So, What'll It Be?
10 Essential Cocktail Books for the Home Mixologist
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In the Jimmy Carter era, my dad drank what we called the “Stop Light Special”: two fingers of bargain Scotch over gas-station ice in a Styrofoam cup with a splash of soda water, just so. He kept a bottle under the passenger seat of his white Plymouth Fury and I’d make it for him quick at a red light, listening to the ice and Scotch mingle while scanning the streets for cops. Anyway, that one’s free of charge. The rest will cost you.
Author(s): David Wondrich
Rarely does a single book beget a publishing trend, let alone a cultural watershed. But post-Wondrich, cocktails got gentrified. I’m not saying we wouldn’t have “craft cocktails” without Imbibe!, or that Wondrich is some kind of mountaintop oracle, but it would’ve taken us longer to get here, and it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. While plenty of books predated Wondrich’s – David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, William Grimes’s Straight Up or On the Rocks, Wayne Curtis’s And a Bottle of Rum – Imbibe! set the bar higher. Part bar manual, part social history, part inebriant phenomenology, part celebration of famed barman Jerry Thomas, the book amounts to nothing less than a template for living.
How to Mix Drinks
Author(s): Jerry Thomas
How to Mix Drinks, first published in 1862, falls somewhere between Victorian field guide and folk tale. Thomas’s “Wedding Punch,” for instance, calls for “one grain of ambergris” – the intestinal mucus of a sperm whale – while his “Bourbon Cocktail for Bottling” requires Solferino and a “tincture of gentian.” A 150-year-old book can understandably feel dated – elsewhere Thomas refers to a “pony” (a shot glass), “skins” (a Hot Toddy) and sangarees (a derivation of sangria), but it’s also an endlessly funny, strange, unpretentious and revelatory work that’s in service of a great notion: drinking should be fun, and needn’t be expensive or rarefied.
The PDT Cocktail Book
Author(s): Peter Meehan
Peter Meehan is one of the great minds of the cocktail field, and the 300+ recipes here comprise a searchlight in the darkness. After putting a handful through the ringer, I felt tired, wrecked and snowed-under, like I’d been asleep for a very long time and needed to wake up. I also knew that when I did, I’d need a very stiff drink, and that Meehan’s book would be the place to turn.
The Savoy Cocktail Book
Author(s): Harry Craddock
Years ago I met a guy named Tommy Rowles, who for five decades was a barman at Bemelmans in the Carlyle Hotel. Harry Truman had been his fourth customer; Paul McCartney one of his last. The key to his coveted martini, he said, was simple: ditch the vermouth. “A bottle of vermouth, you should just open it and look at it.” In his prime, Rowles had 1,000 cocktails committed to memory, but the only drink manual he’d cop to ever having glanced at was The Savoy Cocktail Book, which, despite its vintage, remains totally accessible today.
Craddock’s drinks tend to call for only two or three simple ingredients. My edition, published by Anova Books, feels only slightly better than a Xerox copy. The breathtakingly beautiful Constable & Co. Ltd. first edition can fetch $3,500 at auction, but the new reprints are fine runners-up.
Death & Co
Author(s): David Kaplan and Nick Fauchald
New York’s Death & Co cocktail bar and its eponymous book are designed to look old while feeling new. What isn’t vintage is the price point of many of the drinks, particularly if were you to actually make them at home. Take the recipe for the “Arrack Strap”; ingredients include Van Oosten Batavia Arrack ($28), Cocchi Vermouth de Torino ($23), Campari ($29), Cruzan Black Strap Rum ($22), Bittermens Xocolatl Bitters ($19), and House Orange Bitters — a medley of Fee Brothers West Indian Orange ($8.50), Angostura Orange Bitters ($10) and Regan’s Orange ($6). All told, that’s a $146 cocktail (if you’re even able to track down all of the bottles), and one you may not like very much. Still, the extravagance is worth it. By pushing cocktail fussiness to its maximal form, Death & Co has managed to cover new ground.
To Have and Have Another
Author(s): Philip Greene
As he was with most things, Hemingway was meticulous about his booze. For his exacting martinis, Spanish cocktail onions had to be frozen to precisely 15 degrees below zero; he also made his own ice (using tennis balls) and used vermouth sparingly. “Just enough to cover the bottom of the glass,” he wrote. Booze was an important salve in his life and fiction, and as Philip Greene writes in this brilliant biography/bar-book hybrid, the two often interwove.
Jake Barnes, the tragic hero of The Sun Also Rises, drank a version of the “Jack Rose” that was a staple of Hem’s in Paris. Papa’s “Montgomery Martini” first appeared at Harry’s bar in Across the River and Into the Trees. The “Green Isaac’s Special,” a gin-and-coconut-water concoction that Tommy Hudson tosses back in Islands in the Stream, was a daily tipple of Hemingway’s in Key West. Greene even tracked down lost recipes from Hemingway’s old friends and associates, such as the “Cayo Hueso La Floridita,” a highball version of the famous Havana daiquiri concocted by Toby Bruce, one of Hemingway’s best friends. A simple mix of white rum, grapefruit soda and fresh lime juice, there’s simply no better summer drink on record.
The Joy of Mixology
Author(s): Gary Regan
The Joy of Mixology isn’t just a mind-blower for genuine alcoholics; it’s a classic of the genre. Just one example why: Post-college, I would’ve thought it impossible to enjoy anything with a whiff of Jägermeister. But I stand corrected: Regan’s “Blow My Skull Off” – a cognac, schnapps and Jäger howitzer – will do exactly that, plus some.
Regan tells us all kinds of weird stuff, too. “Hot Toddy,” for instance, might derive from the Hindu tari tad – a fermented coconut-milk drink that migrated to Europe, where the Irish eventually got a hold of it and (surprise) added whiskey. Or the various origin stories on the Margarita, my favorite involving a bartender in Puebla, Mexico, and a girlfriend named Margarita who liked to eat bowls of salt while she drank herself stupid.
The New Cocktail Hour
Author(s): André Darlington and Tenaya Darlington
An impressively curated inventory of cocktails both old and new with inspired tweaks to some overlooked classics — such as the “Deshler,” a rye-and-Dubonnet miracle named after an obscure turn-of-the-century American boxer. Dubonnet is a French aperitif with cassis notes that’s typically ignored or glanced-over by cocktail books (though some give the standard gin-based “Dubonnet Cocktail”). But in the Deshler, Dubonnet and rye are paired with spectacular results. The Darlingtons smartly swap the usual Cointreau for a splash of orange curaçao – a subtle yet inspired touch. There are 213 other drinks in the book, but since first making the Deshler a year ago, I’ve hardly looked back.
The Craft of the Cocktail
Author(s): Dale DeGroff
“You have to always be drunk,” wrote Charles Baudelaire. “That’s all there is to it – it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to continually be drunk.” DeGroff’s is the next-closest literary iteration of this sentiment that I know of. Just seeing it on my shelf makes me want to gather up the mixers and ice and muddler and phone for contortionists and balloons.
DeGroff, winner of two James Beard Awards, vet of the storied Rainbow Room and president of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans, is widely considered the founding swami of the current cocktail craze. If you happen to find yourself at a Brooklyn, Portland or Vancouver cocktail bar, or any place in between, chances are you’re drinking something concocted by DeGroff. This book is his opus. Tossed in with enlightening glassware descriptions, methodologies, definitions and helpful lessons for newbie mixologists (such as how to probably wedge a pineapple), are 500 unassailable recipes. His “Rum Runner,” an impeccable balance of fruit juice, egg white and rum, is a brilliant rejoinder to a Monday morning hangover.
Potions of the Caribbean
Author(s): Jeff Berry
Jeff Berry, the world’s leading tiki authority, has written a masterwork of twentieth-century history born of love and genius. Suffice it to say that the 77 recipes here, 16 of which have never before been published, will change how you view the weekend. What gives the book real heft is its narrative bent; unlike most cocktail books, recipes don’t just stand alone, out of context, but are refracted through the people and places that inspired and made them, from the pirate William Dampier to the legendary Havana bartender José “Sloppy Joe” Abeal to Errol Flynn. Berry writes that Flynn, the Gilded Age Tasmanian film star, tore through Havana’s 270 brothels and 7,000 bars with abandon, becoming the inspiration for mid-century Cuba’s signature drink, “The Tasmanian Devil,” a heady swirl of cognac, port and apricot brandy that’ll put you in the mood for cabarets and knife fights.