Frank Meier, a bartender who once worked at the Ritz Bar in Paris, said of cocktails, “More and more they are becoming popular … but few have acquired the art of mixing a perfect drink … Almost any of the ingredients of which cocktails are composed might better be consumed ‘straight’ rather than just carelessly poured together.”
That was in 1936, when Meier wrote The Artistry of Mixing Drinks. But his words could just as well have come from any of today’s growing number of bartenders who are schooling themselves — and their guests — in vintage cocktail recipes and old-school drink-mixing techniques that call for precision and balance.
These men and women have learned, for example, how to make a perfect Julep, Fizz or Smash, or why certain drinks should be shaken and others should be stirred. They know these things in part by collecting out-of-print bartending manuals written between the 1860s and the 1940s — books that in recent years have become high-priced auction items as interest in cocktails has soared.
Classic Go-to Tomes
The Artistry of Mixing Drinks is a favorite of mixologist Jim Meehan, the mind behind the speakeasy-inspired bar PDT (Please Don’t Tell) in lower Manhattan. Like many serious mixologists, he says he has a “pretty amazing collection of old cocktail and bar manuals.”
Meehan calls Meier’s book “rare and beautiful. After losing an eBay auction for it, I searched for over a year until one day it turned up on Bookfinder.com in an antique bookstore in France. I got it for 50 euros (about $70) — a fraction of what it is worth to me.
“I think the most I ever paid (for a cocktail book) was $750 for The Hoffman House Bartender’s Guide on eBay. There are only a few known copies left in the world,” he adds.
One of the cocktail books most cited by classics-minded bartenders is The Gentleman’s Companion, Vol. II (1939) by Charles Baker. The book is essentially a series of cocktail recipes wrapped in arch commentary, which chronicle Baker’s world travels as a bon vivant. Sample recipe intro: “A Farewell to Hemingway, being a sort of Kirsch Collins we invented on the night we saw Hemingway and bullfighter Sidney Franklin off on the plane for New York and loyalist Spain.”
Jeffrey Morgenthaler, a noted mixologist who writes a bartending blog (www.jeffreymorgenthaler.com), says that Baker’s The Gentleman’s Companion “is one of the vintage cocktail books I always seem to turn to when I’m doing research or looking for inspiration. I sort of stumbled upon it about 10 years ago at a bookstore and got it for a song. I immediately fell in love with not only the exotic recipes but also with Baker’s prose and wit.”
Reissues at the Ready
Baker’s book was one of the first vintage cocktail books to be widely re-released; re-appearing in 1992 under a new title, Jigger, Beaker and Glass: Drinking Around the World. Now, other publishers are serving the passionate niche market for such books by re-printing sought-after titles and selling them at affordable prices.
Mud Puddle Books (www.mudpuddlebooks.com) has re-printed six bar and cocktail books, which sell for $29.95 each, and is set to add several more to its catalog in the coming year. Company president Greg Boehm culled what he and some noted cocktail authorities, including David Wondrich and Ted Haigh, consider the gems from his collection of more than 1,200 pre-1940 cocktail and bar books.
Not surprisingly, many of Boehm’s customers are, as he puts it, “a who’s who of bartenders. Being in the bar business is a respected profession again, as it was when these books were originally published.”
In turn, those bartenders — especially those new to the profession and therefore less likely to “stumble upon” an early 20th century cocktail book “for a song” — are thrilled about the new availability of these historic tomes.
“I currently have two titles from Mud Puddle and am so happy with what they’ve done,” says Alexander Day, bartender at the New York cocktail den Death + Co. “A big problem with vintage books is that you can’t manhandle them. To have something of modern-build quality is a huge asset.”
Mud Puddle recently re-published a book that is particularly in demand among modern mixologists: David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948). Misty Kalkofen, bar manager at Green Street in Cambridge, Mass. considers herself lucky to own one of the original editions of Embury’s book, which she calls, “a full package for a bartender. Where earlier manuals, such as the Savoy Cocktail Book, were recipe-driven, this was text-driven,” she says. “(Embury) still managed to fit in a wealth of recipe information, but there were also chapters on glassware, ingredients and the basics on how to make a good quality cocktail.”
Another re-issuer of vintage drink books now causing a stir is EUVS (Exposition Universelle des Vins et Spiritueux), a wine and spirits museum in southern France built by spirits magnate Paul Ricard. EUVS offers museum-owned titles as free, downloadable PDFs on its English-language website (www.euvs.org/Library.html) and also sells selected facsimile editions on Amazon.com. Titles include Meier’s The Artistry of Mixing Drinks and The Café Royal Cocktail Book (1937), which PDT’s Meehan aptly describes as “one of the most useful, rare and expensive recipe books there is.”
Useful, maybe. But rare and expensive no longer. NCB