The Story of the American Cocktail
by William Grimes
As I sat down to read this book, my wife got up and went into the kitchen. After a couple minutes, I asked her what she was doing. She emerged with a modified Monkey's Lunch -- she likes to add Bailey's -- replying, history! She was joking, but in Straight Up or On the Rocks, William Grimes develops a very solid historical analysis of drink in the United States. This is no mean feat on its own -- Grimes includes a seven page bibliography -- but he also manages to tell the history in a very engaging manner. Grimes includes details and humour that will keep any bartender or cocktail aficionado entertained as they read.
Straight Up or On the Rocks can be divided into three sections. The first chapter is dedicated to the Martini, investigating its origins and commenting on the variations of the Martini that have appeared over the years. The rest of the prose shows the evolution of the American cocktail, from its humble beginnings as the first settlers mixed together whatever they had at hand, through to modern tastes and customs. The final section of the book is dedicated to a selection of cocktail recipes that Grimes considers classics or potential classics.
Despite efforts to pass off the first chapter as an discourse, a Star by which to navigate the bewildering world of mixed drinks, it still feels out of place when put into context of the rest of the book. It is as though the author felt that the Martini deserved a chapter of its own, but could not decide where to place it in the historical progression of the cocktail. Placement aside, this chapter does provide a very detailed discussion of the origins of the Martini, and prepares the reader for the level of professionalism encountered in the rest of the text as Grimes considers and rejects several alternative origin stories for the Martini before suggesting a likely truth.
The rest of the text traces how the cocktail has come in and out of favour at many times since its inception. Where possible, Grimes provides the recipes used for various cocktails during their lifetimes, showing how American taste has changed in relation to various cultural and economic influences. These recipes range from an early recipe for Cock Ale (including a parboiled chicken, ale, mace and cloves) right through to the Teeny Weeny Woo Woo (peach schnapps, vodka, and cranberry juice), though you can almost see the author cringe as he describes the latter.
The final section of the book contains a list of one hundred and three cocktails that the author has sifted and winnowed, trimmed and pared, out of the thousands of existing cocktail recipes. Part of this book's charm is that the author makes no apologies for his elitist attitude toward cocktails. This attitude is reflected strongly in the selection of cocktails, resulting in a list of drinks that lift the spirits, refresh the mind, and put into healthy perspective the countless worries and grievances of modern life. That said, most of them actually taste pretty good too. All of these drinks would be appropriate at an adult cocktail or dinner party, and college students couldn't go wrong in assuming one of these recipes as their signature drink if they're looking to show a little class.
All in all, Straight Up or On the Rocks is an excellent text on the history of the cocktail. The depth of detail and the author's evident appreciation for cocktails combine with an excellent narrative style and humour to produce a book that is both easy to read and very informative. I would recommend this book to anyone who has ever felt curious about the origins of the cocktail. As well, all bartenders should have a copy of this book to give them a proper sense of their place both in history and as an essential part of our culture.- Bar-None Staff