Making a great cocktail is harder than it looks. Ice shape, shaking technique, timing – they all play a part in the final serve and if you don’t get it quite right, the result can be a sickly, watery mess. Do get it right, however, and the drinking experience is ethereal; after all, there’s a reason why people splash out big bucks at cocktail bars.
So, it’s time to raise the bar (ahem) and up your cocktail-making game. Learn to make the perfect margarita for date night or whip up a round of crowd-pleasing mojitos for your mates – all you need is one of the best cocktail books.
Great cocktail books aren’t just about recipes. They teach you what goes into making a fabulous drink, shedding insight into the mechanics behind delicious mixes – balance, alcohol level, complementary and contrasting flavours – as well as helping you refine your technique.
It goes without saying that recipes should be easy to follow. But the best cocktail books should provide a spark of inspiration, too. Unless you’re a big planner, you might not always have everything you need in the house to make an impromptu drink, and the finest tomes give you room to adapt. Even if you aren’t going fully by the, er, book, these written collections will teach you how to innovate like a real bartender.
We looked for personality in our best cocktail books, too. Some of the below are themed very specifically; others are beginners’ bibles or are geared at enthusiasts who have mastered the classics and are looking for something different. We judged each on their individual merits because they’re all trying to achieve something unique. Just as you may prefer a negroni to a caipirinha, one book will probably suit you better than the rest.
The best cocktail recipe books for 2021 are:
Best overall – ‘The Cocktail Guy’ by Rich Woods: £16.99, Waterstones.com
Best for gins fans – ‘Gin O’Clock’ by Craft Gin Club: £10.80, Craftginclub.co.uk
Best for beginners – ‘The Curious Bartender: Cocktails at Home’ by Tristan Stephenson: £17.95, Amazon.co.uk
Best for holiday vibes – ‘The Pikes Cocktail Book’ by Dawn Hindle: £13.59, Whsmith.co.uk
Best for iconic bar lovers – ‘The Infused Cocktail Handbook’ by Kurt Maitland: £12.99, Amazon.co.uk
Best for cocktail theory – ‘Cocktail Codex’ by Alex Day, Nick Fauchald and David Kaplan: £20.49, Blackwells.co.uk
Best for breadth – ‘The Savoy Cocktail Book’ by Harry Craddock: £14.99, Waterstones.com
Best for party drinking – ‘Summer Drinks’: £8.19, Whsmith.co.uk
Best for Downton Abbey fans – ‘Downton Abbey Cocktail Book’ by Annie Gray and Julian Fellowes: £14.99, Waterstones.com
Best for classic cocktails – ‘Cocktails of the Movies’ by Stacey Marsh and Will Francis: £9.99, Waterstones.com
‘The Cocktail Guy’ by Rich Woods, published by Pavilion Books
Penned by drinks maestro Rich Woods, this is a repertoire- and palate-expanding collection of boundary-pushing drinks that will pique the interest of home enthusiast mixologists and pro-bartenders alike. Gloriously geeky in parts, it delves into diverse mixing techniques (with notes on infusing, clarifying and sous-viding) and even analyses different types of ice. Woods’ passion for quality drinks-making positively fizzles off the page. Crucially – and why we’ve chosen it as our best buy – all that innovation doesn’t necessarily equate to super-difficult recipes. Sure, there’s a rather advanced chapter on distillation, but it’s brief, and given all the recipes have a difficulty rating attached, ranging from one to five, you know where you’re at before you even start mixing.
Most drinks, such as the Thai swizzle (with lemongrass, chilli and coriander) or pine-needle-infused Aperol spritz, are straightforward, so long as you’re prepared to put in the prep time. Planners, chef types and anyone looking to branch out from the usual suspects – you’ll find joy in this book.
If all you want is to learn how to make a half-decent mojito, then this might not be the guide for you. But if you really want to get excited about contemporary cocktail making, it hits the nail on the head with its quirky, mixologist-style pours, ranging from espresso G&Ts to caramelised red onion Manhattans.
Buy now £16.99, Waterstones.com
‘Gin O’Clock’ by Craft Gin Club, published by Harper Collins
Best: For gin fans
No prizes for guessing the subject of this new book from the team at the Craft Gin Club. With 70 fresh, deliciously drinkable recipes to choose from, it’s dedicated to all things junipery spirit – whether your bag is London dry, old Tom or a fruity pink infusion. The serves, which are ranked in difficulty from easy to expert, are divided neatly by season; for example, there’s an elderflower and cucumber-infused “English garden” for spring, or a “ginarita” (a twist on a margarita) for summer. Fresh, fun and seasonally on-point photography puts you right into the mood – it made us want to reach out and grab the drinks straight off the page.
Other things we liked? While the book treats cocktails seriously, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The odd food recipe breaks up the sections (there’s a spectacular-looking gin and lemon roast chicken), along with other random, fun-to-read bits and bobs – like tips on hosting your own gin tasting, or a distiller’s guide to botanicals. It treads the perfect line between informative and fun. And that’s exactly what a cocktail book should do.
Buy now £10.80, Craftginclub.co.uk
‘The Curious Bartender: Cocktails at Home’ by Tristan Stephenson, published by Ryland Peters & Small
Best: For beginners
This brilliant book, by pro barman and founder of London’s Purl, builds on an important fact that many other books ignore: cocktail making at home is not the same as it is in a bar. With different kit, different glassware, different ice – and, most likely, distracting friends who want to see you mix up their drinks without making a colossal mess in the process – you need to have recipes and methods to suit.
Good thing Stephenson makes it easy. After laying a solid foundation – kit to buy (no, you don’t need a thousand different glasses), essential store-cupboard ingredients, the science of flavour and mixing techniques – he delves into the recipes, dedicating a spread to each classic, from a simple Tom Collins (gin, lemon juice, sugar syrup) to a Purl (bitter, gin, honey and a host of other goodies). His commentary on each one, part history, part opinion, will draw you in further, providing fascinating context; we loved his passionate defence of Sex and the City favourite, the cosmopolitan.
Buy now £17.95, Amazon.co.uk
'The Pikes Cocktail Book’ by Dawn Hindle, published by Ryland, Peters & Small Ltd
Best: For holiday vibes
We’re going to Ibiza. Well, at least our drinks are. This fun and flirty cocktail book from Balearic party hotel Pikes – host to Grace Jones, Freddie Mercury and Wham’s Club Tropicana music video – channels all the sun-soaked debaucherous joy of the island in its 200 pages. The recipes are only half the point; the commentary laying bare the fascinating history of the hotel – founded by Tony Pike in an old island finca – broken up by atmospheric shots of glimmering pool waters, rooms and gardens, is truly transportive. Just flipping through the book’s chapters, themed around “poolside”, “lunch”, “afternoon tea” – and later “dinner” and “night time” – make you feel like you’re on hols.
As for the drinks? They’re made for sunshine sipping. Start with – what else? – a club tropicana; white and dark rum, vanilla vodka, Cointreau, coconut cream and tropical juice blitzed in a blender. Move on to a “dirty deeds” daiquiri, the hotel’s bestseller, then Pike’s old favourite: a vodka martini.
Buy now £13.59, Whsmith.co.uk
‘The Infused Cocktail Handbook’ by Kurt Maitland, published by Cider Mills Press
Best: For iconic bar lovers
The title of this book, in a way, is kind of misleading. Sure, it teaches you how to make interesting cocktails by steeping alcohol with flavourful ingredients – say, pear cordial chips with bourbon. But the real selling point is this: these recipes are coming from some of the world’s best bars and most accomplished bartenders. So you’re not just playing mad scientist in your kitchen; you really are learning from the experts, whether it’s Andrei Marcu at London’s award-winning Coupette or Laura Bellucci at New Orleans’ Belle Epoque.
Despite the potential complications of the subject matter (top bartenders aren’t necessarily known for keeping things simple), the book is laid out in a really accessible way. Recipe instructions are kept succinct, with ingredients pictured as well as listed, and organised within the book logically, so you aren’t flipping across whole sections trying to find out how to make, say, that rooibos-infused Monkey Shoulder whisky for the “lord fanny” cocktail (courtesy of Diamond Dogs in Queens). In short, this book will suit most levels of cocktail-maker; the only prerequisite is patience and planning.
Buy now £12.99, Amazon.co.uk
‘Cocktail Codex’ by Alex Day, Nick Fauchald and David Kaplan, published by Ten Speed Press
Best: For cocktail theory
Death & Co is one of New York City’s most esteemed and progressive cocktail bars, and this tome from its founders puts their rich expertise on show. This book isn’t so much about learning to make specific recipes; it’s a deep dive into how cocktails work – how to balance them, customise them and generally make ‘em taste great. Using six different “template” cocktails – including the martini, old fashioned, highball and flip – it shows off the mechanics of different cocktail styles and explains how to build from the ground up. The idea is that once you know what makes each of these classic pours tick, you can create infinite variations – in essence, innovate like a proper bartender.
Balance, seasoning, acidity, core alcohol – all the elements get an examination here, written in a clear way so that even enthusiastic beginners can get on board. And, of course, if you’re only after recipes, you’ll find those too. Every chapter kicks off with one of the six root cocktail recipes, then, after breaking things down in depth, outlines a whole host of tasty variations.
Buy now £20.49, Blackwells.co.uk
‘The Savoy Cocktail Book’ by Harry Craddock, published by Little, Brown Book Group
Best: For breadth
First penned in the 1930s by Harry Craddock, head barman at the Savoy – and bulked out with various updates since then – this dense little book contains succinct recipes for 750 cocktails served at the famous hotel. We do mean succinct; in many cases, you won’t get much more than a list of ingredients and the instruction to “shake well and serve” (and you certainly won’t get any pictures). But, if you want an anthology of classics to keep on your shelf and don’t feel like you need much hand-holding to turn out a great drink, it’s a worthy investment. It really comes to the fore at that moment when you’re scrambling through the back of your liquor cabinet, wondering what exactly you can make with a bit of Bacardi rum, Cointreau and half a leftover lemon. That’ll be page 178 – an XYZ cocktail, coming right up…
Buy now £14.99, Waterstones.com
‘Summer Drinks’, published by Ryland, Peters & Small Ltd
Best: For party drinking
Many of these books take cocktails very seriously. Summer Drinks recognises that drinking is (newsflash!) often about fun. It’s a joyful celebration of seasonal drinks from cover to cover, whether it be boozy slushies (think rum- and pineapple-spiked frosé) to colourful punches (for example, prosecco iced tea). It’s exactly the kind of easy-drinking stuff you’re looking to serve when mates come over for a barbecue – vibrant, simple to prepare, crowd-pleasing, and crucially, scalable. Bonus points for the extensive chapter on mocktails, which will let you serve up tasty goodies to any members of the no-and-low alcohol brigade.
Buy now £8.19, Whsmith.co.uk
‘Downton Abbey Cocktail Book’ by Annie Gray and Julian Fellowes, published by Aurum Press
Best: For Downton Abbey fans
If you’re not a fan of the show, then stop reading. But if you’ve ever imagined channelling the early 20th-century glamour of Downton Abbey life in one of your cocktail parties, then this fun coffee-table book will hit the mark. Bursting with pours inspired by the cocktail golden age – interspersed with plenty of atmospheric photography from the hit programme – you can hop from an elegant, classic French 75 (with gin and sparkling wine) to a Clarkson’s antidote (a twist on a corpse reviver no 1, with vermouth, calvados, dark rum, absinthe and Angostura bitters). All served up in the most elegant of Crawley-appropriate glassware, of course.
Buy now £14.99, Waterstones.com
‘Cocktails of the Movies’ by Stacey Marsh and Will Francis, published by Prestel
Best: For classic cocktails
OK, so you might find the hook kind of gimmicky: famous cocktails that have appeared in famous films, such as a sazerac from Live and Let Die or a Singapore sling from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But put that aside, because apart from some scene-setting blurbs and illustrations of the leading actors (say, Daniel Craig as James Bond – drinking a martini, obviously), this book isn’t really about film. It’s really a collection of must-try, must-make classic cocktails.
Negroni, Tom Collins, sex on the beach, mojito, old fashioned – it’s a roll call of the greatest hits, with clear, easy-to-follow instructions and simple ingredients. So even if you’ve never seen The Big Lebowski (white Russian) or The Bonfire of the Vanities (sidecar), don’t worry, there’s plenty to get out of this book. And if you have? You’ll probably enjoy it all the more.
Buy now £9.99, Waterstones.com
The verdict: Cocktail recipe books
It might not be a go-to for complete beginners, but that’s actually one reason why we love “The Cocktail Guy” – in a world where you can google all the classic cocktails, it provides totally innovative recipes as well as expert commentary to improve your drinks game in general.
Saying that, if you’re looking to take a deep dive into mixology innovation, and are keen to create your own pours or are even considering bartending professionally, then do pick up “Cocktail Codex”. Cocktail beginner? Our favourite for newbie mixologists was “The Curious Bartender: Cocktails at Home”, but for fun seasonal drinking with plenty of (juniper) spirit, “Gin O’Clock” delivers, too.
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