Book Review: Zen and Tonic by Jules Aron

photo by Brian Petro
photo by Brian Petro

Alcohol has a long history of use as a medicine. Especially the hard stuff. From Roman times onward, alcohol has been used in a variety of ways to heal the body. As the world expanded, new herbs and botanicals were discovered and infused into spirits. The slew of potable bitters, digestifs and aperitifs we are using in cocktails now are descendants of that tradition. Juniper was one of those botanicals that found a home in spirits. It is a diuretic and anti-inflammatory the English and the Dutch used while they were colonizing new, tropical lands with new, tropical diseases. It was thought that it would help flush out the diseases that were being contracted in these climates. Clear spirits were used to extract the flavor and healing properties of the juniper. Other herbs were added, and suddenly you had very early versions of genever (or jenever, the Dutch translation of “juniper”), which became gin. Gin’s medical chops were further solidified when it was used as a delivery system for the tonic being administered to fight off the malaria that was rampant at the time. With so much old becoming new again, the arena of extracting the health benefits of fruits, vegetables, and botanicals was bound to be rediscovered. Jules Aron was the right woman to start the conversation.

Her first book, Zen and Tonic ($24.95, 2016, The Countryman Press), utilizes her background as a holistic health coach, nutritional explorer, and most importantly a bartender. The book’s major focus is cocktails made with herbs, botanicals and fresh fruits. The book is divided into two major parts: setting up the ingredients needed and then crafting all of the cocktails. The set up suggests the tools, liquors and syrup recipes that you will need when you start to move into the recipe section. There are even some ice basics for making decorative or flavored ice cubes. The recipe section is broken down by flavor profile. Are you looking for something Fresh and Crisp or Sweet and Spicy? The recipes are there for you. The majority of the book focuses on single serving cocktails, but there are a few punch recipes for when a group gets together. Each recipe is accompanied with information about the benefits of one or more of the ingredients in the cocktail. Finding the ingredients, even if you do not have a local health food store, are covered with links to resources in the back of the book.

The recipes in this book are a delight. They are simple, the ingredients overall are easily obtainable, and they are tasty. One thing that tends to bother me when it comes to books filled with recipes is how many ingredients you have to purchase to make them. Some of them can be esoteric or pricey for a home bartender to stock, and if you are not enjoying that cocktail often, they sit on the shelf gathering dust. The ingredients Ms. Aron includes can be found at a local specialty grocery store. For example, here is the Bourbon Peach Sweet Tea (p. 178) list of ingredients: two peaches, two cups of bourbon, six cups of water, four black tea bags, .25 cups of Jasmine syrup (recipe included in the book), six sliced oranges, and six mint sprigs. Simple to obtain, easy to make, and plenty of flavor. This is clearly a punch, but most of the recipes in the book have a similar ingredient list. There are no specifications in the book for what type of bourbon, but that is something you are encouraged to experiment with. There are many places you have an opportunity to explore the recipes on your own. The blurbs at the bottom of each recipe are informative, whether it discusses some of the benefits of the ingredients or offers a tip for playing with the flavor of the cocktail. I especially enjoyed the sections about playing with ice and garnishes. The aesthetics of the cocktails are as important as the flavors. This focus on beauty extends into the photography. The images in the book, provided by Gyorgy Papp, are visually striking and showcase the recipes nicely.

The conversation about health benefits of alcohol in general is a perilous topic. On one hand, you have the extractions from a variety of herbs, botanicals, fruits and vegetables that are much better for you than many other mixers on the market today. Most cocktails in the book have a healthy dose of these ingredients. Ms. Aron also offers a list of organically distilled liquors for you to use. On the other, you are putting them in cocktails, a delivery system that is not typically known for its health benefits. She gives a little nod to this conundrum with her cocktail the Retox Detox (p. 202). There is a word of caution before you dive into the recipes about the fact “a cocktail a day will not cure any disease. Nor will six or seven.” It continues, mentioning “that drinking excessively, no matter what the drink, is not healthy.” There are many opportunities to go deeper into that conversation, but they were not fully explored. This is something that happens many places in the book, and possibly the only disappointment I felt while reading it. Providing some more details in the Resources section about what the websites there offer, or even offering some further reading on the topic. Offer some suggestions on what are the best juicers or muddlers. Maybe even mention when certain ingredients are in season so that consumers can look for them in the grocery or farmer’s markets.

Professor Petro’s Grade: B. I look forward to making many of the recipes in this book, not based on their nutritional information but on their flavor. The approachability of the book is really appealing to anyone looking to make some fresh cocktails for their next party. There is a great deal of nutritional benefits from the ingredients in the book, but more information on how it is all connected would help.