Chad Parkhill: Around The World in 80 Cocktails
What was the inspiration behind writing this book?
I’ve been interested in the history of mixed drinks for a very long time—so it was only a matter of time before I compiled my research about various cocktails of interest into something more substantial than a series of anecdotes to tell customers at the bar.
You’re a bartender as well as a writer. What was it about the bartending world that drew you in?
It’s very hard to make a living just from writing, and I’d worked as a bartender throughout university, so going back to the industry to support my writing habit seemed like a no-brainer at the time. Writing and bartending are very different jobs – one solitary and cerebral, the other social and physically demanding—but there are many interesting parallels, too. In both jobs, you need to be able to tell a good yarn and read your audience, as well as keeping an eye on the tiny details.
What are the best and worst aspects of bartending?
I love the social aspect of bartending. I’ve met some very interesting characters while tending bar, and have heard stories from them that range from the sublime to the ridiculous. I also love the satisfaction that comes from putting up a well-made cocktail and having someone take a sip and say “Wow, that’s delicious”. The worst aspects are the usual suspects – it can involve long hours of being on your feet, It’s physically tiring. It ruins your hands (I go through buckets of moisturiser) and it can keep you away from friends who work in the nine-to-five world.
Why did you decide to feature 80 cocktails?
When I first met with the editor who commissioned this book, we kicked around ideas for a title and she suggested Around the World in Eighty Cocktails—a pun on the title of Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days. It was a perfect title because it tied together all of the things we wanted to explore – travel, cocktails, and history. It also instantly suggested a vintage travel poster aesthetic for the illustrations, and gave illustrator Alice Oehr a very clear brief which she did a phenomenal job at realising.
The recipes come from all over the world – how did you decide which ones to feature?
So many famous cocktails have their roots in the USA or Europe, so I knew I’d have to dig a bit deeper to get that geographical diversity. I made a Google map with pinpoints for each cocktail and started to look for obvious gaps. Once those gaps were identified I looked for cocktails from those regions – whether they were old ones that hadn’t received their due (such as the Shanghai Buck) or new ones that demonstrate the exciting things that are happening in far-flung places (such as the Llajua cocktail from La Paz, Bolivia). For a few of these cocktails I had to contact the bars they were invented in and ask for recipes—the book has a number of original recipes that have never been in print before.
There’s a lot of history behind each cocktail. What was the research process like?
I used a mixture of primary and secondary sources—there was lots of reading cocktail manuals from the late 19th and early 20th centuries (many of which are available online thanks to projects such as the Exposition Universelle des Vins et Spiritueux library), as well as reading books by cocktail historians such as David Wondrich, Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller, Wayne Curtis and Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry. Unfortunately, economic realities meant I couldn’t take a year off to travel just for this book, but I did draw a lot of inspiration from my previous adventures, during which I have sampled a bunch of cocktail specialities from around the world.
What were some of the more interesting things you discovered while writing the book?
Possibly one of the most interesting threads is the role of various places in South-East Asia in the development of the world’s spirits trade. Most people haven’t heard of arrack – a family of spirits made from either coconut sap (in Sri Lanka) or sugarcane and red rice (in Indonesia) – but it was responsible for introducing the joys of distilled spirits to the wider world. There’s also archaeological evidence to suggest the technology for distilling agave into tequila and mezcal came to Mexico from the Philippines rather than from Spain. I really enjoyed discovering ingredients I hadn’t heard of, such as Bolivian Singani (a grape brandy similar to pisco, but more floral and aromatic).
What were the best and worst parts about writing the book?
The book was a joy to write. I’d research the drinks by day, then test the recipes at night, either at my home or on a few brave customers at the bar I was working at. I plan to avoid having such fun again by only writing about more sensible topics, such as taxation law in future.
What are the basic ingredients every home bar should have for cocktail making?
Most people have the odd bottle of whisky, vodka, gin or tequila kicking around their liquor cabinet, as well as fresh fruit for juices. But in order to turn that into a proper cocktail, you need ‘modifiers’. The most useful and historically important is a bottle of aromatic or orange bitters – the very first ‘cocktails’ as such were distinguished from mere slings (sugar, water and spirit) by the presence of bitters, and without bitters of some kind you’ll struggle to make most of the great cocktails of the pre-Prohibition era. In second place, but only by a whisker, is vermouth of the sweet or dry variety – without which you can’t make the Martini or the Manhattan. Finally, a surprising number of cocktails call for a little dash, splash, or rinse of absinthe. It’s not an ingredient many consider necessary, but it is remarkably useful.
What are your favourite recipes from the book?
For everyday drinking, I find it hard to go past the Bamboo. For ease of construction (two ingredients, no shaking or stirring, no garnish), it has to be the Kir. For sheer stupid fun, give me a Jägerita. If I’m looking to impress someone, I’ll put together a Gin Basil Smash or a Pegu Club. If I want something really unusual, I’ll make myself a Punch à la Romaine or a Seven Seas Swizzle.
In your research, did you find any similarities between the cocktails from around the world?
What struck me about a lot of the cocktails from around the world is how much they ultimately derive from a small number of templates that then get adapted to local conditions. So the Uruguayan San Martín is really just a Martinez with yellow Chartreuse in place of maraschino liqueur, and the British Hanky-Panky is the same idea but with Fernet-Branca instead of yellow Chartreuse. The real surprises came from cocktails that appear to be sui generis inventions without any historical precedents, such as the Malaysian Jungle Bird cocktail.
If you had to pick only one cocktail as your favourite, what would it be and why?
It’s so hard to pick just one. But I think if I could only drink one cocktail for the rest of my days, I’d go for a cocktail that’s not actually featured in the book – a classic dry Martini, two parts gin to one part vermouth, with a dash of orange bitters and a lemon twist. Perfection.
Around The World in 80 Cocktails by Chad Parkhill (Hardie Grant) RRP $29.99
Interview: Manveen Maan
Illustration: Alice Oehr