Behind the Book – Cocktails for a Crowd

Photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher

Photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher

Note: This is adapted from a guest post I wrote for  Monica Bhide’s A Life of Spice blog.

If you like my new book, Cocktails for a Crowd, you can send Michael Ruhlman a thank you note.

Not that Ruhlman had a hand in writing the book. In fact, we’ve never met.

But in part, the book came about because I was inspired by his “Ratio” app, which posits that every recipe starts with a basic ratio of ingredients – like cookie dough is 1 part sugar, 2 parts fat, and 3 parts flour – and variations take off from there.

Right away, I recognized that the same is true of cocktails. Most of my favorite drinks comprise 2 parts spirit, 1 part sour and 1 part sweet. The classic Margarita is often a 3-2-1 configuration (3 parts tequila, 2 parts Cointreau, 1 part lime juice). Not to mention drinks like the Negroni – a perfect equilateral triangle, made with a ratio of 1-1-1, three ingredients in equal measure (Campari, gin and sweet vermouth), plus a splash of soda on top.

Why was I inspired by the app based on Ruhlman’s Ratio book, instead of the book itself?  Because my initial concept was for a Cocktails for a Crowd app – not a book.

I had just returned from the IACP conference in Austin (yes, that’s two years ago– still about how long it takes to shepherd a book from proposal to print at a traditional publishing house), where I’d attended a seminar on apps.

The idea for Cocktails for a Crowd crystallized during that seminar. Right away, I visualized a tool that would scale drinks from a single cocktail for one up to “cocktails for a crowd,” with the swipe of a finger. It would convert between ounces (which bartenders prefer) to cups (which home cooks prefer). It would even generate a shopping list – since further complicating what I’d come to refer to as “cocktail math,” liquor bottles are sold in 750 milliliter or 1 liter sizes, neither ounces nor cups. Only later did I realize this was a book idea too.

The app idea drove the book idea, even the book’s name. The app was a central feature of my book proposal, and I’m fairly certain it helped sell the project to Chronicle Books.

So as soon as I’d hit the “send” button on the manuscript, my next email was to inquire about the companion app.

“What’s next?” I ventured.

There would be no app, said the disappointing reply, although my publisher agreed that an app would have been a perfect extension of this particular book concept. “The trouble is that no one (publishers or developers) are seeing the sales levels we need to justify the production expense that’s required to make these products great.”

The hard truth is:  people still expect apps to be free, or nearly free. Naturally, publishers are focusing their energies on profitable products – books, not apps.

Today, there still is no “Cocktails for a Crowd” app — and likely will never be, unless I pursue it independently.

Which brings me back to the app-tastic Ruhlman. I turned in my manuscript in January 2012. A few months later, I joyfully noticed that Ruhlman had begun “Friday Cocktail Hour” posts, starting with the classic Martini (8 parts gin to 1 part dry vermouth) and the Old-Fashioned (6 parts bourbon or rye, 1 part sugar, 1 part bitters). He hasn’t yet broken down cocktails into his “Ratio” format, but I say it’s just a matter of time. (If you’re impatient, I’d recommend picking up a copy of DIY Cocktails, which emphasizes the ratio aspect of cocktails.)

Are apps related to cookbooks dead in the water? I’m starting to think so.

Perhaps I should grease the wheels of optimism a bit and send a copy of my new book to Ruhlman. Because I see a “Ratio: Cocktails” book in his future. And possibly an app to go with that, too.

How much water should you add to a pre-batched cocktail?

Dave Arnold (image courtesy MOFAD)

Dave Arnold (image courtesy MOFAD)

This is a question I grappled with throughout the recipe-testing process for Cocktails for a Crowd.  It might seem like a trifling matter — but you’d be surprised how much it impacts a cocktail. The right amount of water makes a cocktail better — that’s one of the reasons we add ice to drinks.

Although I ultimately landed on adding about 25% to 30% water to simulate the effect of melting ice, as usual, Dave Arnold figured out a more precise way to figure out the right amount of water to add.

And he figured it out years before I did.

If you don’t already know Arnold, he’s the poster boy for better cooking (and drinking) through chemistry. He’s the mastermind behind Booker & Dax, a chemistry lab-turned-cocktail bar. He’s also one of the driving forces behind the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) — an enterprise I’m excited about– and hosts the longtime “Cooking Issues” podcast on Heritage Radio Network.

During a 2010 episode of Cooking Issues, Arnold tackled the topic of how much water to add to a pre-batched cocktail. Not only that, he compared how to handle drinks that are traditionally shaken vs. those that typically are stirred. “It’s hard to pre-batch a shaken cocktail,” he admits. “You really do need to shake it to get the texture right.”

Of course, his mad-scientist approach involves using liquid nitrogen to dilute the drink and still get the properly aerated texture that shaking provides. Most home bartenders, of course, aren’t about to start fiddling with liquid nitro. “If possible, choose a stirred drink to pre-batch,” Arnold concludes.  (I agree — but then again, I might be up for replicating shaken drinks for 20 people, where he would be replicating them for a “crowd” of 200 guests.) Here’s how Arnold determines how much water to add:

Make a single drink, using volume, the way you normally would, with jiggers. Weigh it on an accurate scale. Write the number down, that’s how much drink you’re starting with. Add your ice, stir it, then strain it. Now weigh how much the drink weighs now. That’s the weight of the total cocktail. Subtract the weight of the liquor you used from the total weight of the cocktail, and that’s the amount of water you should add. That’s the way to do it, instead of guessing in your head at 25%. If you just add water at room temp and taste it – When you chill it, the balance will be off.

It may seem tedious, but Arnold notes that you only need to do it once – if you get it right and write the recipe down, you don’t need to re-test it every time. And as Arnold says, “Your pre-batched drinks will thank you for it.

Cocktails for a Crowd book signing – 8/11 at Salt & Sundry, Washington DC

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This Sunday, I’ll be in Washington DC, signing books from 2-3:30 PM at one of the most beautiful housewares stores I’ve ever seen:  Salt & Sundry, inside Union Market. I already have my eye on some new glassware.

We’ll also be sampling cocktails from the book and bites provided by The Red Hen. Mark your calendar now!

Booze and banter with Leite’s Culinaria

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I’ve long been a fan of David Leite and his podcasts – so it was a real treat to chat with David and sweet/sassy cohost Renee Schettler for this mini-podcast — what they refer to as a “Small Bite.” Give it a listen — all of seven minutes long, but still packed with frivolity, banter and boozy good cheer. It’s a little like attending a really short cocktail party.

The drink you need for your 4th of July party: The Rosemary Refresher

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The Rosemary Refresher

photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher

It’s possible that I may I love this drink a little too much. I made a batch for a book signing event on Saturday, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

A few random thoughts on this drink:

  • Although it was created to be a pitcher drink, if it’s going to sit out for longer than a few minutes before guests gulp it down in a thirsty frenzy, do not add ice! This drink is best when chilled, but loses all its oomph when it gets watered down. Mix it up and set it in a bottle or carafe, and pour it over ice to serve, if it’s going to sit for any length of time. (if serving right away, the pitcher method is just fine, though.)
  • If any rosemary syrup (and/or lime juice) is left over, refrigerate it and save it. Sunday night, I used this template to create an enjoyable Rosemary Daiquiri (though I used 2 oz white rum, not 2.5 oz aged rum). Tuesday night, I found inspiration here to make a rosemary-tinged gin Gimlet.
  • The rosemary sprig garnish is optional. But it makes the drink look really impressive.

The Rosemary Refresher

From Cocktails for a Crowd, by Kara Newman (Chronicle Books)

Serves 8
Total volume: 4 3/4 cups (without ice)

This sophisticated margarita variation is a wonderful thirst-quenching aperitif. The recipe makes a bit more rosemary-infused simple syrup than needed for the cocktails. Offer the leftover portion in a small pitcher for anyone who isn’t drinking alcohol so they can enjoy it mixed with club soda or ginger ale.

Rosemary Simple Syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
5 sprigs fresh rosemary

2 cups reposado tequila
1 1/2 cups freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
4 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice
6 ounces rosemary-infused simple syrup
4 cups ice cubes
8 sprigs fresh rosemary, for garnish

To make the rosemary syrup: In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar is dissolved. When the syrup starts to boil, lower the heat to maintain a simmer. Gently roll the rosemary between your hands to release some of the aromatic oils, then add it to the syrup. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Let cool to room temperature, then remove the rosemary sprigs and strain the syrup if need be. Stored in a covered container in the refrigerator, the syrup will keep for about 2 weeks.

To make the cocktails: In pitcher that holds at least 10 cups, combine the tequila, grapefruit juice, lime juice, and rosemary simple syrup and stir until thoroughly blended. Add the ice and stir well.

To serve, pour into rocks glasses and garnish each glass with a rosemary sprig.

4 tips for bargain boozing

Last week, Financial Post reporter Melissa Leong interviewed me for an article, “Five things you can do to have a boozy time on a budget,” which ran over the weekend. (It’s part of a yearlong series on extreme personal finance, including amusing videos called “Save Your #@%* Money,” which I fervently hope becomes the title of the book she’s clearly meant to write).

Our conversation got me thinking about ways to drink more inexpensively — but still drink well.  Some of these tips appeared in the article, some did not.

1. It’s always less costly to drink at home vs. out at a bar. The mark-ups that go into cocktails can be staggering. Think about it:  two $14  rye Manhattans (plus tip) = a 750ml bottle of good rye + a 375ml bottle of vermouth. That yields far more than two cocktails.   (Or, yes, you can find less expensive drinks at another bar. The  alcohol mark-up still will be significant.)

2. Make your own ingredients. You can purchase a 750 ml bottle of Monin cane syrup for $6 or more.  Or you can buy a box of granulated sugar and make your own simple syrup. By the same token, you can also DIY grenadine and Maraschino cherries.  Raw ingredient costs are low; what you’re paying for in these products is labor, packaging, and distribution costs. When you go to a bar, you’re paying for labor again, plus real-estate and other expenses too.

3. Choose your booze wisely. Armagnac is often better value than similar Cognacs; yet both are grape brandies from France with similar flavor profiles. American-made whiskies are often better value than imported whiskies.  And for god’s sake, save the top shelf and longer-aged stuff for drinking straight, not for mixing into cocktails.

4. You don’t have to buy expensive glassware. Punchbowls and glassware in multiples have been on my mind ever since I started researching Cocktails for a Crowd. Sure, I’d love to drop a bundle at Crate & Barrel for pitchers and punchbowls and a few dozen new glasses every time I throw a party. But it’s not necessary:  you’d be surprised what can be used to showcase large-format drinks.  Vases. Fish bowls. Fondue pots. Mason jars. Not to mention all the gorgeous vintage glassware to be scooped up at flea markets and yard sales. A word of caution, though:  whatever vessels you use for serving drinks, make sure they are thoroughly clean.

I’d love to hear your tips for drinking/entertaining on the cheap. If enough ideas come in, I’ll publish a follow-up to this post.

Behind the book – my guest post on Life of Spice

I admit it:  When Monica Bhide asked me to write for her lovely “Life of Spice” blog about how I came up for the idea for Cocktails for a Crowd, I considered fibbing. 

“I could always spin some thirsty story about how I threw a party, and…”

“Well, I guess I could throw together something about how I was inspired by bartenders, and…”

Although there would have been elements of truth to both (hey, I said fibbing, not outright lying!) instead I opted to tell the truth. Here’s how I came up with the idea for the book, as posted on Monica’s blog. I guarantee, it’s not the pretty story you expect.

Kind words for Cocktails for a Crowd

As the unofficial start to the summer entertaining season, Memorial Day weekend is a big deal. I was psyched to see my still shiny-new book featured prominently in Memorial Day food & drink coverage — and so honored to read these kind words. Please click through to read the full articles.

The Wall Street JournalRecipes for Party Punches:

Don’t be fooled by the book’s slim size and bright cover. This is a serious, sophisticated guide to crafting drinks, not just a frothy collection of party size “-tinis.” With a can-do attitude and plenty of smarts, Ms. Newman offers readers rules of thumb culled from some of the country’s leading drink-slingers.

Seattle Magazine, Four Cocktails Perfect for a Crowd:

 A great resource for creating crowd-ready beverages is Kara Newman’s new book Cocktails for a Crowd, which has well-tested recipes for groups of many sizes and an intro section full of tips and advice.

Kansas City StarCocktails for 8 or more? These books help you figure out the servings

…the book that makes me actually want to throw a party is Cocktails for a Crowd by Kara Newman. … An insightful and well-crafted book.

Cheers!  I’ll drink to that.

Negroni Sbagliatos for a crowd

Image courtesy Manhattan Cocktail Classic

The Manhattan Cocktail Classic has officially drawn to a close. This is one of those epic events where bartenders serve hundreds — in some cases thousands — of cocktails at a go.  There were plenty of mediocre offerings, to be sure. But there were a great many memorable drinks too. And this was perhaps the most memorable drink of them all.

Likely, I was particularly attuned to this drink because of the Cocktails for a Crowd book. No doubt I was paying closer attention than ever before to how batched drinks were presented, ranging from the punch served in painted ceramic punchbowls at Dead Rabbit to colorful pink and orange Palomas decanted into swing-top glass flasks and arrayed on silver platters during a seminar.

But Campari topped them all, offering wee cans of Negroni Sbagliato cocktails. It’s a relatively simple classic cocktail:  Campari, sweet vermouth, and dry sparkling wine, like Prosecco. I first heard of it after Frank Bruni wrote about it a couple of years ago; it started popping up on drink menus shortly thereafter, though it’s still lesser-known vs the Negroni (Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin).  The cans were handed out at the splashy MCC gala, as well as at a party thrown by the brand a couple of nights later.

Apparently, the genesis of this canned cocktail began at last year’s gala, where Negronis were pre-batched, carbonated and bottled. At the event, bartenders merely popped off the bottle caps and inserted a straw. It was on-trend — arguably, ahead-of-trend— fun to drink and speedy to serve. The canned cocktails had been floated for the 2012 gala, a PR rep told me (as we sipped Sbagliatos, natch), but tabled until 2013.

Apparently, a great deal of effort went into those canned cocktails. They had to be specially made, the cocktail had to be made in large quantities, and they had to be shipped over. The red-and-white striped plastic straws (not paper, which disintegrate quickly), were sourced from Etsy.

Everyone noticed them. From a drinker’s perspective, it was a good cocktail — truly, the most important part of this equation — and it was fun to drink, so people actually walked around and drank from the cans. It wasn’t too big and it wasn’t too boozy, so it was one of the few cocktails I actually finished at the Gala. From a marketer’s perspective, it was clearly branded — no mistaking the distinctive Campari red, and it was labeled in big letters anyway, identifying the brand and the name of the drink. It was memorable and everyone asked where to get one. It was clever and not too ostentatious. Even the straws reinforced the branding, but in a tasteful way.

Now here’s where things fall apart. Despite this marketing coup, no one can buy this product. And I heard many people say they would gladly purchase a six-pack of Sbagliatos (I was one of them). You can buy a cans of Pimm’s at convenience stores in the UK, yet in the United States, the Ready-To-Drink category is limited to pouches of awful slushy Margaritas made with fake lime flavoring. If Campari brought the canned Sbagliato product to market, I would consider it to be an outright marketing success. If not, it was just a clever flash-in-the-pan that will need to be topped again next year.

4 Batching Secrets from the Cocktail Pros

Rounds of peel cut from oranges during prep for Manhattan Cocktail Classic

As of this week, Cocktails for a Crowd is officially out there in the wild!

As I’m gearing up for the Manhattan Cocktail Classic this coming weekend and many of my favorite bartenders are winging their way into town, I’m thinking about one of my favorite parts of working on the book:  gathering advice (and recipes) from bartenders.

By design, this book owes a lot to mixologists. Many of the recipes are bartender originals, of course. But I got a kick out of asking bartenders to spill their secrets about batching (creating large batches of drinks), which often happens behind the scenes at events, cocktail conferences (like MCC) and bars, too.

Here are some of my favorite tips — some of this info is in the book, some not.

You can never have too much ice. That’s not a secret, of course. But Portland bartender Kelley Swenson explained how to figure out how much ice is enough:  for each 750 milliliters (3 1/4 cups) of cocktail (the size of a standard bottle of liquor), allot 7 pounds of ice.   Another useful metric: allot 1 to 1.5 pounds of ice per person. Either way, get what you need and then get some more, because (say it with me!) you can never have too much ice.

Mise en place is your best friend. The French culinary term mise en place means “putting in place.” If you’re throwing a soiree, before your guests arrive, put everything you’re making drinks with in place.  EVERYTHING! Squeeze the citrus, set the glassware where you can reach it, make sure you have all the liquor you need (and all the ice too)! When you go to a bar early in the evening and they’re bustling about even though you’re the only guest at the bar, that’s what they’re up to back there — mise en place. You should do it too.

Control the dilution. Watery drinks suck. This is one reason bartenders consider their ice so carefully. If you can use a large block of ice to chill a punch or even a pitcher of drinks, that’s ideal. It melts more slowly than a handful of ice cube tray ice cubes, which seem to dissolve in record time while your guests are still shrugging off their coats.

Jason Asher, head mixologist at Young’s Market of Arizona, was one of the first to flag for me that for batching purposes, you can add the water yourself, and then chill a drink in the refrigerator or set it on ice. “My rule of thumb is 25% to 30% water comes from dilution” caused by shaking a cocktail, he explained. (I worked with 20% to 25% as my baseline for the drinks in the book.) “For a stirred cocktail, I like to add ice, then stir it, taste it, and when it hits the right amount, then strain the ice out.” You wouldn’t want to do this too far in advance — but a few hours ahead, and it works beautifully.

Learn how to make oleosaccharum. I swear it’s the difference between a good punch and a great punch. Try it and see.  In brief, you muddle citrus peel with sugar, and then the magic ingredient is time. Wine Enthusiast recently published an oleosaccharum primer if you’d like more how-to detail.

Thanks for the advice, barkeep!