As 2004 Rising Star Mixologist Joel Finsel muses in the introduction to Cocktails & Conversations, the role of bartender extends far beyond a steady grip over the cocktail shaker. As Finsel puts it, he is a “friend, therapist, peace-maker, peeping Tom [sic], simultaneously a hired ear, and the last life raft one can hope to cling before drifting off into the sea of total inebriation.” And during his years behind the bar at Philadelphia’s Astral Plane, Finsel has performed all these duties diligently. But now he’s taken on an additional role, that of pseudo bar historian. Readers get a barfly’s point of view as Finsel records the bizarre encounters and ridiculous stories of colorful clientele and kitchen staff in a collection of fictional vignettes inspired by true events. Scattered between these tales are short essays on the basic spirits of the craft (bourbon, cognac, gin, vodka, tequila, rum, scotch, and absinthe) as well as a few classic recipes for each.
The emphasis of Cocktails & Conversations is definitely more on conversation than cocktail. This is not an innovative recipe book (drinks edge on the side of tradition and simplicity), nor will you find an academic tract on the delicate balance of sweetness, bitterness, and acidity. But what you will sense is how much the bar is like the theater: conflict, romance, comedy, and tragedy spill from the stools like so many tipped-over pint glasses. Cast members are all walk-ons and the dialogue is all improvised, although Finsel discloses that it’s a work of fiction based on a real place.
A preview of the scenes: the Astral Plane publicist’s near run-in with Vivien Leigh, the main man meeting tempting female customers, the history of gin presented by a precariously sane woman from the street, and the excitement of being chosen by StarChefs.com as the 2004 Philadelphia Rising Stars Mixologist (we can confirm the last event is nonfictional). In a rambling, casual style, Finsel meanders from one story to the next, loosely covering his tenure at the restaurant from hiring to his last night. And like a stand-up comedy routine or the latest Will Ferrell movie, this memoir is best enjoyed with a drink in hand.