The best books on America’s cocktail culture

Cecelia Tichi Author Of Gilded Age Cocktails: History, Lore, and Recipes from America's Golden Age
By Cecelia Tichi

The Books I Picked & Why

Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to "Professor" Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar

By David Wondrich

Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to "Professor" Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar

Why this book?

IMBIBE! earns its all-caps title and exclamation point because it is the undisputed “bible” of cocktail books. As a longtime historical researcher, I marveled at Wondrich’s deep dive into the backstory of innumerable drinks, bars, and bartenders, together with their histories, eccentricities, and achievements. Along the way, I found Wondrich to be a master librarian of the bar books compiled and published from the late 1700s colonial days to recent times. IMBIBE! includes author-tested recipes, situates the drinks in their historical moments, and profiles marquee mixologists, especially the Founding Father of cocktail culture, “Professor” Jerry Thomas (b.1830), whose How to Mix Drinks launched the Golden Age of Cocktails. Wondrich’s graceful prose glides with pleasing flair, rather like a fine cocktail. 


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And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails

By Wayne Curtis

And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails

Why this book?

Curtis reaches to bestselling author Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) for the song identified with sailors and pirates:

Fifteen men on the dead man's chest—
...Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest—
...Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

Whiskey and gin are sidelined as rum takes first prize in this chronicle of Caribbean and South Seas pirates and privateers, sugar barons, and rum drinks from grog to the daiquiri and Cuba Libre (my Key West favorite).

This ten-cocktail capsule of New World history reshuffles history classroom categories to join recent accounts of turbulent times seen through commodities (Bananas, Cod, Salt), but a Bottle of Rum is the most fun, by far!


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Straight Up or on the Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail

By William Grimes

Straight Up or on the Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail

Why this book?

Order a Martini (straight up, or with ice chiming against the glass), then settle with this charming book and the “quintessential cocktail” that merits its own chapter in the imbiber’s US history tour. Grimes wears learning lightly while pointing out the cultural vagaries over four centuries of pleasurable distillation, brewing, and fermentation. Who knew the American Revolution was first fomented in 1700s village taverns? Or that the familiar Gilded Age “Bronx” (named by the Waldorf-Astoria’s master mixologist) was the very first cocktail to use fruit juice?

Author Grimes chides the 1960s Yuppies (a.k.a. young urban professionals) for purist insistence on “imported beer” and “the rarest of single-malt Scotches,” but concludes the country and the cocktail survived and are all the better for it. He gets no argument from me!


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Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas

By Brad Thomas Parsons, Ed Anderson

Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas

Why this book?

Whiskeys rule, but the modern bar dare not lack a battery of bitters that extend beyond from the familiar Angostura and Peychaud’s. By the “dash,” cocktails demand bitters which, all too often, appear to be an afterthought. (Yet my New Orleans-born Sazerac cocktail would taste “off” without Peychaud’s and my favorite Old Fashioned unthinkable without two dashes of time-honored Angostura.)

Bitters inducts us into the realm of these botanical “drugs” distilled from flowers, spices, citrus peels, tree bark—all originally dispensed in apothecary shops as cures for digestive woes, stomach troubles, even gout. By the Gilded Age, bitters transited to the bar under brands sounding sketchy (e.g. Flint’s Quaker Bitters), but Bitters opens a new botanical wonderland for my armchair imagining, and for others’ venturesome do-it-yourself distillation. Key Lime Bitters, anyone?


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The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book

By A. S. Crockett

The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book

Why this book?

Double duty as a bar book and memoir makes Crockett’s chronicle my must for skillfully conjuring two historical moments: the Golden Age of Cocktails (a.k.a. the Gilded Age) and the dark era of Prohibition. Anxious that memories of delectable cocktails and their recipes had been buried in the crypt of Prohibition’s thirteen years (1920-1933), journalist Crockett hastened to record and revive the drinks. His history is spot-on, and his fury at the nation’s failed “Noble Experiment” of Prohibition fuels this survivor’s fine wordsmithing.


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