By James Kenney. Originally published at whatchareading.com
Have you ever, like me, imagined yourself a sophisticate ready to seduce a game but innocent Doris Day or charm a seasoned but frisky Sonia Braga? (have you also wished to have some more up-to-date references at your fingertips?)
Have you ever felt like a kid in an adult’s world, knowing there is something out there beyond beer and chemical-laden wine coolers, but you don’t know which way to turn to get beyond the Bud-lites piled up on the garage floor? Don’t you want to hold court at your basement bar as either an enviable handsome silky, sophisticate like Cary Grant, or at a barbecue as a grizzled Hemingwayesque raconteur?
Whether you’re a soccer mom or a debutante making the Manhattan scene, an airline pilot or a city bus driver, there’s no reason why you can’t have a more intimate knowledge of high-level mixology.
If you have ever wanted a clean, clear explanation of just what you need to start a proper home bar, make some more-than-halfway decent cocktails, and learn a little bit about mixology history, then COCKTAILS MADE SIMPLE: EASY & DELICIOUS RECIPES FOR THE HOME BARTENDER, written by Bartender Journey podcaster Brian Weber and Amin Benny, is the heady but compact tome you need.
I spoke with Brian about his book and about the ins-and-outs of home mixology:
Brian, what road lead to you becoming a bartender, and why do you think you were drawn to the profession?
I started washing dishes in a local restaurant on Staten Island when I was 14 years old making $15 per night (not per hour!) When it came time to go to college I didn’t know any other business, so I studied Hospitality. By age 24 I did every job there is in a restaurant. I took two week a vacation to Hawaii and ending up staying for five months, bartending to make some money. When I finally returned to New York I decided to make a change – I went back to school to study another passion of mine – audio production. After working in a Manhattan recording studios for eleven years, the studio was shut down during the financial crisis of 2008. I did some freelance audio engineering after that, but returned to bartending after not doing it for many years.
What led you to beginning your podcast Bartender Journey and what did you hope to accomplish with it?
In 2013 a guy I worked with came to me with a vague idea to create some audio content to teach people how to bartend. He knew about my background in audio production. I was listening to a lot of podcasts back then, when they weren’t nearly as popular as they are now. I suggested we create a show ourselves. At the time I believe there was only one other bartending podcast.
We really started the podcast with the idea “let’s see where this leads”. We had no other goal than that. We did the show as co-hosts, but eventually he decided to bow out. I did all the technical work and decided that I had put too much into the show to just end it. I switched to an interview format. I always say “Bartender Journey was the perfect name for the show, because I didn’t know how much I didn’t know about Bartending.”Interviewing experts in a field is an amazing way to learn. I started attending conferences with all-access media credentials. I learned about the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG) and then became a member. Through that I met (and made great friends with) bartenders who worked at some of the highest end restaurants and bars. The USBG meetings were held in great bars all over the city and were sponsored by big liquor brands. I was exposed to a whole world that I didn’t know existed.
You write in the book that “over the last 10 years cocktail creation has become a true and respected craft.” Why do you think that’s so? What changed or happened for this development?
It actually began over 20 years ago. A man named Dale DeGroff worked at the Rainbow Room in the 1990’s. The owner of the Rainbow Room, Joe Baum, tasked Mr. DeGroff with upgrading the bar program. At the time many of the popular cocktails were sugary sweet and artificially flavored & colored. Mr. Baum dictated that the drinks in his restaurant should be on the same level as the food and service. Mr. DeGroff researched pre-prohibition cocktail books and upgraded the bar program. On New Year’s Eve 1999, a mentee of Mr. DeGroff’s named Sasha Petraske opened a Speakeasy style bar called Milk and Honey on the Lower East Side. Mr. Petraske was always impeccably dressed and offered a very high quality of service. The cocktails were ground breaking for the time. The bar had rules posted. Milk and Honey was the seed for thousands of bars that followed in Mr. Petraske’s footsteps. I never had the opportunity to meet the gentleman. He sadly left this world before his time in 2015, but I have met several bartenders who trained under him, who all have a work ethic that is beyond reproach.
What’s the biggest misconception the general population has about “cocktails”?
Many people are afraid to try new things, though that is starting to change. Also, we often hear that “oh, Gin (or Tequila or other category) and I don’t get along.” The truth is they probably had a bad experience at one time and have an association memory. I always say “it’s all ethyl alcohol!”
Like a lot of people, I was raised on beer and wine colors with an occasional glass of wine. What should a beginner stock up with to start home bartending?
If a home bartender is looking to start their own journey, I would recommend finding a nearby great bar, (it doesn’t have to be one of these, but interesting list: The World’s Best 50 Bars).
Go on a slow (weekday) night. Sit at the bar and ask the bartender questions. Find something that you like that you’ve never had before. Tell him when you like a drink, and that you’d love to have him or her suggest something else. Then you can go buy a few bottles in a category that you enjoy. Also, as we state in the book, using freshly squeezed citrus juice is key. And by freshly squeezed, we mean not only that it came from an actual piece of fruit, but it was juiced within the last few hours.
Which of the cocktails in your book are your personal favorites and why?
The Classic Daiquiri is not just a delicious drink, but an important one. The Classic Daiquiri is not a colorful slushy concoction – that would be a Frozen Daiquiri. This cocktail is served up, like a Martini, and contains just three ingredients – silver rum, fresh lime juice and simple syrup, (sugar dissolved in water in a ratio of 1:1). The key here is balancing the cocktail so that it’s not too sweet, not too tart and not too “hot”, (alcohol). Once you can master this drink, you have a great foundation for making cocktails. This is a basic “sour” style drink, which many drinks fall into, for instance obviously the Whiskey Sour, but also cocktails like the Margarita and the Tom Collins.
Is a vodka martini better when it’s shaken, not stirred?
Ha! We get this a lot! I always say “James Bond ordered his Martini ‘shaken not stirred’ because that is the exception to the rule! If he just ordered a ‘Vodka Martini’ he would have been served a stirred Martini because that is the proper method.” Generally the rule is – cocktails that contain only alcoholic ingredients are stirred to create a silky texture without incorporating air and without ice shards. Drinks which contain juice or other non-alcoholic ingredients are shaken to liven it up – in a drink like this a small amount of effervescence and/or foam or “head” are desirable.
What is the hardest to put together cocktail that you still think is worth the effort?
None of these things are particularly difficult – there is a saying in our industry that basically says “I can teach anyone to bartend, what can’t really be taught is how to be nice”; in other words the hospitality side. It is a bit challenging to teach methodology, such as shaking and stirring in a book – much easier in person. What is always worth it is to squeeze your own lemon and lime juice. Please don’t buy pre-made!
I love the historical backgrounds of the cocktails given in the book. Is this stuff you learned through the years bartending or did you set out and do research for the book?
I’ve attended countless seminars, trainings & conferences and learned from the rock stars of our industry. I’ve read a lot of books. Most of this stuff I knew, but in certain cases we did some research and fact checking.
What has been the favorite part of your bartending experience? Is there anything about bartending that might surprise our readers?
I am a pretty social person and enjoy that aspect of bartending. Somehow that two feet of wood that separates you and your guests turns you into Superman! I’ve spoken to many bartenders who say that in “normal life” they are quite shy or even consider themselves to be socially anxious, but when behind the bar they are transformed. I also love the history and the continuing education factor.
I think many people may not realize how physical the job is. We are on our feet for 8-10 hours a day. We are often lugging heavy things around. We are constantly multitasking.