Texas Book Festival authors explore historical, scientific sides of booze

"Of All the Gin Joints" features illustrations of Hollywood celebrities by Edward Hemingway, who chose to draw them in a style that he wanted to look a little tipsy, in keeping with the subject of the book.
“Of All the Gin Joints” features illustrations of Hollywood celebrities by Edward Hemingway, who chose to draw them in a style that he wanted to look a little tipsy, in keeping with the subject of the book.

Among all the fiction and nonfiction authors coming to the Texas Book Festival this weekend are a variety of food writers, making the festival a big draw for anyone who loves to cook and eat — and drink. Three of these writers have penned books centering around booze: Mark Bailey and Edward Hemingway collaborated on “Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling Through Hollywood History,” and Adam Rogers published “Proof: The Science of Booze.”

Bailey and Hemingway’s compulsively readable book, which I wrote about for today’s food section, explores old Hollywood’s dependence on alcohol through bite-sized biographies, anecdotes and cocktail recipes (including the one below) that often originated in the very bars where the boozed-up stars engaged in their anecdote-worthy antics.

The authors will be at the festival on Saturday for two events surrounding “Of All the Gin Joints.” First up is the 11 a.m. “Drinks and a Movie” panel with Anne Helen Peterson, who wrote “Scandals of Classic Hollywood”; then, at 9:30 p.m., they’ll participate in a “Lit Crawl” event at Clayworks with other Algonquin Books writers.

Rogers’ time at the festival is on Sunday, when he’ll talk about fermentation and other scientific processes that produce the beer, wine and spirits that we love in an accessible, easy-to-follow manner.

“Some archaeologists and anthropologists have argued that the production of beer induced human beings to settle down and develop permanent agriculture — to literally put down roots and cultivate grains instead of roam nomadically,” he writes in “Proof.” “The manufacture of alcohol was, arguably, the social and economic revolution that allowed Homo sapiens to become civilized human beings. It’s the apotheosis of human life on earth. It’s a miracle.”

The Brown Derby

The origin story of many cocktails has gotten blurred over the years as myths take over — for example, did author Ernest Hemingway really invent the Bloody Mary after his doctors told him to stay away from alcohol? (The tomato juice and other ingredients helped to mask the taste of the vodka, the story goes.) Probably not, but that hasn’t stopped people from giving him credit.

Similarly, the Brown Derby cocktail has a murky backstory surrounding it, one that “Of All the Gin Joints” touches on briefly. Was it created at the now-defunct Los Angeles restaurant of the same name, both of which were wildly popular in the 1930s? Or did another nearby restaurant christen the cocktail after its neighbor? Or is it called the Brown Derby simply because it looks like a brown hat? Wherever it came from, the bourbon drink remains a staple in classic cocktail repertoires.

2 oz. bourbon

1 oz. freshly squeezed grapefruit juice

1/2 oz. of honey

Pour all ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with ice cubes. Shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

— “Of All the Gin Joints”

Swift’s Attic puts cocktails within ice for speed, innovation

When Swift’s Attic bar manager Jeff Hammett would visit downtown bars and order a cocktail, he noticed two important trends. The drinks he ordered would take 15 minutes to make and would often contain outlandish ingredients that had no business being in cocktails. They also featured large artisanal ice cubes cut into squares, spheres or long rectangles, products of an increasing number of ice programs at bars and restaurants seeking to heighten the quality of their cocktails (this ice takes longer to melt, which means the cocktail won’t be diluted by excess water).

“I found the scene getting too pretentious in some ways,” Hammett said. “At the same time, I saw all the different types of ice programs being done and decided to see what I could do with one here.”

Photo by Arianna Auber. The Ice Ball Oldie and Strawberry Fields are among the most popular of Swift's Attic's ice ball cocktails, an easy way to provide customers with speedy, innovative cocktails.
Photo by Arianna Auber.
The Ice Ball Oldie and Strawberry Fields are among the most popular of Swift’s Attic’s ice ball cocktails, an easy way to provide customers with speedy, innovative cocktails.

As a result of his and bartender Curtis Hansford’s trial-and-error experimentation — Hansford said his roommates were very happy for awhile getting to try new drinks every night — Swift’s Attic added six cocktails to the menu earlier this year, but they aren’t spread among the others already there, including one on tap and another that’s been barrel-aged. Instead, they’ve got a page all to themselves because they’re as unusual as some of the ingredients Hammett didn’t like seeing in his drinks at local bars.

Swift’s Attic calls them ice ball cocktails, and that’s exactly what they are. Most of the components of each cocktail are built into spherical ice molds with water and then frozen overnight; once a customer orders one of them, the icy orb containing those ingredients is added to a cocktail glass and the requisite spirit poured over it. They have the benefit of eliminating time without diminishing quality, one of the problems that Hammett had noticed at other places.

When you have a sip of your first ice ball cocktail, it might seem to be overly boozy because all you’re tasting while the ice melts is the spirit, whether it’s rye, tequila, bourbon or gin. But Hammett said that’s partly the idea. “They’re supposed to be big and boozy, supposed to give you a little hit,” he said, adding that if you like the alcohol in your drinks disguised by the other ingredients, you can let the ice ball cocktail sit for a bit — or, as one couple does, share it so that one person has the first shot and the other person has a second, once the ice ball has melted.

The ice balls also don’t dilute the characteristics of the traditional cocktails, he said. The ice ball cocktails include an Old-Fashioned (called the “Ice Ball Oldie”), a Manhattan, an Apple Mint Julep and a Sazerac (a “Sazer-rock”), as well as a couple of original drinks: Strawberry Fields, which contains a sherbet ice ball, and Stage Name, a favorite of Hammett’s that will be more savory than the others. These are all $12.

Besides being eye-catching, the ice ball cocktails have a real purpose for Swift’s Attic bartenders, especially during busy nights. Hammett said that because most of the cocktail is prepared ahead of time, they’re able to deliver them much faster to customers than they normally would. “You’re able to get a nice craft cocktail in 10 seconds,” he said. “While you’re still at work, stuck in traffic on the way home, getting ready to go out for the night, I’m doing all the prep work to help you have a good experience.”

I tried a couple of them recently, the Ice Ball Oldie and the Strawberry Fields, and noticed how easily drinkable they are. The Oldie unfolds slowly, with the cherry heering, orange and lemon zest and juice, and luxardo maraschino cherry taking their places beside the Knob Creek Rye after a few minutes, an effect that allowed me to relish each element on its own and then as a complement to the whole. Strawberry Fields was far less boozy from the start thanks to the sherbet ice ball, filled with strawberry, kaffir lime and toasted coriander, and the prosecco that accompanied the Santo Azul Blanco Tequila — it’s a cocktail you’ll find yourself drinking all of without even realizing it (and that sherbet ball is also very edible).

Along with the others, both cocktails prove that the ice ball program at Swift’s Attic isn’t simply a gimmick; it’s an innovative way to produce craft cocktails quickly without compromising quality.