It’s Boozy Bookshelf time! This month Lucas of Famous Last Words Bar in Toronto reviews the beautiful Craft Cocktails: Seasonally Inspired Drinks & Snacks from Our Sipping Room by Geoff Dillon and Whitney Rorison.
Familiarity can breed complacency. In my case, after reading dozens of cocktail books, it’s easy to be jaded about them and file them away too easily. Craft Cocktails: Seasonally Inspired Drinks & Snacks from Our Sipping Room, the new book by pioneering Ontario craft distillery Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers, is easy to pre-classify as just a coffee-table book of recipes or a keepsake for fans of Dillon’s. There’s nothing wrong with being those things — the world could do with a few more actually well-made distillery gift shop items and fewer commemorative glass cozies — but fortunately Craft Cocktails offers a bit more for the enterprising bartender, particularly when they are from Canada. While primarily a resource for laypeople, Craft Cocktails is one of the few books where everything, down to its non-alcoholic ingredients, are easily available to bartenders in Ontario. This, combined with the seasonal approach to ingredients, make it a broader resource for bartenders north of the States.
Craft Cocktails is divided into seasonal sections, a trick I have seen in many cookbooks (like my beloved and well-worn copy of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams) but only a few cocktail books — the only other one within immediate memory is Frankie Solarik’s BarChef (oddly, another Ontario-derived cocktail book, based around the output of his famed molecular and modernist-style cocktail bar of the same name). Each chapter contains around twenty cocktails and four small dishes. The food is mostly cocktail-party fare (salads, charcuterie, sliders), but presented elegantly. The presentation, with food coupled and the inclusion of a lot of very simple riffs on classics like Manhattans or Collins with seasonal fruit, recalls articles in upscale magazines for entertaining (think a really nice Home & Garden magazine spread). Fortunately, the ratios are a bit more keyed in on modern palates, and the four cocktails I tried from the book were delicious.
Artistically, the book is gorgeous, which is par for the course for most bar books I’ve seen this year. Huge, full-page photos of every drink and dish won’t help you learn how to make a cocktail, but it will give you an idea of the final product and makes the book a lovely addition to a coffee table. With the stated focus on local and seasonal produce, the colours of fruit and berries really pop.
The cocktails themselves are mostly well balanced for modern palates and approachable, though most seasoned cocktail bartenders won’t need a book to give them a reasonable Sazerac or Paloma recipe. In fact, the formula for most of them is pretty standard — take a classic and either add a homemade ingredient (usually a syrup or garnish, like the home-pickled onions for the Martini) or incorporate a seasonal fruit or vegetable (like the Blood Orange Mule or the “Figgin’ Love You,” a vodka sour with lemon). More interesting are the cocktails, sprinkled through at random, by Ontario bartenders, which tend to be a little more complex and original, though there are no signposts about them beyond mentions in the description of the drinks.
In most cocktails, the spirituous ingredients are left generic (listed as, for example, “1 1/2 oz of gin”) rather than calling for specific spirits, an interesting approach for a book that exists to rep a specific craft distillery. The exception to this seems to be when a cocktail lists multiple options for a base spirit, like the aforementioned Paloma, which specifies any sort of tequila or Dillon’s White Rye as potential bases. This choice (and the lack of a separate suggested spirit for each cocktail, beyond potentially a brief mention in the brand write-ups in the introductory chapters), can only be assumed to be to make the book more applicable for the general market and less subject to changes in the distillery’s products, but is baffling for a brand that releases multiple varieties of vodka, gin, and rye at any given time. Perhaps appropriately for a craft distillery, vodka and gin drinks far outnumber other base spirits, which is probably the most obvious indicator of the regional and consumer-driven focus of the book.
The cocktails, house-made ingredients, and food accompaniments make up the vast majority of the book, outside the description of the distillers and their products, the small but function index, and the sparse, mandatory-feeling explanations of bar technique, tools, and glassware. That means the usefulness of the book relies on how engaged the reader is with its seasonal theme — while many bar programs will have access to a kitchen, not all might, so a reminder of fresh and readily-available ingredients can be a big help (though the extensive use of citrus, while ubiquitous in bartending, means the book isn’t exactly a perfect example of local-driven products).
Lucas’s Last Word: One of the nicer niche products I’ve read recently, Craft Cocktails feels pulled in two directions — to provide a collection of recipes easily replicated by any consumer, regardless of location, and also to focus on a seasonal and regional collection of drinks and accompanying food, which keeps it from fully fitting into a key niche. Despite that, the lack of books that acknowledge the liquor restrictions of markets like Ontario or Pennsylvania make the book useful in ways that most recipe collections don’t, especially when local produce matches up to the seasonal cocktails within (like it does in Ontario). Like most recipe-list books, it’s certainly not a great early choice for a cocktail bartender looking to learn, but it can serve as a nice reminder of seasonal options. Plus, it’s real pretty and being a trade paperback, not too expensive, if that matters.