Welcome to our Happy Hour Question & Answer series, where we ask questions to interesting people in the alcohol world.
This week’s spotlight is on bartender and author Chris Vola. His latest book, CHEERS TO TODAY: 365 Cocktails Because Every Day is a Holiday, is now available and features a number of cocktail recipes ready to make everyday a special occasion. From variations to newly invented libations, CHEERS TO TODAY gives readers a reason to imbibe, but it also teaches about classic cocktails and their offspring, encouraging readers to get just as creative as this never-ending list of occasions.
Hops & Spirits: How did you get into writing books?
Chris Vola: I’ve always been a voracious reader and penned some hilariously terrible comic books as a kid, but I didn’t get “serious” about writing until college, where I was a sports and features reporter for the school newspaper. On a whim, I ended up taking a creative writing class and immediately decided to shift my focus – to the dismay of my journalism professors – to fiction, mostly because the first story I wrote got published in a small magazine and I thought this whole literary thing would be easy (ha!). Later, I got accepted into the graduate writing program at Columbia University. My thesis, Monkeytown, eventually became my first published novel in 2012, and, due to a combination of stubbornness, mild insanity, and an undying love of language, I’ve been writing books ever since.
HS: What made you want to pursue an idea like CHEERS TO TODAY: 365 Cocktails Because Every Day is a Holiday?
CV: I’d been working at cocktail bars in Manhattan for more than a decade when the pandemic hit in March 2020 and suddenly I was on a temporary vacation from that life. Instead of taking some time to pursue other interests, I ended up building a tiki bar on my apartment’s rooftop terrace. When it was completed, it was kind of like I was back at work, except my clientele – due to social distancing – only consisted of myself and my roommates.
New York during that time was extremely bleak and it was even hard to enjoy what few pleasures remained to us during the lockdown, so we began to brainstorm ways to make our happy hours somewhat, um, happy. One afternoon, after going down a few Wikipedia rabbit holes where I stumbled across some obscure festivities that happened to be taking place that day, I thought to myself, if it’s five o’ clock somewhere, maybe it’s also a holiday somewhere. I did some more research and found that my hunch was correct and that there were thousands of random holidays scattered throughout the calendar, many of them worthy of a cocktail toast. Instead of just drinking to forget our miserable existences, my roommates and I were now celebrating National Napping Day or Respect Your Cat Day, with cocktails that I created or chose specifically for the occasion. It wasn’t long before I began to imagine our nightly tipples as a comprehensive, calendar-sized project.
I’d already written one previous drinks book, Pour One Out: Cocktail Odes to TV’s Most Dearly Departed, where I paired 65 beloved deceased television characters like Game of Thrones’ Ned Stark and The Wire’s Omar Little with commemorative beverages. Doing something similar with 365 holidays and cocktails seemed like a logical progression for me, equal parts challenging and enjoyable.
HS: How difficult was it to come up with a cocktail for each day?
CV: Figuring out which holidays and cocktails to use took almost as long as writing the actual book, mostly because there are just so many holidays to choose from. Some dates were much more straightforward than others. For instance, while July 11 is National Mojito Day, it’s also National Swimming Pool Day and National Free Slurpee Day (both of which would have been conducive to fun beverage pairings). But this being a cocktail book, it was a no-brainer to go with the drinks-related festivity and a Rich Man’s Mojito, a lovely aged-rum riff on the classic. Other dates were a little trickier. February 1 has at least 16 holidays, including Car Insurance Day, World Hijab Day, Change Your Password Day, Spunky Old Broads Day and CBD Day. But none of those spoke to me like G.I. Joe Day, a celebration of my favorite childhood action figures and the perfect companion to a delightfully gingery, fruity, and spicy Toy Soldier cocktail.
I also tried to make sure that the drinks differed by spirit and style – spirit-forward versus citrusy versus creamy, etc. – from day to day, but given the nature of some of the holidays, that was easier said than done.
HS: I’m guessing there were fun moments when crafting Beam Me Up for World UFO Day, The High Horse for National Horse Day and others.
CV: Some of my favorite drinks in the book are the ones where there was some serendipity involved in the creative process, and the Beam Me Up is a great example of that. I’d been working on a scotch and Irish whisky Old Fashioned variation and was having some trouble figuring out what to call it. During one very slow shift at the bar, I’d been tweaking it and drinking the different variations and at a certain point it was like, uh oh, I feel like I’ve been blasted into outer space from this scotch. I’m a big Star Trek fan and I immediately thought of Montgomery Scott, who is the Scottish engineer on the original USS Enterprise, who would beam people up, or teleport them to into the spaceship, and whose favorite drink is, of course, scotch. And so, the famous phrase from the show, “Beam Me Up, Scotty,” eventually became the Beam Me Up, which totally fits with World UFO Day.
The Salty Whale for Shamu the Whale Day was a similar situation. I’d gotten sick of making espresso martinis and was working on some more interesting variations, including one with mezcal, blackstrap rum, Amaro Averna, and coffee liqueur. One night, I added a pinch of salt to the mixture, which created somewhat of a briny situation. I served the drink to a regular who I often use as a willing guinea pig for my liquid experiments. He drank it down in two gulps, asked for another, and mumbled something about feeling like a salty whale, in a good way. Thus, the Salty Whale was born, and I had a thematically appropriate cocktail for another holiday.
Even though there were certainly some “a-ha!” moments that were bigger than others, this was an extremely fun project from drink one to drink 365. I hope that comes through in the writing and in the illustrations, which were done by Matthew Linz, a fellow bartender, who was just a pleasure to work with and totally understood the assignment, creating some extraordinarily bright and witty artwork that perfectly aligns with the vibe of the text.
HS: With different cocktail recipes, can folks expect a wide variety of liquor options too?
CV: I wanted to make things as diverse as possible, with nearly 20 different base spirits represented in the book, as well as dozens of liqueurs, amaros, and fortified wines functioning as modifiers or secondary bases. The most frequently used liquors are whisk(e)y (bourbon, rye, scotch, Irish, Japanese), rum (aged, white, gold, spiced, Jamaican, etc.), and gin, but there are also plenty of excellent choices for lovers of mezcal, tequila, brandy, and vodka.
I’m aware that many drinkers are opposed to certain spirits, with gin – for whatever reason – often eliciting the most vehement reactions. I’d tell anyone who falls into this category that it’s perfectly acceptable to substitute vodka or tequila for any of the gin cocktails in Cheers to Today. But if your aversion to juniper-infused booze stems from six too many G&Ts at a happy hour or (heaven forbid) room-temperature frat-house rotgut shots, you might want to try a more mature gin concoction that’s complex and well-balanced, if only to explore the many, many flavor possibilities that exist. And if you still hate it, there’s always tomorrow’s drink!
HS: How does this book differ from your previous books?
CV: Aside from Pour One Out, my other books vary greatly in terms of genre. I’ve published two novels – an experimental dystopian tale and a more mainstream vampire thriller – a short story collection, two poetry collections, and a fully illustrated, coffee-table conspiracy theory guide in the form of a children’s ABC book. Working in a wide variety of styles certainly helps to keep things fresh and engaging for me, but at the moment I’m really enjoying drinks and spirits writing and it looks like my next couple books will continue down that path.
HS: Your day job, or night job, is being a bartender. How did you get behind the bar?
CV: In the spring of 2008, I was in grad school and needed a part-time gig, preferably one where I could catch up on reading while at work, so I started applying to night doorman job postings at buildings all over NYC. I wasn’t getting any responses, so, on a whim, I replied to a wanted ad on Craig’s List for a bouncer at Little Branch, a cocktail bar in Greenwich Village. I didn’t know anything about bouncing or cocktails but I somehow aced (or BSed my way through) the interview and got the job. After a few years manning the door and closely observing some of New York’s best drink-slingers, I developed a passion for cocktail culture, learning hundreds of classic and modern-classic drinks and proper drink-making techniques. I started working behind the bar and eventually became Head Bartender, which is where I’m at to this day. I can’t think of too many other industry professionals who have been at the same spot for 14 years or enjoyed it as much as I have. Just got lucky, I guess. Thanks, Craig!