Finding the Perfect Cocktail Book for a Quarantine
Our columnist pits eight of his favorite drinks books against each other in an attempt to find the most useful one for sheltering-in-place.
Eight cocktail books are stacked in my kitchen. Outwardly, they have much in common—wonderful design; lovely pictures of drinks at rest or in mid-pour; wide-ranging lists of ingredients.
But after six weeks of sheltering-in-place, trapped in a house with limited ingredients and a profound disinterest in going out for more limes, they have been pitted against one another in a to-the-death competition to see which is the most useful to me.
One book will make it to the top shelf. The others won’t.
For nearly a decade, I’ve been doing holiday round-ups of cocktail books for the Wall Street Journal. A side effect of such activity is that I have a ridiculous library of cocktail books. I’d like to report that these are neatly arrayed on shelves behind me, like you see behind the well-coiffed heads of the better Master Class teachers.
This is not the case. Some books are in boxes in my attic (I think). Others are shelved haphazardly at my office. Some are in piles on the office floor, perhaps to donate to Goodwill (if I remember correctly). And a handful—these eight—have made the trip from my office to my kitchen, generally because they had recipes I wanted to try. And then, suddenly, in March, the eight of us were marooned together.
So, let’s meet the contestants!
- Sippin’ Safari, by Jeff Berry. The 10th anniversary expanded edition of this tropical drinks classic.
- Meehan’s Bartender Manual. Jim Meehan’s 2017 textbook for real-life and Walter-Mitty-ish bartenders.
- Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide. The 75th anniversary edition (2012) edited by Jonathan Pogash with Rick Rogers, which is an updated version of a standard that’s been around since 1935.
- Regarding Cocktails, the posthumous 2016 guide to everything drink by late craft cocktail pioneer Sasha Petraske, completed by his widow, Georgette Moger-Petraske.
- Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, the updated 2009 edition by Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh.
- The Essential Cocktail, Dale “King Cocktail” DeGroff’s 2008 sequel to his classic, The Craft of the Cocktail, compiled by the original cocktail revival evangelist.
- Cocktail Codex, the handsome and wide-ranging 2018 textbook of drink by the crew behind New York’s acclaimed bar Death & Co.
- The Museum of the American Cocktail Pocket Recipe Guide (Special Museum Edition, 2008), a tiny recipe compilation (three-and-a-half by four inches) by Robert Hess and Anistatia Miller.
When I write about cocktail books in most circumstances, I typically consider a variety of factors. Does this book break new ground? Is it well-designed and are the illustrations professional? Does the author’s background lend credibility to the proceedings? Am I surprised by an elegant turn of phrase now and again, suggesting an attention to detail? Are the drinks well-conceived?
But judging books during the pandemic, my criteria has somewhat changed. This is how I currently rate books:
- 1. What drink should I make now?
- 2. Don’t fucking vex me.
Here’s how each round unfolds: I look at the clock and realize it’s time for a drink. (Note: the precise time varies depending on the day and my mood.) I look at the liquor bottles on my shelf. I consult my refrigerator’s Drawer of Deliquescence and Despair. Then I look through the books hoping one can help me get where I need to go, with as few detours as possible. (Yes, I know there are apps and websites where you can plug in ingredients and a list of all possible cocktails spits out. I also hear that some people prefer sex with robots.)
Let’s head to the island and see who survives!
I was thirsty for a Mai Tai, and feeling moderately ambitious. I still have orgeat syrup. Remind me: what are the proportions?
Berry’s Sippin’ Safari was a natural on this, and has a great history and several recipe options. Most of the other books included a solid recipe as well. With the exception of two: Petraske’s Regarding Cocktails and Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails.
Voted Off: These missing Mai Tai recipes seemed like an egregious oversight, yet both books held sentimental value for me. However, Haigh’s book—which is spiral bound between hard covers—squeaks loudly when I turn the pages. This vexed me. Sorry, Ted. Good-bye.
I found a grapefruit that’s admittedly a little leathery at the back of my fridge. I think I can get some juice out of it. What to drink?
Question: Why doesn’t every bar guide list ingredients in the index? Surprisingly, few do. Winner of this round: Cocktail Codex, which, actually, lists grapefruit along with four possible drinks. The Essential Cocktail had “marsh grapefruit” listed, but when I flipped to that page I learned only that it was prized, hard to find, and useful in a Papa Doble. Regarding Cocktails lists a Grapefruit Collins.
Voted Off: I was thinking a tiki drink, and I did find the Big Bamboo with grapefruit in flipping through Sippin’ Safari, but the index failed to list different types of juice. It’s a shame, since most drinks in the book feature juice. This vexed me. Sorry, Jeff. Good-bye.
I don’t know. I’m done working for the day and I’m thirsty. I causally flip through the books until I hit on a page that catches my attention. The tiny Museum of the American Cocktail pocket recipe book is mostly classics, made with common ingredients, and is super-easy to thumb through, although it lacks pictures. I settle on a Commodore, with bourbon, creme de cacao, lemon juice and grenadine.
Voted Off: Meehan’s Bartender Manual. Make no mistake, I love this book—so useful in normal circumstances. But too many words for a quarantine! And some of the obscure ingredients vex me. I don’t want to make “ginger wort” or find passion fruit puree for my Mezcal Mule. Sorry, Jim. Good-bye.
The glass is a handblown number with little nubs along the bottom to eliminate the need for a coaster, and has a nice taper to it. I bought it about a decade ago and forgot about it. It holds about six ounces. I’m thinking something with crushed ice with bright colors to show it off. The Essential Cocktail and Cocktail Codex both have great pictures to help me envision this. I end up making the Codex’s Pisco Sour because I was in a foam mood.
Voted Off: The Museum of the American Cocktail Guide. I’m afraid it’s just too utilitarian—perfect for a cheat book kept in your back pocket for that time you volunteered to tend bar at a friend’s anniversary party. But you don’t need a database now. You need pictures, and the lack of photography vexed me. Sorry, Robert and Anistatia. Good-bye.
My neighbors are beer drinkers for the most part but appreciate a good mezcal cocktail. I landed on the Oaxacanite in Regarding Cocktails, with mezcal, tequila, lime, honey and bitters. And it was good.
Voted Off: Cocktail Codex. Too much going on! I usually love flipping through this book, but when I wanted something simple it vexed me. Only two mezcal drinks, and both involved infusions of some sort—berries and basil. Sorry, Alex, Nick and David. Good-bye.
The Essential Cocktail is beautifully illustrated, with lush, color photos that in another context might be considered “boudoir photos.” But the spare and modernist diagrams/illustrations in Regarding Cocktails really captivate me this evening, perhaps because of their simplicity and elegance. This may or may not have something to do with the edible I also found when cleaning out the cabinet.
Voted Off: Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide. Words, words, words! Very handy words, but not enough pictures. And the type in the index is so small! Is there an ink shortage that has led to type size getting so small in indexes? Or am I getting old. (Don’t answer that.) Sorry, Mr. Boston. Good-bye.
Oh my god, I’m so bored. Give me something to drink. Now. Don’t vex me. No more than three ingredients. I’m down to two books! Both The Essential Cocktail and Regarding Cocktails offer up good, sturdy cocktails, not too complicated. Warning: I’m feeling tetchy.
Voted Off: The Essential Cocktail. It vexed me because the book jacket kept slipping off and getting in the way. Yes, I know I can take it off. Make me a drink. Sorry, Dale. Good-bye.
The Survivor: Regarding Cocktails.
Congratulations to the best bar guide for those at home making drinks under duress! Petraske’s book has a calming design, and the pictographs of the drinks can distract you for many engaging minutes (especially if you find interesting things cleaning out your cabinet). The drinks are novel but not nutty. An unusually high proportion can be made with ingredients on hand, or with easy substitutions.
In any event, let me conclude by saying…Holy hell, how did it get to be 2:30 PM already?
Excuse me. It’s time for a drink.