The Basics Tips & Tricks

3 Books Every Bartender Needs to Read This Month to Jump-Start Your Creativity

We can’t wait to try the flavor combinations you come up with after reading these.

Book covers
Image: / Laura Sant

For those who sometimes feel like there are no new drinks to be devised and no new ideas to be conceived, this month’s crop of books can help jumpstart cocktail creativity. Think of the following three books as tools to help unlock personal drink innovation.

First up is a book launched in 2018 from the Death & Co team, which starts with a handful of “root cocktails,” then shows in-depth how to improvise and experiment with those core recipes. Next is a book that veteran bartenders have long relied upon to find complementary flavor pairings in drinks. Particularly now, when many bartenders are looking to wring every use out of expensive produce or repurpose ingredients found in restaurant kitchens, “The Flavor Bible” might light the way to figuring out that pineapple pulp left over from another drink pairs beautifully with cloves and baking spices. Finally, the green manual from veteran bartender Jim Meehan illustrates not just how to make drinks well but how to “hack” them in various ways, often steering an old favorite in a new direction.

  • “Cocktail Codex: Fundamentals, Formulas, Evolution”

    Cocktail Codex / Laura Sant

    Alex Day, Nick Fauchauld and David Kaplan (Ten Speed Press, $40) 

    From the authors of the equally highly useful Death & Co cocktail book, the premise is that most drinks stem from one of six classics: the Old Fashioned, Martini, Daiquiri, Sidecar, Whiskey Highball and flip. If you can master them, you can also master various ways to tweak those core drinks and riff in various other ways too. Many of the variations rely on the Mr. Potato Head model noted in the Death & Co book, meaning making a new drink by swapping out one or more components of an existing one.

    Drink inspo: The Old Fashioned’s basic blueprint is bourbon sweetened with sugar and seasoned with bitters; the Death & Co’s ideal version also includes a lemon and orange twist. But switching up the sweetener to the spiced liqueur Benedictine yields the Monte Carlo. Take that drink and sub the base spirit from whiskey to dry vermouth, and it’s now a Chrysanthemum.

  • “The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs”

    The Flavor Bible / Laura Sant

    Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page (Little Brown & Company, $40)

    When this book debuted in 2008, it was a groundbreaker for chefs and, later, a rising group of innovative bartenders, too. The authors describe it as an “empowerment tool.” The book indeed can help empower pros looking to find unusual flavor affinities as a way to build drinks. It’s also just fun to flip to a page and find random pairings that can inspire less-obvious flavor combinations.

    Drink inspo: According to “The Flavor Bible, allspice, a key spice found in many spiced rums, syrups and liqueurs such as pimento dram, pairs with apples, nuts and pineapple and also mustard, sweet potato and tomato.

  • “Meehan’s Bartender Manual”

    Meehan’s Bartender Manual / Laura Sant

    Jim Meehan (Ten Speed Press, $40) 

    This 2017 tome provides intel on setting up and running a bar, plus deep-dive information about various spirits and distillation techniques. But it’s in the cocktail section where plenty of buried treasure is to be found. It’s mainly in the hacks tucked alongside the drink recipes, which provide pointers for presenting and transforming the basics in fresh ways.

    Drink inspo: While the original Paloma (tequila, grapefruit soda and lime juice) is garnished with a lime, a grapefruit wedge is a logical substitution, says Meehan. He also suggests adding compound spice rims incorporating citrus, chile or sal gusano or adding a little fresh grapefruit juice to the mixture. In addition, preparing the recipe with juice in place of the usual soda yields a cocktail called the Cantarito.