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 I’m Just Here For The Drinks by Sother Teague and give us both of their opinions of said book.
It would be easy to dismiss I’m Just Here For The Drinks by Sother Teague as just another coffee table cocktail book. And, objectively, there’s not likely to be anything earth-shattering in its pages if you’ve read Death & Co’s book, or any number of other pretty, well-written and easily digestible bar-begotten books we’ve reviewed here in the past.
So why did I love this one so much?
First of all, I’m a sucker for personality in books, and this one has it in spades. (It may also have something to do with the fact that I once visited Amor y Amargo and my drinking partner was on the receiving end of a “No, we don’t have any beer. Or Vodka.” from Sother himself. Torn between thinking that was either very obnoxious or really cool, it tipped firmly towards the latter when he offered up an “I [heart] bitters” pin as consolation.)
Secondly, although he says early on that the book isn’t about service, Teague’s philosophy about hospitality is steeped into every page. Fundamentally he’s a storyteller, and that serves him quite well. When it comes to making drinks that are approachable and interesting – but fundamentally simple – he’s head and shoulders above most other examples from the canon. Stuffy, this book is not.
What it is, though, is full of gorgeous photography and nearly impeccable structure. There are recipes galore, and whereas something like Death & Co and The Dead Rabbit books made me despair of ever having all the right ingredients to re-create their cocktails, I’m Just Here For The Drinks makes me want to go to the bar on my day off just to play around. Classics – and there are plenty to be found – are indicated with a hard-to-miss flash, and largely provide a jumping off point for numerous riffs…almost all of which actually have their own stories and compelling flavour profiles.
Chapters are organized by spirit, and possibly because I’m Just Here for the Drinks seems to be targeted more towards the home consumer, it contains some of the most straightforward and easy to follow spirit descriptions I’ve come across yet. Even if you understand every conceivable nuance about distillation, his primer here is a pretty great way to explain it to a neophyte in just the perfect amount of detail. He goes on to talk about the various types of gin and their optimal uses (again, likely more of interest to a non-cocktail bartender or a home enthusiast), but then the description of why we stir a martini and shake a daiquiri is the clearest and most straightforward I’ve seen. (It has to do with the suspension of air bubbles and how they “dance across your tastebuds”.) The chapter on whiskey focuses primarily on American and Scotch varieties, paying short shrift to Irish and Canadian, but providing an interesting sidebar on some outliers in the American whiskey world. It also delves a little into Prohibition which, again, may not be new information, but is presented in an engaging way that helps to explain the rise of bourbon. Brandy gets far more real estate than I’ve seen elsewhere (even if it’s a little short on recipes), while Tequila and Mezcal, Rum and Amaro each get their own, if small, chapters. (As does “Mixed Libations” which is a curious, but not unwelcome addition.)
Of particular interest to cocktail bartenders may be Teague’s various approaches to cocktail creation, reminiscent of the section in the Death & Co book that was invaluable in early menu creation for Famous Last Words. He talks about making guests cocktails that are “like a *enter classic cocktail name here* but not a *repeat classic cocktail name here.*” (We can’t be the only ones who get asked that on an almost daily basis?) and about “borrowing” ideas and combining them into new forms.
Add to all this the fact that he starts almost every chapter with a quote from a writer about alcohol, uses the phrase “Salt and phosphorous and used Band-Aids” and says that he eschews Maraschino cherries “because they give me the creeps“ and Teague had me hook, line and sinker.
Two small quibbles: the ‘guest bartender’ features seem to disrupt the rhythm a little, and while most recipes are built from the smallest ingredient to the largest they’re not all consistent. But in a book this enjoyable it seems almost churlish to point them out.
Marlene’s Last Word: Although it lacks some of the diagrams on technique found in other “beginner’s” books, the thoughtful layout, engaging style, stunning photography and inspired but approachable recipes make this a brilliant coffee table book – and an excellent manual for anyone wanting to explore spirits and delve more deeply into cocktails.
I’m of two minds about I’m Just Here for the Drinks Sother Teague’s new recipe book. It’s well written, well curated, nicely designed, and super easy to pick up and enjoy, but in the face of ten years of the modern revolution of cocktail books, it doesn’t feel essential. The latter fact is almost a shame; it slides comfortably into the position as the best “big book of cocktails” on the market. For a new cocktail enthusiast who knows how to shake a drink but has no bartending ambitions and is more interested in the nature of spirits and logic behind drinks, I’m Just Here for the Drinks is likely my first recommendation. The cocktail list has some great stuff for a new or small program to borrow, and as mentioned above, it’s really easy to pick up and put down. I’m just not sure it’s worth more than a check-out from the library for the average cocktail bartender.
Part of that might be the nature of the book itself — more than any cocktail book in the modern (post-Imbibe) era, it reminds me of sitting down at a bar where the barman is engaging and super into educating their guests. Teague’s voice shines boldly through, and unlike something like Meehan’s Bartender Manual (which is comparatively dry and can read like an “important book”), he maintains the tone of a cool, funny teacher, rather than a textbook. You can tell that Teague is an opinionated, informed bartender who still has a very strong focus on hospitality and guest entertainment — in short, he’s what I (an equally nerdy, dad-ish looking bar guy) hope to be behind the bar. Reading the book gives me the impression of being a new regular at Amor y Amargo who is enthusiastic but uninformed. In my mind’s eye, Teague happily guides the new guest in a logical fashion through spirits, explaining first Vodka and distilling and building complexity as he covers new spirits over subsequent visits. It’s bartending, man, he’s great at it. I’m Just Here for the Drinks is the spiritual descendant of books like Charles H. Baker’s “Gentleman’s Companion” (sometimes called “Jigger Beaker and Glass”), filled with anecdotes, drink histories, and sometimes quite funny, but driven more by the writing than the content.
The structure of the book follows that intended experience: each chapter has brief, subheaded digressions into important factors (which I would, honestly, expect to see on the sparse table of contents, but the quality index in the back makes up for it) in places where the aside would be logical in a cocktail class or a long lecture on a slow night. While I think dividing drinks by base spirit can be a crutch, Teague does a great job of making the structure fit an overall narrative. Almost everything Teague includes in his lengthy spirit descriptions seems obvious, but that’s because I’m a nerdy bartender with years of experience — everything he includes is logical and essential (though, man, Overholt is a Beam product, you should point that out when you wax about the distillery) and Teague explains it with a concision that is pretty jealousy-inducing.
The design of the book is solid; while it does have a generic “New York Bar Book” flair to it that might keep it from standing out, everything is functional. The illustrations are all photography, and while the cocktail photos lack the stark beauty of the ones in Meehan’s book or Uyeda’s “Cocktail Technique”, they are right up there with some of the best. Teague — or, more accurately, his hands — appears in many of the photos, reinforcing again that the book isn’t a cocktail bar book, but rather one person’s vision, which helps drive home the conversational tone Teague presents.
As for the drinks themselves, it’s probably the best curated list on the market. A lot of the quality comes from his clever trick of including solidly-rationed classic cocktails as side-notes next to his originals. The only caveat is the intentional and well-signposted lack of rum drinks, though he does sneak a few into later chapters. I particularly liked how well-explained the logic is behind every drink, with clever anecdotes and tasting notes incorporated seamlessly into descriptions of rarer liqueurs. Perhaps owing to Teague’s culinary background, I’m Just Here for the Drinks is better at letting me know what a drink tastes like than any other cocktail book I’ve read, far more so than the hundreds of books that are lists of drinks (I’m not just talking about the Savoy and its decades-old ilk — imagine I’m giving Death & Co the side-eye here). While a little less immediately functional than the Origin/Logic/Hack structure for drinks in Meehan’s Bartender Manual Teague’s descriptions are almost as useful for the veteran and far more useful for the novice who hasn’t tasted everything under the sun.
Lucas’s Last Word: Ultimately, I’m Just Here for the Drinks lives up to its title — if you’re here for a really great collection of drinks (including some spirits information), then it’s a great get. If you need information on techniques or bar structure, give the book a quick read but pick something else up instead.