The white noise soundtrack of booze and ice being thrashed in a shaker spikes the air around us with promise. It’s been a long week, and our salvation is whatever’s being mixed by Charlottesville's premier barman, Micah LeMon. Rattling the shiny vessel with vampire quickness, he casts a 100-yard stare toward the windows at the far wall of The Alley Light’s cozy dining room. Suddenly, as if a record scratches, silence descends and heads turn.
‘By my rough estimate, if you tally all of the hours, I’ve logged about four years of my life in a church. That’s probably how I ended up behind the bar.’
While that nod to his conservative, religious roots sinks in, he goes back to the shaking with a wry smile on his face. Saddled at his bar are semi pro drinkers. Judging from the way they interact and opine on various spirits with LeMon, they’ve been around the block. The Alley Light tends to be a gathering place for the experienced.
It’s clear that LeMon is in his element with educated imbibers - the way a pastor might be post sermon in a church fellowship hall - but just like most Charlottesville industry pros, he’s all about welcoming rookies (sinners, if you will) to the warm inner circle of his craft. It’s no stretch to say LeMon is the shepherd who guides lost sheep home.
How else to explain the universal, open-armed gospel he dispenses in his recently published cocktail book?
The Imbible is the sensible playbook drinkers and home bartenders have long desired. The wildfire growth of the craft cocktail movement has been spectacular. An unfortunate side effect is that newcomers and latecomers to the party can feel intimidated and alienated, some death-gripping their vodka sodas and Jack & Cokes because they don’t know what else to do. Someone needed to demystify the art of mixology in a way beginners and so-called booze savants could grasp and practice. LeMon opens that door with his relatable manual.
‘Classic cocktails are blueprints for successful drinks, and mastering a classic recipe can serve as a roadmap to a new creation or (as often happens) to re-creating a successful drink that already exists.’ - Micah LeMon
Each chapter of this refreshing tome flows seamlessly into the next, making this a light read you can knock out in one sitting. Drinking while reading is encouraged.
In "Theory" LeMon establishes a mental mise en place for readers. He breezes us through some cocktail history (86 dry textbook nuance) and introduces the three critical characters of a legit cocktail: spirit, sweet and sour/bitter. An accessible taxonomy of spirits and brands follows as the perfect guide for navigating the broad range of offerings on the market these days.
"Tools & Techniques" guides the tactical execution of the game plan and is where readers learn how to stock the essential hardware, appreciate the dynamics of ice and glean why James Bond’s martini order was always ‘shaken, not stirred’. LeMon keeps it real here and sticks to two classic cocktails - the shaken Daiquiri and the stirred Manhattan - as foundations on which aspiring cocktail can artists build.
Finally, we get our hands dirty with recipes in "Stirred & Shaken Cocktails". Each is dressed with insightful context, throwback references to techniques and theories in previous chapters and LeMon’s colorful tasting notes that pen the cocktail’s soul. It’s worth mention, that none of these recipes call for a tedious laundry list of ingredients that might lead the home bar tender to glaze over and turn the page - again, he keeps it all accessible.
The Imbible concludes with marching orders and best wishes to readers for "Making Your Own Signature Cocktails" - a refresher on theory and a rough map of the boozy boulevards ahead. You might not be ready to medal at Tales of the Cocktail, but you'll impress the hell out of guests at your next gathering.
Suckers for smart language, we find LeMon’s prose strikes a balanced note that educates without being preachy and doesn’t dummy down the content to patronize. Refreshingly absent in this work is pretentious tone readers find in most cocktail books. If you’ve witnessed him behind the stick, you know the voice is true to the cadence and wit you get in person. Coincidence that the writing style aligns with they way he balances his cocktails? NFW!
Aesthetically mouth watering, thanks to some rich photography by Tom McGovern, The Imbible is an easy and joyful read best paired with an Orange Artichoke, one of our favorite LeMon originals.
Available now online and at these local retailers: New Dominion, University of Virginia Bookstore and Barnes & Noble.
In the "research" phase of this review, P+K engaged LeMon in some email banter that reveals solid insight into the mind of this mad scientist.
P+K: When you consider the landscape of cocktail books out there, is there a particular void you wanted to fill, an itch that others in this area of subject matter have failed to scratch, with The Imbible?
LeMon: Absolutely! As I mention in the very first pages of the book, I started bartending with literally no knowledge of alcohol--I didn't know a damn thing! I came from a very conservative Pentecostal Christian family and at that time no one in the family would have even thought twice about having a sip of the devil's juice. I guess my curiosity about alcohol was a bit of a tacit rebellion against my upbringing….but when I went to learn a little on the topic I was surprised that there was no consensus as to how to theoretically structure and technically execute a cocktail. All of the cocktail books I encountered were just bland lists of recipes. There was little "why" or "how" to any of the books. And so many of the recipes contained ingredients I had never heard of! I wrote The Imbible for my 20-year old self: for someone who was interested in booze but totally unfamiliar with the topic. The book walks newbies through everything they need to know to understand balance in cocktails, how to technically execute one, and how to approach riffing on classics to make new, original cocktails.
P+K: Our guess is you've read stacks of cocktail books in your time. When poring over these, what styles, themes and hooks tend to grab you?
LeMon: I think the most common theme of old cocktail books is riffing on existing drinks. A lot of super old-timey books will say something like "build like a sherry cobbler but substitute madeira for sherry". This strategy of classifying ingredients and substituting like ingredients is a basic but crucial approach to being innovative. It's been insightful to see the connectedness of all the classics by thumbing through old books, and recognizing that most cocktails are simply theoretically sound riffs on other, successful cocktails.
P+K: Is there a cocktail writer who influences your approach? Any favorites in the genre?
LeMon: Man, I'm a big fan of Jeffrey Morgenthaler and Dave Arnold (I mention them by name in my book), each for different reasons. Morgenthaler is one of the first of the new wave of craft bartenders who not only pioneered DIY cocktail ingredients, but also he was willing to share his recipes. You see his footprint on every bar that carries house made tonic and ginger beer (we carry both!). His work also has a sort of no-nonsense approach and saltiness to it that I think resonates with bartenders who make a living economizing time and seeing through bullshit. I also really dig Dave Arnold's work in CookingIssues.com and in his book Liquid Intelligence. He took it upon himself to single-handedly address every folk notion of bar tending using a data-driven scientific approach. It's refreshing to be able to point to a graph with numbers and statistical conclusions as justification for how and why we do what we do behind the bar. His book also has a certain impractical nerdiness to it that inspires the spirit of whimsical experimentation that every good bartender should have.
P+K: The old adage 'talking about music is like dancing about architecture’ seems to speak to the challenges and vague awkwardness that comes with attempting to intellectualize certain topics. Did you ever wrestle with anything like that in your writing?
LeMon: Oh, for sure! A brief aside: I recently went to France and wandered around a bunch of old cities, marveling at all the cool stuff still standing from the Middle Ages. After visiting the Cathedral in Reims, I was surprised to find myself spending the better part of a day of my vacation in a Wikipedia rabbit hole reading about Clovis the Frank, the 800 years of Frankish kings coronated in the cathedral, the Gauls, the Goths, the Vandals, the decline of the Roman empire, Aryan interpretations of the humanity of Christ, the multiculturalism of Normandy and how the Normans couldn't have conquered England without the help of Viking monarchs. All that to say, I witnessed something of beauty that provoked genuine curiosity. Without seeing the cathedral and the like, all of those facts were just boring, irrelevant trivia. I think that an experience of beauty - whether that is aesthetic, gustatory, olfactory or tactile - generates curiosity. I think that is why food writers can read and write about food and music writers can read and write about music. When I finally experienced balanced and delicious cocktails, I wanted to know how they worked! When I serve people, I recognize that describing things in the absence of an experience can be unproductively abstract. When I write, I try to anchor new content to familiar analogies (Mr. Potato Head, especially) and maybe some embarrassing things from my life that they might think funny or memorable. You'll have to let me know how I did writing about drinking. (Editor's note: He crushed it. )