In your new book, EveryDay Cook, you mention that you like to keep some of your barware in the freezer. “It depends upon what I’m making. That is certainly true for things like Martinis. I’m big on keeping as much cold as I possibly can. So I keep gin in the freezer, I keep my vodka in the freezer. I don’t like diluted. I like my drinks strong, I like them cold, so I tend to keep everything in the freezer. They make a pretty great Martini at Dukes, in London, and that’s what they do. They keep everything frozen, except for, I guess, bitters.”
And you like your Martini with a bitter edge, right? “I do. I’m an amaro kind of fanatic. If I can, I am always going to take a cocktail a little bit towards the bitter edge of things. It’s not that I don’t like sweet. I really have a thing for bitterness. I was lucky enough to spend a semester of college in a small town in Italy and discovered this whole world of flavors. I remember my first taste of Cynar, my first Campari Soda. I thought, God, this is what I’ve been missing from my palate. So I’ve always been a huge fan. I included a couple of those in my spirit list in the book. The one thing I left out of there that I still feel bad about is Fernet-Branca, which I would drink from the time I get up in the morning to the time I go to bed at night. I like things that taste medicinal. I was the kid that didn’t mind taking his medicine because I thought it tasted pretty groovy. I guess I’m still doing that.”
I’ve heard you have a nice collection of whiskey. “I have an old card catalogue where I keep my bottles. The oldest thing I’ve got is a bottle of Overholt from a lot that was sold at Christie’s. It’s a 1908 bottling. But I haven’t opened it yet. The 1908 will just kind of keep sitting there for a while. I got a bottle of Family Reserve Pappy, which is a 20-year, but most of what I drink is not that old. I’m not that snooty about it. I’d rather drink it and have fun than fuss over it.”
How many whiskies do you keep on hand? “Whiskey in general or just bourbon?”
Both. “Well, that changes everything. If we’re going to say whiskey, now we got to talk about rye and now we also got to talk about Japanese whisky and then we got to talk about Scotch. I don’t know. Sixty or 70 bottles of each, I guess. I drink mostly rye these days. I don’t drink as much Scotch as I used to. I’m kind of off of it. I’m more onto the stronger ryes right now. But I have also been drinking quite a bit of the Nikka Coffey Grain whiskey from Japan, which I enjoy immensely. And my rye these days is the seven-year Redemption Barrel Proof, which is 61.3 [percent alcohol by volume], or something like that. I’m definitely on a rye kick. I’ll drink your bourbon all day long, but I’ll take rye when I can get it.”
How do you drink your rye? Neat? In cocktails? “In a glass. My favorite cocktail of all time is a Boulevardier and so I like rye in that. But my really good sipping rye, I’m just putting in a glass. I don’t want it cold. I don’t want a rock. I just want it in a glass.”
Do you have your sights set on any specific ryes as you travel the country? “That’s a good question. I will buy that bottle of Redemption whenever I see it because I don’t see it that often. And I will buy Lock Stock & Barrel whenever I see it because it’s not always around either, especially if I can find it under a hundred dollars a freaking bottle because that stuff has gotten pretty gosh darn expensive. But that’s about it. I used to be very hoard-y about any Willett bottlings and I do really like the straight bourbon out of Willett. That’s the 100-, 107-proof bottlings, which have gotten really, really hard to find. So I’ll buy that whenever I see it. That’s for sure. But nothing else really. There’s just so much great liquor to drink that I don’t get too fixated over. I’m not going to fetishize any whiskey. And I’m not going to fuss over it. I’m not going to chase it. There’s another good one waiting. And most of the really great spirits I’ve discovered, I’ve discovered because I wasn’t fixating on a particular brand or bottling.”
Do you collect any liquor-related antiques? “I love collecting old books about cocktails. Mostly because they say so much about cultural norms and cultural attitudes toward drinking. I really do like cocktail books from the Mad Men period because everybody was supposed to stay looped most of the day. And there was a lot less emphasis on the flavor and complexity of cocktails and a lot more emphasis on getting drunk and getting laid, which seems to have been just the way everybody rolled back then.”
I really enjoyed your series from a few years ago that had you drive across the country on a motorcycle. Off camera, were you hunting for treasures in antique stores? “I’m a sucker for that stuff. I can’t stay out of them. No matter where I am when I travel, I’m cruising junk shops and bookstores for old stuff. The nice thing is you can travel with a book without worrying about breaking it. Barware is another thing altogether. I’ve walked away from just gorgeous barware that I knew I was going to break. As I’m standing here looking at my shelves, I realize I do 90 percent of my cocktail mixing in Pyrex lab glass. It looks more laboratory than bar. I’ve got a couple of pretty cut pieces, but most of it is beakers and flasks. It’s resilient. You can heat in it. And if you break it, you can replace it.”
Do you keep a liquor cabinet on set while you’re filming your different shows? “No. It’s called a flask. I have a flask. I’m very much somewhere between the Churchill and the Hemingway school. I can have a little drink when I work and I got no issues with that. I’m not going to get loaded, but I don’t mind having a little something in my water, if you know what I mean.”
Bourbon or rye in a Manhattan? “I prefer rye in my Manhattan. I find the spice cuts against that bit of sweetness a little better for me. I will almost always default to rye. But if I’m having, say, an Old Fashioned, I go with bourbon because I think it brings out the bitters. I tend to use orange bitters in my Old Fashioneds. I prefer bourbon for that.”
Giada De Laurentiis told me you taught her about whiskey. Is that true? “The reason that I taught Giada about whiskey is that she drinks tequila. And she drinks really good tequila usually, with just barely a squeeze of fresh orange juice. I can’t do that midday. I can hold my liquor. I can drink a little bit of whiskey off and on all day long. You start me on tequila and shit gets crazy. You know what I’m saying?”
Alton Brown’s new book, EveryDay Cook: This Time, It’s Personal, was just published. His stage show, Alton Brown Live: Eat Your Science, is currently touring America.
Interview has been condensed and edited.