Cocktail Storytelling: 5 Great Books To Seek Out

Cocktail 101

All the basics of the bar.


Last year, I suggested five essential cocktail books, ones that I thought offered a mix of cocktail theory and a great selection of recipes.

Now it's time to expand your library again, but this time I'm taking a different approach. Some of the books in today's guide offer cocktail recipes, but more importantly, they tell great stories. Every author in today's mix is a great raconteur, each with a unique and fascinating voice. These books scratch the surface of cocktail and drinking history, while exploring imbibing customs both in the United States and around the world.

These books aren't necessarily reference manuals, in terms of giving you quick, handy access to tons of cocktail recipes. The books in the previous cocktail guide are excellent for that purpose. This time, I've chosen great writers with funny or interesting things to say.

The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks by David A. Embury

The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks is a mid-century classic, written not by a bartender or a spirits journalist or any sort of booze professional. No, David Embury was a tax attorney in Manhattan, albeit one with very strong opinions about cocktails, spirits, and mixing. The book opens with basic principles of cocktail-making, then covers necessary gadgets and glassware, drink ingredients, and pointers for mixing great drinks. Embury then describes six basic cocktails (the martini, Manhattan, old-fashioned, daiquiri, sidecar, and Jack Rose) and variations on those basics. He then dedicates a section to rolling your own—creating new cocktails based on the ideas he's discussed throughout the book.

As I said, Embury's opinionated, and not everyone agrees with him on all points. For example, he argues vehemently in favor of a 1:2:8 ratio when mixing sours such as the Sidecar: one part sweet (Cointreau), two parts sour (lemon juice) and eight parts base ingredient (cognac). I don't know anyone who prefers Sidecars made this way; they're bone-dry. Embury's book is full of recipes, but you might want to use them more for general guidance than for exact measurement. Agree with his recipes or not, you'll still learn from him. I consider this to be one of the most important books in my cocktail library. The book was initially published in 1948 and was out of print for decades until Mud Puddle Books resurrected it in 2008. My copy is a first edition, which my wife bought for a pittance from someone who apparently had no idea what he or she had, and I'll never part with it.

Buy it on Amazon, around $40 »

The Hour by Bernard DeVoto

The Hour, also from 1948, is a short, witty book. Like Embury's volume of the same year, it's also written by a strongly opinionated non-expert. Bernard DeVoto was a historian, journalist, and columnist for Harper's magazine. He curated Mark Twain's papers and edited the journals of Lewis and Clark. But he also found time to write this book, and set on paper his way of the world. For example, the martini. He advises you to start with 94.4 proof gin and mix it with vermouth at a ratio of 3.7 to one. I've personally never found a jigger that allows such precision, unfortunately, but maybe you'll be luckier. Orange bitters? DeVoto considers those an astringent for the face, not a suitable martini ingredient. And don't get him started on rum or, for that matter, grenadine. The Hour was out of print for years before this edition, from Tin House Books, came along in 2010.

Buy it on Amazon, around $12 »

Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis by Kingsley Amis

Everyday Drinking also brings some classic booze wisdom back into print, but unlike the selections by Embury and DeVoto, Amis's work is kind of a new book. Everyday Drinking is a 2008 compilation of three of Amis's earlier works: Kingsley Amis on Drink, Every Day Drinking, and How's Your Glass? The material in this collection dates from the period 1971–1984; some of the material is collected from columns he wrote for a British magazine.

The book is most famous, perhaps, for introducing the concept of the "metaphysical hangover," that feeling of dread, depression, and misery that descends upon you the minute you realize how physically wrecked you feel when you wake up in the afternoon after a long bout of boozing. Amis also provides invaluable advice on how to economize when having guests over—for example, he suggests serving a lot of (cheap) food to fill up stomachs and make less room for wine. Whether you take his advice to heart or not, the book is nevertheless an enjoyable read; Amis even includes cocktail recipes, although I must say, you should take those with a shaker of salt. Some of them are rather vile, in fact. No one's perfect. Finally, should you need to test your knowledge of gods' nectars, the book ends with a series of quizzes; if you can pass them all, you probably drink too much, which is in itself good knowledge to have.

Buy it on Amazon, around $8 »

Jigger, Beaker, & Glass: Drinking Around the World by Charles H. Baker Jr.

Jigger, Beaker, & Glass is one part travelogue, and one part recipe manual. JB&G was initially one volume of a two-volume book, The Gentleman's Companion. This volume was grandiloquently subtitled Being an Exotic Drinking Book or Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask, and that should give you a hint of what awaits you in this book. (The other volume, Knife, Fork, and Spoon, deals not surprisingly with food and cooking.)

Charles H. Baker Jr. was a writer, magazine editor, and world traveler. He married an heiress to a mining fortune and with her wealth spent many years traveling and compiling food and drink traditions from around the world. Baker traveled and drank with Faulkner and Hemingway. He published The Gentlemen's Companion in 1939; a vintage set of the original edition sells for hundreds of dollars today, but this reissue, from 1992, is available for much less. Baker's number-one fan is St. John Frizell, writer and owner of Fort Defiance in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Frizell writes of Baker's recipes that "some are comically impractical," and it's true. Many of Baker's cocktail recipes are forgettable, unfortunately, but that takes nothing away from the yarns he spins. (One recipe that is certainly worth remembering, and enjoying right now, is called Remember the Maine, and don't you forget it.)

Buy it on Amazon, around $17 »

How's Your Drink?: Cocktails, Culture, and the Art of Drinking Well by Eric Felten

How's Your Drink? is my final choice, and it's the only book original to this century. And that's fine; Felten writes about the same stuff that Embury, DeVoto, Amis, and Baker discussed. The very title is borrowed from Amis, who would query his guests, "How's your glass?" Felten's book is a collection of his columns from the Wall Street Journal. Felten takes drinks apart one by one, while simultaneously dissecting the history of drinking. Each chapter explores a particular peculiarity about the history of booze, and offers drink recipes to further illustrate his comments. And Felten is not afraid to pit one guru against another. David Embury, for example, was no fan of DeVoto's martini, and Felten quotes Embury as calling DeVoto's version "phooey!," specifically poking fun at DeVoto's overly specific 3.7:1 ratio. Gasp! You mean there's catty backbiting among the cocktail cognoscenti? Who'd have imagined!

Buy it on Amazon, around $11 »

Add Your Favorites!

What did I miss? Who are your favorite cocktail storytellers? Feel free to call out your cocktail book essentials in the comments!