Undoubtedly there are many of you in the cocktail world — bartenders and non-professional enthusiasts alike — who know the name David Embury (1886-1960). His book, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, first published in 1948, is a highly respected tome on the essentials and basics of making a proper cocktail, with strong emphasis on balance and quality ingredients. Embury had a great passion for his subject matter, and studied the minutiae of cocktails for years. His book was highly influential on generations of cocktail enthusiasts and professionals, including many who were responsible for today’s cocktail Renaissance, and it elevated him to great levels of respect within the liquor profession.
There was just one thing — Embury never worked in the liquor profession, and was not a bartender. He was an attorney. To be specific, he was a senior tax partner at the Manhattan law firm of Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle.
As you can tell if you’ve read the book, Mr. Embury was quite the opinionated curmudgeon when it came to the proper mixing of cocktails (I’m sure some of us are quite kindred spirits), adding to the very entertaining writing style. Unfortuantely not much is known about his life, other than what’s in the book and in the obituary seen below. However, if you can track down veteran bartender Brian Rea, a regular attendee at Tales, start up a conversation; he has apparently personally served Mr. Embury during his career and has a few stories.
David Embury was the pioneer for today’s non-bartenders who’ve made an important impact on the craft of the cocktail, and while he didn’t have professional experience, he had one quintessential quality which those who followed him possessed as well — passion. Freely admitting in his book that he never had been a professional in any aspect of the liquor business, he described himself “as a consumer and as a shaker-upper of drinks for the delectation of my guests.” That said, he added, “On the other hand, I have always possessed an insatiable curiosity about the whys and wherefores of many things and particularly of food and drinks.” I suspect he also began to notice the plummeting quality of cocktails in bars post-Prohibition, and found himself wondering the same thing many of us wondered in recent years: “Where and how can I get a decent drink around here?”
The same question frequently occurred to the moderator and presenter of the Tales of the Cocktail seminar “David Embury and the Fine Art of Mixing Drinks,” Robert Hess. Many of you know Robert through his website DrinkBoy, his long running cocktailian message board on MSN.com (and its successor, The Chanticleer Society), his own excellent book The Essential Bartender’s Guide: How to Make Truly Great Cocktails, “The Cocktail Spirit,”, his series of instructional videos on the Small Screen Network and, last but not least, his introduction to Mud Puddle Books‘ superb reprint of Embury’s classic magnum opus. Robert’s not an industry professional either — he works for Microsoft, in fact. However, the depth of his knowledge, the aforementioned list of credits and his own passion and inspiration in investigating what makes a great cocktail also make him the perfect host of this seminar.
When did all this start for you, Robert? “Having a strong culinary background and training, I decided to teach myself about cocktails — this was perhaps 1996. I had a couple of cocktail books, and I also ran into Paul Harrington’s ‘Cocktail’ website on HotWired.com, where he was rotating through a classic cocktail a week.” [Note: Interestingly enough, Paul Harrington -- whose HotWired.com website was excellent, as is his sadly out-of-print book Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century -- is also not a liquor industry professional. He's an architect.]
What will you be covering in the seminar? “Essentially I plan on starting out covering a little background about David Embury (of which there isn’t a lot, the bulk of what I have I pulled from his obit that his daughter sent me. [See below.] Then I’m going to talk about some of the basic concepts that David presented, and then sort of walk through the book one chapter at a time and try to pull out some interesting tidbit of information as we go.”
A lot of what Embury emphasizes is structure and balance in a great cocktail. What cocktails will you be using and serving as examples? “The drink we’ll be serving is the Sidecar, done three ways. One will be as Embury outlines it (8 parts brandy, 2 parts lemon, 1 part cointreau), another as ‘originally’ recorded (equal parts), and another as ‘my’ version (4 parts brandy, 2 parts cointreau, 1 part lemon). I chose this drink for a few reasons. One is because Embury’s version is quite a bit different than normally served, and it also specifically points out Embury’s mindset of the cocktail’s structure. The Sidecar is also probably the first drink that I cut my teeth on. This was before I really knew anything at all about cocktails.”
Why the Sidecar? “I think the drink [Paul Harrington] had the first week I saw the site was the Sidecar, and so I bought what I needed to make it using his recipe, as well as some of the other recipes I found. At the time, I figured that this thing called ’sour mix’ was an important cocktail ingredient, since so many recipes called for it (including one of the Sidecar recipes I had). So I of course picked up a bottle of that (although it was very confusing, since no product I found was labled ’sour mix,’ but a lot of them were ’sweet & sour mix,’ which I wasn’t sure if they were the same thing or not). And some recipe called for triple sec, while others called for this (rather expensive!) thing called Cointreau. So I picked them both up. And for lemon juice I picked up fresh and bottled. And then I went at it for a week or more, trying recipe, after recipe, after recipe.
“Several key learnings came out of this. First, was that sour mix was CRAP! So was bottled lemon juice. Fresh was clearly the only way to go. Second, was that Cointreau made a world of difference.
“And looking over a lot of different recipes, and then tweaking things a little on my own, I settled in on a 4-2-1 ratio as being what I felt presented a drink which I felt was perfectly balanced. Not tart, not sweet (to my tastes anyway, many say I have a sweet tooth), and smooth as silk.”
Will there be any other panelists joining you? “I’m flying solo on this one, but I suspect Audrey [Saunders] will probably participate a little as well.” Yay!
“David Embury and the Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” will be presented on Friday, July 22, 2011 from 3:30 to 5:00pm in the Grand Ballroom North of the Royal Sonesta Hotel. If you haven’t picked up your tickets yet it seems you’re too late — the seminar is SOLD OUT. However, when you arrive at Tales and register check for cancellations; if you can manage to grab a seat at this one, don’t miss the opportunity.