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Ask the bartender: A library of books about libations

Ask the bartender: A library of books about libations

Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with almost 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can find him behind the bar at Squeaky Bean -- and here every week, where he'll talk about current cocktail culture (including our contest to create a Colorado cocktail) and answer your questions. This week, he's handling the holidays.

Q. My husband is a huge cocktail enthusiast, and I was wondering if you had any suggestions on the perfect Christmas gift for him.

A. Good question. Every year around Thanksgiving, my wife starts asking what I want for Christmas. My answer is always "Ummm, I dunno...," which inspires her to roll her eyes and then say, "You're impossible to buy for!"

Funny, because I remember my family saying the same about my father, who also is a bartender. But when it comes to buying gifts for others, I'm fairly good at it. There are many essentials that you can purchase for your cocktail enthusiast (read: lush) husband that will make his holiday. I suggest a cocktail-related book or some great bar tools; today I'll cover the books. (I'll follow up with the tools in a couple of days.)

A great place to start is Cocktail Kingdom (www.cocktailkingdom.com). Book publisher Greg Boehm has an amazing collection of original cocktail books, dating back to the mid-1800s. Many of the volumes he owns could be auctioned off for thousands of dollars. But instead, Boehm decided to make exact reprints of some of the best cocktail books in order to make them affordable and accessible to the common man. Many of the books below are available on his site.

Classic Books

1. How to Mix Drinks: A Bon Vivant's Companion, by Jerry Thomas. Jerry "the Professor" Thomas is considered the Godfather of bartending. By the mid-1800s, the cocktail movement was picking up steam, and the Professor penned this original recipe guide in 1862.

2. Bartender's Manual, by Harry Johnson. Every bartender needs to read this book cover to cover. Many things have changed over the years in our profession, but the principles that our craft was built on remain the same: service and hospitality first. By the time Johnson's book was published, in 1900, there were many cocktail books around. But to quote Robert Hess in the foreword, this book "provides a glimpse into the mindset, the business, and, more importantly, the pride in craftsmanship that was important for bartenders to focus on as they performed their craft."

3. The Savoy Cocktail Book, by Harry Craddock. When Prohibition hit the U.S., legendary New York barman Harry Craddock sailed across the sea and brought the London cocktail scene alive with his slings, smashes, fizzes, flips and other fancy American cocktails. This stylish book, which contains over 700 recipes, was published in 1930 and is still considered a bible by serious barfolk.

4. Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, by David Embury. In this book, first printed in 1948, Embury takes a scientific approach to cocktail creation. Although he sometimes comes off as a cranky old man, the result is brilliant, serving up the basic principles of a cocktail, its components, the categories and his six basic drinks (the Martini, the Manhattan, the Old-Fashioned, the Daiquiri, the Sidecar and the Jack Rose). My favorite Embury principle is that a drink will never be any better than the quality of the cheapest ingredient in it; he stresses the need for the highest-quality spirits and mixers, fresh juices, etc.

5. Old Waldorf Astoria Bar Book, by A.S Crocket. In this book, Crocket tells the story of the Waldorf Astoria through its cocktails, working off the hotel's pre-Prohibition bar manual and offering over 300 recipes.

6. The Gentleman's Companion: Being an Exotic Drinking Book or Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask, by Charles H. Baker. First published in 1939, this book contains many recipes that Baker collected during his travels around the world -- but it's by no means a recipe book. What I love about it is Baker's dry wit, as well as the look into the life of a true bon vivant.

7. Barflies and Cocktails, by Harry McElhone. The famous Harry of Harry's New York Bar provides a look into the Prohibition-era barfly culture. The reproduction is complete with all of the original ads.  

Modern era books not to be missed: 8. The Joy of Mixology, by Gaz Regan. This is one of the most complete bartender's guides in existence, and every bartender should own it. Regan's way of grouping cocktails into families is groundbreaking. Check out his A Gin Compendium as well.

9. The Essential Bartender's Guide, by Robert Hess. Hess takes a culinary approach to cocktails, and this book details all the important components of building a bar, creating tasty cocktails and being a great bartender. It also contains hundreds of recipes.

10. Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, by Ted Haigh. This book continues a truly unique collection of long-forgotten cocktails; I occasionally pick it up, flip open a page, and prepare the drink featured there.

11. Imbibe, by David Wondrich. Wondrich is the premier cocktail historian, and this tome is dedicated to the life of Jerry "the Professor" Thomas. It contains Thomas's recipes with suggestions of modern substitutions for unavailable products, as well as modern recipes from twenty of the nation's top bartenders. His newest book, Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl, is an excellent follow-up. The pair of books make a great gift.

12. American Still Life, A Double Scotch and Kindred Spirits, by F. Paul Pacult. Pacult is one of the world's top spirits tasters; he's also an educator and writer. His magazine, The Spirit Journal, is the benchmark for spirits criticism. American Still Life chronicles the Beam family history through its whiskey; A Double Scotch tells the intertwined success stories of Glenlivet and Chivas; and Kindred Spirits has over 2,400 spirit reviews and is a great reference to have behind any bar.

13. Whiskey, by Michael Jackson. Prior to his death in 2007, Jackson was considered the world's top expert on all things whiskey. This beautifully presented book tells you everything about whiskey, from "grain to glass." Individual distillery profiles are also featured.

14. Craft of the Cocktail and Essential Cocktails, by Dale DeGroff. In my opinion, DeGroff was the leader who brought our profession back to pride and prominence. Full of standard recipes, trade tips and methodology, these two books should be read from cover to cover.

15. The Flavor Bible , by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. This book is the secret weapon of many bartenders. It's not a recipe book, it's a flavor-matching book. Created for chefs, it's an excellent aid for creating cocktails.

There are a few books I probably missed, but I could have gone on for thirty more and had to stop somewhere. Sadly, this list won't help my wife: I already own them all.

Cheers.

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