When the modern craft cocktail renaissance first started back at the end of the 1990s, much of the national dialogue surrounding the resurrection of old recipes and techniques took place on blogs and online forums (as well, of course, as back and forth across the bar.) Research at the time was like a treasure hunt as drinkers and bar pros investigated hard-to-find vintage texts and sussed out reality from rumor. Seeking long-defunct ingredients and spirits and testing out forgotten recipes was difficult, but exciting.
When I was first introduced to the world of craft cocktails almost a decade ago, information was still scarce, so it was helpful when my guides spoke unanimously about the necessary books to seek out. The list was short: authors including Dale DeGroff, Gary Regan, and Tony Abou-Ganim were practically the only ones filed neatly on my once-bare cocktail book shelf, and I referenced them often as I progressed into the realm of cocktail mixing and history. If you're just getting started out in the cocktail world, there are still few books that establish such a solid foundation for understanding how we got to where we are now.
Today's landscape is far more informed. You can learn about every topic from proper technique to vintage recipes, modern concoctions, spirit-centric encyclopedias, and narrative histories about drinking, all with a quick trip to your bookstore or Amazon. The downside is that all those options can be a little overwhelming.
This list of cocktail-related books narrows the field to 15 must-reads for any budding drink enthusiast. Today's list features historic and modern classics, all released before 2014. Tomorrow we'll focus on the explosion of cocktail literature that's hit shelves in the last 18 months or so, with a special spotlight on highly anticipated 2015 releases. Hope you have some room in your bookshelves...
These are some of the first proper cocktail recipe books ever printed. If you enjoy translating recipe measurements and recreating vintage ingredients, or if you're just looking for a healthy dose of nostalgia, these are excellent places to start. Looking for more information on what makes a vintage cocktail book worth buying? Check out Michael Dietsch's story on building a vintage cocktail library.
The Bar-Tenders Guide, or How To Mix Drinks by Jerry Thomas
Flipping through the first known cocktail book printed before Prohibition is like stepping back in time, and it's remarkable just how serious and impressive America's cocktail options were during the golden age. Inside its pages, author and America's first 'celebrity bartender' Jerry Thomas compiles a wide swath of slings, cobblers, juleps, bitters, and shrubs, including drinks that are still around today like the Mint Julep, Philadelphia Fish House Punch, and Tom and Jerry.
Since Mud Puddle Publishing released the first reprint of the work in 2008, Cocktail Kingdom has released a more substantial version. As David Wondrich says in the book's introduction, "so much of the experience of reading an old book is the physicality of the volume itself: the feel of the cover in your hands, the texture of the paper, the particular size and heft of it. And no modern edition of Thomas' book has ever even come close to capturing that, until this one." Indeed, although the book is currently being printed, it feels hundreds of years old thanks to small details like card stock and cover; it's not just a glimpse into the past, it's a modern treasure as well.
The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock
This homage to cocktails of the 1920's and '30s was written by Harry Craddock, an Englishman who learned the art of mixing in the States before moving back to London during Prohibition to be the head bartender at one of the most influential cocktail bars of all time—The Savoy Hotel. When the text was rediscovered, it quickly turned into a guide for modern bartenders, many of whom ended up hosting Savoy Cocktail Book nights, where they'd make drinks like the White Lady and Corpse Reviver #2 (or perhaps more obscure ones) from the 750 recipe-strong oeuvre for history buffs. It's a great book to that shows the way people used to drink, and how those flavors and cocktail recipes developed overseas during Prohibition.
Other Modern Classics
These essentials hail from notable bartending personalities responsible for helping usher in the modern cocktail revolution. They are great for beginners because when combined, they establish a solid baseline of technique and recipes both modern and vintage. Read all three to get a good understanding for how the movement re-started and get comfortable mixing drinks in your home bar.
The Essential Cocktail: The Art Of Mixing Perfect Drinks by Dale Degroff
"King Cocktail" is credited with being one of the first bartenders to revive the art of vintage craft cocktails at the Rainbow Room in the late 90's, and his two books on the subject hold up as fundamental must-reads that offer practical insight into how bartenders approached cocktail-making a good 15 years ago. Whereas The Craft of the Cocktail digs into tools and techniques, The Essential Cocktail dives right into the recipes, divided by style (highballs, sours, classics, punches, innovations, etc.). The beauty in Degroff's works is their simplicity, and the perspective they offer on how far the cocktail scene has evolved since he sparked the revolution. We've certainly come a long way since.
The Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan
If you're a beginner looking to get into professional bartending or mixing great drinks at home, and you're only going to acquire one book on this list, make it Gary Regan's The Joy of Mixology. It's a hefty, thorough (albeit photo-less) guide to the methods and madness bartenders must adopt to be successful in the business that includes a brief history of the mixed drink, helpful tools and glassware, and most importantly, a breakdown of drink families. Regan's chart system helps teach how drinks are classified into different categories, which makes it easier to remember how to make certain styles of drink and spin them off into new creations of your own. For this reason alone, it's still a must-read.
The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails by David Wondrich and Noah Rothbaum
At 864 pages, The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails is nothing short of a tome. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a book that is more comprehensive on the subject of alcohol—especially true if you pair this one with the Oxford Companions to Wine and Beer. In Spirits and Cocktails, though, you’ll find a deep history and evolution of spirits around the globe; covering everything from production to mixology. If there’s a so-called definitive guide to cocktails, this is it.
These are the books for true history buffs seeking an engaging story and in-depth details, presented in less of a "cookbook" format. Most of them still offer cocktail recipes, so you can mix up a cold one while you enjoy a few tall tales.
The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart
This book will especially appeal to cocktail enthusiasts with an interest in the vegetation behind their beloved spirits. The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks explores the botanical history and science behind the flowers, fruits, and trees that have made their way into our beverages—whether as a production staple or a fun experiment. Stewart further includes recipes and gardening tips, and her lovely style of writing makes The Drunken Botanist a joy to curl up with.
Imbibe! Updated and Revised Edition by David Wondrich
It's likely that no single individual in America knows as much about the country's cocktail history than David Wondrich. Here, the historian and writer tackles the entertaining history of the American cocktail via the story of bartender Jerry Thomas. Wondrich's wit is electric as he digs through dense history, presenting wild and wondrous tales with authority. About 100 recipes litter the chapters, culled from Thomas' book and modern bartenders alike.
The new edition adds updated tidbits of information, stories and colorful entertainment to the historical tales, along with a set of new recipes and information on the origins of the Mint Julep, making it a much better investment than the already wonderful James Beard Award-winning original.
And a Bottle of Rum by Wayne Curtis
In this captivating read, Curtis smartly weaves tales of American history and culture via the lens of rum from colonial times to when the book was published in 2006. Each chapter addresses a period in history paired with a rum cocktail that was popular at the time, providing insight into the development of American culture but also the history of these popular drinks. Regardless of whether or not rum is your spirit of choice, And a Bottle of Rum offers just the right balance of history, entertainment, and booze, making it an engaging read for all spirits lovers and history buffs.
Boozehound by Jason Wilson
This former Washington Post spirits columnist brings a more journalistic style of storytelling to the table with Boozehound, a recollection of his adventures in drinks reporting. Instead of solely looking to the American past, Wilson explores trends in drinking that are exotic and far-flung, from Italian amari to Peruvian pisco. Wilson gets a little snarky and insider-y at times, but that's part of what makes the book so engaging. Not everyone has the opportunity to travel and report on drinks, so why not live vicariously through this book?
Recipes and Specialties
The final five books on our list are ones that capture a specific moment in time at a particular cocktail bar or cover a certain niche subject within the broad world of drinks. Most feature great recipes and are just as iconic and essential as the aforementioned picks.
Spritz by Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseau
This book is a fun dive into the bubbly world of the spritz. Through Spritz: Italy’s Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail, you’ll learn about the history of this refreshing cocktail and how it became an integral component of aperitivo culture. Baiocchi and Pariseau also study the spritz’s rise in international popularity in recent years, offer tips on how to properly stock your at-home bar, and—of course—they provide plenty of recipes for spritz cocktails and snack pairings alike.
The Old-Fashioned by Robert Simonson
Mad Men may have helped the Old-Fashioned become, well, fashionable again—but devotees of this classic cocktail know that it never really went out of style in the first place. The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and Lore is a deep-dive into the origins and variations of one of the United States’ greatest contributions to cocktail culture. Flip through long enough to find a recipe and mix yourself a drink, then sit down to read this page-turner that will leave you thirsty for more.
Speakeasy by Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric
This collection of cocktail recipes from New York's Employees Only set the stage for a rapidly growing trend of bars publishing recipe books. Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric assembled a sublimely simple, beautifully photographed compilation of their specs for classic recipes, with a handful of original EO recipes sprinkled throughout. When I was just starting to build a home bar, Speakeasy was one of the most approachable and fun cocktail books I played around with. It's a great place for beginners to start.
The PDT Cocktail Book by Jim Meehan
This massive tome—packed with over 300 cocktail recipes—is really most practical for cocktail bartenders and serious drinkers with flush bars. It's not for beginners with a low-stocked liquor cabinet, though it may inspire you to grow your bottle collection. The recipes are culled from far and wide—vintage drinks from the '30s, staff-created drinks properly credited and noting when each bartender worked behind the stick, recipes from bars in other cities, and many classics. Author Jim Meehan also recently released a PDT cocktails app, which allows you to enter your home bar's inventory and see which recipes you can make, an invaluable tool that would be useful for any home mixer.
Bitters by Brad Thomas Parsons
Author Brad Thomas Parsons hits the nail on the head with the execution of the topic of bitters, both sippers like amari and 'seasoning' bitters like Angostura or Peychaud's. It offers well-reported brief history, complete with a guide on how to make your own bitters at home, and comes stocked with ample recipes to play around with as well. As America's palate continues to skew towards the unusual, this book will only become more relevant.
Note: The Bar-Tender's Guide and Savoy Cocktail Book were provided as press samples for review consideration.