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New York City’s plush Waldorf Astoria Hotel still glimmers like we’re in the roaring 20s, and at the same time, it’s no stranger to reinvention: Its famous salad has many iterations, and its iconic Peacock Alley bar has reopened at least four times, in a different space, each time.
It’s also true of its bar book: A revision of the 1934 edition came out this week.
Which, while exciting, brings a pang of suspicion. Would this book be like other reissued cocktail books I own (like the Savoy Cocktail Book or The Official Mixer’s Manual), carrying similarly beautiful covers and promises of authority, yet filled with hard-to-read recipes, poorly organized indexes, and for the in-the-know? And what, if anything, would be revised?
It’s a classic bar book, after all.
These are the questions that I charged author Frank Caiafa with one evening over a ruby-brown Martinez (he, with a glass of Riesling) at the hotel, under low, soft light, surrounded by the hubbub of regulars, hotel guests, and a piano swelling in the background.
Frank’s been the bar manager at Peacock Alley since 2005, but I imagine he’d fit right in among the pre-Prohibition crowds: bulky but not big, dressed in a smart suit and dark-rimmed glasses, and sporting an unmistakable New York accent. (He grew up in Williamsburg in the 70s, so it’s not a put-on.)
In his free time, he’d test recipes from the the two previous Waldorf Astoria bar books by Albert Stevens Crockett (Old Waldorf Bar Days from 1931 and 1934's The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book), and write about them. This pet project eventually billowed into three years of researching the hotel’s cocktail history, which led to revising the Waldorf Astoria’s book.
More: Frank's picks for the most popular drinks by decade since Prohibition.
This new edition has over 1,000 recipes, classics culled from the “old books” as well as many others—like Jacques Straub's Drinks (1914), Oscar Tschirky's 100 Famous Cocktails (1934), and Ted Saucier's Bottoms Up (1951)—as well as those born from them as he’s tinkered over the past 10 years.
"All recipes evolve. I think you couldn't stop it if you wanted to," Frank tells me. "I'm sure that 80 years from now, someone who writes this book, they would tweak a fair amount of them."
Frank has found that, in general, people have been receptive to the changes as he’s updated Peacock Alley's recipes—likely at least partly because his drink recipes are good, really good. They’re still evocative of the past, but reliable, and most come with the story of the drink, what changes were made and for what reasons. Frank regales the reader with passion, and you can feel his excitement, his knowledge about each cocktail.
For example, in the headnote to the Corpse Reviver #2—a citrusy, gin drink you’ll find in many classic bar books—Frank explains that he uses Cocchi Americano instead the usual Lillet because Cocchi is actually closer to the flavor of original Lillet. This kind of detail pays off, for both Frank and the drinker—it gets you invested, makes you trust him, and creates a knowledge base so that you can do the choosing.
When we tried one of Frank's creations, the Across the Border cocktail, in our test kitchen, we used the mezcal we had on hand, Braulio amaro instead of Averna, and a different ginger beer than was recommended. It turned out excellent—the amaro still strong enough to stand up to smoky mezcal, and the citruses both doing their jobs to highlight the aromatics in Braulio. That’s because the ratios are balanced and flavorful, strong but not overpowering.
Which is important, because some of the suggested spirits will be difficult to find outside a metropolitan area without resorting to online shopping. In many instances, Frank provides options for substitution, too, so you aren't shooting in the dark.
Now the index, the part I’m sure you were all excited to hear about: The index is exciting mostly because there is one (as opposed to the Savoy Cocktail Book). However, it doesn’t do much in the way of helping you decide what you want to make since only the base spirits and their corresponding drinks are indexed. A more detailed index of every spirit by name, beyond the bases, would help guide the reader through the book. If you’re okay letting the stories and the sounds of the recipes guide you, though, you’ll do just fine.
This book succeeds at evoking the Waldorf Astoria’s wonder years, the glamour and reverence for an old-fashioned way of doing things. Also, a good, strong drink.