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Five Cocktail Books for Beginners

You’ve tried to resist the cocktail revolution. It’s been hard. You used to live in the city, but then your local started to grow its own mint, so you fled. In a town where no-one under fifty wears a beard you thought you could stop running, but when you ordered a gin and tonic it came with handchipped ice and a sprig of rosemary. So on you stumbled until finally, in a village so small it doesn’t even have a name, you found a local where you felt safe. No-one ever seemed to be in there except the barman, Greg was his name. Greg only served Hinerken, and you’re pretty sure that’s not how it’s spelt.

But then it happened. One day you asked Greg for your usual pint of suspiciously foamy lager and he gave you a two-handled pewter bowl. ‘We’re trying something new,’ he said, shyly. ‘It’s a modern twist on a traditional brandy punch. We imported the ice from Greenland.’

It was garnished with a slice of candied aubergine.

So you’ve surrendered. You’re one of us now. But where are you supposed to begin? The typical cocktail menu offers a full-page description of each drink without ever getting round to what they actually taste like, and if you mispronounce the name of this Thai liqueur, that barman, the one with the nose ring, is going to laugh at you in an unfriendly way.

The array of available cocktail books is scarcely less bewildering, but this list is here to help. Below you’ll find five no-nonsense cocktail bibles to help you tell your Cocci di Torino from your Bols Genever.

Death & Co

New York’s Death & Co. is one of the bars which launched the cocktail revolution. This recipe book, compiled by the bar’s founders, reveals an amazing number of their trade secrets.

Bound in black felt, Death & Co. is designed to look extremely hip on your coffee table, but between its covers the authors aren’t too concerned about looking cool. In fact they’re massive nerds. Cocktail nerds. You probably don’t want to know how the shape of an ice cube affects the speed at which it melts, but they are going to tell you. On the other hand, you definitely will want to know how Death & Co. makes its much-imitated Oaxaca Old Fashioned, and that’s in here too, along with fine-tuned recipes for hundreds of the bar’s signature drinks and for every classic tipple you can think of.

If you want to know exactly what equipment, techniques and bottles the professionals use, this is the cocktail book for you.

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The 12 Bottle Bar : A Dozen Bottles, Hundreds of Cocktails, a New Way to Drink

Cocktail bars make a point of using weird and wonderful ingredients. They’ve got to do something to justify the price. But you want to be able to make a tasty drink at home without having to tour Mexican agave farms in a quest for the perfect single-batch mescal.

Enter The 12 Bottle Bar. This book contains hundreds of recipes and you’ll only need—surprise, surprise—twelve bottles of alcohol to make the whole lot. Plus they’re pretty straightforward kinds of alcohol. Things like ‘gin.’

The Solmonsons also have lots of practical tips for the home bartender. They’ll guide you through the equipment you really need and which equipment is just showing off. They’ll help you choose the best-value and most versatile spirits. And their recipes are spot on.

Tequila Mockingbird

Tim Federle is good at making two things: drinks and puns. This book features recipes for ‘Bridget Jones’ Daiquiri’ and ‘Remembrance of Things Pabst,’ which, admit it, are both pretty good.

The recipes are as good as the literary gags. ‘Remembrance of Things Pabst’ balances earl grey tea with PBR and makes it work, while ‘The Pitcher of Dorian Grey Goose’ (to be served in ‘age before beauty’ order) is a tasty, original and easy-to-make punch. Federle’s book contains all the information a total beginner needs, but you’ll still be making his drinks long after you’ve stopped finding ‘Love in the Time of Kahlua’ funny.

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How to Mix Drinks

Before the cocktail revolution, before Mad Men, before even the historical era depicted in Mad Men, there was Jerry Thomas. The ‘father of American mixology’ published How To Mix Drinks in 1862, and it’s still a peerless guide to blending booze, although there are some drinks in here that you probably shouldn’t serve to anyone weighing under 200lb. They drank pretty hard back then.

‘The Professor’ writes with twinkling nineteenth-century precision—English drinks ‘have not yielded,’ despite a thorough sampling, ‘the satisfaction expected or desired’—as he takes you through everything from the recipe for Knickerbocker to how to build your own still. If you favour the ‘mad scientist’ approach to drinking, this one’s for you.

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Ten Cocktails

Alice Lascelles writes about hard liquor for The Times (when she’s not making music under the name Alice Gun). This book collects all the wisdom she has imbibed with her booze and organises it around ten recipes.

The result is absolutely stuffed with the kind of fascinating factlets you’ll insist on reading aloud to people, and by the time you’re done you’ll really know your way around a bar. Lascelles starts off nice and easy, with her formula for a gin and tonic, and works her way up to the out-there drinks she’s spent her career tracking down from Umbria to Tokyo.


I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.


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