Crazy and Collectible Cocktails

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Photo by preater/Flickr CC

For years, when acclaimed New York City bartender Jim Meehan wasn't fixing drinks, he was searching online for vintage cocktail books. In the middle of the night he would look for classic tomes that can date back to the 1800s on auction sites and in book stores around the world. During breaks at work he would even sneak off to monitor important sales.

But it's been over a year since Meehan, who is now co-editor of the cocktail book Mr. Boston, has bought any new volumes online. Even though there are still old cocktail books he desperately wants, the prices are now "devastatingly expensive," Meehan says. And if anything rare goes on sale, it's immediately snapped up. "I couldn't buy them if I wanted to," he says. "They last an hour."

Around the country bartenders are dusting off old recipes, and classics, like the Clover Club, the Ramos Fizz and the Corpse Reviver, are once again popular. This revival has led to another type of cocktail binge: one for vintage cocktail books. Like thirsty drinkers at an open bar, collectors are aggressively outbidding each other to build up impressive libraries.

Though Americans are trying to cut back on spending, cocktail books are still in high demand, and just over the last two months prices have gone even higher.

There has always been a market for these items, but over the last two years, "the prices shot up," says Greg Boehm, who has a collection 1,400 cocktail books and is the founder of Mud Puddle Books, which offers detailed reproductions of a number of the most sought-after titles. (This July he is introducing reproductions of another six books, including the very rare 1936 Artistry of Mixing Drinks by Frank Meier.)

While $13 cocktails might still induce a fit of sticker shock for most drinkers, there are a number of historically important cocktail books that routinely sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Collectors will pay a premium if a book was written by a well known bartender, if it contains the original recipe for a popular drink, or if it was published before, during or just after Prohibition.

Though Americans are trying to cut back on spending, cocktail books are still in high demand, and just over the last two months Boehm has seen prices go even higher. A first edition of the ornate art-deco Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock sold for between $125 and $150 in 1997, according to Vintage Bar Ware by Stephen Visakay. The volume now sells for between $300 and $1,000 according to Boehm.

The Holy Grail for collectors of bar ephemera is Jerry Thomas's seminal 1862 The Bartender's Guide: How to Mix Drinks: A Bon Vivant's Companion, which originally sold for $2. He was the first celebrity bartender and it was the first cocktail cookbook. As the legend of Thomas grows (thanks in part to Imbibe!, David Wondrich's recent book about the bartender) the price of The Bartender's Guide has steadily increased. In 1997, Visakay valued the first edition at $200. You'd be hard pressed to find a copy now for less than $1,000, and rare editions according to Boehm can easily sell for $4,000.

But it's not just mere nostalgia. The golden age for mixology, when many of these books were published and most drink recipes were created, took place around the turn of the last century. By the end of World War II, the popularity of cocktails began to wane as people drank increasingly more beer, whiskey, and wine. Bartending was, for the most part, limited to making simple drinks with sugary, pre-made mixers.

It wasn't until the early 1990s with the rebirth of the cocktail that bartenders began making drinks again from scratch with fresh ingredients. The most curious and studious mixologists began scouring bookstores and libraries around the globe for vintage cocktail books that offered recipes, inspiration and explained traditional techniques. However, because of changes in measurements, ingredients, and taste, "all the recipes have to be updated and adapted," says Meehan. "So many old recipes are far from balanced."

Despite the high prices many of these books aren't actually all that rare. Thomas' book has had countless editions, including one in 1928 that was edited by Herbert Asbury, the author of The Gangs of New York. And more importantly, the book is still in print. "It's not even close to being the most obscure," says Boehm, who offers a reproduction of the 1862 edition, which costs $30 and features an introduction by Wondrich. It's so detailed that Boehm says if you buried it in the ground for a two weeks and then listed it on eBay it would look authentic. "Please don't do that," he says. "I'd buy it."