I first learned about The Aviary Cocktail Book from this article. I had just finished reading Dave Arnold’s book, Liquid Intelligence and was mesmerized by the richness of learning I gained from reading it. I was enjoying a frenzy of cocktail making at home, following Dave Arnold’s excellent advice and directions. So I was excited to see a new cocktail book about to become available, especially one from the Alinea team. I preordered The Aviary book and waited. Honestly, I forgot about it. Then one day, months later, it arrived. I was instantly transfixed.
The book is the size of a world atlas. Remember those from the school library? It’s named after the cocktail bar The Aviary, which is run by the brilliant team from Alinea (generally considered one of the world’s best restaurants). The photography is gorgeous. The recipes are obnoxiously complex, relying on hard to find ingredients and expensive, obscure special equipment that most readers are certain to not have. It almost feels like the authors are daring the reader, daring me, to even attempt to make a single recipe.
One of the book’s co-authors, Allen Hemberger, wrote a forward in the book called “How This Book Came To Be,” where he describes his own crazy attempt to recreate the recipes from Grant Achatz’ book Alinea starting back in 2009. His own project took several years to complete and resulted in him self-publishing a photo book about the experience, which ended up in the hands of Grant and Nick from Alinea, subsequently leading to their collaboration in The Aviary Cocktail Book project. Great story. And inspiring.
So, I’ve decided, perhaps foolishly, perhaps dangerously, perhaps regrettably, to attempt the same feat with this new book. I’d like to recreate each of the 100 cocktail recipes in the book (there are some additional recipes at the end of the book, related The Aviary’s downstairs neighbor, The Office, which I am choosing not to include in the endeavor).
My aim? To have fun. To get acquainted with new ingredients, new methods, and new thinking along the way. To have some great drinks. To follow the path and see where it leads. I seek nothing but enjoyment and discovery.
The purpose of this web site
This site is not intended to be a replacement for The Aviary Cocktail Book. In fact, most of what I say here probably won’t make sense unless you have the book and have gotten familiar with its contents. In that sense, this site is meant to be a companion to the book. Essentially an everyman’s experience with the recipes. See, the guys at The Aviary (and Alinea) are the best of the best. They did not dumb down their recipes to make them easier or more approachable for the home barman. The recipes are unapologetically complex and generally impractical. That’s what drew me in. To bastardize JFK’s famous quote, “We choose to make these cocktails not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
In the end, I may not succeed in successfully executing each of the recipes. But I will try. And, as I do, I hope to answer some questions and solve some problems that will likely plague most at-home attempts. For example:
- Where can I find micro herbs, and how do I time their arrival to correspond with the other fresh ingredients in the recipe (a problem with multiple recipes, including “How Does Snoop Dogg Use Lemongrass?” on page 106)?
- How in the world am I going to gain access to a rotary vacuum distiller, which is used in six of the recipes, including “Truffled Negroni” on page 218?
- Where can you find all of the 250+ individual liqueurs and spirits used in the recipes? And, where will I store them? And how can I keep track of them all?
- Where in the world will I find a glass, food-safe, ship in a bottle, as is used in “Loaded To The Gunwalls” on page 138?
My feelings about substitutions
Once I committed to the ridiculous task of recreating each of the recipes, I decided that the first step would be to catalog all of the ingredients used. I hoped I would find some patterns, and that many of the ingredients would be used repeatedly throughout. My initial goal was to find a reasonable set of spirits and liqueurs I could buy that would have me suitably stocked for a significant number of the recipes. No such luck. What I found, instead, was this:
- 27 rums
- 25 whiskeys
- 59 liqueuers
- 18 gins
- 7 tequilas
- 6 vodkas
- 8 vermouths
- 22 bitters
- 13 fortified wins
Very few repeats. Ugh.
I dwelled on this for a while. Do I really want 27 bottles of rum? Do I want 18 bottles of gin? Certainly some of the vodkas are interchangeable, right?
Well, maybe. And maybe not. But that’s not actually the point here.
During my period of dwelling on this question I sent an email to Allen Hemberger (he’s the guy who recreated the recipes in Alinea and one of the co-authors of The Aviary Cocktail Book). I asked his opinion on the matter, and how he dealt with difficult or impossible to find ingredients. He was kind enough to respond, and his advice still echoes in my mind:
My approach for Alinea was to replicate the recipes as faithfully as I possibly could; this meant investing the time and effort in sourcing each ingredient noted. I did this because – in most cases – the ingredients were new to me and I wanted to leverage the opportunity to learn about subtleties of flavor from the best in the world. It was only in the case of pre-existing familiarity that I might opt to cheat and substitute something, but even in those cases usually I strove to do so thoughtfully rather than lazily (I never let myself do the “Eh, well, this is what I have on hand, so I’ll just use it instead. Close enough!” thing).
My main motivation for this was to learn; how do Iranian pistachios differ from Californian (and why, therefore, did Alinea specify Iranian ones in one of the recipes)? How does king crab from Costco differ from what can be airlifted in from Alaska? I couldn’t have learned nearly as much by just reaching for what was easiest or nearest at hand.
I predicated this line of thinking on 1) Alinea’s relentless demand for perfection and 2) that the ingredients listed in the book were listed because they represented “the best” in some way, and I wanted to learn what “the best” was.Excerpt from an email from Allen Hemberger, January, 2019
He’s right. And I really appreciated the cold shower.
Then I ran right into a brick wall in my first recipe attempt. Ultimately, my pursuit of faithful re-creation found me nursing live lemon balm plants back to life after having them mailed to me across the country, in the winter. More on that later.
So, my feelings on the subject mirror Allen’s. I want to learn and grow. I want to discover. The worst that will happen is that I end up with a few redundant bottles of one or more spirits. Not a huge problem. All gin will ultimately be consumed! And this point of view is already paying off.
Case in point: The recipe “Midnight Mary” on page 232 calls for North Shore Distillery Aquavit. I already owned Linie Aquavit, which I purchased to make a recipe from Liquid Intelligence. I’d never tried Aquavit before, and I really did not care for Linie once I tasted it. I was kind of bummed to own an entire bottle of the stuff. So I felt very reluctant to buy another bottle of the same spirit. It felt very easy to just use what I already have one hand. Nevertheless I purchased a bottle of North Shore Distillery Aquavit. I must say, it is fabulous and delicious and unique. I nearly missed out on this great find.
A note on photos
I’m presently conflicted on how I will share the results of my effort with you. Ideally you could just come over and have a drink! That’s likely infeasible. Photos are a distant second. But I gotta tell you – the photos in The Aviary Cocktail Book are exquisite. I’m a decently average amateur photographer, but I’m not going to be able to create photos as perfect as are in the book. I’m certainly not going to improve on them. Cocktail photography is complicated, and executing the recipes is complicated enough. So I’m not intending to go for any photography awards here. In some cases I will just tell my story through iPhone photos. In cases where I see an opportunity for a nice photo, I’ll go for it. Wish me luck!