Few people in the cocktail world have worked as hard to illuminate drinking history as cocktail historian Dave Wondrich. With Punch and Imbibe!, and several other books under his belt, the writer stays busy. But even with all these commitments, the James Beard recipient and PhD took the time to talk about G.I. Joe cocktail sets, his drinking history, and cocktails any self-respecting drinker should know.
Clair McClafferty Paste: What is your first cocktail-related memory?
David Wondrich: (laughing) Let’s see. I think I was about eight and my father was Italian and we used to spend summers over there. I got a GI Joe scale cocktail kit at a street fair and we set up, my little brother and I, who was about six, I might’ve been nine, something like that, but anyway … We set up a bar with a very nice Boston shaker as I recall, and little cocktail glasses, etc., just like we’d seen on TV. And that (laughing) that’s about as early as it goes. And we had our GI Joes making cocktails.
Paste: That’s amazing.
DW: That’s back when GI Joes were like a foot tall so they were pretty big. It was a long time ago.
Paste: Why did you first start researching cocktails?
DW: I had a vague sort of interest just from reading Raymond Chandler and P.G. Wodehouse and all the kind of stuff I used to read back in the days before the internet.
I spent my whole adult life haunting used book stores, so if I came across an interesting looking book about cocktails I would get it, but I never really went out of my way for it. I was more of a beer person for a long time. I liked cocktails when I was a musician in my early 20s because I was hanging out in nightclubs and that was the best way to get cheap alcohol.
By the time I was in my 30s, I was drinking more beer and being a little more sedate about it. That was at the beginning of excellent microbrews everywhere. I was into that, but then I got a call from a friend to see if I could do a research project on cocktails for Esquire.com. It was new then, and it turned out to be way more fun than anything else I was doing, so I went with it.
Paste: How did this research project turn into writing books?
Esquire had an old drinks book they wanted to get put online and they had somebody transcribe it and they needed me to edit it. I started going through it, and being a good Ph.D. in comparative literature, I started organizing the whole thing and breaking the drinks down into genres which is what I was trained to do and all that kind of thing. I noticed that there were these little paragraph long essays for some of the drinks. I put those up at the heads of the categories because I thought those essays were fun, and Esquire liked that.
Esquire really liked [the essays I wrote to fill in the blanks] and said, “Can you do one of these every week for our website?” And I said, “Sure. What the hell.” It was money then and I was a junior English professor and anything involving money was good.
After I had a whole number of them I was able to schedule a meeting with David Granger, Esquire’s then and current editor-in-chief, and suggest that we should do a book, which he happily went along with. That was how I started writing drink books.
Paste: That’s really cool. What are three cocktails that every home bartender should know, and why?
DW: The Old Fashioned just because it’s so basic and it’s the kind of thing you can do in a hotel room, on an airplane, anywhere you want. There’s nothing to it and it’s sort of the minimum level of satisfying cocktail, I think.
A few years ago, I would’ve said the martini, but the martini seems to have somewhat fallen out of favor. If you made them, people wouldn’t really be drinking them, which is a little sad. You could definitely put the Manhattan in there. Not much more complicated than the Old Fashioned, if any at all, and also pretty useful.
Then I would definitely say the Daiquiri. Just simple, delicious, refreshing and a drink that will win you many friends and fans if you’ve got the right rum for it.
Paste: What would you consider the right rum to be?
DW: I’d consider any flavorful white rum. Not the kind of ultra-distilled type, but there are numerous that are good. It has to have some sugarcane flavor to it.
Paste: What topics within cocktail history or just plain old nerdery have caught your attention recently?
DW: Recently I’ve been doing this lecture series at the Dead Rabbit here in New York on a granular history of bartending in New York in a lot of detail. It’s a 10-part lecture series. We did the first five over the course of five months last year, took a little break, and we’re going to start up again with the next five. The first five were the 19th Century, then I’m going to do the 20th Century.
That’s really been very interesting for me. I always knew the outlines of the history, but filling in the blanks is just crazy work and very interesting. I definitely would like to turn it into a book at some point because I think it’s fascinating. So much of American drink culture went through New York.
Paste: Absolutely. Is there anything that I missed or anything that you’d like to add?
DW: Another project I’m really interested in is the history of black bartenders in America which have been kind of written out of the record but were very common back in the day. There was a long tradition and it’s not really known. It’s kind of hidden. It was very strong in the South and I’d like to … I’ve been doing research on that and I want to bring that up.
I’m also looking into women bartenders. I’m just curious as there’s the history that we get and then there’s what people were actually doing and there’s always a big difference. I want to see what people were actually doing.
Those are definitely other projects that I’m very interested in that I’ve been poking away at but they’re very hard to research. That’s basically the distant future. Right now I’m working on the Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails which is a huge book and some of that stuff will turn up in there.