A bartender’s notebook for the 21st century

A well-established maxim in mixology circles is that bartenders should keep a notebook of recipes they’ve made, experiments in progress, and so on. Usually this is the form of a small spiral notebook or index cards. I completely agree that if you’re passionate about mixology, a good repository for your experiences and ideas is essential. What I disagree with is the archaic method of writing down by hand every worthwhile recipe or scrap of information. Notebooks can easily be misplaced, spilled on or any number of other calamities. Plus hunting for that one recipe with that one ingredient is tedious at best.

Being a technology focused guy, and having worked for Microsoft, I immediately saw the benefit of using OneNote. Before you think “Ugh…. too much work”, or “Ugh…. Microsoft…”  and stop reading, consider this:

  • It’s a free on the web, and runs in your browser – All you need is a free live.com account.
  • It has free mobile apps for IOS, Android and Windows Phone.
  • Any addition or change you make in one location seamlessly appears everywhere else.
  • Searching for anything (cocktail names, ingredients, etc..) is trivial.
  • The desktop version of OneNote rocks and is included in the Office suite – You may already have it.

Although I’ve never used EverNote, I believe it has similar functionality so you can probably substitute Evernote for what follows.

My main use of OneNote is recording each new cocktail recipe the first time I make it. It’s then really easy to look up later, perhaps when a friend is over and I want to show off the drink. Each cocktail typically gets its own page. The exception is when I’m working on a recipe and have multiple iterations.

Here’s what a typical page in my OneNote notebook looks like:

Entering recipes is really simple. If it’s my own recipe I just type in the ingredients. If it’s a recipe on the web, a simple copy/paste does the trick, and as a bonus I get the original page URL automatically. I usually include my impressions, and suggestions for what I might do differently next time.

It might seem like a lot of work to enter recipes, but you’d be doing more work writing by hand in a notebook. If you just enter one recipe at a time, you’ll probably spend 30 seconds total. Just get in the groove of doing it and not making a big deal out of it. Thanks to the magic of the cloud you now have your notebook backed up – You can’t lose it like a physical notebook. And once you’ve built up your collection, here’s a few ways that having your notebook online is awesome:

I have X. What can I do with it? Recently we had fresh grapefruits that needed to be used soon. What had I made with grapefruit previously? A quick search turned up every recipe I’ve made that uses grapefruit. The same goes for ingredients. Maybe you just got a new Old Tom gin, for instance. What can you do with it?

Suddenly you’re the bartender! At gatherings, people sometimes recall that I’m pretty good with a shaker and I’m now facing a random collection of spirits and mixers and expected to produce magic. What can I make? With OneNote on my iPhone I have a fighting change of finding a trusted recipe using the ingredients at hand.

The right device in the right place. Adding text on a phone is slow and error prone. I usually add recipes on my laptop upstairs, or sometimes on the iPad. But when I need the recipe I’m usually at my bar downstairs. Rather than running back and forth to the computer or trying to find space for my iPad on my bar, I just grab my iPhone knowing that the recipe is synced to it.

Even the simple page-per-recipe usage is worlds better than a handwritten notebook. But I go a step further, using sub-pages to loosely categorize drinks, e.g Tiki, Negroni Variations, and so on. I also make separate sections for things like:

  • “Best spirits” lists
  • Party planning
  • Recipes for shrubs
  • Bars I want to visit while travelling

Long story short, a notebook is an incredibly useful tool, but even though you enjoy pre-prohibition era cocktails doesn’t mean you have to suffer with pre-prohibition era tools. A little effort here pays big dividends.

10 thoughts on “A bartender’s notebook for the 21st century

  1. Thanks! The hardest part is just entering the first few recipes to build up a useful set of data. If you stick with it, it becomes second nature, and soon, indispensable. Most recently I've been using it to manage a list of spirits for my next online order. I think "Oh, I should grab one of those", but three weeks later I've forgotten it. By keeping it in OneNote, I always have the current list handy.

  2. Brilliant – I haven't got around to the 'organization' part of my One Note notes, but everything I need is in there somewhere, in some tab. It's all cocktail info and arduino/DMX/lighting FX notes. 🙂

  3. Thanks for the nod of approval. Agreed, organization is key to do this well. But even if you don't, the full-text search still saves the day when you're looking for that one recipe where you used that one ingredient…

    I originally started putting all recipes on the same page and rapidly realized that it wasn't a viable long term strategy.

  4. So when you craft a recipe, do you enter it live?

    I keep a small notebook in my kitchen (bar not built) and when I build I scribble, that way for #2,3,4 etc I need to make, I have a list so I don’t inadvertently forget something.

    I like the idea of a digital notebook quite a bit, but I can’t see how I could use this when developing a drink, it’s crap to key in a recipe on the phone.

    Most of what we drink at home is “free mixed” I’d say I use someone else’s recipe maybe 10% or less of the time. So my notebook gets a good amount of use.

    I spend much more time for something like a cocktail contest, but for drinks after work or if friends are over it’s scribble and taste time.

    I guess the TLDR is what is your workflow when you are crafting a recipe?

    1. Generally I have an idea of a flavor profile I’m shooting before before I head down to my bar. For instance, “banana and smoke.” It’s not a problem for me to remember reasonable improv recipes for an hour or two. I make, I judge, and if it’s worth saving, I note it down. I’m never iterating over 5 or 10 drinks. It’s whatever vision I had, with two more iterations, tops. I’m not aiming to be in a competition. It’s whatever makes me and my friends happy.

      I keep my phone handy for reference, but never key things directly into it. My laptop is all of 20 feet away. The beauty is that once I type it into OneNote there, I’m done. It magically appears anywhere else I need it.

      And when I have fresh ingredients on hand, e.g. I’ve just juiced a pineapple, it’s super easy to see what recipes call for pineapple.

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