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.
These three books take behind-the-bar education seriously, in different ways. Together, this trio offers a well-rounded curriculum: a canonical approach to building better cocktails through science; a lighthearted guide to the history of U.S. booze laws; and a newly updated classic that entertains with stories of the cocktail renaissance, folded around substantial lessons about drink-making and history.
Dave Arnold (W.W. Norton & Company, $35)
When this book debuted in 2014, it became an instant must-read for anyone with a centrifuge and a dream. Kidding aside, this book is now part of the cocktail book canon because it explains a wide range of molecular bartending techniques, from how to create clarified milk punches to acid-adjusting citrus juices. It’s all explained in plain language, with often-excruciating detail and off-kilter humor from the writer/educator/food scientist/podcaster Dave Arnold, who’s also the mastermind behind the late science-minded New York City bars Booker & Dax and Existing Conditions. It’s ideal for curious bartenders who want to understand why as well as how drink components can be pushed to the limits.
Excerpt: “Cocktails are problems in need of solutions. How can I achieve a particular taste, texture or look? How can I make the drink in front of me better? Taking cocktails seriously, as with all worthy inquiries, puts you on a lifelong journey. The more you know, the more questions you raise. The better a practitioner you become, the more you see the faults in your technique. Perfection is the goal, but perfection is, mercifully, unattainable. … A little dose of science will do you good. Think like a scientist and you will make better drinks.”
Dale DeGroff (Clarkson Potter, $35)
The 2002 classic has been updated and revised for 2020 readers, including more than 100 new recipes, all new photography (most taken at the late Pegu Club) and an updated history of the cocktail. What hasn’t changed: DeGroff’s signature warmth and storytelling, which invites readers in as he recounts tales of coming up in the cocktail world before and during the recent cocktail renaissance, including his notable years at the Rainbow Room. Expect plenty of well-earned reminiscences alongside solid drink-making advice. The old charmer even makes a utilitarian bar spoon sound dreamily romantic.
Excerpt: “The standard cocktail spoon is a long spoon with a twisted stem; a simple tool that, when properly used, is at the heart of the most elegant of the bartender customer interactions, stirring a proper Martini or Manhattan. Making a Martini without the ceremony is a lost opportunity for one of those special ceremonies in life. When I was stirring Martinis behind the busy bar at the Rainbow Room, I had Zen moments when I could see the whole room almost in slow motion while I took my time stirring. It simply can’t be rushed. I stir to a slow 30-count unless otherwise indicated in the recipe.”
Civics Class: “Give Me Liberty and Give Me a Drink”
C. Jarrett Dieterle (Artisan Books, $17)
This new book, out on September 15, focuses on “America’s most outlandish alcohol laws,” accompanied by 65 classic cocktail recipes. Although the glacial pace of publishing (and frenetic pace of current events) means that some of the laws outlined have shifted a bit—for example, public drinking and open-container laws have been upended in numerous states during the pandemic—overall, this book provides a fun look at some of the weirder booze-related laws, from Colonial times to Prohibition-era relics. For bartenders, this book can be a rich source of trivia and storytelling lore.
Excerpt: “Election Day is an annual occasion to celebrate freedom, and it’s only natural that some of us like to celebrate freedom by getting completely sloshed—after all, how else are we supposed to justify voting for the crappy options we have to choose from? In Alaska, though, your choices for an Election Day tipple are limited. Under an archaic law, restaurants, bars and other businesses can’t sell alcohol on Election Day until after the polls close. The rule dates back to a time when polling places were often situated in saloons and politicians would bribe voters with the promise of free alcohol.”