Do We Need More Cocktail Books?
Are there too many books on the market — and should we read them?
There is an old legend that in 1899, the United States Commissioner of Patents resigned because, "everything that can be invented, has been invented" and he recommended the immediate closure of the patent office. While that story is patently false, I've heard it in various forms over the years, most recently during one of my shifts behind the stick. Hearing it again got me wondering though; does the world of cocktails really need more cocktail books? Or, more specifically, what kind of cocktail books do we need?
I went home and started going through my collection of cocktail books. My best guess is that I own somewhere north of 250 cocktail books of one sort or another and I realized that I had already divided the books up into sections without knowing it. I have a whole section of historic books (mostly reprints, but a few original gems, too) like The Savoy Cocktail Book, The Old Waldorf Astoria Bar Book, Jerry Thomas, David Embury, etc. These are an extremely valuable part of my library and the entire section never seems to be shelved at once. I refer to the Savoy at least weekly, and recently I've been fascinated with a reprinted copy of Cocktail Boothby's American Bartender where they provide valuable insight into the history of our craft as well as a basis for a great number of the cocktails that we make now.
Then there are the books that provide the history or background on a particular cocktail, spirit, or ingredient. I find that these books are an invaluable part of my collection. Wayne Curtis' And a Bottle of Rum always accompanies me on trips to rum distilleries. David Wondrich's books are indispensable for their insight into the background and history of cocktails and should Wondrich ever decide to write a 1,200 page tome on the history of the bar spoon, well, I for one will happily read it. I'd also put books like Brad Thomas Parsons' Bitters in this category as a book that provides history and technique around its subject matter (bitters) and then demonstrates this through recipes. I'll always be adding books in this category, and I've already pre-ordered The Book of Gin by Richard Barnett (an excellent read) as one can never have enough books to reference in this category.
The next category are books that cover a period in time. The Food and Wine Cocktails series and Gaz Regan's Annual Manual for Bartenders both cover this area well. I think that these books are valuable in that they provide a contemporary look at where cocktails are today as well as a chance to look back and see how cocktails have evolved over the last few years. I don't reference either of these book series very often, but they are great for research and inspiration and I'm glad to have them.
Lastly come the classic contemporary bar books. Heavily focused on recipes, with perhaps technique and other subjects like bar setup, these books are closer to the Savoy than, say Wondrich's Punch. This is where my bookshelf is a bit of a disappointment. Don't get me wrong, there are some amazing books in this category. Jim Meehan & Chris Gall's The PDT Cocktail Book is one of the best cocktail books I've ever read in this category. Gaz Regan's Joy of Mixology is the book I recommend to every new bartender and, of course, Dale Degroff's The Craft of the Cocktail and The Essential Cocktail are two other classics. Unfortunately, for every great book in this category, it seems that I must own ten that I've flipped through once and then relegated to the bookshelf. I remember one book that I was particularly excited to receive had recipes that hadn't been tested. When I recreated the drinks, they were just plain awful. Another has amazing photography, but that is about it. Even more just contain a few original cocktail recipes and maybe a short spiel on their bar philosophy and then filler pages with recipes that we all already know how to make. Books like that just take up space on my shelf and don't do anything to move the world of bartending forward. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with anyone writing a cocktail book and I'm not even looking at this from the perspective as a consumer, which is an entirely different point of view. As a bartender, however, I'm questioning whether I need yet another book from a celebrity bartender. Degroff and then Regan set the bar awfully high, and then Jim Meehan comes along and raised it further. I think as a bartending community, it’s important to recognize the importance of these contributions but also not to accept any pabulum foisted on us just because somebody has a name or is doing something new. I've run out of space for mediocre cocktail books and moving forward, I'm going to focus on cocktail books that make a significant contribution to either my education or ability and ditch the ones just written so someone can make a few bucks.
— Lance Mayhew, ShakeStir