The art of bartending (or science, depending on how you look at it) is a never-ending cycle of learning, refining, and practicing. And unsurprisingly, there’s a book for bartenders at every stage of the game, whether working professionally behind the stick or on the perpetual quest to step up their home bar skills. While the origins of some spirits and classic cocktails aren’t always well-documented, there’s still plenty of material in existence from all throughout bartending history, much of which has served as a foundation for today’s bartending scene.
If we look to a book like Jerry Thomas' Bartenders Guide, the first published cocktail book in the country and one of the most well-known in history, we can see the trade in its early forms frozen in time (and in detail, at that). In this book, Thomas dives into the popular cocktail categories of the era (think punches, sours, flips, and slings) and lays out the principles of making them in relatively simple terms. Of course, things have changed between then and now, but this book will always be essential. On the other hand, The Five Points in Magic by Juan Tamariz takes a deep look into the performance aspect of bartending and earns the top spot on our list. See how the industry has changed over the years with these indispensable bartending books, old and new.
Best Overall: The Five Points in Magic by Juan Tamariz
“So much of bartending is your presence behind the bar,” says Ben Wald, head of bar programming at Yuco Restaurant in New York City. “In his book, [Tamariz] breaks down how a shift in how your feet are pointed, your shoulder position, or even your hand movements can convey meaning without saying a word. Only part of bartending is making cocktails—the bulk of it is performance, and in some people’s eyes, magic,” he adds.
While this isn’t a book specific to bartending, per se, there’s a lot to learn from the author’s deep study and analysis of psychological and physical elements of serving a guest in any setting.
Best for Beginners: The Bartender's Bible by Gary Regan
If you’re into cocktails in any way, you’ve likely heard Gary Regan’s name on multiple occasions (or at least have come across his work at some point). The late, great Regan, known to most as Gaz, was one of the most prolific figures in modern drinks history and is a legendary bartender and writer whose work will continue to benefit the industry and its enthusiasts for years to come.
This particular book, “The Bartender’s Bible,” is a holistic view of what it means to be a bartender and will guide you through the nitty-gritty, from bar equipment and stocking to the basics of essential spirit categories, commonly used mixers, and more, along with over a thousand cocktail recipes.
Best for Professionals: The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler and Martha Holmberg
Abigail Gullo, director of industry for Bartender’s Circle, swears by living legend Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s 2014 manual, “The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique” for novice and veteran bartenders alike. “The kids these days forget the basics—or they never learned them in the first place,” she tells Liquor.com. “Sometimes I forget them too. I need to be reminded not to try to reinvent the wheel when Morgenthaler already gave me the keys to the car.”
Morgenthaler and co-author Martha Holmberg cover technique and best practices for all of the bartending fundamentals, such as stirring, shaking, juicing, garnishing, dilution, and more. Like Gullo, you’ll find this book to be a timeless point of reference at any point in your bartending career.
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Best for Classic Bartending: Jerry Thomas Bartenders Guide 1862 Reprint by Jerry Thomas
Again, Jerry Thomas’ 1862 bartender’s bible is the quintessential old-school book on making and serving cocktails and should be required reading for each and every industry enthusiast and professional. Although technique, supplies, and ingredients have significantly evolved since the 19th century, the "Jerry Thomas Bartender’s Guide" is the perfect way to get to know the mother cocktail categories in their earliest forms—like any great bartender will tell you, knowing your classics is absolutely key.
Best for Modern Bartending: Meehan’s Bartender Manual by Jim Meehan
Lauded bar expert Jim Meehan’s award-winning bartending manual is an in-depth and highly detailed modern interpretation of "Jerry Thomas’ Bartender’s Guide". With this book, you’ll get an intimate look at the world of bartending through the eyes of a true veteran (and through insights from Meehan’s fellow esteemed bartenders from around the globe) covering topics like spirits production, menu development, designing a great bar, key hospitality principles, and of course, making drinks. “Meehan’s Bartender Manual” features over 100 cocktail recipes old and new, perfect for putting your newfound skills and knowledge into practice.
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Best for Hosting: Shake ‘Em Up! A Practical Handbook of Polite Drinking by Virginia Elliott and Phil Strong
“New York City resident and journalist Virginia Elliott published her ‘dry’ (with a-nod-and-a-wink) cocktail handbook towards the end of Prohibition, dedicating the manuscript to Jerry Thomas’ 'Bartender’s Guide and Many Memorable Parties,’" says Dr. Nicola Nice, founder of Pomp & Whimsy, a gin liqueur brand dedicated to honoring women past and present in the world of drinks.
While many of the penned notions and ideals from this era (the book was published in 1930) can be dated, “Shake ‘Em Up!” is “a delightful glimpse into the birth of the cocktail party, the underground drinking scene it started, and the new social order of hosting and home entertaining that carried on for decades following,” according to Nice.
Best Splurge: Cocktail Codex by Devon Tarby, David Kaplan, Nick Fauchald, and Alex Day
Death & Co, an award-winning cocktail bar-turned-empire, breaks down six mother cocktails (Old-Fashioned, Martini, Daiquiri, Sidecar, Whisky Highball, and Flip) and simplifies each category’s makeup in terms of build, technique, and mechanics—the theory here is that by understanding these fundamental drink styles from the inside out, any bartender can intuitively create his or her own riffs and original recipes with ease.
“Cocktail Codex” is designed to be used by bartenders of all experience levels and includes countless tips and anecdotes throughout. And, thanks to its striking design, it makes the perfect gift for any cocktail professional or enthusiast.
There are countless cocktail books out there, but few are as laser-focused on the bartending trade than those we’ve chosen for this list. Within this particular subset, we’ve selected bartending books exclusively written and/or recommended by iconic and hyper-talented industry pros, making it difficult to choose one over the other in terms of caliber. Because each of these bartending-specific books rival one another on all levels, we’ve selected the only non-bartending-specific book - “The Five Points in Magic” by Juan Tamariz (view at Amazon) - as our best overall given its versatile and flexible nature, along with the fact that it addresses an often-overlooked element of hospitality: the performance.
What to Look For in a Bartending Book
If you’re starting truly from scratch and are looking for a crash course in the basics, you’ll find that there’s no shortage in books just for that—however, it is perhaps more wise to invest in a book that you can grow with, such as Death & Co’s “Cocktail Codex” or “The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.” These books are comprehensive enough to jump into as a beginner, but are written by serious experts and will continue to serve as reliable guides as you become more and more proficient behind the bar.
There are so many incredibly talented bartenders past and present who have written books on the subject, so if you’re torn between two or more different options, look for some background details on each author to see which one speaks to you the most in terms of style, voice, and experience. If you choose a cocktail book based on the author’s approach and personality, chances are you’ll connect more with the writing, which can only be a good thing when learning.
What makes a good bartending book?
A great bartending book is thorough, well-written, and thoughtful, and is, above all, penned by someone who knows their stuff. Bartending is a craft that requires serious dedication and time in order to become proficient, and generally speaking, good books on the subject can really only be written by those who have put in their time behind the bar (we’re talking years).
What’s the difference between cocktail books and bartending books?
Cocktail books are typically recipe books, which sometimes feature helpful tips and insights on best bartending practices. Bartending books often contain cocktail recipes but are much more focused on the ins and outs of making and serving great cocktails in a professional or home setting. Many cocktail books are written by bartending experts, although they can also be written by experts who have not spent much (or any) time behind the bar, whereas bartending books require an intimate knowledge of the trade in order to write successfully.
What do bartending books cost?
Bartending books can cost anything from a few dollars into the hundreds—original copies of, say, the “Jerry Thomas Bartender’s Guide” or “Shake ‘Em Up” can get quite expensive. On the higher end of the physical quality spectrum, books like “Meehan’s Bartender Manual” and “Cocktail Codex” will run you between $30 to $40 new. Used copies of modern cocktail books are, of course, more affordable than new copies, so try going that route if you’re hoping to save a few bucks on a book that’s out of your price range.
Why Trust Liquor.com?
Céline Bossart is a longtime wine and spirits writer who has amassed quite the collection of cocktail and bartending books written by her industry peers. Her favorite bar-related books are coffee table books that you actually want to read (”Cocktail Codex” is a prime example).
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