Nick Fauchald knows immediately what he wants to drink.
Such discernment should be expected from the co-author of 2018’s “Cocktail Codex: Fundamentals, Formulas, Evolutions,” a hefty coffee-table book that organizes the vast world of craft cocktailing into just six categories.
The book, with co-authors Alex Day and David Kaplan, (who are co-owners of New York City’s renowned Death & Co cocktail bar) was named Book of the Year from the James Beard Media Awards. For something as niche as cocktails, nabbing the high honor was as unusual as winning a Best Picture Oscar for a six-hour black-and-white documentary on piano-tuning.
The surprise was not lost on Fauchald, who grew up in Red Wing and returned to Minnesota last year after a 15-year magazine career in New York City. The St. Olaf grad got his start here, though, at Minnesota Monthly. In New York, his career took him to Wine Spectator, Rachael Ray magazine, Food & Wine, Tasting Table and eventually to books.
“Cocktail Codex” was his second acclaimed collaboration with the Death & Co guys. The first was 2014’s “Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails,” another large and looky cocktail book that broke the mold of minuscule bar handbooks à la “Mr. Boston.”
Fauchald now lives in St. Paul with his wife and 2-year-old son. Life’s demands don’t leave him much time to go out exploring the Twin Cities’ cocktail scene as often as he’d like, so when he gets the chance, he makes the most of it.
That’s why he chose one of his favorites, the Back Bar at Young Joni, for a drink one summer evening. When the bartender came around, Fauchald knew exactly what to order.
Free Firewood: Must Cut Down is made with palo santo wood-infused rum, amontillado sherry and lime. It might sound elaborate, but at its core, it’s a daiquiri — a type of drink with a whole chapter in “Cocktail Codex,” as one of the “root recipes” that give birth to many variations by tweaking the spirit, the balance or other ingredients.
That’s not why Fauchald ordered it, though.
“If I’m someplace that I think might be great, I might get a daiquiri,” he said. “It’s a good test, a good indication of how seriously they take their drinks. It’s universally the secret handshake of bartenders.”
We joined Fauchald for a few rounds and chatted about his stunning award, what makes a good cocktail, and how he’d like to make his mark on the Twin Cities food and drink scene.
Q: I have to ask first about the size of this book. It’s enormous and weighty. It feels important. Why did you make it that way?
A: Working with those guys [Day and Kaplan] on our first book, we all had ambitious ideas, and they very much were in alignment. We put together this ridiculous, over-the-top book proposal, where we essentially designed the book, and the trim size was twice as big as cocktail books. We were inspired by coffee-table chef-y restaurant cookbooks, which were popular then, and thought, ‘Why can’t we do that with cocktails?’ Publishers had a stigma, or it was understood, that cocktail books had to be a certain price. They had to be giftable, small, affordable. But when we met the publisher of Ten Speed Press, he was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ A year or two later, it came out and it was successful.It was a good proof of concept. It broke through a few barriers that I think cocktail books had been facing. Not long after that, we went back to them and said we’d like to do another one.
Q: Why did that first book need a sequel?
A: That book was very much about that bar at that time. It was a snapshot of how Death & Co got there. It’s a great story, but it doesn’t really help you understand why a martini is this proportion of gin or vodka and this portion of vermouth, or why a daiquiri is a daiquiri.
This book [“Cocktail Codex”] is really Alex’s brainchild, because he’s the one teaching folks this approach: Let’s pick apart an Old-Fashioned, which is essentially a glass of whiskey that has been tweaked to be more palatable with a little bit of sugar and a little bit of bitters. It’s got this aromatic component from the citrus and the bitters. It’s got some sweetness and body and balance from the sugar, and then it’s a big glass of booze.
If you take that idea and look at other cocktails, you start to recognize that in surprising places. You see it in a Champagne cocktail, which is not boozy. It’s a refreshing wine-based drink, but it’s got sugar cubes and bitters. Basically, you’re taking out the whiskey and adding the Champagne. And a hot toddy is the same thing, it’s just hot. All of a sudden, you see drinks completely differently.
Q: Who is this book for — people who have experience making cocktails, or people mixing drinks at home?
A: Ideally, it’s for both. I think the people who get the most out of it are the professionals. But we’re learning as we’re out there doing events and meeting people who have read the book, there are some extremely ambitious home cocktail enthusiasts who will take things as far as any bar. It’s very much become a hobbyist thing.
It’s surprising, because if I were going to step back and look at the “Death & Co” cocktail book or a lot of books about a bar, those drinks aren’t really that approachable at home. They have many esoteric ingredients you can’t find at the liquor store, or a lot of advanced prep work: syrups, infusions. I’m never going to do that at home. I’m not that kind of home bartender. I make simple stuff. But we’ve met people who have made every single drink, and they go hunt down ingredients.
Q: So, what do you make at home?
A: Honestly, I don’t make that many drinks. When I don’t have to deal with cocktails for work, I take a break. I don’t have the desire to do it. But for sure, the daiquiri. I think, it’s just never a wrong time for a daiquiri. And because my brain has been rewired to think about everything through a few classic fundamental drinks, I will go back to those classics and make them — a classic martini or an Old-Fashioned.
Q: If someone doesn’t have the book, but wants to know what to do to make better cocktails at home, what are some tips?
A: Leaving the ingredients out of it for a second, the most important thing people should focus on is the temperature of the cocktail. We often don’t get our drinks cold enough. It sounds like the most fussy thing, but getting your glass cold before you put a drink in it is not hard to do, and it will really elevate your cocktails because you can enjoy them longer.
Q: The Beard Award —
A: That was shocking. I didn’t even bother going out [to the media awards ceremony in New York] for this one. We got nominated for the last book and we went to the media awards. The cocktail categories are usually the first of the evening. So we knew we didn’t win that award right away. [This time] the same thing happened. I got a text at like 6 p.m. saying we didn’t win. No surprise. It was fine. I was at a concert.
And then like two hours later, my phone went nuts. Alex and Dave had tried to leave midway through the show, and the James Beard staff would not let them leave the venue. So they stayed, but didn’t know what was going on. We didn’t know it was even an option we could win the big award of the night. No cocktail book had ever won it. We didn’t dream we would be in the running for it. So I didn’t understand what they were talking about when they texted me that we won Book of the Year.
Q: When did you move back to Minnesota?
A: Late last summer. It’s been awesome. I love it. It’s been fun to catch up on the restaurant and drinking culture.
Q: Were you following the cocktail scene here while you were living in New York?
A: Yes, but a lot of the stuff that would hit my radar would be things that got national attention.
Q: What are your favorite places to drink here?
A: I don’t really have a good answer because I don’t go out to drink that much. I have a kid. But I have huge respect for Marco [Zappia]’s drinks at Martina and Colita. He’s doing things differently, not just here, but on a national level, worthy of a lot of respect. And I love this bar [the Back Bar at Young Joni]. The atmosphere, and what I’m drinking. It doesn’t take itself super seriously. The music’s good. You can eat pizza.
Ultimately, I want to open something, or several things here. I would love to have some kind of hospitality business. If I could do anything right now, I’d update an old neighborhood bar, like they did with the Bull’s Horn. Don’t mess with it too much, but serve better food and drinks. I spend a lot of time [at Bull’s Horn]. It’s the kind of place I could go to any day of the week.