Cooking the Aviary Cocktail Book: Mad World

· Read in about 6 min
Home bartending, Aviary

Alright, let’s see if we can’t get some momentum going here. For the time being, I’m going to stick with the cocktail theme (although I do think I’ll get back to computers eventually). And while I do have some other big ideas like my post on essential oils, I’m going to try and space them out a bit so I don’t feel pressured to have something great every time I update. What better way to keep things lightweight than adapting content I’ve already written?

I got a copy of the stunningly beautiful Aviary Cocktail Book in 2018, shortly after it was released. It’s definitely a bit of an odd duck. While it’s pitched and structured as a recipe book, it seems somewhat clear that they don’t quite expect mere mortals like us to be able to make all of it. Out of 118 cocktails, I counted 6 different recipes that call for a rotary vacuum distiller. Two that call for a centrifuge (and more designed for a centrifuge, even if edited to not require it). It feels as much like a coffee table book as a cookbook. I think it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll ever make it all the way through the Aviary Cocktail Book, but the drinks I have made have been unique, inspiring, informative, and fun.

(As an aside, if you’re interested in some unique cocktails that don’t require a full home chemistry lab, I do definitely recommend the Aviary books of Holiday and Summer Cocktails. They’re accessible in a way the first book isn’t. My roommate Jeremy and I made 16 different holiday cocktails as part of our “adventinis”—an advent calendar of pandemic quarantine cocktails we did during the 2020 holiday season. I may write more about them later here, but in the meantime, my commentary is on Twitter.)

In total, to date, I’ve made either 7 or 9 cocktails out of The Aviary Cocktail Book, depending on how you count (one of them was a 3-glass flight of related drinks). I took notes as I made them, which seems like it should translate well to blog post content.

If I was staying truer to the blog format, I’d probably go in chronological order. But instead, I want to start with the cocktail that is currently my single all-time favorite cocktail I’ve ever had: the Mad World.

A photo of the Mad World in a double old fashioned glass, in front of the recipe from the Aviary Cocktail Book

(Originally from 27 Dec, 2019)

I was drawn to the Mad World on one of my earliest passes through the Aviary book. It’s pitched as inspired by French onion soup, and it seemed like exactly the kind of weird and unusual flavor combination I expected from a book by the Alinea Group. How do you turn French onion soup into a cocktail? Would it be rich and savory?

The recipe calls for Eagle Rare bourbon, St. George spiced pear liqueur, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, and a homemade caramelized onion syrup. It’s served down over ice cubes made from Madeira, and garnished with an expressed orange peel (which, as I’ve observed with other drinks, is critical to the balance of the drink; the drink is just not as magical if you forget it).

I made this for the first time in December 2019, and it was the 4th (or 6th) time I had tried making an Aviary cocktail. I went into this one a bit nervous, as the others had all required…quite a bit of time, energy, and care, and they definitely didn’t fit the categories of cocktails I was used to. This recipe definitely required a little work—you have to thoroughly caramelize onions and then cook them sous vide with simple syrup, straining out the solids afterward. But even though it takes a while, the recipe results in enough syrup for a lot of cocktails, and the rest of the drink is easy to assemble.

Onions post caramelization but pre sous vide

Onions post caramelization but pre sous vide

Here’s what I wrote after making it for the first time:

Holy crap, though. This cocktail is AMAZING. It’s well balanced with incredibly complex flavors that come through in layers. It’s definitely come a long way from French onion soup; the caramelized onion syrup is used with a light touch, so it’s not overwhelming. Nor is it savory—once you add the onion syrup, simple syrup, and pear liqueur, it becomes sweet without being cloying.

This was the first time I made an Aviary cocktail and felt like I really got to experience firsthand some of the insanity and genius in the book. Every other cocktail I’ve made from the book so far has been interesting and rewarding, but not something I felt like I needed to make again—certainly not without some significant tweaks to my technique. The Mad World, though, was good enough that the next day I went to the grocery store just to get more onions so I wouldn’t run out of syrup.

The recipe description talks about the major substitutions (bourbon for beef broth, Madeira for sherry) as if they’re some quick swap, but I think it really undersells the extent to which they change the canvas on which the drink is painting. What you end up with isn’t a cocktail version of soup, but a whiskey sour that lightly suggests soup. I think my biggest takeaway from this drink is a variant of the common adage that constraints can engender creativity; in the same vein, you don’t need to abandon convention to do something truly unique.

Besides being delicious, I also like this drink because it demonstrates some of the “big ideas” from the Aviary book:

First, preparing for cocktail service like you prepare for dinner service. At a restaurant, most of the meal is prepared in advance. You wouldn’t show up with bags of groceries right as the restaurant opened. But that’s basically how most bars work. The Aviary is structured like a restaurant, down to prepping complicated ingredients in advance (like a syrup that takes several hours), so that assembly and service happen quickly and without fuss. The Mad World leans on the traditional cocktail-making process but adds in more than just the standard back bar of spirits and juices. (This is certainly not the drink that embraces this principle to the most extreme, but it does lean on the concept)

Second, using ice to add flavor. Traditionally, cocktails rely on frozen water to chill and dilute drinks. The Mad World instead uses frozen Madeira to keep the drink chilled as you drink it. As those ice cubes melt, the flavor of the drink changes, and you end up with a drink that evolves and becomes more complex as it sits. In fact, all but one of the Aviary drinks I’ve made to date involve some sort of flavored ice, and in most cases, that ice is one of the highlights of the drink.

This is still my all-time favorite; I haven’t changed my mind about this drink since I first made it in 2019. (And if we’re friends and you end up at my place, I still keep caramelized onion syrup in my fridge and Madeira in my freezer, so consider this part of the secret house menu)