Cocktail Primer: Essential Cocktail Books

The sidecar. Photo by: Melissa Doroquez

The sidecar. Photo by: Melissa Doroquez

Ordering drinks at a bar is the easiest part. But once you start to become a real cocktail enthusiast, you will want to make drinks for yourself. For that, you’ll have to learn how to make them. If you’re looking for essential tips and tricks, here are some valuable resources: several books, both modern and historical, that can help you appreciate the art of crafting a cocktail and the surrounding cocktail culture.

1. The Bartender’s Guide – Jerry Thomas: The Bartender’s Guide was written in 1862 and it remained one of the most comprehensive texts on bartending and making cocktails for many years—many of the classic cocktail books to follow cribbed recipes from this book. The book is basically just a recipe book, although it may give a brief introduction to the type of drink at the beginning of each section. It’s organized by drink type, from punches to “temperance drinks” (non-alcoholic lemonades and such). Then it has a section on the manufacture of cordials and drink ingredients such as bitters, waters, and oils, which would probably be way beyond any but the biggest enthusiast. Finally it ends with supplies and small batch recipes for syrups. The Bartender’s Guide is in the public domain now, so in addition to buying it in print, it is available freely online at: http://www.artofdrink.com/jerry-thomas/intro.php

2.  The Savoy Cocktail Book – Harry Craddock: The Savoy Cocktail Book was written in 1930, almost 70 years after Jerry Thomas wrote his book, but it is just as celebrated, and many people think of it as the first definitive cocktail book, although we now have evidence to the contrary. The Savoy Cocktail Book is probably so notable because it came at a time when America was suffering under the Prohibition. Harry Craddock was a barman at the legendary Savoy Hotel bar and so he was still going strong mixing drinks while America was forcibly teetotaling. It represents an important link between Pre-Prohibition and Post-Prohibition cocktail culture. The Savoy has been reprinted several times and as recently as 2007, so you can easily find a copy for purchase.

3. The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks – David Embury: The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, published in 1948 is a great guide because the book is more of an actual guide than previous books were. Previous books assumed you knew how to make a drink, they just told you basically what the recipe was. For anyone who really wants to learn how to make cocktails themselves, it would really be better to start here rather than with the above books. Embury breaks down basic principles, components of a cocktail, glassware and tools, and then each category of cocktail and also gives his six basic drinks, which I touched on in the last article. The book was reprinted in 2008 with an introduction by Audrey Saunders of the Pegu Club bar in New York, so it should be easy to find for purchase.

4. How’s Your Drink? – Eric Felten: Now on to the modern drinks. How’s Your Drink is by Eric Felten, who writes a column of the same name for the Wall Street Journal. This book is a great informational resource on the culture and history of cocktails. It is easy to read, as it reads like a non-fiction book rather than a collection of recipes (although there are 50 recipes included) and the voice is modern and engaging. Felton takes classic cocktail recipes and delves into their history, providing you with the story of each drink. He also gives pointers on making the drinks, including variations and modernizations. It’s worth it just for the section on the Martini, perhaps one of the drinks subject to the most argument about to create one. This books breaks down the history and the controversy so you understand what everyone’s arguing about.

5. The Art of the Bar – Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz: The Art of the Bar is by the bartenders of Absinthe, in San Francisco—one of the earlier bars to bring back classic and near-forgotten cocktails, at least on the West Coast. The Art of the Bar is a great book for the beginner, because it is just so easy to read. It’s visually appealing with lots of clearly defined short sections, pictures, and well-marked sidebars. You can easily page through to find a section you want, and you can read through it quickly. I would highly recommend this as a beginning book just for the highly palatable nature of the way the information is presented.

6. The Craft of the Cocktail – Dale DeGroff: The Craft of the Cocktail is by Dale DeGroff, who is one of the forerunners in bringing back cocktail enthusiasm. For those in the know, DeGroff is one of the most respected mixologists alive today. He is also a prolific teacher of the art of creating cocktails and this book passes on a lot of knowledge from one of the masters. It’s a fairly comprehensive book and easily accessible even for a beginner.

7. The Joy of Mixology – Gary Regan: This is a huge and comprehensive book, probably best delved into after you have looked into the basics with some other books. Gary Regan is very well-known as an authority and here he combines history, technique, theory and recipes for both beginning and advanced mixologists. If you find you’ve become hooked on cocktails, this book would be a good addition to your library.

8. The Ultimate A to Z Bar Guide – Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst: This guide is an encyclopedic compendium of knowledge for those who want to set up their own home bar. It is even helpful enough that some pro bartenders swear by it. The book has recipes for more than 1,000 drinks, each with a picture showing the proper glass to use. It also defines hundreds of cocktail terms so that you are never at a loss to understand what a word means. There are tips for stocking a bar, purchasing glassware, and entertaining as a home bartender. This is a really a great book to use as a reference if you decide you want to become a home mixologist.

9.  Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century – Paul Harrington: Paul Harrington is the creator of Hotwired’s popular cocktail Web site, which is one of the very first websites I ever visited on the Internet back in the crazy 1990s, when the World Wide Web was a new frontier. I was fascinated with what I learned there and it probably paved the way for my real enthusiasm to grow later on. This is basically yet another authoritative guide and makes a good companion to the few listed above. Unfortunately, this book is rather hard to track down now, so it may be a hunt if you decide you want it.

There you have it: nine invaluable volumes. Get reading. Or drinking.

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