Stew Ellington was researching cocktails for a party when he ran across green chartreuse, a liqueur that has been made since the 1700s by Carthusian monks sworn never to reveal the recipe.
Ellington was, in a word, enchanted. Those monks may have taken an oath, but Ellington learned that the secret recipe contains 130 alpine herbs -- and the color chartreuse is actually named for the liqueur. There must be more cocktail lore to be discovered, he thought.
So Ellington hatched a plan to mix 1,000 cocktails, star-rating and documenting each drink with photos, a process that took three years. Now, with a little help from a Kickstarter campaign, those cocktail recipes, lore and trivia can be found in a self-published book, "901 Very Good Cocktails: A Practical Guide" (Felix Press, $25, 240 pages).
"I have cocktails in the book that go back 200 years, to very current, cutting-edge cocktails that are being crafted right now in some of the best bars and restaurants in the country -- and everything in between," says Ellington, an Oakland freelance writer and stay-at-home dad.
The book includes manly cocktails, smoky brews, Prohibition-era concoctions and drinks that are urban, potent or just plain cheap. You also can find "Mad Men" libations, colorful cocktails and even alcoholic beverages to accompany breakfast.
The book is meant as a tool rather than a coffee-table book, with laminated pages that can withstand a spill, says Nicole Bettinger, Ellington's friend and informal marketing adviser on the project. "It's something useful not just as a (professional) bar tool, but for the at-home cocktail enthusiast in a lot of us."
The project began as a lark, a quest to learn more and document the process along the way. Call it a case of unleashing one's inner documentarian -- or turning cocktails into a paying proposition.
"I figured if I mixed 1,000 drinks, by the end of the process, I'm going to be pretty knowledgeable about cocktails," Ellington says.
He surpassed his 1,000-drink goal in May, gaining a couple of pounds along the way. But his liver made it through intact, despite a period where he drank as many as three cocktails a day. However, he says, "I started not to feel quite as healthy as I normally do."
As for the donors who helped fund his publishing project, Ellington offered the perfect incentive: He created signature drinks for 75 people who donated to the Kickstarter campaign in September that raised $24,000 to publish the book.
The book boasts 901 recipes, ranging from classics to Ellington's original recipes, including one that pays tribute to Bettinger's birthday -- and her German, English and Scottish roots -- with gin, vermouth, Kirschwasser and Drambuie. An easy drink to mix, it can be made to order quickly at a dinner party or enjoyed before or after dinner.
In the end, Ellington was right: He learned a lot about mixing drinks. It's important that juices are fresh, for example, and ice cubes are large and well frozen. When throwing a cocktail party, create a short and diverse menu of drinks representing each base spirit, in addition to beer and wine.
And if you can swing it, hire a bartender, such as one from a local bartending school, to do the actual mixing.
"It frees you up to have fun," Ellington said, "and makes the party feel more special."