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 Andre Darlington, spirits writer/author, whose latest book Bar Menu: 100+ Drinking Food Recipes for Cocktail Hour at Home is now available. Darlington is a drinks, food, and lifestyle writer based in Philadelphia and North Carolina. He is a former restaurant critic and award-winning wine and spirits columnist. He recently completed a circumnavigation of the globe to survey the world’s cocktail landscape, a journey he details in his book, Booze Cruise. Find him on Instagram: @andredarlington
Hops & Spirits: How did you get into writing?
Andre Darlington: I started out writing late night food pieces and it led to work as a restaurant critic, which led to a wine and a cocktail column. I still had a day job, but in 2012, an editor sent my work to the Napa Valley Vintners Association and I won a fellowship. Based on conversations at that event, I returned home and quit my day job to write about wine. The irony is that I am now known as a cocktail writer. The path chose me.
HS: You’ve written books, columns and more, how does each differ for you?
AD: Training in columns was invaluable. It’s where I honed voice and also the sheer volume of the work really improves your chops. I can immediately tell if a writer has had a ‘beat’ because they understand their audience. I never set out to be some kind of mainstream success as happened with the Booze & Vinyl series, but that newspaper training got me there and serves me well every day. You ultimately have to write for the people “out there,” not colleagues, friends, or critics. The flip-side of the column where you get to nibble at info is the book which is all in all hands on deck for months. It happens that I like that deep dive and I love the creative process that goes into creating a book. The creativity is what I’m hooked on, the rest of the writing “career” can be grim.
HS: What drew you to writing Bar Menu?
AD: Bar Menu is my eighth book and the first cookbook. It isn’t hyperbole to say that this is the manuscript I’ve been working toward since the beginning. I’m a little unusual in beverage writing in that I came from food first and also owned my own restaurant. Food is the passion that drove everything and the opportunity to do a global bar food book just brought all that past and present together. I never dreamed I’d be able to circumnavigate the globe as I did for the book Booze Cruise, and I built on my food background — combined with what’s happening in bars globally food-wise — to write a love letter to the modern cocktail party.
HS: How did you decide on the chapters/flow? From quick starts to desserts?
AD: I always try to write the books I cannot find on the shelf but that I want to exist. I have so many appetizer or cocktail food books on my shelves that divide sections from small bites to large bites and hot from cold. That taxonomy is more than a hundred years old and you’ll pick up books written this year that still have it. Why isn’t there just a cookbook for cocktail food? Bar Menu may be the book that takes this tack most seriously — it could only have been written after the Craft Cocktail Movement and only after that movement went global. We are in exciting times not just in terms of cocktails but cocktail food and I wanted to capture that. Everything has changed in the cocktail kitchen. That reality felt like it needed something like a bible to take stock of what’s going on.
HS: How did you go about finding the perfect companion drink for each dish?
AD: I don’t like to fetishize pairings the way the wine world does, but sometimes it’s hard to not to. I remember writing The New Cocktail Hour — likely the first cocktail book to include food pairing suggestions with every headnote — and having a Saratoga (whiskey, brandy, sweet vermouth, bitters, lemon) and thinking “this is the ultimate steak or burger cocktail.” The Saratoga is similar to a Manhattan or a Metropolitan and that brandy combination makes all the difference. I suppose what I’m saying is sometimes lightening strikes, although I do offer a list of many helpful things to keep in mind such as body, geography, and flavor bridges. Then, sometimes the pairing is historical or conceptual — take the pairing of potted shrimp and the Vesper. This is Ian Flemming’s favorite pairing that he lent to his character, James Bond.
HS: I read where you said this is short on hosting tips and simple on showstopping dishing you can make with a drink in your hand, why is that?
AD: My question is always: How do I get people just jump in there and make themselves a drink or even throw a little party. It’s all about starting somewhere and the building confidence to say that, yes, making craft cocktails at home IS for you. Try it! Today we are really allergic to the word “entertaining,” and I think it’s because there’s a perception driven by the glossy mags and Instagram that as a host you have to make all sorts of complicated things look perfect and buy a million bottles. So not true. These days you can make, say, dumplings and invite everyone over. Who cares what else there is to eat — you have homemade dumplings!
HS: How has the cocktail hour evolved over time?
AD: Interestingly, from the historic record it appeared alongside sandwiches as a kind of simple drunken revelry. But it became codified. In the post-WWII years there were set patterns and specific dishes that were expected. Take that iconic cucumber, crème fraiche, and caviar as an example. That is all gone now and we are less formal. We are also – and this is a big part of the book — spicier, messier, and, I would say, tastier. We have flavor! Somewhere cocktail hours just became these stuffy receptions and it’s time to open the violet hour back up to adventure.
HS: Who would you say this book is for?
AD: I hope this book inspires everyone who eats and drinks. A dream would be for it to help reignite America’s passion for the cocktail party. We need to talk to each other and have a good time together again for our sanity and happiness. I think that good times with friends saves lives so I’m a true believer. Anyone can find fun dishes in this book. A large portion of my extended family does not drink and they are digging through it and sending me photos of things they are cooking. It’s meant to inspire and there are a lot of tricks, hacks, and tips tucked in there.