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THE OLD MASTER SPEAKS
on December 5, 2013
Embury gives us a unique and wide perspective on cocktails, which are America's main contribution to the world of alcohol. He was making them before, during, and after Prohibition (1920-1933). The first edition came out in 1948 and he was still updating through the final edition in 1958.
He operates from that era (after 1933) when "stiff" drinks were popular, meaning high in alcohol. Embury dismisses the pre-Prohibition era back to the 1800s when many cocktails had less liquor and more mixer with a lot of extra flavoring. He would be horrified by today's large portions of sweet and creamy drinks. Of course he lived in an era when he and most people were slimmer than today.
His favorite liquor is gin which mixes well with almost everything and gives you a quick kick. The same is generally true for rum. Embury likes whiskey, especially bourbon, but it does not mix with everything and takes longer to have an effect. He would be surprised by today's popularity of scotch. He would be even more surprised by today's popularity of vodka. That "tasteless" liquor was just beginning to become popular when he wrote this book and he credits its growing popularity on clever advertising. He considered the "new" drink the Bloody Mary to be vile.
He lists six cocktails that every connoisseur should know but only three of those drinks are still popular: Martini, Manhattan, and Daiquiri. Embury is basically a walking encyclopedia of cocktails and provides a lot of information. He got his information from first-hand knowledge and would never be fooled by clever marketing. Some of the information is dated but the book is quite informative.
Interesting facts include the one that sugar intensifies the effect of alcohol which is why too many sweet cocktails will make you sick. Fruit juices begin to slowly deteriorate through fermentation as soon as they are squeezed so he always used fresh juice. He was horrified by canned fruit juice.
Embury was around when tequila was a new liquor brought in during prohibition. At that time it was an inferior liquor with a strong sulfuric taste. The tradition of drinking it with salt and limes was to overcome the bad taste. Since then the distillers have learned how to eliminate most of the sulfuric taste but the tradition continues with the popular Margarita.
It could be said that he was the Anthony Bourdain of his era, but without the proletarian and celebrity elements. The 2013 edition has very few typos. I noticed less than ten.