Kristine M. Kierzek
If Andre Darlington has his way, you’ll throw a cocktail party soon.
It doesn’t have to be fancy, nor fussy. It definitely should be fun, not stressful.
That’s where his new book comes into play. “Bar Menu: 100+ Drinking Food Recipes for Cocktail Hour at Home” (Running Press, October 2022, $28) is Darlington’s hands-on, stress-less guide to creating pairings of cocktails and appetizers with global influences and flavors.
Darlington suggests cocktail parties fell out of favor in the late ’80s “with a spinach dip whimper” and advocates for bringing back entertaining. He argues you don’t need a dozen appetizers and perfect pairings; you need one solid recipe and a few base bottles to make up your bar.
Cocktail recipes, tips and tricks, a little history, menu making, and his method for batching drinks for a crowd provide solid inspiration to take on an evening.
Desserts get their due, as well, with cocktails making their way into recipes for negroni panna cotta, mezcal pudding, and pina colada upside-down cake.
Darlington, who began his career in Madison, moved to North Carolina last year. He’s also the author of “Booze & Vinyl Vol. 1 and Vol. 2,” “The New Cocktail Hour” and “Booze Cruise” and has books on John Wayne and “The Big Lebowski” coming out in the next year. He’s just signed on to write his 12th book.
He will be at an event with J. Henry Bourbon at 1 pm Nov. 20 at Heritage Tavern in Madison. On Nov. 22, he will be at Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, 1579 S. Ninth St. in Milwaukee, for an event with Boswell Book Co. from 7 to 10 pm For tickets, go to tix.com.
Darlington recently spoke with the Journal Sentinel about life as a cocktail writer, the three bottles everyone should have, and his new book:
The thing people want to know is, how are you a full-time cocktail writer? Very good question. I started in food and beverage writing at some tiny zines in Madison. I worked for the (alternative weekly) Isthmus for a number of years. I quit my day job to be a wine writer. I was a restaurant reviewer in Madison. I had a cocktail column in Organic Life before it went online.
It started with (my sister) Tenaya. She is a cheese impresario, known as Madame Fromage. We pitched a cheese and wine book together. We heard: “Love that you’re in wine and cheese, but it won’t sell. Would you like to do a cocktail book?” I quit writing, and I had a restaurant in Madison for about two years until I sold out of it. The cocktail writing took off.
I was going to do a book of United States bars. Books change when you talk to your editor. She said, let’s go global. So I circumnavigated the globe in 2019 just before the pandemic. I was in Tokyo. I had been in Shanghai. There was rumbling of something going on, and I basically slid back into the United States right as things shut down …
Cocktails have become so popular, but during the pandemic, the cocktails became even more popular because everyone was home and making drinks.
I wanted to do an homage to bar food, which we were all missing. The food has come so far. When I was growing up, it was just fried food, and (bar food) has come so far. I was watching all these bars with to-go drinks. They were doing a great job, but there was not a lot of to-go bar food. I had also written “The New Cocktail Hour” in 2016, and there really was the development of a new cocktail kitchen to go with that hour. There are more global flavors between 15 years ago and now. I wanted to do a snapshot.
Bring back the cocktail party
I feel like the new generation, they’re allergic to the word “entertaining.” At a certain point, the bar had been raised so high we felt like we had to make 20 different appetizer items and spend a lot of money.
We have to bring the cocktail party back. Focus on the drinks and techniques, and (put) less focus on entertaining and making it fancy. The idea behind these is you can do just one of these recipes and have people over. That would be enough. It is getting people comfortable with the idea if you serve something great, you put your heart and soul into it, it does not need to be fancy or expensive. … We’re not lowering the quality of the experience, but the expectation of what entertaining is, that’s what has changed.
The Wisconsin Way
Wisconsin has a great cocktail history. Cocktails are in the state’s bones. There are quite a few well-known cocktail writers who come from Wisconsin. … There’s the tradition of the old fashioned. In Wisconsin, people still certainly experience the cocktail hour. Many people remember their parents having a drink at 5, and having an old fashioned. Then (with) the supper clubs, there is the tradition of having a drink before dinner. That’s not the same elsewhere. Wisconsin is very unique, and I think Milwaukee is one of the great cocktail towns in the country.
Ingredients and availability
My career is built on home bartenders, so it is always top of mind. I don’t want my first Amazon review to be “great book, but I couldn’t get anything.” My drinks always have that in mind, can somebody in Cincinnati make this? Can somebody in Peoria, Illinois? You can always get the ingredients on Amazon. I always make sure every recipe, the ingredients are available online.
Three bottles to start your bar
Gin, whiskey — rye or bourbon — and then, these days, it sounds strange, people would think rum or something else, but I say a bitter, with Campari. Being able to add that bitter element, you can do so much with those three bottles. Continue on down the line, say, if you’re a tequila head or whatnot. Those three bottles, though, they will certainly get you to a cocktail party. Then try your vermouths, so you can start making your martinis and Manhattans. I wouldn’t have said a Campari even five years ago, but today it is such a thing.
Recipes for a Wisconsin cocktail party
I love the cheese ball reimagined. I’m a Midwesterner at heart. I love a good cheese ball. They got to the point where you weren’t allowed to put them out anymore because they were kind of campy, but that recipe is really fun. I would also do pickled eggs or ramen eggs, as Wisconsin is a state where you see pickled eggs behind bars still.
I grew up in Madison. I went to Beloit College for two years. My mother was teaching at Beloit. Madison in the late ’90s was very appealing, coming out of college, a fun city. … My father was a concert violinist. I think the old era of cocktail parties sort of held on longer in my parents’ community because they were holding on to these things related to the arts. They hosted a lot. It’s in my blood.
Take on a theme
I love hosting theme parties. I do gatherings when I’m recipe-testing for books these days. I did the Batman book. I’m doing some “Bar Menu” things. It will be fun for the first time to taste other people’s interpretations of those recipes. I wrote a book about “The Big Lebowski,” which will have the 25th anniversary of the film (in 2023). I’ve been doing a lot of testing for that.
What to expect when Andre Darlington visits Milwaukee
Bryant’s is great. I went there when I was younger. He has a great music system. We’re doing an event there with Boswell Books, a bookstore I love. This is my first event in Milwaukee, wildly enough. They’ll do a few drinks and bites from the book. Bryant’s is famous nationally for their ice cream drinks, so maybe we’ll come up with something fun, but I think we’ll just take people through “Bar Menu.” It is the perfect space to have a cocktail party based around “Bar Menu.”
fork. Spoon. life. explores the everyday relationship that local notables (within the food community and without) have with food. To suggest future personalities to profile, email [email protected]