Speakeasy, a new cocktail book by Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric, is the story of a couple of bartenders in New York City circa 1998 (in Twitter time, the Stone Ages) who vowed to save Happy Hour with a properly mixed martini. It was a time, the authors say in the Introduction, when "New York was an exciting city with an air of perpetual adolescence." Until September 11, 2001.
Kosmas and Zaric recount how nightlife virtually disappeared as bars that used to stay open until 4 a.m. closed their doors by midnight. Swanky restaurant bars in the devastated city closed even earlier. "New York's restaurant employees were the ones most affected by this," they continue. "Our income became inconsistent, and there were few operations to go out after a hard night's work." And so they vowed to open an employee-owned cocktail lounge. In December of 2004, Employees Only opened its doors.
Which gets us to their first book, Speakeasy, a tightly packed, pretty little number with 160 pages of "classic cocktails re-imagined" according to the subtitle. Cocktails that are practical yet inspired enough (but not too much) that you'll actually want to make them.
Speakeasy begins, as most cocktail books do, with a Cocktails 101 primer (shaking, muddling, floating liqueurs) that's thorough enough for novices yet speedy to flip right past for well versed mixology-sorts. The meat of this book is the recipes -- hardly revolutionary, but something more cocktail books seem to be abandoning in favor of even more glossy photos and personal essays that are entirely to personal (or quite the opposite, no stories or photos at all). Here you get a brief summary of stories behind the cocktails, and then the cocktails. Just the way we like it.
The first chapter, "Aperitifs," you'll find classics like the Negroni (gin, Campari, sweet vermouth, orange twist) alongside Employees Only creations like the Martinez, reportedly the precursor to the dry gin martini (gin, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, vermouth, homemade absinthe bitters, lemon twist). "Long Drinks and Fancy Cocktails" gets into cocktails like the French 75 (here with gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, Champagne and an orange wheel garnish) and the Fraise Sauvage (a variation on the French 75 with homemade strawberry syrup). The "Pitchers, Punches, and Sangrias" chapter is your everyday punch source - if Jersey City Fish House Punch happens to be on your everyday drink list (rum, AppleJack, lemon juice, peach liqueur, diced pears and apples, lemons and limes).
Some of the recipes are shakable with basic bar ingredients. Their twist on the classic Americano, for instance, is made with Campari, sweet vermouth, San Pellegrino Aranciata, and lime (rather than soda water and an orange slice). Others, like the Amelia, are more for the ambitious cocktail shaker. You'll need to make a blackberry purée and procure specialty (but not necessarily pricey) spirits like Luksusowa Polish potato vodka (about $13) and St. Germain elderflower liqueur. But after all that work, you get to "smack" a mint sprig garnish in the palm of your hand to "release the aroma" -- and surely that has to be fun.
And if tonight, like so many other Happy Hours, you find yourself unable to decide which cocktail to make, there are handy tasting notes at the bottom of each recipe. This Ginger Smash, Fall Season (there is also a summer version) is described as "full-textured, with soft fruits" and medium-dry with a "short, crisp, warm ginger" finish. Precisely how we hope to be feeling ourselves after one of these. (Turn the page for the recipe.)
Ginger Smash, Fall Season
From: Speakeasy by Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric.
Makes: 1 drink.
2 thin slices fresh ginger root
5 thin slices Bartlett pear
1 teaspoon superfine sugar
1 ½ ounces Plymouth gin
1 ½ ounces Berentzen Apfelkorn apple liqueur
¾ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 dash St. Elizabeth allspice dram
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1. Muddle the ginger, pear and sugar in the bottom of a mixing glass.
2. Add the gin, apple liqueur, lemon juice, and allspice dram and add enough large cold ice cubes to fill a rocks glass.
3. Cover and shake hard but briefly.
4. Pour unstrained into a rocks glass and serve.