In my early forays into the world of spirits, I was eager to absorb the basics; I read introductory texts diligently and acquired the rudimentary equipment of bar craft. Soon enough, though, I was picking up books on the history of vodka in Russia and hunting down obscure tools like a vintage Tap-Icer (“cracks ice in a jiffy”). My collection of bitters swelled; there were celery bitters—which I used once—and cherry bitters and chocolate mole bitters and, of course, my own homemade bitters. And then it happened: I began to realize that having more bottles, owning more tools, and reading more books didn’t necessarily make me better. Often these things only served to distract; they were noise.
Over the last few years I’ve sought to reach a sort of Zen-like essentialism that pares down the clutter. I’ve whittled away my cocktail bitters to three classics: Angostura, Orange, and Peychaud’s. I’ve put away all but the most necessary bar tools—I even got rid of my muddler, since shaking mint for a julep and using simple syrup in my old-fashioned does the trick. With books, I find myself less concerned with acquiring every new publication and more with returning for inspiration to the dog-eared pages of the best.
In service to the idea that a bartender or brand ambassador would benefit most from focusing on an abbreviated canon, here are the six essential books every spirits professional should own. A few notes regarding how this list was compiled: I tried to stay away from specialist texts that aren’t likely to be useful to everyone in the trade; this means you won’t find books on molecular mixology or 19th-century barmen, or cocktail books put out by world-renowned bars or restaurants. I also did my best to offset the effect of recency bias, scouring my brain and shelves for books that weren’t published in just the last five years.
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The Joy of Mixology: The Consummate Guide to the Bartender’s Craft
by Gary Regan (Clarkson Potter, $30)
Fifteen years ago, when the modern cocktail renaissance was in its nascent stages, there weren’t many resources for those curious about crafting drinks. In fact, if you were serious, there were only two contemporary books available: Dale DeGroff’s The Craft of the Cocktail (2002) and Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology (2003). Regan’s book was a revelation—a combination of history, technique, theory, and recipes, all with a philosophical lilt. The chapter “The Bartender: Do You Have What It Takes?” is a treatment of bartending as a uniquely human enterprise with a social dimension, a topic so seldom written about that it comes as a surprise. Regan has little time for preciousness. While he respects bartending and the endeavor of mindful mixology, he’s no snob. He believes that personal style has a place in bartending—after all, this is the man who popularized the finger-stirred Negroni.
Still, this is very much a pragmatic guide, and nowhere is this clearer than in the chapter “Birds of a Feather: Cocktail and Mixed-Drink Families,” with its wonderful accompanying charts. Here, Regan concisely connects the dots between seemingly disparate cocktails by grouping them into sets that are easy to understand and to remember. The daiquiri and the Jack Rose, for instance, are sours built around lemon juice. Regan is modest enough to recognize that he didn’t establish these families. Nonetheless, he was the first modern bartender to spread the gospel of cocktail families with zeal.
The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks
by Amy Stewart (Algonquin Books, $22.95)
All spirits are derived from plants; tequila and mezcal are born of agave, whiskey comes from grain, and brandy is made from fruit. Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist (2013) is an encyclopedia of the world’s alcoholic beverages as viewed through the lens of the plants responsible for their production. There are sections on everything from corn to cork oaks. Stewart deploys both wit and wisdom in her thorough exploration of plants, with tips and hints on growing everything from your own herbs to citrus. There’s also some fun, botanical myth busting; she uses simple number crunching to cast serious doubt on saffron’s use in the making of Fernet-Branca. This dense book punches above its weight, touching on nearly every alcoholic beverage without sacrificing depth.
The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique
by Jeffrey Morgenthaler with Martha Holmberg (Chronicle Books, $30)
As Morgenthaler points outs, any good cocktail requires three elements: a recipe, ingredients, and technique. With The Bar Book (2014), Morgenthaler, the bar manager at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon, elevated the discourse surrounding technique—shaking, juicing, making ice, and more. What makes this book a delight is its refreshing take on seemingly dreary topics. There are more than a dozen pages dedicated to measuring, and nearly 50 about creating simple and compound syrups. In a section titled “Getting the Most From Your Citrus,” Morgenthaler dispels the erroneous belief that one should roll one’s lemons and limes to get greater juice yield. He points out that not all citrus juice follows the same trajectory of degradation, explaining why grapefruit juice (optimal between four and twelve hours) is much more resilient than orange juice (best within the first four hours of juicing). The Bar Book contains a few dozen near-perfect recipes that serve as illustrations of the techniques covered.
The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks
by David A. Embury (Mud Puddle Books, $39.95)
David Embury’s opinionated masterpiece marked an important transition in drinks writing. Prior to Prohibition, books on alcohol and cocktails were written by the trade for the trade. With the publication of The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948), Embury proved that insight could be provided by the thoughtful amateur. Embury, an attorney, codified the principles of good drink making 15 years after the repeal of Prohibition. In the preface to the most recent edition (2008), Audrey Saunders notes that Embury’s insistence on and logical explanations of the need for “appropriately sized glassware made out of glass, coasters, good spirits, freshly squeezed juice, good ice, bitters, and fresh vermouth” are firm principles that have stood the test of time. While there is merit to the criticism that some of Embury’s ratios could use rejiggering, it’s his exploration of what makes for a good drink that offers a timeless lesson in cocktail aesthetics.
Tasting Whiskey: An Insider’s Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World’s Finest Spirits
by Lew Bryson (Storey, $18.95)
Single-category spirits books tend not to age gracefully. Their content often becomes dated, mired with inaccuracies introduced by the passage of years and the opening and closing of distilleries. Lew Bryson’s magisterial Tasting Whiskey (2014) might well prove to be the exception to the rule. The book simplifies some of whiskey’s most complex production techniques and stylistic nuances without ever dumbing things down. It is misleadingly titled, inasmuch as the book is really about everything whiskey and not just about tasting it. Brilliant graphics bring to life such concepts as mash bills, column distillation, and how the storage location of a barrel affects the flavor of a bourbon.
Straight Up or On the Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail
by William Grimes (North Point Press, $16)
The year 2001 was peak Cosmopolitan. Recall: David Wondrich had yet to publish his first cocktail book, and Sex and the City was in its fourth season. And so it is thrilling to read a such a knowing, contemporary take on the drink by William Grimes: “Like a well-written sitcom, it flatters its audience into believing they are a little more sophisticated and knowing than they really are. It’s an insider’s cocktail that absolutely everyone drinks…” Grimes was the restaurant critic for the New York Times then, and Straight Up or On the Rocks (first published in 1993 and revised in 2001) is his short, beautifully written history of cocktails. Over the last decade dozens of cocktail and drink histories have been published, but this was the first serious one of its kind. It charmingly covers the first 350 years of the cocktail’s existence. (To catch up on the last 20 years, check out Robert Simonson’s A Proper Drink.) Straight Up is an approachable book that gives its readers a sense of the cocktail’s importance in broader culture as well as an appreciation for just how far it’s come since Jerry Thomas’s flaming Blue Blazer.
Scott Rosenbaum is a spirits strategist for the New York–based importer and distributor T. Edward Wines. He is also an adjunct professor at New York University and Hudson County Community College, where he lectures on the history of alcohol and food.