The Boozy Bookshelf: The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler

It’s Boozy Bookshelf time! Our monthly feature where our friends Marlene and Lucas of Famous Last Words Bar in Toronto review books of a boozy nature. This month, they hit up The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler and give us both of their opinions of said book.

Marlene’s Review:
Given the reverence people have for Morganthaler, I admit I was expecting a near insufferable level of pretention from The Bar Book. So I was disarmed by the forward, where he admits that he was told by ten people that he was “the worst bartender they’d ever seen”.

Choosing to focus largely on the non-spirit components in cocktails is a refreshing approach (no pun intended), as is the relative dearth of recipes. The recipes he does choose are interesting (Cynar Flip, anyone?) and he has more than enough to say about ingredients, equipment and technique to fill over 250 pages.

Starting with citrus, Morganthaler tells you all you need to know and more (and still more…do you really need to know what the ends of a lime are called?). He’s done all the research and experimentation so that you don’t have to. (Good news: no need to roll your lemons on the counter before you juice them!). With 18 pages on citrus, followed by another 18 on other juices, I think it’s safe to say that what you don’t learn about the easiest way to add acidity to a cocktail from this book isn’t really worth knowing.

If you’re interested in the science behind carbonation, you’ll find it all in chapter 3, along with recipes for making your own tonic and ginger beer. Syrups get their own two chapters, with Morganthaler diving into both the simple and compound versions and making good use of illustrated how-to’s. Following that up with a section on infusions, tinctures and bitters, where he covers some homemade liqueurs and practical tips for barreling and pressure-infusing spirits, seems like a natural – and helpful – progression.

Onward to sections on eggs and dairy and ice before moving into chapters focused on technique. Measuring gives way to stirring and shaking, whose diagrams of the best way to open a shaker are some of the simplest and more instructive I’ve ever seen. Other mixing methods (including blending, either in a Vitamix or a nostalgic 1950’s Waring) round out the penultimate section, giving way to the final topic of garnishes, which features some great recipes for brandied cherries and pickled onions and visually stunning photographs.

Morganthaler’s emphasis throughout on quality of ingredients and precision of measurement certainly helped me understand Lucas’s mild obsession with weighing things and why he’s so protective of his tiny calibrated scale. Morganthaler is a man who, despite his confession that he sometimes craves Oreo and Kahlua boozy milkshakes from a chain restaurant, is pretty serious about drinks. Some of the pretention I’d worried about surfaces in the forward to “Other Mixing Methods”, with a condescending, almost mean-spirited send-up of muddling, and later his cynicism is palpable when referencing the next generation of bartenders (“young mixologists, often conditioned to respond to their guests’ joy with disdain”). It may be true, but it seems unnecessarily bitter. (Speaking of which, I would have loved more content on bitters given their important role in the modern cocktail.)

Marlene’s Last Word: I loved the fact that this book emphasized the ingredients that often get short shrift and was laid out in such a logical way. It’s nowhere near as luxe as the Death & Co or Meehan’s second book, but the content is equally rich. Aside from a couple of “in” jokes (“Ask David Wondrich…and tell him I told you to bug him”) this is a very approachable read – and one that proves Morganthaler deserves much of the awe with which he’s viewed by so many in the industry.

Lucas’s Review:
This is simultaneously an easy and very difficult review to do. Like my review of Liquid Intelligence, I ended up writing essentially an opus to Morganthaler and his “Bar Book” and have edited it down quite a bit. In short, I love this book to pieces, despite, these days, rarely needing to reference it.

I have alluded to “The Bar Book” in several of my other reviews — particularly in the other books in the bumper crop of 2014, “Liquid Intelligence” and “Death and Co.”, and its spirtual follower, Meehan’s Bartender Manual. Morganthaler, like Meehan, is a key figure in the second wave of modern cocktail bartenders. Morganthaler’s Clyde Common was often mentioned in the same places as Meehan’s PDT, and while the PDT book gave Meehan more of a, well, literary presence, Morganthaler’s blog was one of the most influential online cocktail sources and his writing was everpresent in the cocktail corners of popular media. Among other things, Morganthaler was responsible for popularizing the barrel aging of cocktails, predicting the seemingly annual “new trend’ of reassessing derided classics from cocktailing’s “dark ages” with recipes like his Brandy Alexander, and sharing my favorite bad bartending video ever (search it for the Woodford Reserve Mint Julep — it’s the video that birthed my favorite terrible drink meme phrase).

The Bar Book is designed for function and education. I have said before that if I were to create a “Cocktail Bartending 101” university course, the Bar Book would be my textbook, and while Meehan’s manual is now more comprehensive in detailing the operations of a bar, the Bar Book’s tight focus on mechanics and ingredients is more useful for the new bartender or home enthusiast. The book is less of an auteur project than Meehan’s book; it is attractively photographed, but the photos are almost all functional, so it isn’t much of an artifact or conversation piece. The layout is logical and I appreciate the idea of building the book in the order he builds drinks — that said, having sections on measuring, shaking, and stirring at the back, rather than the front, may make the casual reader impatient (I can hear early-20s me grumble: “All this stuff about juice is well and good, but how do I make the damn drink?”). I also appreciate that he uses drinks as a way of illustrating the methods he has outlined in each chapter, rather than coralling them to their own giant list. That may make finding a recipe less functional behind a bar, but as a cocktail bartender I’m rarely looking through big lists for a recipe anyway, and any staff I train I would train to avoid doing that as well. The goal should be building a solid set of mechanics to allow a bartender to make any drink, rather than giving them a list to memorize, and The Bar Book does so admirably.

The book also functions as a great example of best practices: he gives solid scientific reasoning behind, say, squeezing juice fresh every day, his methods of making syrups, and his discussion of infusions has just enough scientific backing without being too in-depth or confusing to a casual reader (and more advanced readers can move on to Liquid Intelligence or nerdy scientific journals). I also appreciate his willingness to use aesthetics to back up best practices — in re-reading, I forgot all about the argument to boil fruit and then fine-strain with a coffee strainer before adding sugar, which reduces cloudiness and also the fibre and vegetal matter that bacteria might grow on, and I’m definitely going to start doing that again. (Ironic considering I’m making a batch of milk punch every week — I should remember to clarify as much as possible!)

There is a conscious and deliberate decision to avoid discussing spirits and other products beyond modifiers in the book — as someone who has a dozen plus bartending books (let alone the twenty or so books about bourbon) on his shelf, I appreciate the lack of yet another chapter defining brandies/whiskies/rums, as it gives the book a whip-tight focus on making drinks and far too many of these books will throw out poorly researched asides in those sections. That said, it means the book may not serve as a one-stop-shop for a complete bar newbie. The counterpart to this is that the Bar Book is useful in almost any market, and a bartender never needs to wonder (as they might with, say, Death & Co) what one random mezcal or rum offers a drink over another. This means that the book is useful almost anywhere: not everywhere can get, say, Smith & Cross, but most places on earth where one might want to establish a cocktail bar have access to limes. (Not all! But if you don’t you’ll need to be creative beyond the scale of any cocktail book other than Liquid Intelligence)

My greatest criticism of the book is that if you are a cocktail bartender with a few years under your belt who has been trained by a solid cocktail program, or who has done their research elsewhere, the book may offer little to you except as a reminder of best practices or a source of a pretty great mint syrup method. It also lacks discussions of a few of the big innovations that have happened over the last few years — sous vide syrups, rotovaps, and in-bar redistilling — which have happened and are being popularized, in no small part, due to this book and Liquid Intelligence; however, those are beyond the scale of such an introductory book. Another small criticism is the lack of signposting on the photography — if you’re going through the trouble to have a beautiful picture of a variety of citrus next to your listing of a dozen citrus profiles, you should probably put a key in the corner saying which citrus is which; this a problem throughout the book, as the photos illustrate processes or tools described nearby but don’t have a corresponding key or index to specify what the reader is looking at — a huge issue that I hope a newer edition might address one day. (Maybe after I start running Cocktail 101 at one of them big fancy universities…)

Lucas’s Last Word: In summation, the Bar Book is probably the book I recommend most to new bartenders. While product knowledge is the sexy part of making drinks that everyone gets excited about, The Bar Book focuses on the real important parts of cocktailing — the fresh juices, syrups, and techniques that have come to represent what modern cocktail bartending is really about. I guess I should say that the real greatest criticism I have of the Bar Book is that it didn’t exist five years earlier, when I was getting into cocktailing, or when I first started training barstaff on cocktails. If the worst thing I can say about a book is that pretty much everything in it is right and I wish I had it around sooner so I could have avoided years of mistakes, that book is probably pretty good.

Famous Last Words
Famous last words, opened in October 2016 in Toronto's Junction neighbourhood, is a bit like a library - if the library made kickass cocktails and let you play vinyl. They regularly host book clubs, readings and book launches and have built a literary-inspired cocktail list over 40 drinks deep with chapters of "Short Stories", "Modernists" and "Classics". A self-described lifelong book nerd, Marlene opened famous last words to combine her two loves: reading and cocktailing. She can be found behind the bar a few nights a week and, according to Lucas, is the master of the four ingredient sour. Raised in Lexington, Kentucky, Lucas Twyman moved to Canada because it was the only other country in North America that makes whiskey. He bartended pretty much everywhere in Toronto's Junction neighborhood and can be found at Famous Last Words. Marlene recommends asking Lucas about his publishing career and/or his clarified milk punch recipes.
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