Not leaving the house much? I can’t say I blame you.
We have tourists flooding the Coachella Valley from the most plague-ridden regions. People are still wearing chin diapers instead of masks—and throwing them off the second they sit at a restaurant table, like mortarboards at graduation. Despite the best efforts of service-industry professionals to keep everyone as safe as possible, it’s still a little scary out there.
But never fear—your favorite snarky cocktail columnist is ready with his Buying Guide for Cocktail Lovers. You, or that special someone, will be able to at least feel professional at home, even if you currently first think “furniture” when you hear the word “shaker.”
Let’s start with some books. As I have often said in columns past: Back in the dark ages, I spent a lot of time between busy hours at the bar with my nose in cocktail books, trying to make up for a lack of “experience” and a “bartending persona” with knowledge. Sadly, I was reading the wrong books. Here are the right ones—and some gear, too.
Imbibe!, by David Wondrich: If you read this column often, you know this is Sacred Scripture for anyone serious about cocktails. Go out, and buy it already. If you already own it, pick up a copy of Punch, the follow-up. It’s not quite as game-changing, but totally worthwhile and next-level for making large format cocktails … someday, when we can all gather together again.
The Gentleman’s Companion/Travels with Jigger, Beaker and Glass, by Charles H. Baker: There are two editions of this book; I have the latter, rather than the facsimile of the original 1939 book. Either way, you can’t lose. This is not exactly a cocktail-recipe book, and it’s not exactly a travel book—but it’s perfect for lovers of either. Someone described Baker as the first blogger, and while that sounds dismissive, if taken in the best light, it’s pretty apt. It’s history preserved in amber.
A Proper Drink, by Robert Simonson: Want to be that person who name-drops cocktail legends at the bar? Please don’t … but read this book anyway. It’s a fun ride through the modern cocktail renaissance, from TGI Fridays in New York (yes, really), to the United Kingdom and back. It has a nice little list of the author’s favorite modern classics, so it also functions as a bit of a recipe book. Speaking of …
Recipe Books, Etc.
Death and Co.: Modern Classic Cocktails, by David Kaplan, Nick Fauchald and Alex Day: I put this one as the No. 2 book in all categories, behind Imbibe!, because it will look much more impressive than most on a coffee table—or unwrapped on a holiday morning. Oh, and it’s also pretty awesome. A lot of bar managers changed their programs when this came out, and you could probably bullshit your way into a bar job if you study it. I’d hire you. I haven’t read the authors’ follow up, Cocktail Codex, but if you’re shopping for me, it looks promising.
Meehan’s Bartender Manual, by Jim Meehan: If you’re coming for my job, this is the one to read next, because it’s more of a bar manager’s book. It gets a little heavy on the philosophy, with experts waxing poetic about the beverage industry (cringe), but it’s sexier, and the recipes are better than those in his previous book, The PDT Cocktail Book (which is still a good book!). If you want insight into the industry and practical knowledge, this book is pretty hard to beat—aside from a certain monthly column, of course.
Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki, by Martin Cate and Rebecca Cate: There are a lot of tiki books out there, and one could argue that there are some with better recipes, but this one is a nice omnibus. Your favorite tiki-phile probably already owns it, but it’s perfect for the tiki-curious and rum-dabblers like me.
Books for the Nerds
Liquid Intelligence, by Dave Arnold: This James Beard Award-winning book is gorgeous and will hold its own next to your fancy NOMA cookbook. No old-school bartending here: This is slick, scientific wizardry. If the person on your list already owns a sous-vide and an iSi, or at least knows what those are, this is their book.
The Drunken Botanist, by Amy Stewart: This one is a great reference book. It’s full of information on herbs and ideas for herbally based cocktails. I often reach for it when I feel uninspired. It’s also a great gift for the Instagram witch on your list, as it doubles as an herbalism text—and it’s pretty stylish.
Proof, by Adam Rogers: Rogers puts his science-writing experience to use in a deep dive on what ethanol is, why it does what it does, and the ways in which we use it.
Shaker: The first and only piece of bar equipment you need. With a little skill, you can eyeball your pour, and you can stir and strain a martini with a pint glass and a tablespoon, but you can’t shake a drink without a tin. Don’t just buy a pre-boxed set from you-know-who. Instead, go to a specialty site like Cocktail Kingdom (not sponsored), and invest in a workman-like Japanese two-part shaker or two from Koriko. Skip the three part shakers unless you really love Japanese bartending.
Jigger: I also lean Japanese here, with the tall and precise cones that accurately measure 2, 1 1/2, 1, 3/4 and 1/2 ounces. It’s really all you need for most drinks. The smaller one has its uses, too, especially if you’re making tiki drinks. The Leopolds (bell-shaped) look cool, and if you’re just buying one jigger, they have a 1/4 ounce size built in. I like them a lot; get a nice brass one if you go this route. You can practice rolling one between your fingers if you’d like.
Strainer: Just get a Hawthorne. If you want to do a speakeasy party at your house someday, then get a fancy julep strainer, too, along with a crystal cocktail pitcher, and some suspenders, and a mustache.
Bar spoon: Learn to use a proper bar spoon. It takes practice, but, man, does it look cool when you finally “get it.” It’s all in the wrist. A measuring teaspoon is handy, too.
Pitcher: Don’t spend a lot on these, unless you want to for the aesthetic. I like cheap Pyrex chemistry beakers with measurements on them, because I use them for making recipes, too. A bit of warning: They will tip easily if you don’t fill them with enough ice … but you know to use lots of ice by now, right? If you have all of the gear I have mentioned so far, for less than $60 probably, you have what I use for 90 percent of my professional work.
Ice molds: Silicone trays are my favorite; they’re indestructible and cheap, so don’t bother with the molds. If you want round ice, get big squares; pour in boiling water; carefully place the mold into the freezer for clearer ice; and go onto YouTube to learn ice-carving. It’s fun—and dangerous!
There you go … shopping done! Stay safe out there.
Kevin Carlow can be reached at CrypticCocktails@gmail.com.