“As you get older, you get over yourself or people get over you,” recently cautioned legendary craft cocktail pioneer Jim Meehan. Meehan, along with Cocktail Kingdom founder Greg Boehm, was addressing a room packed with industry folk. The appearance, this time in New Orleans, was part of something reminiscent an old time tent revival—except the pair were preaching the gospel of a different holy book(s).
A few months ago, Boehm and Meehan embarked on this two-man road show. Every few weeks, the duo popped up in a different city to deliver a short talk about the history of cocktail books.
The tour has already made stops in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Montreal (with an appearance in Vancouver planned next.) “We chose places that we both wanted to visit on a personal level as well as places that have a vibrant bartending community,” Boehm told Neat Pour.
But, on this particular afternoon, the pair were delivering their bibliophilic bacchanal at tiki scribe Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s Latitude 29. Clad in his signature lauhala hat, the host watched attentively from the corner as rum writer Wayne Curtis stood close by. However, the bulk of the crowd was comprised not of authors, but of bartenders.
And, for the publicans and pour-smiths, the lessons about the past included some warnings for the future.
Early in the narrative, Meehan noted that cocktail books were originally the domain of bartenders themselves. Legends like Harry Craddock and William Schmidt created their own recipes and then penned the volumes detailing them. The audience for these trade manuals was clearly the authors’ peers in the service industry. However, that model fell victim to a paradigm shift around the time of Prohibition.
“Then, bartenders lost their voice to bon vivants, barflies like Charles H. Baker,” Boehm explained. “But, Baker did everything by observation… kind of eyeballed recipes. And, his recipes are crap.”
Likewise, Boehm pointed out that other cocktail books of the post-war era were merely PR stunts. He reminded the audience that Ted Saucier, the now-celebrated author of Bottoms Up, was primarily employed as the Waldorf’s publicist. Saucier’s classic volume was intended as nothing more than a promotional tool for the luxury hotel.
That phenomena also laid the foundation for the “gathered book.” These collections of recipes can also be problematic as reference volumes. The pros cautioned that the gathered books essentially crowdsource their specs. So, the recipes within are the work of “whoever sent them”—not necessarily the creator or even a bartender.
“Pro-oriented books lost their audience, but the writing got great and there are pretty pictures”
Most of all, Meehan lamented that as bartenders became detached from the publishing process, the subsequent consumer-targeted books no longer served as useful tools for industry workers.
“Pro-oriented books lost their audience, but the writing got great and there are pretty pictures,” he quipped.
However, all hope is not lost! In fact, the pair designed their talks to serve as a call to action for bartenders. “There is a larger goal is to promote Cocktail Kingdom, but that’s a secondary goal, [our intent is] more to work with bartenders to hone their craft,” explained Boehm. “It’s really something that we wanted to do.”
As a starting point, Boehm suggested that bartenders take a look at older books. Enter Boehm’s collection of over 3000 vintage books. Housed in Cocktail Kingdom’s NYC HQ the library is open to public for browsing. Anyone is welcome to come do research, but an appointment is requested for the longer visits).
Meehan added that these volumes as well as the accompanying speaking tour should act as a tool for learning about the past, but also as a means to inspire the future. “The goal is not to bring us back into Jerry Thomas’ history, but someplace more modern,” he mused. “[We need to look at] who’s empowered to tell the story and from what the perspective are they telling it.”
Despite their affinity for analog, both men acknowledged that the digital age has provided helpful tools for more to tell these stories. When asked about the future, Boehm pointed towards apps. His presenting partner likened apps to the address book style cocktail books popular in 1915.
Meehan later stated, “The Cocktail Renaissance wouldn’t have happened if not for technology,” declared Meehan.
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Still, the new model bought new pitfalls. The web is populated by a saturation of sources, most devoid of fact checking. Complicating the matter is a lack of quality curation — Google’s algorithm does not hit that mark for the pros. “I need to know more about cocktail history when I google something than if I don’t look it up at all,” lamented Meehan.
The same issues of curation are also applicable to the recent flood of bar books. “It’s similar to how I feel about cocktails: every bar feels like they need to publish one. but you need some advice on how to find them,” remarked Boehm.
Still, Boehm finds solace in pulp and print… and, he hopes others will use his library to share in this joy. If nothing else, he believes, the benefits of the book have a very practical driver. “The largest advantage of a book is that it’s a trusted resource because it costs so much [to publish].”
Correction: This article originally misattributed Boehm’s remarks on Baker and Saucier to Meehan.