One of the world’s finest dipsographers (cocktail and spirit writers), Paul Clarke has called Seattle home since moving here from New York City in May 1998. Clarke is a longtime blogger; a former writer and assistant editor at Paradigm Communications, publisher of Alaska Airlines’ in-flight magazine; and now editor of Portland-based Imbibe magazine. Whether online, in person or in print—especially with his excellent new book, The Cocktail Chronicles: Navigating the Cocktail Renaissance with Jigger, Shaker & Glass—Clarke brings a welcoming, good-humored, knowledgeable, and just plain fun voice amongst the crowded modern bar. We talked with him about his new book, making better cocktails at home and other topics.
How did you end up navigating the cocktail renaissance?
I had a cocktail satori of sorts in 2003. I was poking around the food world, looking for something interesting to do, and when I started reading about cocktails and mixing up a few, something just felt right. Within a week, I’d resolved that I’d somehow carve out a professional path along cocktail lines, and after that, everything just started falling into place. I spent the first two years reading and researching (the fun, drinking kind), and when I felt ready to take the next step, I launched “The Cocktail Chronicles” blog in 2005. A few months later, I heard of a magazine startup in Portland that planned to specialize in drinks, so I got in touch with Imbibe publisher Karen Foley, and that led to writing for Imbibe’s inaugural issue in 2006. I haven’t looked back since. [He became editor in 2014.]
What do you think started the cocktail renaissance?
In a big way, the cocktail resurgence is simply following the same path of discovery as that pioneered by the culinary world. The closing years of the 20th century saw a rediscovery of taste—in food, in wine, in beer—so it made perfect sense for cocktails to flow right along. We had early inclinations that the cocktail world would go in this direction, starting in the 1980s and ’90s, via celebrity bartenders such as Dale DeGroff [founder of the Museum of the American cocktail and a noted author and cocktail consultant in New York]; Dick Bradsell (The Pink Chihuahua in London; elcamion.co.uk); Charles Schumann (Schumann’s in Munich, schumanns.de); and Paul Harrington, the San Francisco–based Wired cocktail writer. They were mirroring much of the same thing that was happening in restaurant kitchens, and going back to the fundamentals that had been laid down generations before.
The Cocktail Chronicles is full of great drinks, but also great drink stories. What’s one of your favorites?
A cocktail’s story doesn’t end at the rim of the glass; any cocktail worth its salt is capable of carrying a conversation, and fits in somehow in the broader culture. I like the story of the Blood and Sand and how it was spawned by the cultural touchstones of its time [the 1920s]. You’ve got Rudolf Valentino in that drink, and a silent film about matadors—what more do you need?
I love the chapter “Muses & Bridges: Five Enduring Classics and the Drinks They’ve Inspired.” If you had to pick just one classic to have, what would it be?
My desert-island classic would likely be a daiquiri. For one thing, you’re on a desert island, so rum and lime seem to be apt companions—and it’s such a fun and lighthearted drink, while still retaining a sense of dignity and propriety. Really, the daiquiri can be anything you want it to be, so it has the perfect versatility to suit all occasions.
There are tons of new cocktail ingredients available. What’s a crucial one that many people likely haven’t tried?
Trying out new cocktail ingredients can be like wildcatting for oil—plenty of those wells are gonna be good for nothing but disappointment, but on occasion, you find a real gusher. One relatively recent product that I particularly enjoy is Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters—a cocktail bitters that is flavored with classic Oaxacan mole ingredients such as chocolate, chile and spice. There was nothing really like that before they came on the scene, and they fill a distinct niche. The bitters, available at DeLaurenti (delaurenti.com), or online at Amazon, work great with tequila, whiskey and rum, and they add a fresh global dimension to the character of the cocktail.
What’s your advice for someone who wants to start making better cocktails at home?
I’d suggest focusing on these three things: simplicity, flexibility and the primacy of your own preferences. Cocktails don’t need to be complicated—the simplest drinks are often the best—so start with something easy, and pay attention to the details as you mix it (did you measure your ingredients? Is your ice fresh and really cold, or is it kind of watery or freezer-burned?). Recipes are just a starting point; try out a drink the way it’s written, but have the flexibility to adjust it if you’d prefer your drink a little sweeter or drier or stronger. And when mixing drinks for yourself and your friends, make taste the main goal—do you honestly like the way a drink tastes? If the answer is no, then either tweak your approach (this goes back to the flexibility point), or scrap it and move onto something else—your taste matters.
What’s next in the cocktail renaissance?
I think that while creativity and innovation will continue to blossom behind the bar, we’ll also see a renewed emphasis on simplicity—easy, approachable drinks that appeal to a variety of palates. (Editor’s note: We think The Harrington, featured in Clarke’s book and from Paul Harrington, above, fits this definition nicely, with its combination of vodka, green Chartreuse and Cointreau.) I think that’s awesome; this will keep the whole cocktail thing from getting too fussy, and keep fun as a part of the equation.