Interview with Dave Stolte, Author of Home Bar Basics

Since we liked Home Bar Basics so much we asked author Dave Stolte to answer a few questions regarding the book, drinks, bars, and plenty of other things. A special thanks to Dave for taking the time to answer these! Check out his website at www.homebarbasics.com.

What was your inspiration for writing this book?

Among friends and family, I’ve been “the cocktail guy” for a while – called upon to make drinks at parties, help plan menus, offer advice, and stuff like that. For a couple years, I’ve been making little promotional calendars featuring cocktail recipes alongside my illustrations – sending them out to art directors in LA and New York. Then earlier this year, a friend wrote asking for help in setting up a home bar. I think he had a bottle of Jack Daniels, some Margarita mix, and maybe some Bacardi. So I replied with a long, detailed email that wound up becoming a blog post. From there, another designer friend said, “sounds like you have the makings of a book there.” That’s when the light bulb went off and I started putting this book together. The size was deliberately chosen to help make an intimidating topic feel approachable, like people can get their head around it if it fits in their back pocket or purse.

What was the biggest challenge you faced with writing/publishing the book?

I knew I had the drive and the interest to make this happen. The biggest challenge I had as a self-publisher was how to finance the operation. I wanted it to be a no-risk situation for me, so I wound up launching a fundraising page at Kickstarter. The first try failed, the second try (with a lower budget and longer lead time) succeeded, plus extra. Other challenges included quality control on the printing: using Polyart synthetic water-resistant, tear-resistant paper was a no-brainer, but finding a printer who knows how to work on this stuff took a few months.

What type of background do you have?

I’m a visual artist. I head up a distributed design studio called Wexler of California, working as Design Director. I have a handful of specialists I work with as the project needs them: a web user-experience designer, a marketing guy, photographer, and copywriter. I also do editorial and fine-art illustration, and have been in a few gallery shows.

Were you self-taught making cocktails? Any influences?

Self-taught, by necessity. When I first got interested in making cocktails, it was still the dark ages of the ’90s. My wife Kristin and I taught ourselves how to cook and cocktails seemed like a natural extension – something you can enjoy while prepping dinner. At the time, Wired magazine and bartender Paul Harrington had a section on their website called “Cocktail Time” that would publish a new, classic drink every Friday afternoon. I’d try to find the components and make the drinks at home, to varying degrees of success. This website became the book “Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century” and that was my go-to for many years. Beyond that came old, vintage books like the “Esquire Handbook for Hosts,” “Trader Vic’s Book of Food & Drink,” and more recently, Ted Haigh’s “Forgotten Cocktails” book and Imbibe magazine, of course.

As I was writing this book, I knew I couldn’t rely on my cloistered, suburban experience completely – so I started hanging out in Downtown LA, meeting great people like Daniel Djang of Thirsty in LA, Eric Alperin of The Varnish, Ed Hamilton from The Ministry of Rum, Rocky Yeh of The Proof Collection, and even met up with my virtual guru Paul Harrington. All of these guys gave some incredible feedback and encouragement on early drafts of the book and helped perfect it.

What other cocktail books would you recommend?

The new PDT book is amazing, if a little intimidating. It’s truly a thing of beauty. I like “Beachbum Berry Remixed” and Gaz Regan’s “The Joy of Mixology.” And a soft spot for the 1953 Esquire book mentioned above… even the part where they say if you’re having a barbecue party, be sure to spray a healthy amount of DDT all over right before guests arrive. Classic!

What is the one most important thing you would tell someone who is setting up a home bar?

I tell people “take your time.” Start with one drink, get it right, and move on to the next one. Don’t try to become a master home bartender in one weekend. Don’t skimp on ingredients or substitute “close enough.” It’s better to go without than go with something half-ass.

What drinks have you created yourself? Or do you stick with the classics?

Just a couple – a few years ago, I made a companion drink to Trader Vic’s El Diablo called El Angelo – tequila, lime, St. Germain, and lemonade soda served tall. Recently, I came up with a cocktail called Pemberton (named after the guy who invented Coca-Cola) – Bulleit bourbon, Ramazotti, vanilla & cinnamon syrup and Miracle Mile Bergamot Bitters – stirred, served up with an orange zest garnish.

What is your all-time favorite drink?

If I could only pick one, it’d be a Sidecar made with Germain-Robin Alambic Brandy. Skip the sugared rim. But somehow, I’d figure out a way to sneak in a well-made Margarita, Old Fashioned, and Negroni.

If you were to write another book, what would it be?

People have already started asking that – and I don’t imagine there’ll be a part two of the book. I’d rather expand the content on the Home Bar Basics website, adding new recipes beyond the book, product reviews, videos, and stuff like that.

Another passion is good barbecue – hardwood charcoal, different wood smokes, handmade spice rubs and sauces. Maybe there’ll be a “Home Barbecue Basics,” who knows? Bar & Grill, after all.

Did you become interested in spirits or cocktails first?

I became “interested” in spirits in college, if you can call Everclear in a watermelon interesting. That was when the Adios Motherf@$*ker was the height of cocktail craftsmanship. Backed off for a while, then came back to reassess the situation in the ’90s and started learning about the neglected history of all these amazing drinks. I really believe the cocktail is one of America’s finest contributions to the world, alongside jazz and barbecue. It’s great to see them getting their due in places like Seattle, Portland, LA, New York, and elsewhere.

What are your favorite bars in LA?

There’s such an inspiring scene in LA right now – people are passionate about their craft. Kind and welcoming, great hosts and great friends. It may be more about the people than any particular bar for me, but there’s Jason Schiffer, Erik Trickett, and Matt Robold at 320 Main, Eric Alperin, Marcos Tello, Chris Bostick, and Devon Tarby at The Varnish, Allan Katz, Danielle Crouch, and Douglas Williams at Caña, Aidan Demarest at Neat, Mia Sarazen at Harvard & Stone, Daniel Zacharczuk at Bar & Kitchen, Zahra Bates at Providence, the Buhens at Tiki Ti… and many more I have yet to visit.

What is the craft cocktail industry lacking?

Domination. The cocktail scene is still overrun with a bad hangover from the ’80s and ’90s, just garbage like Whipped Vodka and drinks ending in “-tini.” The craft way of doing things may gain broader acceptance, who knows? I hope it does. Just as long as they keep honoring the classics alongside all the fantastic innovation and experimentation that’s going on now.

I met a young bartender lately who confessed he had to look up how to make an Old Fashioned when someone ordered one recently. I suspect that’s typical for most bars and restaurants – and it’s kind of shocking to me that such a cornerstone recipe has been cast aside like a neglected grandparent. That’s part of what I wanted to do with this book – focus on the classics done in the best way possible for a home enthusiast, using the best brands they’re likely to have access to without too much hassle. Not to take anything away from these great bars that are doing it right, but most people around the country don’t live near a decent drink. I hope this book helps spread the word in some small way.

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