A Top Bartender’s Favorite (and Low-Cost) Cocktail Books
Award-winning bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler shares his favorite free and low-cost drinks resources.
I started bartending nearly 24 years ago and these last few weeks have been the longest stretch I have ever gone without being behind the bar during my whole career.
As you can imagine, I’m pretty bored. I’m not used to sitting around my house for hours and hours without anything to do but watch Netfilx. I’ve always had this need to be active. I mean, this is why I became a bartender: You’re constantly moving, you’re making stuff with your hands, you’re talking to a million people. Gah!
So, I’ve been trying to disconnect from the firehose of entertainment every day for a little bit and get some reading done. While there’s now a whole library of cocktail books available that normally I’d urge you to buy, given that so many folks are out of work, including myself, I thought I’d focus on the free and low-cost options out there.
One of the greatest and most undervalued online resources is EUVS (the Exposition Universelle des Vins et Spiritueux), whose digital book archive is maintained by none other than industry legends Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown. They’ve amassed a sizable collection of digitized cocktail books—in a bunch of different languages—and put them up for free for all to use and enjoy.
You should definitely check out the 1939 book, Cuña del Daiquiri Cocktail, from the Havana bar El Floridita. Turn to page 26 and you’ll find the so-called Daiquiri #3, more commonly known as the Hemingway Daiquiri because it was the favorite of author Ernest Hemingway. Now, just imagine how god-awful it must have tasted with twice the amount of rum and none of the sugar. That, my friends, is how Hemingway liked it. Hey, it’s not like Papa had a great palate but I digress. The Daiquiri #3 is a great drink and what I find fascinating is the word “frappe” is used in the recipe. That’s an old term for lightly blended without an overabundance of ice. I take mine at home with just two ice cubes, and blend the whole thing and serve it in a Champagne coupe. I think the bar team at El Floridita would approve, since that’s how they still make it today.
Another EUVS book I suggest you peruse is Here’s How from 1927 that was written by the somewhat cryptically named Judge, Jr. It’s a super weird volume with wooden covers, but if you turn to page 28 you will find the first published recipe for the modern version of the French 75. I say “modern version” because prior to this, the French 75 was this odd thing made of apple brandy, gin, lemon juice and grenadine. But here’s the drink we all know and love, and would you look at that—it’s served on the rocks in a tall glass.
If you really want to find the source of most of the interest in arcane drinks, like the Aviation and the Lion’s Tale, you only have to look at Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails by Ted Haigh. Seriously, this was the book that started all of this nonsense. You can read it on Google Books for free, but if you’re into it like I am, pick up the digital copy for just ten bucks. Haigh’s writing is an absolute delight and his knowledge is unparalleled.
My good friend Eric Alperin, who owns the Los Angeles bar, The Varnish, is releasing a beautiful memoir, Unvarnished: A Gimlet-eyed Look at Life Behind the Bar, at the end of June. It’s really sweet and fun and I highly recommend you pick it up when it comes out. But to get ready for it, I think you need to first read Cosmopolitan: A Bartender’s Life by Toby Cecchini. Cosmopolitan is the OG number one greatest book ever written about what life is like behind the bar, and how our job also informs the life of our customers. I’ve read it probably ten times since my friend gave me his copy in 2007. You can pick up the Kindle version for next to nothing, in fact, if you read it and don’t agree with me, I’ll send you the lousy $4.99 you’re out.
And finally, if you do want to pick up a physical book, one of my all-time favorites is Paul Harrington’s Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century. It’s a compendium of all the classics, presented with some of the most engaging writing that leaves you with no other choice than to try the drink you’re reading about. It’s a steal on used book retailers, usually going for under $15.