Paul Clarke gets The Last Word in The Cocktail Chronicles

Paul Clarke is the editor of Imbibe Magazine. Having received an education in journalism, he’s written for a wide array of publications since graduating from school. In 2005, he started a blog called The Cocktail Chronicles. By 2007, it had exploded in popularity.

In 2014, Clarke won the Tales of the Cocktail Spirit Award for Best Spirits And Cocktail Writer. Imbibe Magazine won for Best Publication.

Paul Clarke
Paul Clarke has a cortado with us, at Spitfire.
In July 2015, he released the excellent and forward-looking book by the same name as his blog.
We recently caught up with Paul Clarke at Spitfire Coffee, in New Orléans.

You’ve described yourself as ‘almost preternaturally shy’. When did you first realize that you could have such a comfortable, conversationally open banter in the form of written word?

“That’s partly why you become a writer. It’s a form of communicating. In high school and college I realized that it was my prefered means of communication. Over the years I discovered that it was something I could do professionally. I don’t come from a bartending background so when I write about, for instance, a Negroni, I factor that in to my approach, careful to include all readers.”

You’ve noted that you were more familiar pouring beers than cocktails during your education – What first sparked your interest in classic cocktails?

“13 years ago, I was looking in the culinary realm for things that captivated my interest. By luck of the draw, I attended a dinner party where my responsibility were the drinks. Something clicked and it felt so right. I realized that this would be a hell of a lot of fun to start digging into. The history, the tools.

I had been a freelance writer for 15 years. I had written for airline publications, newspapers, local publications, you name it. I realized that there may be a living in writing about cocktails.”

It only took about 2 years from the time you started Cocktail Chronicles for your blog to explode in popularity. What factors helped that process?

“Dumb luck. Timing. I had already been exploring cocktails for a couple of years in 2005. It seemed like the logical next step. By that time, bars like Bourbon & Branch, in San Francisco, had opened. Cocktail culture was kicking into high gear around the country and the world. There weren’t really any other voices at that time.”

As the need to uncover old recipes to forgotten classics slips away – What is the most important new avenue for people in bar culture to start researching and writing about?

“I think we need to start looking at the drinks we are making now. How do they fit into the context of the overall bar experience. Also, looking in terms of, what is our legacy going to be?”

“We’ve been exploring recipes that are a century old. We’ve dug around for the fascinating stories and formulated old recipes to make them approachable for consumers today. We need to look at contemporary drinks that have a chance at becoming popular nationally and internationally. Being approachable for decades to come. What will be the classics a century from now?”

Yes, reading your book we found the chapter on trend forecasting really captivating. The idea that somewhere in the world now are the drinks that 100 years from now people will wonder what it was like to experience in the current era. And it’s going to be drinks no one cares about right now, haha.

Matteo Luxardo
Matteo Luxardo shakes up a Last Word cocktail in New Orléans, 2015.

“Exactly. Look at The Last Word, for example. That drink appeared in one book. Nowhere else. Now you have bars named after that cocktail in ScotlandCaliforniaMichigan and Texas. It’s one of those calling card cocktails in bars around the world.

It may be a Penicillin (Sam Ross, 2005), or the Old Cuban (Audrey Saunders, 2002). Or maybe it’ll be a drink that neither of us has heard about. Somewhere, maybe at a bar in Detroit (Last Word was created at the Detroit Athletic Club) that for whatever reason will resonate. So that got me thinking about..

“What are the characteristics of a drink that will give it staying power?” – Paul Clarke

I didn’t want to go full geek. Maybe in a few sections of the book because there’s a certain segment of the audience expects that. I wanted the book to possibly be someone’s very first cocktail book. I made sure there were very uncomplicated recipes to get started on, up to drinks you’d find at some of the world’s best bars.”

Is there a cocktail, or ingredient, you want to try that you haven’t yet?

 “That’s become increasingly difficult. When I launched the blog in 2005 there were all kinds of things you couldn’t get. You couldn’t get a fragrant Jamaican Rum. You couldn’t get Crème de Violette. You couldn’t get all-spice liqueur. You couldn’t get Batavia Arrack or Old Tom Gin. Now I have all these things, often with multiple options, on my home bar.

The things I’m excited to try are the things I don’t know about yet, as odd as that sounds. For example, Rancio Sec, a year and a half ago I’d never heard of. I was introduced to it at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. It’s a dry, oxidized wine that is very much like Sherry but is its own creäture. I just had it in a cocktail from Cane & Table, last night. It was so exciting to see that inter-circulation, spotted in the wild.”

You’ve noted five classics that inspire the most variations.

  • Daiquiri

  • Old Fashioned

  • Manhattan

  • Martini

  • Negroni

Is there one of these cocktails that you’ve observed tends to inspire variations more than the others?

“I think it’s a neck and neck race right now between a Negroni and the Daiquiri. Manhattan spawned a lot of variations, but I think its waning in terms of resource strength for a lot of bartenders.

The Daiquiri may be winning the battle. Which is just. That’s the way it should be. The Daiquiri has been a baseline drink from the beginning. Easy to variate and it’s a very approachable drink. The Negroni is a serious drink that scares a lot of newcomers. The other drinks in that top five are all the brown, bitter and stirred variety. Which is fantastic. But for ‘civilians’ going in to a bar the Daiquiri will always stand out.”

(David Kaplan recently talked about the Daiquiri as a great way to showcase the skill of a bar HERE)

The Cocktail Chronicles book indicates a growing desire for the public to produce good, simple drinks in their homes? How will that change professional bartending?

“Professional bars will always be where we go to look for creativity. To look for innovation. People need to leave their homes to go out and experience that. At the same time, it’s important for bartenders to understand that guests want something that is very approachable. We’ve been very fortunate during the cocktail renaissance to bring the population along, but we can’t take that population for granted. We need to always be recruiting new members to that audience. We need to have stepping stone drinks to bring them into that conversation.

Bartenders are working with an increasingly knowledgable audience. You often no longer have to explain the difference in rums styles or the difference between Old Tom Gin and London Dry. Drinks are funny. Everyone has their own preconceived notion of how things should be done. Flexibility is key. We need to be open to new approaches and continue to have transparency in how we do things.

If we make drinks too precious, too finicky, there’s a certain percentage of the population will say, ‘To hell with it, I’ll just have wine’.”

Agreed, bartenders have to find that line where they are on the cutting edge, especially in highly competitive markets like San Francisco, New York or Vancouver. We have to make menus with enough complex elements to appeal to cocktail nerds but be approachable enough to get someone started on the journey.

“Yes. Take the Seattle bar, Rumba, for example. They have a section of their menu devoted to creative, innovative cocktails. But, at the heart of their MENU is a Daiquiri menu. It ranges from the simple classic to a more complicated carbonated Daiquiri. That gives the first time customer a point of entry, to dip their toes into cocktail culture. The menu also allows the home bartender an opportunity to come in and try something that they maybe can’t do at home.

That’s the challenge for the modern bartender. Guests range in understanding from nothing to expert level and the menu has to cater to all those needs.”

Paul Clarke
Paul Clarke

You’re on a deserted island that is oddly well stocked with assorted whiskies. But, you can only have one amaro and one bottle of bitters – What are you packing?

” If I have a good selection of whiskies I’m going to go with a basic aromatic bitter. I’d go with Angostura, honestly. It’s the most versatile and I know exactly what it’s going to deliver across a range of different whiskey drinks.

For Amaro, that’s a bit trickier. I think I’d go with Amaro Nonino. It’s similar to vermouth in flavor. Beyond a Manhattan you’d be limited but it would scratch that certain point that you’d be looking for.”

You’ve been involved with Imbibe since the beginning. How did your participation come about?

“I was working as a magazine editor and freelance writer in Seattle. A friend of mine was cruising around on Craigslist and asked me if I realized there was a drink magazine launching in Portland? I had launched the Cocktail Chronicles blog, not even six months before. I was like, this is perfectly ideal. I struck up conversation with the publisher and wound up writing for the first issue. I subsequently have written for almost every issue of Imbibe. In November 2013 I came on as interim editor. I took the job as Executive Editor of Imbibe at the start of 2014.”

Cocktails, bars and bartending are all so visual. Why so few pictures on your blog or in your book?

“First, the blog. I’m a shitty photographer. I have some photos on there but I’m just terrible at it. I’d like to think I’ve gotten better over time, I haven’t. So photos were never going to be the backbone of what I do. I’m a writer, that’s what I do. I put words at the heart of it.

When we discussed the book, photography was in that discussion. Again, we wanted words to be the focal point. We didn’t want to distract from that. We started looking in books that I love from my cocktail book collection. The fantastic books that I wanted mine to evoke, like Esquire’s Handbook For Hosts (1949) and The Bartender’s Book (1951). They have simple line drawings. They were fun. They were accessible. I thought, that’s the kind of look I would like to have.

The Cocktail Chronicles: Navigating The Cocktail Renaissance With Jigger, Shaker & Glass
The Cocktail Chronicles: Navigating The Cocktail Renaissance With Jigger, Shaker & Glass

The graphic artist for The Cocktail Chronicles: Navigating The Cocktail Renaissance With Jigger, Shaker & Glass (2015) was Andrew Vastagh (BossConstruct.com) and he did a fantastic job. Once I saw the illustrations start coming in, I thought, ‘This is perfect’.

There was also the business decision, with so many new books coming out. How do you look different from everyone else? There’s only so many ways you can take a photograph of a Manhattan and make it look interesting. Illustration gave us a lot more room to play and a way to stand out from everything else on the shelf.”

We definitely think he succeeded. The book is engaging, interesting. It’s easy to flip through and have something jump out at you. The Chapter on “Staying Power” will get you looking around at bars, bartenders and products from a completely new vantage point. The illustrations give it dimension and depth but don’t distract from the excellent storytelling and that’s what Paul Clarke does best.

The Last Word

Paul Clarke
The Last Word, rediscovered by Seattle bartender Murray Stenson.

Equal parts (1 oz) 

– London Dry Gin

– Green Chartreuse

– Luxardo Maraschino

– Fresh lime juice

Shake hard and strain into chilled coupé. Garnish with a lime wheel.

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