I picked up "Handcrafted Cocktails: The Mixologist's Guide to Classic Drinks for Morning, Noon & Night" by Molly Wellmann (Betterway Home, $24.99) when it came out a little while back. My friend Tizzie (of bourbon slush fame) put her on my radar and got to go to the book's launch party, and was kind enough to ship me a signed copy. Molly Wellmann is the co-owner of the highly-regarded Japp's Since 1879, Japp's Annex, and Neons Unplugged in Cincinnati and the Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar just across the river in Covington, KY, and she'll be opening a punch house in Cincinnati next year too -- whenever does she sleep, I wonder?
Slumber's loss is mixology's gain, though, as "Handcrafted Cocktails" is an engaging, breezy, and deeply knowledgeable look into classically-inspired craft cocktailing for the home bar enthusiast. Her aim was to put her bar Japp's between the covers of a book, and if she got close at all, I sure want to go visit the next time I'm in town. It's full of information, but the knowledge is worn lightly and it feels like she's dropping great lore from across the bar as she expertly stirs up you something good. The introduction has a brief history of distilling, and Wellmann explains her approach to mixological history and recipes. She even mentions an old cocktail book out of Cincinnati that I hadn't been aware of, "The Mixicologist" by Christopher F. Lawlor, published in 1895. (and reissued, with an introduction by Ted "Dr. Cocktail" Haigh, by Cocktail Kingdom.) Wellmann's Cincinnati pride is evident, as the book features occasional nuggets of information about the city's history, and she's proud as well to have written the second cocktail book to come out of the Queen City.
Like most cocktail books, it starts with some basic instructional chapters on techniques and ingredients. Chapter 2 is especially useful, as it features recipes for many homemade ingredients: lime cordial, falernum, and several flavored simple syrups and bitters. (It's a pity that she reserves the recipe for her intriguing-sounding tobacco bitters as a house secret; I'd like to try those!) The drinks in the books are arranged by daypart -- morning, afternoon, happy hour, drinks with dinner, after-dinner -- and then sorted in each section by base spirit. I hadn't seen this approach before, and matching drinks to the time of day helps encourage the conversational tone. The section on morning drinks is introduced, for instance, with an anecdote about her great-grandfather and his habit of starting the day with a shot of whiskey. (Must've worked well, as he lived to 90.) Some of the classifications seem a bit arbitrary -- why is a Ramos Gin Fizz an afternoon drink and not a morning one? -- but I realize that you have to draw lines, and time of day is as good as any other approach. (I also quibble with her use of "flip" to describe any cocktail with egg in it; I tend to think of flips as richer drinks with a whole egg in them, and not necessarily sours or fizzes with an egg white added for texture. I wouldn't necessarily think of a Pisco Sour or a Clover Club as a flip.) The drinks are a good mix of classics and originals, though I wish Wellman's originals were highlighted or set apart somehow -- she should take more credit for her creativity, as they're all mixologically sound and seem tasty. I also really like the historical asides and cocktail lore she dispenses alongside some drinks. Lots of these stories are familiar, but she tells them well, explaining ingredients and recounting history including theories of drinks' origins.
The book looks fantastic, with lots of really well-executed photography throughout. There are more and better pictures here than in most cocktail books (those coffee-table cocktail books that have huge pictures and very little text are often useless when it actually comes to making drinks), and they make me wish I was atop a Japp's barstool, having one of these lovely creations. I also liked the use of smaller historical photographs to illustrate people and ideas: for instance, the entry for the Bee's Knees goes into the name's origins in flapper slang, accompanied by a shot of Charleston dancers near the U.S. Capitol circa 1929. And the spread pictured above tells the story of Kitty Burke, a baseball-loving burlesque dancer from Cincinnati who was the first female batter in major-league history (even if unofficially), complete with a picture of her, a nice writeup, and the recipe for Wellmann's original drink paying tribute.
Some minor nitpicks: while the photography is great, it's a little strange that some of the shots repeat: for instance, the section on Happy Hour Drinks starts with a picture of the delectable-looking Hot Tijuana Nights cocktail, a grapefruit-and-lime tequila sour with jalapeno simple syrup. But, then you see the exact same shot a few pages later at the drink's own entry. I might have, had I designed the book, used another gorgeous picture of multiple cocktails, or bottles, or action shots of drinkmaking at the top of each chapter. And, the book's index is good but not great: I like that it arranges drinks by base spirit and other ingredients, but the drinks aren't in there under their own names, so if you're looking for the Kitty Burke, you have to know that it contains gin in order to find it in the index. The book seems lightly edited, in that the tone is very chatty and conversational, but the copy-editing is a little loose: the Clover Club and Aviation cocktails are capitalized, but the Manhattan and Algonquin aren't.
This is a fun, basic book, perhaps an ideal choice (or gift) for someone just getting into cocktail appreciation, setting up their first home bar, or wanting to know more about the stories behind some interesting drinks. The classics and originals are well-chosen, and I really like the emphasis on fresh and homemade ingredients. A world of great drinks awaits!