A book review of “The Cocktail Dictionary”
by Miquel Hudin | 14-09-2020
Lord knows we’re not suffering from a short supply of cocktail books these days. While “The Savoy Cocktail Book” from forever and ago was one of the main references in this field, we’re now amidst a bounty of new titles such as: “The Art of Mixology”, “The Curious Bartender”, “Liquid Intelligence”, “The PDT Cocktail Book”, and countless others. Oh, and then there are all the books on individual ingredients such as Bitters or specific spirits such as Bourbon, Whiskey, Gin, etc. Christ, there was even a book only about the Aperol Spritz. What an alcoholic age we live in!
Given this, it’s interesting to see that publisher Mitchell Beazley brought on acclaimed, award-winning drinks writer, Henry Jeffreys to do something quite a bit different in that, they went back to the basics to give us, “The Cocktail Dictionary“.
At university we had a ‘cocktail society’ known as ‘coc soc’. Events would take place once a month at the worst nightclub in town and consist of black bins filled with cheap wine, vodka and fruit juice and sold for 25p a cup. Revellers would be dragged out unconscious.
This is from the introduction, which you can read in its entirety here and it sums up what I’ve thoroughly enjoyed about Henry’s writing for quite some time. There’s dry humor, but also a balance of mood-setting prose and neither of them overwhelms the other, keeping the text light, surgical, and always telling an engaging story.
And it’s clear this is why the publisher brought him on board to write the text (although not the recipes which are number more than 100, but are reproductions of the classics) and then pair up attractive illustrations by George Wyesol. Everything is then wrapped up in a clean, elegant cover design that makes you not only want to have the book on your shelf, but also out on your home bar (sure, a bit of little cross selling there), open to a specific page for when guests arrive and you want to “suggest” a cocktail. But at the same time, it’s not coffee-table sized and is in an easy-to-handle, non-floppy format with pages that actually lie flat while you’re mixing things. Oh, it’s also hardbound.
Short of Henry’s introduction, there isn’t some grand “History of the Cocktail” chapter. This is after all a dictionary. What history lessons there are appear with each cocktail where Henry has managed to make the descriptions have an individual kind of “stickiness”, pulling upon anecdotes, both personal and historical to make each one unique. I’ve read other books of this nature, whether for cocktails or wineries in a region where it can get quite repetitive after the fifth one. In sitting down to read this book, I thought I’d just scan through a couple of them for this review, but ended up reading through the whole book and learning things I didn’t know before such as that the inventor of the “Monkey Gland”, also invented the “Boulevardier”.
While there’s a substantial depth of content to the book, at no point does it geek out or bog down keeping it friendly for both cocktail novices and regular imbibers. Henry manages to keep it lighthearted and interesting with endless conversation starters such as the fact you can use Byrrh vermouth in place of Dubonnet. Something useful for someone like me who lives near to where Byrrh is produced and enjoys having it around the house, while Dubonnet, not so much.
I would say that I only have one mild nitpick which is that I’m not too keen on ingredients being mixed in alphabetically with the cocktail names. I realize that it’s meant to be a reference but it seems like a cocktail listing and then “everything else” would have been quicker to flip through. This is of course, but a quibble. The index does do a nice job of breaking things down and have a header like “Bourbon” with related cocktails under it.
Note that you aren’t going to find some redefinition of advant garde cocktail making in this text, but there’s really nothing wrong with that as it lays out scads of classic recipes in a format that’s easy to use and, thanks to Henry’s skill, very approachable. You’ll probably even learn a couple of new recipes, even if you smartassedly thought you knew most of them. For example, both the “Opera” and the “Harvard” were not on my radar.
If you want a gift for someone who’s even just a little bit into cocktails, this is most definitely the one to give. Or maybe you’re just starting out and want to know more or are taking an exam where cocktails are part of the study? Well, this is most definitely your book as well. And, if you enjoy reading it, I recommend checking out Henry’s website or his day job at Master of Malt as well.
Review copy provided by the publisher
Please also see the Complete List of Wine Book Reviews