The joie de vivre of the cocktail life comes through loud and clear in a new “essential guide” to hand-crafted drinks, The New Cocktail Hour, by siblings André and Tenaya Darlington (Running Press, $22).
André, a longtime Isthmus contributor and new owner of Field Table restaurant on the Capitol Square, and sister Tenaya, a former Isthmus editor who now lives in Philadelphia, collaborated on the project long-distance.
“It really started with us making drinks together over Skype,” says Tenaya in a phone interview from Philly. “We would make the same drinks in our respective kitchens and talk it over. There are certain cocktails we made four or five times trying to figure out the best version. It was really fun — though we made a lot of drinks where we took one sip and it went down the sink.”
“The floor in my kitchen was sticky for at least two years,” adds André, in a separate interview.
They compiled their research into a “giant best-of list, sort of a cocktail canon, sipping our way or shaking our way through the eras,” Tenaya says. “It gave us an understanding of how cocktails developed.”
Unlike most cocktail books, The New Cocktail Hour is arranged chronologically, telling a history of the cocktail in America. “That’s so much more helpful than by base spirit,” says André.
He also thinks it tells the best story. Cocktails had diminished in popularity after a post-Civil War boom through the 1870s-1890s. “Prohibition brought cocktails roaring back, once alcohol was illegal. Everybody likes stuff that’s illegal,” André says.
Prohibition-era cocktails (still the prototype drinks most people associate with the term “cocktail”) also got people hooked on sugar. “In the ’30s, everything was very sweet, influenced by drugstore phosphate drinks. There was lots of grenadine and raspberry,” says André.
Six days of shooting with photographer Jason Varney and Philadelphia bartender Keith Raimondi making the drinks resulted in the book’s beautiful photographs.
The first day was pretty much all business, André notes, “but by the second morning, we were looking at the drinks and saying, ‘We should try this one.’”
Cocktails can be tricky to shoot, he says. “The glass reflects, it changes the color of the liquid in the glass — it’s technical, there’s a lot of detail that goes into the setup. By the time we were done, we were exhausted.”
The book is both a practical handbook and inspiration for armchair tipplers. And the descriptions of the drinks are just as enticing — what you might expect from, as the introduction divulges, “drinkers with writing habits.”
André calls the book a “prosumer” approach to home cocktail making, sophisticated but approachable. “We stuck with using alcohol that’s generally available. We didn’t use anything that’s only available in Brooklyn, New York.” Other helpful elements include suggestions on no-fail ratios and “how to host a party with three basic bottles.”
And the book “takes the cocktail fully into the kitchen,” says Tenaya. “We wanted to figure out what you can whip up as a meal with these drinks.” It’s unique among cocktail books by offering food pairing suggestions with each recipe, even if it’s a simple matchup with blue cheese or dark chocolate or nuts.
“Sometimes you don’t have the energy to make a meal, but you feel like you’re cooking if you make a cocktail,” says Tenaya. “Then order takeout — Chinese food or tacos or pizza.” A sidebar (“Fun Pairings for Lazy Dinners”) offers specific suggestions: anything with Angostura bitters with Chinese; a “Three Dots and a Dash” with tacos, a Dark ’n Stormy with pizza.
The two do pay tribute to the huge renaissance in craft cocktails the U.S. is experiencing today. Tenaya cites the Flutterby Lassi, a contemporary recipe that kept popping up in their research. “I can still remember us making this drink together on Skype. It’s a yogurt cocktail, made with yogurt and gin and absinthe and cucumber and dill.” Tenaya had her doubts about the recipe. “I thought, ‘I love dairy, but can this be good? Yogurt and absinthe?’” She let her brother try it first: “I could see the immediate reaction on his face. It was wonderful! Creamy, herbaceous, and there’s a little simple syrup. It’s just heavenly!”