Essential Reading: The Vegetarian Flavor Bible
Updated: Aug 25, 2020
One of the most common questions asked by professional and home bartenders alike is, “What cocktail books are worth my time/money?” For dedicated cocktail recipes and techniques, there are many options, but one of the easiest ways to answer that question is to take a look at the backbar of your most revered cocktail bars.
Most bars will have at least some kind of reference library where you will find plenty of overlap and familiar names. You'll likely find books by Dale DeGroff, Gary Regan, Sasha Patraske, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Dave Wondrich, Alex Day, David Kaplan, or Nick Fauchald.
But there's one book most prevalent and simultaneously overlooked: The Flavor Bible.
The Flavor Bible
James Beard-winning authors Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg have written a handful of books, none more relevant to the cocktail industry than The Flavor Bible. This book is the secret weapon of the contemporary bartender. Every cocktail book published from 2008 on inevitably owes at least some of its recipes to The Flavor Bible. The top bars in the world, regardless of country, are using this book as a source of inspiration.
Essentially, the book is a survey of the world's top chefs on how to utilize ingredients best and how to pair them. It is broken down alphabetically by raw ingredients with a general description of the flavor, seasonality, nutritional information, botanical relatives, and recommended cooking methods, followed by a list of complementary ingredients and flavors.
Much of the cocktail R&D process at bars involves making a drink and having your peers taste it and offer insight - what works, what doesn't, and suggestions for substitutions or improvement. The Flavor Bible acts as a static extension of this process, with tasting notes and conversations committed to print for reference.
An introduction to The Vegetarian Flavor Bible
Karen Page, often the lone woman author on a backbar and co-author of The Flavor Bible, is also the author of The Vegetarian Flavor Bible, which is even more applicable to cocktail creation.
From this point on, I'll be focusing on The Vegetarian Flavor Bible as not only does it ignore ingredients rarely or never incorporated into cocktails, it expands on the ingredients and flavors which we more commonly leverage behind the bar.
Let's use grapefruit as an example. This is a fruit available year-round, but its peak season is in the winter. It's a sour fruit, and depending on the type of grapefruit (white, red, or pink), it will range in flavor from bitter to sweet. The Vegetarian Flavor Bible lists nearly 70 flavor pairings, some with a higher affinity than others. Cinnamon pairs nicely, oranges have an even stronger affinity, and brown sugar is an ideal pairing.
The book goes into greater detail and will list specific pairings and recipes by various chefs, but at its core, it's a flavor pairing guide.
Beyond the most obvious practical uses, the book goes into detail about some of the more esoteric aspects of food and drink construction. It breaks down the five flavors (sweet, salt, sour, bitter, and umami) and how our taste buds perceive them. Aroma and visuals are also a part of this conversation. Most interestingly, Page's book breaks down mouthfeel, comprised of texture, temperature, piquancy, and astringency. Mouthfeel tends to be one of the least discussed aspects of cocktail construction, and easily one of the most crucial to the success of a balanced cocktail.
The Vegetarian Flavor Bible and creative bartending
So how is The Vegetarian Flavor Bible more critical for the creative bartender than say, The Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual? Well, besides the fact that you are more likely to have most of the ingredients on hand, you can start to see how creative cocktails are constructed.
To do so, you'll first need to understand two concepts: echoing and complementing flavors.
Echoing and complementing flavors for cocktail creation
Echoing a flavor means you're combining two or more ingredients with similar flavor profiles. Garnishing a Tom Collins with a lemon twist is an obvious example that uses the citrus peel to echo the fruit juice in the cocktail.
Complementing a flavor is when you combine two or more ingredients that have an affinity for each other but do not taste similar, such as apples and cinnamon. Let's look at two different cocktails and construct them with the help of The Vegetarian Flavor Bible.
Flavors behind the Garibaldi
The signature drink of the world-famous Dante in NYC, The Garibaldi, is comprised of Campari and orange juice.
Take the first ingredient: Campari. On the palate, you get tons of bitter grapefruit with some orange and gentian in the mix. There's plenty more to taste, but those are the biggest, broadest strokes. As stated above, The Vegetarian Flavor Bible lists oranges as a strong pairing with grapefruit. You can now see how these two simple flavors perfectly complement each other. The orange juice also echoes the orange notes in the Campari.
Dante's Garibaldi is especially delightful thanks to their focus on the “fluffy” orange juice, which comes as a result of running fresh oranges through a juicer to order. This creates a texture infinitely more interesting than merely dumping Campari into a glass of orange juice, thus accounting for the all-important “mouthfeel.”
Flavor affinity and Negroni variations
Now let's dig a little deeper. A Reddit user recently posted a Negroni comparison pitting four different vermouths against each other. In summation, they overwhelmingly chose Cocchi di Torino as their vermouth of choice while declaring Noilly Prat Rouge to be “garbage.” I strongly disagreed with the sentiment, offering an alternative point of view: Noilly Prat was just the wrong vermouth to pair with that drink.
Why? To start, their gin of choice was Roku, a Japanese gin with traditional London Dry Gin botanicals (cinnamon, bitter orange, and lemon) that also includes heavy notes of sencha tea, yuzu lemon, and sansho pepper. All of the listed botanicals are complementary flavors for grapefruit (Campari) in The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. Roku is also a more confectionary gin than a traditional London Dry, so it plays better with vermouth with similar notes: Cocchi di Torino.
Note: sencha, yuzu, and sansho are not listed in the book, but an analysis of their flavor profiles lead to complementary citrus and nut flavors.
Next, let's examine the flavor affinity of our two vermouths with Campari.
Campari flavors and affinity
Grapefruit: high affinity with lemon, orange, brown sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, citrus fruits
Orange: high affinity with cinnamon, citrus fruits, vanilla
Gentian (herbal, roots, bitter)
Cocchi di Torino primary flavors & notes
Caramel ("sugar browned on fire")
Higher in sugar (200 g/l)
Noilly Prat Rouge primary flavors & notes
Lower in sugar (133 g/l)
The higher sugar content and the confectionary notes of cinnamon and vanilla in Cocchi di Torino make it an excellent match for the bitter grapefruit and orange we taste in the Campari.
By simply analyzing the flavor profiles of both Noilly Prat Rouge and Cocchi di Torino, one can point to Cocchi di Torino as an obvious pairing without even having to taste the two side by side.
Apply The Vegetarian Flavor Bible to your creations
So now that you see how you can use The Vegetarian Flavor Bible to reverse engineer tried and true classics, you can apply that logic to variations on classics and your own unique creations.
It all starts with a split base of Rittenhouse and Old Overholt rye whiskeys. The first tasting note you'll get for Old Overholt is "peanut." Teague echoes this note by substituting peanut orgeat for the typical almond-based orgeat usually found in a Mai Tai.
The Flavor Bible lists oranges as a pairing for peanut, so dry curacao is right at home in this drink.
It's rare to see lime juice paired with whiskey, but as it turns out, peanuts have a strong affinity with lime, making the nutty Old Overholt the perfect whiskey for a Mai Tai riff. And, would you look at that! So does mint, which provides a complementary bouquet to smell as you sip.
Know your backbar
Knowing your backbar is crucial. Once you understand the flavor profiles of your bottles, you can rely less on syrups and infusions and allow your base spirits to do much of the heavy lifting.
Beyond the Campari/grapefruit and Old Overholt/peanut examples I've listed, try reaching for Jamaican rum when you want a subtle banana note. In general, spirits which undergo an open fermentation process bring tons of tropical fruit notes, so consider certain mezcals when you need mango, or baijiu when you need pineapple.
Pair your modifiers with the right spirit
Moving away from base spirits, suppose you have a modifier you'd like to highlight in a cocktail.
Strawberries make a perfect example. Strawberry pairs exceptionally well with lemon, ginger, sugar, and cinnamon as well as vanilla, black pepper, and caramel. Those are the exact components of Erik Castro's Kentucky Buck cocktail. Vanilla, black pepper, and caramel are common tasting notes for bourbon, making strawberry and bourbon a delightful match.
Suppose you want to pair your strawberries with gin instead. A strawberry simple syrup would be the perfect sweetener for a fresh basil Gimlet or a standard Eastside, as strawberry pairs with basil, mint, and lime. Strawberry also pairs nicely with grapefruit and orange, which explains why strawberry-infused Campari is so common.
Complement and echo to unlock your cocktail potential
Some of the most successful cocktails I've had on menus have quite literally been chains of complementary flavors that can mostly be found in The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. The Lady Chablis cocktail uses a standard Gold Rush honeyed sour spec and chains bourbon – black pepper – honey – lemon – malt whiskey – peach – Angostura bitters (cinnamon) – Ming River Baijiu (pineapple).
Once you dial in the ratios, all of those flavors fit neatly together through complementing or echoing. R&D doesn't always work out that way, but at the very least, it's a good jumping-off point.
Experienced bartenders have tasted enough spirits, food, and flavors to trust their palates to guide them during cocktail R&D. However, even the best of the best still use this book to unlock a pairing they may never have considered, especially in the absence of trusted peers.
I highly recommend grabbing a copy to start unlocking the full potential of your bar and kitchen. Fresh produce will become more exciting, spice racks will make you feel like a child in a toy store, and your cocktails will inevitably level up.