Once upon a time, before “mixologists” were the subject of Portlandia parodies, and before “speak-easy style” bars were popping up in every corner of the country, Sasha Petraske opened the bar Milk & Honey in New York in 2000 and quietly started the craft cocktail movement. As Robert Simonson put it: "Mr. Petraske’s role in the modern cocktail revival is difficult to overstate." Many elements of the movement—thoughtfulness, precision, big ice cubes, jiggers, classic cocktails, to name a few—can be attributed to his bartending at Milk & Honey.
Petraske’s life was tragically cut short in the summer of 2015. Regarding Cocktails, a beautiful book finished by his widow, Georgette Moger-Petraske, is his final contribution to the movement he so significantly influenced.
Cocktail enthusiasts probably already have this book on their holiday wishlists—and it deserves to be there. As a tribute to Petraske’s life and work, it is a must-have. The book was unfinished when he died and so in addition to his essays on home bartending and his philosophy and recipes, the book is also filled with recipes and tributes contributed by the many people he had mentored, worked with, and loved during his time on earth.
But when I was asked to review the book, I wanted to approach it as I would any cookbook—how useful is it? Does it inspire me? Will I keep coming back to it? The book is set up as a manual for the home bartender. I wanted to put it to the test.
Once I had the book, I immediately began dreaming of a cocktail party. I was delighted that Petraske includes guidelines for throwing a proper cocktail party—with details down to how many square feet per person you need in your space. However, when I read that asking your guests to reuse the same glass meant the event was an extremely casual affair that “barely qualified as a cocktail party,” I realized I might need to stray from his stringent standards of decorum. I was not about to rent glassware to serve my freeloading neighbors a few drinks.
I rounded up as many cocktail glasses I could find, texted a few neighbors, and got to work figuring out the maximum number of different drinks I could serve while buying the fewest number of bottles of liquor. One of my biggest complaints about drinking cocktails at home is the steep upfront cost: If each bottle is at least $20+, buying the ingredients to make one somewhat complex drink can cost more than $80. Of course, liquor doesn't really go bad and you’ll probably use it eventually, but you might not (I’m looking at the bottle of Galliano that has been with me through several moves).
But that is perhaps the most wonderful thing about this book. Yes, it is a book of craft cocktails, but if you plan, you will not need to spend hours in the kitchen conjuring up tinctures and aging bitters, spending a small fortune in order to make these recipes, and sourcing impossible-to-find bottles (we have a cocktail recipe from another book that calls for a liquor that has not been produced in years and only exists in the basements of a few people, including the author of the recipe).
We bought a bottle of applejack, some gin (which we keep stocked anyway), dry and sweet vermouth (again, keep stocked), rye whiskey, and an amaro (there was only one in our little town, so we had to use it where it probably didn’t belong, but we didn’t mind the results). We made a honey syrup and simple syrup and bought some lemons and cucumbers. And with these 10 ingredients and the bitters we already had on hand, we were able to make at least a dozen of the recipes.
The book is divided into chapters based on what Petraske saw as the five fundamental variations of cocktails: The Old Fashioned, the Martini, the Sour, the Highball, and the Fix. There is also a chapter for punches and dessert cocktails. We selected six cocktails (the Cobble Hill, the Fallback Cocktail, the Gin & It, the Apple Jack, the Business, and the Cosmonaut) from three of these chapters to serve to our guests. Despite similar ingredients, the cocktails were all wildly different. We all had our favorites.
Personally, I fell for the Cobble Hill—a drink like a Manhattan, but with a cucumber garnish. It was fresh yet deep and boozy. The Apple Jack is crisp and autumnal; the Business is a variation on the Bee’s Knees—with gin, honey syrup, and lime instead of lemon. It reminded us all of key lime pie, in the best possible way. And I now have a new appreciation for the Gin & It as the ideal after-work cocktail, especially if you spend a little money on high-quality sweet vermouth.
In the end, for this book, simplicity is king. But simplicity should not be confused with laxness. Petraske espouses an expectation of perfection that I imagine few can achieve. The shape of the ice in the shaker matters. The difference between 1/2 ounce of lime juice and 3/4 ounce of lime juice in a Daiquiri is critical. The message is: If you want something done well, there are no shortcuts. But if you reach for the moon, you'll land among stars.
The pursuit of perfection in the book doesn't come through as making the drinks seem impossible, but rather highlights the "craft" of making a cocktail. And it's also true that even if you don't quite do it to the given standards, you'll still benefit from the book.
All in all, I loved the book. I have returned to it since our little party and tried several more cocktails. And I will again. Not only is each recipe simply delicious, each one is also a loving toast to Petraske and his ethos of deep caring for the experience of the drinker. The book is not only a tribute to his life, but also to being serious, to trying hard, and to appreciating that perfection is not easy.
Regarding Cocktails is available wherever books are sold.