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.
Among the flood of good new cocktail books hitting shelves this fall, three focus on visual elements—think flowcharts, grids and diagrams—to help readers understand how cocktails are constructed and guide them to which drink to make next. “Plenty of cocktail books have delicious recipes but don’t really orient you within the book,” says Carey Jones, the co-author of “Be Your Own Bartender.” This trio, however, seeks to show you around, not just tell you how to make drinks.
Gaz Regan (Clarkson Potter, $30)
The original edition, published in 2003, was one of the first bibles of the modern mixology renaissance and contained a set of grids that efficiently mapped out cocktail families—a groundbreaking concept at the time.
“My journey to define drink families began when I started to compile notes on how various other writers have described drinks in the past,” the late, great Regan recalls in the intro to the updated edition. “I looked at definitions, then came to arbitrary decisions about which ingredients must be used in order for a drink to belong in a specific group.” He credits fellow cocktail writer Ted Haigh, for example, for pointing out the similarities between the Margarita and Sidecar. (Both call for a base spirit, citrus juice and an orange-flavored liqueur.)
The purpose of grouping these drinks together, Regan says, “is not merely for the sake of giving them somewhere to hang their hats” but also because it “makes whole strings of drinks far easier to memorize.”
The new edition of the book streamlines the drink categories and omits a number of categories and little-used drinks for the sake of simplicity. (I admit I’m a little sorry to see “Squirrel Sours” go; while Regan wisely decided today’s barkeeps aren’t looking for 11 drinks that showcase nutty crème de noyaux liqueur, the name always made me smile.) The grid layout still resembles an Excel spreadsheet, but what the chart lacks in artistic finesse it more than makes up for in its utility.
Carey Jones and John McCarthy (Countryman Press, $25)
This cocktail book is aimed at home bartenders, not the pros, and uses cheeky, colorful flowcharts to help guide the reader to a potential cocktail. According to co-author Carey Jones (also the author of “Brooklyn Bartender”), the flowchart format was inspired by the questions co-author (and bartender/consultant) John McCarthy fields when helping guests and clients create off-menu drinks.
Almost no one knows exactly what they want, she says. “So he takes them through a series of questions: What spirit do they want? If they like, say, gin, do they want something with a little citrus or something boozier like a Martini? And so on. Through three or four questions, he can pinpoint a drink they'll like pretty closely.”
The flowchart is intended to mimic that bartender-guided experience and makes the process of flipping through a cocktail book with 200 recipes feel much less daunting.
Anyone who has sat through a corporate PowerPoint presentation knows that flowcharts rarely are described as whimsical, but these actually do add a fun, interactive element to the book. “The journey should be as fun as the destination,” says Jones. “Cocktails are fun; cocktail books should be fun too.”
Alex Day, Nick Fauchald, David Kaplan and Devon Tarby (Ten Speed Press, $40)
Like “The Joy of Mixology,” the latest book from New York City’s Death & Co team also is organized around cocktail families. However, the visual is more of a diagram, and each construct starts with one of six basic root recipes, with variations on that drink emanating outward. It’s easy to grasp at a glance how the drinks may be similar or different.
“For many people, the first strategy in studying cocktails is to memorize a bunch of recipes,” says Alex Day, a partner at Proprietors LLC, in the book’s intro. While cocktail families allow bartenders to memorize drink recipes more easily, he says, “the approach has always felt a bit empty to me—it only scratches the surface of truly understanding cocktails.” He adds: “Memorizing families of drinks is helpful, but it does little to empower an understanding of why variations on a handful of formulas work (well or otherwise).”
The diagrams reflect how the Death & Co team thinks about drinks, says Day. “We’ve begun to think of drinks less as families and more as intuitive progressions arising from a handful of well-known templates: the Old Fashioned, Martini, Daiquiri, Sidecar, Highball and Flip.”