Thursday, April 9, 2009

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Bookshelf: Cordial Waters

Volodimir Pavliuchuk is so well known among hobbyist distillers that if he spent a week in internet silence, home distillers from New York to New Zealand would call his local police to make sure the man had not fallen in his boiler.

Pavliuchuk, better known as Wal, is a pillar of Yahoo’s online distillers’ group. His near daily posts about and links to historical recipes, PDFs of old distilling manuals, ethnographic accounts, essays, and dissertations on producing spirits spur hobbyist distillers to recreate bygone, lost, and forgotten spirits. Or, at least, to know about them.

And now Wal has a book. Cordial Waters: A Compleat Guide to Ardent Spirits of the World hit the shelves recently and home distillers everywhere should be breaking out wallets right about…now.

The book covers distilling basics, including simple recipes for creating vodka, whiskeys, brandies, rum, and other spirits from primary ingredients. Purists may balk at plain white sugar in some recipes or additives for emulating peat or barrel aging, but recall that the recipes are for home enthusiasts who may not have access to expensive professional equipment. If those bother you, skip them. There’s plenty enough here worth digging into.

The meat of Cordial Waters—the reason you want to buy this book—is 260 recipes Wal gives for flavored spirits; cordials, liqueurs, flower waters, crèmes, gins, flavored whiskeys and brandies, citrus infusions, bitters, kümmel, pastis, absinthes, monastic liqueurs, genevers, vodkas (flavored with bison grass, tormentil, tobacco, birch buds, spruce, and more), spiced rums, cream liqueurs, spirits spiked with beans and nuts, shrubbs, and—for you tiki fans—Hawaiian okolehao. Hell, he’s even got mesquite mash. And mastic liqueur. Laudanum. Crazy shit with alkermes, cochineal, and ants. So many more culled from sources spanning centuries and continents.

The recipes have been scaled to standardized 1- or 4-liter batches. Many readers—perhaps especially those with little experience, or patience with, interpreting older recipes—will find this a great convenience since such recipes often call for outdated or uncertain measurements [hands, drachms, “enough,” two bottles (what size?), until it becomes a stiff paste, etc.]. By presenting the recipes in liters and grams, Wal skillfully works around the uncertainties a novice might encounter.

Readers with a tenacious historical or bibliographic bent, however, will regret that the book does not present original recipes alongside the adaptations nor does it cite each recipe’s source. This redaction—understandable given the book’s space restrictions—nevertheless is frustrating because original recipes contain valuable clues about techniques, procedures, purposes, and sometimes even reasons why mixtures were made at certain times and not others.

An 1890 falernum recipe, for instance, calls for milk, presumably cow’s. Milk? Really? See, that’s interesting in and of itself. I trust Wal, but want to learn about its role from the original. Was it a fining, maybe? Combined with lime juice, allowed to settle, then racked and strained, that may just work, but modern versions from the cocktail crowd and rum enthusiasts don’t use it. A citation would give enough information to start a library hunt in earnest. Ah, well. Second edition perhaps.

Regardless, Cordial Waters is a delight. Those who want to learn more no doubt will latch onto innumerable nuggets of insight larding the book. Buried in notes for a rosa-solis recipe, for example, is mention of a 1609 recipe that calls for Brasilwood boiled in rosewater to create a red color. What New York or San Francisco bartender is doing that? Also noted is that drying celandine (Chelidonium majus) reduces its toxicity and that adding 0.1 gram of silver nitrate/liter prior to redistilling causes hydrogen cyanide in stone fruit spirits to precipitate as insoluble silver cyanide. These are good things to know.

It’s not all fancy, outrageous, or outré concoctions. There are plenty of recipes that can be made with little more than store-bought vodka and fresh herbs or spices. Knowing something about cocktails and liquor, though, would be a great help in understanding procedures and, occasionally, when to veer from directions.

Of particular use is an appendix explaining the Pearson Square. Homebrewers and winemakers are familiar with this handy diagram that allows mixers to calculate quickly the amounts of two liquids required to fortify or dilute alcoholic beverages. Several examples (including one suggesting that Pavliuchuk likes his martinis 7:1) show in clear detail how to make simple calculations using the square.

Who should buy it? Every hobbyist distiller. Who else? Bartenders, cocktail enthusiasts, drinks historians, botanists, ethnopharmacologists—anyone who enjoys making cordials and liqueurs. Certainly anyone with a still will find inspiration here. In these tight times, and with the long-overdue ascendancy of cocktail culture, that’s a lot of people.

Who else should buy it? You.

Do so here.

Goes well with:
  • Moonshine! ~ my own novice's guide to distilling. Publisher's Weekly calls it "the last book one will ever need on the art of in-house hooch." Perfect for Father's Day.
  • The Compleat Distiller ~ Mike Nixon and Mike McCaw's treatise on the science of making spirits, a classic among modern hobbyist distillers.
  • Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails ~ Ted Haigh's erudite profile of cocktails fallen into obscurity and now enjoying a renaissance. Second edition is forthcoming.

Volodimir Pavliuchuk (2008)
Cordial Waters: A Compleat Guide to Ardent Spirits of the World
152 pages, paperback.
Published by The Amphora Society
Pakuranga, New Zealand


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