It was the early 1990s and I’d finagled a bartending gig in New Orleans under something close to false pretenses (my experience was questionable). And before me, an ultra-tan, blond tourist—her big hair teased to extreme heights—was asking for a Bay Breeze. My mind raced. Is it the Bay Breeze that has pineapple? Or is it the Sea Breeze?
At that point I did what befuddled bartenders have been doing for more than 100 years—I reached behind me and surreptitiously consulted a dog-eared, booze-soaked bar book.
Twenty-odd years on, bartenders questioning a cocktail recipe or looking to expand their drink-mixing repertoire are as likely to reach for a smartphone as something made of paper. But whether it’s a dusty tome or an interactive digital tool, bar books—comprehensive manuals as well as those of the urbane cocktail recipe—have, since the 1860s, allowed bartenders to save face and helped to elevate once obscure drinks to the cocktail pantheon.
The progenitor of the bar book was written amidst the tumult of America’s Civil War in 1862 by the country’s first celebrity bartender, “Professor” Jerry Thomas. His book was variously titled The Bon-Vivant’s Companion, How to Mix Drinks and The Bar-Tender’s Guide. Thomas (1830-1885), a showman with a penchant for diamond-studded accoutrements, had plied his craft across the United States before writing the book that changed the bar industry.
From there, two basic categories of bar book developed. The first followed Thomas’s blueprint, providing drink recipes and information on barware and basic mixology techniques, as well as witty aphorisms and illustration. Examples of these include Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book from 1930 and David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks from 1948.
[The internet] fails to give us the snapshot in time that so many of these old cocktail books did. This is precisely why Meehan says he wrote The PDT Cocktail Book. He wanted to present a modern moment in cocktails, pop illustrations and all, with the hopes that it would age well and that future generations might look back and get a clear sense of what was happening during this particularly important period.
Greg Boehm, an avid bar book and manual collector whose companies Mud Puddle Books and Cocktail Kingdom reprint rare bar books, has amassed a collection of more than 2,400 books over the past 14 years. As a close study of the subject, Boehm sees each object as a lens into a specific moment in history.
The second category of bar book is the much rarer bar manual, which, in addition to recipes, offers pithy and direct instruction for hospitality and the business of the bar. One of the earliest of these was Harry Johnson’s Bartenders’ Manual first published in 1882, and revised by the author in 1900.
Jim Meehan, founder of East Village cocktail bar PDT and author of The PDT Cocktail Book, says Johnson’s guide is “much more in-depth than other books. It’s more exhaustive as far as looking at good procedures and practices to use to run a bar.”
Your average cocktail recipe book—back then or now—won’t give advice on the best location for an establishment and what kind of lease to get or how to train a young employee in counting change. Rather, they instruct in the art of serving and managing. Johnson’s advice from more than 100 years ago suggested to “treat the boy strictly, teaching him manners and see that he does not become impudent to you or to customers.” That guidance probably still holds true when hiring staff, or at least in regards to tolerating impudence.
Today, the internet has seemingly made it easier to find recipes—and apps can handily demonstrate a bar technique like flaming an orange peel—but the old fashioned bar book often provides the gold standard for a classic recipe as the internet is rife with subpar variations. A Google search for “Sidecar cocktail recipe” returns 481,000 hits with a plethora of variations on this classic. And that’s a cocktail with just three basic ingredients. It’s hard for the average reader to know which of these is true to the original.
“The internet has made things much more difficult in a lot of ways,” says Boehm. “If you look up a cocktail recipe the chances of getting it right are pretty slim.”
Meehan admits that app format is ideal for how-to cocktail books since “teaching someone how to flame a twist or how to muddle is so much easier to explain in video than in writing,” and can be easily edited and updated “unlike my book.”
But for this reason it fails to give us the snapshot in time that so many of these old cocktail books did. This is precisely why Meehan says he wrote The PDT Cocktail Book. He wanted to present a modern moment in cocktails, pop illustrations and all, with the hopes that it would age well and that future generations might look back and get a clear sense of what was happening during this particularly important period.
“I hope people look at it more as a history book than a how-to book,” he says.
Tastes have surely changed since Jerry Thomas’s day, as well as Harry Craddock’s and David Embury’s. Back then, Martinis were traditionally served with equal measures of gin and vermouth, but today the standard has evolved to extremely dry proportions favoring a glass of mostly gin. Books like The Savoy or The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks offer a blueprint for the classics we still drink with the ingredients remaining mostly constant while the structure bends to the preferences of the current era.
Though the web is immediate and vast, it fails to provide this glimpse into the moment or era at hand. The majority of those 481,000 Sidecar recipes were likely not accompanied by anecdotal instruction. With immediacy of a mouse scroll and a key word, a sense of place and time—so vivid in the pages of a dog-eared, booze-soaked book—is quite quickly lost. The hope is that the booze-soaked bar book remains valued enough that, amidst a very digital world, the current keepers of cocktail culture strive to create similar monuments to our era of bartending.