If you’re the sort who has the energy left to keep track of such things, we’re living in a Golden Age of cocktail books. Of course, we’re also living in Golden Ages of grievance, idiocy and malice, so you may have been otherwise preoccupied.
Looking at the stack of new drink books on my desk—okay, “stack” doesn’t quite convey how many of the damn things have crossed my threshold in the last month or two; I can’t call it a “double stack,” since Wendy’s owns that free and clear, and it’s still a book or two short of being a “tower”—and I can pick out at least four potential classics, each from a different bar: the Aviary Cocktail Book from the bars of that name in Chicago and now New York; Cocktail Codex and Mixology & Mayhem from Death & Co. and the Dead Rabbit, respectively, both also in New York; and Northern Hospitality, from the Portland Hunt + Alpine Club in Portland, Maine.
Any one of these books, had it been released ten years ago, would have changed the course of modern mixology. It’s rather harder to achieve that sort of impact these days, what with the crowd of new books, or at least for us to discern it—back when Shakespeare was writing kicky little amusements such as King Lear and Hamlet, he was just one of a number of hot playwrights whose works were burning up the boards. It took time to elevate his works above those of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Johnson and all that crew.
But I’m not going to talk about these books, other than to recommend them as well worth checking out, if you like innovative book design, cleverly-conceived recipes and expert information on all aspects of what to drink. Nor am I going to talk about the rest of the drinks books that have piled up by my bed over the last year or two, all 783 of them. Okay, I might be exaggerating the number some, but there are certainly an awful lot of the things, covering every topic from mixing drinks in your hotel room to distillery cats (that’s “distillery,” not “distilling,” although I wouldn’t be surprised, what with the increased interest in spirits from some pretty obscure corners of the globe).
Yet with all this scribble-scribble-scribble, as impressive as its results might be, I find that there are still a number of books that need writing; a few important gaps in the coverage. In the interest of inspiring future bitters-stained wretches, here are a few books I’d like to see.
The I-Hate-to-Cook, Off-the-Shelf Bartender’s Guide
There’s no shortage whatsoever of modern bartender’s guides that walk you in painstaking detail through the process of making things like makrut syrup, donkey carrot bitters, fermented fernet and duckbill-infused vermouth, or tell you what to mix with that rare bottle of Guamanian navy rum. But what if you want to dispense with all the trainspotting and oui-chef? What if you like sophisticated drinks, but also want to go to the local, regular-issue liquor store, stop for a couple of lemons on your way home, and get mixing? This is your book.
The Bartender’s Guide to Old Music That Isn’t Journey
It is a universal rule of life that the best bar music is old music. It doesn’t have to be ancient, although I’ve been to some surprisingly cool ragtime bars (and yes, that’s “bars,” in the plural). But ’90’s hair metal works as bar music, just like ’80s hip hop (shoutout to Schoolly D!), ’70s soul, ’60s psychedelic, ’50s doo-wop and ’40s bebop do. (It’s even better if you jumble ‘em all up together!) Anything more than 20 years old will work, basically—it’s far enough in the past that nostalgia, alcohol’s constant companion, kicks in, and it won’t annoy the hell out of people the way new music so often does.
Unfortunately, too many contemporary bars seem to be illiterate in any kind of music but mid-tempo, low-impact techno-noodling. Inoffensive, I suppose, but also unlovable. If they do play something old, all too many of them let computers choose what it is.
Computers have no fucking judgment whatsoever. If you like Tom Waits they’ll throw in Jackson Browne.
Hence this guide, an easy-to-use quick and dirty guide to all the various types of music people used to know about before they turned their brains over to their phones, with playlists and cool obscure tracks that will make the bar look good and sidebars of trivia for the bartenders to drop into their conversations so they look smart.
But no Journey, please. And by Journey I also mean the Eagles. I had to live through them the first time. That was more than enough.
The Beer and a Shot Guide to Drinking in Fancy Cocktail Bars
So you’ve driven all the way up to the state capitol to celebrate the 14th birthday of your daughter, the one who likes musicals. Check into the hotel, dinner somewhere fancy but not too, Kinky Boots at the Memorial Arts Center, then you and the spouse can leave her and her two besties watching TV in their room and head for the bar. But what’s this—the Old-Fashioned has “fat-washed bacon” in it and no orange or cherry or anything, the Margarita’s made with mezcal and Swedish Punch, whatever those are, and when you ask for a Jack & Coke they’ve got no Coke and no Jack, either. What you need is a slim little book to explain the customs and offerings of the stereotypical modern cocktail bar or whiskey lounge in a simple, non-patronizing and amusing way so you don’t look like an idiot there.
The Lounge Lizard’s Guide to Drinking in Corner Taps, Honky Tonks, Roadhouses and Supper Clubs
You and your pals from college got your fishing licenses all right, you drove out to the lake, you rented the boat, you figured out the trolling motor and you even caught a creel full of crappie and perch. You’re on your way to the BBQ joint a couple miles down Rte. 97, but you sure could use a drink and look, here’s Dave’s Dew Drop Inn. What the hell. But then Rick asks for a Manhattan, and they give him this thing with brandy in it. On the rocks. They’ve got no mezcal, no IPA on tap and—and what you need is a slim little book to explain the customs and offerings of the stereotypical Wisconsin supper club or Mississippi roadhouse in a simple, non-patronizing and amusing way so you don’t look like an idiot there.
On Beyond Popcorn: A Universe of Bar Snacks
Time was, sitting down at the bar entitled you to a little bowl of peanuts, popcorn or Goldfish; snacks. Then someone decided that those things weren’t elegant enough to fit with the “concept” of the (cutting-edge, farm-to-glass, scientific) bar, and if you don’t give them to people you can sell more elegant snacks to them.
Maybe. If you go to Italy, however, you always get a little bowl of potato chips and another of olives with your cocktail, plus some cheese or little rectangles of pizza or whatnot; that makes you happy. In Martinique, it’s accras—codfish fritters; addicting. In Thailand, it’s pork rinds, in Spain, tortilla—potato and onion omelet—and in the Netherlands cheese (naturally), herring or bitterballen, which are fried mashed-potato balls and about as good as they sound.
All those bars can’t be wrong: it’s actually possible to give your customers a little something to nibble on and still make money. You can even still sell food, as a great many of those bars around the world do. Maybe, just maybe an attractive, well-photographed book with lots of recipes and anecdotes is all it will take to start the ball rolling again. A barfly can dream.
A Skeleton Walks Into a Bar and 500 Other Snappy Jokes for Bartenders
In the 1970s and 1980s, bartenders were generally lousy at mixing drinks but they were great at telling jokes. Now, at least with the younger bartenders, the reverse is true. But why can’t we have both?
The Craft of the Bar Joke, by Dale DeGroff
A companion volume to the previous one. The best joke is no good if you don’t know how to deliver it, which is an art in and of itself. Varied voices, accents, dynamics of tone, assessment of the audience, flow, the arrangement of the pauses—there’s a lot to consider. Nobody does all that better than Dale DeGroff, dean of American bartenders and a man who can tell the Little Penguin joke as well as he can make a Whiskey Smash or a Flame of Love Martini.
Hey—My Rare Whiskey Tastes Just Like Whiskey!
Someday, one of those whiskey collectors we keep hearing about, the sort who buys rare bourbons and Scotches by the case and sticks them down in his—it’s always his—basement for eternal safekeeping, will open one of those bottles and pour himself a glass. When he does, boy will he be in for a surprise.
Drosophilia: Nature’s Littlest Angels
We always hear about the so-called “angels’ share,” the booze that, as it evaporates, goes to feed the angels. The only flying creatures that I’ve ever seen that seem to live on the booze in the air, however, are drosophilia—the common fruit fly. It’s about time there was a book photographing them lovingly in their natural environment, the dive bar, and chronicling their winning ways.