Meet the Philly Cocktail Experts Behind Your New Party Bible

Tenaya and Andre Darlington's new cocktail how-to, Booze & Vinyl, is a party in a book — just put on a record and let the spirits flow.

Courtesy of Running Press | Photo by Jason Varney

Philly’s cocktail culture is the best it’s ever been. Restaurants are developing inspired craft cocktail programs like never before, and craft distillers are turning out award-winning spirits within city limits. It’s never been easier to drink deliciously, whether you’re out on the town or mixing libations at home.

And even better? Philly’s drinkers have not one but two hometown cocktail experts — the powerhouse sister-brother duo of Tenaya and Andre Darlington — to guide us through this bold new era.

You may know Tenaya as Madame Fromage, cheese blogger extraordinaire, author of Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese, and organizer of the epic biennial Cheese Ball blowout. Her brother Andre, a restaurant critic and award-winning wine and cocktail writer, relocated to Philly from their native Wisconsin last year.

Together, the pair have written three books: The New Cocktail Hour, an approachable bible of craft cocktail recipes, tips, and tasting notes; Turner Classic Movies: Movie Night Menus, a culinary tour of movie history pairing cocktails and dishes with 30 classic films; and now, Booze & Vinyl, which drops on April 17th, just in time for Record Store Day on April 21st. It’s a spirited homage to 70 classic records from Blondie to Johnny Cash to Lauryn Hill, paired with delicious, easy-to-mix sips that will bring your next listening party to life.

I sat down with The Darlingtons, as they’re known professionally, at the bar at Abe Fisher, chosen by Andre as one of his favorite happy hours. And with good reason: select cocktails and small plates are $7, the vibe is low-lit and relaxed, and it’s (relatively) uncrowded for a CookNSolo spot.

Over a few rounds of Financial Collapse #8, a refreshing yet warming blend of tequila, brandy, lemon, and honey, we talked about the right way to throw a party, the perfect cocktail to pair with Amy Winehouse, their upcoming listening parties around the city, and the state of Philly’s cocktail scene.

What’s the mission of With The Darlingtons?

Andre Darlington: Survival, success and pleasure.

Tenaya Darlington: A tagline which we came up with last year is “muddling cocktails and culture,” because we love to drink. But it’s more than just putting together drink books. It’s really exploring music, or in our last book, exploring movies, or in our first book exploring a culinary approach to cocktails.

You don’t have a background in the bartending world, but you clearly throw a great party. Where did that come from?

TD: Our mother was a master entertainer, even though it was always on a bit of a shoestring budget. She just knew how to throw a great party. Our dad was a musician, so there were always lots of people in the house. I think it just inspired us with that ethos — to enjoy food and drink in some larger sense with friends.

To us, it seems so obvious. But then we go to other people’s houses we’ll be like, “What’s with these lights?” — why are people having parties with like every light in the house on? Don’t these folks know how to set a mood?

AD: We really just the love of setting an atmosphere, where people can have a good time. And I love doing dinner parties. My restaurant [Madison, Wisc.’s Field Table] kind of came out of that deep love of gathering people together. Just like at a restaurant, you have your music and your lights and [everything]. I had a record player behind the bar — we weren’t DJing, we were just flipping records — but it was really fun.

TD: Andre also had a cocktail column [in Madison]. I had my cheesy life [as Madame Fromage], Andre had his boozy life.

AD: I had a wine life, too. We first pitched a wine and cheese book. The publisher came back and said, “We love your voice — would you like to do a cocktail book?” We spent two years on that first one [The New Cocktail Hour] and then we ended up writing [Movie Night Menus] for TCM. And then we pitched Booze & Vinyl.

Courtesy of Running Press | Photo by Jason Varney

What is your creative process like? It can’t all be mixing and drinking, but I imagine that’s a lot of it.

AD: It’s a lot of research up front. We have the book pitch, and then it turns into this deep, exhaustive research of what are these 70 albums gonna be and why. And [until recently] we were not living in the same city, so we both ended up with considerable home bars, and we would make drinks, putting on these albums and brainstorming on Google Hangouts or Skype.

TD: Each book has been one giant Google Doc and one giant Google Hangout.

AD: In some cases, we know what the pairings are gonna be, because we wanted classic drinks in the book, and we wanted some simple drinks. But certain albums and drinks just spoke to one of us. One of the best combinations in the book is Blondie. We ended up finding the original menu from Max’s Kansas City, where they all hung out in the early 80s. And there’s a Blondie cocktail on there, which turns out to be a Golden Cadillac, basically — a Galliano and cream drink — so that kind of just pops out, we know this drink.

Tenaya loves Amy Winehouse and the Calimocho, for example, the wine and Coca-Cola drink. So some of it was just matching drinks that we knew we wanted to be in the book with a certain artist. We knew we wanted to have an Old Fashioned in the book, for instance. Out of all the albums we had in the book, that was Tom Waits.

How did you choose which albums and artists went into the book?

TD: Andre just thought up 300 or so albums and put them in a Google Doc. We started striking through things that we were gonna cut out, because we wanted around 75. Then I’m like, “No Patsy Cline, no Peggy Lee? This can’t be!” There was a lot of back and forth.

AD: We wanted to have a good base of albums that were accessible to people and that were cheap enough to buy. Some of the albums we loved were really expensive, or they weren’t readily available because they haven’t been reprinted. So it was a real game of what are big albums that multiple people love — not that we love, but are loved — that are great drinking albums, and then how do we get really good diversity in there?

TD: We went back and listened to a lot of these albums. That was a ton of fun. Let’s go back to Automatic for the People to see how it stands up. Let’s go back to Lauryn Hill, and then we’d call each other and I’d be like “Oh my God, I’ve got Lauryn Hill on, she’s freaking incredible, I’m seeing champagne punch with melon balls floating in it!” and then Andre’d be like “And mint.” I just think it’s been a very collaborative process.

AD: There’s a real hole there, though, going from the late ’90s into the early 2000s, where there was like this vinyl hole. So a lot of the stuff that we listen to — like REM, U2, Yes — were on vinyl. And some of the stuff that we really loved post-college for us was never on vinyl.

You include a lot of twists on classic cocktails in the book — or maybe better-crafted versions of some notorious recipes.

AD: We really feel like we’re not bartenders, and there’s so many great drinks out there. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The market and time has told us what the classics are, so we feel it’s a little presumptuous to create drinks from scratch for this book, other than a few tweaks. There’s just so many great stuff out there.

TD: It’s a lot of classics. Most of the albums have two- or three-ingredient drinks paired with them, because we don’t want you in the kitchen the entire time – classic albums with simple drinks. It’s the idea that any person who wants to can get behind the bar and make something at home for friends, and do it pretty simply and economically.

Our first book was really a craft cocktail book. In Booze & Vinyl, the drinks are well-made — there’s no sour mix in this book, and we do tell you how to make homemade grenadine. But they’re still two-ingredient cocktails or porch pounders.

There’s a Jell-O shot in the book. We worked hard to create a really delicious Fishbowl — that’s a disgusting drink. We were like, “Can we make this delicious?”

The Darlingtons’ Lauryn Hill-inspired cocktail | Photo by Jason Varney

So this is a party in a book, basically.

TD: Amy Winehouse is a grill-out chill-out. We show you two drinks to make, and here’s what to throw on the grill.

AD: Beck is an arty pajama party where we do a Matador, which is a really delicious cousin of the margarita with pineapple juice. We just try to make it fun and accessible. Let’s say somebody likes whiskey, but they don’t know this album, or somebody likes The White Stripes but they don’t know a specific drink. There’s nothing more fun for us than to reel somebody into an album that we love with gin, or a drink that we love using an album.

How have you seen Philly’s cocktail culture change in recent years?

AD: It’s really deepened, and it’s really mainstreamed. Its story is very similar to other major markets in the U.S. When I was first coming here [10 years ago], I think there was basically the Ranstead Room and Franklin Mortgage, and now, just like in other major markets, every restaurant that’s worth its name has a great cocktail program.

TD: The explosion of distilleries has made drinking here really fun, and it’s made people very creative. You’ve got people like Paul McDonald over at Friday Saturday Sunday, developing incredible drinks very thoughtfully using musical scales and things like that. You’ve got Suraya, with cocktails based on the poetry of Kahlil Gibran. There’s a level of thoughtfulness coming to the cocktail. You’ve got Mike Landers at Martha getting a James Beard last year — we were fortunate enough to work with Mike, he helped us with some of the recipe testing for this book. There is this great bar culture with really knowledgeable bartenders, and then access to great things including great produce and great herbs.

AD: It’s been wonderful, because the kind of pretentious era is over, and now it’s really mainstream — you can get a really good drink [most anywhere].

TD: And people want to make drinks at home with stuff that’s delicious. They get a bottle of Fernet, or some unusual spirit from Rowhouse Spirits, and then they wanna play around. So people are more experimental at home, too.

What’s next for you two?

AD: We launch in New York on April 17th, right before Record Store Day. Then, we do three awesome events in Philly [a listening party with Marty Moss-Coane of Radio Times at WHYY on April 18th, a book signing at Art in the Age on April 19th, and the official book tour launch party at Martha on April 21st]. And then, we’re riding with the Crosley Cruiser mobile record store to Nashville. It’s gonna be fun.

This interview has been condensed and edited.