Unearthing a Time Capsule for the Modern Cocktail Boom Brian Bartels’ new book The United States of Cocktails

It’s the worst of times to publish a field guide to American bars and drinks, and it’s the best of times.

Well, obviously, it’s a dreadful time to release such an overview. The world has been upended since March, with the pandemic shuttering many bars temporarily and far too many permanently. Who needs a guide to bars that may or may not reopen?

But I would argue it’s also the best of times for the release of Brian Bartels’ brand-new The United States of Cocktails: Recipes, Tales, and Traditions from All 50 States, since it can serve as an inadvertent snapshot of what was arguably peak modern cocktail culture. It was a vibrant period in which drinking establishments were having a moment in the spotlight, with bar owners and bartenders displaying colossal amounts of creativity in crafting public spaces and sophisticated drinks. The book is a cheery, eclectic and ambitious celebration of that movement from Florida to Alaska and all points in between.

Bartels, who is a veteran New York bartender and author of The Bloody Mary: The Lore and Legend of a Classic Cocktail, researched his new book last year and submitted the manuscript well before COVID started its grim march across the Earth. Every state gets a chapter, and within each is a brief essay about what makes the area distinctive in terms of drinking, followed by pithy, entertaining subsections that look at “State Spirits (or beverage),” “Bucket List Bar,” “Cocktail Bar,” and “Oldest Bar.” Each chapter is garnished with a couple of cocktail recipes from notable bars, and are served up with bite-sized tidbits of random but entertaining information (labeled “Bar Snacks”).

He got the idea for the project when working with the BarSmarts education program, which is sponsored by liquor conglomerate Pernod-Ricard and offers daylong training sessions for bartenders in cities around the nation. In his travels, he grew intrigued by local cultures of drink that had persisted in an age of chain restaurants and creeping homogeneity. “Our world of cocktails has such stories and history to it, and it led to a curiosity about how we evolved as human beings,” he says.

Bartels visited 44 of the 50 states in compiling information for the guide, and cast a wide net to turn up treasures, like the fondness for “red beer” (beer and tomato juice) in Nebraska, and the Montana predilection for the phrase “ditch,” meaning “with water,” as in a “whiskey ditch.”

His selection of bucket list bars is eclectic, with entries like the Full Throttle Saloon in Sturgis, South Dakota, or Maxine’s Tap Room in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where the eponymous Maxine (who died in 2006) “would deliver her farewell message for last call by microphone: ‘You have ten minutes to drink up and get the hell out.’”

“You can do as much research as you want, but nothing replaces the magic of going to a place and asking a bartender, if you weren’t working here tonight, where would you go?” Bartels says.

Even pre-COVID, Bartels was concerned about the erosion of some long- standing bar traditions. He often felt that the modern bar community tended to overlook the past in the pursuit of the new, and while researching he often sensed history slipping away. He fears many ambitious bartenders have showed up in new locales without knowledge of local history and traditions, “and with a little too much bravado.”

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