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David Wondrich on Cocktail History and the Importance of the Old Ways

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Welcome to The Cookbook Shelf, in which Eater talks to all manner of food professionals about their book collections. Warning: serious book nerdery ahead.

[Photo: Doron Gild]

Drinks writer and booze historian David Wondrich is a busy man, currently in the depths of researching his upcoming book the Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails. Below, Wondrich talks to Eater about the methods behind his cocktail research madness, how he ended up writing a book on famed 19th century cocktail "Professor" Jerry Thomas, how cocktail record-keeping has changed over the years, the need for more documentation of the bartender/customer dynamic, and his place in the long line of Esquire cocktail handbooks. Wondrich warns it's important to always have a sense of humor about things: "Drinks writing is a branch of humor writing. Abandon that at your peril."

You mentioned in your email that you were just in London doing research at the British Library?
I'm the Editor-in-Chief of the eventually forthcoming Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, which, as you can imagine, is a huge job. And I'm trying to not trot out all the standard stuff that's been trotted out a million times. I'm trying to research stuff afresh a little bit and come up with new information on things. I had the opportunity to spend three or four days at the British Library plowing through books and databases. So I was doing that, which was very rewarding. If you like that sort of thing.

I was reading about distillation. It's about spirits and cocktails, the book that we're doing. So I was also looking up the history of the American cocktail in England, some further stuff on punch, which I've written on quite a bit. There's always more to learn about any topic. You'll never get to the bottom of anything, really. It's a comforting thought.

What kind of resources are there on the history of the American cocktail in England? How far does that go back?
Well, it goes back to the 1840s, and I was mostly looking through newspaper databases. They're just an absolute godsend for doing any type of drink history, because it's not stuff that really got written into the main social histories until very recently other than a quick and dismissive note. I was tracking careers of famous bartenders in London and things like that. You track them through the newspaper where they got written about at the time, occasionally, at least, which is better than nothing.

What else are you reading these days?
I'm reading a bunch of stuff about rum. And Irish whiskey. Some categories have been researched very well and written about very well, and others are a little hazier. So I'm trying to clear up some of the hazier ones.

For instance, Scotch whisky is fortunate enough to be made in Scotland. Scotland has a good historical and intellectual tradition, you know, there was the whole Scottish Enlightenment. Scotch whisky was considered to be a part of the national identity. So they did a lot of research on Scotch whisky, there have been a lot of books about that. Far fewer on Irish whiskey, for some reason. So that makes it already more interesting to me.

Well especially because it's not like the Irish don't have a intellectual tradition, too.
No, they have a good tradition, too. But they also have more battles over temperance than Scotland. The church favored a certain amount of temperance. I don't know what it was. There's just less writing on the topic. Which to me is kind of interesting.

Someone who often comes up in Cookbook Shelf interviews, especially with cocktail folks, is Jerry Thomas. You're probably more intimately involved with Thomas' work than others, though. How did you first become acquainted with him?
It started before I was doing any kind of drinks writing or even conceived that such a think was a possible career. I was really into Herbert Asbury's Gangs of New York, and Hebert Asbury mentions Jerry Thomas and it sounded interesting, and I knew that Herbet Asbury had done an edition of Jerry Thomas' book. And I was kind of half keeping an eye on that when I fell into this job writing about drinks for Esquire. So one of the first things I did was I went out and got Herbert Asbury's Jerry Thomas book. It was published in 1928, it had a nice, sporty introduction by Mr. Asbury, who was the chronicler of lowlife in America for the first half of the 20th century.

And then, along with some friends, we cooked up this idea of having a tribute the Jerry Thomas. That was at the end of 2002, and we held it in 2003. But before that we wanted to do a little booklet, so I started researching Jerry Thomas' life and I found a bunch of stuff that wasn't in Herbert Asbury, and called his little bio into question. And that got me really interested. And then I started doing more research, and I had more tools available to me than were available to Asbury, although he had stuff that I couldn't get. And it ended up being a book. I have an academic background, so things tend to end up being books.

What kind of information did you have access to that wasn't in the Asbury book?
I had electronic newspaper databases. You can't really do cocktail research out of newspapers without that kind of help, because every few days there might be a half paragraph on page 14 of the newspaper mentioning something useful. And to go through that on microfilm or on paper is just essentially impossible. The amount of time you'd have to spend on it to just go through one newspaper is really prohibitive.

So I had that, but he had the morgues of some of these old newspapers, where they kept all the clippings. And those are long gone. So he had some clippings I have never been able to find, from some publications that are long lost, crumbled to dust. But I had a lot of stuff that he couldn't get, and that helped to get a little more accurate a picture of what was going on.

Beyond Jerry Thomas, who are your go-to cocktail writers?
Well, these days, mostly it's the New York Sun, the old newspaper, from about 1880 to up until the 1940s. They covered cocktails in great depth. Most of the stuff was anonymous, until 1934 with repeal. They hired a daily drink columnist. Daily, I gotta say, is pretty ballsy. And this guy, G. Selmer Fougner, he was amazing. Every day he'd answer readers' questions, little things about different kinds of drinks, he printed letters from old-timers reminiscing about the bars of yore and how you make this cocktail and that cocktail. It just went on and on and on. It was like a whole internet in a column. It was amazing, it was called "Along the Wine Trail."

He's gotta be my hero. He wrote about everything: he wrote about wine, he wrote about food, he was the chairman of a New York wine and food society that had all these fancy dinners every so often. He was a real epicure until he died in 1941. He was amazing. He's my current hero.

What about more modern writers?
I always like Kingsley Amis's writings on drinks, just because he's funny. And, you know, mostly I agree with him. I've always thought that drinks writing is a branch of humor writing and that you abandon that at your peril. We'll see what happens with this Oxford thing, it won't be very funny. My other books I try to at least see the other side of things here and there, because I think it's important.

Philip Greene did a very nice one on drinking and Hemingway. Jeff Berry, who does books on tiki drinks, is just amazing and writes a very fine book indeed. Sippin' Safari I highly recommend. There are a few people who do a really good job these days.

So as someone who uses historical writings to piece together what people were doing back the day, what do you think is important for cocktail practitioners to write down for the future?
Everything is so chronicled now. Now, you've got videos. What I wish people had written down in the past is more about the actual technique of mixing drinks, what you're doing with your hands, what tools you're using. That was very sketchily done. More on the ingredients: what kind of rye whiskey, what strength, etc. But all that stuff you see very well chronicled now.

The stuff that is most interesting that we're not seeing chronicled as much is the back and forth between bartenders and customers, the relationship, that kind of thing. The society of it all. Most drinks writing and cocktail writing focuses very heavily on the bartenders these days, and almost none on the customers. It's always curious to see how the customers receive these things. What kind of people go to what bar, what the social scene is. That I would like to see chronicled a little better. There are people who do it, but it's not as common.

I mean, no customers, no bar, right? It's a social thing, social drinking. The social aspects I think are really interesting.

You mentioned that technique gets lost in the early recipes, which is something that happens with culinary recipes as well—
It was assumed, right? It was assumed what they mean. Cocktail guides were not written for amateurs. They were written for bartenders. So it would be assumed that you knew what they meant when they said, you know, put the cover on the glass and shake it. How many times do you shake it? How long do you shake it? I don't know. What type of cover are they using? So on and so forth. And that was all just assumed because these were professional shorthand. And cookbooks were the same, they were for people who already knew how to cook, who cooked every day. It was just to give them some quick pointers of doing things, but they were supposed to know how to set up the process themselves.

But as a historian, it can be really hard. There are things I missed for years when reading these recipes. For example, there'd be all these cocktails based on gin in Jerry Thomas's book. And I'd try them and they were terrible. And I'd go, well, yeah, okay, they didn't know very well then. But that's always a bullshit answer. Because people were just as smart then as we are now, they just know different things. I don't believe there's been some huge uptick in human intelligence. I mean if anything, as recent events are demonstrating here in the US, it's quite the opposite.

So then I go, if this isn't tasting good, why? And then I started looking more and more into gin, and I found some Port of New York records. It turns out the gin we were drinking in America at the time wasn't London dry gin, that English style, it was Dutch style, which is much more like flavored whiskey. It works much better in some of these bare bones, simple drinks that they were making. I mean they were just putting sugar, bitters, and gin together, and if you do that with London dry it's not very tasty. But if you do it with Dutch gin you have basically an Old Fashioned and it's pretty good. It's stuff like that, you really have to question everything when you're doing historical stuff. What exactly did they mean by this? When it says "a large lump of ice," how large? Is it the size of a pigeon's egg, or the size of a hen's egg? You wonder, because that's going to affect the temperature of the drink and the dilution and all that kind of stuff.

So is it mostly trial and error, going back and trying to figure these recipes out?
It's a lot of going through newspapers, sometimes they'll send reporters to describe how people are mixing drinks. Looking through diaries and travel books is always extremely useful for any day-to-day history, like this stuff. The kind of stuff that doesn't make it into the history books. Travel writers will talk about it, diarists will talk about it sometimes. A diarist will mention, oh, I had this strange drink here. And that might pre-date the "official" appearance of that drink by several years. It might pre-date its appearance in a recipe book or something. There's stuff like that, and you just have to treat it like a jigsaw puzzle, the kind that you get in a country house and you realize 20% of the pieces are missing. But you still have to try to get some kind of picture out of it.

Let's talk a little bit about the Esquire cocktail books, because those go very far back, and of course you're a part of that history. How have those books changed over the years?
In a way, mine was the first retro one. They had a little pamphlet in 1938, Esquire's Liquor Intelligencer, recipes that had been in the magazine, loosely organized. Then in 1949, they did Esquire's Handbook For Hosts, which was kind of a bigger version of the Intelligencer, plus some stuff on food and entertaining. There wasn't a lot of thought that went into those.

Then in '56 there was the Esquire Drink Book, a very much larger book but also not a lot of thought that went into it, just recipes put together. And that one had a lot of recipes. They did a couple more in the 60s, a very weird one in the 70s written by this blind epicure Roy Andries De Groot. He was very famous and is known in certain circles as the most persnickety food writer who ever lived. And he did this very, very weird take on the whole thing, it was very fussy, indeed. And then ten years later, in '84, they did another Esquire book. I can't even remember what it was called but it was absolutely awful. It was clear that nobody was really interested in cocktails. It had things like blender martinis, it was truly a bad book. It wasn't the guy's fault, it's just nobody cared.

And then they stopped doing it for 20 years. I started doing an online column, which is what the Esquire Drinks came out of. It was published in 2002, a good long time ago now. The part that people liked was I did these little historical writeups of various drinks. So I approached them and said, can we do a book about this? We haven't done one in a really long time. Yeah, let's give it a try. And it was very fun to do. It was really trying to reestablish this tradition. The early books, they weren't really needed. Everybody knew how to make an Old Fashioned, everybody knew how to make a good daiquiri. But that had fallen away, you could see by the 1980s one. So the task was to put the tradition back into drinks. Yes, you can make a daiquiri in a blender, but you should also know how to do it the original way. And the original way just tastes better, frankly.

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