It’s a great time to be alive – a bartender

Not long ago, if you wanted to learn about craft bartending, you had to do some serious dusting at your local library. But since 2000 (and I’d argue especially in the last 3-5 years), there’s been a renaissance of sorts for cocktail books. It seems every few months another “must have” book hits the shelves. But with limited time, how do you know where to start, and in what order to read them in?

This was a question we’d received from a reader, and I thought it was a great question. So here’s a brief list of my top recommended books, and the order that I recommend you tackle them.

The Craft of the Cocktail by Dale Degroff

This book has a well-established place on my bookshelf. It’s my first recommendation for two reasons: first, it’s just a great place to start. Degroff gives you a fantastic foundation from which to learn the classic cocktails and start to branch out. My second reason is to tip my hat to Degroff himself – because this was one of the key books that set the stage for the cocktail / bar book renaissance we’re in today.

Imbibe by David Wondrich

Now that you have a bit of foundation under your feet, it’s worth taking a bit of time to look backward at the history that brought us to where we are today. There’s no better person to ask than David Wondrich – Cocktail historian and sporter of this fantastic beard.

Imbibe is a fun, easy read and takes you through the history of cocktails as we know them today. This book helps you understand how the “classic” cocktail recipes we make today fit into the history of the bar – something that I find just makes the whole experience more interesting and enjoyable. And if you’re a working bartender, there’s nothing like knowing the history of a drink to encourage an upsell!

(Oh, and if you like this one, definitely check out his more recent book, “Punch” as well!)

Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan

Published just short of a year later, Joy of Mixology is another book that set the stage for world of cocktails as we see it today. After a brief foray into cocktail history, Regan takes some time to discuss the bartender’s role behind the bar – stocking, maintaining and doing the job. Finally, the book includes a long index of cocktail recipes. One of Regan’s great contributions with this book is his system for categorizing and remembering cocktail recipes – talking quite a bit about the concept of cocktail families.

Spend a little time understanding Regan’s concept for remembering recipes, review the section discussing the day to day tasks of the bartender, and then skip the recipes until you’ve had a chance to review Morgenthaler’s Bar Book below. (But definitely come back afterward!)

The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler

The first on our list of a more recent generation of bar books, it feels a bit unfair to call this one just a “book”. It’s somewhere between a handbook, cheat sheet, encyclopedia and tome. And whether you’re a working bartender or just considering making a few drinks, it’s worth taking a look.

This book is all about technique. Morgenthaler takes his time, devoting whole chapters to seemingly simple topics like Citrus Juice, Simple Syrups, or Ice. This book will teach you how to make great cocktails – with or without a recipe. I appreciated that Morgenthaler didn’t fill out the book with recipes – he’s focused on technique and not afraid to let you look elsewhere for a long list of recipes.

Get this book, put it on your backbar, and prepare to get the pages sticky. It’s a must-have reference for pretty much anyone – whether you’ve bartended for twenty years or zero.

Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual by Sean Muldoon, Jack McGarry & Ben Schaffer

Starting to feel a bit more confident? Now you have a firm foundation, some sense of history, a general working knowledge of bartending and some serious skills with technique. I think it’s time to get a bit weird, don’t you think? For folks looking to dabble in more advanced cocktail techniques and think outside your classic recipes, this is a great reference and a perfect place to start.

Briefly covering the story behind the Dead Rabbit in New York, this book spends most of its 200+ pages on recipes. Not just any recipes, they feature the Dead Rabbit’s innovative drinks, from punches to fizzes, toddies to smashes, flips, nogs and bishops… calling it a recipe book is a bit of an understatement. The drinks you’ll find in this book have a firm foundation in the classics, but often wander into more modern techniques along the way. It’ll keep you busy for a very, very long time.

Liquid Intelligence by David Arnold

What’s that you say? Your bartender apron is a lab coat and you never take off your goggles? Well this book is probably your best new friend. Who else will teach you the fine art of using red hot pokers in your drinks, or rapid infusing with a whipped cream whipper?

Don’t discount this book as a list of parlor tricks either – the beauty of it lies in the science. Arnold not only introduces wacky techniques, but he takes the time to discuss why they make sense, what makes them work, and when they may be a good choice behind the bar.

Admittedly, it’s not likely you’re going to put a “red hot poker” cocktail on your menu. But if you’re a total cocktail nerd (like I know a lot of us are) then this book will keep you busy for a very long time. (And while your spouse / family / friends may totally not “get” your excitement about nitro-muddling… but don’t worry, we totally do!)

Homework Time

Made it to the end? It’s time to start reading! The books above will give you many lifetimes’ worth of experiments, techniques and recipes to play with.

I hope you’ve found at least one book to add to your collection along the way!

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Chris Tunstall

Co-Founder of A Bar Above and career bartender and mixologist. I love experimenting, creating cocktails, and drinking Green Chartreuse.