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 are guaranteed to entertain and delight. From a saucy illustrated book that encourages readers to enjoy drinks however they like to an expletive-laden romp through classic cocktails and a particularly opinionated canonical cocktail guide, each of these volumes breaks the rules in some way.
And although these books are irreverent and fun to read, each delivers a serious education, too. Think of them as the equivalent of a guilty-pleasure comic book secreted within a weighty high school chemistry tome. We won’t tell if you don’t.
Calligraphuck (Chronicle Books, $25)
Obviously, this is not a book for those averse to swear words, which are dashed like bitters across pretty much every page. But it’s a good reminder that drinks are meant to be fun. Written by London lettering artist and designer Linus Boman under the nom de plume Calligraphuck, his gift and stationery company, this book is aimed at home bartenders and gift-givers. That said, there’s plenty here for sassy foul-mouthed pros, too. Most of the drinks are classics, but the notes on building variations (delivered mostly without expletives) elevate the collection. Consider, for example, a baijiu-based spin on the Penicillin or an Angostura Collins with a layer of bitters floated on top.
Excerpt: “Pimm’s is ubiquitous across Britain during summer, but it can be difficult to source in other countries. Here’s a quick and dirty alternative: Replace Pimm’s with equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and triple sec. Compared to the original, it’s more bitter and citrus-forward, but some may consider that a bonus.”
John deBary (Clarkson Potter, $25)
The former bar director for all of Momofuku’s NYC locations has penned a cheeky, colorful bar book that’s more than just a guide to the basics. DeBary starts by defining what makes a cocktail great in both objective and subjective terms (think technical proficiency versus a drink that the specific reader actively prefers). In addition to suggestions for fine-tuning classic cocktails and a solid chapter dedicated to creative nonalcoholic drinks (deBary is also behind N/A aperitif Proteau), high notes include drinks such as the Johnny’s Margarita—a Tommy’s Margarita variation with a spray of absinthe over the top—and a coconut-oil-washed Rum Old Fashioned that pays homage to deBary’s first cocktail gig at PDT. Without giving away any spoilers, expect a few pearl-clutcher Can you really say that?!-type surprises along the way.
Excerpt: “When I say shake the living shit out of [a drink], I mean it. A wimpy, noncommittal shake is the death of countless cocktails, night after night, all over the world. Great shaken cocktails require you to shake as hard as you possibly can for 15 seconds. I highly recommend setting a stopwatch so you can get an understanding of what 15 seconds really is—it’s a lot longer than you think. This intensity and duration is necessary to get the drink ridiculously cold and ridiculously frothy.”
David A. Embury (Cocktail Kingdom reprint, $40)
Considered by many to be one of the finest books on cocktail theory, this groundbreaking book, originally printed in 1948, offers a number of basic principles that have guided the path of modern mixology. Embury began as a tax attorney, not a bartender, and perhaps that liberated him to write a more opinionated and engaging book that ranged beyond mere bare-bones recipe specs.
Embury breaks down categories of drinks, methodology and general technique, as well as the theoretical approach to constructing a cocktail. Perhaps most importantly, when he discusses what we now consider to be classic cocktails, he’s very clear that everyone has individual tastes and that drinks can and should be adjusted to meet those highly personal preferences. But he’s truly at his finest when he’s just spouting off about cocktails and spirits he abhors—“Just a brief word about Canadian whisky (which, in my opinion, is all it deserves)”—and drinking traditions he adores.
A warning: Embury also was a notorious bigot, even by 1940s standards. While this influential book doesn’t contain much of his misogynistic or racist opinions, it’s still something to bear in mind.
Excerpt: “The well-made cocktail is one of the most gracious of drinks. It pleases the senses. The shared delight of those who partake in common of this refreshing nectar breaks the ice of formal reserve. Taut nerves relax; taut muscles relax; tired eyes brighten; tongues loosen; friendships deepen; the whole world becomes a better place in which to live.”