It’s Boozy Bookshelf time! Our monthly feature where our friends Marlene and Lucas of Famous Last Words Bar in Toronto review books of a boozy nature. This month, they hit up Drinking Like Ladies by Misty Kalkofen and Kirsten Amann and give us both of their opinions of said book. Just a warning: this book is not one for beginner bartenders.
I really, really, really wanted to love this book. Beyond the slightly twee sub-header (“dismantling the patriarchy one drink at a time”) I like the idea of drinking like a lady. In my world that means enjoying neat whisky and well-made daiquiris with equal relish, and I think that’s what Misty and Kirsten are trying to get at here. And the variety of cocktails on offer certainly suggest that to be the case; romping through styles and spirits, with contributions from some very prominent bar folks, there’s a pretty extensive list of drinks.
The structure is straightforward: after a short introduction with some “essentials” – spirits, mixers, mixology (read: technique), tools and glassware – it’s divided into chapters by spirit. Each cocktail is paired on its facing page with a “toast” to a prominent or important woman throughout history who in some way inspired the drink. The illustrations of the women are great and some of the stories are utterly fascinating; the authors deserve kudos for profiling some truly remarkable women. But as “toasts” they’re a little problematic: I don’t think my attention span is particularly short, but I found myself skimming through the initial paragraphs of many, trying to get to what made the figure in question so notable. Using a bit more of a journalistic style here and putting the most critical and interesting info right off the bat might have been useful in helping readers get – and stay – engaged.
And then there are the drinks themselves. This is a cocktail recipe book first and foremost, so there are loads to peruse. Trouble is, they’re not exactly what I’d call approachable. The opening covers a “basic setup” which, if you were to use it as a guideline, would allow you to make exactly zero of the cocktails in the pages that follow. Many require complex syrups (Strawberry/Shiso Shrub; Sichuan Pepper, Eucalyptus and Basil Syrup), modifying spirits unlikely to be found on the vast majority of home bars – Kina; Fraise de Bois; Vermut (which all show up in one cocktail, btw) – and/or preparation not for the faint of heart (one calls for homemade Tepache; another has no less than 10 ingredients, one of which is a syrup itself composed of 5 ingredients). I was able to make 2 on my home bar – one delightful, one a little cloying – but had much better luck with the depth of ingredients at the bar, finding the three or four I tried to be quite nicely balanced and interesting. For a professional bartender this book provides some great inspiration, but for the average layperson I worry it’s just too overwhelming; the effort required to procure unique ingredients and make complex syrups that are only called for in one cocktail is daunting (not to mention expensive!).
Stylistically the choice to eschew photos of the cocktails in favour of the illustrations of the ladies who inspired them is an interesting one that separates it from many other recipe-heavy books in the genre. The line drawings are impeccable; all the same I did find myself wishing for a few well-placed cocktail pics.
Finally, there are some consistency error that are glaring enough to be distracting. Why would you have a list of 11 essential tools right next to a picture of 7 bar tools, only 3 of which are actually on the list? Why is Kina referred to in at least 2 different ways in separate recipes? Why do some specs start with the smallest ingredient and others start with the largest?
Marlene’s Last Word: I’d love to abolish the term ‘girly drink’ as much as the next person, and I’m really pleased that Misty and Kirsten didn’t dumb down the cocktails. That said, the pendulum has swung pretty far the other way here, with the majority of cocktails being what I might refer to as ‘fussy’. As a coffee table book it would make for quite a nice conversation piece; as a practical recipe book it’s got some challenges.
Drinking Like Ladies definitely succeeds at what it sets out to do: it tells some great stories of powerful women and gives a bunch of strong bartenders (who happen to be ladies) a chance to show off some modern and innovative cocktails. The book is obviously a labor of love; the authors mention as much in both the forward and the closing dedication. As I work through this monthly review project, I find myself having to ask how I review books as well: is it enough for the the book to succeed on its own? I am often left with questions of whether there also needs to be a metric of usability for my audience, and what part of my audience (which includes all styles of different professional bartenders, as well as cocktail enthusiasts and cookbook fans) should I focus on during my reviews. A book like Drinking Like Ladies makes those questions acutely apparent, as it is equal parts biographical factoids and a grab-bag of high-end cocktails. It is, fundamentally, just a list of cocktails, but each cocktail is prefaced by the history of a notable woman, many largely unsung in mainstream history sources, and each drink is based on its respective history. As such, much of its content is not immediately relevant to a cocktail bartender (outside having a bunch of great stories to tell, which I might argue is the key skill of most bartenders), but the drinks portion is likely beyond the reach of any of our more casual audience.
Drinking Like Ladies is one of the few books I have reviewed solely on the digital version (Marlene reviewed the physical version), so some aspects of the book’s layout and design are less obvious for me. That said, even in a digital version it is attractively laid out, with a very thorough index and an obvious and consistent style that easily delineates the biographies from the recipes. Each biography has an accompanying illustration, but drink photos are relegated to chapter transitions. The line art is fantastic, and there is so much of it I’m actually quite surprised that I had to go to the ending acknowledgements to learn the artist’s name (Bijou Karman, by the way). She does not receive credit on the title page or cover, which is pretty consistent with most bar books but is a bit of a shame as her work really makes the book stand out. Drinks are divided into chapters by base spirit alone, and each spirit is really only given a paragraph of explanation at the beginning and the occasional sidebar aside after a cocktail. In the spirit of the book’s desire to provide credit, each drink has the creator (and her home bar) prominently listed, which is expected but still nicely done.
The biographies are interesting (though my lefty soul bristled a minute when they opened with a Pinkerton), and admirably diverse amongst race, class, and sexuality, and I was happy to see that not all the women included were cisgender. I could easily imagine reading a new biography every day and then making the associated drink that evening, or having a group do the same each week (especially something like LUPEC, Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails, the cocktail society founded by the authors). If the publishers wanted to put together another project, or expand the reach of this one, one of those “fact a day” calendars with the info from the book would be killer, assuming people still have calendars like those in their offices. (I wouldn’t know, I haven’t had an office job since smartphones took over.)
At first glance, the cocktails themselves are pretty exciting — all of them are creative and emblematic of what a sophisticated cocktail program might do in the latter half of the 2010s. As such, the book could function like a couple years worth of issues of Imbibe magazine. The authors obviously gave the bartenders a lot of leeway in designing their recipes. All of this is a double-edged sword: there is very little consistency and a lot of work for each drink. A lot of drinks call for specific spirits by brand (and, confusingly, others do not — why would one cocktail need a call out for a bourbon like Belle Meade, a whiskey bottled in Tennessee but sourced from whiskey giant MGP of Indiana, when another just says “1 ounce bourbon”? Some cocktails have explanations for their called-out base spirits in the introduction, but most have little explanation of flavor profiles or reasonings for more unique spirits). A large number of the cocktails require unique, house-made ingredients as well, some of which are ponderous to do at home and others I do not advise doing at all unless you have some decent cooking/drinking experience. As one of my colleagues pointed out when I talked to him about the book, the average layperson should not be fermenting ingredients willy-nilly at home without doing some cursory research. At the risk of sounding like a broken record in many reviews, the book also does not acknowledge working in a controlled market like much of Canada or certain states like Pennsylvania, Virginia, or even Ohio (which has private liquor stores but back when I lived there had a government-approved list of what they could carry). There is also essentially no discussion of how to craft cocktails beyond the recipes — Meehan’s Bartender’s Manual this ain’t, you’re not going to learn the proper stir. This creates a bit of cognitive dissonance, as the book seems like the sort of casual cocktail book I could toss to, say, my cool aunt who digs biographies and feminist literature, but after making a couple drinks I could easily see the work being frustrating. (That said, maybe I shouldn’t count out the cool aunts of the world — oh man, the book is teaching me lessons already.)
Lucas’s Last Word: Despite the content being up-to-date and the cocktails being thoroughly modern, Drinking Like Ladies feels a bit like a throwback to the older era of gimmicky recipe books. Do you like the book’s biographical gimmick, and are you willing to either ignore many of the recipes or are a solid hand in the bar or kitchen? Then Drinking Like Ladies is probably a good read. If not, the cocktails are definitely worth a scan for some good ideas, but I can’t recommend it over most other books in a crowded market.