There are two types of bartending books: those published before David Wondrich‘s Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, and those published after.
Wondrich’s groundbreaking 2007 book, which is coming to a store near you in a brand new revised edition, earned him the prestigious James Beard Award, the first ever to be awarded to a bartending book, and became a mandatory reading for anyone looking to get more serious about bartending.
Sometime in the late 1990’s, David Wondrich decided his research and writing skills, honed while completing his PhD in Comparative Literature at NYU, would best serve humankind if he wrote about music and drinks. After publishing two books that each delved a little deeper into classic cocktails, he went all out on his next project, a biography of 19th century American celebrity barkeeper, Jerry Thomas. The book, however, turned out to cover much more ground, and took the shape of a chronicle of American bartending, starting from the first American bar personalities that laid the foundations of Thomas’ work in the early 1800’s, all the way to those he inspired at the dawn of the 20th century, seen through a series of vignettes where each drink recipe is explained and contextualized. Its 2010 prequel, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, turned back the clock even further.
Whereas bar books prior to 2007 occasionally focused on spirits, management and service (Read the excellent The Joy of Mixology, by Gary Regan), the main concern was obviously recipes. Guides such as Dale DeGroff’s Craft of the Cocktail or Paul Harrington’s Drink Bible were a fixture behind most bars (“500 recipes!”), and the common understanding was that there generally was one single formula agreed upon for any given drink. Wondrich’s books shattered this notion for good with their focus on historical context, along with dozens of other myths. Just as importantly, both Imbibe! and Punch displayed a staggering amount of research usually reserved to more scholarly subjects than taverns and saloons, and Wondrich’s storytelling made it a compelling read even for those who didn’t care much about cocktails.
We caught up with him to discuss about the new Imbibe!, some of his upcoming projects and to share his thoughts about craft distilling, bars and movies.
Q: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us! The new edition of Imbibe! has hit the shelves this week; what changes and additions can we expect?
W: I released Imbibe just when the cocktail revolution was going from 2nd gear into 5th gear, and it’s a book I noticed a great many bartenders kept behind the bar, basically using it as a textbook. That’s very gratifying in the short run, but on the longer run it puts some responsibility on you, because if it’s going to be a textbook, you got to keep it up to date. It’s been 8 years since I published it and a lot has changed. Part of it is that I’ve done more research because I can’t help it, that’s what I like to do, and I found new stories on some of the drinks, and a lot more information on Jerry Thomas and his wife. There was also that chapter that covered which spirits to use to make these old drinks that was completely outdated: all those spirits you couldn’t get when I wrote the book are available today. It says a lot about how the spirits landscape has changed, and I wanted to incorporate that. Finally, I took out some other stuff that wasn’t relevant anymore and used the space to add 20 new drinks.
Q: A lot of niche products and styles have been revived thanks to craft distillers. Do you think that’s where the future lies for independent producers?
W: Some craft distillers aren’t focusing on basics as much as they should, but I think from here on out, the role of craft producers is to be doing the things nobody else wants to do. A lot of them are trying their hand at making Bourbon, and some of them even make great ones, but in the end, they’re always going to have a hard time competing with somebody like Heaven Hill, who have made great Bourbon since the 1930’s, and can do it much more cheaply. However, big companies are often slower to respond to change so it gives room for small producers to work on some of the more niche products. I’m quite optimistic about the craft spirit movement, but I tend to be also sceptical about it. I’ve seen some producers doing a fantastic job, while others haven’t quite perfected it yet. Things will get better though, a lot of them are going to learn, some will drop out. That’s how business always works.
Q: lt seems some small distillers are starting to disrupt some of the majors. What are your thoughts on Angels Envy being bought by Bacardi a couple of weeks ago?
W: I don’t think it’s unhealthy. If Bacardi thinks that Angels’ Envy has done some great things, it wouldn’t make sense to get them to change their formula. There will always be people to take jabs at large conglomerates, but the fact is major companies can really help small producers to be more successful, for example by reducing their costs on distribution and marketing since they already got all that figured out, and more importantly by bringing in expertise and capital. Financing is the biggest obstacle craft producers have to face, and that’s the main reason they sometimes are forced to take shortcuts to release products sooner than they should. Having a large company that backs you up financially can take that pressure away and enables you to make your products as good you intended to, without compromises. My guess is that the industry will keep consolidating.
W: Actually, I’ve been working with my good friend Alexandre Gabriel of Pierre Ferrand on this really cool pineapple-infused rum, under his ‘Plantation’ brand. It’s a product that was popular in the 1800’s, and we found an old recipe from way back in 1824, so we were curious to see if we could recreate it. It took a few trials, but we were so impressed with it we needed make more! We macerate small pineapples in rum, and we also distill the skins to add even more depth and flavour. It’s a slow process, everything’s done by hand. It’ll be released soon, although not in large quantities since we have to peel all those pineapples by hand! It’s a lot of work, but it’s delicious!
Q: Another project coming up for you is the Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails. How is it coming along?
W: It’s a massive job, it’s forcing me to think really big. It’s moving along, but we’ll see, it’s going to take a while still. It will get finished and it’s going to be a relief when it’s done! It’s a fascinating project, I’ve learned so much working on this. The main challenge is to find information, because I’m trying not to just repeat the same old things but to bring something new, to be more accurate and global. We’re going to have extensive coverage of Chinese spirits, and other Asian and African spirits. I want to shine some light on these so they become part of the conversation, because these can be very cool.
Q: What are your thoughts on the growth of culinary cocktails? I gather you’re more into simpler, classical cocktails yourself, but do you think these two worlds can coexist?
W: I’m sure some of these techniques will probably become more mainstream as they become better understood and people find ways to make them simple enough to be repeated, and I suspect 20 years from now there will be a couple of molecular elements that are just part of bar drinking. That being said, the more you focus on cocktails as bars, the less you’re focusing on atmosphere, music, socialization, and I’d like to see more energy spent on hospitality. To me that’s even more important than the cocktails.
Q: Writers such as you and Jeff Berry have done an incredible amount of work over the last 10 years at mapping out the history of mixed drinks and bartending. Are there many more stories left to be told that you’d like to see written about?
W: Well, right now I’m working on a story on Black bartenders, in the American South, in the 19th century, which is a big thing. There are lots of stories like that, that haven’t been appreciated and that I’d love to see more of. I’d love to see details like the history of bars in a particular city, not just the greatest hits. I think what we’ve accomplished this past 10 years or so, is to understand the outline of how some of the stuff was developed and who the major players were, but it’d be great to fill in some of the blank spots, and there are many of those.
Q: Finally, let us ask you a most personal question to wrap up the interview. What is your favourite sports movie animal?
W: The lions at the end of Spartacus, of course. Gladiatorial combat’s a sport, right?