Saturday, May 16, 2015

Review: Cocktail Culture, by Mark Kingwell

I should state off the bat that I have no beef with philosopher Mark Kingwell. While I didn’t really get his biography of Glenn Gould, I have found the majority of his writing to be sharp, generous, witty, and incisive. His recent title, Unruly Voices, was an especially pleasurable tome, one I read as part of the research for a new novel I’m working on with a philosopher as its protagonist. True, Dr. Kingwell can be a bit silly from time to time, and yet we don’t really mind it – especially when he’s writing on a subject as frivolous as Western thought. But cocktails? Come now! You’ve got to take some things seriously.

I will also state that his 2006 book Cocktail Culture (illustrated by the always whimsical Seth) comes loaded with witty jibes, alcohol-based literary references, and, most importantly, a raft of recipes I had yet to try. (More on that in a moment.) Like any good academic, Dr. Kingwell spells out his thesis statement early, laying the groundwork for what is to follow:

The basic premise of the present book is that you should choose your drink carefully, take some care in its preparation, and enjoy it in moderation. Drinking cocktails is supposed to be fun, but not too much fun. Cocktails are associated with sophistication, after all, and whatever you may think in your own mind, you are not sophisticated after more than two stiff drinks.

As part of his introduction, he provides a good overview of the possible etymologies of the word ‘cocktail,’ and also begins serving up his many references to drinking in literary culture, making allusions to everything from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Peyton Place. It’s all very well thought-out and enjoyable.

The Chelsea Sidecar - one of the many delicious
drinks not included in Dr. Kingwell's book.
And yet, it feels as if Dr. Kingwell skirts incredibly close to cocktail sciolism in some of his biases and mixing techniques. I mean, what is his aversion to bourbon? No barman on any continent would serve up a manhattan with anything other than bourbon in it. If Kingwell doesn’t like how the stuff tastes, he should just say so. (Yes, there are bad bourbons, but this is true of any spirit.) Or perhaps his prejudice stems from bourbon’s origins in the American south – which seems silly, considering how delicious the best of this liquor can be. Why do I care if Woodford Reserve is distilled in the deepest, darkest, most racist part of Kentucky? For all I know, that’s part of its charm!

Also, readers should be mindful of Dr. Kingwell’s insistence on shaking most of his recipes. Some cocktails, especially if their constituent parts are made of a clear liquid, are better stirred than shaken. This is true of the Martini, the Gimlet, and definitely the Manhattan. In fact, I would challenge Dr. Kingwell to make himself a Manhattan using a proper, high-quality bourbon (I recommend Bulleit) and stir it rather than shake it. Tell you me can’t taste the difference! Also: readers should be wary of his repeated use of the term “cracked ice.” It conjures an image of small, shattered slivers of ice, which you should never use to make shaken cocktails. A good barman knows that you should only put nice big cubes in your shaker, as it reduces the watering down of your drink. But if you are using cracked or crushed ice, for God sake have the decency to double strain!

I reluctantly admit that the
Italian Stallion was delicious.
As well, certain tasty cocktails seem conspicuous by their absence in this book. Where is the Chelsea Sidecar? The Mancini? The transcendental Gin Sour? I would have preferred to see Dr. Kingwell’s take on these drinks rather than his baffling recipe for, say, the Mandeville Cocktail, which involves shaking cola along with the other ingredients (rum, Pernod, lemon juice, and grenadine). Good God, man! You NEVER shake a carbonated liquid in a cocktail. Always, always, always use it to top up the drink after the fact.
Ahem. Still, despite these egregious oversights, I do feel that my own repertoire has grown immeasurably after reading Cocktail Culture. I look forward to making a slew of drinks I hadn’t before, including the Harvard, the Ninotchka, the Boston, the Irish Kilt, the Fine and Dandy Cocktail (though it does sound like it was invented by Ned Flanders) and the Jersey Club. I was particularly appreciative of the chapter on drinks in boxing, as my father fought professionally in the 1960s and the sport was a big part of my family’s lore. The Italian Stallion proved formidable, though it is pretty much a version of the Boulevardier served up. With his trademark charm, Dr. Kingwell makes even the most obscure drink sound intriguing.

But most of all, this book is just full of some wonderful writing. It is reminiscent of the wittiest pieces on booze you’ll find from Kingsley Amis. (See my review of Everyday Drinking.) Here is, for example, another passage taken from the introduction,  a sharp concoction of cleverness and snark that Dr Kingwell delivers while discussing Rona Jaffe’s 1958 novel The Best of Everything:

Long before the cosmopolitan fashion of Sex and the City and its long comet-tail of associated chick-lit imitators, which made late-century New York into a kind of fantasyland of tits and tippling, Jaffe’s sad, clear-eyed tale of affairs, abortions, and advancement nailed the peculiar up-and-down thrills of the urban scene.

For God's sake, Rebecca, put the camera down
and help me to bed.
Cocktail Culture is, despite its obvious flaws and questionable inclusions, a lively and spirited book, with oodles of good recipes and some sound advice. It contains enough basic information for the tyro drinker, and enough in-depth detail to aid those who already know what they're doing. I encourage both the casual and serious mixologist out there to seek out it and experiment with some of the recipes. As Dr. Kingwell says of the Tom Collins, “Drink immediately but not quickly.” Yes. Yes indeed. Slante!

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