Jeff Morganthaler is one of my favorite people in the cocktail industry. This isn’t surprising, since the Morganthler is among the favorite people of most everybody in this line of work. Aside from running the bar at Clyde Common, an iconic bar in one of the world’s iconic cocktail cities, he is one of the most quoted and profiled bartenders anywhere. Jeff also wrote one of the first, and still most respected, cocktail blogs out there, and while he doesn’t update it as much as he used to, many of his posts remain standard references for professional and amateur mixers years after their publication.
Now he has written his first book, and like everything else he sets his mind to, it is a true winner. The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique is a pretty unique book in a number of ways, all of them good.
I divide cocktail books into two general types: References, and Reads. References are books filled with discrete, useful ideas that you grab when you need to refresh yourself on something specific you are working on, usually recipes. Reads are books you can relax with in a comfy patio chair while you toss back a Gin Rickey on a lazy weekend afternoon. The Bar Book is that very rare cat that is both of these.
More importantly, The Bar Book manages to break new ground in its central subject matter: technique. Morganthaler assembles an exhaustive A to Z of what it takes to actually make a great drink. The first half of the book focuses on the selection, care, and handling of the for the most part non-alcoholic ingredients that make or break most great drinks. He starts with citrus and other fruits; how to purchase, handle, and juice them to get the most, best out of them. In covering carbonation and carbonated mixers, Jeff combines some interesting historical reflection on “mixers” with detailed how-tos for things like his signature ginger beer and tonic syrup. He moves on to simple syrups, examining the different types of sugar, their flavors and textures, and how they each effect a drink. How many times do you see a recipe that calls for demerara simple, or honey syrup, with no explanation for why it was chosen? Building on that is a great chapter on more advanced syrups such as the borderline molecular mixological gomme syrup, and all manner of herb and fruit concoctions.
An author could probably do a three volume set on the production of bitters and tinctures, but the chapter here gives a clear and detailed enough outline of the basics to enable anyone with the creative culinary chops to produce anything worthwhile more than enough to go on. The chapters on measuring, dairy and eggs, and ice all seem like insanely simple subjects, but mess any of them up and your product will fail.
The twenty pages on shaking and stirring are hugely entertaining and if you disagree with the slightest detail therein… you are wrong.
There is a huge and fun section on all the sort of tools and techniques where a lot of the fun in making drinks, and watching them be made, come in. Jeff’s discussion of things like muddlers, swizzles (the real kind), and especially fire as cocktail tools is going to fascinate, whether you are a newbie or an old pro.
The final chapter is fittingly on the garnish. He combines his discussion of with some evangelization for the subject of garnish. It is true that too many bartenders, even higher end pros and crafty amateurs (like me on occasion), view the garnish as an afterthought to be omitted when one can get away with it. To this, Morganthaler replies,
Although I applaud the modernist, minimal approach in the right situation, there is a time and place for everything. And when it comes to garnishing, the time is often, and the place is in your drink.
In my liver-ruiningly comprehensive experience, good garnishes make you happy, bad garnishes make you sad, and no garnish makes you bored. No one making a drink for anyone, even themselves, should be in the business of making the recipient sad or bored.
Throughout, The Bar Book is filled with beautiful photographs that are much more than just drinkporn, but essential elements of the instruction, often filling in details that would have been very hard to otherwise describe. Jeff told me and a few of Columbus’s best at a meeting of our book club that it took eight straight 12-14 hour days to do all the pictures for this book, and that time and effort shows through. Indeed, my only real complaint with the entire book was that there weren’t more pictures in a few places. And while it is in no way a recipe book, there are a bunch of recipes throughout, each one designed and placed to illustrate an ingredient or technique or concept that was just discussed. Drinking your way through The Bar Book over the course of a couple of weeks would make an excellent final exam, a test of how well you’ve absorbed the knowledge therein.
For a hundred years, no major cocktail book has given much more than a perfunctory nod to the bedrock, essential skills, tools, and techniques a person must possess to properly construct all the marvelous recipes that are being created or rediscovered in modern days. Detailed treatment of technique in the preparation of food has always been an essential part of cookbooks and culinary texts. As cocktails gain more and more respect as a culinary art, this kind of book is well past due. What took you so long, Jeff?
Current and aspiring professionals who would like to be able to work in the high craft end of the bar industry will need virtually every piece of knowledge in The Bar Book at some point in their careers. Buying it, reading it, absorbing it, and at least making a start at proficiency with many of the skills taught in it will put you head and shoulders ahead of competing applicants. And please also understand, even if your bartending aspirations are just rocking away Saturday nights behind the stick at Applebee’s while you complete your degree, there is plenty here to help in that environment as well.
And while the Bar Book is primarily aimed at working bartenders, I think it deserves prime shelf space on the shelf of any amateur mixer who aspires to make great drinks as well.
The Bar Book is currently available from Amazon for about twenty one bucks, or thirteen in Kindle format. If I were you, I’d get it in hardcover. This is a seminal cocktail work, and is going to be a standard reference for the craft and general cocktail industry for years, and probably decades to come.