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.
Is cocktail-making an art or a science? Most will agree it’s a little of both. The following books will interest those seeking to science their way to better drinks.
“The Drunken Botanist” (2013) and “Proof: The Science of Booze” (2014) are among the groundbreaking tomes in the field of alcohol-beverage-based science. Neither is a textbook, yet both provide useful foundations about how spirits and cocktails are made, emphasizing botany and chemistry.
A new eponymous book from the team behind apothecary-themed bar Apotheke incorporates many of the same lessons in building tinctures, infusions and bitters, and the cocktail “alchemy” that results. Yet it’s more of a traditional bar book, celebrating the bar’s venues and its over-the-top cocktail aesthetic. The lush, moody photos of Apotheke’s velvet-lined interiors and images of elaborately styled drinks will tantalize those lusting to return to bars.
Of course, many other capable authors also should fill out the bar-lab bookshelf. The cocktail world’s own “mad scientist,” Dave Arnold, springs to mind. His excellent book “Liquid Intelligence” has been previously recommended, but it still merits a mention on any science-minded bar reading list. Others who embrace cocktail chemistry include the precise Ryan Chetiyawardana (“Good Things to Drink with Mr Lyan and Friends”) and the creative team at Aviary and their range of beautiful self-published titles.
Christopher Tierney and Erica Brod (Harper Design, $37)
This new book from the team behind the Apotheke bars in New York City and Los Angeles dropped in November 2020. As its name suggests, the bar positions itself as a modern apothecary, and its lab-coated bartenders refer to themselves as dispensing chemists. The first section of the book focuses on “the power of plants.” (There’s some overlap with “The Drunken Botanist,” but there’s room on the shelf for both books.) Meanwhile, the cocktail sections that follow say much about the functional ingredients, as well as the roles drinks can play: Stress Relievers, Aphrodisiacs, Stimulants, Painkillers, etc.
Excerpt: “In a production where the muddler has become the modern-day mortar and pestle, Apotheke is much more than a bar; it is a cocktail apothecary … an ode to complex botanicals, elixirs and herbs that have been used in remedies throughout time. We take an appreciative bow to the failed experiment of Prohibition, which legally codified alcohol as medicine and is forever romanticized in our collective consciousness.”
Amy Stewart (Algonquin Books, $18)
Spirits are agricultural products at heart, distilled from grains, grapes, sugar cane and other plant products that spring from the ground and flavored with herbs, spices, flowers and more. It can be easy to lose sight of that. Luckily, Stewart’s 2013 book offers the ultimate “plant’s-eye perspective on booze,” diving deep into everything from the botany of barley to hop varietals, interspersed with history, drink recipes and even some agricultural advice for those who opt to grow their own ingredients.
Excerpt: “Around the world, it seems there is not a tree or shrub or delicate wildflower that has not been harvested, brewed and bottled. Every advance in botanical exploration of horticultural science brought with it a corresponding uptick in the quality of our spirituous liquors. Drunken botanists? Given the role they play in creating the world’s great drinks, it’s a wonder there are any sober botanists at all.”
Adam Rogers (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16)
The introduction to this book opens with “booze sorcerer” Dave Arnold tinkering with lab equipment deep inside a Chinatown lair, then zigzags to a D.C. dive bar memory to explain what makes an ice-cold beer so appealing to humans. These are just some of the anecdotes in this 2014 book that digs into the biochemistry of fermentation and distillation, the history of alcohol production, and the physiological and psychological effects of drinking and makes it remarkably entertaining to read—no easy feat.
Excerpt: “Understanding our relationship with alcohol is about understanding our relationship with everything—with the chemistry of the universe around us, with our own biology, with our cultural norms and with each other. The story of booze is one of intricate research and lucky discoveries that shape, and are shaped by, one of our most universal shared experiences. The human relationship with alcohol is a hologram for our relationship with the natural world, the world that made us and the world we made.”