Cocktail 101: How to Build a Cocktail Library

Cocktail 101

All the basics of the bar.


If you're going all in on cocktails, you want build a good home library. To the serious fan of spirits and cocktails, the topic is endlessly absorbing, and if you're a bookish boozer like me, you find that the more you know, the more you want to know.

So today, I'm going to give advice on building a cocktail library, starting with basic recipe books and then adding histories, guides to single spirits, books on more esoteric topics, and memoirs by boozers and bartenders.

You're Gonna Need Some Recipes

Beez Nuts

[Photograph: Wes Rowe]

Start with a book that contains good recipes for classic drinks, but that also has a bit of cocktail theory in it. Good choices here are Gary Regan's Joy of Mixology; Dale DeGroff's Craft of the Cocktail; and Robert Hess's Essential Bartender's Guide.

Next, get another recipe and theory book. The second book will fill in any gaps in the first, providing recipes the first author might have missed. And if the second author provides slightly different proportions for drink recipes, you can try them both and decide which version you prefer.

Playing with proportions is, in itself, a great way to learn cocktail theory, as you contemplate the balance of flavors in a well-made cocktail. If you don't like Regan's Sidecar recipe, for example, you might not understand why you don't like it until you try DeGroff's. And then you might decide, "Oh, here's the problem. Gary's is a little sweeter/tarter/boozier than Dale's." And that, in itself, will teach you a little bit about your own palate and about the importance of tweaking recipes to fit the individual drinker.

Find a Great Raconteur


[Photograph: Wes Rowe]

Then, you might look for books that tell stories but also provide recipes. Excellent possibilities here include Jason Wilson's Boozehound, Eric Felten's How's Your Drink?, William Grimes's Straight Up or On the Rocks, and David Wondrich's Imbibe! and Punch.

These writers have something important in common, actually, that make them ideal for story-telling. They're all writers first and bar geeks second. Wilson writes for the Washington Post, and his book compiles his columns. Felten's tome compiles his work for the Wall Street Journal. Grimes's book is all original material, but he wrote it while serving as restaurant critic for the New York Times. Wondrich writes about booze for Esquire. His books are not compiled from his monthly column, but they carry the imprint of a man who enjoys telling stories about booze.

Dig Into The Past


The Drunkard's Progress, circa 1846 [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Now, dive into history. If you're interested in Prohibition, Last Call by Daniel Okrent is very good, though I found it a little wonky at times about legislative process of passing, and then repealing, Prohibition. Many readers swear by A History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage; he covers beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola. I didn't personally care for it, but maybe you'll enjoy it.

Linda Himelstein's The King of Vodka is a good book about the Smirnov family, though it has more to do with the people than with the liquid. On a similar front, the NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten wrote Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba, but again, it's more about the Bacardi family and Caribbean politics than about the rum.

One book I love very much is Wayne Curtis's And a Bottle of Rum. It's light on recipes, so don't turn to it for practical content, but it's a delightfully written book about the history of rum.

Single Topics

Barrel Time

[Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

If rum isn't your thing (although if it's not, don't speak to me), you can find single-topic books on other spirits. I've yet to read it, but Michael Veach's new book, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, is getting great reviews from bourbon geeks. Since I have a soft spot for both whisk(e)y and guys named Michael, I have to mention Michael Jackson's work; any of his books on whisky or beer are worth tracking down. His comprehensive Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch came out in its sixth edition a couple of years back, updated by other whisky writers (Jackson is deceased). I have an earlier, all-Jackson edition, but I hear the newer version is excellent.

If it's juniper you're after, Gin: A Global History, by Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, gets good marks from the cocktail crew.

Oddball Topics


Gentiana flowers [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

A good cocktail library should have a few books on esoteric topics: moonshine, monasteries, botany, that sort of thing. Max Watman's Chasing the White Dog is a fun read; while interviewing moonshiners and legal distillers across the country, he futzes around with building a home still. Madeline Scherb's A Taste of Heaven covers wines, beers, spirits, cheeses, and chocolates from monks and nuns in Europe and the U.S. And as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Amy Stewart's excellent The Drunken Botanist talks about the botanical origins of all our boozy favorites.

Curmudgeons and Memoirs


[Photograph: Wes Rowe]

Finally, fill out your library with memoirs from the booze world, personal histories about life on both sides of the bar. There are many books to consider. Perhaps the most recent is Rosie Schaap's Drinking with Men, but you can also find offerings from Kingsley Amis, Bernard De Voto, and many, many others.

Okay, I know I've missed something, my boozy bibliophiles. Fill me in! Which cocktail books do you consider essential for the home library?