THE English language badly needs a word to describe the thing that bartenders do. The important work of putting together spirits and flavorings in the combinations we call cocktails deserves a decent name, but there isn't one. "Mixology" is the best of a bad lot, a coinage that harks back to the overripe, mock-elevated style used by writers like H. L. Mencken, Herbert Asbury and Lucius Beebe, for whom drinks were inevitably "libations," "tinctures" or "potions."
"Mixology" is probably the right word, though, for Gary Regan's "Joy of Mixology" (Clarkson Potter, $30), a cocktail history, bartender's guide and recipe book that takes the scientific aspect of drink making, the "ology," very seriously. Mr. Regan, who runs a Web site, www.ardentspirits.com, and has written books on bourbon and the martini, takes a highly unusual taxonomic approach to cocktail-making. Like Linnaeus, he surveys the teeming, seemingly chaotic population of mixed drinks and imposes order by dividing them into families, each with its own distinctive features that make it different from the rest.
In Mr. Regan's tidy universe of drink, the cosmopolitan belongs to the same species as the margarita and the sidecar: it is a New Orleans sour, which, along with international sours, sparkling sours, and squirrel sours (so named by the author because they rely on nut-based liqueurs like Frangelico or amaretto), make up a genus of cocktails united by their use of sour citrus juices sweetened with sugar or syrups. The idea is that once novice bartenders grasp the underlying formula of a drink family and the flavors appropriate to it, they can introduce variations, as Mr. Regan did when he tried substituting crème de noyaux, a pink, almond-flavored liqueur, for triple sec in some New Orleans sour recipes, and cut the sweetness of the liqueur with club soda. An entirely new category resulted — the squirrel sour.
Not all drinks fit neatly into the scheme. Mr. Regan has invented a catchall Orphan family to deal with 64 cocktails that defy categorization. These include old-timers like the Sazerac (whiskey and Peychaud's bitters) and newfangled show-off drinks like the Dreamy Dorini Smoking Martini (vodka, Laphroaig whiskey and Pernod, with a lemon twist).
But most cocktails find bona fide categories. The manhattan belongs to the whiskey and brandy species of French-Italian cocktails, all of which use French or Italian vermouth. The negroni and the martini belong to the gin and vodka species. I now understand the relationship between the fuzzy navel and Sex on the Beach. The former, because it calls for orange juice, is a Florida highball. The latter, made with cranberry juice, is a New England highball, like the Cape Codder and the sea breeze. It all makes sense. Just consult the charts in the book.
In his structural approach to the cocktail, Mr. Regan follows in the footsteps of the great David A. Embury, a Manhattan lawyer who, in his off hours, wrote what many drink experts regard as the best cocktail book ever. The book, "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks," first published in 1948, brought intellectual rigor and plain English to a subject that badly needed both. Just how Mr. Embury acquired his knowledge remains mysterious. For many years he served as head of a national organization that represented college fraternities. That might be a clue, and his training as a lawyer perhaps explains his mania for organizing recipes by drink type.
Occasionally Mr. Embury could get carried away. He explained, offhandedly and unhelpfully, that "essentially the sidecar is nothing but a daiquiri with brandy in the place of rum and Cointreau in the place of sugar syrup or orgeat." Well, all right. And "Romeo and Juliet" is the same as "Two Gentlemen of Verona," if you delete the tragic ending and make Juliet a man. Over all, though, Mr. Embury broke new ground by grouping like with like and by encouraging readers to use his insights and create their own drinks.
Mr. Regan begins his book with a lively history of the cocktail. It includes two facts, one momentous, one trivial, that caught my eye. In discussing the evolution of the mixed drink in the United States, Mr. Regan zeroes in on a striking development in the late 19th century: the introduction of vermouth. It is vermouth that eased the way from the proto-cocktails of the early 19th century, which were little more than gin or whiskey with sugar and bitters, to modern masterpieces like the martini and the manhattan. This was big. By Prohibition, more than half the cocktails being made in the United States called for vermouth, said Albert Stevens Crockett, the author of "Old Waldorf Bar Days."
Why? Mr. Regan does not address the question, but I have a few thoughts. Vermouth made possible a new level of flavor complexity by allowing wine and spirits to commingle in the same glass with ice. It brokered the agreement, so to speak. Old bar books included all sorts of recipes for hot punches that mixed, say, brandy and port, and for cold drinks, called cobblers, that used wine and flavorings over crushed ice. But not until vermouth came on the scene did wines and spirits find common ground.
The best silly fact in "The Joy of Mixology" concerns a drink, if it can be called a drink, for which I have expressed nothing but contempt. It's the jelly (or Jell-O) shot, a quivering alcohol-spiked blob of gelatin, usually in a gaudy color and usually headed for the gaping maw of a barely legal customer. I stand corrected. The jelly shot dates to the mid-19th century, and it has a genteel pedigree. Our ancestors enjoyed turning flavorful punches into a chilled jelly, to be served in slices on a warm evening. Jerry Thomas included several recipes in "How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon-Vivant's Companion," the first cocktail book, published in 1862. He also appended a warning. "Many persons," he wrote, "have been tempted to partake so plentifully of it as to render them somewhat unfit for waltzing or quadrilling after supper."
Your average cocktail/bartender book is usually just the result of somebody gathering together as many recipes as they can find, prefacing it with the obligatory "how to stock your home bar" chapter, then selecting "File / Print..." Is it any wonder then that people these days are confused as to what a Martini really is?
Thankfully, Gary Regan has shown us that a mixology book can be far more then we have come to expect.
In "The Joy of Mixology", Gary lays out for us the results of what obviously has been many years of research into what cocktails really are, and how to make them properly. First he covers the common topics such as history, bartending, garnishes, glassware, but with far more interesting information then you most likely have seen elsewhere. Mr. Regan then dives into laying out the various styles of cocktails and mixed drinks, and how to understand them in ways that focus on the proper and well-balanced construction of each style. There is a lot of meat in how he organizes his lists, and a wealth of information behind their proper construction.
Cocktails really don't need to be as confusing as they seem to be to most people. This book goes a long way in not only making sense of the large array of cocktail selections available, but also in bringing to light the potentials of a "Quality" cocktail experience.