The 12 Bottle Bar: Interview with David and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson
I'm willing to bet you have NEVER seen a book like The 12 Bottle Bar. It combines practical advice about making great cocktails with a cool premise -- you can have a full bar with just 12 well-selected bottles of spirits -- and plenty of history about how spirits, and the cocktails the created from them, emerged.
It's like the booziest history lesson you've ever heard. There are also plenty of suggestions on which brands to buy if you want your bar to hew to a budget, or if you want to blow it out on all high-end artisan products.
You'll also be pretty surprised by the types of liquor selected by David and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson -- there's no tequila here (they explain why early in the book) but there is genever. Genever? Yes. You can find out more about what it is in the book, along with its more well-known compatriots: gin, white rum, amber rum, vodka, brandy, rye whiskey, orange liqueur and bitters.
We were thoroughly delighted when David and Lesley spent some time talking to us about the book, some of their favorite drinks, how to be a good host, and the best drinks with which to begin your cocktail career. (Unless otherwise noted, responses are from David.)
So, I gotta ask: How many bottles are in your bar right now?
We try not to count! In our own home bar, there are about 150 bottles. Many of these are different examples of the same spirit -- we have about 20 gins, 10 ryes, etc. -- but many are outside the 12 bottle as well.
In the book, you offer ideas for having not only a 12-bottle bar, but also smaller bars, including one that is just a 1-bottle bar. If you HAD to choose, what would you choose for your one-bottle bar, and why?
We'd want a bottle with a genie in it so we could wish for all 12 bottles. :)
Forced to choose, we'd have to go with genever. We love its flexibility and its ability to stand in for gin, whiskey, and even rum. It works fabulously in stirred drinks, sours, tikis, and even hot chocolate. Warm weather or cold, there's a great genever drink to be had.
What is it about cocktails that fascinate each of you?
Lesley: A good cocktail is a portal to another place. That place may be a feeling that a bartender is trying to invoke through specific ingredients and presentation, the elevation of a particular spirit or seasonal element, or a moment somewhere in time. It transports you.
David: There's a sense of fraternity to cocktails that I've always admired -- gathering with friends and sharing a common, relaxing experience. I also love the microcosm that is the cocktail -- a little universe in which flavors battle and harmonize with one another.
Is there a certain romance to liquor and the stories about the origins of certain drinks? Would a Daiquiri be as interesting without its connection to Hemingway? Is a Vodka Martini the same without being James Bond’s most famous drink of choice?
We don't think so. In our book (literally), context can contribute as much to the enjoyment of a drink as the drink itself. If I tell you a story about the golden era of trans-Pacific air travel on board a Pam Am Clipper -- the table service, the amenity bag with fine perfume and luxury sundries, the 5-star stewardesses and pursers -- and then provide you with a drink that was once served aboard those flights, you are going to be transported, even if just a bit.
What makes cocktails more interesting for you than say, wine, beer or cider (all of which appear in the book, as ingredients in other drinks.)
By definition, a cocktail implies the coming together of multiple ingredients -- and a healthy dose of technique -- unlike beer, wine, or cider, which are expressions of the producer.
There's something more festive about a cocktail; it creates an event when you have it in hand.
If someone has never made a cocktail, what is the first one he or she should try?
A simple sour. It's easy to make, works with any spirit, and really highlights the balance between spirit, sugar, and citrus.
If you had to pick one drink that best showcases each of the liquors featured in the book, what would they be? I’m just focusing on the liquors, because even in the book, bitters and orange liqueur only have a couple of entries each, because they’re more elements in other drinks than stand-alone ingredients.
Gin - Gin and Tonic
White Rum - Daiquiri
Vodka - Chi Chi
Genever - John Collins
Brandy - Brandy Milk Punch
Rye - Whiskey Sour
Amber Rum - Mai Tai
The book has a very friendly, approachable tone, and it does really make you feel like you can make any of the drinks in it — and that includes the homemade syrups and mixers! Was it difficult to maintain that tone, and not overwrite, or overdo it, particularly when you know so much about so many drinks?
It was hard not using the same jokes over and over again. With 200 recipes, you also worry about running out of synonyms for "delicious".
How did you settle on the drinks featured in each section? What was your criteria for what made the cut?
We divided the drinks for each spirit into broad flavor profiles and then tried to fill each profile with a selection avoided redundancy. We didn't want 15 variations of the same gin sour.
I have to ask, just because I have the feeling you two might like “The Big Lebowski” (I’m not sure why, but there you go): Why didn’t a White Russian make the list in the vodka section?
We debated including a recipe for homemade Kahlua but just never got to it. It may appear on our site -- or a sequel book.
And, yes, we abide the Dude.
As you describe the history and various qualities of drinks, you often mention drinks that work well in certain seasons. Which drinks are the best ones for each season?
In summer, you want something that cools and quenches. Sours and long drinks (G&Ts, Bucks) using lighter spirits are the first things we reach for. When the weather cools, we break out stirred drinks, typically with darker spirits, as well as richer mixers. Whatever the time of year, it's always a plus to use seasonal produce.
I love that you also include tips on being a good host — and particularly how to keep your party (or your partygoers) from getting out of hand. When a book is about drinking, do you think that’s a must?
The minute someone steps inside your home or establishment, you are their host. When alcohol is involved, your host responsibilities multiply. You need to take care of your guests -- make them comfortable -- so offer them a non-alcoholic alternative, provide food, and know when they will have or have had too much. If the latter is the case, take care of them (call and pay for a cab, offer a couch) until they are fit to do so themselves.
How ironic is it that your most famed recipe is for a virgin drink — the Poison Apple Punch? What is it that makes that drink particularly special?
It has a catchy name, the ingredients are easy to understand, it's simple to make -- and it spikes really well.
If you could drink just one cocktail for the rest of your life, which one would it be?
Lesley - French 75
David - Punch Romaine
How often do you create new drinks? How difficult is it to come up with new ideas — or is it even difficult, as it appears that creative new cocktails keep popping up with the passage of time?
We like to play with spirits and new or fresh ingredients that we find, so we're always mixing up something. Only a few of these are worth sharing. It's not difficult to get the broad strokes -- subbing one sour or sugar for another -- but the devil tends to be in the details, finding the perfect balance.
What kinds of cocktails are popular right now?
Low alcohol (using fortified wines or aperitifs), beer, tiki.
What’s the next big thing, when it comes to cocktails/mixed drinks?
Vegetables are creeping into drinks, especially in infusions. Drinks also tend to be finding their senses of humor -- getting simpler and more playful. Drinks with bad reps (Sex on the Beach, Grasshopper) are also coming back in craft form.
What’s on the horizon for you?
We have a couple of projects in the works to keep expanding the 12 Bottle Bar reach. We also plan to start featuring contemporary bartenders and their creations on the site quite a bit more.
Where can people find you online? (blog/Twitter/FB, etc.)
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram: 12bottlebar