“Did we want to disrupt the industry model from the start? Of course we did. That was the whole point,” says Aviary and Alinea Group co-owner Nick Kokonas of the impetus behind the bar’s upcoming cocktail book. “The entire publishing industry is relying on a model that’s pretty old at this point, and we didn’t want to do another black-and-white cocktail book … another Gentleman’s Guide to Cocktails. We wanted to do something innovative and cool.”
“Innovative and cool” captures Aviary in a nutshell. When the bar opened in Chicago in 2011, their approach to drink-making immediately disrupted the status quo. “Bar chefs” were concocting lab-like drinks in a culinary environment. There was smoke, there was custom ice, and there was often an element of surprise, magic and drama. No matter the technique, every drink was meticulously prepared and unlike anything you’d ever experienced. Seven years later, their approach is still wholly unique, they’ve racked up awards and accolades, and they’ve expanded to a second location in New York. Bars and restaurant that achieve this level of success often extend their reach into the realm of books, and Aviary is no exception. But, not surprisingly, Kokonas wasn’t interested in the publishing status quo either.
Kokonas, who also co-authored the Alinea book and Grant Achatz’s biography, knew that accepting a traditional publishing deal would restrict their creative vision. “We had publishers come to us years ago, some of them I knew already and trusted, and I said I wanted to do an Alinea-quality book for cocktails … most of them said there was no market for a $60-80 cocktail book.” Kokonas recalls. “My goal was to sell half a million copies in three years, and they all thought I was ripping bong hits in the corner. ‘There’s no way. We’d ‘be lucky to sell 10,000,’ they said. Well, we’ve already pre-sold 6,000.”
Scheduled to officially release next month, The Aviary Cocktail Book is coming to fruition by way of crowd-sourcing, an effort that raised more than $400,000. To get the project off the ground, Kokonas built a studio, bought photography and printing equipment, and an unorthodox production team fell into place. Allen Hemberger, a visual effects artist whose résumé includes work on Finding Dory, Avatar and Brave, was living in the Bay Area with wife Sarah (who also works in the visual effects realm) when he embarked on a very Julie Powell-esque personal quest to cook his way through the Alinea book. He documented the process, and together the couple created a book called the Alinea Project. “We sent [Kokonas] a copy, which we intended to be kind of a gift to say, ‘Thanks for making that cookbook—that was cool,’ ” says Allen. “Nick called pretty much the next day and asked if we wanted to work on something. I said, ‘What in the world could you do with two visual effects artists,’ and he was like, ‘I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out.'”
That was 2014. When the idea of the Aviary book crystallized a few years later, the Hembergers took the leap and relocated to Chicago with their newborn daughter to get started. “Our careers were not dissimilar from these guys, which is to say we spend an enormous of time making things on screen look effortless to people. If people go to the movies and they watch something we’ve worked on and they see computer graphics, we’ve done a bad job. It should be invisible,” Allen says. “When we ate at Alinea, it felt like a magic show, and I know there were months or years of planning and thought and failed attempts and mistakes that go into producing this place—I wanted to know more about the process.”
The Hembergers had no background or training in cocktails (“I could make a pretty bad Old Fashioned, but that’s about it,” Allen chuckles), but they were ready to learn. “We walked into work the first day and had a meeting with Nick and Chef, and we were all ready with our notebooks and pens and we asked what they want this cookbook to be, and they waited a beat and said, ‘I don’t know. What do you guys want it to be?’ We were not at all prepared to be asked that,” Allen recalls. The process was arduous, with Allen and Sarah executing everything from the photography and writing to layout, reviewing proofs, evaluating cover prototypes and documenting the entire thing as they progressed. “I imagine a lot of books are made with a really clear game plan going in, and that was not the case at all with this. We had a quarter of a game plan, and then the book grew into what it is very, very organically,” Allen says.
That process yielded a final product that was something unlike most cocktail books. More than 100 recipes from the Aviary and The Office are included, many with multiple iterations per recipe. “There are six or eight recipes that have both the alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions and how we handle that. For any cocktail to be batched, we give the recipe for the single cocktail and the batched cocktail. If it can be turned into a punch we give that recipe as well,” says Kokonas. “There are some cocktails that have four different variants for whether you’re a professional making just one or doing it at your house for a dinner party. There are sections on different techniques, too, so a section where we offer 20 different recipes for the Porthole, or 10 for In The Rocks. New techniques we think are worth exploring.”
There’s another section dedicated to pairing cocktails with food, as Aviary often does with its sister restaurant NEXT, and when it came to including The Office in the book, treating the adjacent vintage spirits-focused bar with the same approach as Aviary didn’t sit right with the team, so they chose to break the content out into its own section. “It’s got different paper, different design, photography methods, lighting, everything is different. It’s almost like a 100-something page book within the book,” says Kokonas.
Everything is meant to be beautiful yet practical. “We want it to be a fun and exciting and delicious book, visually, but also to teach people how to do some of these things,” Kokonas says. “I’d say about a third of [the recipes] are really easy to make at home, a lot more so than the Alinea book, because most of the ingredients can be found in their identical form to everyone. If you use a bottle of rum, it’s the same thing to me as it is to you. A lot of it is very doable.”
Reflecting back on the process, Allen says it’s hard to judge whether they’ve met their own standards or not—that will be determined when the book lands in the hands of cocktail enthusiasts. In the meantime, they’re learning how to create a promotional campaign for the book and navigate the treacherous waters of order fulfillment. Kokonas says while managing all the nitty gritty details that a publishing house would normally handle has felt onerous, the complete creative control paid off in the end. “There’s no way this book would have ever gotten published any other way,” he says. “I think when people see the difference in physical quality—the paper, the binding, the cover—it’s so evidently better than most other books. So many things we do are digital, so a good-quality book is a great object in itself.”
Order a copy of the book here.
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