Left Coast Libations (and the Saffron Sandalwood Sour)

There was a hugely fun book launch party at The Varnish bar in downtown Los Angeles back on October 17. No, I’m not exactly Johnny-On-The-Spot as this event occurred five weeks ago (remember, there’s that whole God Emperor of Procrastination thing) but in case you weren’t aware, there’s a new book out of great interest to those of us who appreciate fine cocktails, and especially those of us on the Left Coast.

Left Coast Libations

Those of you who were at Tales of the Cocktail a few years ago may remember being handed a small, spiral-bound booklet by one of two (or perhaps, if you were lucky, both!) delightfully quirky brothers from Seattle, the Munat Brothers (a.k.a. Charles and Ted), whose liver-straining toil produced a hand-made compendium of cocktail recipes with enlightening and amusing commentary. Since then the idea behind the book evolved into a gorgeous hardback entitled, oddly enough, Left Coast Libations: The Art of West Coast Bartending. One hundred, count ’em, one hundred original cocktails by craft bartenders from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. This time Ted’s the principal author, along with Michael Lazar and with lovely photos by Jenn Farrington.

It’s a fascinating snapshot of the West Coast coctkail scene … well, circa 2009, given how lead times work in the publishing industry. If you know Ted at all or read his I-wish-he’d-post-to-it-more-often-but-jeez-who-am-I-to-call-that-kettle-black weblog Le Mixeur you may have encountered his sense of humor, which is in full force in LCL. Ted’s biographies of the bartenders are highly entertaining, although not necessarily … um, well, true. Oh sure, there are bits of truthiness in there, but I wouldn’t swear on any of it in court. Take the bartender character sketches with a grain of salt — well, actually, head down to Avery Island, Louisiana and get the whole mine. That’s Ted, though, and it’s always clear that he adores and admires his bartenders (as do we all, right?). Also, given the book’s lead time, beware going to any particualr bar that’s mentioned to find a particular bartender — you know how it is, I have enough trouble keeping up with where my bartender friends are currently working on a weekly basis.

These are not all cocktails that you’ll find easy to make at home — these are specialty drinks from craft bars, and a number of them call for housemade ingredients that might be easy for a bar to batch and keep on hand in large quantity, but perhaps a bit more challenging for the home bartender.

Some are easy — cardamom and cinnamon tinctures are a cinch, as are simple infused spirits — others not so much. Costus root bitters, various foams, and … smoked cider air? Most you can make in small quantities, and in some cases you’ll find it worth the effort (as for the more complicated ones … you might end up just going to get one from the bartender himself or herself).

Although some of the drinks are quite complicated many are not, and all are more than noteworthy. A couple have been covered here before, including John Coltharp’s excellent Historic Core Cocktail, always worth a revisit.

The party was a blast, starting off with an early event featuring Marcos Tello and Varnish proprietor Eric Alperin behind the bar with a range of cocktails of their creation that were featured in the book. Then the main party took off, with The Varnish’s own Devon Tarby and Rob Royt owner-bartender Anu Apte in from Seattle to mix up yet another selection of drinks. (We were well-preserved by evening’s end.)

Chris Bostick, bartender and general manager at The Varnish, knocks out three at once at the Left Coast Libations L.A. launch event.

I’m going to feature a handful of cocktails from Left Coast Libations over the next few days, starting with this one of Anu’s that I first had at Rob Roy last year. It’s a wonderful take on a gin sour that incorporates comforting flavors of her childhood into a unique signature drink. It requires a bit of advance prep, but don’t be daunted. Saffron is an expensive spice but is available in small quantities, and you’ll get your best price at an Indian grocery store. (Penzey’s Spices is also a good place to start, as is Spice Station in Silver Lake in Los Angeles and The Spice House.) Indian groceries are your best bet for sandalwood sticks, too. Make sure you get food grade, and don’t grate up sandalwood incense.

Saffron Sandalwood Sour

1-1/2 ounces Plymouth gin.
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice.
1/2 ounce lime juice.
1/2 ounce saffron sharbat.
1 barspoon Angostura bitters.
1 egg white.
Sandalwood, for garnish.

Dry shake all ingredients except the garnish, for 20 seconds at least. Add the ice and shake again until very cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with sandalwood — if you have sandalwood sticks, grate over the drink using a microplane grater. (Anu points out that sandalwood sticks are very hard, so if you’re fresh grating it might be better to use chips, grind them in a spice grinder and strain out the larger pieces. Pre-powdered sandalwood has very little fragrance.)

Saffron Sharbat

1-1/4 cups water.
2 cups sugar.
1/4 cup rosewater.
Generous 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads.
1 tablespoon boiling water.

Make a saffron extract by placing the boiling water into a small bowl, crushing the saffron threads with your fingers and adding to the water. Let steep for 15 minutes.

Mix the water and sugar in a saucepan and make a simple syrup by heating gently until the sugar is dissolved.

In another bowl, add the rosewater to the saffron extract. Then add this mixture to the simple syrup. Simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool, and store in the refrigerator.

This makes enough for 16 cocktails, and will keep in the fridge. You can leave the saffron threads in, or strain them out if you like. Anu says the syrup also makes an excellent soda when mixed with lime juice and soda water.