On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Joanna Sciarrino and Zach Geballe are joined by VinePair senior staff writer Tim McKirdy for a discussion on cocktail books. Are these books meant for home bartenders or the bars themselves? With so many bars releasing their own “history of” collections, should we return to the classic recipe books? Tune in to learn more.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Joanna Sciarrino: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
J: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Welcome everyone, and welcome to Tim McKirdy, who is here in place of our dear Adam. Tim, welcome.
Tim McKirdy: Thank you very much for having me.
J: Yeah, you guys all know Tim.
Z: Are you sitting in Adam’s seat?
T: I am, yes. It’s a power move.
J: Oh, you guys. So Tim, maybe you can kick us off with what you’ve been drinking lately.
T: This is always one of my favorite parts of the show, as a listener.
J: I’m actually very excited to hear this because I wanted to ask you this.
J: A classic.
T: Yeah, it’s a classic. Hands down, it is the best Gibson in New York, of those that I’ve tried. It’s really wonderful. That’s Meaghan Dorman’s bar. I was actually at the bar with Meaghan, enjoying a drink with her. Just around the corner from them were the friends-and-family opening a new bar called Martiny’s. That’s from Takuma Watanabe, who was recently featured in the VinePair 50. I had the Grand Martini there, which is their signature Martini. It’s absolutely wonderful. It’s a riff on a drink that Takuma created while he was the head bartender at Angel’s Share.
J: Which just closed.
T: Yeah, which very sadly just closed. It’s a real loss for New York.
J: But now we have Martiny’s.
T: We have Martiny’s. For those looking to Google, it’s “Martinis” with a “Y” at the end. This is a riff on a drink that he created, which I believe was called Pour Me a Grape. I think we’ve spoken about this on the show before. I might be wrong, but that’s a really wonderful drink. I’m looking forward to heading back as a real person, a real customer, and checking out more of what they have. But it’s a great space.
J: I’m really curious to go now. That sounds amazing.
Z: Tim, I have to ask. The most important question I have is, what are they serving their drinks in at Martiny’s?
Z: I don’t know, are they serving them in human skulls?
T: No, it’s not that kind of place, as far as I’m aware. Interestingly, I did see them using a couple of different glasses for this. I guess it was because they were doing two sittings, and everyone arrived at once. But the glass that I had my particular one in was almost like a Martini glass meets a flute. It was very interesting.
J: I saw that. That looked pretty narrow.
T: It was narrow. It was very fine in terms of the thickness of the glass.
Z: Was it not Nick & Nora? Was it wider than that?
J: No, it’s a “V.”
Z: Interesting, so it’s stretched upwards more.
T: It definitely did seem to be a 4-and-a-half ounce pour with dilution, so it fit the whole cocktail, which is definitely important as well.
J: It’s funny you bring up the glassware thing, Zach, because I feel like that’s something we need to talk about sometime soon. Cocktail bars are getting a little too inventive with their glassware. I heard about an experience you had recently, Tim. We won’t name names, but some interesting glassware.
T: I don’t know. I think it’s one of those things that, when it’s really good, you really appreciate it. And when it’s really bad, it also stands out. Oftentimes, it’s just somewhere in the middle. It really can change your experience.
J: Yes, and it can make a place stand out.
J: What about you, Zach? Would have you been drinking?
Z: The most interesting thing I had recently was a first for me, which was a sparkling orange wine. A producer here in Washington, Treveri Cellars, is a sparkling wine house. So that’s all they produce. They recently released their first crack at this sparkling orange wine, which is really interesting to me. For those listeners who aren’t familiar, orange wine is essentially a situation where you’re using white grapes, but you’re making them like you would make red wine. You use long skin contact to extract some color and definitely some aromatics and things like that from the skins, and the resulting wine is kind of a thing unto its own. What’s interesting to me about turning that into a sparkling wine is that one of the standout features of most orange wine is some tannin and some kind of texture. And I wasn’t really sure how that would translate into the sparkling wine format. As it turns out, it translates really well. I really enjoyed it. The wine is made from an extended maceration Pinot Gris, and then that base wine is planted with some Grüner Veltliner and I think another variety that I’m forgetting at the moment. It’s taken through traditional sparkling wine production, so secondary fermentation and bottling. It definitely had some of that classic orange wine nutty aroma and grippy texture but was lightened somewhat by the effervescence. The florality of the Gris came through pretty nicely. It was really good. I really enjoyed it. It’s a very versatile food wine. We had it with some different cheeses, but I think you could enjoy it with a lot of different foods. Those of you who have been looking for the excuse to turn your orange wine into sparkling wine, go for it. I think it’ll work. What about you, Joanna?
J: We finally have been in our neighborhood. We’re back from traveling and settled in and got to explore over this past weekend. And we went to a local beer bar called Gold Star Beer Counter, which is a really cool spot and we sat outside. It was a nice spring Saturday with our dog, Cooper. I had a few really great beers from another local spot, Wild East Brewing Co., which is also in Brooklyn. I had a beer called the Sage Advice, which is a farmhouse-style ale brewed with rye, sage, and juniper, which is a very interesting beer. I’ve never had anything like that. It was very, very herbal, but it was refreshing. And then I also had another beer, their seasonal Maibock called Prevernal Love, which was really malty and delicious but still pretty medium-bodied and not too heavy. So that was really enjoyable.
T: Nice. I see what they did with the name there on the old Sage Advice.
J: Yep, they’re such clever beer makers, aren’t they?
T: They’re good: can, art, and names. They go wild, no pun intended, with the whole botanical thing.
J: Yeah. So, Zach, you’re going to lead us into today’s conversation.
Z: I am, yeah. With Adam on vacation, I figured someone had to come with some fire takes today, and I guess it’s my turn. This is one that I’ve been ruminating on for a little while, and it’s been prompted by receiving a few different of these books as review copies or just being sent them by a kind-hearted publicist who I appreciate. But it’s this idea that I don’t really get the point of cocktail books. I feel like I don’t really know who they’re for. The biggest reason for that is that despite what I think is sometimes implicit or even explicit in the way that they’re written, in the way that they’re laid out, I don’t really think you can learn to bartend from reading a book. If you can’t bartend, then a lot of these recipes are functionally useless. Tim, having you on the podcast today is actually a great opportunity to explore this. I think it’s come through a lot in the various conversations you’ve done on your podcast, “Cocktail College,” and that’s that technique is so critical. A recipe, a list of ingredients and ratios, and telling you to shake and then strain or whatever, is really not the essence of bartending. Obviously, the ingredients matter, the ratios matter, and all that, but there’s so much technique. So much technique that I think bartenders themselves don’t even really think about when they’re making a drink because part of the point of being good at something like bartending is that so much of what you’re doing is unconscious muscle memory. You’re not thinking about the way you’re putting ice in a tin, the way you’re shaking it, the way you’re straining it, the way you’re doing all these things to ensure the quality of the drink you’re making. And those are things that you cannot learn from a book. You can’t learn them from a YouTube tutorial, although I think those are a little better. You have to learn it by doing it. I would not consider myself a great bartender, but I bartended for several years and it’s given me a huge leg up on home enthusiasts even because I just understand it. I’ve made thousands of cocktails in my life and that’s something that not a lot of people can say. Certainly, very few home bartenders have gone to those lengths. Cocktail books, I think in a way that sometimes cookbooks also suffer from, promise this allure of replicating your favorite drinks at home. I just don’t think they can deliver on that. It’s a fault of the format. It’s not the fault of any individual book.
J: Well, I agree with you when you say that you can’t learn to bartend from a cocktail book, but I don’t think that that’s the point. I don’t think that people who buy cocktail books believe that they can learn actual bartending experience by having this cocktail book. And I actually don’t believe that, for the bars that do release books, that that’s what they’re selling either. I don’t think that Death & Co. is like, “You can buy my book, and it’s essentially like being a bartender at this bar.” I don’t think that that’s the case. Generally, I think cocktail books are very valuable for a number of reasons. They’re great resources to people who are interested in making drinks at home and for people who are new to mixology, for lack of a better word. Beyond that, if you think more historically, cocktail books are what yielded our modern cocktail culture and have formed the foundations of what we know as cocktails and bartending today. Maybe this is not what you’re arguing, Zach. I think it’s something different. But if we didn’t have the “Bartender’s Guide” by Jerry Thomas or the “Savoy Cocktail Book” or maybe “The Joy of Mixology,” would modern cocktail culture exist today for all of the bartenders that we know to build on those books and those resources? I also think of “The Essential Cocktail Book” by Dale DeGroff. All of these books are so valuable and exist in the modern cocktail canon, I think that those are super valuable. But back to this idea of you getting sent books or us having books here. I just think that beyond anything else, they are really important resources to have. Yes, I think YouTube tutorials are also really valuable for learning how to make drinks. But I always like going to a bar. I don’t have any formal cocktail training. The best part about being in a bar is watching a bartender do their thing and pretending that I can go home and pick some of those skills up without ever having been behind a bar.
T: Watching someone’s shaking technique, that’s something I really enjoy. I know that’s a very small point. I’m happy to be on for this one today because I think this is a very interesting discussion, and I think there are many different ways to tackle it. Joanna has brought so many of them up there. The historical aspect is a very strong argument in favor of cocktail books and the importance of cocktail books. You can just look at tiki as a category and say that without “Beachbum Berry Sippin’ Safari,” so many of the old-school tiki drinks and techniques and things that he rediscovered really wouldn’t exist today. We wouldn’t have that category of bars and drinks or the quality that we do these days without that book. I know this is not this specific argument that you’re making, Zach. Having bartender-level ability as a home bartender through reading these books, I think those books do exist, though. And again, I’m not trying to pick a hole in that, too. But you look at Jim Meehan’s “Bartender Manual.” This is a book that goes into everything; it doesn’t just have drinks recipes. This is one that covers service, hospitality, bartending techniques, and the whole philosophy of bartending. These are books that you won’t just find at people’s homes, these are books that you’ll find at bars. “Death & Co.” is another great example there. Dave Arnold’s “Liquid Intelligence” is good, if that’s the style of bartending you want to do. The bars themselves have them. These are resources that you’ll find everywhere, much in the same way that, back in the day, you would have “Larousse Gastronomique.” I was telling you earlier, Joanna, but when I was coming up in kitchens in London, it was Marco Pierre White’s “White Heat.” That was the bible for a lot of people. Not only do they serve home bartenders, I think they serve the bartending community as well.
J: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. Who are they for? Which is the question that you asked, Zach. I think they’re as much for the trade as they are for home bartenders or consumers.
Z: OK, I have to disagree with both of you here. Obviously, this is my prompt, but I want to say a couple of things. One thing is, I’m not disputing the historic value of certain cocktail books that predate the internet. Great. We need ways to understand what people were doing in the 1800s, pre-Prohibition, the post-Prohibition era, etc. Fine. I think those books are all extremely valuable, even Beachbum Berry’s book, which is even more recent than that. But in this era now, where you have an incredible set of resources that are not a glossy, overpriced book that was produced largely to stroke the egos of certain bar operators and because they look good on a coffee table don’t have a lot of value. You can get recipes in lots of places, including VinePair. You can get great information about what bartenders are thinking in lots of places, including Tim’s podcast. Those are way more useful for anyone who wants to understand what’s going on in cocktail culture than any of these books. There are, like, a handful of cocktail books — and you actually mentioned “Death & Co.,” and that might be one of them — that come from truly important, historically relevant bars. But there are, I don’t know, 500 cocktail books and maybe five bars that deserve to have a book that’s about them. The rest of them are just vanity projects, which is fine. I don’t have a problem with that. But Tim, you can’t honestly tell me that if someone showed up in one of the kitchens you worked out in London and said, “Oh yeah, I’ve read “La Technique” by Jacques Pepin. I’ve never cooked, but I’ve read that book a bunch.” They get laughed out of the f*cking kitchen. It’s that idea that you can teach yourself anything from a book that’s not writing, and even with that, you gotta do a lot of that, too. Books are great. I love books. One day I might write one. But they’re not the end-all, be-all. And they’re not anything like the base level for how you acquire skills — especially skills that are based on a combination of manual dexterity, skill, and a kind of intellectual understanding. This is the other piece that I want to come back to, and I’m glad you brought up cooking because I think it’s extremely similar. Whether you cook professionally or cook at home a lot, one of the things I think is a mark of a talented cook in one form or another is the ability to substitute, supplement, and modify. And that, I think, is a lot of what modern bartending requires. Anyone with some degree of faculty can open a cocktail book and say, “OK, I can pour in an ounce of this, a half-ounce of that, three-quarters of an ounce of that, store it, and put it in a glass.” That’s not that hard. If you got a decent jigger, you can do that. Maybe you need to practice the stirring technique. But to understand how those flavors work together, why those drinks work in theory — whether they’re classics or new inventions — requires not just a familiarity with the ingredients, but a mental capacity to understand the complexities of a modern cocktail or a classic cocktail, how they work, and how taking an ingredient out or modifying it or doing different things to it is really fundamentally changing the drink and what you might need to do to the rest of the cocktail to continue to keep it in balance. And that is just not something a book is ever going to be able to explain in any meaningful way. It’s just a shortcoming of the medium. It’s not designed for that. A book is a static thing and it can’t substitute for real-world experience. And again, I’m not saying that every cocktail book that comes out is claiming that it can teach you to bartend. They’re for the average consumer, which is most of the people who are ponying up 40 or 50 bucks for these. Bars might buy one copy. But if these cocktail books were selling 500 copies total, I’m pretty sure they would no longer be getting made. I just kind of come back to this whole notion that I think there are people out there buying these books thinking they’re going to let them make these drinks at home. And they just don’t. You can’t do that.
T: First of all, I have to push back a little bit here. I do agree with some of the things that you’re saying there. But I do think there are books out there, some of which we’ve mentioned and there are also others, that cover those topics that you’re talking about.
J: The fundamentals.
T: The fundamentals, yeah. Obviously, you don’t know what a tomato tastes like from reading. That’s never going to be the case. So there needs to be some kind of practical aspect and tasting and practice and repetition for you to gain those skills. But I think there are books that do lay out these fundamentals, as you say, Joanna. Personally, I don’t want to see every cocktail book try and tackle that, because that becomes repetitive. And if you are a person that is willing to spend this amount of money on a cocktail book, chances are you’re adding it to your collection of cocktail books. I think people do the same with cookbooks — they like them for a reason. I think one of the aspects of this conversation that’s interesting, and we can maybe explore too, is the relevance of cocktail books in the age of the internet. There are arguments in favor and against. But one of the other things that really struck me when you were talking about the purpose of a cocktail book, is that I think they’re more important than ever to capture the essence of a bar. That’s what cocktail books are about.
J: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking, too. It’s like a stamp. It’s putting a stamp on their identity at a certain time.
T: Yes, and bars come and go. Especially very often these days because of the current climate. I think having that as the historical memory of a bar, maybe they’re laying out their philosophies. Maybe they’re including all of their drinks more than the three or four that they might — if they’re lucky — become known for in the media and on the internet. This is a memory, and those kinds of memories will never exist on the internet because of the medium that that is. That needs to live in a book.
J: Here’s an example. So we talked about David Arnold’s book, “Liquid Intelligence.” As I’ve discussed on this podcast, I’ve made the Banana Justino cocktail, which is from that book. I had it at Booker & Dax years and years ago. It doesn’t exist anymore. I’ve never had any bartending experience, but I decided that I wanted to tackle that drink. Good thing it’s in that book, right? I know it’s on the internet, too. Whatever. But still, for somebody who was a fan of that place and of Dave Arnold and his craft, it was in that book and it’s important to me and it was valuable to me.
T: Did you enjoy the version? I know that you did, but I’m just asking this just in terms of the conversation. You enjoyed the version of the drink that you created?
J: Yeah, it was amazing.
T: Did you go into it expecting it was going to be as good as one that Dave Arnold, or perhaps Jack Schramm, might have made for you?
J: No, probably not. I had limitations on the equipment and stuff and I had to buy special ingredients. But I still did it, and I was still proud of myself for doing it. And it was cool to have done it.
Z: It made for good podcast content, I’ll agree.
J: Yes, this is why I did it.
T: It’s given us so much podcast content.
Z: But I think of that as such an edge case that I don’t really think it justifies the entire category of cocktail books. I’m very glad you had that experience and you noted quickly that you could have just looked the recipe up on the internet. So again, does the cocktail book need to exist? I mean, it’s debatable. To what you said, Tim, and to the idea that there are that many bars that deserve or merit preservation in time if your bar doesn’t last, do we really need a cocktail book about it? Frankly, there’s just a degree of self-congratulatory bullsh*t that surrounds the whole category that I find unpleasant. There are so few people in the category and in the field — and Dave Arnold might be one of these very few people; there are a few of them — who are doing truly novel and out-there things that maybe do need to be noted and to be preserved in some sense. But the idea that there are that many bars in the entirety of the world, let alone New York, where frankly, a lot of these books originate, that has to be preserved for all times: really? I don’t buy it. There are a lot of people making great drinks and there will always be a lot of people making great drinks. But the idea that we need a dozen or so books that come out every year, if not more, feels like they’re vanity projects. And look, I got vanity, too. I’m not out here pretending I don’t. But at this point, I’m not committing to writing a book just to stroke my own ego.
J: It’s so funny because I think that’s what cookbooks are all about, and I will all add cocktail books to that. When I worked in food, it was shocking how many cookbooks came out every year. Just when you think there couldn’t possibly be another cookbook, there are so many, and it’s because there is a demand for them. So I think that the same must be true of cocktail books. People like them, and people buy them. People will continue to make them, bars will continue to make them.
T: I think we need to add a little bit of nuance to this conversation. We’re tackling this. Zach, I think you might get a lot of hate mail for this one.
J: I hope you get so many books sent to you.
T: People trolling you with every cocktail book. But I want to add that cocktail books aren’t just bars or bartenders. There are other ones out there. A great example is Robert Simonson’s “3-Ingredient Cocktails.” That was one of the first cocktail books I owned myself.
J: Me too.
T: I just went through it as someone that was new to cocktails going like, “OK, only three ingredients. Amazing.” For the most part, most of these ingredients are easily obtainable, and I just went through it drink by drink. Yeah, the early versions of what I was making were not of bar quality. But it was more about — and no pun intended here for another book — the joy of mixology. It was about doing this at home, and it was about recreating these drinks and adding bottles to my collection. OK, now I need something like falernum or things like that. Now I need green Chartreuse. This is fun. I’m seeing my bar grow, and I’m getting into this new hobby.
J: You’re honing your skills at the same time.
T: You are, over time. Yeah, for sure.
Z: To come back to where I started, some of this is undeniably colored by the fact that I did bartend. Some of the things that you are describing, Tim, are stuff that I did just by working in a bar and making drinks. You do try things. There’s the first time that someone orders a drink that you’ve never heard of and you go, “Oh sh*t, I got to look this up.” I started doing this before you could easily do it on your phone. We had cocktail books that were essentially lists of drinks and ingredients and stuff like that. Certainly, at the time, that was very useful to me because as a 22-year-old, I didn’t necessarily know as many cocktails as I do now. At the same time, you also got the opportunity to play around. You had all those ingredients on hand. If you were working in a decent-quality bar, you had a lot of them on hand and you could play with them. That was obviously a way to learn it. I may be here overvaluing my own path to some degree of cocktail competency and downplaying another path, which you have both taken in your own way. But I do think that there is a difference between what you’re talking about — a book like Robert Simonson’s, which is a large collection of recipes and a little more instructive — and what I am again envisioning, which is the cocktail bar book. That’s a lot of, “Here’s the story of our bar and how it was created and why we’re such geniuses. Here are the drinks that we created.”
J: It’s a coffee table book, like you said.
T: I want to know the book that you read that really inspired this passionate hate, Zach. I’m not going to ask you to call it out.
Z: I will tell you offline. I’m not going to put anyone on blast.
T: I think there is that distinction between the two styles, but if we’re talking about cocktail books in general, I’m not sticking them into “Room 101” to confine them to history forever. That’s a British TV reference there. I was looking at Joanna, and I realized, I’m not consigning those to history forever. Here’s a question, though. Joanna, what’s your take on cocktail books in the age of the internet? Obviously, you oversee VinePair and a large database of recipes and that process. What do you feel about the relevance there? To Zach’s point, it is much easier to just Google a recipe, land on VinePair, and find a cocktail recipe.
J: We talked about this a little bit earlier. Obviously, the internet has made pretty easy work of all of this. But I do think that you’re going to find variations on recipes across the internet. That makes it a little challenging. There is something so nice about having a book that preserves a specific version of, I’m going to say, a cocktail recipe. Obviously, there are other things that go into these books. But this is the version of whatever cocktail from this specific bar at a specific time. You know that it’s the one because it’s accurate. There are resources and it’s been fact-checked and all of those things. So I think that there’s something nice about that kind of accuracy.
T: Yeah, consistency.
J: Consistency. You can trust it more than a blogger who’s telling you that this is a recipe for a Paper Plane.
T: Let’s be honest here, and this might be a little bit too much into how the sausage gets made. But when it comes to online and Google, the result that comes first is not necessarily the best cocktail recipe. It’s the site that has the best control over its SEO practices. That’s the reality of it. That might not be the right one.
J: Also, when you’re considering where the recipes are coming from, maybe it’s coming from a specific person and it’s a widely known recipe ratio or whatever. But for something that’s not, it can really vary based on the taste of the publisher or whoever is putting that recipe out. It can be VinePair’s version of a Dirty Martini or a Hurricane or whatever have you, and that might not be to your taste. Maybe there’s a more solid, accurate version somewhere in a book.
Z: I want to add one last piece here, and then we should probably wrap things up. I think the other answer to this question of why these books exist and who are they for, is that they are a way for a bar to commoditize their recipes that the internet does not generally offer.
J: Well, yeah. That’s because people just take those recipes and put them online. These are our recipes from our bar, and here’s a way that you can get them.
Z: This is my intellectual property.
J: Exactly, which is a bigger conversation.
Z: I think this is a conversation you’ve had on your podcast in some way or another, Tim. Relatively few of those drinks are really anyone’s intellectual property, and the money from the sale of those books does not always go to the person who created the cocktail if it was created at a bar. I don’t know that it’s ever going to happen, but it would be very interesting if some of these attempts and desires to capture the importance of a bar and the history of a bar were put into some other medium besides just a coffee table book. Whether it’s video, audio, or something, I think it would be interesting to see an attempt to encapsulate and capture what a bar means. Because the other thing to me is, in some ways, books are good for certain things and bad for others. I love books. I mean, I’m a book person. I own entirely too many. Most of them were not sent to me; I bought them. But putting you in a place and in a time is a challenge for any book. We have alluded to places, some of which no longer exist. It would be great if, instead of just a cocktail book, we had a video. Not necessarily a full-length movie, but some video inside the bar or some attempt to capture that ethos and technique and things like that. Not just in a very static medium, but in one that might feel a little more alive and might allow you to really watch the magic happen.
T: It’s an interesting concept.
J: I think photos are helpful.
Z: I get what you mean. This is another side gripe, but they’re all produced. The cocktail is made for the photo shoot, and I don’t always believe that they’re the exact drink. We all know about prop food. To me, it comes back to something that you both talked about at the very beginning of the conversation. The magic of a bar is being in the bar, and I just think that a book doesn’t capture that magic. Very few of them have to me. And even then, it’s a fleeting glimpse. I wish there were more ways to archive and preserve bars than this one format that does seem to exist.
T: Perhaps the best format. Who knows what that is? Maybe our listeners will write in and give some of their feedback.
Z: You can tell me how wrong I am at [email protected].
T: Send him all the cocktail books, please. Around $40 to $50, ideally coffee table-style.
J: Or send them to us, because we love them and we appreciate them.
Z: You can send them to both places.
J: Well, thank you both. Thank you, Tim, for joining us today. And thanks for listening. Zach, talk to you Friday.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.