Bar books are an odd breed. People must buy them, since a quick scan of any decent bookstore’s cooking section reveals an enormous number, but seldom is anyone ever served anything from them, largely due to the overcomplexity of the recipes within and the often-exotic alcohol required. Seriously, who the devil honestly keeps a stock of Campari on hand?
Mark Kingwell’s Classic Cocktails: A Modern Shake however, isn’t your typical cocktail book. Far more concerned with the literary and cinematic appearances of classic drinks such as Whiskey Sours and Harvey Wallbangers, Kingwell explores the history of some of the more commonly misunderstood (or, worse yet, mis-mixed) cocktails that have been all but forgotten by the younger crowds in favour of coolers and the wonderfully high-quality beer available in campus bars. Understandably, the majority of the trivia is from 1930s-’60s era movies, romance novels and detective stories, though the occasional modern anecdote sneaks through. For instance, the chapter on the Zombie is started with a reference to Dawn of the Dead and ends with a line from a Lavinia Greenlaw poem, with basic directions on how to make it as well as a bunch of variations placed between. This basically sums up the format of the entire book: Reference-recipe-reference-variation-reference-variation-reference-variation ad nauseum. While it does get repetitive and even somewhat tiresome after the twentieth nod to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Kingwell’s writing is informed and just insightful enough to keep you interested.
That said, Classic Cocktails is by no means a reference guide or recipe book, and Kingwell knows it. While a helpful glossary at the back of the book provides a concise way to quickly look up how to create a Harvey Wallbanger, it’s devoid of any detail and only useful if you know exactly what you want or are given an unknown request. Even then, the range of drinks doesn’t extend past 1960 or so, making a request for some esoteric new martini like a Captain America impossible. Also, Kingwell’s personal preference is gin, and it very much shows, especially when he decries “lesser-alcohols” such as vodka (“Baltic potato moonshine”) and rum (“a crude spirit, a sailor’s cheap stone, one step away from the spit-and-rock-sugar fermentations of anthropological interest”). Kingwell can be forgiven for this, however, due not only to the era the majority of the drinks are from, but also since he writes about the occasional cocktail consisting of these alcohols, even if they are a bit too plebeian for him.
All in all, Cocktails is a decent book to use to impress friends and relatives with your knowledge of ’30s detective fiction or to leave on your coffee table in the hopes that nobody actually asks you to make something in it.