New cocktail book encapsulates the bar culture we’re currently without

A Q&A with "The United States of Cocktails" local author Brain Bartels
Us Cocktail
Author photo by Eric Medsker; Illustration by Michael Burdick
Brian Bartels (pictured) is the author of "The United States of Cocktails: Recipes, Tales, and Traditions from All 50 States."

If you miss pulling up a bar stool at your favorite watering hole, ordering a happy hour drink after work or checking out a posh new downtown bar, reading Brian Bartels’ new book will feel a bit like twisting the knife in a wound.

“The United States of Cocktails: Recipe, Tales, and Traditions from All 50 States” is, among other things, a chronicle of America’s great communal gathering spots and the drinks that draw us there. It could be argued that this book — filled with recipes, history, advice, folklore, scene setting, entertaining illustrations and delicious direct quotes from stalwarts — came out both at the best and worst possible time. On one hand, it hit the market about seven months after COVID-19 abruptly forced bar doors closed, some to never reopen again. Flipping through sections organized by state triggers two currently insatiable cravings: wanderlust and a night out on the town.

But it might be the best possible time for “The United States of Cocktails,” because it captures the true spirit of enjoying spirits. The curated approach to an encyclopedic subject matter provides readers a guide that describes each state’s distinct bar culture. “Each state is a chapter, and each state gets at least two cocktails featured as their representatives,” Bartels says. “I tried to make one a classic cocktail the state was known for and one a modern cocktail, so the best of both worlds are represented.”

Adding “The United States of Cocktails” to your bar book collection serves at least two purposes: For the time being, it will act as a superb at-home cocktail recipe reference for all of those quarantined cocktail hours; Then someday, it will become a handy reference point once we’re able to restore the conviviality cultivated at bars that have helped define our cities and towns.

We caught up with Brian Bartels, who currently lives in Wisconsin and co-owns Settle Down Tavern in Madison, which opened earlier this year at 117 S. Pinckney St. He gave us a few more details about his latest book that released Sept. 8, which follows his debut title, “The Bloody Mary: The Lore and Legend of a Cocktail Classic, with Recipes for Brunch and Beyond.”

What a fun concept for a cocktail book! Was this something you had been working on for a while?
I had wanted to write a bigger follow-up to the bloody mary book from the day I finished it. One of the biggest influences for me was being from a small town (Reedsburg, Wisconsin). I had always been curious about other parts of the big, beautiful country. And since we have such unique drinking traditions in Wisconsin, I wanted to see how the rest of America behaved in that regard. I wanted to apply history and curiosity into the same wheelhouse and have a book that translated as informative and fun come from the research and experience. Hopefully this translates that way.

What did you enjoy more — writing about bloody marys or writing about cocktails? (Well, I guess, a bloody mary is technically a cocktail, but you get what I mean.)
I always enjoy writing about cocktails, but the two subject matters wield different dimensions. “The United States of Cocktails” is a much broader subject, reflecting a multiplicity of origins and content. However, the bloody mary is the most tweaked recipe of all cocktails. Everyone has a different way of making them! So each one was rewarding for their own rabbit holes.

I assume you must have done quite a bit of traveling to conduct research for this book?
Yes, indeed. I went to 44 out of 50 states while working a full-time job in New York (approximately 60 hours/week) where I traveled to different parts of the country every other weekend for nearly four months. In a three, four and five day weekend stretch (I used all my vacation time to travel and write) I would visit a new city and/or state every day. I visited over 700 bars, restaurants and watering holes in that time — not having a drink at each spot, mind you, but seeing as many places as I could visit in one night.

And how fun was that “research?”
Everything about the travel was fun. Even the research of going to a city or state I had not yet visited. The only part that was difficult was making flight connections and not compromising my full-time job in New York.

What’s one of the most interesting things you learned about American cocktail-making through this project?
The amount of classic cocktails we all know and love today (e.g., Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, martinis) were created before Prohibition. Many of them even created in the 1800s, and those cocktails are still some of the most popular ordered through today. But that simply means there is more room for experimentation in modern-day bartending. Which is why it’s always exciting to see new products on retail shelves and backbars.

Do you have a favorite drink from the book? Or a most interesting backstory to a certain concoction?
One of the most “unique” drinks has to be the Sourtoe cocktail from Alaska. And the Bone Luge shot, created by Jacob Grier during one lively evening at a steakhouse in Portland, Oregon. Or the Little Secrets cocktail, created by bartender Sophia Kim of Richmond, Virginia. I was lucky enough to visit her bar and try this delicious beverage on a night she was working — a big deal since the drink was not on the menu. It involved coconut fat-washed rum. SO DEE-LISH. And the good news is the recipe is in the book! 🙂

Click here to buy “The United States of Cocktails” online from local bookstore Mystery to Me. 

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