Playboy’s Host & Bar Book contains no nudes. In fact, there’s only one photo in the entire book that prominently features a woman.
In its foreground we see a couple: the man, laughing, pours what looks like a pitcher of martinis into a glass for an ample-chested and wide-eyed woman. She looks at him hopefully, gratefully, clutching his forearm as if to say, Baby, tell me about those ingredient ratios again? Their heads and bodies touch—a very clear indication of what will happen after the night’s activity shifts from the bar cart to the bedroom. Learn your way around a stiff martini, the photo suggests, and she will find her way to your stiff martini, if you catch our drift, old chap.
Thomas Mario’s magnum opus of drink is a delightfully retro combination of entertaining manual (there are tips on hosting luaus and après-ski parties), wine and spirits primer and compendium of over 700 recipes, aimed to turn the average man into a consummate playboy-entertainer. And while it often reads like you’re sitting in your overbearing uncle’s shag-carpeted basement listening to him mansplain the origins of rum-based cocktails, it isn’t just a kitschy relic. Many of its recipes may need a bit of tweaking for modern palates, but this wide-reaching volume is still relevant to home bartenders everywhere. Including the lady ones. Because we could all stand to infuse a bit more flair into our home entertaining regime.
When the book first came out in 1971, Mario had served as Playboy’s Food and Drinks editor for almost 30 years. As the dust jacket tells it, “his frequent overseas trips [kept] him up to date on the latest developments concerning food, wine, and spirits.” With the introduction of each family of spirits or type of French wine, he plants the flag of a connoisseur with drama and no shortage of flowery descriptors. He wants you to know that he has sipped rum on Caribbean beaches, walked among the vines of Bordeaux, drunk aperitivi in Italy and definitely had sex with a woman. He sees himself—and this book—as your ticket into his world.
But more importantly, Playboy’s Host & Bar Book represents a pivotal moment in American drinking culture. It describes the cocktail’s recent shift, according to Mario’s introduction, from “the isolated hobby of a few to a basic part of every man’s liberal education,” and gives us a window into the party hosts that came before us: “With immense relish he becomes the director of a zestful drama every time he offers drinks.” As Mario tells it, the home bartender is both actor and dramaturg. And the drinks contained within the pages of this book are as much a record of the kitsch and playfulness that have defined this era of drinking (Champagne is referred to as “giggle water”; wine coolers abound), as it is to a 1970s idea of connoisseurship.
So how well do these drinks really hold up in 2015? We called on a few of our favorite bartenders—Tristan Willey of Long Island Bar, Robby Nelson of Long Island Bar and Prime Meats and Shannon Ponche of Leyenda and Clover Club—along with PUNCH Editor-in-Chief Talia Baiocchi and Managing Editor Bianca Prum, to taste five drinks that showed unorthodox promise (or just sounded irresistibly weird). It was a very serious, very scientific affair that yielded some surprising winners, and a few that we needed to retool.
The Bunny Mother
A shaken, orange juice- and vodka-based cocktail, originally served at the San Francisco Playboy Club.
“It looks like an old Playboy drink. I love that.” — Tristan
“I taste a little 1970s in this.” — Talia
“It would make a great brunch cocktail.” — Shannon
“It reminds me of an army green wingback chair. I would drink it!” — Tristan
Verdict: This is actually delicious in its current form. It’s democratic and balances that ‘70s aesthetic with all the benefits of an easy-drinking vodka cocktail. Hot tip: Pour some Prosecco on it.
The Blue Angel
A very blue combination of brandy, blue curaçao, Parfait Amour, lemon juice and cream categorized as an after-dinner drink and described by Mario as “cool, incredibly smooth.” Technically, he’s not wrong.
“It’s real gross. Tastes like a melted blue Otter Pop.” —Tristan
“This tastes like, if a kid was trying to make an orange Julius and fucked it up.” —Robby
“It looks like a spaceship in a coupe.” —Marian
“There’s a really bad burnt plastic aftertaste.” —Shannon
Verdict: Improvement was imperative, and it came by way of swapping out blue curaçao (for Cointreau) and Parfait Amour (for Crème de Violette).
An inexplicably enormous cocktail (nine ounces big) that calls for bourbon, black tea, red wine, redcurrant syrup and lemon and orange juices.
“You know who came up with this? I don’t know, but he was an alcoholic.” —Robby
“Everyone’s drunk uncle’s favorite cocktail.” —Shannon
“It’s Daddy’s tea.” —Tristan
Verdict: This is excellent in all of its super-sized glory. It’s vanilla-y from the bourbon, tannic from the tea, sweet from the currants and boozy as hell—i.e. it has all the makings of a perfect punch. We’ve scaled it down, for convenience, but feel free to go drunk uncle on it.
The classic daiquiri with the addition of sesame syrup.
“It tastes like a daiquiri, but it’s more rich—it’s fatter.” —Shannon
“There is a hint of nuttiness.” —Talia
“It has a popsicle-y, concentrated flavor.” —Bianca
Verdict: However odd the addition of sesame might sound, this is a great daiquiri, and even better with housemade sesame syrup (which we’ve included a recipe for).
A combination of gin, lemon juice and Strega that Mario calls a “monument to the subtle blending of unidentifiable flavors of herbs and fruits.” Of course.
“It’s like a really bad Sidecar.” —Shannon
“It’s like a Lemon Drop, with Strega in it. I’d take a shot of it.” —Talia
“Like a SoCo and lime shot, but slightly better?” —Marian
“It’s like flat Strega.” —Tristan
Verdict: It’s really easy for Strega to overwhelm in cocktails, and that’s definitely the case here. Pair that with the lack of balance (too bracingly citric), and this was also in need of a revamp, which came courtesy of the addition of honey syrup and a general adjustment of specs.