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 will help bartenders take stock and assess where they are, where they might want to go and what they might want to sip along the way. The first two provide bookends of sorts. “A Proper Drink,” published in 2016, offers a retrospective of the modern cocktail renaissance as it hatched and unfurled over the past two decades, with an emphasis on the people behind the historical moments. “Last Call” is a bittersweet coda to an industry that fell into distress in 2020. It’s hard to not read a second meaning into a book about hypothetical “last drinks” when they’re voiced by many whose bars have shuttered permanently. Especially now, it’s a book that may spark thoughtful consideration about endings and new beginnings. And on a more upbeat note, the third book is a more traditional cocktail guide, full of clever drink hacks.
All three books include plenty of drink recipes, perfect for inspiring thoughts about the direction in which the industry, and each individual reader, ought to go.
“A Proper Drink: The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World”
Robert Simonson (Ten Speed Press, $27)
You have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going. Of course, more has happened since this book was published in 2016—history never stands still—but it captures the key moments in and players behind the rise of the current cocktail renaissance, punctuated by “Modern Classic” cocktail recipes.
Excerpt: “Not every cocktail bar put a molecular drink on its menu. But a few bars built entirely around the concept arose and were of such quality that they stuck around. Their success was always owing to the passion of the true-believer founders at their center: Tony Conigliaro of 69 Colebrooke Row in London, Dave Arnold of Booker & Dax in New York City, and chef Grant Achatz and his various bartender lieutenants at The Aviary in Chicago. None of these three men think of the other as being in the same category. But that’s one of the characteristics that bind the molecular artisans together: They don’t like to be pigeonholed, and they all hate the term molecular mixologist.”
“Last Call: Bartenders on Their Final Drink and the Wisdom and Rituals of Closing Time”
Brad Thomas Parsons (Ten Speed Press, $35)
Yes, there are drink recipes. But this hefty 2019 coffee table book is really about people and bars, peppered with last-call rituals and death-row drink requests. It’s a book of faces and stories. Get a copy for your bookshelf or coffee table and a second one to give to a friend.
Excerpt: “When the music is over and it’s time to talk about what they would want to have as their final drinks, both [Lauren Corriveau and Natasha David of NYC’s Nitecap, now closed] consider the white wine spritzer, the often-maligned mixed drink from the 1980s that they’ve both been on a mission to redeem, as the perfect end-of-night sipper but then change their minds. ‘If this is going to be my last drink on Earth, it would have to be a Margarita on the rocks,’ says David. ‘When I was pregnant, that’s the drink I was really thinking about every day.’ And she insists on a salted rim: ‘Lots of salt. Like a salt lick. The more salt, the better.’”
“Shake Strain Done: Craft Cocktails at Home”
J.M. Hirsch (Voracious, $25)
Published November 2020 and written by the editorial director of “Milk Street,” a publication known for its no-nonsense, nuts-and-bolts approach to cooking techniques, this new compilation is similarly practical, peppered with useful drink hacks and emphasizing drink flavors (spicy, smoky, herbal, etc.). Enticing illustrations show how the finished drinks should appear.
The book is designed to be friendly to home bartenders, but the cocktail recipes are solid, and pros can glean some new tricks too. For example, although the Espresso Martini entry fails to mention Dick Bradsell’s contribution (or any other bartender names, for that matter), the drink gains the precise addition of “6 to 10 grains kosher salt” to highlight the “delicious natural bitterness” of espresso.
Excerpt: “In cocktails, creamy too often comes across as heavy and cloying. That’s partly due to an overreliance on milk and heavy cream, the heft of which can dull other flavors. (I’m talking to you, Mudslides and White Russians of the world.) But there are plenty of lighter, brighter ways to achieve creaminess in a cocktail, ways that awaken rather than deaden your palate. A drop of vanilla extract or a muddled vanilla bean heads in that direction. Egg whites shaken into a cocktail—particularly in drinks that are a little sweet and sour—add both a creamy flavor and rich, velvety texture. Also good: coconut milk and coconut water, the latter of which I use to make a lighter, more sophisticated version of a White Russian.”