With The Aviary Cocktail Book, one of the nation’s most extraordinary mixology destinations reveals its secrets in stunning fashion.
The reserve edition of The Aviary Cocktail Book comes packaged in a unique display case that the team custom designed. (Photo: Allen Hemberger)
Like the cocktail bar it documents, there is nothing usual about The Aviary Cocktail Book. It’s 440 pages long and about the size and heft of a volume commemorating a comprehensive Picasso exhibit. It has 15 tables of contents. Equipment you may need to complete some of the drinks includes things like a dehydrator, immersion blender and impulse heat sealers. It was largely written and designed by two people who have never tackled a major book before. And, lastly, the tome was self-published and self-marketed, placing all control in the hands of its authors: writer-designers Allen and Sarah Hemberger, restaurant executive Nick Kokonas, beverage director Micah Melton and chef Grant Achatz. Also like The Aviary, the book is sure to generate plenty of discussion. Among the starter questions: What is it? How do we use it? Can we use it?
If you’ve never been to Aviary (either the original, in Chicago, or the latest, in New York), believe me, that last question is a valid one. Aviary cocktails are chef- and science-driven. They involve unusual flavors, presented in unfamiliar forms (gels, smokes, spheres, foams, mists), and delivered in specialty vessels, many of them custom made for the bar. Most look like they belong at a museum or a science fair. But while the recipes are surely involved and will take some time and effort on the home bartender’s part, the authors insist they are doable.
“This book bridges the home market and commercial market pretty well,” says Kokonas. “About a third of the recipes can be made at home with stuff you have lying around.”
Really? Which ones? Kokonas suggests beginning with the recipes from the back of the book, which hail from The Office, The Aviary’s more conventional twin where something like a normal Old-Fashioned or Manhattan can be ordered. Indeed, despite the need to create special syrups and tinctures, these drinks are as manageable as those you might find in other high-end cocktail books published these days.
To capture the seasonal nature of Two Turtle Doves—a pair of riffs on eggnog—the Aviary team waited weeks for a snowfall in Chicago to cover some fresh pine boughs they had trimmed specifically for this photograph. (Photo: Allen Hemberger)
Writer Allen Hemberger also offers some important advice in his introduction. It can be boiled down to one word: Relax. “The goal with these recipes is not to make something that tastes exactly as it does at The Aviary,” he writes. “What we’d like to offer, rather, are some tools to help expand how you might approach crafting something thoughtful, delicious and delightful. We hope this book fills you with ideas for experiments of your own.”
He further cautions, “It is entirely possible something may go wrong. And that’s OK!”
Hemberger knows a little something about experimenting and error. When the cookbook for Alinea, Achatz’s famed high-concept restaurant, came out in 2008, Hemberger refused to be intimidated. He cooked his way through it, recipe by recipe. It took five years. He then compiled his experiences into a self-published book and sent a copy to Achatz and Kokonas. They were flabbergasted, but also impressed.
“I was kind of mind-blown,” recalls Kokonas. “I was expecting a kind of little magazine.” And so, in a leap of faith common to the Alinea team, he put Allen and his wife, Sarah, in charge of the Aviary book.
Does Kokonas think there are other Hembergers out there who will mix their way through The Aviary Cocktail Book? “I do,” he says. “I hope so.” He points out that bars across the world have already imitated some of Aviary’s more iconic drinks, such as In the Rocks, in which a cocktail is encased within a hollow ice globe, which must be shattered for the drink to be consumed.
I personally love In the Rocks, and intend to attempt the recipe myself. But there’s a problem. The ice sphere is broken at Aviary with a custom slingshot. I don’t have one of those. How about a hammer?
Kokonos laughs. “That’s a bit overkill,” he says. “If you’ve made the ice correctly, a whack with a bar spoon should do it.” Reserve edition $135