocktail cabinet, it can take a close reading of the notes attached to specific cocktail recipes to figure out what they are or how to find them.
However, for those wondering what cocktails tasted like before artificially colored, high-fructose corn-syruped mixtures took over, the back-of-the-book appendix is very useful, with recipes for all kinds of cool stuff from the basic (grenadine syrup, Earl Grey tea-infused gin) to the nifty (banana-flavored rum, agave ginger syrup, strawberry tequila, thai chili tincture) to the fancy-pants (maple syrup gastrique, saffron sharbat, pear foam).
The cocktails, photographed by Jenn Farrington, glow with promise. They all seem to be what Raymond Chandler describes as "the first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar -- that's wonderful," in his perfect LA noir, The Long Goodbye. (The same character later insists that, "A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose's Lime Juice and nothing else. They beat martinis hollow.")
The writing, well, it's bloggy. Every bartender is a star, and Munat uses every slangy superlative (and then some) to make sure the reader knows what fantastic craftsmen, artists, and all-around bon vivants/shy geniuses/supermentors these guys are. (And yes, they are almost all guys. Out of some 50 bartenders, only 6 are women, and 4 of them--Brooke Arthur, Jennfer Colliau, Christine D'Abrosca, and Jackie Patterson-- work in San Francisco.) How much you can take of this kind of hero worship may depend on how much of your happiness depends on getting that perfect Negroni, Corpse Reviver, or Blood and Sand.
Then again, those Saffron Sandalwood Sours were awfully good. Cheers to the West Coast, and may your mustache never lose its twirl, nor your sleeve garters their snap.
Saffron Sandalwood Sour
Created by Anu Apte of Seattle's Rob Roy. Recipe adapted from Left Coast Libations.
1 1/2 oz gin
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz lime juice
1/2 oz Saffron Sharbat (see below)
1 barspoon Angostura bitters
1 egg white
Sandalwood, for garnish
1. Using a cocktail shaker, dry shake all the ingredients except for the sandalwood.
2. Add ice and shake again. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
3. To garnish, sprinkle powdered sandalwood over the top of the drink. You can also grind sandalwood chips in a spice grinder, sifting the result through a fine strainer to lay a "dusting" over the top of the drink.
Makes enough for 16 cocktails, but keeps indefinitely. It can also be used to make a refreshing non-alcoholic drink with fresh lime juice and sparkling water.
1 tbsp boiling water
1/4 tsp saffron threads
1 1/4 cups water
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup rosewater
1. Crush saffron threads between your thumb and forefinger. Bring 1 tbsp water to a boil, the add saffron to the hot water. Let saffon steep for 15 minutes.
2. Mix 1 1/4 cups water and sugar in a small, heavy saucepan. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until sugar is dissolved.
3. Add rosewater and saffron mixture to sugar syrup.
4. Simmer over medium heat for five minutes.