Those That Serve Them


(first published in 2012)

Ask any bartender worth his salt and they will have a favourite bar book. It might be The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (Dick Bradsell), the Savoy Cocktail Book (Paul Martin) or the Waldorf Astoria Bar Book (Paul Harrington). I myself am a fan of the 1971 Playboy Host and Bar book – but the less said about that the better. Books are knowledge and knowledge is power and be you professional or home bartender a reference manual is paramount for mixology. 

I was brought up to have a healthy respect for books and the written word. From childhood with author father to student life at Oxford I have relied on, and been entranced by, books. “You can never learn less” was drummed into me early and I see books as the physical proof of that. As I moved more into bars and out of libraries my only reading was the labels on bottles and trashy novels early in the morning when you can’t sleep. Yes I had Mr Boston’s and the Bartenders Bible but who didn’t? It was when I was interviewing Dale deGroff in 1998 and he showed me his office and some of his ‘Library’ that I caught the bug again and realised my two passions of drinks and books did mix perfectly…

Not many of you may know but I have been given the dubious title of “walking drinks encyclopaedia” by several people in my time  and it is a title I take some pride in, however undeserved it is. Part of it is due to my constant reading of books about cocktails and I thought I might take this short opportunity to talk about the role of literature and the writer in both teaching and inspiring me in what I, and what you dear reader, do.

When I started bartending over 23 years ago the job was significantly simpler to be honest and the books I could buy and read on the subject reflected that. There was no interest in the ‘old ways’ and so all the vintage books that are now so highly prized where unknown to all but the historically minded. And with so few products and cocktails available or being popular it was easier to seem an expert. But our industry has exploded and the amount of knowledge, cocktails, trends and tips that we need has grown to match.

My library has grown accordingly in that time to include now nearly 800 books. From the ancient texts like Harry Johnson and O.H. Byron to cutting edge e-books from hip cool bars in foreign cities. From obscure and technical tomes on distillation to ‘civilian’ books like the History of the Pineapple my shelves and mind groan with the mass of literature and information.

 We now have recipe books (both general and also bar specific as bartenders have become the new chefs and got published), technique books to teach about new-fangled ways, we have memoirs and advice for the novice mixer and we have books packed to the end-pages with product and brand information. So what books do I think every Modern Professional Bartender should, as my old history teacher used to  say “read, mark , learn and inwardly digest”?

  1. The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (David Embury): the most academic and intellectual book about the mechanics of creating cocktails written by an American lawyer no less. His detachment from the industry gives perspective. Considered by many to be the greatest classic text this book was very much the first time that drinks mixing was seen as a topic that merited intellectual thought and investigation leading to theory as well as practice. He looked at how his drinks were mixed and why they tasted as they did and then projected his learnings into his own shaker.
  2. The Gentleman’s Companion (Charles Baker): filled not just with great recipes obtained by CHB in his travels but also written with humour and style that makes the experiences of the drinks come to life. It is eloquent and knowledgeably written and brings out the joie de vivre and style of drinking cocktails (on a side note this is the book that everyone says I should try and copy as I am a modern day Baker)
  3. The Joy of Mixology (Gary Regan): one of the Gurus of today wrote a simple yet comprehensive book about both technique but also philosophy of bartending and service. Best described as reviewed on Amazon as “That rare, highly distinguished, distinctive and classical product that represents a benchmark within its category. A standard against which its peers can be measured. A product of extraordinary quality, scope and character which transcends price”
  4. Difford’s Guide (Simon Difford): the recipe book to end all recipe books that is updated every year and so stays current and fashionable yet with Classics aplenty. Simon Difford can be seen as the publisher of record for the London Bar Scene and this, his recipe book, is a must have snapshot of that scene.
  5. Imbibe (David Wondrich): aka the ‘Historical Oracle’ this book not only covers a biography of the father of bartending (Jerry Thomas) but also his drinks and other ancient cocktails. Perhaps the most academic of books on the list but it explains why we are all ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ and details the first Golden Age of the Bartender (we are now in the Second)
  6.  The Ultimate Bar Book (Andre Domine): a massive tome of a book that looks dull but is perhaps the most comprehensive book for product knowledge I have read for many years. Worth it. And worth reading. And more importantly worth remembering. If I had to choose a single book on this list that  would want my bartenders to learn then this would be it.
  7. The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender’s Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy (Jim Meehan): not just a great snapshot into the world of the modern American “speakeasy” and bartending renaissance but also to show how good and influential one man/bar can be. Truly aspirational as well as educational.

That’s it. Just seven must read books. Of course there are a huge amount of specialised books on spirits and liqueurs but they will go into far more depth than you will ever need to know and will never use.

And that’s part of the ‘problem’. Books are great for knowledge but bartending is not just about knowledge – it’s about people primarily. Modern Bartenders seem to think that they become ‘better bartenders’ by reading more books but they don’t – they become more educated bartenders but as we all know having your nose stuck in a book often means you miss out on other things.  That’s why I suggest only 7 books and why after you buy them when you finish reading this article you should go out and talk to people, smell the coffee and enjoy life – cos that will make you  a far better bartender than books ever will!

Owners & Managers

The Bar Manual

            It has often been said that successful catering is all about theatre, consistency and experience. This has never been so true in bartending today. The modern bartender can be compared to an actor using props (the liquids and the tools of the trade), an audience (the expectant guest), a script (the banter between drinker and server) and even a director (the bar manager or owner). But often we rely on the skill of the players and we assume that they are suitably equipped and trained. But even actors must go  through acting class and have talented directors and a great script. Thus is it with bartenders but we have it easy… all we need is a good Bar Manual.

            It is constantly surprising that bars do not have a solid manual. Where else can bartenders learn about the products that they stock, know how it is served in that bar and know in what style the owner wants it served? What about cleaning rotas, till systems and all the business end of catering. The editor of this magazine once told me she liked going to bars with no ‘stars’ or ‘celebrity bartenders’ because you weren’t disappointed by not being served by the Faces/Names and you could gauge the bar team as whole and the back of house support they got and the training they had received. Much of that will be down to the quality of the bar manual they adhere to.. so what should the ideal bar manual consist of?

            In an ideal world it would have three sections. As a chain is as only as strong as its weakest link the manual should be understandable by both the newbies and the old hand – in fact far too often we assume that the experienced bartender is also a knowledgeable one… and we all know what happens if you assume…the manual should also be updated regularly with feedback from all involved parties.

            Section one should be a basic bartending training manual. This section would cover everything from what alcohol is to the techniques used to serve it in its many wonderful guises. The mechanics and tradecraft of drinks serving; the health and safety of food and drink handling; the legal aspects of the job and the venue I which it is served. Not only how a cocktail is shaken but why and the do’s and don’ts of those techniques. This can be updated as new techniques become more relevant and important (muddling has become an integral part of bartending where 15 years ago it hardly featured and ‘throwing’ drinks may be the next must know skill…) This section will mean that server becomes a craftsman with a detailed knowledge of the physical skills and necessary responsible requirements of their job. It should also outline every team member’s role in the smooth running of the bar and their individual responsibilities.

            The second section should be a product knowledge guide to provide as much knowledge about the actual bottles that the bartender is serving to allow them to ‘sell them’. The Sauce Guides are a wonderful and much-to-be-admired but to be frank the detailed tasting notes about various Poteens or £500-a-bottle tequilas are near-as-dammit useless to most readers. Your manual should have in depth knowledge about the products you sell and the questions you would ask the guest when they ask for it or the variety of interesting was to serve it to the un-initiated. Can I serve it neat? Frozen? On the rocks? With a mixer? In a Classic Cocktail? In a signature drink? For the higher levels you may have a tasting matrix of does it go with certain still mixers or certain carbonates but those long and detailed tasting notes never get repeated and merely clog up the brain. Be specific, be relevant and be concise.

            The first two parts of the manual can pretty much be copied from any one of the plethora of drinks magazines or bartending books on the market today with judicious editing. Section three you will have to write yourself. This is the unit specific section. From the mundane (what times shifts start, where the rubbish goes and what you are expected to wear) to the service style (what you garnish your cokes and diet cokes with and how to serve absinthe… or even why you don’t serve absinthe) to the subtle nuances that is behind the owner’s vision for their bar and operation. This will have your recipes for both the must know drinks that you may not have on your list but every bartender should know how to make to your specifications and also all your new and funky drinks. Every drink must be the same regardless of the bartender who makes it and this can only be accomplished if the owner or bar manager writes it down in stone. As with acting ad-libbing or ‘improv’ is great if done well but appalling if done badly.   

            Section three can also be where the experience of the owner or bar manager can be expounded on. The purpose of, and lines to use while, upselling; greetings and farewells and ways to start conversations to make the customer start feeling like a guest; methods to learn and remember drinks and the ‘fluffy’ side of catering all live in this section. As more and more bars and restaurants open so the business side of an operation increases in importance. As the typical guest becomes more discerning and more educated so the role and importance of one’s staff increases. A good bar manual will engender consistency, set standards and make sure that every staff member has the tools to treat every guest as tho’ the writer/owner is doing it themselves…