20 September 2010

Book Review: The Bartender's Best Friend

A friend recently asked me, "How many cocktail books do you really need?" Well, I've cleared out some space in the bookshelf, so I've got room for lots more. I have some that are focused on history, some that are full of classic recipes, and some that focus on new recipes. They are arranged chronologically, alphabetically, by theme, or by ingredient. But this is the first one I've received that is a comprehensive, dictionary-style listing of over 800 recipes.

The Bartender's Best Friend: A Complete Guide to Cocktails, Martinis, and Mixed Drinks by Mardee Haidin Regan ($20, 400 pages). Mardee and her husband Gary have written several books together and separately on the subjects of cocktails and spirits. They also have an online presence and regular newsletter through their site Ardent Spirits.

The book is a very sturdy paperback--the cover is thick, and extends beyond the edges of the paper. It's entirely printed in purple ink, although in most lower light conditions it looks black. Nice full-bleed index tabs on the edge that make it quick to go to a certain letter of the alphabet, and I'm always fond of reference books that include a ribbon to mark your place.

I really like the fact that, whenever possible, the mixologist or bar that originated the cocktail is given credit. You don't get pages of history on how the martini was developed (there are other books that go into that in great depth), but it's nice to see credit given where it is due. Other features include an extensive guide to bar equipment, ingredients, and managing a cocktail party. The recipes are clear and easy to follow, without a lot of extra rambling. Again, I find those stories interesting, but the goal here is to make the recipes quick and easy to find.

This guide also features recipes for all of the goofy, obscenely named cocktails that make sorority girls scream "WOOOOO!" I'm not offended by any of the names, obviously, but they're not really the kind of drinks that interest me. If you run a bar, at some point a crazy bachelorette party is going to come in and demand these, so it's useful to have a comprehensive reference source that includes them. In the same vein, dictionaries shouldn't exclude certain words just because eight year olds like to look them up and giggle.

Whenever I review a cocktail book, I like to make one of the drinks in the book, something I've never had before but that uses ingredients that I have on hand. The choice here was staggering, but I went with something simple.

Gin & It
3 oz. Gin
½ oz. Sweet Red Vermouth

Stir in a shaker with ice, and then strain into a cocktail glass. With a 6:1 ratio, this is dominated by the gin, but it's a nice alternative to a drier martini. Although this is perhaps one of the worst names ever for a cocktail (it's going to be mistaken for a million different things, and I think many accents would simply make it sound like you were asking for "Janet"), it is a 1950s classic and has a certain charm to it. Just like the gin and white vermouth martini, the ratio has varied throughout the years and among fans. I tried another Gin & It with a straight 1:1 ratio (the darker one on the left), and it was much smoother but with a nice bitter kick on the finish.

Note: This book was received as a sample from Wiley Publishing.


fredric koeppel said...

brings up a question I have often pondered but have yet to perform actual research, and that is: How many drinks does a bartender really have to know how to make in order to fairly well cover the range?

Benito said...


I think it varies down to the individual bar and its clientele. It's why airport bars (or planes for that matter) can get away with a pretty limited selection and number of options, while a trendy hipster bar whose owner is making his own infusions in the back is probably going to require a much broader base.

Anecdotal evidence would indicate that as long as a drink is vaguely the right color and in the right kind of glass, the vast majority of customers aren't going to notice 1/2 oz. of vermouth vs. 1/4 oz.

It's always interesting to see how bars are stocked. If you see Crème de Noyaux, it's only used for one drink, the Pink Squirrel, and who orders those anymore? If you see a bottle of Galliano that's half empty and covered in dust, it means that Harvey Wallbangers were popular there at some point, because nobody uses it for anything else. It's more impressive to see a smart lineup of gins and Bourbons, for instance.


Samantha Dugan said...

Okay it has been too long since I have visited...when did you get the new look?! I will have you know that I wear a pair of Vans that have that exact pattern on them. Gonna give that Gin cocktail a spin this evening.

Benito said...


Remodeled the place late last week, got tired of the old look, felt like something fresh for the fall.

I'm sure your kicks are pretty fly, but in deference to the good folks at Vans I built this pattern from scratch. The top logo started out as blue and beige, then I twisted the hue 150% in Photoshop and liked the brick red/sky blue better. I took those and built an argyle pattern with a darker red. It all seemed to work, and it warms up the place from all the blue I had going on for so long.