Since the late 1800s, the cocktail has been enshrined in print. This really hasn’t changed much over the past 150 years — books are still one of the best ways to learn about mixing drinks. To some extent, though, the recent literature owes its success to the massive, resurgent interest in cocktails that took place on the internet at the turn of the Millennium. Ironic, but true. Without the digital networking between cocktail geeks, historians, and bartenders, none of this would be happening.
Nowadays, cocktail research is spread evenly between the web and the printed word, though you’ll have to do lots of sifting — there’s still lots of crummy drink recipes and incorrect information floating around out there. A standard Google search will yield yottabytes of worthless recipes, so be prepared to do some parsing. The same goes for books — most bookstores will carry lots of “wad o’ recipes” books (1001 Must-Taste Jello Shots? Oh Boy!), but there are some really helpful little gems out there that are best hunted down and purchased online. Cocktail nerds (like me) and good bartenders can tell you where to go and what to read. That being said, here are my recommendations…
- Home Bar Basics, by David Stolte: Just starting out into the world of cocktails? This nifty, retro-styled, pocket-sized book is the one you need to get. It’s a concise guide to cocktails with a snappy sense of humor and fun illustrations, and all the information is spot-on. As the cover reads, “Authentic — Practical — No Bullshit.” Stolte covers all the basic techniques of mixing, gives the low-down on selecting spirits, equipment, and ice, and manages to pack the history of cocktails into 2 1/4 pages. The main focus is on the drink recipes: twelve “Basic” drinks that everyone should know plus 13 “Not-So-Basic” drinks that are a bit more complex (nothing involving “Smoked Cider Air,” so don’t worry, it doesn’t get that crazy). Stolte’s book is aimed at the cocktail novice, but it’s good for hobbyists and bartenders to flip through, reminding ourselves of the simple things that make a great drink (and how to spread the good word more effectively). The companion website features recipes, videos, reviews, and tips on mixing away from home and drinking in bars that have no clue what an Old Fashioned is. The website’s pretty thorough, but get the book so you don’t miss out on all of Stolte’s helpful advice.
- The Essential Bartender’s Guide, by Robert Hess: The first half of the book explains the basics of mixology and all about the ingredients you’ll be using; it’s a very handy, condensed guide to spirits and cocktails. The second half of the book is dedicated to drink recipes, featuring a large number of classics and a fair number of new drinks created in the spirit (so to speak) of the old ones. If you need one recipe book to start out with, it should be this one. It’s much more informative and more accurate than the hundreds of run-of-the-mill, “wad o’ recipes” books. Robert Hess is a cocktail historian, amateur mixer (he’s never tended bar), a leading figure in the cocktail world (consulted by numerous cocktail writers and co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail), and an excellent teacher. The book is spiral-bound inside a hard cover, so it lays flat on the counter-top…a nice touch. Highly recommended.
- Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails, by Ted Haigh (the updated edition): Many pre-Prohibition drinks have been re-discovered and re-mixed in the past ten years, and half of them owe their continued existence to Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh. Haigh presents an alpahbetical list of 100 excellent, once-obscure drinks that have been brought to the forefront by modern-day mixologists; nearly all of them are worth trying. Haigh’s recipes don’t always jive with my taste, so feel free to modify them to suit yours. Brief histories of the drinks and Haigh’s mixing notes are presented alongside each recipe. Be prepared to track down some spirits that remain obscure here in the States, if not the world: an expensive journey that will land you in many an online liquor store, but it’s worth every penny. Many of ingredients have, however, become more available in the past decade. If you need one book that covers the cocktails of the golden era of mixing, this is it. Also spiral-bound so it lays flat on the bar.
- The PDT Cocktail Book, by Jim Meehan, Illustrations by Chris Gall: PDT of New York is one of the best cocktail bars in the country, and part-owner Jim Meehan’s book provides wonderful insight into how they created the bar and its menu while providing great drink recipes. The book is a snapshot of the current cocktail culture: the drinks are made with the highest quality and freshest ingredients, but aren’t astoundingly complicated (I’m looking at you, Imbibe Magazine and Left Coast Libations), and more than half of them are original to the bar. The illustrations are wonderful, as is the quality of the book itself.
- Boozehound, by Jason Wilson: If you’d like to know more about the rare-but-critical spirits used in cocktails (St. Germain Elderflower, Chartreuse, Amari) and the history of some of the more important ones (rum, tequila, pisco, cognac, calvados), then check out this book. Jason Wilson is the spirits columnist for the Washington Post with a sense of humor stems from growing up in New Jersey in the 1980s, but he’s almost a booze travel writer, visiting the countries and distilleries where spirits are made and championing the cause of enlightened American drinking. Drink recipes using the spirits he writes about are scattered throughout the book; Wilson offers some recommendations on stocking a home bar and includes a rant about glassware, as well. Recommended if you’d like to know more about the spirits themselves, as well as the cultures that drink them and the cocktails that use them.
- Imbibe! by David Wondrich: If you’re a truly dedicated cocktailian, you’ve got to know about the really old drinks, back when the “cocktail” was a single, specific drink and the American public had never heard of vermouth. Wondrich charts a course through the history of the cocktail, following the career of 1800s über-bartender Jerry Thomas, author of the first bartending manual. All manner of traditional drink recipes [with Wondrich's tips on reconstructing old drinks written for modern-day bartenders] are presented alongside a lively history of mixing. Wondrich himself was the drinks columnist for Esquire and a very thorough historian, with a witty sense of humor, to boot.
- Mr. Boston Platinum Edition: A good “wad o’ recipes” book to have on hand for inspiration. The Platinum edition has been heavily updated by the better-known mixologists, bartenders, and cocktail historians, though it still contains some “iffy” recipes and hangers-on from the cocktailian Dark Ages (the 1970s-1990s).
- drinkboy.com: Robert Hess’s website, and my first tutor (essentially) for all things cocktail-related. His website and videos (see below) are what got me really interested in mixing drinks. His drink index is excellent and his recipes are spot-on, and Robert an affable and informed instructor.
- smallscreennetwork.com: Filled with free videos of cocktail and foodie shows. “The Cocktail Spirit” with Robert Hess and “Raising The Bar” with Jamie Boudreau are must-watch shows, Hess being supremely instructive and Boudreau being one of the best mixologist-bartenders on the planet. Start at the first episode of each show (watch Hess’s first). Charlotte Voisey and Kathy Kasey’s shows aren’t bad, either.
- cocktaildb.com: Punch in the ingredients or drink names and voila! You have a cocktail recipe. The list comes from Ted Haigh’s mounds of research, and comes in handy for cross-checking recipe proportions and antique drinks. Also useful to see whether or not somebody has mixed, named, and claimed that “new” drink you just “invented.”
- Imbibe Magazine: Ok, so it’s the website of a magazine, albeit an excellent magazine — subscribe to keep up with all the latest drink trends. Truth be told, some stuff in the magazine (i.e. ingredients, booze, recipes, fun gadgets) is too rare, specialized, complicated, or expensive to be considered practical, but many cocktails go through a kind of trickle-down/memetic cycle, just like fashion. The website, however, has tons of great recipes, many of which are accessible to the home bartender.