Novelty cocktail books are a dime a dozen, but Scott Deitche’s focus on the drinks of private eyes, gangsters, and other “in the shadows” types at least offers the promise of something new — of cocktail stories that we haven’t heard many times before.
Alas, this slim tome unfortunately is a bit of a random walk through the world of noir. What did Al Capone like to drink? Where did gangsters hang out in Dallas, Texas? It’s all here, sort of, in ultra-digestible bite-sized chunks, bouncing from one topic to the next without a whole lot of logic involved.
So much of the book is written in abrupt jags that it’s hard to see what Deitche’s point is with any of this. A few paragraphs on GoodFellas comes across like a drunken friend chatting you up with, “Hey, hey… remember in that movie, when they walk through the restaurant and sit down in the lounge? That was cool.”
Deitche isn’t a cocktail/spirits writer — he mainly covers organized crime — but numerous noir-inspired recipes are included as sidebars, though none are anything you won’t likely have seen before. If you want to figure out how to stock your home bar like a gangster, well, Deitche has you covered there, too. Turns out it looks a lot like the back bar of my local dive. Who knew?
C- / $16 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters. Sub in dry vermouth for some of the sweet if you want to be fancy. As most of us know it, this is the Manhattan Cocktail, one of the absolute classics of the industry and the base upon which legions of other drinks have been built.
To Albert W. A. Schmid, the above is just a starting point. There are dozens — perhaps a hundred — variations on the Manhattan, along with reams of history of the drink that require consideration from the cocktail completist.
This tiny tome, pocket-sized in dimensions and under 100 pages in length — looks like something you could digest in full during a slightly above-average visit to the bathroom. But the truth is Schmid has crafted a barside companion that Manhattan fans will want to keep near their bar setup for the long haul. The history of the drink aside, the variations that Schmid has turned up are fascinating and sometimes mouth-watering. Got celery bitters, absinthe, and fernet? Get ready to have some fun spinning your Manhattans in different directions.
At a mere 12 bucks, it’s hard not to recommend this book as a fun addition to a serious barman’s shelf or even as a little gift to the kind host who constantly lets you raid his bar.
A- / $12 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Cookies and beer? Yes, beer. And cookies!
Jonathan Bender says they go great together, and who are we to argue?
The title aside, this slim cookbook is really all about the cookies. Bender offers suggestions for pairing beer with each of the sweet treats he teaches you to make (including key sidebars, like pairing beers with Girl Scout Cookies), so don’t come in thinking you’ve got a homebrew manual in your hands. In fact, only a small handful of recipes in the back even include beer in the ingredient list, so for the most part, this is standard baking (with lots of familiar cookies), with booze relegated to the side.
There’s no cookie I’ve ever met that I didn’t like, and the recipes in Cookies & Beer certainly look delightful — even the section on savory cookies has my tastebuds going. There’s lots of great photography here to get you hungry, too.
The only trouble, as is often the case with novelty cookbooks, is the length. 122 pages seems like a lot of cookies, but it’s a wee little book that, most likely, you’ll either return to frequently to guide you in making a few favorites over and over, or exhaust quickly as you head to greener pastures.
B / $16 / [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]
The Dead Rabbit is a New York bar operated by Belfast natives Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry. Known for its beer and whiskey selection, this rustic place is also a cocktail mecca — and now it’s got a book to prove it.
Just flipping through The Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual gives you an inkling of how much work you’re going to have to put into these cocktails. Chamomile tincture. Clementine juice. Tangerine sherbet. Roi Rene Cherry Liqueur. Nettle tea-infused Jameson Black Barrel Whiskey.
Yes, you will be spending some time creating a shopping list, infusing Everclear, and doing a lot of steeping.
The Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual is not a book for the faint of heart but is clearly designed for those looking to elevate their home barcraft, create something special, or simple replicate the drink they had the other night at this establishment. You’ve got a dried tansy on hand, right?
All kidding aside, this is a thoughtful and well-crafted book of “secret recipes and barroom tales” — and what it lacks in practicality it makes up for in artistry and depth. It’s a book I’ll happily keep on the shelf and return to time and time again — even if I never actually prepare anything in its pages.
B+ / $16 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Beer is a huge topic, and indeed it’s one that behooves a creation of a biblical tome.
Jeff Alworth’s The Beer Bible aims to be a reference book for all things barley, spending 700 pages to profile over 100 styles of beer, 52 breweries, and hundreds of specific brews.
The book is organized primarily by style, so the chapter on Trappist Ales will turn up a history of how these beers arose and how they are made, plus recommendations to try that range in source location from Belgium to Colorado to Oklahoma. It’s exhaustive and well-researched, and Alworth clearly knows what he’s talking about. No snob, he covers mainstream brands and the craft movement, giving equal weight to both.
It’s a bit weird to be reading such a dense volume in a stubby, thick paperback, but I suppose that’s what the typical Holy Bible looks like, isn’t it? Both are great books, but only one of them has handy maps to breweries you should visit around the world.
A- / $12 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
From the oversized-yet-slim hardcover format to the big “Haynes” logo on the cover to, well, just about everything else, right down to the font selection, Tim Hampson’s Beer Enthusiasts’ Manual seems like one of those books you’d pick up at the hardware store when you needed a quick primer on plumbing or wiring. Even the title’s presentation on the spine — BEER MANUAL in all caps – doesn’t feel like something that will wind up on the coffee table. (Haynes is best known for its line of automotive manuals and less for its been connoisseurship.)
Beer Enthusiasts’ Manual (subtitle: “7,000 BC onwards (all flavours)”) is part history lesson, part the manual it promises to be – specifically a manual for homebrewers. Very little in this book will come across as surprising to anyone who’s even dabbled in homebrew, but Hampson’s book does have at least one huge thing in its favor: Pictures, and lots of them. If you’re the kind of cook who likes to see step by step photos that tell you what every stage of a dish should look like, you’ll love what Beer Enthusiasts’ Manual has to teach. Really, if you can’t follow the photographic steps here to master at least a basic pint of ale, well, you should probably stick to the bottled stuff.
B / $28 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Duggan McDonnell’s Drinking the Devil’s Acre isn’t so much a bar book as it is a love letter to San Francisco, hardbound. Which, it turns out, is basically the subtitle of the book. McDonnell is one of my favorite SF bartenders and interesting characters in general, so I’m inclined to meet anything he does with general approval.
There aren’t a whole lot of cocktails in this 250-plus page tome, with just 25 featured recipes. I have little doubt that I’ve had every single one of them during my time in SF. And while McDonnell’s recipes for a French 75, Pisco Punch, or Mojito seem right on target, you may initially be asking yourself why you need another book the regurgitates recipes for cocktails you probably know how to make from memory.
Well, again, this isn’t a book about the cocktails, it’s a book about stories. Some are about cocktailing history, some are about McDonnell, and all of them are about San Francisco, from the Barbary Coast days to the gay ’80s to modern times. The centerpiece is the so-called Devil’s Acre, a block in SF which was notorious in the late 1800s but which is now considerably less so, despite the proximity of strip clubs and a new bar called, of course, The Devil’s Acre. Probably not a lot of high-class mixology came out of there, but it was assuredly the origin of the San Francisco attitude.
So check out Drinking the Devil’s Acre not (necessarily) for the recipes — though don’t miss the black inserts within each chapter for numerous bonus recipes that may be less familiar to you — and enjoy McDonnell’s storytelling, which comes across both with wit and straightforward prose. Whether you’re a San Francisco lifer or just planning to visit our ‘hood, it’s definitely worth your time. (Especially bookmark McDonnell’s ultimate bar crawl in the back for a real look at the past and present of SF drinking palaces.)
A / $18 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Fred Minnick is the bon vivantiest of the bourbon-focused bon vivants, an ascot-wearing gentleman who knows his whiskey and dutifully reports all the news that’s fit to print from Kentucky and beyond.
Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker is exactly that, a guide to everything a novice drinker would want to know about bourbon (and only bourbon). What’s the difference between bourbon and other whiskeys? What’s with the new barrels? Why whiskey vs. whisky? Minnick runs you through all the basics that readers of this site probably already know — but which their friends probably ask them about all the damn time.
After zipping through all of that, Minnick spends a solid slug of time discussing the nose and flavor of bourbon in general, with an eye toward the many strange notes that can bubble up in the course of tasting bourbon. The main event is saved for last — over 50 bourbon brands digested with detailed tasting notes, even more detailed production information, and questions for the reader to ponder. Whether you’re putting together a tasting of Stagg or Pappy, Minnick is there to guide you along the way.
Fantastically approachable, it’s a whisky book that’s as easy to digest as a glass of Baker’s after dinner.
A- / $16 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Homebrew beer cookbooks are legion, but this title from Michael Agnew is special — it’s stuffed with recipes for (real) craft beers, many of which from brand names you’ve probably actually tried. Lagunitas, Allagash, Rogue, Shmaltz — all of them are well represented among the roughly three dozen recipes in the paperback.
Each recipe spends two pages describing the beer then walking you through its construction, step by step, with precise measurements in both English and metric units. The book is sorted into chapters by style, though some beer types — pale ales and Belgians, namely — are over-represented next to less included lagers, rye, and wheat beers.
No matter. Take a flip through the book and see if there’s something you like in the table of contents. If nothing else, it’s worth the price of admission alone for the specifics on how to make Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ at home!
A- / $18 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
What do I look for in a cocktail book that I might add to my collection? Drinks that aren’t widely included in other books, a tenable theme, and lots of pictures of what the finished product looks like. (Half the time I find myself picking a beverage by appearance rather than its ingredients, and I wager most people do the same.)
Tiki Drinks has all three of those things. Nicole Weston and Robert Sharp curate about 60 cocktails for this slim but focused treatise on all things tiki. The primer upfront is brief but well conceived and helpful — the pages outlining different countries’ national styles of rum production is remarkably useful — before leading into page after page of classics and newfangled tiki drinks. Every cocktail gets a full page picture, and even the garnishes are innovative. (Who’d have thought to carve a lime peel into a skull to garnish a Zombie cocktail?)
I’ve no complaints with the selection of drinks, the recipes chosen — many tiki drinks have a wide range of potential ingredients and have changed considerably over the years — or the sometimes mildly offbeat direction that Weston and Sharp choose to take with some classics.
Weston and Sharp aren’t cocktail historians, nor do they pretend to be, so if you want another investigation into the early life of Don the Beachcomber, look elsewhere. With this book the duo simply gather up tiki’s greatest hits (and then some) and give the masses the means to make some popular rum-heavy cocktails at home, and that’s good enough for me.
A / $15 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]