The Basics Tips & Tricks

3 Bar Books Every Bartender Should Read to Brush Up On the Classics

Because you need to learn the rules before you can break them well.

Bar books / Laura Sant

The best bartenders are also bookworms, constantly researching the latest tastes and trends. But with so many titles to choose from, it’s easy to wind up lost in a sea of stale prose and sloppy recipes. We’ve paged through the stack to give you the essential booze books to read this month.

By definition, a classic cocktail is one that has endured the test of time. Yet the following three books show that even though some drinks capture our collective thirst and imaginations over the decades or even centuries, there are myriad ways to approach the same drink. 

For example, the Daiquiri is one of the best-known classics around. Cocktail historian Dave Wondrich has plenty to say about the origins of the rum drink and how it made its way to America and proliferated among some of its early saloons. By comparison, “Regarding Cocktails” offers lessons on how to make and serve the iconic drink, as codified by pioneering bartender Sasha Petraske. Meanwhile, a new book from the team behind high-end bars The Aviary and The Office shares their point of view on how to calibrate the drink to fit a wide range of rums.

And that’s just one classic cocktail. When the same lens is applied to other drinks, these three books are sure to help elevate technique and provide talking points across the cocktail canon.

  • “Imbibe! From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to ‘Professor’ Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar”

    Imbibe! / Laura Sant

    David Wondrich (Perigee, $28)

    With some books, you learn things without quite meaning to. “Imbibe!” Is one of those books. Open it up to just about any page, and you’ll walk away knowing a bit more about the story of Jerry Thomas and the golden age of New York’s 19th-century saloons. The 2015 edition updates and revises the 2007 original. It may not have seemed possible, but it’s now even denser and richer with anecdotes, history and drink-making techniques. 

    Excerpt: “Although the Americans who in 1898 suddenly found themselves in Cuba in great numbers took to Bacardi’s exceptionally smooth, light rum pretty much instantly, it needed about 10 years for it and the Daiquiri to filter across the Florida Straits and invade the invader, beginning ironically enough with a beachhead at the Navy Club in Washington (Remember the Maine!) After a couple of years of percolating, in the mid-1910s Cuban rum suddenly became a sensation. The usual mixological capers ensued. New cocktails were mixed, with racy new names.… Old cocktails were dug up and rebored to fit the new spirit, and everybody ran around trying to figure out how to make ’em all.” 

  • “The Office: Classic Cocktails”

    The Office: Classic Cocktails / Laura Sant

    Grant Achatz, Micah Melton, Allen and Sarah Hemberger, and Nick Kokonas (Alinea Group, $40)

    Self-published in 2020, the same year Alinea’s The Office and The Aviary closed their doors in New York City’s Mandarin Oriental hotel (although the Chicago location remains in place), this leather-bound book appears as soothingly genteel as its namesake bar, and the drinks within spotlight beautifully photographed classics. The streamlined recipes are supplemented by deeper-dive headnotes, such as the following accompanying instructions for fine-tuning a classic Daiquiri.

    Excerpt: “When discussing the idea of balance and seasoning as it relates to cocktails, the Daiquiri is our favorite example to use. The drink’s simplicity renders proper balance critical.… To further complicate matters, the choice of rum can dramatically affect the equation—no one recipe is perfect. Our build … is arguably balanced for a dry, unaged (“white”) rum. If you prefer an aged rum, its caramel- or toffee-like notes tend to create the illusion of added sweetness, which can be balanced with an extra quarter-ounce of lime juice. In contrast, the fullness of a funky Jamaican rum … might encourage a slightly smaller proportion of base spirit.”

  • “Regarding Cocktails”

    Regarding Cocktails / Laura Sant

    Sasha Petraske with Georgette Moger Petraske (Phaidon, $30)

    The modern-day renaissance of classic cocktails and speakeasy-style cocktail bars owes a debt to Sasha Petraske, the visionary behind New York City’s Milk & Honey and other influential bars who trained numerous bartenders who have carried on his legacy. This book, published posthumously in 2016, contains many of Petraske’s well-honed drink recipes and thoughtful meditations on bartending and service from Petraske and those who knew him best.

    Excerpt: “A perfect Daiquiri is a window into the technique and talent needed to make any shaken drink. For this reason, it is the best drink for anyone to see what a bar or bartender is often about. Sasha often made his Daiquiris with 7/8 ounce (26 mL) of lime juice because, depending on the lime, a full ounce of juice could make a drink a little too tart. That moment really drove home the importance of tasting every drink—especially the first drinks of the night—because even if you make the drink ‘right,’ the ingredients, even in the simplest of drinks, will not always guarantee the same results.” —Abraham Hawkins