Cocktail 101: Five Essential Cocktail Books

Cocktail 101

All the basics of the bar.


Time to hit the books, fellow drunkards!

This week, I'll take a quick look at five must-have cocktail guides. These five selections are not the only cocktail books I think every avid drinker should own, but they're enough to get you started.

I've chosen relatively recent books by living authors. All five are still in print and should be fairly easy to track down, online or through a bricks-and-mortar retailer.

Now, you can, of course, find modern reprints of much older books, dating back to 1862's How to Mix Drinks, by Jerry Thomas. I think those books are a little esoteric for modern readers, though, so although I enjoy the heck out of reading and consulting them, I don't recommend any of them here.

The books I'm recommending offer a mix of cocktail theory and history along with a raft of recipes. Each book is stronger in certain areas than the others are, and I'll highlight those strengths. Onward!

The Essential Bartender's Guide

The ultimate beginner's guide to cocktails, Robert Hess's Essential Bartender's Guide is the book to own if you want to own only one. Hess covers the basics of stocking a home bar, constructing drinks, and understanding the basics of spirits and liqueurs.

The book is handily published with a lay-flat binding that keeps it open to your recipe while you're mixing a drink. Recipes include classics such as the Corpse Reviver and the Southside, and modern creations such as Hess's own Trident. The book is spiced throughout with color illustrations, showing cocktails, ingredients, techniques, and cocktail ephemera. Available online, $12.95

The Joy of Mixology

A book that's equally indispensable for the home bartender and the professional, Gary Regan's Joy of Mixology is a thorough guide to the craft of tending a bar. Regan starts with a brief history of cocktails, before launching into a description of the responsibilities of the workaday life of the professional bartender. He then puts forth a theory of mixology and describes the basic techniques of mixing drinks, crafting garnishes, and preparing ingredients.

But Regan's primary contribution to cocktails here is his classification of cocktails into families. You learn a lot about cocktails just by realizing that a sidecar is cousin to the margarita, for example (both contain a base spirit, citrus juice, and triple sec). Understanding cocktail families makes it easier for a bartender not only to memorize entire classes of recipes, but also to improvise new drinks.

The remainder of the book includes hundreds of recipes, many of which are introduced by Regan's accounts of their creation. Regan's a great storyteller, both in print and in person, so these tales are always entertaining. Available online, $19.80

Straight Up or On the Rocks

Written by William Grimes, former restaurant critic for the New York Times, Straight Up or On the Rocks is subtitled "The Story of the American Cocktail," and the book is exactly that. Grimes views the cocktail as one of America's finest cultural creations, and he spends the bulk of the book tracing its long history--from Colonial America to its current resurgence as a culinary phenomenon.

Although Straight Up is thin on recipes, it does contain a few in the back, and some of them are canny finds on Grimes's part, resurrecting cocktails that had been forgotten for decades and that deserve a spot in anyone's regular rotation. Grimes stints on providing general instruction about techniques and ingredients, but that's not his aim anyway. The other books I recommend will more than make up for that. Available online, $16

Craft of the Cocktail

Dale "King Cocktail" DeGroff is a pioneering spirit in the craft-cocktail scene, and Craft of the Cocktail is his first book. With hundreds of recipes and beautiful photography, Craft describes the history and manufacture of various liquors, teaches basic bar techniques, describes an inventory of glassware and bar tools, and relates some of DeGroff's many stories from his decades behind the stick. Available online, $23.10

Mr. Boston Official Bartender's Guide

You have no idea how hard it was for me to decide on the fifth book. I have so many others I could recommend: either Imbibe or Punch, by David Wondrich; any of Jeff Berry's tiki books; And a Bottle of Rum, by Wayne Curtis; recent books by Eric Felten and Jason Wilson ... I could go on.

But I strongly feel that a home cocktail library simply needs a so-called kitchen-sink book--that is, the type of book that includes over 1,000 cocktail recipes. Why? If you entertain at home, you simply never know what a guest might ask for.

The Mr. Boston Official Bartender's Guide is easily among the most ubiquitous cocktail manuals ever published. If you've only seen one cocktail book in your life, this is probably it. A battered Boston is as common in many bars as an aging, neglected bottle of Angostura. And for good reason.

First, it's compact and fits comfortably in the hand, so it's easy to thumb through when a guest challenges you for a specific but obscure cocktail. Second, it's thorough; it covers every common cocktail you've ever heard of, and many others besides. Third, it has historic cachet. It has been updated and revised almost yearly, since 1935. The edition I linked to is the 67th, published in 2009. Later this year, though, we'll see the 75th anniversary edition, celebrating a book first published in 1935. (Which would make the book 76 years old, but let's not quibble.)

It's old, but it's modern. These newest editions are edited by craft-cocktail bartenders and have been updated to include new recipes from the cocktail renaissance of the last 10 years. Mr. Boston contains words of advice from every name you see above and more.

Finally, it'll impress your grandfather. And isn't that usually cool?

So what cocktail books do you think are must-haves? What did I miss?