Time was, cocktail books were pretty straightforward recipe collections. They might have included tidbits of lore or technique, but they were generally quick reads.
Well, times have changed. This year’s list keeps up the trend of well-researched and entertaining titles. Some range far afield, some target a single topic, and my favorites balance historic fact and contemporary flavor. The best will captivate anyone on your holiday shopping list, whether they’re an aspirational amateur or the kind of enthusiast who makes her own gomme (gum) syrup.
Such depth isn’t surprising, given the cocktail’s renaissance and improved electronic access to historic archives, says Matthew Rowley, author of “Lost Recipes of Prohibition” (Countryman Press). Still, the standouts don’t rely on barflies or search engines. They get their information the old-fashioned way.
“People aren’t just sitting behind their desks,” says Rowley, a Kansas City native who now lives in Southern California. “They’re going to Oaxaca, Jalisco, Jerez. You get so much more detail that way. We need the explorers.”
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It takes one to know one. Rowley’s habit of befriending modern moonshiners wherever he has lived coalesced in “Moonshine!” (Lark Books, 2007). Similarly, “Lost Recipes” grew out of his longtime obsession with culinary and drinks books.
He’d already amassed thousands of titles when a friend gave him a slim blue notebook disguised as a volume of German poetry. Rowley knew immediately it was something special. Its original owner, a New York pharmacist, used it to record more than 300 formulas for compounding rum, making caramel coloring, detecting methanol and doing pretty much anything else to turn illicit booze into something drinkable during Prohibition.
Funny thing, though — Rowley recognized a surprising number of them from even older cookbooks, medical journals, and other American and European sources.
“All of these recipes have a story much older than Prohibition,” says Rowley, who is also a historian and former museum curator.
Rowley not only demystifies a hundred or so recipes, he explains why they’re relevant today and offers fresh takes on those worth resurrecting. The past is our future, he says.
“If we want to do new things, to move our understanding of all this forward, we need to look further back into history, look into other fields and look to other languages,” Rowley says.
Noteworthy in 2015
Chantal Martineau does that and more in “How the Gringos Stole Tequila” (Chicago Review Press), a lively exploration of the heritage, culture, practices and politics that shape Mexico’s most famous export. Martineau introduces producers using traditional agricultural and distillation methods, shows readers why they’re worth preserving, and outlines the challenges facing anyone concerned with the quality and sustainability of tequila, mezcal and other agave spirits.
“The Tippling Bros. A Lime and a Shaker” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) serves up a staggering variety of tequila and mezcal cocktail recipes, as well as primers on chilis, salted rims, syrups, sangrita, micheladas, batching, agua frescas and more.
“Potions of the Caribbean” (Cocktail Kingdom) with what he calls a conceptual history of aromatized wine dating back some 10,000 years and follows it through to 1786, when Antonio Benedetto Carpano created what we today know as “vermouth” in Turin, Italy. Ford then switches to the United States, delving into vermouth’s influence on American cocktail culture, producers in this country (including his own Atsby New York Vermouth) and the drinks that showcase their efforts.
“Sherry” (Ten Speed Press, 2015) also features drink and food recipes, but the bulk of Talia Baiocchi’s book is devoted to the fortified wine’s Spanish birthplace, the people who make it there and what each bodega’s style tastes like. Fino, manzanilla, amontillado, palo cortado, oloroso, pedro ximénez, muscatel — my only challenge after reading Baiocchi’s descriptions is deciding which to buy first. Maybe I’ll go for fino, along with some sweet vermouth, so I can make an Adonis (see recipe).
Few people have a better vantage point from which to observe the ascendance of the cocktail than Paul Clarke, the executive editor of Imbibe magazine. He created The Cocktail Chronicles blog in 2005, and a decade later distilled his knowledge into an engagingly written print version of the same name (from Spring House Press) replete with recipes, context and commentary. Reach for it if you want to know how to make grenadine from fresh pomegranate juice, why you should, where to buy it if you’d rather not and what it does for drinks like the Jack Rose (see recipe).
“The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog Drinks Manual” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) tracks its authors’ rise from Belfast’s troubled streets to their acclaimed bar of the same name in New York, providing a wealth of classics and originals along the way.
The older and revised
It’s one thing to experiment with a craft cocktail or two at home. It’s quite another to serve them in party proportions. Bartender Julie Reiner, also one of New York’s most influential bar owners, shares her entertaining approach in “The Craft Cocktail Party” (Grand Central). From fireside gatherings and New Year’s Eve to brunch and summer holidays, Reiner’s book teaches you to batch and serve welcoming drinks year-round without getting trapped at the bar.
“Good Things to Drink” (Frances Lincoln) takes the same occasional approach with everything from savory drinks to infusions, punches, warming beverages, and gin and tonic variants.
Although many of this year’s books have a geographical bent, only one truly transported me elsewhere: “Spirit of Place” (Chicago Review Press). Charles MacLean knows Scotland’s distilleries and flavors better than anyone in the world, and his descriptions (amply aided by photographs from Lara Platman and Allan MacDonald) fully capture the magic of the country’s 50 finest. It was almost enough to make me book a return trip to Islay on the spot.
"Potions of the Caribbean" (Cocktail Kingdom) came out last year, but this and Jeff Berry’s other works are essential Tiki reading. West Coast more your thing? Barman Duggan McDonnell calls “Drinking the Devil’s Acre” (Chronicle Books) his love letter to San Francisco.
This was also a year for revised editions, including the eagerly anticipated “Imbibe!” (Perigee). David Wondrich’s portrait of Jerry Thomas, the impresario who wrote America’s first bar guide in 1862, became a de facto trade textbook after its original publication in 2007. The updated version reflects changes in the industry (We can buy absinthe now!), Wondrich’s ongoing research (The mint julep predates the Revolutionary War!) and new recipes (Let’s make pisco sours!). In short, Wondrich remains essential and delightful reading, so replace your old copy with the new.
Check out Salvatore Calabrese’s revised “Classic Cocktails” (Sterling Epicure); “American Bourbon Whiskey & Rye” (Sterling Epicure), which adds 100 more whiskeys to Clay Risen’s comprehensive list; and “To Have and Have Another” (Perigee), Philip Greene’s exploration of what Ernest Hemingway and his characters drank.
That so many good books are being published now is just another sign that more good things are to come.
“This is a fantastic time to be drinking,” Rowley says. “We’re getting cocktails that are classics, and people are taking that in new directions. It’s all expanding.”
The Apple Nap
Makes 1 drink
1/2 ounce kümmel
1/2 ounce green Chartreuse
1/2 ounce Laird’s 100-proof apple brandy
Combine ingredients and stir with ice until well chilled. Strain onto fresh ice and serve.
Per drink: 90 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 2 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 17 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Grenadine made with pomegranate juice (instead of high-fructose corn sugar or artificial colors) makes all the difference in drinks like this one, “The Cocktail Chronicles” author Paul Clarke says. He recommends versions made by Small Hand Foods, B.G. Reynolds and Jack Rudy Cocktail Co., but if you can’t find the real thing, making your own is easy.
Makes 1 drink
2 ounces applejack
3/4 ounces lemon juice
1/2 ounce grenadine (see instructions)
Shake with ice to chill; strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
For grenadine: Combine 8 ounces unsweetened 100 percent pomegranate juice with 16 ounces superfine sugar in a saucepan. Whisk over medium heat until sugar is dissolved, then let cool. Add one ounce of vodka or gin (optional) and refrigerate.
Per drink: 174 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 11 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 9 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
This stirred aperitif drink was a fixture in 19th- and 20th-century cocktail books, according to “Sherry.” Author Talia Baiocchi prefers Carpano Antica vermouth and Lustau La Ina sherry.
Makes 1 drink
1 ounce sweet vermouth
2 ounces fino sherry
2 dashes orange bitters
orange peel, for garnish
Add the vermouth, sherry and bitters to a mixing glass. Fill with ice and stir quickly. Strain into a coupe glass and garnish with the orange peel.
Per drink: 127 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 8 grams carbohydrates, no protein, 6 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Matthew Rowley swapped apple brandy for the cognac originally called for in this 19th-century recipe. Although it’s possible to use any brand, or even Calvados, “Laird’s 100-proof apple brandy makes all the difference,” he writes in “Lost Recipes of Prohibition.”
Makes 1 drink
2 ounces light rum
1 ounce fresh pineapple juice
1 teaspoon grenadine
1 teaspoon maraschino liqueur
1 brandied cherry, for garnish
Combine rum, juice, grenadine and maraschino liqueur in a cocktail shaker and shake with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass or coupe. Garnish with brandied cherry.
Per drink: 162 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 8 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 4 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.