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Cracking the Codex

When Cocktail Codex took home the James Beard Award for book of the year, it represented a milestone for the beverage category. What can we learn from its victory?

Alex Day and David Kaplan’s names weren’t called when their category, best beverage book, came up at the recent James Beard Foundation Media Awards. So, as non-winners often do, they headed to the bar.

Day and Kaplan—who co-wrote the nominated book, Cocktail Codex, along with Nick Fauchald and Devon Tarby, and who own and run several bars, most notably Death & Co—hadn’t seen each other in a couple weeks. The disappointment notwithstanding, they used the moment to catch up. After a while, however, they were ready to take off; award shows aren’t much fun if you don’t have a dog in the race. Before they could exit, Day received a text from a friend who sits on the Awards’ book committee. “She said, ‘No, you need to stay,’” Day recalls. “She wouldn’t say anything beyond that.”

In a turn that left attendees visibly stunned, Cocktail Codex was named book of the year, becoming the first beverage book of any kind to receive the honor. In fact, beverage books were so alien to the honor that the award, which dates to 1988, was called “cookbook of the year” until 2017.

“We had no idea that that was a possibility,” says Day. “There was no thought in my mind that it wouldn’t be a cookbook.” His and Kaplan’s table exploded into cheers when Cocktail Codex was announced, but the reaction at other tables was, in Day’s recollection, more polite. “They were probably, like, ‘Who are these people?’”

Cocktail Codex winning book of the year is a milestone for beverage books and writing; that much is evident. Why a cocktail book would win now, after all these years, and why Cocktail Codex won, specifically, are more complicated questions. But the answers may originate with the precedent set by Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails, the 2014 volume that was Day, Kaplan and Fauchald’s first effort. The book made news the moment it was announced in 2012 with a six-figure advance that left the bar community’s collective jaw hanging open. That wasn’t the only ceiling the book shattered, though.

“They broke the format and retail barrier for cocktail books,” says Aaron Wehner, the executive vice president of Crown Publishing and publisher of Clarkson Potter, Harmony, Rodale and Ten Speed Press, the latter of which released both Death & Co and Cocktail Codex. “We were always told they had to be $25 or less and had to be small and merchandisable. There were real limitations on the category.” (Disclosure: PUNCH is an independent imprint of Crown Publishing, home of Ten Speed Press.)

Death & Co ended up meriting both its advance and its retail price of $40, becoming one of the best-selling cocktail books in history, with 150,000 copies currently in print. Without the book’s success, it’s arguable that other ambitious, high-priced cocktail books that came after it, such as Meehan’s Bartender Manual and The Aviary Cocktail Book, wouldn’t have been attempted.

Emily Timberlake, who edited Death & Co, had anticipated something impressive from Day, Kaplan and Fauchald. But Codex exceeded her expectations. “It was a high-concept book, which is hard to pull off well.” But, she says, “Alex showed his work in interesting ways. When I got to the last page, I said to myself, ‘I, cynical cocktail-exhausted editrix, have learned something.’”

If Death & Co was a group effort between the three authors, Cocktail Codex was more Day’s baby, and his ambitions were not small. The book is divided into six chapters, each focused on the blueprint of an iconic drink: Old Fashioned, Martini, Daiquiri, Sidecar, Highball, Flip. With each, Day hoped to unveil the inner watch works of the drink, thus ridding them of any mystery, as well as teaching people why great cocktails work, so that they might venture to create better cocktails of their own.

Day’s lofty goals may have been the key to the book’s triumph. Holly Dolce, associate publisher at Abrams, noted that the James Beard Awards tend to reward visionary approaches to food and drink writing. She compared Codex’s accomplishment to that of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, a 2018 winner by Samin Nosrat that, according to Dolce, “revolutionized how people talk about flavor and creating recipes. It’s not about food versus cocktails, it’s about books that uproot and improve upon how we actually make food and drinks.”

Hsiao-Ching Chou, the book awards committee chair, echoed this sentiment. “What sets Cocktail Codex apart is the depth of context it delivers for each recipe and for the overall evolution of the craft,” she says.

All these points taken together—the extent of Day’s deep dive, the book’s accessibility despite its scope, the impressive packaging—make Codex, in hindsight, seem less like an upset and more like a shoo-in. That conclusion, however, would be false. It represents a step forward for the genre, but not a complete reversal of fortune. Cocktail books and beverage culture, in general, will likely remain somewhat siloed from the greater culinary world for some time to come. Even Day describes the impact of his victory guardedly. “I don’t think it will put cocktail books in the same sphere of respect immediately,” he says, “but I think it will start that change.”

It’s true that if there can be one such moment, another is no longer an impossibility. After all, just 10 years ago there was no award for outstanding bar program. Codex’s win is another important reminder that all that food gets washed down by something.

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