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 Liquid Intelligence by Dave Arnold and give us both of their opinions of said book.
Given the number of times Lucas has referenced this book, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into: lots of dry, science-y, technical info that would almost certainly make my eyes glaze over. To my delight, I was only partly right. After stumbling onto the line “I associate warm martinis with sadness”, I not only wanted to keep reading, I kind of wanted to have a drink with the author.
Dave Arnold is far more self-aware than I would have expected, and he acknowledges very early on that some of his methods are “preposterous” and much of his equipment is “unattainable”. That said, for anyone interested in the more technical side of drink-making – whether it be about how to make perfectly clear ice, what factors influence (and somewhat surprisingly don’t influence) optimal dilution, or how to perfectly froth an egg white – this book is indispensable. And if you take Dave’s advice about ignoring the cocktail physics “if you don’t care”, there’s definitely something in here for everyone.
While it may not all be practical for everyday use, especially in a high volume bar – let’s never have “behind you with a hot poker” become a thing, ok? – understanding the science behind what we do can only improve our skills. We all know (or should) how acidity varies across citrus, but being able to more confidently experiment with that using citric, malic and a host of other slightly more obscure acids opens up far more possibilities. And some of what he says is actually quite useful: it turns out that leaving ice in a drink after you’ve stirred it really doesn’t affect it too much (science!) and that a dash of saline can enhance almost everything.
For the more technically-minded among us, a few techniques that can be gleaned from the pages include nitrous-infusing, clarifying, milk washing, fat washing and carbonating (spirits and other things). An illustrated guide to sabering bubbly is instructive (if slightly random) and a section on apples, coffee and gin and tonic feels a little out of place, but, like the rest of the book, is more interesting than it has any right to be.
Dave’s level of precision and perfectionism made me feel simultaneously empowered and inadequate; before I read this book, I figured Dave Arnold would be horrified that I’ve often made citric acid to taste instead of measuring it out precisely on a drug scale. Now I think he’d just be happy that we’re using it at all. He says at one point: “Math will give you the backbone of the drink. The soul will be the aromatics and flavours you choose,” and that acknowledgement of the dichotomy of what we do (bartending can be a science AND an art) is truly what makes this a must-read for anyone who is serious about their craft.
Marlene’s Last Word: While certainly not aimed at the casual enthusiast, this is a definite must-read for anyone looking to elevate their cocktail game.
In preparing for this review, I read the entirety of Liquid Intelligence’s 400+ pages for the third time — once after checking it out in the library shortly after its release, once after getting a copy for Christmas 2016, and again now. I have also referenced it countless times, to the point where I have considered buying a Kindle copy just so I can always have it available on my phone. So, it goes without saying: Liquid Intelligence is a pretty good and useful book and my only regret is that I never visited Mr. Arnold’s bar, Booker and Dax, when I had the chance. Other sources covered some of its techniques before, but often were either vague on the science behind the technique and/or very specific on drinks (like The Crafty Bartender), or were, well, academic papers.
The hardcover is attractive and functional — the layout is easily readable and the photography is clear and properly references the material around it. It reminds me of a college textbook, functional if basic, and while the authorial style isn’t quite the same, the density of information is similar. My only criticism is that I would have liked some clearer illustrations of more abstract concepts: a drawing of the chemical structure of a clarification gelling agent or a microscope-magnified photo of ice crystals might be more functional than a picture of Dave Arnold listening for bubbles. The cocktail recipes serve as useful examples and I am glad they are placed appropriately rather than given their own section (beyond the recipe list in the appendix — which I found confusing only because I didn’t realize the essential “further reading” appendix would be before it, and was about to levy some serious criticism on the lack of one). Structurally, the layout is quite useful and transparent; I particularly like how Mr. Arnold uses classic cocktails as examples of basic concepts like ice and techniques like shaking and stirring. My only real criticism is that I would prefer more footnotes and citations — while the index is greatly comprehensive and the further reading appendix is laid out in a very useful fashion, some references in the text for where I could get further information on the research behind techniques would be useful. (That said, it seems that many of these techniques were pioneered by Mr. Arnold himself, but more generalized references would be useful.)
That said, this is a book for people who are interested that there’s a whole section on just ice — actually, scratch that, it’s a book for people who see there are TWENTY PAGES devoted to ice and get unreasonably excited about that fact. It is not at all for the casual cocktail nerd, or even the pub & club, beer & shot bartender (which I have been), unless they are also really interested in science. The style is generally accessible — while the layout resembles a textbook, Mr. Arnold’s writing style is conversational enough to make reading through the book in a few sittings possible, though it does lead to lines like “It doesn’t go bad, it just loses its awesomeness.” — which feels a little tonally odd a few pages away from a chart about ISI pressure. Mr. Arnold also tends to editorialize matters of flavor and taste; a few of the flavors or results of techniques he views as bugs I tend to view as features (such as some of the results of fat washing). That said, said editorializing does give insight into his cocktail-making process: it shows us the things he views as problems or issues, leading us to the science he uses to solve it. I guess that it serves as a powerful insight into the intersection of science and taste in our industry: while science is a process of distilling out the subjective, taste is nothing but subjective; one can make a drink that is perfectly consistent but there’s no accounting for the guest’s taste.
Finally, I must note that, by including his thought process behind drinks, it helps ground the book as a method for generating drink ideas rather than a collection of disparate techniques. While I might not want to mess around with liquid nitrogen in my little bar, his discussion of it did inspire lines of thought as to how I use herbs in drinks and a couple of new ideas for cocktails — every time I flip through the book, I’m given new ideas for concepts to include in my work, ways to improve my techniques, and goals to aim for when improving my bar down the line. (One day, centrifuge. One day…)
Lucas’s Last Word: I hesitate to call Liquid Intelligence the best and most important bar book ever made, if only because the material it covers won’t be applicable for the majority of the drinking (or even bartending) audience. Instead, I’ll just call it the best collection of advanced cocktailing techniques put to paper.