When it opened a decade ago, the acclaimed Los Angeles speakeasy The Varnish—owned, designed, and managed by award-winning cocktail aficionado Eric Alperin—quickly became the stylish standard bearer for modern bars. Alperin and veteran bartender and writer Deborah Stoll push back against the prevailing conceit that working in the service industry is something people do because they failed at another career. They offer fascinating meditations on ice as the bartender’s flame; the good, the bad, and the sad parts of vice; one’s duty to their community as a local; the obsessive, compulsive deliberations of building a bar (size matters); lessons from Sasha Petraske—Eric’s late partner, mentor, and the forefather of the modern day classic cocktail renaissance—and the top ten reasons not to date a bartender. At the book’s center are the 100 recipes a young Jedi bartender must know before their first shift at The Varnish, along with examples of building drinks by the round, how to Mr. Potato Head cocktails, and what questions to ask when crafting a Bartender’s Choice.
It’s interesting to see how different people approach their craft. In Kitchen Confidential Anthony Bourdain centers cooking as a physical act – I can’t separate my image of him from banging pans and frantic kitchens. Marcus Samuelsson comes across as a more cerebral chef, chasing flavors as he’s led by his taste buds in Yes, Chef. Alperin tends towards the latter by paying great attention to detail while making the perfect drink – the right ice, ordering ingredients just so, arranging the workspace for maximum efficiency.
I especially appreciate this detail in the chapter about ice. It’s fascinating how far bartenders will go to get perfectly clear ice in the shape best suited for the drink. Overall I like the chapters that are close the to the bar best as Alperin, with the help of Stoll, does a great job sharing his knowledge about the hows and whys of bartending and how he applies them at The Varnish. His insights on hospitality and what his mentor calls “offhand excellence” are especially memorable. I like that he doesn’t name drop – there’s a couple of mentions of “a celebrity” stopping by, but nothing else. The memoir-esque sections concentrating on his personal life and boozing it up in LA are hit and miss, though.
Speaking of things that are hit and miss, footnotes are used heavily throughout. Sometimes it’s to define a term, other times to add a funny anecdote or source. I wouldn’t mind if they were limited, but at one point there were three within a couple of lines of each other. I was sick of clicking through. At that point it’s better to gloss P&L as “profit and loss report” and leave it at that.
There’s 100 cocktail recipes smack dab in the middle when, at least in the ebook, it would feel more natural at the end. And when we do get to the end we’re met by an afterward full of essays by people who are in some way connected to The Varnish – regulars, the piano player, bartenders, and so on. Not a couple, not even a dozen, but 26 essays. Some are great, and I love that the barback writes his in Spanish, but the sheer number feels like padding.
All in all, Unvarnished is a quick read with interesting bits as well as flaws.
Thanks to Harper Wave and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.