Homemade Cocktails — Experiments, Critiques & Travels
What I love about books authored by bartenders is that they are written with a sense of calm, practical authority. No stand-offs or divisive arguments between mixology geeks, no lecturing on how to mix a proper Martini, just, “Here’s how we make a [insert drink], a hundred times a day, and if you would like something else, that’s fine. No matter what, it’ll be made right.” Such accommodating mastery is exemplified in a modern cocktail book called Speakeasy, written by Jason Kosmas, Dushan Zaric, and the gang of bartenders behind Employee’s Only, a speakeasy-style bar in New York.
Speakeasy can be divided, roughly, into two sections, the first of which introduces us to the history of Employees Only, its methodology, and its technique. Kosmas and Zaric weave the story of EO’s founding into a New York cultural scene that was just recovering from 9/11 — where restaurants were closing early, business was down, and shifts were shortened, leaving employees with few after-hours hangouts and less pay. Having worked at vodka bars, where they upped the ante in the “martini” craze with fresh fruits and house-made ingredients, the founders shifted their focus to classic cocktails, just then coming into vogue. EO’s drinks were not strictly limited to the classics, nor were the classics considered unchangeable, and the bar adopted the mantra of “Passion, Knowledge, and Wisdom,” their cocktails being backed by 150 years of American drinking and finished with a dash of contemporary flair.
After establishing their reputation as a “New York institution,” Kosmas and Zaric move on to the real meat of the book: the recipes. Both classic and original drinks are covered, as one would expect from any cocktail book, but the difference here lies in the detail and specificity of each recipe. EO presents the reader with a brief story behind each cocktail, details of its evolution, and why and how it’s mixed at their bar, then provides a concise (but very descriptive) flavor profile, wrapping up each drink in a neat little bundle for future reference.
Regarding the classics, EO sticks pretty true to the average, with a few notable exceptions (the serve both a Manhattan Cocktail and a Contemporary Manhattan, for instance, and an emerald-green rendition of the Martinez). Odd dashes of simple syrup and bitters find their way into the standards here and there, but never to the detriment of the cocktail — you just have to trust the bartenders. Also, EO divides their recipes into apéritifs and “long and fancy cocktails,” which gives the reader an idea of when to drink each cocktail during a coursed meal or long evening — something that I wish more cocktail books did.
The inventiveness comes with the bar’s original recipes, which are evolved variations on classics. My favorite of these (thus far) is the Nerina, an utterly delightful gem of an apéritif that uses slightly uncommon ingredients…
- 1-1/4 ounce Plymouth Gin
- 1-1/4 ounce Amaro Meletti
- 1-1/4 ounce Punt e Mes
Stir with large, very cold ice cubes for 40 revolutions. Strain into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
From Employees Only in New York, via Speakeasy.
Delicious. I’ll let Speakeasy do the talking:
- Dominant Flavors: juniper, cinnamon, caramel, and orange on the nose
- Body: velvety
- Dryness: medium
- Complexity: high
- Accentuating or Contrasting Flavors: blend of herbs and spices
- Finish: short, spicy with caramel overtones
I will also add that the Nerina was a surprise hit at a recent holiday party, its companions being the Jack Rose and the Applejack Old-Fashioned.
While some may find the book’s tone to be pretentious (see: Amazon reader reviews), I do not. Yes, the folks at EO are sticklers for technique, precision, and premium-quality ingredients, but that description applies to any craft cocktail bar in the country, let alone New York City, the Cocktail Mecca of the East Coast. True, this is not a book for the novice cocktailian, as many of its recipes use semi-obscure ingredients that are not universally available. Just look at the Nerina recipe, above, containing Plymouth gin, an amaro, and a bitter vermouth — your average drinker will not know or care what those ingredients are, will feel that they are too high-priced ($30, $20, and $23, respectively), and will not get much use out of them. To a cocktail enthusiast, however, they are worth having, and if you’re knowledgeable and can source the required components, knocking together EO’s drinks will be a cinch.
For many of their original drinks, however, EO relies on house-made specialties whose recipes can handily be found in the back of the book (the provençal vermouth looks particularly nice). Also included is a small selection of punches and pitcher drinks for larger parties.
A worthy addition to the library of any serious cocktailian — I recommend it, and I wonder why I didn’t take a look at it sooner than I did. Speakeasy almost fees like a precursor to The PDT Cocktail Book, each being a distillation (if you will) of the author/bartender’s knowledge and experience, served up to the home enthusiast.
Cheers, and happy mixing!
Photos by IJL.