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Book Review: Jigger, Beaker & Glass

Vintage cocktail books can be a double edged sword. They often contain the origins of recipes that we cocktail nerds have poured over and poured in glass a dozen times. Spending hours tracing each cocktail to its earliest iteration is a strange masochistic pleasure for us. These books also often spout words of wisdom about the way a barman (or woman) should maintain his appearance and decorum, as well as notes on techniques (some best forgotten and some actual gems).

These cocktails that we study, however, are often suited for a bygone palate. If you don't think that matters, consider the cocktail trends of the 1980's or 1990's - or even your own personal tastes 10-15 years ago. Like most other pop art forms, culinary trends set the standards by which they are judged as they evolve through time.

Similarly, the words of wisdom are sometimes less than wise. I once read a bar book in which the author suggested that barkeeps throw beer onto the sidewalk outside of their establishment every morning, as the aroma of beer warming in the sun would attract passersby to come in and drink. I don't know about you, but there isn't a warm stale beer on the planet that would make me want to come sit down at any bar.

All cocktail books that were written prior to 2010 need a bit of translating in order to be useful. And it takes a bit of experience to get to a point where you can accurately do so without wasting a lot of time. When I took over my first bar program, I spent hours pouring over the classics (Cocktail Boothby, Jerry Thomas etc) and made dozens of fruitless attempts to recreate and correct the classics listed therein. Finally, my director of operations sent me a copy of updated classics from his prior company. "Why don't you start here, instead," he suggested. I did, but not in the way he meant. I took the modern compendium and began comparing it to the classic books I had in hand. How had the recipes been altered? Why? I started building myself a Rosetta Stone.

Jigger, Beaker & Glass needs a little translation in all contexts. The cocktails are outdated (understandable, they're nearly a century old), and the techniques apply to a time when ice wasn't always readily available. Some of the language Baker uses about race and place would be considered offensive in this century. I take that with the grain of salt that a man long since dead can’t go back and edit his work, and that we have no business rewriting history.

However, Baker does what few other cocktail enthusiasts did back then. He tells stories. And these are Jay Gatsby level, high adventure stories. Boating with Hemingway in the Caribbean, floating around Southeast Asia, running through the streets of Paris; Baker lived a life I've dreamt of living. It was a time when the world was a lot bigger than it is now; we fly to Europe in six hours, Baker would travel by boat for weeks on end. Somehow, a part of me thinks I'd prefer the latter.

During his travels he compiled both cocktails and the people who created them. This never ending list of names and character traits is dizzying - and in that context, I'd recommend keeping JB&G by your nightstand and reading an anecdote each night instead of taking the whole book in one gulp. The progression is based on the drinks, not places, so he bounces from Havana to Manila without coming up for air.

This is easily one of the best written compendiums I've found from this era. It isn't tied to a brand or an organization, it's simply one man's mission to find the best cocktails the world has to offer. He succeeds. It's enough to make me want to hop on a boat tomorrow.


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