I'm often asked, "what are a couple of books you'd recommend if I'm just learning to bartend?"
While there are countless books available for the novice (and advanced) bartender, it's important to consider what you'd like to get out of reading these books -- after all, mixing drinks is a skill acquired more by doing, and less by reading, although both can be worthwhile. When starting out, few things will take you further then some technique, an understanding of the classics, and a history of the sport.
I'll start near the beginning. In 1862, Jerry Thomas wrote a book called How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon Vivant's Companion. It's largely regarded as the first printed bartender's guide for mixing all types of punches, juleps, sours, toddies, cocktails, and more.
You can easily get a reprint and should own one as a historical reference. Many a great bartender have combed though the book adapting nearly every recipe for the modern palate along the way. There are some better resources for how to actually execute a gin sour, but you should know that Jerry Thomas wrote it down first -- in 1862.
While Thomas' book is essentially a very early recipe guide, it gives us little to work with in terms of history. Thankfully, cocktail historian David Wondrich wrote an incredibly well researched book that essentially chronicles the life and times of the "Professor" Jerry Thomas.
When learning to mix drinks, you'll want to have a sense of time and place as to where it all began, and this book will set that scene. Trust me, you'll wish you could be transported to San Fransisco and then back to Manhattan all to watch the Professor pour a liquid stream of fire as you sip his famous Blue Blazer. It turns out the Professor was both a showman and a pioneer in his own right.
I should mention that we don't arrive at the famous 'Prohibition era' until nearly 60 years after Thomas first wrote How to Mix Drinks, but we'll jump there none the less. By the early 1900s, tending bar was a respected career and the cocktail was uniquely American.
However, The Volstead Act (prohibition) left many bartenders jobless. Some left the States to work in Europe and Cuba, while others posted up in Speakeasies across America. Harry Craddock, a UK born bartender working in the States, went back to London where he took over as the head barman at The American Bar at the Savoy Hotel.
Durning his tenure at the Savoy, Craddock wrote what is largely regarded as one of the most thorough recipe books for mixing American-style cocktails. It's a bit of an encyclopedia in length, which makes it the perfect industry standard reference book for Prohibition era drinks. So many vintage cocktails have resurfaced due to the popularity of this book and have joined the ranks of the Classics.
The Alaska cocktail, one of the first recipes in the book, appears in print several times prior to the 1930 release of The Savoy Cocktail Book. The earliest reference I can find is in the 1914 book, DRINKS, by Jacques Straub, who calls for a dash of orange in his version of the Alaska. Craddock omits the orange bitters. Why? I don't know, but every other recipe I can find calls for them so I use them. But, what I love about Craddock's version of the Alaska is the 3:1 balance of gin and yellow chartreuse -- so I use that too.
- 2 dashes orange bitters
- 3/4 oz yellow chartreuse
- 2 1/4 oz gin
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice, stir, and strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Dale Degroff is largely credited with reviving the profession of bartending in the late 1990s, but in my opinion (and the opinion of many others), it's the late Sasha Petraske who nearly perfected it. Sasha opened Milk & Honey in 1999 with attention placed on everything from quality spirits, fresh ingredients, accurate measurements, hand cut ice, impeccable service standards, and as for the menu -- bartender's choice.
Regarding Cocktails is a collection of M&H family recipes shared by Sasha's wife and colleagues - many of whom have gone on to open their own bars using Sasha's set of best practices. Not only will you learn a thing or two about making good drinks, you'll get a small glimpse into a little bar that inspired so many, including myself.