Generally, cocktail books are easy. Slap a few recipes together, pair each one with a drool-inducing photo, put out a few thousand paperback copies, and you're bound to make some cash. Providing value -- and doing it stylishly -- is another task entirely.
The PDT Cocktail Book was released in late 2011 to much acclaim -- it was called "the book of the decade if not more" by mixologist Dale DeGroff. After sitting down for a chat with its author, Jim Meehan -- who, as the behind-the-bar owner of New York speakeasy PDT (short for Please Don't Tell), has been responsible for many of the trends that influence cocktail culture in the Big Apple and, as a result, the rest of the country -- we picked up a copy.
The positives: For one, it's extensive. At 368 pages, the book contains more than 300 drink recipes -- most created by Meehan, but many from guest bartenders -- each complete with a short description of the cocktail and its history, and each credited to the originator. But this isn't just a book of recipes; it's a guide to building and maintaining a bar of your own. Entire sections of the tome are dedicated to bar design, glassware, bartending tools -- there's even a good 20 pages of hot dog recipes for food pairing. Any person looking to open a bar in the crowded marketplace would do well to utilize this book as his bible.
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It's also beautiful. If, as Meehan states in the book's intro, "We taste with our eyes first," then the PDT Cocktail Book is an visual feast. The cover evokes the feel of the speakeasy-style drinking -- refined, with a hint of flair. Rather than the usual cocktail porn you'd normally find in a book like this, the pages contain illustrations by celebrated artist and Tucson native Chris Gall. Some would complain that the absence of photographs of the actual drinks makes it harder for the novice to benchmark his own creations. The images, film noir-ish and whimsical, are such that you could let your kids read the book before they go to sleep.
The negatives: The recipes seem catered to a specific crowd, and that crowd is people who already own or work in a speakeasy. In his own recipes, Meehan recommends specific brands of spirits -- we find that he makes his martinis with Plymouth, his Aviations with Beefeater -- and the result is that the reader is left feeling like he'd need to buy out the local BevMo in order to make anything. Many of the recipes are supremely complicated, often requiring esoteric liquors and mixers we wouldn't even begin to know where to find. When attempting to make drinks like the Tao of Pooh -- made with Liquiteria coconut water, 42 Below Manuka Honey vodka, Galliano L'Autentico and The Bitter Truth lemon bitters -- the average home bartender will find his collection of spirits severely lacking. It would take a major investment in new bottles to be able to make half of the drinks in here.
Complicated though they may be, there's no denying the quality of each recipe. The Benton's Old-Fashioned (made with bacon fat-infused bourbon), the Gold Rush (bourbon, honey syrup and lemon juice) and Meehan's own Green Deacon are standouts, and these aren't slapped-together cocktails; each displays a level of creativity and drink-making skill beyond that of mere mortals. The problem is that you're also expected to be superhuman to make them at home. The drinks are worth trying. You just might have to take them to a nearby bar and have them make it for you. They'll have the ingredients -- probably.