Welcome back to Book Club, a monthly column in which Eater contributor Sonja Groset talks to all manner of food professionals about their cookbook collections.
Bartender Jamie Boudreau, proprietor of Canon, has been collecting cocktail books for more than ten years. Eater chatted with him recently about his favorite books—including the ones he thinks every cocktail enthusiast needs—and plans for a Canon cocktail app.
What are some of your oldest cocktail books?
There are a lot of first edition titles from the 1800s to pre-Prohibition. I have a first edition of Jerry Thomas’ Bartender’s Guide from 1862, that is the oldest. I used to buy a lot of books on eBay, but there was a guy out of Austria, and a guy in Germany that snatched up a lot of those old books. I lost a bid up to almost $2,000 one time—at the last second one of these guys outbid me!
Are there any favorite books you finally got ahold of, or some you’d like to see reprinted?
My holy grail for the longest time was Harry Johnson’s Bartenders Manual (incidentally, the bar at Canon is wrapped with reproduced pages of the book). That’s the title I was losing to bids for thousands of dollars. It was my white whale for a long time. A lot of classic books are now being reprinted by Greg Boehm, who owns Cocktail Kingdom. He also sells great bar tools. Anyone higher up in this industry gets their stuff from him.
What do you recommend for people starting in the industry, or a very enthusiastic home bartender?
There’s a lot of books I’d recommend, but a lot depends on what kind do bartender you want to be. If you’re at all interested in the classics, Harry Johnson of course, and Dave Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. For entertainment value, Charles H. Baker—all the recipes come with a little story. The Flavor Bible for flavor combinations and ideas. I have lot of cookbooks as well, you can get a lot of inspiration from those too.When I first started out, I got a lot of my inspiration from books on soup and pastry. That was before I even started collecting cocktail books.
What about some of the newer cocktail books—do you have any favorites?
For me, I like books that push the envelope and do extremes. Tristan Stephenson has a book called The Curious Bartender that is great.Drinks by Tony Conigliaro is good too. Also What to Drink with What You Eat is by the same people as The Flavor Bible.
How about books that are more narrative, or tell more of a story?
I have a cool book from the late 1800s called Champagne Days in San Francisco by Evelyn Wells. Anything by David Wondrich is always amazing, like his books Punch or Imbibe. All great reads—more stories than recipe after recipe.
Do you have any favorite apps or recommended apps?
I enjoy an app called Bartender that Milk & Honey put out. My favorite is no longer downloadable, but we’re working on bringing it back to life. It probably won’t be out for another year or so. We’re taking this app I really liked called Cocktails Plus, it was an app based on all the good, old cocktail books, and it would compare recipes as well. It was all that, plus some modern cocktails. So, we’re going to resurrect that with all the stuff from the old books, and then some, plus cocktails from Canon.
What about photography, or illustrations in books?
Most of the new books that have great photography tend to be light on content. I compare them to waterfront restaurants: Great view, but the food is lacking. I think in some books, the photography is making up for what the book may be lacking in content. That said, some are better than others. There were a lot of illustrations in older books. The Bottoms Upbooks by Ted Saucier are beautiful—females and cocktails! Each illustration relates to the cocktail on the opposite page. There were two different printings a decade or so apart, using two different artists. Beautiful.
Do you collect anything else besides cocktail books?
You mean, besides whiskey? (Canon has the largest collection of American Whiskey in the U.S., if not North America). I have about 1,000 cocktail books and cookbooks. Around 3,000 bottles of whiskey, and I collect antique barware. We opened Canon using all antique glassware, but we lost hundreds of pieces in the first month we were open. So mainly I use it now at home, or in photographs. Anything people can walk away with, they will. You name it—they’ve tried to steal it. Even that bench over there! Lately I’ve been collecting more cookbooks than cocktail books. I’m just finding that fewer cocktail books are putting forth a new perspective.
How do you use the books?
I have two uses really. When I started collecting, it was at the very beginning of this whole cocktail resurgence, there weren’t a lot of people highly skilled in what we’d call “craft cocktails.” For me the first use of the books was just to learn and know basic formulas, you see patterns. It taught me a ton on how to make cocktails—ratios, flavor combinations, all of that.
The second is to learn the history. There is really no legitimate bartending school. There is spirits education, but that doesn’t teach you about bartending. That is probably why there isn’t a real textbook about bartending, there are just lots of cocktail recipe books. That’s why Harry Johnson’s book is so great. The Jerry Thomas guide is more recipes, Harry Johnson is more general about cocktails and recipes, but also has a lot on how to run a bar, how to treat guests, how to manage inventory. It really tells the story of how bars were run in that time. Since then there haven’t been many other books like it.
A funny story about my book collection: When I first moved to the U.S. (from Canada), I didn’t have my paperwork all straightened out just yet. I moved here a couple weeks early, so I couldn’t exactly bring everything. I had packed my cocktail books and clothes, but the reason they stopped me was because I had too many socks. They said, “It looks like you’ll be staying longer than you said you are, because you have 12 pairs of socks.” Forget the duffle bag of books! They were more concerned about the SOCKS.
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