Many months ago we asked our friend Marlene and Lucas of Famous Last Words in Toronto if they would be interested in reviewing cocktail books new and old for Bartender Atlas readers. In that time they have covered everything from independently published manager manuals to philosophy driven cocktail manifestos. It was been awesome and insightful. With the busy summer season ramping up, we have decided to take a pause from the series. But before we do, we wanted one more Boozy Bookshelf! Here Lucas recommends which bartending book is for you, based on what you want to learn.
About a year and a half ago, we here at Famous Last Words were asked to steward the Boozy Bookshelf feature here on Bartender Atlas, and I can honestly say we could not have chosen a better time to do so. Some of the books released in the last 18 months have easily been amongst the best ever released, and the overall crop of books has certainly been the best in the last five years. In that time, I have reviewed 16 bar-related books, read at least twice that many, and really solidified, in my mind, what makes a great bartending book.
Since I am both a booze and a book nerd, my poor wife has to deal with the fact that a large chunk of precious storage space in our condo is taken up by both obscure liquor bottles and arguably more obscure books about them. I tell myself that my dual collections have the same purpose: education. While claiming that the booze has a higher purpose might be a bit eyeroll-inducing to a layman, the books are pretty fabulous, and by putting these reviews together on a monthly basis I have managed to set up a pretty strong mental template for how I recommend specific books.
Bartending doesn’t have a set curriculum. Bartender schools exist, but very few have function beyond a week-long class teaching you how to free-pour. Despite that, bartending has plenty of specialization and tons of skills to learn. It’s pretty easy to dive deep and specialize in specific aspects — I have seen different bartenders “specialize” in how to work a room, how to run a food and beverage business, knowledge of specific spirits, cocktail execution, cocktail menu construction, high-volume execution, and dozens of other aspects of bartending, and as long as they respected the basic importance of hospitality at the core of the job, they have succeeded. There are, however, common skills to most styles of bartending, and when we focus on cocktail bartending the skillset gets even more obvious. It is difficult to teach how to cut someone off gracefully, or soft skills like how to project basic human empathy behind the bar, but cocktail construction is something that can be learned through reading and experimentation.
So, if you (or someone you know) asks “how do I learn how to be a bartender?” or “how do I learn how to make cocktails?,” hopefully this list will help you out:
BEST BOOK FOR BEGINNING BARTENDERS:
The Bar Book by Jeffery Morganthaler
How lucky are we to have Morganthaler? Well-written, often clever, and gifted with enough perspective over time to recognize and, if need be, ignore trends, Mr. Morganthaler is gifted with the ability to recognize some of the common elements of bartending and (in the case of his more recent work, Drinking Distilled) present them to your teetotaller aunt or Seven-and-Seven uncle. I have referred to The Bar Book as Bartending 101 elsewhere, and despite some competition from Jim Meehan’s Bartender Manual, the former’s laser-sharp focus makes it a perfect book to give anyone who wants to learn how to make drinks at home or sound like they know what they’re talking about in their first barback interview.
BEST GENERAL BOOK FOR INTERMEDIATE BARTENDERS:
Meehan’s Bartender Manual by Jim Meehan
The Bartending 201 to Morganthaler’s 101. The original PDT Cocktail book was a pretty formative book in my embracing of cocktail bartending, and Meehan’s foray into a more general discussion on bartending (over PDT’s “list of drinks” style) is incredibly ambitious. He covers, at least briefly, most aspects of running a bar, and while it focuses primarily on cocktail bartending, it has snippets that could be useful for most bartenders, from accurate discussions of spirit origins to an excellent section on hospitality. It has beautiful drink photography and is hefty as all heck.
BEST BOOK FOR MAKING COCKTAILS:
The Flavor Bible by Page and Dornenburg
I admit, this is a bit of a cheat, but The Flavor Bible is definitely the food and beverage book I reference the most. Try a new, weird spirit? Cross reference it. Eventually, a lot of the “flavor vocabulary” becomes innate, but just like a good thesaurus, The Flavor Bible is always useful, as long as it isn’t abused.
THE BEST BOOK FOR LEARNING HOW TO MAKE COCKTAILS:
Cocktail Codex: Fundamentals, Formulas, Evolution by Day, Kaplan, and Fauchald
As a bartender who works at a bar that does about 80% of its sales in cocktails from our extensive list, I find myself visited a lot by other bar folks who may have years of experience behind the wood, but don’t have a lot of confidence in making cocktails. In the past, I tried to throw two or three books at them (inevitably The Joy of Mixology alongside a couple of other books whose drink recipe ratios were a bit more of the moment), to sum up what took me a dozen or two books to fully figure out (drink families, the weird origins of drinks, drink ratios, etc). In Cocktail Codex, the authors have managed to sum everything up beautifully, in a coffee-table-worthy package. It’s the perfect “cocktail” textbook for a bartending degree. I’m actually a bit miffed that the Death & Co folks managed to do so well at the task, undermining whatever masterwork I had percolating in the back of my head all these years.
THE BEST BOOK FOR THE SCIENCE BEHIND COCKTAILS:
Liquid Intelligence by Dave Arnold
Remember how Omar was all “You come at the king, you best not miss?” While I slept on the Aviary’s Kickstarter and thus haven’t had the ability to read their new book, there haven’t been many other challengers to Liquid Intelligence’s place on the throne for science-minded cocktail folks. Cocktail Codex does a great job of incorporating many of its concepts (as did earlier books, like The Curious Bartender and some foreign-language bar books), Liquid Intelligence remains an essential book, even for bartenders who won’t use any of its more experimental or “molecular” options. To go more into concepts like flavour or high-end equipment, one has to go out of the realm of bar books entirely, into modernist cuisine or biological psychology journals on flavour. It’s pretty good.
BEST COLLECTION OF RECIPES, MODERN:
I’m Just Here for the Drinks by Sother Teague
This category might be a bit deceptive — this isn’t the best collection of drinks, but rather the best book that is mostly a collection of drinks. You won’t get a big list of every cocktail in existence here (that’s what the internet is for; actually, you shouldn’t need that either, as the above mentioned Cocktail Codex shows). Rather, Mr. Teague provides a lively collection of drinks, well-written anecdotes, and some nice insights into making cocktails and hospitality hidden in some of the recipe descriptions.
BEST COLLECTION OF RECIPES, CLASSIC:
The Gentleman’s Companion Volume II: Being an Exotic Drinking Book; Or, Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask by Charles H. Baker Jr.
As with the above category, this is less about the quality and quantity of drinks and more about the quality of the read. Baker was a writer for Esquire and a drinking buddy of Hemingway and Faulkner, and his book reads like it was written by a P.G. Wodehouse character. If you can overlook a few unfortunate era-specific rich-white-guy throwaway lines, you can find a surprisingly useful collection of drinks and a bunch of really great pithy remarks about drinking.
BEST BOOK ABOUT DRINKS BUT NOT BARTENDING:
The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart
An honourable mention should go to The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining by Haskell and Spoelman, but the breadth of knowledge in The Drunken Botanist makes it a must-read for any spirit enthusiast. There are a ton of fantastic single-category spirit histories out there, but The Drunken Botanist is a great starting point with a lot of cross-category appeal.
BEST BOOK ABOUT BAR MANAGEMENT:
Straight Up by Ramona Pettigrave Shah
BEST BOOK ABOUT THE HISTORY OF ALCOHOL (non-bar-related):
Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol by Ian Gately
There are a ton of great books out there, and even more recently released or on the way (I’m really looking forward to cracking open Shannon Mustipher’s Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails), so until we meet again, keep reading!