The Ultimate Bar Book: Your go to guide, for every single drink
When cooking, Steph and I have our favorite sources for inspiration and new recipes: the blogger we’re really into (that’d be you, Smitten Kitchen), the beautiful boutique cookbook one of us got for Christmas, the podcast we’re listening to nowadays. That being the case, we’ve always kept a copy of Mark Bittman’s old, reliable How to Cook Everything on our shelves, because sometimes all we need is someone dependable to tell us the temperature and time for cooking a roast, or the most basic way to make polenta.
It’s the same with mixing cocktails. As we’ve mentioned, we have our favorite mixologists, some of whom grab our attention for a moment and some of whom last. These inspirational figures lead us to some of our favorite drinks and best ideas, but they don’t replace our need for a basic, no-frills bar guide. For that, we have Mittie Hellmich’s Ultimate Bar Book.
Why we think it’s great
It’s her subtitle: The Comprehensive Guide to Over 1,000 Cocktails. Mittie’s goal is to put everything you need to know about mixing drinks into one book, and she gets pretty darn close. New cocktails are being created every day, in every corner of the world. So, of course, Ultimate Bar Book can’t have them all, but if a drink has been around for any length of time and is at all broadly known–i.e. if it fits the mile-wide broadest definition of a ‘standard’–Mittie has it. If you need to know how to make a drink, odds are that Mittie can help you. She’s also great at clearly explaining the most common variations on a staple drink. What exactly makes a martini ‘very dry’? Ultimate Bar Book will tell you.
She has no ax to grind
Ultimate Bar Book isn’t trying to be tricky, and doesn’t have a particular slant on cocktails it’s trying to advance. Mittie is fair and even-handed. She’ll give you the most conventional, most run-of-the-mill, least fussy, least particular version of a cocktail. It’s just like knowing the time and temperature for a roast. In the end, I might want to add my own seasonings to the roast, and I might even want it more rare or more well-done than average. But before I start playing with it, it’s pretty helpful to know the baseline from which I’m starting. Mittie will always give you that baseline for a cocktail.
This combination of comprehensiveness and conventionality is what makes having Ultimate Bar Book around so helpful. If you google ‘Sazerac,’ 272,000 hits come up. Some of them seem kind of bait-clicky. Most of them seem pretty reasonable, but also disagree with one another. One of them may be the very best recipe for a Sazerac in the world, but how would you know which one that is?
Mittie is entirely trustworthy to guide you to a perfectly respectable Sazerac (and 999 other cocktails). Perhaps no home runs, but no strike-outs either. She’s a solid singles hitter.
Where it’s not so helpful
In our Bottles We Can’t Live Without post, I mentioned an ‘Essentials of a Home Bar’ list which led me to buy 25 initial bottles, many of which I ended up never using; we suggest instead that nine bottles could give you a pretty good start. That list was from Ultimate Bar Book. It also mentions 23 different kinds of glassware and 27 bar tools. We’re fairly fanatical cocktail bloggers, but we only have 7 kinds of glasses (about 4 more than one really needs, by the way) and 13 tools (and I dare say that if you’ve never mixed a drink in your life, you have 6 of our 13–a paring knife, a peeler, a cutting board, a corkscrew, a blender, and a bottle opener–and zero of Mittie’s remaining 14); and while we have more than 25 bottles at this point, we still don’t have a third of Mittie’s ‘essentials.’
This is where her comprehensiveness can have a downside. She lists all of the things that you might ever, possibly need, and doesn’t do a good job of telling you what you will definitely, always use.
There is a benefit to her comprehensiveness, even in this regard. She gives a great overview of the entire world of bar equipment. If you see something mentioned somewhere and don’t know what it is, you can be fairly certain that she’ll have a definition for it, and even a little illustration. But it’s best to treat her lists of basic equipment as an encyclopedia, not a shopping list.
The latest fashions
You’d be hard-pressed to find a specialty cocktail menu nowadays that doesn’t include at least one drink featuring St. Germain, the ubiquitous sweet and floral elderflower liqueur. Among her 1000 recipes and numerous catalogs, Mittie doesn’t mention it once. Ultimate Bar Book was published 10 years ago, before the St. Germain craze began; but even if it were published today, St. Germain probably wouldn’t make the cut. Ultimate Bar Book is trend-blind. And that’s probably just fine. With all the buzz, you’ll probably be able to find something interesting to do with St. Germain easily enough–remind us to give you some ideas. Meanwhile, Mittie is always around to tell you how to turn your Black Russian into a White one. Get your copy here.