17 May 2010

Book Reviews: Mr. Boston: Summer Cocktails and Sommelier Prep Course

I got the chance to review a pair of new books on wine and spirits... First up is Mr. Boston: Summer Cocktails, a new companion to the popular bartender's guide that's been a standard since 1935.

I'm a bit wary of modern cocktail cookbooks. They either tend to be stupid (100 recipes in which the main ingredients are rum, 7-Up, and food coloring), or just a little too precious when it comes to obscure ingredients.

For example, on page 61 there's a recipe for a cocktail called the Trident. It includes Peach Bitters, Cynar (a bitter artichoke flavored liquor), Aquavit (sort of a Swedish gin-whiskey cross), Manzanilla Sherry, and a twist of lemon. Now I've got the peach bitters because I'm a bitters fanatic in the extreme minority, but aside from the lemon none of the ingredients are that common, even among cocktail enthusiasts. If you have those bottles on hand, you probably own a bar. And an odd bar at that.

(Anyone that gives me any lip about weird, obscure cocktails that I've posted here gets smacked with a cocktail spoon. Specifically, a nickel-plated spoon that has a handle twisted in the proper fashion for a right-handed mixologist. I save the left-handed spoon for visitors that might need it.)

But the vast majority of the recipes require far less exotic ingredients, and incorporate two very important things for summer: fresh fruit and fresh herbs. Time to hit the farmers market and have some fun. You'll find uses for berries, pineapple, all sorts of citrus, and tropical fruits. Many fruit-based cocktails get a bad rap because they're made using purely artificial juices, or juices that are heavily sweetened and altered through blending (often cheap apple or pear juice is used as filler). And as for herbs, it's not just mint in a julep: recipes include sage, basil, rosemary, thyme, even cilantro. So the theme of Summer Cocktails is all about taking great fresh ingredients, matching them with the proper spirits, and serving appropriately.

And that is really in the best tradition of old cocktails. Back then you had cases of fresh fruit and a small army of people zesting and juicing fruit, and chipping big blocks of ice into the proper smaller pieces. Don't want to squeeze a bunch of fresh fruit? Employ one of your guests, a roommate, spouse, significant other, or if you've got kids, pick the one with the strongest arms and put her in charge of juicing limes. There are a lot of great ideas in this book, and once you get into the swing of things you'll get a feel for where you can substitute or improvise.

Most of the recipes (which were written by renown mixologists) sound appetizing, and bright full-page photos are included for about half of them. If I was going to pick one to run with for this review, my choice was simple. Page 26 lists one called...

Carter Beats the Devil
1 oz. Fresh Lime Juice
Pinch of Ground Chile
½ oz. Agave Nectar
¼ oz. Mezcal
1½ oz. Resposado Tequila
Garnish: Lime Wheel

In a mixing glass combine all of the ingredients, top with ice cubes, cover, and shake thoroughly. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with the lime wheel.

The cocktail, named after the mystery novel by Glen David Gold, resembles an authentic margarita (not the green slushies pumped out of a machine). The agave nectar is a perfect sweetener for tequila, and the chile gives it a nice little bite. I skipped the Mezcal and just used 2 oz. of Tequila. If you've got it on hand the Mezcal will add a smoky element. And nothing wrong with serving this one on the rocks if it's hot out.

The Sommelier Prep Course by Michael Gibson is, as the title might suggest, a study guide if you're working on a sommelier certification.

There are 350 pages on wine (production, terms, regions, styles), followed by about 75 pages on beer, spirits, storage, and service. It's a large paperback, and you're certainly going to want to read this with a highlighter and a pen handy. I've got several wine encyclopedias, but this is the only one I have that focuses on how wine and other beverages relate to the restaurant experience. There's lots of tips on how to serve various things, problems to look out for, and longevity. For instance, I'm not a fan of sake, but I now know that once opened a bottle needs to be finished off in 24 hours because it oxidizes quickly.

This is really a textbook, but it's written at a beginner to intermediate level. You're not going to get the details on every single producer in Bordeaux, but you'll get an excellent overview of the region. Where I think this book would really shine is in keeping a couple of copies at a restaurant or wine shop. If you're hosting a tasting geared toward a specific region, it's a quick read to get the major facts and details for talking to customers. If you've got a self-motivated employee, loan out the book for a couple of weeks and let him or her read through it.

Also, if you've got a relative that's getting interested in wine, this would make a thoughtful gift. Buying for wine fans is always difficult unless you're very close to that person and also know a lot about wine. They've typically got more corkscrews than they know what to do with. They're picky about their glasses. They've already got plenty of wine. They've developed a grudge against one of the big magazines. All you know is they like French wine, but that gets you nowhere at the wine shop. I'd suggest this book because it's not too basic or too detailed, and it's not tied to specific producers or vintages. If the individual is considering a certification at some point, it's obviously a great study guide. Otherwise it's a casual read that you can pick up for five minutes at a time if you want a refresher on a certain region.

Note: These books were received as samples from Wiley Publishing.


Joe said...

You can never have too much wine! (you folks who get bombarded with samples may disagree...)

Both books seem interesting. I've been thinking about getting a CS certification (redundant), and I have recently reconnected with the glory of cocktails, having a couple made only with fresh fruit, herbs, and good booze.

Benito said...


A well-made herbal cocktail is amazing. I've had one with fresh grapes and basil, one with cucumber and thyme, another with rosemary... Even more fun if you can grab it fresh out of the garden.


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