There are great books, old and new, to accompany the explosion of interest in developing ever more complex cocktails. Photo: Renée S

By Stanislaw Sobolewski

Matching the renewed interest in classic and artisanal cocktails at the bar, there are a number of interesting books on the subject as well. The rediscovery of classic drinks from the early 20th century, and the explosion of interest in developing new and ever more complex cocktails puts us in a golden age of mixology.

Ultimate Bar Book

Mitte Hellmich’s Ultimate Bar Book (Chronicle Books) is a handy guide to over 1,000 drinks. It defines the anatomy of the cocktail as having three principal components: the base, the body and the perfume. The base is the alcohol in the drink, the body modifies the main flavor, be it juice, vermouth, champagne, etc. The perfume can be a syrup or bitter or liqueur that completes the balance between base and body.

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My standout favorite bartending book is Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails (Quarry). Now in its second printing, this book presents 100 classic cocktails, thoughtfully illustrated with photos of many now extinct cocktail ingredients, bottles of a bygone age. My own copy of this book is getting annotated (in an unsteady hand!) over time — with personal adjustments to these excellent recipes. (In our household we tend to make drinks less sweet and use more bitters than called for.)

Savoy Cocktail book

Two books from the first classic age of cocktails deserve mention: The Savoy Cocktail Book (Pavilion) collects and updates drinks from London’s American Bar at the Savoy. It includes the idea that the best way to enjoy a cocktail is “quickly, while it is still laughing at you.”

Jerry Thomas’s How to Mix Drinks (Hesperus) is now back in print and includes a wealth of obscure knowledge, including how to properly serve absinthe.

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Two other books worthy of the bar shelf are William Grimes’ Straight Up or On the Rocks (Macmillan) which offers a history of the American cocktail as well as a tightly edited set of cocktail recipes. I think Grimes, a New York Times writer, offers the best for a number of classic drinks. The Old Fashioned and the Sazerac are excellent.

David Wondrich’s Imbibe! (Perigee) is a tribute to Jerry Thomas, whose How to Mix Drinks from 1862 is the first bartending book. Wondrich’s book offers some fine drink recipes, including the three “improved” cocktails which are quite delicious. Wondrich’s other book Punch (Perigee) is a fine (and funny) intro into large-scale drink making.

For martini fans, there is a new edition of Shaken, not stirred (Morrow) by Anistatia R. Miller and Jared M. Brown. It offers a dizzying 217 martini drinks. The online site for the Guardian UK has a great video on “How to make the perfect martini”. Check it out!

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Let’s round this out with two final books, a barware suggestion, and a cocktail recipe. The two books, Bitters (10 Speed) by Brad Thomas Parsons is, in David Chang’s words, “a must have for all booze nerds”. Making your own bitters is great fun, and aligns nicely with all the preserving and pickling that modern cooks pursue. The newest arrival is Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist (Algonquin). This book focuses on the plant sources from which all alcohol derives. Steward brings scientific taxonomy to the table—listing in exhaustive (and entertaining) detail a dizzying array of herbs, flowers, trees—even fungi that contribute to one of mankind’s oldest sources of pleasure.

Speaking of pleasure—another fun part of the cocktail building trade is the need for simple, but specialized barware—from glasses to shakers, strainers and stirrers. Downtown Oakland’s Umami Mart (815 Broadway) offers a wide range of Japanese barware—they even have ice trays that make ice in the shape of a sphere.

Finally, my favorite cocktail, taken from a New York Times article that I can’t locate: The Negroni. This is a version dark and bitter and delicious.

1 ¾ oz. Hendricks Gin
1 oz. Campari
¾ oz. Punt e Mes

Shake with ice, strain into a chilled glass, orange peel garnish.


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This review is part of  a series of Cook the Books columns by Moe’s Books which has been selling new, used and collectable books in Berkeley since 1959. One of Moe’s specialties is cookery books and the bookstore puts on regular cookbook-related events. Visit Moe’s Books at 2476 Telegraph Avenue and on its website.

Read previous Cook the Books columns for cookbook inspiration.

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