Nostalgia manifests in untold ways when we order at the bar or stock our liquor cabinets at home. There’s the “I drink it because it’s my father’s drink” or, of course, “I won’t ever touch it because it was the first thing I got drunk on.” So many more sentiments hinge upon the past. Sam Slaughter, food and drink editor at The Manual, has tapped into an altogether new—and refreshing—angle. With his forthcoming book Are You Afraid of the Dark Rum?, Slaughter looks to the ’90s and crafts cocktails around childhood favorites and pop culture staples. Published by Andrews McMeel, and featuring images by Amy Ellis, the 128-page book offers 40+ recipes—and takes the time to explain their origins.
While exploring Slaughter’s creations—and giggling over the I’ll Never Let Yuzu Go, Jack and the Ginny in a Bottle—we found a level of comedic creativity not often present in the all-too-serious world of mixed drinks. We took some time to speak with him about the book, his process and hopes.
Where’d the concept come from? And what made you connect all of this ’90s nostalgia with cocktails?
This is a three-fold answer. I’ve always had an affinity for ’90s music. Not just when it was new, but even in the years since I’ve always gravitated back toward it. I don’t know if you could call it a guilty pleasure or what, but when it comes time for ’90s music trivia, I tend to be pretty good at it. I think part of that is the nostalgia factor of it and part of it is, to me, the music is just good. Not all of it, of course, but a good amount. The second part is that I really like puns. You can ask anyone who spends more than a few minutes around me. The third part concerns being a food and spirits writer. Making drinks and writing about drinks are what I do for a living.
In terms of nostalgia, I think that we all make really strong ties to certain things—songs, television, etc—and it’s fun to reopen those memories and explore them a bit. Things change and what we once thought was great isn’t—try playing most Nintendo or Sega Genesis games now… They don’t age well, but it’s fun to at least try it again. That was what I was going for with the drinks. I wanted to tap into the fun, light-hearted part of our memories and nostalgia. You may not have thought about Pogs in a hot second, but you will when you’re mixing up a batch of Pog cocktails for friends and talking about how good you were at throwing a slammer—or lying about how good you were because you can’t actually remember.
Can you talk about how you turned non-alcoholic drinks into adult versions?
For the childhood drinks, I tried to hunt down the original versions of them. Thankfully, drinks like Sunny D and Ssips Iced Tea are still in production. Once I found them, I drank them. I also read about them to try and figure out what they were supposed to taste like. I never would’ve guessed as a child that Ecto-Cooler was supposed to have tangerine in it. From there, it was a good deal of playing around with citrus juice mixtures to get the right ratio to accurately represent the original.
Similarly, what’s your method for imagining drinks drawn solely from non-liquid pop culture references?
A lot of what I did when creating the drinks was word association. Whether it was puns or thinking about items used in a specific song, movie, etc—I tried to make as many connections as I could then go from there. The Tubthumper, for example, uses everything mentioned in the song. It was a matter then of finding the right balance and the right styles of ingredients— bourbon versus Irish whiskey and so on.
What do you look for in a cocktail? Or what do you consider a successful cocktail?
I want a cocktail that makes me want another one and depending on the time, place, or people I’m with, that could mean a few different things. It could be something that goes down smoothly and doesn’t taste like alcohol, so I’m perfectly OK sipping a few of them in a row. It could be something devised by a mad scientist of a bartender that is so layered and intriguing that I just need to try another to see what exactly they’re doing. It could also be something strong that gets the job done when that job needs to be done.
Everyone associates a certain style, color, font, etc with the decade. How did you bring that into the book’s design?
For the cover design, I knew I wanted something that would catch people’s eyes and make them automatically think, ‘Oh shit, it’s the 1990s.’ Color-wise, that had to be neon. It just had to be. To find fonts and styles, I spent a lot of time watching shows from or about the ’90s. I Love The 90s (as well as Part Deux) were both really great in terms of encapsulating the decade. Beyond that, though, I spent time searching the internet for Nickelodeon show episodes. There is a surprising number of shows out there, I found out.
For the photos, we again utilized neon colors for the backgrounds as a good number of the cocktails look like, well, cocktails. The colors of cocktails aren’t usually all that different. Because of that we had to rely on the backdrop and occasionally some ’90s-era props. Not all of the props made it into the book, but we did spend some time collecting any and every ’90s toy we could get our hands on.
Is there something here you are particularly proud of?
I wanted this book to be fun, light-hearted, and accessible to anyone who wants to make a drink and I feel I accomplished that. You can be a complete novice and still make almost all of the drinks without breaking a sweat.
Do you envision bartenders out there adding some of these to their menus?
I’d love if bartenders used these drinks. I think it would be bodacious (or perhaps tubular) if I walked into a bar and saw something I made. I’d also love to see their takes on nostalgia as well.
Are You Afraid of the Dark Rum? is available for pre-order online now. It will be released on 4 June, with a suggested retail price of $13.
Cover courtesy of Andrews McMeel, all other images by Amy Ellis Photography