Never a shift goes by where I don’t take a book out and force it on someone that couldn’t care less. My co worker Ashley has set a small bookshelf aside behind the bar so that I can’t keep loading up every free space behind the bar with dusty tomes. Look, I haven’t been doing this as long as my mentors and I haven’t traveled as much, or made pilgrimages, like I would want to. Books fill in the gaps.
But the real truth is: I was a half assed bartender like almost all of them and then I got laid off of my day job, and went for being a bartender full time. I was riding my bike home from pink slip Thursday and I called up Dallas and said, “I just lost my job, can I come on full time?” And like that, the bar started taking care of me. I bought two books to start, which at the time were gold standards and must haves for any pro or home tender and they are of constant reference to me. Those two are: The Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan and The Essential Cocktail by Dale Degroff. I actually had Degroff’s Craft of the Cocktail at the time, but I recommend his update to you. These books are a skeleton list, within each book’s bibliography you’ll find the inspirational backbone of all of the book’s listed below.
The first book is the most diminutive but most useful, it still lives on my register at work. Anastasia Miller and Robert Hess, with help from a dozen other industry leaders, compiled this little pocket sized wonder. It contains no technical instructions, just 100 of the most important recipes and short tidbits of information about the most important drinks you’ll be making FOR THE REST OF YOUR CAREER (or that people will always ask if you can make at home). Look, the thing is $7, and fits in your pocket. Get a few and give them to bars you like. But about hard bound books that live on the shelf, books that will serve you for years, books that you will spill upon until you can no longer open them, let us talk about Gary Regan and Dale Degroff.
This book touches on every single aspect of bartending, mixology and hosting; these are the 3 things that make a good bartender. Gary Regan is one of the few authors that addresses the practical aspects of being a bartender like, work clean, buy newspapers for guests, introduce people at the bar to other guests they’d like, don’t make change out of your tip jar. Regan writes for over 100 pages on how to do the job right, the core basics of service and technique before even giving you the first recipe. Beginners don’t need a book of 1,000 recipes; they need to know how to make a Manhattan. Gary Regan’s essay on how to make a Manhattan should be required for every bartender.
Dale Degroff is called “King Cocktail” for every reason. This book is elegant, Martha Stewart endorses it; this book could be on a coffee table, never executed upon and it would still serve its purpose. But, this book is so much more than its gorgeous packaging and design, with appropriate brevity, The Essential Cocktail covers all of cocktail history, trends and practices from punches and nogs, to pre-prohibition classics, tiki hijinks, disco disasters (improved with fresh juices) the renaissance of the cocktail (for which, Degroff is most responsible), modern ingredients and the beginnings of molecular mixology. In this book, basic history and technique is discussed for every aspect of cocktail creating culture, and to me, this is a huge inspiration. Dgroff talks about pre batching drinks for home parties, making custom ingredients, consulting gigs, and every bizzare technique possible, there is no book more versatile and it is upon his versatility that I base much of my personal style. My kungfu is Degroff clan kung fu.
Technique is paramount. No recipe will ever matter with bad technique. No one is ever so good at technique that they may stop learning. After you have made a thousand Manhattans, after Regan has organized your mind, and you have trained in the dojo of Degroff, you will be ready to learn more recipes.
The strongest list of cocktails you will find, the most cited on any menu is still the Savoy. From 1930, reprints are easy to find. Harry Craddock still has a lock on the mostest best recipes and the coolest, “doodles,” in the margins. But Harry offers no side notes, no history and no technique. If you want any idea of where drinks came from or a hint of what a cocktail meant in its time and place, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails by Ted “Dr Cocktail” Haigh, Good Spirits by AJ Rathbun and Robert Hess’ The Essential Bartender’s Guide and three modern classics that begin to scrape the surface. These three books begin to discuss where cocktails came from and they define which classics are still relevant today. Though all of these books do provide some of the basics, they are still for bartenders that already have a foundation.
David Wondrich is why all bartenders have mustaches. All of us. He wrote a book called Imbibe! And then magically all of us grew mustaches and made blue blazers. Imbibe! Is about the, “Professor,” Jerry Thomas, the author of the first bartender’s guide and the first, “celebrity,” bartender. I don’t recommend that you rush out and buy Jerry’s guide because it is kind of like asking Henry Ford about the current trends in the auto industry or explaining the internet using Shakespearean English, it just isn’t the right reference in the modern world. Imbibe! is just a fun account of the history of early American mixology and an inspiration to all modern bartenders to get in touch with their roots. Wondrich also recently penned Punch which is another fun eponymously topic-ed book. I <3 Tiki so much that that I typed dumb symbols to make a heart.
Two books that discuss the history of rum with great comedy and prose are And a Bottle of Rum by Wayne Curtis and Sippin’ Safari by Jeff Berry. I often recommend people read these two books as a plane read because they are fun page turners that enlighten the reader about history through booze.
But that, “history through booze,” thing is better achieved by Ian Lendler in his book Alcoholica Esoterica which explains booze and its place in history with a wit equal to Oscar Wilde and with the aesthetic of Bukowski. I can’t praise it more than to say I have bought it and given it away four times, and I am currently bereft of a copy and I will get another tomorrow.
Whiskey: The Definitive World Guide is not the most informative book on understanding whiskey, but it is the only place I could imagine starting to understand whiskey. I call him, ”My Michael Jackson,” and he died a year before everyone else’s Michael Jackson, many others called him the, “Whiskey Hunter and the Beer Chaser.” He has written over a dozen books on either but Whiskey: The Definitive World Guide is a must have for any wood paneled room.
Then there are the two texts that the nerds hold high and only one is in reprint, the other never should be. David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks is a detail obsessed attorney’s view on tending bar in post prohibition America. There are scores of post prohibition cocktail guides that went to shelves as soon as books went to shelves, but Embury’s book has lasted because of his scientific mind mixing with his practical mind. Had mixology ended there, we still would have measured everything and used fresh squeezed juice, always. Charles Baker was quite the other thing. The Gentleman’s Companion is a two part book, one for cooking and one for drinking of a rich privileged adventurer traveling the world in the ‘20s. It reads like a moderately racist and very sexist text tendered in what now is a hilarious, “I can’t fucking believe this, “ way. The Gentleman’s Companion is not is reprint but I prefer the dusty stinky and therefor special way it must be read, embraced and laughed at.
Advanced Cocktail Technique
After you have built a foundation, you have learned recipes and gained the knowledge of history, you need to learn it all over again. Cocktail Technique by KazuoUyeda is a whole new challenge. Uyeda is the father of Japanese bartending, you have heard whispers of, “the hard shake” you have seen hand carved ice and perhaps you have heard of the drink style, “coral,” these are all Uyeda. Uyeda defines the Japanese style by showing how much intensity and specific care can be put into every aspect of the cocktail. Greeting the guest properly makes a better cocktail, opening and cleaning the bottle correctly makes a better cocktail and better ice makes a better cocktail. Cocktail Technique takes you back to those first few pages of the Joy of Mixology that show you how to truly be a better bartender; the steps you forgot along the way because you were busy becoming a hotshot. And speaking of hotshots, a true challenge for the advanced mixer and drinker is the book Left Coast Libations by Ted Munat and Micael Lazar. Unlike other cocktail books, this one features 50 bartenders of the West coast in their attempts to outdo each other (turn to page 40 for the most handsome advice). Each bartender featured is given space for a mission statement and 2 drinks to define their style. The appendix is filled with recipes for custom ingredients and shopping lists for the most esoteric liquors. It’s a mammoth undertaking to knock out most any drink, or perhaps start a 50 bar pub crawl of some of the globe’s finest watering holes.