Cocktail History 101

Congratulations to the group on devising the reading list for a graduate course on cocktail history. What might be the core volumes that would apply to, say, Cocktail History 101, required of all freshmen? What are the foundational books?

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My opinion is that the older material we’ve been discussing here is problematic to interpret until you understand quite a bit, already. Also, few of these actually concern history; rather, most are artifacts.

So for the not-so-casual English reader, as of this moment, I would direct them to Imbibe 2nd Edition, Punch, Potions of the Caribbean and A Proper Drink first. When the Oxford Companion finally shows up, that’s going to contain a lot of new material.

I’d love to hear what @AudreySaunders and @RobertHess think about this from the professional training perspective, particularly since they seem to be setting up a school.


One of the values of, for example, @Splificator’s works is that he guides you through the primary source texts. But what about those primary sources? Are there primary sources that should be read alongside the modern interpretations, or are they just too problematic for neophytes?

I’ve always believed that nothing inspires a curious neophyte more than engaging with a primary text. You really feel like you’re coming to grips with the past. Of course, you need some aids in interpreting it, but it’s still better than relying entirely on someone else’s interpretation.

For a 101 course, I might suggest something like this:

Jerry Thomas 1876
William Schmidt, 1891
Hugo Ensslin, 1917
Robert Vermiere, 1922
Harry Craddock, 1930
Floridita, 1939
Charles Baker, 1946
David Embury, 1948

I’m sure I’m missing something important, but it’s a start.


Since this is a 101 course, would it be off-topic to include books focused on general craft and technique, rather than recipes? I’m thinking something like Morgenthaler’s Bar Book, which I’ve personally found helpful.

For “Cocktail History 101” recommendations, obviously, as has already been stated, “Imbibe!” is top of the list. To the point of telling someone to simply read that first, then come back for the next salvo. It would provide the reader with a great grounding in the birth of the cocktail and the various bits of drama surrounding it.

A problem sometimes with starting too quickly with the “source” material, is that without having guidance which has the benefit of historical reflection, the information in the source material may not be apparent. Take Jerry Thomas for instance… simply reading his recipes for a cocktail (from a “101” mindset) you would simply be struck by the low number of cocktail it lists. You wouldn’t have the understanding that back then a cocktail was literally “spirits, sugar, water, bitters”, so being able to expand things all the way out to 10 was actually quite an accomplishment. Imbibe! does a great job at reprinting the specific source material in question, so this helps to make Imbibe! a one-stop-shop. Granted… once curiosity has been piqued by Imbibe!, getting access to the “historical records” is hopefully the obvious next step.

I might also similarly recommend the two volumes of “Mixologist” that MOTAC published. They are still available on Amazon, and contain curated essays which reflect upon specific (mostly) historical topics and can provide some well-targeted insights.

And frankly the historical reprints from Cocktail Kingdom are also a good direction to go, since they were specifically chosen for their importance and appeal.



For what it’s worth, Yale conducted a class this semester called “Drink History: The Ethics & Business of Cocktails.” The syllabus included:

Berry, Jeff. Sippin’ Safari
Boothby, William. American Bartender
Cate, Martin. Smuggler’s Cove
Curtis, Wayne. And a Bottle of Rum
Goldfarb, Aaron. collected articles
Standage, Tom. History of the World in 6 Glasses.
Simonson, Robert. A Proper Drink
Barr, Andrew. Drink: A Social History of America.
DeGroff, Dale. The Craft of the Cocktail.
Embury, David. The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.
Gjeten, Tom. Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba.
Petraske, Sasha. Regarding Cocktails
Pogue, Dennis J. Founding Spirits
Van Eycken, Stefan. Whisky Rising
Wondrich, David. Punch

I believe additional text were added during the run of the class.

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From my part, it’s very much like asking a culinary instructor for a history lesson. Bartenders come to me because they want to learn how to mix, so when I’m training, it’s every bit that…purely technical data with the goal of getting someone up and running for real-time service. What I do is very much like going to culinary school in that aspect-- if you apply at CIA for an associate degree, you’re not going to get any culinary history in their 101 curriculum. What I am teach is rarely historical.

That said, Ben makes an excellent point in wanting to establish what the particular goal is for an individual, and how that distinction gets defined here. It is important to keep in mind that for some it’s going to be historical, and others the end goal is purely mixological. I think that one would also want to further distinguish between aficionados and professionals.

If I were pressed for a short list while on the elevator at The Monteleone, I’d offer:

Fine Art of Mixing Drinks
Craft of the Cocktail
The Joy of Mixology
Sippin Safari
Gentleman’s Companion (for levity, and the lightness of being)

I also like @RobertHess’s suggestions of Mixologist- Volumes 1 & 2. They are good references for beginners looking for a general overview.


Lots of interesting food for thought here. I think there’s a key difference between a course with an instructor and a self-guided one. Different scenarios.

  • an actual, focused cocktail history class (e.g., taught by @splificator)
  • history introduced in-line with vocational training (e.g., via @AudreySaunders and @RobertHess)
  • self-guided study (digging in)
  • self-guided neophyte introduction (getting feet wet)

That lineup can be potentially messed with. For example, an on-line course could bridge multiple scenarios. (Nothing is better than a live-in-person class, but that doesn’t scale.)