Tuesday, August 4, 2015

:: interview with paul clarke, author of the cocktail chronicles ::

During Tales of the Cocktail this year, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Paul Clarke to discuss his new book, The Cocktail Chronicles: Navigating the Cocktail Renaissance with Jigger, Shaker & Glass. Paul was one of the writers that I was reading as I started on my own cocktail quest. Back then, I was journaling my exploits that inspired my friend Jessica to start this blog that she later invited me to be an author of six months later. Two years ago, I paid tribute to Paul and 13 other bloggers who were active when I started writing for this blog, and part of the description for Paul is in the infographic below. Strangely, I did not pick up at first that Paul's decrease in blogging or his asking me for advice on essential cocktails had anything to do with this book project instead of writing for Imbibe Magazine or other, but I am overjoyed that his writing has solidified into hardcopy gem. A few years after I started blogging, I finally got to meet Paul at Tales of the Cocktail and have a drink of his, the Dunniette. But the vast majority of this book is not about his recipes, but his adventures chronicling the cocktail renaissance and featuring classics and neoclassics with an eye for simplicity, elegance, and longevity.
What were you doing before you started blogging?
Before I started blogging, I had already been spending about two years roughly digging into cocktails, collecting the books -- which at this time in 2003-2004, it was ridiculously easy to get an original copy of David Embury for $3 or the Gentleman's Companion for $10. I had already been spending a couple of years digging through the cocktail literature and exploring recipes and playing around with everything related to cocktail in my own time. I also kind of dabbled online a little bit on the DrinkBoy forum and eGullet which were getting pretty active at the time on the cocktail front. It wasn't until 2005 that I realized that I needed some sort of central repository to stick all the recipes that I had been playing with, and to put all the little bits and pieces of writing that I had been dabbling with... I had been doing the cocktail thing for a couple years before I started blogging, but blogging was where it started to solidify.

What, where, when was your first memorable craft cocktail?
Probably in my own kitchen. At the time that I first started getting into this in 2003, there simply weren't that many craft cocktail bars around the country. It was only a little bit later that I learned about the Zig Zag Café in Seattle, but my first craft cocktail experience was after reading through the excellent book by William Grime and from picking up a copy of Esquire Drinks and then heading out and finding a bottle of rye whiskey and coming back and saying maybe I've got a bottle of Pernod at home so let’s try a Sazerac or let's try a Manhattan. So my first experience was on my own, and I think in some ways that may have helped me because it left me to my own devices and my own judgment as I decided what tasted good and what worked well and what was fascinating.

What is your writing background?
Writing has always been one of those career directions that's not really a career direction. Like the thing you think about when you're in high school or in college and you think that there's no way you can make a living doing that... So when I did start dabbling in writing and writing professionally even when it wasn't touching on cocktails at all -- when I was working as a freelancer on anything they'd pay me to write on, I always saw the real desire... to be on good writing, on making it genuinely interesting... So when I actually started working with material that I found fascinating (in cocktails) I had a jewel box of information here and of stories at my disposal. If I write about these and manage to make them boring, then I have done an incredible disservice. So I feel an incredible obligation not only to the drinks themselves, but to the bartenders who created them, and also to the heritage of cocktail writing to try to elevate it. This is a topic that can be gorgeous and beautiful. This is a topic that is not essential to any of our lives: this is about a flight of fancy, an amusement, a luxury to many people, and so it deserves to be looked at in such a way that reflects that. If you manage to write about cocktails and make them boring, then I'm not really sure why you're doing it.
What old trends or drinks do you see or foresee coming back?
I think we've plumbed the past pretty well by now. And on occasion I will go through some of the older drink guides looking for things overlooked, but there are so many bartenders who have been turning over those stones for so long that I think we've really fleshed out most of the rediscoveries that are there to be dug out. So in terms of drinks for the future, that's tough. One thing that I would like to see and I think that we are starting to see in some parts of the bar world is a fresh embrace of simplicity which I think is wonderful. One of the hallmarks of the cocktail renaissance has been a renewed level of creativity and innovation on the part of bartenders regarding ingredients for example the spread of a thousand styles of bitters, infusions, gastriques, shrubs, and things of that nature -- those are fantastic to see, that's wonderful to see that level of creativity but simplicity is going to be the glue that continues to hold interest in the cocktail together. The moment that we make cocktails too difficult or too inaccessible to the average guest, the average consumer, then we start losing people. And we've lost people in the past. I am sure that the guys at Bartles and Jaymes wine coolers thought that their product was going to stick around forever, but tastes change. And we need to recognize that if we want this enthusiasm for the cocktail to last; we need to prioritize simplicity and approachability.

Which cocktails in the book are the babies you want to promote to the world?
I intentionally put [only] one of my own original cocktails in this book; I did not want this book to be about my experimentations with recipes. I wanted to highlight some of the classic drinks that are both on every menu like a Tom Collins and Last Word as well as things that bartenders and bloggers have dabbled with or dug up like the Self Starter or the Appetizer a l'Italienne and put back out there. But I also wanted to focus on some of the riffs on classics -- for example the entirety of Chapter 3 in the book is taking the five mainstays of cocktails: the Old Fashioned, the Martini, the Manhattan, the Negroni, and the Daiquiri, and looking at ways that those continue to resonate with bartenders today and have for decades in many cases. Showing variations on those such as the Boukman Daiquiri from Alex Day or the Chocolate Negroni from Naren Young -- fantastic variations on these classics. And of course the totally original drinks that have come out over the last 10 or 15 years that I think may actually stand a chance of being a classic that are enjoyed decades from now like the Chartreuse Swizzle by Marco Dionysos or the Penicillin by Sam Ross. Those are two of the more obvious examples because they are on a number of menus around the world now.

When you were writing your book, did you ponder the world of cocktail books? David Wondrich wrote an article last year about how the world does not need more cocktail books.
Yes, that was a dispiriting thing to read when working on the book. No I did. Part of writing any book is looking at the bookshelf and saying "Is there a gap?" and if so, how can I best fill that. The gap that I saw was that there had been a number of cocktail books that have come out and there are many many more on the way that specialize in techniques or in particular recipe approaches of individual bars. That's great, but it's been 10 or 12 years since [a book like] the Joy of Mixology -- or actually Esquire Drinks would be a way better example -- came out that was more of a comprehensive guide to classic cocktails and some new classic cocktails that are both of interest to the professional in the industry but also very approachable to the first timer, to the newcomer. I wanted to make sure that I did not write something that was only applicable to the industry. I wanted to bring in the first timer. We need to be conscious as this proceeds; we need to continue to bring more people in and this is going to include a younger generation, the people who may currently be in their early 20's but in a few years, their palates are going to be maturing, their tastes are going to be maturing, and they are going to be looking to get into things. So I wanted to have that sort of introductory aspect to it. So was there a need for this? I think so. There is nothing that really functions as a snapshot of where we've come thus far.
You can find Paul's book The Cocktail Chronicles on Amazon, Cocktail Kingdom, Boston Shaker, and other fine booksellers.

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