The Holy Grail of Books
The Holy Grail?
From Angus Winchester
I was brought up to have a healthy respect for books and the written word. From childhood with author father to student life at Oxford I have relied on, and been entranced by, books. “You can never learn less” was drummed into me early and I see books as the physical proof of that. As I moved more into bars and out of libraries, my only reading was the labels on bottles and trashy novels early in the morning when you can’t sleep. Yes, I had Mr Boston’s and the Bartenders Bible but who didn’t? It was when I was interviewing Dale DeGroff in 1998. He showed me his office and some of his ‘Library’ that I caught the bug again and realised my two passions of drinks and books did mix perfectly…
In those days, it was easy to buy old books if you wanted to. Nowadays, it has become much harder as interest as rocketed in ‘old texts’ and silly money is being asked for either modest old books or quality out of print. This has created a certain amount of hysteria about one book in particular. David A Embury and his 1943 The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.
But ask people who have read or own a copy and many go strangely misty-eyed and fervent assure you it’s the One True Word. Ask them their opinion and the words “most important book” keep appearing time and time again. But from those who haven’t read it but consider themselves inclined to all we hear is “But is it worth it?”. So, here’s the skinny on Embury.
David Augustus Embury was not a bartender but a keen amateur – he puts it “a shaker-upper of drinks for the delectation of my guests”. This single phrase sums Embury up as a person through his writing: a slightly pompous and snobby but genial host with a very pleasant turn of phrase. His words have a slightly Trans-Atlantic feel to them and he has obviously spent many a good hour with his elbows resting on fine polished mahogany. He similarly describes himself as “possessed with an insatiable curiosity” and “chanced to have a mind that is both analytical and faintly sceptical”. Most importantly tho’ he was not connected to the industry and thus could be brutally honest and opinionated.
His book was very much the first time that drinks mixing was seen as a topic that merited intellectual thought and investigation leading to theory as well as practice. He looked at how his drinks were mixed and why they tasted as they did and then projected his learnings into his own shaker. Although he obviously loved cocktails his work at breaking ‘cocktails’ down into ‘types’ of ingredients (Base, Modifier and Accent) must have appealed to his lawyer’s mind (the fact that he was an opinionated British lawyer spouting off about drinks is a quirky zeitgeist to it). He set up rules where the drink was the centre of attention, rather than the bartender-drinker relationship that is more ‘professional’.
His discourses tho’ on cubed or crushed ice, stirring versus shaking, measurement and the like should be learned off by heart by all that dare to make a cocktail. His assertion that as long as a ‘shaker-upper of drinks’ knows six basic drinks and understands them, then they can keep any crowd of drinkers happy: the Martini, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Daiquiri, and Sidecar I agree with but his inclusion of the Jack Rose is a bit leftfield.
But Embury is left field. He wrote with an analytical mind but a florid writing style. He tells the reader when shaking to “throw your biceps into high gear and push the accelerator down to the floor board”. His diatribe against the humble Zombie is the stuff of lore for cussing drinks (it starts “this is undoubtedly the most over-advertised, overemphasised, overexalted and foolishly feared drink whose claims to glory ever assaulted the eyes and ears of the gullible American public…”. His bad drinks are “insidious”, “pernicious liquids” or a “futile waste of good liquor”.
Which is odd as many of his ‘drinks’ are awful. Although that should be modified by his exhortation to ‘Roll your own’ and play with measurements there are some that question him slightly. Dave Wondrich, a New York based cocktail god, says about TFAOMD “"I think Embury's recipes have the highest undrinkable-to-drinkable ratio of any book I've ever made drinks from, and yet it's one of the greatest of all drinks books. Embury was the first to demonstrate that mixing drinks is a process susceptible to intellectual investigation, and that's worth any number of sure-fire, but unexamined recipes. In other words, I might not have liked to drink with him, but I sure would've enjoyed talking with him."
TFAOMD is a classic drinks book. I know as I have many from 1878 O.H. Byron to three copies of Jerry Thomas. They are great to own but the info in them for a tyro bartender is limited. Embury manages to come across as knowledgeable and straight speaking, technically precise but human. In other words the perfect bartender. I love my copy. Reading it is inspirational and if anyone here wants to know if it’s worth it then… yes. Indeed it is. In the words of (normally) mild mannered (but very Embury-esque) Robert Hess…"What a fuckingly awesome book!"