A barkeep with a thirst for books on his craft

Jackson Cannon finds that literary period classics prove useful in his trade. Jackson Cannon finds that literary period classics prove useful in his trade.
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / January 2, 2011

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For many New Englanders, books and spirits represent two key winter survival strategies. Jackson Cannon, bar director at Eastern Standard and the new Island Creek Oyster Bar in Kenmore Square, is a booster for both. Cannon, whose father, Lou Cannon, covered politics for the Washington Post, came to Massachusetts to study at Berklee College of Music. Today, he is one of Boston’s main standard-bearers for the craft cocktail movement.

What kind of books do you read?

Most of what I read these days is trade-oriented: histories, first-person accounts, books about Prohibition or the rum trade. And I got hooked on the investigative style — knowing the end of the story and then delving into it. Jon Krakauer’s books are like that. And John M. Barry’s books. Probably his best is “Rising Tide,’’ about the 1920s Mississippi River flood.

Classic literary novels have loomed large for me. Period pieces, especially when they’re great art, prove useful in my trade.

The classic example is “The Sun Also Rises,’’ and the appearance of the Jack Rose. The first time I read it I was a little young. I had been struggling with reading, and my father thought exposing me to great writing might help. He read me half, and once I was hooked he tossed the book at me and said, “You’re on your own now, kid.’’

I vividly remember interrupting him and saying, “Daddy, what’s a Jack Rose?’’ True to the journalist in him, he was like, “Ah, it’s a classic cocktail. I think it has applejack and pomegranate and lemon juice.’’ He knew what it was. That drink spurred me to try it, and I’ve used that image to set a mood over the bar top.

I’ve heard that you collect bartending books.

Yeah! I have a few hundred. It was slim pickings for a long time. We’d fight over copies of David Embury, or Charles Baker’s “Jigger, Beaker, and Glass,’’ which used to be called “The Gentleman’s Companion.’’ But then recently we saw Dale DeGroff’s book “Craft of the Cocktail,’’ and that book “Cocktail,’’ based on the writing of Paul Harrington, the Wired magazine cocktail guy.

In the last decade, as a labor of love, Greg Boehm from Mud Puddle Books started to make replica books. He had a huge collection, and since the copyright’s expired, he said, “I’m going to publish these for everyone.’’ I’ve gotten pretty much everything he’s put out.

What books would you recommend to at-home cocktail enthusiasts?

Robert Hess has a great book, “The Essential Bartender’s Guide,’’ that’s easy to have on a kitchen counter. Dr. Cocktail has a new edition of “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails,’’ in which he painstakingly re-creates what a drink should have been, but he’ll give you a modern way to go at it. And Harry Johnson’s “Bartenders’ Manual’’ is a great trade book.

Jerry Thomas is kind of our patron saint. His book “The Bon Vivant’s Companion’’ is really the first cocktail book, from the 1860s. The book itself is hard to work out of. It has pony glass and wine glass measure — very subjective terms. But the great David Wondrich put out a book called “Imbibe!’’ It’s the translation, basically. He translates the measurements and techniques and flowery language into how you can do stuff today.

It’s interesting that it needs translation.

Well, craft bartending hasn’t been a continuous tradition. It’s broken by the horrible period of Prohibition, which is followed by this damaged relationship of bartending and culture. From the mid-teens on, a lot of information was lost. When you cross that divide and go back to the first golden age, it does require translation.

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