How The Aviary Self-Published the Cocktail Book of the Future
It was a serendipitous, globe-trotting series of events that led one New Zealand-based artist couple to quit their jobs, relocate, and self-publish The Aviary Cocktail Book—one of the most ambitious volumes of its kind to date. After a memorable dinner at Chicago’s lauded, science-forward Alinea, Allen and Sarah Hemberger—a visual effects artist and a graphic designer, respectively—purchased the restaurant’s cookbook and spontaneously started a blog project to chronicle their journey cooking through each of the book’s 107 dishes.
During the blog’s five year run, Alinea chef Grant Achatz and head honcho Nick Kokonas caught wind of the project and became acquainted with the Hembergers, who eventually put together a self-published book, The Alinea Project, to reflect on that experience. After sending the first copy to the Alinea team, the Hembergers received a surprising proposition: to work on a cocktail book for The Aviary, Alinea’s lauded sister bar with locations in Chicago and New York.
“Nick [Kokonas] called us the next day and he was like, ‘I've got an idea. Do you guys want to quit your jobs and move here and make a book with us?,” recalls Allen, who was working at Pixar at the time. “We were both like, ‘This is such a friggin’ crazy idea...we should probably do it. So we bailed on our jobs and moved here a couple of years ago to start working on this ridiculous book.”
The resulting product, a gorgeously-photographed, 444-page tome, eschews the default cocktail book format of neat, novel-sized recipe manuals—think classics like Jerry Thomas’ How to Mix Drinks or even modern staples like Robert Simonson’s The Old-Fashioned. Instead, it opts for a coffee table book format, dedicating entire glossy pages to over a hundred of The Aviary’s elaborate cocktails, and drawing insight from Achatz, Kokonas, and bar manager Micah Melton.
“Most publishers think: ‘Ah, it all kind of looks the same; it's just liquid in a glass so there's no real need for a lot of photography.’ Yes, most of the recipes are very short, so these books are conducive to being very small, but Nick and chef were like kind of like, ‘That's not the book that we want to make.’” Hemberger explains. “So we tried to do something rooted in the cookbooks that inspired chef when he was younger, like The French Laundry Cookbook or those big luxurious books where you have all this full-bleed photography and it looks totally awesome, and the recipes have all kinds of inspiring stuff in them.”
There’s indeed no shortage of inspiration in the book, which Hemberger says took about two years to fully come together. After all, the Aviary’s cocktail program is the stuff of legend within the bar world, known for innovative, advanced techniques and glassware: at either location, your drink might drip from a vacuum coffee siphon, require you to blow bubbles into a glass pipe, or arrive in a circular “Porthole,” that is, a proprietary vessel that offers a window into liquids being infused in real time. With presentations that so often blur the line between drink, food, and art, it makes sense that Achatz and Kokonas tapped artists to collaborate on such an ambitious project, even those with no cocktail experience.
“I knew nothing about cocktails, so we spent over six months to a year figuring out how these guys liked to work—and what exactly was the DNA of this bar,” Hemberger says. “It’s a bunch of chefs making drinks, taking these flavors that they're familiar with and expressing them in liquid form instead of solid form. We had been honing our craft in a very different context so they wanted to know what we could bring to this project, which became a super fun creative endeavor. We had almost 100-percent creative control over the whole thing, but had no vision coming into it.”
Despite, or perhaps thanks to, its eclectic roots, the book does its best to make up for the bar’s ultra-challenging recipes, with amped-up classics—an immersion-blended G&T splashed with citric acid and Green Chartreuse (page 20); a margarita poured over a Fresno chile ice cube (page 62)—offered alongside Aviary mainstays like the super-intricate “Science A.F.” cocktail (page 208), which is served in a vacuum pot, or coffee siphon. Recipe pages contain detailed instructions for prep and glassware, breaking down tricky, laborious techniques into more manageable bites.
“Most people that we've talked to have asked, ‘Who is the intended audience for this book?’” jokes Hemberger. “Like, surely this is not meant for people to do at home, but it turns out that having spent five years making everything from the Alinea cookbook at home gave me kind of an interesting perspective...There was a lot of back and forth between the chefs and us to kind of arrive at a point where the recipes represent how it's done at the Aviary, but there's also enough information to make it reasonable to do this stuff at home if you want.”
Beyond recipes, there are various musings and essays on topics ranging from flavoring ice (page 69) to backbar organization (page 187), as well as informational breakdowns of specific spirits. As relative newcomers to the cocktail scene, the Hembergers sat in on staff meetings to train and learn alongside Aviary bartenders.
“We were both so inherently curious about and fascinated by this whole world we’d never stepped into before,” Hemberger says. “As it turns out, they have a sort of regular round-table discussion to share knowledge, whether it’s the history of tequila or pairing food with cocktails. They didn’t think it would be interesting to anyone and we were like, ‘Are you guys nuts?!’ Sarah and I were frantically taking notes and so we decided to include a bunch of essays throughout the book on everything from non-alcoholic cocktails to pairing cocktails with food.”
While the Aviary’s storied cocktails certainly speak for themselves, there’s no denying the Hembergers’ magic touch has brought them to life in a new and unexpected way, pushing the boundaries of cocktails as high-concept art while also honoring the humble ethos of a well-made drink. From Sarah’s multiple illustrated tables of contents—organized, as is the new trend, by mood rather than by base spirit—to the dynamic styling and photography, the book will certainly stand out as a pioneer in the second golden age of craft cocktails.
“There were so many of these weird little moments where our curiosity and our weird background met their vast amount of information and perspective,” says Hemberger. “It all collided in these weird little ways that led to a more unique end result.”
The Aviary Cocktail Book, $85 at theaviarybook.com.