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 Cocktail Codex: Fundamentals, Formulas, Evolutions by the guys at Death & Co and give us both of their opinions of said book.
It feels as though the authors of Cocktail Codex are on a mission to de-mystify cocktail-making. And despite a few parts that seem a little force-fit, they succeed admirably. Certainly the idea of approaching modern cocktailing through the lens of ‘root’ or ‘families’ of cocktails isn’t new (Gaz Regan, among others has been at it for more than a decade), but the thoroughness and the visual, graphic style are what set this book apart. Not to mention the pedigree of its authors.
You could quibble with the 6 ‘roots’ they’ve chosen, and arguably the margarita would have been a more approachable choice than the sidecar, delicious though it may be. But the overarching structure does such a great job of helping the reader understand fundamentals like how a sour is different from a daisy, why the old fashioned is a display of subtlety and precision, the importance of ritual in a whisky highball, and the role of personal preference in the perfect martini (pun intended?) that it hardly seems to matter. They’ve approached the function of ingredients in an easy-to-understand way: everything is either for core, balance or seasoning, and they encourage you (once you understand the root recipe and the fundamentals) to play around with any (or all three). While it’s very useful on a functional level, a word to the wise: making 3 separate margaritas each having at least 2.75oz of alcohol to compare across recipes is all well and good, but if you want to make it beyond chapter 3 you’re better off enlisting a partner to help drink the fruits of your labour.
There’s enough history and context here to be informative but not overwhelming, particularly at the beginning of each chapter. And sidebars from “Friends and Family” as well as smatterings on technique are generally well-placed and relevant. Moving beyond the basics, centrifuge syrups, clarified juices and different types of acids are explored…it’s nowhere near Liquid Intelligence level stuff, but it’s great for anyone who wants to move outside simple infusions and start getting a little more “science-y”.
Compared to many others we’d reviewed, this book is dense. It’s physically quite large, the stock is heavy (and glossy – apologies for the finger prints on all those lovely black pages, Jess and Josh), and you can see how much care and attention has been put into the design. The photos are nothing short of stunning, and although it clocks in at only around 300 pages it reads like it’s much longer. In a good way. There’s so much content here that it needs to be savoured over multiple sittings if you want to do it justice. So although this isn’t necessarily where I’d start to build my library (there are other books for more basics, Death &Co’s first, for example), I definitely want it on my shelf.
Marlene’s Last Word: There’s lots in here to love, and it will appeal to a wide subset of folks. If this book were a drink, to my mind it would be a Sazerac. Familiar enough not to be daunting, but exotic enough that you want to have at least a sense of what you’re doing before you delve in in order to get the most out of it.
When Marlene and I were brought in to work on the Boozy Bookshelf over a year ago, three of the first books we read were a trio of highly influential books from 2014: Morgenthaler’s Bar Book, Dave Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence and Death & Co. The first two still strike me as stone-cold classics, but I was always a bit lukewarm on Death & Co – it had some great material in its imposingly dark bulk, but I found that the snippets of wisdom within were unfortunately balanced out by lists of fiddly, over-specific cocktails. There were elements of the book where it felt like the authors were trying to explain the process of developing cocktails, but they failed to make the experience universal enough to be fully functional. It was a book for fans of the bar and for people who could use big ol’ variant lists of drinks. So, five years pass and the Death & Co bar folks come out with another book, similarly imposing in size and shape, and I wasn’t sure how it would turn out.
Turns out that it’s goddamn great.
Cocktail Codex is a book I wish I had written. More than that, it’s a book that I wish had been written long ago, so it would have existed when I started getting serious about mixing drinks. It’s a killer update to Joy of Mixology, in that it subdivides drinks into understandable families (whether losing Regan-isms like the “squirrel sour” is a feature or bug is up to the reader to decide, but the drink recipe ratios are decidedly fit both a more classic and modern palate). It has a tight focus entirely on the creation of mixed drinks, excising any discussion bar tools and bar layout outside the act of making the drinks themselves. The discussion of shaking won’t tell you what kind of shaker to buy, but it does make a compelling argument for how to shake utilizing different types of ice. The explanations of spirit families don’t go deep into their histories, but they are functional and located right next to the styles of drinks that commonly use them. There’s no discussion of bar layouts or proper posture. The Cocktail Codex assumes you know how to physically make a cocktail, and focuses entirely on the hows and whys of designing cocktails and the proper execution thereof. In short, it slots in perfectly in the missing link between The Bar Book / Meehan’s Bartender Manual and Liquid Intelligence.
It’s not a perfect book, insomuch as a perfect book seems more or less impossible. While the layout is much plainer and more academic than other cocktail books, eschewing line art outside the occasional caricature or drink family diagram, the photography is big, gorgeous and functional. Individual drink photos might not be as elaborately pretty as some found in a few other cocktail books, but they feel more true to life and referenceable. Mentioning that a couple of the cocktails don’t perfectly match up with their accompanying drink description feels like picking nits, because the photography, in general, manages to realistically depict what the text is referencing more than most books we have covered. The drink families themselves make sense, though I’m sure our more contentious peers might be willing to argue about which drinks should be the icons of the various categories. And, as I might expect from a Death & Co driven book, some of the original cocktails feel a bit persnickety, but less so than I was expecting.
One of the most common questions I get asked by bartenders of other specializations, or folks starting out as bartenders, is “How do you learn how to design a cocktail?” Previously, I had to give a lot of half-answers (“check out these two chapters of Joy of Mixology, and then read this chapter of the Bartender Manual, and then read the lists in these two books and think about them, and x and y…”). Now, if someone doesn’t want to delve deeper into the science and just wants to make drinks, Cocktail Codex serves as a one-stop-shop. It’s pretty dry and not as fun a read as, say, I’m Just Here for the Drinks, but it does help potentially crystallize the discourse around making drinks in a functional way, one that may help drive innovation through having a potential organizational language.
Lucas’s Last Word: Cocktail Codex is a book that logically feels like it should have always existed, and I’m stunned that it took so long for it to spring into existence, as I feel it may end up the comparison piece for a lot of books about making drinks in the future. Even if you know everything in it it will at least still look pretty good on a shelf.