The title of Olly Smith’s latest book, Home Cocktail Bible, set a whole bunch of expectations for my husband and me, and we’re guessing the same applies to you.
We’re reasonably regular home cocktail makers with a handful or two of books in our arsenal, ranging from the simple to the quirky to the complex. We expected this to be the bible its luxurious purple and gold cover implied it to be, offering a comprehensive overview of all the basics, an easy way to make use of the spirits and liqueurs you may have in the cupboard, a guide to adding to the stash, and foolproof tips and techniques to become a decent home mixologist. The fact there’s only five scant pages of introduction before you’re into the cocktail recipes themselves probably tells you this is really just a book of cocktail recipes. If you want to know more about the transformative effect of using bitters, egg whites/foamers, or the impact of different shapes, sizes and consistencies of ice, muddling or shaking, or whether, as Olly says, a drink is quenching or comforting (the Index doesn’t even list Sours), look elsewhere. This book ain’t it.
Positively, there’s lots to grab the attention. Paper stock and printing is high quality, the photos pop and are appealingly sharp and bright (though not necessarily an accurate reflection of the end product, more on which later). There’s a Capsule Cocktail Cabinet in the Introduction of 26 items (supplemented with other items in other Introduction sections) with “all the essential mixers, spirits, bitters and syrups you’ll ever need to take your creativity to the next level” – you should note that this doesn’t by any stretch of the imagination cover all the cocktails in the book (lemon vodka is used in one recipe but not mentioned elsewhere, not even in the Index, the same with Poire Williams). Nor does Olly indicate the cocktails that use this Cabinet, which kind of leaves it hanging … Cocktail names are often tempting, regularly fun and intriguing: Aviation’, ‘Shimmying to Nantucket’, ‘Penicillin’ and ‘Jelly Bean’ are among the 200 cocktails in the book. It’s worth noting that in about a third of cases Olly offers alternatives, such as swapping vodka in for gin in a Gimlet, or serving a Mexican Firing Squad in a tall glass with soda for a longer drink. Again, the Index is unhelpful here. There’s no way we knew that we could use vodka for the Gimlet without reading through the alternatives under the recipes in the Gin chapter. Recipe layout is decent, easy to follow and comprehensive: a short introduction (filled with personality and interesting back stories for a number of the cocktails), simple icons to indicate the type of glass & garnishes to be used, a list of ingredients and the method.
So, you’ve whipped through the Introduction, and are hopefully clued up that you can make a reasonable number of cocktails with a small set of key ingredients and some basic Kit, Glassware, Garnishes and Syrups. Now each of the main spirit chapters has a brief, basic chapter introduction alongside a flavour wheel but frustratingly there is no mention in the book on how to use the wheel. It looks like it should be useful, if only we knew how! The only way from here seems to be to read aaaall the recipes until you find one you might like. With cocktail apps ten-a-penny nowadays, it seems criminally lax not to have even a table in the book that allows the reader to quickly look up options for a few ingredients they might have available to them. You really do wonder whether Olly wrote a more comprehensive, true Bible of a book which then got whittled down to this end product.
Saying that, we did use the book’s positives and flaws to lead us to a recipe we wouldn’t have found without a thorough read through, the Jelly Bean, and to make a variation on the French 75 by trawling options for a recipe that included cider (another ingredient that slipped through the unhelpful Index’s net).
We have to credit the description for directing our attention to the Jelly Bean. A cocktail recipe that suggests jelly bean sweets as an accompaniment has got to be a winner, surely. The main spirits were Pernod and Crème de Mûre and the cocktail was subtly aniseedy, sharply berry-bright and dark-fruity but our drink in no way resembled the clear vibrancy of the one (created by the stylists?) in the book. If you mix Pernod, raki, ouzo etc with ice/water the drink will cloud, as did ours. Olly points out that with the aniseed of the Pernod, the juicy, black fruit of the Crème de Mûre and sharp blended juice and syrup this is one for the cocktail connoisseur. The Pernod dictates that this will be a love it or hate it drink for many, but we loved it.
French 75 was next on the list using gin as the base for the cocktail. Due to the distressing and unfathomable lack of champagne in the house we used the French Harvest variation, topping up with cider instead. This was a thoroughly refreshing drink – we used a very dry craft cider with fine bubbles, guessing that we should try to replicate the qualities of champagne – and could easily become a hot summer evening’s favourite (obviously we’ll have some fizz in the house to try the original recipe next time).
Floradora saw us sticking with Gin and adding Chambord to create a fuss-free, pale pink, sparky thirst-quencher, topped up with a fiery ginger beer to create a long fresh drink, light on the alcohol. Another one for a hot summer night winding the day down in the garden.
Leftover ginger beer led us to a Ginger Scruff next, using Vodka as the base and, rather surprisingly, adding Frangelico to it. The hazelnut liqueur added a depth and richness to the cocktail that fused seamlessly with the lemon and ginger beer used to top up the drink. We didn’t know what to expect from this combination and were pleasantly surprised at how very drinkable it was.
Old Fashioned was our final choice, making a small dent in the weird surplus of bourbon we have in the house. (Where does it come from? Does it multiply naturally in the wild?). Despite this being one of our favourite cocktails if we are ‘out out’, we’ve never made one at home. It was easy to pull together with a bit of muddling, pouring and stirring, finally adding an oversized lump of ice. The flavours were well balanced, producing a sipping cocktail the equal of or better than most we’d had made for us.
One chapter that we would have liked in the book was Mocktails. It would be a boon to have an interesting short selection to serve up to friends that aren’t drinking alcohol.
Olly’s chatty style and evocative introductions do lead you to think of trying the Hurricane (which explains cleverly what two differently aged rums will bring to the drink), or his own invention, the Disco Dancing Mermaid, an azure party-starter based on Blue Curaçao. He has more of a tendency to use flamboyant descriptions of place and atmosphere than he does of flavour combinations and outcomes, which may be stylistically up your street, though when reading through it means understanding a cocktail’s flavour profile is reliant on reading all the ingredients in a recipe. Even an icon against each recipe categorising it flavour-wise would have been helpful. For example, the Deauville #1 evokes Normandy in its description beautifully, but doesn’t really help with why two different brandies (Cognac and Calvados) are necessary.
It’s a mixed bag, this book. If you’re prepared to put the graft in to find a recipe that suits your available ingredients (or invest in a shopping expedition) and your tastes, there’s some interesting reading around the cocktails themselves and the results are reliable, with a mix of reassuring classics and plenty of novel options to try. But it feels like a book that could have been a lot more informative, accessible, useable and enjoyable without a huge amount of extra thought and effort, and there’s a persistent sense that it does Olly’s abilities and recipes something of a disservice.
And now, you’ll have to excuse us as it’s Jelly Bean time … santé!
Recipes From Home Cocktail Bible
We are delighted to share these three recipes from the book, with permission from publisher Quadrille.
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Kavey Eats received a review copy of Home Cocktail Bible by Olly Smith from publisher Quadrille. Book photography by Matt Russell. Our photography by Nicky Bramley.