The Basics Bar Tools

You’ll Find Serious Drink Inspiration in These Non-Cocktail Books

These non-cocktail books prove that inspiration can be found in unexpected places.

Composite of non-cocktail books for inspiration, diagonally placed against white wood background
(photo composite: Tim Nusog).

With the growing number of cocktail writers and bartenders putting forth booze books every year, most anyone can forge a path to becoming a knowledgeable drinksmith. Researching cocktail history, spirits and techniques is always a good idea, but sometimes the best inspiration can be hidden in plain sight. We tapped some of the industry’s top bar talent to find which non-booze books taught them how to stay ahead of the game––here are 10 expertly-selected books that will make you a better bartender, all without mentioning cocktails once.

  • “A Day at elBulli”

    A Day at elBulli cover, white background with yellow color block and distorted black text alongside right-aligned photo of chef and author

    Ferran Adrià, Juli Soler, Albert Adrià (Phaidon Press, $49.95, third edition: Oct. 15, 2008)

    “This might be my favorite chef-specific book, not because it’s about such an avant-garde altar of a restaurant but because of the creative process described within. Truly inspiring.”—Alex Day, partner of Proprietors LLC (Death & Co) and co-author of “Cocktail Codex: Fundamentals, Formulas, Evolutions

  • “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity”

    The Artist’s Way cover, soft yellow background with burgundy, black, and white text and accents

    Julia Cameron (TarcherPerigee, $17, anniversary edition: Oct. 25, 2016)

    “The book focuses on techniques and exercises that help you regain your creative mojo and build confidence, as well as believing in your creative abilities. It gets a bit hokey at times, but it has served me well over the years. The book is a 12-week course. You have to read the whole book in order to really get anything out of it. The entire book focuses on recovery—recovering your identity as an artist, your integrity or power as a creative force. It also encourages you to write morning pages, so the first thing you do daily is write what first comes to mind, whether it’s a poem or how you feel or an idea. It makes you purge your mind, in a way, to make room for new thought processes.”—Gabriella Mlynarczyk, cocktail consultant and author of “Clean + Dirty Drinking

  • “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration”

    Creativity, Inc. cover with red gradient background and the shadowy silhouette of Buzz Lightyear as a music conductor. White all-caps sans serif text overlaid

    Ed Catmull (Random House Publishing Group, $28, pub. date: April 8, 2014)

    “The author is the founder of Pixar. What starts as the story of the founding of an animation studio soon becomes a manual for team leadership, fair management and creative process. I’ve applied his practices as often as possible in multiple bars and restaurants and seen the returns. Far and away the best menus I’ve built have been as part of a team collaboration where everyone has equal say and the ability to stop the assembly line if necessary. For anyone looking to improve themselves as a leader and a collaborator, ‘Creativity, Inc.’ is a must.”—Daniel Sabo, director of food and beverage at Fairmont Century Plaza

  • “The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community”

    The Great Good Place cover featuring a blue block of text in the upper right quadrant and vintage photos in the other three around it

    Ray Oldenburg (Marlowe & Company, $18, third edition: Aug. 18, 1999)

    “Murray Stenson recommended this book to me years ago. It was originally published in 1989, so some of the content is outdated. However, the ideas carry through the decades. All bartenders should know the importance of place and recognize how we can transform one. This book explains what a third place [where people gather] is, its importance, how it has and can evolve our culture and also how we as bartenders can play a significant role in society through a third place.”—Anu Elford, co-owner of Canoe Ventures LLC (No Anchor, Rob Roy)

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  • “The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America”

    The Making of a Chef cover with a black and white photo of chefs above a gold, black, white, and magenta text block

    Michael Ruhlman (Henry Holt, $27.50, first edition: 1997)

    “Ruhlman’s ‘Chef’ series (including ‘The Soul of a Chef’) is super-inspiring. It looks into the dedication required to learn craft skills and evolve toward mastery. It doesn’t apply to cocktails but paints a beautiful (and haunting) picture of chef culture of a decade ago that speaks to a lot of what we’re experiencing in the cocktail community: formalizing education, prestige, scalability.”—Day

  • “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen”

    On Food and Cooking cover, bright red background with small black decorative text and white cover text overlaid

    Harold McGee (Scribner, $40, revised, updated edition: Nov. 23, 2004)

    “I find a lot of inspiration in food writing, be it about preparation of food or ideas generally around the culture and community of cooking and serving. On the nerdy side, this book is fundamental as a reference tool, not necessarily as a cover-to-cover read.”—Day

  • “Outliers: The Story of Success”

    Outliers cover, off white with black and orange text and a cluster of shiny blue and orange beads at the top left and a larger blue and orange bead in the center

    Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown & Company, $29, first edition: Nov. 18, 2008)

    “Anything by Gladwell is inspiring, but specifically ‘Outliers’ for its grasp of what achievement means and what it takes to get there.”—Day

  • “Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time”

    Pour Your Heart Into It cover, coffee-colored gradient background and text with a curved vertical title leading into a Starbucks mug

    Howard Schultz and Dori Jones Yang (Hyperion, $24.45, first edition: Sept. 8, 1997)

    “I think most people in our world have entrepreneurial aspirations. ‘Pour Your Heart Into It’ was one of the first books slightly outside of the normal restaurant book consideration set. Schultz is an incredible leader, and love or hate Starbucks, the book, and its follow-up, ‘Onward, How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul’ [Howard Schultz and Joanne Gordon (Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale, $17, pub. date: March 27, 2012],’ are both great.”—David Kaplan, partner of Proprietors LLC (Death & Co) and co-author of “Cocktail Codex: Fundamentals, Formulas, Evolutions”

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  • “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business”

    The Power of Habit cover, mustard yellow with red and black text and accents around an illustration of three people on a hamster wheel

    Charles Duhigg (Random House Publishing Group, $30, pub. date: Feb. 28, 2012)

    “This book applies to our industry in so many ways. It showed me how to look at things differently when it comes to training my staff. For example, staff members are not trying to do a bad job. They revert to their training or lack thereof. I've actually changed all of my training practices because of this book. Instead of grinding them on memorizing everything, I now start with good habit training, conflict resolution and how to clean properly. Another thing I learned was how to recognize bad habits and how to help fix them before they start. This new practice is at the core of all of my teachings. I hope that other bartenders can pick this book up and it will help them as much as it has helped me.”—Darwin Manahan, cocktail consultant and owner of Manahan + Co

  • “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business”

    Setting the Table cover, light and dark blue background with black and white serif text around a small image of a salt shaker

    Danny Meyer (HarperCollins, $28, pub. date: Oct. 6, 2006)

    “This book explains the mindset of service and is a shining example of how to approach hospitality. Meyer is an icon in the restaurant business, and his book directly translates to the soul of being of service to others. Bartenders can expect to learn a lot from his book. The notion of giving your employees a higher purpose beyond a paycheck or tips has been an idea I had unknowingly practiced in bars. But after I read it from Meyer, it reaffirmed this idea to me, and I always want to make that part of the bars I run. You would be surprised by how many companies don’t value this lesson.”—Julian Cox, director of bar operations and development at Tartine

    “His attention to detail when it comes to service is so inspiring. I learn so much about hospitality from that book.”—Julie Reiner, owner of Clover Club