The Cocktail Man
You know that friend who can whip up a perfect cocktail and make it look absurdly easy? Mine just wrote a book about it. And it’s not as difficult as you might think.
Shake Strain Done: Craft Cocktails at Home. By J.M. Hirsch. Illustrations by Lika Kvirikashvili. Voracious (Little, Brown & Co.), $25.
One evening in the fall of 2004, my friend Jason and I went for dinner at Gallagher’s, a time-tested, high-end steak house in midtown Manhattan.
We were doing a magazine piece together about a vegan (him, then, though no more) and a carnivore (me, now, still) trying to understand each other’s worlds. We ended up in a rather immature — if mildly entertaining — writer vs. writer pissing match about appropriately charred meat and tea brewed from twigs.
But in the midst of it, I learned from him an important lesson. He told me that when we wrote this piece, we would be interpreters— that when it came to food and drink, our job was to help someone walk in our footsteps and leave with new knowledge, useful and actionable knowledge, that would help them in their own eating lives.
This stuck with me and remains with me today. But it stuck with Jason even more. Because it turns out that Jason, the former Associated Press food editor and my onetime colleague, is also longtime gourmet and gourmand J.M. Hirsch, the intrepid, world-exploring editorial director of Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street — an operation dedicated to taking the complex and the faraway and making it actionable in your own kitchen and at your own table.
In the past couple years, though, I’ve noticed something about Jason. While food remains on his front burner, his social feeds are populated with pictures of luscious cocktails against backdrops of lakes and sunsets. More likely than not, he’s talking about things like muddling and egg whites and various ways to create smoky flavors. My favorite food guy has become my favorite cocktail guy. Hence his new book, Shake Strain Done: Craft Cocktails at Home.
The thematic premise is the same: being an interpreter, providing new knowledge — useful, actionable knowledge that will help people in their own creative cocktail lives. This is a book from my favorite culinary interpreter, a man who moves between deep, intricate, sometimes inaccessible knowledge and … the rest of us.
You have a centrifuge, right? Probably not, unless you’re a high-end food fiddler or happen to be doing work with blood products in your kitchen.
You can infuse vodka with cardamom, fig and Madagascar vanilla bean in the next couple days, right? Nope? Not to worry.
You know when to use a coupe glass and when to use a rocks glass and you have sets of both of those plus six highballs in your cupboard already, right?
You don’t? Relax. None of it matters.
With Shake Strain Done, if it’s obscure or arcane or the purview of the experts, Jason has decided — usefully, in my estimation— that you don’t need to know it. “Most cocktail books are written by those people for those people,” Jason tells us. But with this book, the path to successful cocktails with layered tastes is thinking about the endpoint — what you want — and choosing the best road to get there.
While his recipes are sectioned off by type of spirit, he institutes a highly useful system of tags (users of to-do and project management software or even just Medium will be familiar with these) to help suss out the flavors and experiences you’re looking for and decide which ones will be dominant and/or recessive. “This,” he says of his tagging system, “is language we can taste.”
Consider the “Sweet Southern Belle,” one of his concoctions that features black tea, vodka and a couple liqueurs. On the Hirsch Scale of tagging, it’s smoky first, then strong, then sweet and herbal in the background. This allows you and me to know the most prominent notes before we commit to the recipe. That’s highly useful when you’re mixing drinks in a social setting, which I’m sure we’ll find ourselves in again one day soon.
This has the effect of giving you control, which is something that can easily feel elusive when you’re careening through recipes with a towel across your shoulder, worrying that the ice in the ice bucket will melt before you can create some memorable drinks for yourself and your friends.
Shake Strain Done eliminates this agita. It teaches speed infusions that are as simple as making a smoothie. It shows you how to add smoky flavors to cocktails without needing a toolkit worthy of a building superintendent. It shows you the difference between muddling and smacking, which may seem like a hipster statement but actually has some serious effects on flavor. And it tells you what you’ll need in your home bar to accomplish this kind of stuff without spending beyond your means.
And the recipes: dozens of them, delicious and complex without being effete, full of fresh flavors that, more often than not, will have you saying to yourself, “Why didn’t I ever think of mixing things that way?”
Some of the drinks might seem to take steps toward being foods. That’s natural for a food editor like Jason. More than that, though, it’s natural because the membrane between drink and food is more gossamer and artificially enforced than we might believe. This is explored to some fascinating ends that include Sichuan peppercorns, hot sauce and — in one case — radishes and beets. Consider these gems from his collection (don’t be a hater; give them a chance):
- Miso Mary. This drink — herbal, sweet and spicy — features actual Japanese miso paste. Yes, the kind used in soup. He calls it “lightly savory, reminiscent of a bowl of broth,” and yet sweetened by vermouth and ginger into a complete experience.
- Peas and Thank You. The phrase “2 tablespoons peas” is an unlikely one in a craft cocktail, and then there’s the wasabi paste. Yet what emerges is a drink that is “unexpectedly creamy and rich.”
- Pooh Bear. The bourbon-based Pooh Bear, a bit more complex than most of his concoctions, features a tablespoon of butter, a bit of salt and lots of whiskey. One can’t help but wonder if this would also make a good marinade.
- The Threeway. This rum-based drink includes, well, raisins, which as he points out might seem odd but “in another life” might well have ended up as wine.
Most of Jason’s recipes are less food-based, but every one of them is brimming with balances, counterbalances and unexpected flavor collisions. I have just begun exploring them; I generally like to invent my own drinks, but I plan to put that activity on hiatus for just a bit to see how a baker’s dozen of his play out across the next month.
That reminds me: His book is published on Nov. 3, which also happens to be Election Day. That’s a time when a good stiff drink might be useful no matter what your politics might be.
One of the joys of having friends who have traveled to many places is seeing what they bring back — not the things, necessarily, but the ideas and concepts and fragments of knowledge and unexpected wonders that they re-import into my social circles. This is one of those moments. Jason has poured so many of his experiences into this book, and I can’t wait to benefit from them. He’s speaking my language now. And in what he’s saying, he’s the best interpreter I think I’ll ever know.
Shake Strain Done: Craft Cocktails at Home, by J.M. Hirsch. Illustrations by Lika Kvirikashvili. Voracious (Little, Brown and Co.), $25.
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Ted Anthony, a writer based in Pittsburgh and New York, is a Baby Boomer by generation and a Gen-Xer by age. He has been dissecting and musing about American culture since Guns N’ Roses was on the charts and “Rain Man” was in the theaters. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects his writing here.
©2020 | Ted Anthony