One legacy of the pandemic is an increase in the number of home bartenders and amateur mixologists, with many people upping their drink-making game while bars were closed. This has led to a desire for further knowledge and expertise, creating demand for more books focusing on cocktails and their ingredients, and there continues to be an impressive selection of new ones to choose from in 2023.
Spirits and cocktail lovers have plenty of books to consider when writing their wish lists this Christmas. From those showcasing the best recipes, such as Olly Smith’s cocktail-fuelled jaunt across the globe, to others exploring a particular category, such as Gary Paul Nabhan and David Suro Piñera’s exploration of agave spirits, we’ve leafed through the latest releases to deliver our verdict on the best spirits and cocktail books for Christmas gifting – or those that will help you make the very best drinks as host during the festive season.
Nine of the best spirits and cocktail books for Christmas
Signature Cocktails by Amanda Schuster
If you like your cocktails with a garnish of trivia, this is the book for you. Every cocktail has a tale to tell and author Amanda Schuster tells them lightheartedly: not too long to be dull, not too geeky to be tedious – the right balance for an anecdote. It’s exactly what you might expect from an expert bartender and with stories like these up your sleeve, perhaps you could channel that persona while you’re mixing and stirring one of the 200 signature cocktails featured in the book.
A signature cocktail, in case you were wondering, is defined by Schuster as ‘a bespoke drink that expresses the nature of the time, person, venue, city, or country for which it was created.’ The drinks featured in this book cover a good spread over time, starting with a modern take on a Scottish porridge-based cocktail created in the 1400s, via a mulled wine-style drink mentioned by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol, through to a specially created final cocktail called the Phaidon 100 in honour of the publisher’s anniversary this year.
Though for the most part US and Europe-heavy, there are signature cocktails representing all the continents except Antarctica – serves from bars in Kenya, Lebanon, and Cambodia hold their own among the better known Singapore Slings and Negronis.
There’s lots of fun to be had with the more contemporary inventions and a useful index lends itself to spontaneity with your drinks cabinet, not only listing drinks by name and by bar but also by the base ingredients required.
However, I suspect it’s the stories that will make this book worth your while: the tale of Dick Bradsell’s creation of the Espresso Martini, how the Cosmopolitan became the iconic drink of the 1990s and just the sheer number of cocktails associated with Ernest Hemingway. The bartender patter is all here, all you need do is mix the drink to go with it.
Johanna Derry Hall
Mr Lyan’s Cocktails at Home: Good Things to Drink with Friends by Ryan Chetiyawardana
£15.79, White Lion
This is a reissue of one of my favourite cocktail books. Ryan Chetiyawardana, aka Mr Lyan, aka ‘the King of Cocktails’, is probably Britain’s most innovative and successful contemporary bartender. He’s the man behind a series of feline-named bars in London and beyond including Super Lyan, Dandelyan, Cub, Lyaness and Silver Lyan.
In each, he has pushed the boundaries of what can be done with cocktails and hospitality but always in a way that was fun, accessible and unpretentious. This book shows how you can get some of that Lyan magic at home, without fiddly recipes needing specialist equipment – everything can be achieved (even by a klutz like me behind the bar) with things you’ll already have in your kitchen. In fact, this is really a cocktail book for home cooks: it has evocative recipes like Elderflower & Chocolate Scotch with Soda, which involves an infusion of cacao nibs, Scotch whisky and elderflower liqueur; or Buck’s Fizz, which uses expressed oils from the skins of citrus fruit to take this rather hackneyed drink to a whole new level.
There are over 70 drinks, from classics like the Old Fashioned or the Manhattan, to non-alcoholic options. The publisher White Lion (yes, really) has done a great job – this is a lovely-looking book with beautiful photos. If you’re entertaining this Christmas, then look no further.
The Malt Whisky Yearbook 2024 by Ingvar Ronde
£15.59, MagDig Media
This annual release, compiled by Ingvar Ronde, is now in its 19th edition and has grown each year in both detail and personality, as the wider world of single malt whisky-making continues to expand. This near-two-decade rolling project is always impressively presented in the form of an easy-to-use guide that boasts a range of impressive features every year.
The 2024 edition kicks off with a series of essays by well-known whisky writers and historians, tackling some of the most current trends in the business, which are always a delight to read.
From there, detailed double-page spreads are laid out on all of Scotland’s established single malt distilleries, in alphabetical order, each updated annually with tasting notes from recent releases and technical information on expansions or otherwise. This journey through Scotland’s whisky-producers is peppered with interviews and insights from key stakeholders in the industry.
New distilleries are featured in a portfolio of thumbnail-style reviews, a section which grows significantly year-on-year, as does the ‘Distilleries Around The Globe’ chapter, which now details single malt producers from countries as diverse as Norway and New Zealand.
Finally, Ronde lays out the state of the single malt industry with easy-to-digest facts and figures around import/export, consumption and the major players in the single-malt sector.
The Malt Whisky Yearbook 2024 is a vital tool for any whisky-lover, showcasing the most interesting aspects of a much loved industry.
Agave Spirits: The Past, Present, and Future of Mezcals by Gary Paul Nabhan & David Suro Piñera
£22.59, WW Norton & Co.
Don’t be fooled by the title of this book – ‘mezcals’, in this sense, refers more broadly to the family of agave spirits that we do and (more importantly) don’t know. Have you heard of bacanora, chichihualco, raicilla, or turicato? Whether the answer is yes or no, ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan and restaurateur and founder of the Tequila Interchange Project David Suro Piñera are on a mission to make sure we never forget them.
Over 289 pages, these two passionate agave-heads take us through the historical, cultural, practical and ethical issues that surround the practice of distilling agaves. From its use for bedding material and clothing, to tea, weapons and even a type of chewing gum, agave has been central to the day-to-day lives of Indigenous North Americans for centuries.
It’s a dense but fascinating read, and Nabhan and Suro Piñera’s combined knowledge on the subject is undeniably forceful. It’s clear where they stand on the commoditisation of Tequilas by drinks giants, as well as the slow eradication of awareness for lesser-known, traditional agave distillates. They emotively explain how this eradication would also lead to the loss of traditional practices, sayings, harvesting skills and recipes that are central to the culture that surrounds agave.
They also cover the fascinating link between bats and agave, and the role that bartenders are playing as mediators and translators for agave spirits to the people who buy them.
At its core, between the science, the mythology and the practices around agave spirits, this book is a socio-historical record of a category that is often shrouded in misinformation and inconspicuousness. Nabhan and Suro Piñera’s book is an engaging rallying cry to ensure its future is protected.
How to Make Better Cocktails: Cocktail techniques, pro-tips and recipes by Candra
£13.75, Mitchell Beazley
The trio behind this new cocktail book (Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge, Natalia Garcia Burke and Andy Shannon) is the brains behind Candra, a platform dedicated to spreading the good word on the hows, whats and whys of making good cocktails at home. How to Make Better Cocktails is the paper manifestation of their combined knowledge and expertise, and is one of the most thorough yet entertaining recipe books I’ve seen in recent years.
The beginning of the book sets the tone, breaking down the basics of cocktail making – from building and blending, to ice, batching and the specifics of equipment – before moving into recipes that are separated into easy chapters like Aperitifs, Highballs and Spirit-forwards, which give extra space to the classics.
What I really like is the presence of some lesser-known serves – the Bicicleta, Cricket and Batanga – and the attention paid to stretch-out themes. There is a focus on mint and the numerous cocktails that incorporate it, as well as a ‘Journey through Manhattan’ that shows off the classic reworked into five variations.
It’s a seriously solid base for recipes but what really makes this book stand out from many other cocktail books is the attention to explaining the minutiae of cocktail-making: explaining how to navigate those pesky metrics and imperials; breaking down the practise of balancing drinks; the science behind dilution and the surface area of ice; storage of fresh ingredients; the controversial washline… yeah, you’ll come away with plenty of intel to show off to your mates.
The overarching angle of this book is not really the ‘how’ of making cocktails but the ‘why’. It will teach you why you make a certain cocktail a certain way, while also taking you through a step-by-step of the how. Don’t be fooled though, it’s not too serious – it’ll teach you how to make a banana dolphin garnish too.
World Cocktail Atlas by Olly Smith
Not to be confused with the highly detailed World Atlas of… series, Olly Smith’s World Cocktail Atlas draws on the author’s lightness of touch when it comes to writing on mixed drinks for home consumption.
The opening section on creating a capsule cocktail cabinet feels like a continuation from Smith’s previous title, Home Cocktail Bible, and regular readers of his work will feel at home. That’s important, as this book is not a guide to signature serves by country and continent but a look at drinks inspired by ingredients found across the globe.
Stand out cocktails include The Bronx, a twist on a Perfect Manhattan that meets a Blood and Sand, with the addition of orange juice, and Olly’s Turkish Delight cocktail, rooted in vanilla vodka and grenadine.
Photography of key drinks is scattered throughout the book, giving guidance to some of the more colourful cocktails included. On the whole, this is a solid guide to a cacophony of globally inspired cocktails, one that will slake the thirst of any armchair globetrotter.
Gin: A Tasting Course by Anthony Gladman
£18.05, Dorling Kindersley
‘This book is all about the flavour of gin,’ begins Anthony Gladman in the introduction to Gin: A Tasting Course and, as a primer, it’s comprehensive. Covering the history of gin, the science of distilling and the chemistry of flavour compounds with the diligence of a textbook, it more than succeeds in its descriptive purpose.
Gladman wants to help you become a connoisseur; to be able to describe what you’re tasting when you try a gin and then to work out what tonic to serve with it, as well as what gin cocktail it might be best suited to. It’s very comprehensive and thorough: ten full pages, for example, are given to describing the flavours associated with the most common gin botanicals, and with enumerating the many herbs and spices used for that purpose.
Though Gladman’s style is clear, absorbing and easy to read, I did find myself wondering to whom the book might be most suited, given its niche subject matter. My conclusion? Those who enjoy trying lots of different gins, who want to expand their vocabulary in describing them, and who are, perhaps, curious about dipping their toes into the waters of other spirits. Much of the information about flavour and tasting applies beyond gin, making this perhaps a more accessible step than a qualification into a world filled with tasting notes and spittoons.
For those who don’t have the time or ambition to become a connoisseur, the book still has merit. The tasting notes of around 100 gins are a handy guide, as are Gladman’s recommendations on which gin to use in a series of classic cocktails. It’s also beautifully and simply illustrated, making it both educational for those so inclined and a pleasantly thumb-able addition to a coffee table for the rest of us drink lovers.
Johanna Derry Hall
The Encyclopedia of Cocktails: The People, Bars & Drinks, with More Than 100 Recipes by Robert Simonson
£17.59, Ten Speed Press
Anyone familiar with the writing of Robert Simonson will instantly recognise the sartorial, humorous and opinionated approach the New York Times cocktail and spirits writer has taken to his book The Encyclopedia of Cocktails. As its title suggests, it’s an A-Z of some of the most prolific, important and pivotal people, spirits, cocktails, techniques, tools and bars that have had a profound and persevering impact on the industry to which Simonson has dedicated 20 or so years of his life.
Chunks of text are separated by easy-to-follow cocktail recipes and the illustrations of notable figures and premises in the industry really bring what could be quite a flat and repetitive format to life. Among some of the better-known faces (Harry Craddock, Dale DeGroff, Shingo Gokan, Ada Coleman) are ones that don’t always get airtime – my favourite being Helen Cromwell, an American ‘bawdy’ tavern owner and brothel madam born in 1886 who became a darling of the bourbon world. There are also nods to industry legends lost more recently, like Douglas Ankrah of Pornstar Martini fame.
The usual (and key) suspects are covered in Simonson’s A-Z but there are some welcome curveballs in there too and clever, informative takes on what could be seen as more pedestrian entries. There are no entries for X or Y but Simonson has cleverly covered an alphabet’s worth of ground within the confines of 300-or-so pages.
What is most clear in this book is Simonson’s love and passion for the world of bars and bartenders. It’s a beautiful celebration of an industry that has so many wonderful stories to tell. And Simonson is the perfect storyteller.
A Passion for Whisky by Ian Wisniewski
£21.79, Mitchell Beazley
Ian Wisniewski should be a name familiar to students of whisky, as his writing is a fixture on any curriculum worth its salt for the those wanting to learn more about the golden liquor. His latest book, A Passion For Whisky focuses on one location: the magical whisky-island of Islay.
Islay produces, on the whole, rich, peaty, smoked whisky that is divisive amongst dram drinkers but is a style that wins passionate fans, something reflected in the growth of distilling on the island; from five distilleries in the mid-1990s to nine, with four more currently being built. It feels like a fitting moment for Wisniewski to turn his attention to this small Hebridean isle.
The book profiles 13 open, or soon-to-open, distilleries, preceded by chapters explaining how and why Islay has become the mecca of whisky-making despite its reputation as a place of polarising flavours. This focus on social and cultural terroir sets the scene for a deep dive into the individual producers, to which Wisniewski brings colour and life, transporting the reader to the white-washed walls of the distilleries without leaving the comfort of home.
A Passion for Whisky is a must-read for anyone who has fallen in love with single malt Scotch whisky, and is the perfect postcard for the peaty spirit from this most magical of Scottish islands.