One of the most common questions I get when friends and acquaintances find out about the Savoy Cocktail Book Project is, “Why?”
After these few years of making cocktail after cocktail, I have to admit I sometimes wonder the same thing.
To start from the beginning…
While planning a trip to New Orleans, I’d run across Chuck Taggart’s article about the Sazerac on his site Gumbo Pages. The level of detail and elaborate ritual involved for such a seemingly simple cocktail appealed significantly to my obsessive nature.
1) Chill the cocktail glass with ice.
2) Stir the whiskey, bitters, and syrup with ice.
3) Discard the ice from the cocktail glass.
4) Dash absinthe into the glass and swirl to coat.
5) Discard most of the Absinthe.
6) Strain the chilled whiskey into the glass.
7) Squeeze a lemon peel over the glass and serve.
When executed well, it is an amazing drink that completely eclipses every one of its component ingredients.
So when we went to New Orleans, we went on a bit of a Sazerac quest, asking for them at most of the bars we got to. While we got a few really good Sazeracs, most were just not quite as tasty as the ones I had been making at home.
That made me curious. What if the same was true for other cocktails?
What usually happens when I get curious about things is I get a bit obsessed. I read every thing I can find on the subject. I participate actively in online forums on the subject. I post questions to the same forums. In general, I stuff as much of the subject as I can find into my brain until it can hold no more.
As I’ve mentioned before, this has happened many times in the past. With Comic Books, Jazz Music, Computer Games, Computer Hardware, Cooking, Gardening, Botany, and now Cocktails.
But even after all that, I was still really only making the same few cocktails. Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, Sazeracs, and Margaritas. There was a whole world of cocktails out there that I didn’t know and hadn’t tasted. How would I familiarize myself with more of them? Where should I start?
Fortunately, Ted Haigh’s book, “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails,” was published about this time, pointing a way towards both culinary and historical research into cocktails. Not to mention a gold mine of information regarding the historically appropriate ingredients to make those classic cocktails with.
About this time another participant on the eGullet.org Spirits and Cocktails forums started posting occasionally about obscure recipes he found in an edition of Patrick Gavin Duffy’s “Official Mixer’s Manual”. At the same time, another friend decided to familiarize himself with cooking by attempting to make all the recipes, in order, from a copy of “Joy of Cooking”.
The idea of making cocktails from one or another book, not haphazardly, but systematically and sequentially kind of appealed. It certainly wasn’t as quixotic as attempting to make all the recipes from the “Joy of Cooking”.
I scanned through my bookshelf, looking at the spines. From the start, I knew I wanted to do a vintage book, not a modern edition. I wanted to get back to the origins of modern cocktails. Delightful gentleman, though they are, Wondrich, Haigh, Regan, and DeGroff were thus out of the running.
Looking at what remained, four stood out: Jerry Thomas’ “The Bartender’s Guide”, “The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book”, Charles Baker’s “Gentleman’s Companion”, and “The Savoy Cocktail Book”.
Jerry Thomas, at the time, just seemed too far in the past. Similarly, there seemed to be just too many defunct ingredients in the Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book. Charles Baker was very, very tempting, but his recipes seemed like they would be too much of a pain to transcribe and interpret. Besides, what few cocktails of his I had made, had never turned out all that well, without some serious massaging.
That left “The Savoy Cocktail Book”. In its favor, it didn’t seem to have all that many defunct ingredients, a modest variety of ingredients, most recipes were easy to read, and the cocktails were listed purely alphabetically, rather than by ingredient or some other categorical system.
In the deficit category, according to the back of the book, it contained 750 cocktail recipes. Even making one or two cocktails a day, this was going to take a while.
I mentioned the idea to some of the powers that were at eGullet.org and got a warm reception and some interest.
Not being one to shirk a challenge, on June 8th, 2006, with a cocktail called “The Abbey,” I took the plunge and posted the first cocktail and picture to a topic I called, “Stomping Through the Savoy: A to Zed.”
- Make the recipes in order.
- Make the recipes as written.
- Try to get as close to the original ingredients as possible.
- Take a picture of every cocktail.
- Do some research into the cocktail’s name, history or ingredients.
- Don’t drink yourself to death.
Make the Recipes in Order
Being, by nature, a rather disorganized and undisciplined person, it’s often tough for me to submit to systems. In fact, more often than not, I find myself, even when I think I am behaving, subconsciously subverting rules through selective memory. If I just picked out random recipes and made those, I’d never get done with this book. I’ll plod through, one after another, as best I can. I am hard headed enough to follow through to the bitter end, once I get started.
Make the Recipes as Written
I have a small problem following recipes to the letter. No matter what, I always think there is some small thing that I can tweak to make them “Better”.
Probably this is partly a line cook’s attitude. For a line cook, there usually aren’t recipes. There are ingredients, your execution, and taste. There are no “This pasta has 1 tsp of garlic, ½ tsp of pepper flakes, ½ tsp of salt, and ½ cup tomatoes.” When you’re trained, it’s all visual. “The pasta has this much of this, a pinch of that, a scoop of that. It should taste like this. OK, you make it.”
When I first started making cocktails, I guess I thought there would be some sort of transference of ability. I could just start screwing around with cocktail recipes and be able to tweak them for the better without really knowing what I was making. At about the time I started The Savoy Project, I was beginning to realize how little I knew and how much I needed to learn. My portion sizes were ridiculous, I didn’t understand the qualities different spirits brought to drinks, or even how much difference a simple change of brands of spirits could make in a simple cocktail. I did understand it was important to use fresh juices and quality spirits, but that only gets you so far. What better way to learn than to submit to a higher authority and just make the recipes?
Try to Get As Close to the Original Recipes as Possible
Initially I interpreted recipes pretty literally. Only using traditional spirits, rather than modern styles. Trying to locate Cuban Rum for where Bacardi was called for. Using Canadian Whiskey where Canadian Club was called for. Only using old school gins from England.
But the more you learn, the more that seems to become a waste of time.
For instance, when you start researching recipes, you discover how much substitution was already going on. That almost every Savoy recipe calling for Canadian Club, originally called for Rye or Bourbon. It was only because of Prohibition and the limited availability of American Whiskies, that the Savoy bartenders substituted Canadian Club.
When I talk about “lost” ingredients now, I like to divide them into three categories.
1) Those no longer made, like Crème Yvette, Hercules, Caperitif, and a few others. For some of these we really don’t even have a clue what they might have tasted like.
2) Those which are still made, but are difficult to get. When I started in 2006, this was a much larger category than it is today in 2009. Absinthe, Pimento Dram, Crème de Violette, Swedish Punsch, and Old Tom Gin were all in this category. All could pretty much only be gotten by expensive mail order or by traveling to where they were made. Today, I am told, there are 53 Absinthes alone either on the market or waiting for TTB approval.
3) Those which are still made, but whose current formulation differs so radically from their vintage character that they may no longer be suitable for the recipes or cocktails originally created for them. This is always a grey area, but really the most vexing of the three categories. For example, many cocktail in the Savoy Cocktail Book call for something called, “Kina Lillet”. Is the character of modern Lillet Blanc really even close to Kina Lillet? Signs point to, “no”. The same with many ingredients, even those as simple as French and Italian Vermouths.
Take a Picture of Every Cocktail
I never try to get the most beautiful picture, or even the most beautiful garnish or glassware when taking pictures of my drinks. If I have any goal, it is either to capture some transient quality of a freshly made drink, or just to try to take a picture that presents a drink in a way that I’ve never seen before. Light glinting off the orange oils which I have just sprayed across the surface or the slight foam caused by a vigorous shake. But most of the time it is just to take an unvarnished and real picture. This is what the drink looks like. Not a glossy shot for a magazine.
Do Some Research into the Cocktails, Name, Recipe, or Ingredients
The Savoy Cocktail Book is a terse recipe book. Basically just lists of ingredients and the instructions, “Shake well and strain into cocktail glass.” If this journey is going to be interesting to me or the readers, part of it is going to have to be filling in those blank spaces between the names, ingredients, and recipes.
Researching ingredients has been among the most fun things. Particularly my little obsession with the nature of Hercules, proved to be of some value to the cocktail community. When I started making Savoy recipes, everyone agreed with Stan Jones, that Hercules was an “Absinthe Substitute” of some sort. At my prodding, and stubbornness, we uncovered that the commonly held assumption was completely wrong. We still don’t know exactly what it might have tasted like, but at least we now know it wasn’t an Absinthe Substitute, but an aperitif wine fortified with Yerba Mate.
For me, though, some of the most fun has been researching cocktail names. To find out who a Barney Barnato, Gene Tunney, or Odd McIntyre might have been. To turn up some clue as to why their name might have been honored or ridiculed with a cocktail. To gain some small insight into the culture and time that the book was written. Not to be over dramatic, but sometimes it does feel a bit like time travel, to discover these facts and try to taste the character of the time in the drink.
Don’t Drink Yourself to Death
750, or as it turns out 888, cocktails is a lot of drinking, and I’m far to cheap to throw out just about any crazy mixture I have concocted. As the folks at Burrito Eater say, “The site’s called ‘Burrito Eater’, not ‘Burrito Taster’”.
On the other hand, there are days when I don’t even feel like drinking alcohol, let alone fix up some liqueur laden, complex, early Twentieth Century cocktail. In addition, my obsession with beverages stretches across just about every species of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage. From Straight Whiskey to First Flush Darjeeling Tea.
If I want to come out of this enterprise with some small sliver of a liver and a brain, some moderation is necessary.
As the project developed and I did some experiments on my own tolerance and ability to photograph and blog, about 5 Savoy cocktails a week turned out to be a good balance between sanity and the abyss. That compromise has pushed the duration of the project out a bit further than I initially intended. So it goes.
So, really, “Why?”
Initially just curiosity. As the project continued and other’s interest developed, it soon reached a point where there really was no choice not to continue. Even taking a small break, as I have been for the last couple months, has gotten me some quizzical emails. “What is up with the Savoy Stomp?”
To answer their questions in the affirmative, “The Stomp Goes On!“
A FEW HINTS FOR THE YOUNG MIXER
1. Ice is nearly always an absolute essential for any Cocktail.
2. Never use the same ice twice.
3. Remember that the ingredients mix better in a shaker rather larger than is necessary to contain them.
4. Shake the shaker hard as you can : don’t just rock it : you are trying to wake it up, not send it to sleep!
5. If possible, ice your glasses before using them.
6. Drink your Cocktail as soon as possible. Harry Craddock was once asked what was the best way to drink a Cocktail : “Quickly,” replied that great man, “while it is laughing at you!”
Thanks to some of my compatriots in the CSOWG for help on this post. Gabe from cocktainerd for invaluable editorial input and Blair from TraderTiki’s Booze Blog for cleaning up what seemed to me to be a hopeless morass of MS Word HTML.