image by Jeffrey Beall
Ten years ago, the first modern books with craft cocktails were just hitting the shelves. Finding a great recipe was as simple as opening one of those books. Today, the database of possible cocktail recipes has swollen to include books, forums, blogs, and any number of other sources. Below are a few tricks for finding the diamonds in the rough.
First, figure out what you like
So you have a few bottles and you’re thinking about buying a few more so you can mix a larger variety of cocktails at home. Before you do anything else, figure out what you like so you don’t waste money on bottles you’ll never use.
The 9-Step Plan to Booze-Buying Success
(think of it like AA in reverse):
- Generate a list of well-reviewed restaurants in your city. Use the local newspaper, Yelp, or some other source. Hotel concierges can be a wealth of knowledge.
- Filter your list to include only those establishments that have a bar seating area.
- Grab a friend or two, and head to the bar between Tuesday and Thursday. Bartenders are more likely to have a conversation with you on these slower days when they’re not swamped. Many places are closed Mondays.
- Talk to the bartender about your likes and dislikes. Be specific, if possible. “I love the smell of caramel” works much better than “I like sugar.”
- Order a few drinks between your group and have a mini tasting party.
- Pick out one or two of your favorites and ask the bartender for the recipe. Most bartenders are really nice and are happy to share. If they won’t or can’t, ask for the recipe of a “classic cocktail” similar to the drink you liked. That should be easy to agree to.
- Look up the base spirit of your drink(s) of choice at Chris Null’s liquor review site drinkhacker; choose a few highly-rated choices within your budget.
- Visit your local spirits vendor. Try not to drop $300 in one go.
- Mix a drink using the recipe you got from the bartender. Taste, and take notes. Try varying the ingredients slightly one way or another.
- Feel free to visit a cocktails-focused bar rather than a restaurant if you prefer. I recommend starting off with a restaurant bar because (1) you have the option to order food (a good choice when doing a multi-drink tasting), (2) you’re more likely to get a seat at the bar, and (3) you’re more likely to be able to talk to the same bartender over the course of multiple drinks.
- For even more resources, I highly recommend the blog 12 Bottle Bar for a huge variety of classic cocktails using only 12 bottles of booze, and About.com cocktails for great no-nonsense guides to getting started, from glassware types to party drinks.
How to use cocktail menus
Let me first quote the advice of my friend John Rutherford on how NOT to waste money buying alcohol:
“Above all, a bar should be stocked drink by drink. Find a cocktail you like enough to make it regularly at home, then get the Cointreau or Benedictine or rum or even absinthe necessary to make it. Put aside some money each month to get a new bottle to expand your repertoire. For instance, Steven, with his penchant for Last Words and variants thereon, might consider splurging on some Chartreuse and Maraschino liqueur. And then those drinks will cost $3 at home instead of $12 at the bar.”
When I started getting interested in craft cocktails, I failed to take John’s advice. Instead of choosing one or two drinks and buying only the bottles needed to create them, I resolved to taste every craft cocktail I could find. I downloaded the Anvil 100 List, or Anvil’s “list of 100 cocktails you must try before you die,” and started mixing. Anvil’s list is actually the bar’s menu and while it served as a great way to taste through a wide range of classic cocktails, it’s probably a little overkill for most people.
Cocktail menus that describe a drink and discuss its history and flavor are most useful. Some standouts off the top of my head include the menus from 1806 in Melbourne, Australia and Dead Rabbit, NYC, NY. Both their menus can be purchased at the respective bars.
Of course, not everyone lives in New York or Melbourne. For a list of curated cocktail menus, see Camper English’s Alcademics blog.
Cocktail book classics, old and new
The Old: If you’re looking to get serious about cocktail archaeology, start with Imbibe! by David Wondrich and Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails by Ted Haigh. Both books are available for preview through Google books. For an expansive list of vintage cocktail books, ordered by publication date, check out Vintage Cocktail Books. A selection of some of those books are available free as PDFs through the website Golden Age Bartending. Stephen Shellenberger also maintains an ongoing project to share topical books about alcohol on his blog Boston Apothecary.
Modern Classics: Below are two lists of curated cocktail recipe books. The first list of titles are all the work of Gary Regan, a dude who was making craft cocktails before most modern bartenders were born. The latter three of those are Regan’s attempt to curate the recipes of the best bartenders working when the books were written.
The next list of books show how the same craft drink can be made in different ways. Speakeasy and PDT list the most classic cocktails while the relatively recent (and still not widely available in the U.S.) Drinks by Tony Conigliaro focuses on advanced techniques.
Convert books into searchable references
Cut the binding; scan the book. Some books are worth more to me as searchable pdf’s than as paper and ink. For example: Gary Regan’s Joy of Mixology is black and white, has few pictures, and contains pages of landscape-oriented charts.
The process is actually surprisingly simple:
- Take the books to a place that does printing services, like most office supply stores.
- Cutting a book binding costs something like $1/book.
- Scan the pages in using a home scanner. I use the Canon P-150.
- Run optical character recognition (OCR) on the resulting pdf’s. I use Adobe Acrobat, recognize text, ClearScan at 600 dpi.
- If you don’t have the right equipment or software, consider using a service like 1dollarscan.com, which charges $1/100 pages of a book.
At least digitize the index—no cutting required! If you can’t bring yourself to cut a book binding or you’re faced with a book that’s larger than a standard scanner can handle, then at least digitize the index or table of contents. I did this with my copy of Modernist Cuisine. You’ll need a decent camera, a tripod, good lighting, a cardboard box, duct tape, and a piece of plexiglass. After you take pictures of the index pages, run the jpg’s through the program scantailor, then OCR the text. There’s tons more information on this process over at the DIY Bookscanner project.
I keep a text document in Evernote with the text of the indexes of all the cocktail books that I own. Eat Your Books is a commercial website that does the same thing: it catalogs the recipe indexes of all kinds of cookbooks and allows you search them all at once, for a small monthly fee. Many cocktail books are slowly being added.
I have Tequila and Chartreuse—what can I make?
Filter the web. I am used to instant gratification. If I can’t find a decent recipe in less than three minutes, I’m as likely as not to just start pouring shots. Let’s assume you want to make something with Chartreuse and Tequila using only recipes found on gazregan.com. Here’s the search syntax you’d use for Google:
site:gazregan.com amaretto and tequila
With this search you’d discover the “Foreword” by Nick Caputo, a last-word-inspired drink calling for tequila, crème de pêche, lime juice, and green charteuse.
site:alcademics.com OR site:kindredcocktails.com gin and mint -lemon
With that search, you’d find the “Gin-Gin Mule.”
Maybe you don’t care about the site and just need to use specific ingredients. Try:
Gin (lime OR lemon)
These simple search techniques also work on Google Books and within many blogs. For example, it’s easier to search the recipes on Cocktail Virgin Slut using blogspot’s built-in search engine than with the main Google search engine.
How do I find the great cocktail blogs? There are simply too many to list here and they are constantly changing. I try to keep a curated, wikified list. For another curated list, see Ted Haigh’s recommendations in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. My personal go-to sites for recipes are Fred Yarm’s Cocktail Virgin Slut and Kindred Cocktails. Also check out the forums at eGullet and Chanticleer Society.
Here’s another approach: to find the latest and greatest blogs, try searching for the blogs that link to the ones you already like. For example, the below search will return only blogs that reference Cooking Issues and also mention cocktails in the text:
link:cookingissues.com cocktails blog
Using this search, you might discover betacockails.com—a blog that’s most certainly worth your visit.
Final thought: a picture’s worth a thousand words.
Some great recipes can be found at food blogs and other non-cocktail-centric websites. To quickly find recipes from sites like these, simply search for a cocktail recipe or ingredient on Google images. Pictures from retailers and distributors will be plain-looking product placement shots. Scan for the images with interesting, personal backgrounds (like fruit, an accompanying dish, or someone’s living room). These are most likely the work of talented food bloggers with a taste for good cocktails.
Here’s an example. I searched for “reposado tequila lime” and got this:
Out of these images, here are the ones that immediately caught my eye:
Most of the text in this post is excerpted from my book, Craft Cocktails at Home.
What tricks do you use to find the exact cocktail recipe you need?