Malcolm Jolley meets the author of Drinks: A User’s Guide…

After a decade of writing a column about cocktails and drinks culture for the National Post newspaper, Adam McDowell has authored Drinks: A User’s Guide. On his publisher’s website, the page that features the book carries the headline “Expert Drinking Made Easy”, and it’s an apt description. The book carries all manner of information on cocktails, but also spirits themselves and wine and beer. It’s a fantastic reference book if you’re curious about what you drink, and it’s a fun read. In my humble opinion every bar ought to have a copy nearby, whether a public house or a collection of bottles in the kitchen. (I keep my spirit bottles on a bookshelf in my kitchen, so I’m well covered.)

I met McDowell last week for a few drinks to find out more about him and his book. Obviously, I let him order the drinks: a couple of Aviations. Mine was delicious, but I wasn’t sure what exactly was in it. Now I know, because I just looked it up in his book. It’s in the gin chapter, right after recipes for the Last Word and the Twentieth Century:


  • 1½ ounces of gin
  • ¾ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 dashes (½ teaspoon) maraschino cherry liqueur
  • 2 dashes (½ teaspoon) crème de violette
  • Maraschino cherry for garnish

Add the gin, lemon juice, maraschino liqueur, and crème de violette to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well until the mixture is very cold and then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish the drink with the cherry and serve.

drinks-a-users-guide-bookMcDowell is friendly, nattily dressed thirtysomething (I think) man who makes his way as an editor and a journalist. He told me he began to be professionally interested in drinks when he went overseas and worked in a pub as a student in the UK. The pub had been voted Britain’s best, and the management expected their staff to take the metier of bartending seriously and know how to pour a proper drink. Later, back in Toronto when he was working at The National Post, the opportunity for a drinks column came up and he took it. It turned out to be a great opportunity, not just because it was fun, but also because the column grew up with cocktail culture in Canada. McDowell likened the first few years of writing about drinks in the newspaper to having a column about stamp collecting: he knew he had dedicated audience, but he didn’t think it was very big. By the end of the column’s run, though, he knew he had a solid readership of thirsty enthusiasts.

Drinks: A User’s Guide is an opinionated book, which is fine because 1) so far I happen to agree with all the opinions expressed and 2) like it’s author it’s pretty open minded. One of the great pieces of advice he extols is in one of the wine chapters: ask your sommelier for advice if your having a hard time choosing a wine. Isn’t that obvious, though, I ask. McDowell disagrees, and laughs that too many people see choosing a wine as some kind of test of character, and are too embarrassed to ask the pros.

Again, like its author, Drinks: A User’s Guide has a sense of humour. (As I discovered as we moved onto gin Martinis made, à la McDowell with a dash of orange bitters.) Under the section Drinks by Occasion, and in the chapter Ad Hoctails, For Those Times When You’re Truly Desperate, is the following recipe:

Off-White Russian No. 1

  • 1 ounce vodka
  • One 8-ounce (250-millilitre) carton of chocolate milk (that is, lunch-box size)

Pour the vodka into the the chocolate milk carton. Close the spout. Shake. Drink through a straw, if available.

Drinks: A user’s Guide is also a serious book, and reflects McDowell’s interest in cocktails and drinks developed in Europe in the early Twentieth Century, a time and place he told he thinks of as a golden era of drinks development. The Aperitifs chapter reflect this, since it details and explains all manner of exotic drinks and then suggests cocktails for them. It’s a sort of alco-nerd’s dream come true. And a happy find for a food writer, too: expect more drinks related history at GFR in my posts to come.