Erica Duecy is the author of the prettiest new cocktail book to come down the pike in a while, Storied Sips: Evocative Cocktails for Everyday Escapes, with 40 Recipes (Random House Reference). Whimsical collages by Poul Lange, a Danish illustrator, help tell the tale behind each of the classic drinks. The book grew out of Duecy's website, a digital speakeasy where she muses about cocktails past and present. She talked to us about drinks of the future, why she got bored writing about wine and her most effective hangover cure.
There are so many cocktail books out there. How do you see yours as different from the rest?
The thing I find so frustrating about most cocktail books is they're very dry. I don't have time to read ten thousand words on the daiquiri. A lot of the impetus for the book came from doing research and finding these wonderful anecdotes that I'd tell at parties. People always wanted to hear more.
There are a lot of fun stories behind drinks.
I wrote about food earlier in my career, then about wine, which was very technical, and what I really love about cocktail writing is telling stories. When you're writing about wine you've got the 20th generation family winemaker, the upstart sommelier, the tech millionaire starting a winery, and you feel like you're writing the same stories over and over. With cocktails all bets are off. You find so many amazing characters, smugglers, pirates, bootleggers, royals, actors that have connections to spirits or Prohibition. The Mojito goes all the way back to the late 16th century and Sir Francis Drake when he was a privateer for the British crown and plundered Spanish ships coming back from the New World.
"Sidecar" collage by Poul Lange.
So you might stick with cocktail writing for now?
I get impatient with topics after a while but right now I'm totally fascinated with cocktails. I was looking into the Tom Collins and it was named for a hoax going around New York City in the 1870s. A joker would go up to some unsuspecting friend and say, Have you seen Tom Collins? He's telling all these terrible stories about you. He's in the saloon around the corner. So the man would go into the bar angrily demanding Tom Collins and the bartenders played along. It was the viral joke of the day, documented in newspapers all over the country. It happened as far away as Hawaii.
I've heard it's hard to determine the exact truth of where a lot of cocktails originated. How did you decide which story to tell?
The Margarita has a million people claiming they created it. There are a lot of theories and I put them out there and then said, 'This is my favorite story.' With each cocktail I went back as far as I could. Sometimes I had to make a judgment call.
How long did it take you to test 40 cocktail recipes?
We'd do eight or ten each session and l made minor tweaks to optimize them. Poul, the Danish artist who worked with me, photographed each one and tried them, too. One of my favorite things is that in his acknowledgments he thanked auto-focus.
"Kir Royale" collage by Poul Lange.
Did you end up with a favorite cocktail?
The Last Word. You start out with these four disparate ingredients: Chartreuse, gin, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and lime juice which sounds like a complete disaster but it's like a cherry lime cloud and really complex. It has a cool history, created during Prohibition at the Detroit Athletic Club. There was so much money in Detroit because of the automobile industry they were not about to stop partying. At the time the rest of the country was drinking bathtub gin, they were getting high quality ingredients from France and Italy and making amazing cocktails. Who knew it was the place to be during Prohibition?
What cocktail trends are you seeing right now?
One of my favorite things is barrel aging cocktails and I think it's around to stay. For instance, bartenders are aging Manhattans in small oak barrels to smooth out the edges and impart toasty vanilla flavors. The technique is being used all over the country to great effect. My favorite place to get a barrel aged Boulevardier is at Mayfield in Brooklyn. I also like the concept of on-tap cocktails and bottled cocktails. When I go to a bar I don't want to wait twenty minutes for a bartender to labor over my drink. I want a good cocktail and I want it quick. Dead Rabbit and Alder are doing cocktails on tap and they're consistent each time. It's the wave of the future.
Do you have a favorite dive bar?
The Tile Bar on 7th Street and First Avenue. At happy hour I can get a Negroni for $4 and hide out at a back table with friends. It really starts your night off on the right foot.
It seems appropriate to ask if you have a good hangover cure.
I drink Angostura bitters all the time in soda water, as if it were my job. To prevent a hangover I'll swig an entire bottle of Gatorade and two extra-strength aspirin before I go to bed. If that doesn't work I go with hash browns and eggs in the morning to re-line my stomach.