8 Must-Have Cocktail Books for Your Valentine's Day Gift List (Or Your Own Bookshelf)
There's an argument to be made that cocktails and Valentine's Day were made for one another. If that rings true to you, and you’re looking for a gift that’s more inspired than chocolates in a heart-shaped box, consider these simply extraordinary books that highlight the craft, history and artistry of cocktails — and how best to enjoy them.
So here's a roundup. By and large, these are part of a relatively new crop of books that go beyond those behind-the-bar 'Official Guides' we’re all familiar with. These are beautifully illustrated, thoughtfully designed and art-directed volumes with sophisticated takes on a broad range of spirits, drinks and drink-making techniques. No 'Idiot's Guides to Drink Making', here are cocktail books to-the-manner-born; cocktail books for the adventuresome and discerning; cocktail books that might make Oscar Wilde, Tom Wolfe or Bryan Ferry absinthe-green with envy. Here you’ll find nods to herbal and smoke infusions, the nouveau-niche of molecular mixology and mini-essays on things like the simple quintessence that is the perfect martini. Oh, and a couple of interesting outliers are thrown in for good measure and related reading.
Said another way, here are cocktail books that will look great on your bookshelf or coffee table. As a matter of fact — forget Valentine’s Day. These are just plain fascinating and fun. You should check them out and add them to your reading list.
The Curious Bartender by Tristan Stephenson
The nicely crafted subtitle pretty much says it all: "The artistry and alchemy of creating the perfect cocktail." Noted London bartender, and key proponent in the molecular movement in drink-making, Tristan Stephenson, provides a thought-provoking peek inside the world of mixology — from familiar classics to the mildly exotic to new fringes. His in-depth knowledge of both the science and art involved in the field keeps the book grounded in tradition, while novel takes on old standards provide genuine surprises. Moreover, it does so without veering into the realms of faddish and cutesy drinks. (Navel shooters and Jaeger-bombs you will not find here.)
Chapters are divided among two main sections: Techniques and The Cocktails. Techniques include headings like "Ice, Shaking and Stirring" and "Infusion and Extraction," and cover things like juicing, clarifying, smoke, foams and dry ice. The Cocktails are sub-divided into sections according to spirit variety – Gin, Vodka, Whiskey and Whiskey and so on. The book doubles as a visual feast and a practical manual, with familiar and classic cocktails documented with ingredients lists, clearly written recipes and insightful essays on its origin. And here’s the coolest catch: each classic cocktail is then followed with at least one modern variation that takes the drink into new territory. The mojito begets the "Claro Mojito" with edible spheres of concentrated mint infusion and crystal-clear ice served in a thin tubular glass, and the daiquiri begets the "Sparkling Daiquiri Sorbet" topped with shaved grapefruit-zest squares and maraschino liqueur. Capping off this impressive volume is a helpful glossary and list of bartending equipment and suppliers. This entertaining volume serves equally well as a good read and a user manual.
Death & Co.: Modern Classic Cocktails by David Kaplan and Nick Fauchald
David Kaplan, founder of the famed and worldly influential New York saloon Death and Co., teams up with Brooklyn-based food and wine writer Nick Fauchald, and the two set out to write the definitive guide to the modern craft cocktail movement. A lofty ambition but, given the reputation of the bar that bears the same name as the book, the credentials would seem to be in order.
As cocktail books and bar guides go, this is heady stuff. Besides containing recipes for 500 of its most innovative original and requested cocktails, it’s billed as including “a complete cocktail education, with information on the theory and philosophy of drink making, a complete guide to buying and using spirits, and step-by-step instructions for mastering key bartending techniques.” Among the drink recipes, you’ll find classics but also innovative and experimental creations by one of the world’s most revered bar staffs. To wit: The Joy Division (a martini knock-off with Cointreau and absinthe), the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, the Drunken Dodo and the Velvet Warhol. The presentation of the book is lavish and elegant. The cover is exquisitely cool. (I particularly like the ampersand.) The photography is amazing. The writing is clear and sparkling. This is one to sit down and read cover to cover.
Winter Cocktails by Maria Del Mar Sacasa; photographs by Tara Striano
When you think about it, nearly all cocktails are seasonal. Whether by design or circumstance, most are engineered in such a way that their flavors are, say, distinctively bright and revitalizing, warm and insulating or tied to a certain kind of locale. Food writer Maria Del Mar Sacasa and her photographer co-blogger, Tara Striano, have seized on that notion and created Winter Cocktails, which celebrates winter as the “time to gather together with friends for drinks that will put a rosy glow in your cheeks.”
This is a cut-to-the-chase, user-friendly guidebook with tantalizing photos (the White Russian and Black Russian roped me in), simple recipes and concise run-downs on things like the well-stocked bar, the basics of muddling and how to make homemade caramel. Chapter headings include: Hot Toddies and Mulled Drinks; Egg-Nog, Hot Chocolate, Coffee and Tea; Chilled Winter Cocktails; and Small Bites, among others.
Summer Cocktails by Maria Del Mar Sacasa; photographs by Tara Striano
Take everything in the section above and consider its mirror image for the months of June, July and August. Maria and Tara have created the yin for the yang in the form of a sequel that highlights margaritas, juleps and punches, as well as honoring warm-season classics like the Cuba Libre, the Salty Dog and Sangria. Chapters include Frosty Drinks; Punches and Bitters; and (for medicinal purposes on the day after) Antidotes. (Looking for an alternative to the classic Bloody Mary? Try their version of the Mexican variant, the Michelada.) Handy-dandy related content in the introductory sections includes how to shuck oysters, prepping a pineapple and incorporating lemongrass in cocktails.
Shake: A New Perspective on Cocktails by Eric Prum and Josh Williams
Authors Eric and Josh were college roommates at the University of Virginia (a campus that’s not known to be averse to cocktails), and are now partners at a Brooklyn design firm. They also gained a certain notoriety in culinary and trend-watching circles when they created and popularized "The Mason Shaker" – an amusingly simple cocktail shaker made from a Mason jar, and an accompanying line of cocktail products. The duo has begun a quest to free cocktails from their bar and saloon shackles and put inventive cocktails within reach of everyman and everywoman. That led to an odyssey, of sorts, creating a bevy of new drinks and new spins on old standards. It also led to a succinct three-point manifesto:
Cocktails should be fun.
Cocktails should be easy.
Cocktails should be social.
Like the two selections above from Maria and Tara, Eric and Josh take a seasonal view of cocktails. Following an introductory “Crafting Cocktails 101” section, their book is laid out with chapters corresponding to the four seasons. So consider trying these out on at a future gathering of your close compatriots: The Blackberry Fence Jumper, The Mid-Winter Margarita, The Smog Cutter, the Rosemary Maple Bourbon Sour, and the Hop, Skip & Go Naked.
Absinthe: History in a Bottle by Barnaby Conrad III
Few liquids conjure up more mystique than absinthe – the anise-flavored, opalescent green, once banned, possibly consciousness-expanding elixir that purportedly served as muse to Hemingway, Baudelaire, Wilde, Poe, Van Gogh, Gaugin and Picasso. Classified as a spirit (though often mistakenly referred to as a liqueur), it’s around 144 proof and, among its botanical ingredients is wormwood, from the herb Artemisia absinthium. It’s that ingredient that may be the source of its more unusual intoxicating effects. Once believed to be addictive, some have described the effects of absinthe as hallucinogenic or dreamlike, others as merely strong, heightened or hyper-lucid. However you describe it, it’s a buzz of a different sort. Traditional serving involves using a small silver strainer, an absinthe spoon, to slowly decant ice water through a sugar cube into a glass containing the clear green liquid. As the icy sugar water hits the transparent liquid, it turns a milky green. That process (as well as the subsequent effect of imbibing the cocktail) is referred to metaphorically as “releasing the green fairy.”
San Francisco writer Barnaby Conrad III (could there be a cooler name?) provides a compelling examination of the history, sociology and lore of this alternately illicit and celebrated intoxicant. Conrad, who wrote similar treatises The Martini and The Cigar, offers a fascinating collection of facts, essays and anecdotes, thoroughly researched copiously illustrated with absinthe-related art, artifacts and period advertisements.
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Obituary Cocktail: The Great Saloons of New Orleans by Kerri McCaffety
Photojournalist and author Kerri McCaffety, who has a degree from Tulane University in ethnographic documentary, offers a loving homage to her home city of New Orleans in the form of a lavish coffee-table book celebrating the city’s most famous, distinguished, notorious and legendary bars. If there are cities across the face of the globe that can be characterized as drinking cities, New Orleans is without question hallowed ground. And bars like the Napoleon House, Commander’s Palace and Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar are themselves architecturally unique and visually fascinating. Kerri brings an artist’s and anthropologist’s eye to the subject of the drinking culture in the Crescent City, and her rich, atmospheric photography is both captivating and reverent, capturing the bars in all their respective sumptuous grandeur or (as the case may be) raw seediness. Included are recipes and essays on some of the most noted New Orleans-centric drinks and bartenders.
The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart
Part history, part botany, part mixology and part compendium of the bizarre, in The Drunken Botanist, journalist and blogger Amy Stewart takes readers on a fantastical tour through the plants, grains, fruits, herbs and fungi employed by humans over the centuries to create beverages and intoxicate themselves. It's divided into three sections covering (1) plants that can be converted into ethyl alcohol, (2) plants used to flavor or infuse drinks and (3) plants (like the martini olive) added at the last minute before you take your first sip.
This handsomely designed volume contains a number of drink recipes and gardening tips but is primarily brimming with factoids that will serve to make you a brilliant conversationalist at your next cocktail party. From the fermenting of grain in ancient Egypt, to the corn liquor of the moonshine still, to the mint you muddle into a julep, to the worm in the bottle of Mezcal (no, it won’t cause you to hallucinate; turns out it’s just a marketing gimmick) — there’s practically no end to the fascinating connections between the plant world and our recreational beverages. And you don’t have to be a drinker to enjoy this book, just someone with a healthy curiosity and maybe a wicked sense of humor. And speaking of wicked, if you want to go further down this path, check out Amy’s other book: Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities.