by Colleen Thompson
Michelin star chef Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, co-creators and masterminds behind “America’s Best Restaurant,” Alinea in Chicago, have teamed up with an artist duo from California, Allen and Sarah Hemberger, to publish an extraordinary cocktail book called The Aviary.
In 2011, Achatz and Kokonas opened an innovative, unconventional cocktail bar called The Aviary, on Fulton Market in Chicago. Elevating the approach to complex, cocktail concoctions they set the bar way higher for everyone else. Every cocktail on the menu was made with precision and a level of detail unlike anything seen before. Visually dramatic and breathtaking, each serving a little piece of theatre performed table side. From puffs of smoke to pillows of scent captured and released from ziplock bags to hand sculpted, flavored ice cubes, each cocktail a work of art. Represented by flying birds each cocktail with its own complexity barometer – the further the bird had flown to the left of the menu, the more complex the drink, and the heftier the price tag. The duo have since opened The Aviary in New York on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, where the signature Wake & Bake cocktail comes wrapped up in a bag and when sliced open releases the aroma of an “everything” bagel.
Originally inspired by the cook books of Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse with their beautiful full-page photos, profoundly influenced Achatz in his formative years as a chef – poring over the massive, jaw-dropping tomes in search of knowledge and inspiration. Having never seen a cocktail book that could compared to the quality and stature of these classics, Achatz wanted to publish a cocktail book that did justice and represented his cocktail creations in the same way. Like everything else Achatz and Kokonas have created, when it came to crafting a cocktail book, they wanted to do things differently and disrupt the status quo of traditional publishing. Choosing instead to do everything themselves, they assembled an unusual production team by way of the Hembergers.
Allen Hemberger a visual effects artist who has worked on movies like Finding Dory, Avatar and Brave, and his wife Sarah (also a visual artist), had cooked their way through the Alinea cookbook, and journaled the process, which culminated in their own book called, “The Alinea Project.” They sent a copy of their book to Achatz and Kokanas by way of thanks. As Achatz and Kokona flipped through their book, they realized the Hemberger’s should be their co-creators for their next project – The Aviary Cocktail Book.
“I wouldn’t say Sarah and I came to this project with a strong creative vision originally,” said Allen Hemberger. “In fact, during our first meeting with Nick and Chef Achatz, we asked them “What do you guys want this book to be?” They both shrugged and said “We don’t know; what do YOU want it to be?” It was not a question we were prepared to answer; we simply wanted to work with the incredibly talented staff to create something beautiful. One of the things I had some strong feelings about – given my experience working my way through the Alinea book – was the accuracy and clarity of the recipes. But a good deal of the book’s identity (especially its visual aesthetic) grew organically, an affordance that would not have been possible had we not chosen to completely self-publish the book.”
With two previous books under their belts, the idea to self publish, was not from lack of offers from traditional publishers, but rather a decision to do things their own way. Kokanas has gone on to write an outspoken and critical essay about the frustration in dealing with an outdated, traditional publishing industry on Medium.com. “Nick and Chef were approached by publishers for years with offers and invitations to make a book for The Aviary. In every case, though, where they described their idea for this book (a large, beautiful, coffee-table-worthy volume), they were told by publishers that there’s “no way there’s a market for such a book, no one’s gonna spend more than $30 on a cocktail book”. They were also admonished, I’m told, that photography is a completely uninteresting aspect of cocktail books, because ultimately it’s all “just liquid in a glass,” said Hemberger.
In an effort to raise funds for the project, a crowd-sourcing campaign was launched on Kickstarter and more than $400,000 was raised. Refusing to compromise their vision for The Aviary, the entire project was handled in house, from writing and photography to marketing and distribution. “Luckily for Sarah and I, we all found each other and collectively felt this was something we wanted to do together,” said Hemberger. “While I had a fair bit of experience with cooking before, neither Sarah nor myself knew anything about the cocktail world. I could manage a pretty mediocre Old Fashioned, but that’s about it!”
While most cocktail books are organized by base spirit or ingredient, this approach didn’t make a lot of sense for The Aviary Cocktail Book. The drinks are mostly developed from a culinary perspective, and as such don’t cleanly always into typical categories. The problem of how to organize the book was one that stumped them for months, until Kokonas suggested having multiple Tables of Contents. Grouping the drinks around a central mood or concept, rather than by ingredient.
“One of the recipes for example, combines flavors of rosemary, apple,and graham cracker, while the base spirit used in that drink is cognac, it felt wrong to simply describe it as “a cognac drink,” said Hemberger. “Sort of like tasting menus, we agreed to classify the drinks around themes like “Light & Refreshing Drinks” or “Seasonal Drinks” or “Adventurous Drinks,” which readers can leverage depending on their current mood. We sought to minimize overlap between each. Even with these constraints, however, we ended up with enough content that our printer warned that – based on the paper weight and page size that we chose – our book was growing too large and that the binding might fail with any moderate amount of use. So we edited things back to around 120 drinks, which still results in a pretty substantial collection.”
The end result of the book bears little resemblance to other cocktail books. Physically, it’s massive. While most cocktail books seem to fall into the “Gentleman’s Guide” bar manual format – with few images and small pages – The Aviary Cocktail Book stayed true to its original inspiration – a big, heavy books filled with beautiful images. “Physical stature aside, the thing I’m most excited about is the balance we struck by slamming together such wildly different perspectives (namely, those of some of the world’s most talented culinary staff and those of a pair of visual effects artists). Sarah and I – because of our background exploring the cuisine of Alinea – have what I think is a unique perspective on how it feels to try to bring high-end cookery to the home kitchen,” said Hemberger. “We viewed it as our job to try to accurately distill the ideas we see in the Aviary kitchen into this book in an understandable and approachable way.”
The book includes multiple versions of some of the drinks, seeking to highlight the iterative nature of innovation. Included are hundreds of sidebars and notes, all based upon exploring the smallest of details. “We include recipes for both alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions of some of the drinks, to show how the chefs consider the experience of guests who might not want to drink alcohol. Most drinks are presented in both single- and large-format portions, for readers who may want to serve one of these recipes at a party,” said Hemberger.
In The Rocks, one of The Aviary’s most iconic drinks, and perhaps one of the more challenging one’s to make, was deconstructed and pulled apart, to make sure it would translate to a home bar. “Partway through making this book, my dad was helping Sarah and I by doing some babysitting for our kid, and he happened to be flipping through an early proof test we had sitting nearby. He began reading the recipe for In The Rocks, and remarked that it sounded interesting. A couple weeks later, he texted me an image of a first attempt he’d made at getting it to work. Together, he and I texted back and forth over the next month or so, him trying different techniques and me prodding the chefs for information that might help my dad to get it working. Ultimately we succeeded. How the drink tasted to him in the end is way less relevant to me than the fact that he’d been inspired to try undertaking this at home. There’s no real higher aspiration I could have for this book than for others to have the same experience.”
The Green Thumb
Pea, Chartreuse, Barbecue Aroma
SUGAR SNAP PEA SYRUP
- 100 g sugar snap pea juice, extracted with juicer
- 100 g sugar
- 200 g hot dogs
- 400 g neutral grain spirit
GREEN THUMB SPICE MIX
- 20 g fennel pollen
- 25 g dill pollen
- 8 g black pepper
- 1 g white pepper
- 20 g distilled vinegar powder
- 35 g salt
- 3⁄4 oz Brugal Rum
- 3⁄4 oz St. George Botanivore Gin
- 1⁄2 oz Green Chartreuse
- 1⁄4 oz Amontillado Sherry
- 3⁄4 oz sugar snap pea syrup
- 1⁄2 oz lime juice
TO ASSEMBLE AND SERVE
- 2 pea shoots
- olive oil
Strain sugar snap pea juice through chinois. Combine sugar and sugar snap pea juice in blender. Blend on high speed until sugar is completely dissolved. Transfer to squeeze bottle and reserve in refrigerator.
Grill hotdogs on a barbecue until blackened. Combine hotdogs and neutral grain spirit in blender and blend on high speed until smooth. Place mixture into vacuum bag and seal at highest setting. Cook en sous vide at 80°C (175°F) for 1 hour. Transfer bag to large bowl of ice water to cool completely. Strain mixture through chinois, then through a coffee filter. Fill atomizer with mixture. Reserve.
Combine all ingredients in spice grinder and grind to fine powder. Reserve in airtight container.
Combine all ingredients in shaker tin with ice. Shake vigorously. Strain into carbonation device and carbonate according to manufacturer’s instructions. Reserve in refrigerator.
In small bowl, drizzle pea shoots with olive oil and toss with Green Thumb spice mix.
Place large rectangular ice cube into a Collins glass. Fill to top with carbonated Green Thumb. Garnish with seasoned pea shoots. Place glass on a bed of fresh wheatgrass. Mist wheatgrass with barbecue aroma. Serve immediately.
- 142 g coriander seeds
- 325 g 190-proof neutral grain spirit
In medium saucepan, toast coriander over medium heat until fragrant. Transfer to mortar and pestle and crack coarsely. Combine coriander and neutral grain spirit in vacuum bag and seal on highest setting. Cook en sous vide at 65°C (150°F) for 1 hour. Meanwhile, prepare an ice bath. Chill bag in ice bath until completely cool. Strain through chinois. Transfer to small glass bottle fitted with dropper and reserve.
- 200 g parsley leaves
- 300 g 190-proof neutral grain spirit
Combine parsley and neutral grain spirit in vacuum bag and seal on highest setting. Cook en sous vide at 75°C (165°F) for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare an ice bath. Chill bag in ice bath until completely cool. Strain through chinois. Transfer to small glass bottle fitted with dropper and reserve in refrigerator.
Smoked Salt Solution
- 420 g water
- 39 g bourbon barrel smoked sea salt
In small saucepan, bring water and smoked salt to simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve salt. Remove from heat and let cool completely. Strain solution through chinois. Transfer to glass bottle and reserve.
Elvis Parsley – Single Portion
- 1¼ oz (37.5 ml) Compass Box Orangerie
- 1¼ oz (37.5 ml) Lustau Península Palo Cortado Sherry
- ½ oz (15 ml) Lustau San Emilio Pedro Ximénez Sherry
- ½ oz (15 ml) Bigallet China-China Amer Liqueur
- ½ oz (15 ml) Carpano Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth
- 2 drops smoked salt solution
- 5 drops coriander tincture
Combine all ingredients in cocktail mixing glass, stirring to mix thoroughly. Transfer mixture to small flask. Reserve at room temperature. Place inside of a hollowed out cocktail book and hide in the bar.
Pour 1/4oz parsley tincture into medium rocks glass with one ice cube, swirling to coat interior of glass and chill slightly. Discard. Place large cube of ice into glass. Invite guest to add cocktail portion from flask, and swirl ice to chill.
- 25g Toasted Fennel Seed
- 250g Warm Water
- 500g Lavender Honey (estimated)
Place fennel seed in a pan to lightly toast until aromatic. Transfer to Mortar and pestle and lightly crush.
Place cracked fennel seed & water together in whipped cream canister and charged with nO2 to rapid infuse. Shake to incorporate and let stand for 10 minutes. Depress trigger with canister upright to expel gas completely. Open canister and strain liquid through fine strainer. Weigh remaining liquid and add 2 parts Lavender Honey for 1 part of fennel water. Place in pot and warm slightly to melt honey into water.
Transfer to glass bottle and reserve in refrigerator.
Clarified Lime Juice
- 800g lime juice, extracted with juicer
- 200g cold water
- 2g agar agar
Combine water & agar agar in small sauce pot. Stick blend to incorporate. Bring up to boil and cook for 1 minute on medium-high heat. Replace on scale and return weight to 202g with additional warm water. Place in medium bowl. Place medium bowl in larger bowl filled with ice water. Allow to cool undisturbed to set gel. Once completely cooled and set, use a whisk to cut the gel into smaller pieces. Line a perforated pan or wire rack with 3 layers of cheesecloth. Place large container underneath to catch dripping clarified lime.
Invert onto cheesecloth, and let drip until dry. Transfer clarified lime to glass bottle. Reserve in refrigerator.
Concord Grape & Bergamot Ice
- 440g Concord Grape Juice
- 3g Citric Acid
- 20g Sugar
- 140g Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto
- 75g Ver Jus Rouge
Combine all ingredients in medium bowl, whisking to dissolve sugar and acid. Strain through chinois. Fill 1.25 inch square ice mold with mixture. Freeze until completely solid. Reserve.
To Assemble and Serve
- 1 1/2oz Casa Magdalena Rum
- 1/2oz Carpano Bianco
- 1/2oz Fennel-Honey Syrup
- 1/2oz Krogstad Festlig Aquavit
- 1/2oz Alvear Pale Cream Sherry
- 3/4oz ( ml) Clarified Lime Juice
- 1/4oz (22.5 ml) simple syrup
- 2 dashes Regan’s Orange Bitters
Place two cubes of concord grape & bergamot ice into stemless wine glass. Separately, combine batch, simple syrup, and clarified lime juice with ice in cocktail shaker. Throw cocktail until aerated, chilled and diluted, then double-strain into glass over ice.
ON A WIRE
- 150 g sugar
- 150 g hot water
Combine sugar and water in medium mixing bowl. Stir with spatula to completely dissolve sugar. Reserve.
GRAHAM CRACKER SYRUP
- 34 g graham cracker
- 300 g simple syrup
Combine graham crackers and simple syrup in vacuum bag and seal on highest setting. Cook en sous vide at 80°C (175°F) for 2 hours. Meanwhile, prepare an ice bath. Chill bag in ice bath until completely cool. Strain through chinois, then through 100-micron superbag. Transfer to glass bottle and reserve.
- 12.5 g cinnamon sticks
- 2.5 g star anise
- 2 g nutmeg
- 3 whole allspice, coarsely crushed
- 1 whole clove, coarsely crushed
- 716 g apple cider
- ½ vanilla bean, split and scraped
In medium saucepan, toast cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, allspice, and clove over medium heat until very fragrant. Add cider and vanilla, increase heat, and bring to boil. Remove from heat and allow to steep for 20 minutes. Strain through chinois. Transfer to glass bottle and reserve.
- 2 oz (60 ml) spiced cider
- 1½ oz (45 ml) Jean-Luc Pasquet Coeur de GrandeChampagne Cognac
- 3⁄4 oz (25 ml) graham cracker syrup
- 1⁄2 oz (15 ml) Bonal Gentiane-Quina Apéritif
- 1⁄4 oz (7.5 ml) Bénédictine
- 2 dashes Angostura Aromatic Bitters
Combine all ingredients in medium bowl, stirring to combine. Transfer to small carafe. Reserve in refrigerator to chill thoroughly.
- 382 g spiced cider
- 282 g Jean-Luc Pasquet Coeur de GrandeChampagne Cognac
- 162 g graham cracker syrup
- 92 g Bonal Gentiane-Quina Apéritif
- 47 g Bénédictine 12 dashes Angostura Aromatic Bitters
Combine all ingredients in medium bowl, stirring to combine. Transfer to glass bottle. Reserve in refrigerator to chill thoroughly.
TO ASSEMBLE AND SERVE
single portion, or 5 oz (150 ml) batch, reserved in small carafe
- 3⁄4 oz (25 ml) lemon juice, chilled in refrigerator
- 1 small sprig rosemary
- 1⁄2 oz (15 ml) Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy, warmed to 50°C (120°F)
Add chilled lemon juice to carafe containing cocktail. Suspend rosemary sprig upside-down in clip service piece, and clip onto side of medium glass. Pour warm apple brandy into glass.
At table, carefully use candle lighter to ignite apple brandy. Allow to burn until rosemary is toasted and fragrant. Pour contents of carafe into glass to extinguish flame.
For copies of The Aviary Cocktail Book visit: www.theaviarybook.com