The Curious Bartender: Reimagined Cocktails from Across the Pond

Cocktail Science

Studying the science behind your drinks.


[Photograph: Addie Chinn]

The "Royal Purl Stock Cube" takes a classic, soothing tipple and reimagines it as a whimsical jelly shot—which then melts before your eyes. But this isn't a case of cocktail tomfoolery purely for the sake of 'molecular mixology.' Pour hot water over the gelified drink and it quickly collapses into a warm and aromatic version of the original recipe. Garnishes of juniper, cinnamon, and dried apple complete the experience. Decorative gold leaf is an optional luxury.

Of course the obvious question becomes: why bother turning a perfectly good drink into a blob of jelly if you're just going to melt it again? Answer: the "stock cube" interpretation of the Purl solves a practical problem—if you try to hold a batch of hot drinks at serving temperature for any amount of time, the alcohol will eventually boil off. The jelly Royal Purl lets a bartender "hold" as many drinks as required in puck form. When a guest melts the drink with tableside hot water, the proportion of alcohol is always spot-on, and the melted gelatin lends a creamy mouthfeel to an already luxurious cocktail.

The Curious Bartender. The beautifully photographed 208-page tome shares Stephenson's favorite classic recipes and explains in exhaustive detail the tweaks and and techniques he applies to update each drink.

The updated recipes range from forehead-slapping-why-didn't-I-think-of-that simple (like a sidecar made with grape acid instead of lemon juice to accentuate the brandy) to the ingenious instantly-aged Rob Roy that's inaccessible to anyone without a rotary evaporator handy.

What's really remarkable about this book is the attention Stephenson gives to the complete experience encapsulated in each cocktail. An experienced bartender understands that the shape and clarity of a glass affects the way we perceive the drink within, which in turn changes how we taste that drink. Likewise, an otherwise perfect drink can be ruined by the poor preparation of a garnish.

Whereas most cocktail books prescribe garnishes in the simplest of terms (garnish with a lemon peel; rim with sugar, if desired), the photos in Curious Bartender show the reader exactly how to present every drink. And when the drink involves encapsulating a glass within a scented sugar suit of armor (an updated Brandy Crusta), the photos come in handy indeed.

Having written my own book about science and cocktails, I respect that Stephenson spends the time to cover the how's and why's behind his techniques. Introductory sections examine fundamentals like taste and and flavor sensation, the importance of acidity, and how shaking and stirring affect dilution.

But don't expect to be beat over the head with science. The technical content is both colloquial and brief and Stephenson doesn't try to sell himself as a researcher. Rather, he is exactly what he claims to be— a curious bartender adept at combining the behind-the-scenes science of cocktail making with the art of serving drinks. For that reason, I've found that this book ends up cracked open on my coffee table for its beautiful pictures as often as it gets flipped through behind my home bar.

Used for reference or inspiration, The Curious Bartender is a worthwhile buy for anyone interested in learning about making better drinks. Most of the recipes in this book fall under the "weekend project" category—for the curious, it makes a pretty classy gift.