Book Look: Cocktail Codex

By Brett Moskowitz |

What do you get when you combine one or more base spirits with an aromatized wine and maybe some bitters? A whole lotta great drinks, as it turns out. The Manhattan, Vesper, Negroni, and many more cocktails—both classic and new—derive from this formula, which is best exemplified by the Martini. This formula is one of six recipe templates (the others: The Old-Fashioned, Daiquiri, Sidecar, Highball, and Flip) that provide the basis for virtually every successful modern-day cocktail, according to a new manifesto imparted by Alex Day, David Kaplan, and Nick Fauchald (with Devon Tarby), in Cocktail Codex, the highly anticipated sequel to their 2014 bestseller, Death and Co.: Modern Cocktail Classics.

Confident in the staying power of their impressive cocktail empire, the coauthors lay out a blueprint that frees the reader’s inner craftsperson. “We set out to create a book that inspires creativity through wisdom,” says Day, who explains that the goal is to invite readers to learn to “shape their own personal creations.”

“The recipes are just the start…”

Professional bartenders aren’t the only audience well-served by this book—the imagination of the home-based mixologist has been empowered here too. “There are recipes and techniques that can help anyone no matter how many spirits are on their bar or what fancy equipment they have lying around,” says Day. “The recipes are just the start – it’s the thought behind them and the process of mastery of each that we find so instructive in educating people about cocktails.”

Tarby—a bartender who became a partner in Proprietors, LLC with Day and Kaplan after first consulting for them—brings a fresh vision here that can be seen in the book’s creative structure. She helped tackle the cocktail category choices: “Which is more illustrative for a particular style of drink,” she pondered, “a Manhattan or Martini? A Daiquiri or a Whiskey Sour?” She also selected and organized the cocktail recipes that were included and helped find a way to break down how each of the drink components contribute to the greater drink.

Stressing the Fundamentals: “The Core, The Balance, and The Seasoning”

Nowadays, the demand for inventive, well-designed cocktail programs is outpacing the supply of well-trained talent. As a result, the first round of the night—that interesting $12–14 house libation—is too often followed by a defeated “Can I settle up?”

But fear not! The book refreshingly emphasizes the fundamentals, distilling the key flavor components of a cocktail down to three elements—the core, the balance, and the seasoning. This taxonomy is Tarby’s biggest contribution to the book. “It is an idea I employ when creating cocktails, and that we wound up using at the beginning of each chapter in the book to help give context to why that mother recipes works,” Tarby says. 

The Humble Daiquiri…(courtesy Ten Speed Press)

The core element refers to the primary flavor ingredient (or ingredients) that anchors the drink—the whiskey in an Old-Fashioned; the rum in a Daiquiri; the synergistic vermouth and gin in a Martini. The balance element of a drink can refer to any combination of modifier (the orange liqueur in a Sidecar); sweetener (the sugar or Demerara gum syrup in a Sazerac); and/or citrus juice (the lemon in a sour) that balance the flavor of the core element.  And the seasoning is the bitters, the garnish, or perhaps the absinthe wash that intensifies the sensory experience. 

Cocktail Codex introduces each of their six archetypal cocktails by sharing a classic recipe followed by their own “root” version. The latter recipe adheres closely to the original but provides a personal stamp via the products chosen as well as any methodological improvements (using a sugar syrup instead of a cube in an Old-Fashioned, for instance). Recommended bottles are listed where appropriate, as are ways to experiment with each of the key elements of the root cocktail.

And, the humble daiquiri’s extended family…

Several new creations and a few classic variation recipes are provided also. A graphic that mimics a solar system in which the “Extended Family” of cocktails orbits the root completes the picture (see above). Woven into this narrative are explanations of topics such as the type of gin that will hold up in a stirred cocktail versus a shaken, citrusy drink; achieving proper dilution with stirring and shaking; choosing appropriate glassware; and rimming a glass. “Next Level” techniques for those willing and able to put in the time include making infusions and syrups; the purpose and technique of clarifying juices; and adding smoking elements to cocktails, among other tricks of the trade. 

Cementing a Legacy

In the 12 years since the opening of Death & Co—the game-changing cocktail den in New York City’s East Village owned by Kaplan, Day, and partner Ravi De Rossi—a global mixological diaspora has spread far beyond the urban cradles of cocktail civilization. In the time between the openings of the original Death & Co and a Denver location that debuted in 2018, the Proprietors LLC  team has been at the forefront of the industry with a run of successful bars (The Walker Inn, Honeycut, the Normandie Club, and Nitecap), as well as their bar consulting business, and their original cocktail book. 

Despite their full glasses, the coauthors felt is was important to celebrate and share what made them successful since expanding beyond their original bar. The new book “encompasses our larger work throughout the US and abroad – the bars we’ve opened, the people we’ve trained, and the inspiring cocktails they’ve created as we’ve worked together,” says Day. “Cocktail Codex celebrates…the progressive ideas that have continued to push the definition of what makes a cocktail great.”

“We were excited to dive as deep as possible into the finer details…”

And they believe they are filling a need. “We have seen a big gap between the interest people have in cocktails and what resources are available to them not just to learn information, but to truly understand the mechanics of what makes an excellent cocktail,” says Day. “We were excited to dive as deep as possible into the finer details – it’s how we think and, we believe, is at the core of what makes our work so successful.”

As with any book drawing upon the long, murky history of the cocktail, there are a small smattering of claims and omissions that may not stand the test of time (the en vogue assertion that the Sazerac first became popular with Cognac rather than rye; the omission of Genever as a classic cocktail ingredient). And only space constraints can explain conspicuous absences from mention—the rum-based El Presidente, a classic that presumably falls neatly into the Martini “extended family,” comes to mind. 

And, while many of the recipes are accessible enough to be attempted at home, most will require nonprofessionals to apply the skills of adaptation preached in the book (unless you’re prepared to invest in an immersion circulator to make your own raspberry syrup). For those who refuse to cut corners, a resources section at the back provides all that’s needed to tool up. 

But the techniques and bottle recommendations—grounded in a philosophy that draws upon experience, understanding, and pragmatism—provide the reader with enough information to make their own choices about where they want to focus their time, energy, and money. And isn’t that the point? So make room on the shelf over your bar for a large block of a book.

Bananarac

Natasha David’s 2014 take on the Sazerac splits the core between Cognac and rye, but adds a delicate banana liqueur and swaps out the classic Peychaud’s bitters in favor of The Bitter Truth Old Time Aromatic Bitters.

Print Recipe
Bananarac
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Servings
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Instructions
  1. Rinse a chilled Old-Fashioned glass with absinthe and dump.
  2. Stir remaining ingredients over ice and strain into the glass.
  3. Express the lemon twist over the drink and discard.

White Lady

This is a classic take on a Sidecar where the Cognac is replaced by gin. The ratio is changed to allow the gin to stand up to the Cointreau and a bit more simple syrup is included as well. The egg white adds volume which “spreads the cocktail’s flavor throughout.”

Print Recipe
White Lady (Cocktail Codex,
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Ingredients
Servings
Ingredients
Instructions
  1. Dry shake all the ingredients, then shake again with ice.
  2. Double strain into a chilled coupe.
  3. Express the lemon twist over the glass then set it on the edge of the glass.

Pisco Sour

The Pisco Sour is the national drink of both Peru and Chile. The drink became popular stateside during the cocktail renaissance on account of Pisco’s position as an affordable, yet tasty (and somewhat exotic) base, as well as the drink’s refreshing nature.

This Cocktail Codex version of the classic uses both lime and lemon juice to balance the pisco in this classic.

Print Recipe
Pisco Sour (Cocktail Codex, Classic)
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Ingredients
Servings
Ingredients
Instructions
  1. Dry shake all the ingredients, then shake again with ice.
  2. Double strain into a chilled coupe.
  3. Carefully garnish the top of the foam with the bitters.

The Bad Santa

Devon Tarby describes why she loves this drink: “The Bad Santa is one of my all time favorites. It requires an overnight infusion of unsweetened cacao butter, which is a little time consuming, but it’s totally worth it – the end result is like peppermint bark candy in a glass. The nice thing about this drink is that it can be made in larger batches and stored in the freezer, making it a great option for holiday entertaining.”

Print Recipe
The Bad Santa
Servings
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Stir ingredients over ice and strain into an Old-Fashioned glass over 1 large ice cube.
  2. Garnish with the candy cane.

Brett Moskowitz writes about therapeutic cocktails of the medicinal and alcoholic varieties. He has contributed to Food & Wine, Liquor.com, Esquire, Saveur, Tasting Table, Thrillist, Punch and others. He lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @bmoskowitz and Instagram @bsmoskowitz.

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