Disclosure: I received a review copy of The Best Craft Cocktails & Bartending with Flair from the fine folks at Page Street Publishing. Thanks, guys! Also, all links to the book are affiliate links, so I will earn a few cents if you choose to pick up a copy through my links.
When I opened the cover of The Best Craft Cocktails & Bartending with Flair by Jeremy LeBlanc and Christine Dionese, I have to admit that I rolled my eyes a little. Maybe a lot. The book seemed so rarefied and a bit pretentious with instructions such as rinse out the glass with 1 teaspoon of raspberry eau de vie, pour it out and then freeze the glass for at least an hour and add 20 pieces of ice to your shaker and give the drink 50 shakes. Honestly, it all seemed just a bit…much.
But as I sat with the book for a few weeks, picking it up and reading a recipe here and there, my initial assessment began to shift. I started to look past the words to see that Jeremy LeBlanc and Christine Dionese are every bit as passionate about giving people a total sensory cocktail experience as I am about using salt to highlight and bring added dimension to flavors in desserts. I began to look at the sorts of things that I think are important when it comes to food, and I decided that there are probably plenty of people who could (and probably do) roll their eyes at some of the words that I write and at some of the instructions that I give. Non-foodie folks might very well roll their eyes when I say things like “Never leave salt out. Ever.” and “whisk slowly so the mixture doesn’t end up with bubbles” or “bake in a very low oven in a water bath for hours and hours to achieve the smoothest texture.”
I also must say that I am not really a cocktail person, so I don’t have that sensibility right out of the gate. I enjoy a glass or two of wine, but mixed drinks just aren’t my thing. Once I started looking at these cocktails as just a different category of food though, I could see how well-balanced they all are. Each beverage presented in The Best Craft Cocktails is carefully crafted with balance in mind. No drink seems to be too sweet or too tart or too bitter. If LeBlanc and Dionese introduce a “rarefied” ingredient, it is because that particular ingredient brings added dimension to the drink in the same way that a touch of dark cocoa powder in a stew or a bit of espresso powder in a chocolate cake bring added dimension to those dishes.
Serendipitously, the challenge posed recently to the video production group I’m a member of was to film making a cocktail. Of course I wanted to make something from this book, so I sat down to find a drink that a)was a bit dessert-ish and b)did not require that I purchase 47 different ingredients. I discovered the Maine Root Float, lured in by my love of root beer and whipped cream. That love was tempered by the need to purchase chocolate bitters and Sambuca. I am not a huge fan of anise, even though that is one of the notes in root beer, so I was a bit concerned that I would end up Not Being a Fan of this cocktail. More on that in a moment.
LeBlanc suggests a specific brand of root beer that I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to find, so I made sure to buy one that contained no high fructose corn syrup or other weird ingredients. I imagine that standard supermarket root beer would be too sweet for this cocktail, so grab a small-batch brand if you can. I ended up with Virgil’s, and it worked out very well. I really wanted to get some root beer from Aviator, a local microbrewery. If I can scare some up, I’ll use that the next time I make these.
Oh, did you catch that? Yes, the next time I make these.
Because this was one delicious beverage. Two, actually.
A couple of things to note: I very much appreciated that the whipped cream was unsweetened–only the merest hint of sweet from the very tiny dash of Sambuca that I added to the cream.
When I smelled and tasted the chocolate bitters for the first time, I could tell that they would be a perfect complement to the root beer.
The mixture of vodka and a dash each of chocolate bitters and Sambuca smelled like root beer. Even before adding the actual root beer. It was kind of magical.
Let me show you how I made the Maine Root Float, okay?
As I said earlier, I made two of these drinks. I managed to use the right amount of Sambuca in the first one so the anise flavor stayed decidedly in the background. It tasted exactly like grown up root beer. Not too sweet and with a bit of a boost from the bitters. The second one, which I made because I didn’t have the camera positioned properly for parts of the first one and you wouldn’t have been able to see all the awesome pouring-ingredients-into-the-shaker action, had a bit too much Sambuca in it. The anise flavor took over the whole drink and also made it too sweet. So I learned first hand how just a small amount of an ingredient can make a powerful difference in the flavor profile of a drink. Just like a small amount of salt can make all the difference in your vanilla pudding. Stop rolling your eyes.
Back to the book and its authors. Jeremy LeBlanc isn’t just some dude who likes a good beverage. He is the head mixologist at what Condé Nast ranks as one of the ten top rooftop bars in the world, The Altitude Sky Lounge. You heard that right. In the world. He also has a line of bar tins. Yes, he suggests that you use his product, Tin Play bar tins, for mixing these drinks. I can assure you that this is not necessary, but after getting to know a bit more about LeBlanc and his passion for cocktails, I would not discourage you from checking them out.
Christine Dionese is an integrative health specialist, medical journalist and food writer. She runs the blog Garden Eats (among others), and is an evangelist for organic gardening and food therapy. She seems to really bring that culinary sensibility to this book. I do not know for sure, but it might have been her influence that gave birth to unlikely-seeming garnishes including blue cheese, roasted beet and yellow radish. And while you might roll your eyes at that list of cocktail garnishes, I won’t. I think I’ve been converted.
Aside from the liquors and liqueurs, there are two very cool classes of ingredients that turn up again and again in The Best Craft Cocktails & Bartending with Flair. The first is bitters, and the second is hydrosols.
Bitters are generally macerations of fruits, spices and herbs in alcohol and were originally sold as medicines. When bartenders began adding bitters to liquor, the cocktail was born. Until picking up this book, my knowledge of bitters included exactly one: Angostura bitters which live at the grocery store next to the grenadine syrup and Coco Lopez. I may have had a vague notion that there were other types of bitters out there, but I’m probably just being kind to myself. Apparently there is a whole world of bitters waiting to be discovered. A quick search of Amazon for “bitters” delivers everything from chocolate to lime to cardamom to celery bitters from companies such as Fee Brothers, Berg & Hauck, Scrappy’s and Bittermens. Seems like the bitters pendulum is swinging them back from the brink of obscurity, and it’s a good thing too. I’m pretty sure that the subtle notes bitters lend to a cocktail would work beautifully in cooking and baking as well. Yes, I’m going to play, and I will keep you posted.
Hydrosols also go by the name flower waters. Originally, hydrosols were the by-product of essential oil production, the recaptured evaporates, if you will. Now, there are companies who produce hydrosols for hydrosols’ sake. Hydrosols are generally not as strong as essential oils and they also contain some of the beneficial elements that are otherwise lost in oil production. I must admit that I still know next to nothing about hydrosols and that I have never even held a bottle of them in my hand, let alone tasted them, but I am certainly intrigued enough after reading about their use in some of these cocktails to grab a bottle or two and play with the possibilities in buttercreams, panna cotta, meringue, etc. The brand recommended in The Best Craft Cocktails is Mountain Rose, and they offer a wide range of hydrosols that can not only be used in cocktails or in cooking or baking but can also be used as light scents for lotions and such. Again, intriguing.
If you are looking for a book to give you the basics, this is not it. This is not a cocktail primer by any stretch. It’s not a 101 level text. These are graduate level cocktails.
If, however, you are looking for a way to up your cocktail game and experiment with some ingredients you might not have considered before, then you will want to pick up a copy of The Best Craft Cocktails & Bartending with Flair. It certainly made me rethink my Stance on Cocktails. And if you are already Cocktail Proficient, these recipes will help to broaden your cocktail horizons in some unexpected and delightful ways.
I will leave you with a small sampling of some of the cocktails you’ll find in this book as well as the recipe for the Maine Root Float. (Assume that ice is an integral ingredient in all the following)
- The Starlite: star anise, cardamom, vanilla bitters, apple juice, bourbon
- Spiced Thai Crisp: lime peel, lemongrass, honey, vodka, St. Germain, soda water, candied ginger
- Smithey’s Smash: cherry liqueur, cranberry juice, blackberries, vodka, St Germain, Prosecco
- The Last Word: dry gin, Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, lime juice
- Citrus, Sour & Rye: rye, orange juice, aromatic bitters, almond syrup
- Aja Spice: jalapeno slices, chili powder, ginger, pineapple juice, tequila blanco, orange liqueur
- Milk & Honey Buzz: Thai-style coconut milk, Pastis, Royal Jelly in Honey, whiskey, peach nectar
- On the Rise: mango, pepper flake, Pimm’s No. 1, carrot juice, tangerine juice, basil hydrosol
And the Maine Root Beer Float, reprinted with permission from Page Street Publishing.
- 4 oz/120 ml heavy cream for whipping
- 2 dashes Sambuca (one for whipped cream)
- 2 oz/60 ml vodka (we like Square One Organic for this recipe) I used Ketel One because it's what I could find
- 3 oz/90 ml root beer (we like Maine Root for this recipe) I used Virgil's
- 1 dash chocolate bitters
- 1 maraschino cherry for garnish
- Prepare whipped cream at least three hours ahead by mixing heavy cream with Sambuca and refrigerating.
- In a bar tin, pour over 20 pieces of ice (or 1 scoop of a 16-ounce/475-milliliter shaker), vodka, bitters and Sambuca.
- Shake vigorously for a count of 20.
- Strain and pour into a mason jar half filled with ice, leaving room for whipped cream.
- Just before adding whipped cream, pour root beer.
- Finish with whipped cream and a cherry
Thank you so much for taking the time to read today. And I do encourage you to give this root beer float a try. If you love it, then you might consider picking up a copy of The Best Craft Cocktails & Bartending with Flair.
Take care, and have a lovely day.