The first time I met David Wondrich, he struck me as not quite of our time—a messenger arrived from another, indeterminate era where cocktail recipes and spirit formulae are doctrine. With his crinkly goatee, salted shoulder-length hair, and rectangular, wire-rimmed glasses, he could be equally at home in the 1890s as in the 1960s.
I’ve seen Wondrich pull dice from his pocket in a basement bar in Kansas City to play Threes, feed dollars into a jukebox in Los Angeles, and serve punch with an antique silver ladle in Orlando, San Francisco and every major city in between. He’s the sort of person who takes level delight in an impeccably made Martini at the Savoy as he does a boilermaker at a shithole in bum-fuck nowhere. The stack of books on his bedside table numbers Steamboats on the Western Rivers, Germania by Simon Winder, The Big Easy by James Conaway and An Army Doctor’s Revolution Journal, 1775-1783, accented with various crime novels. You simply can’t pin the man to a time or place.
Perhaps this quality of unstuck-ness is lent by childhood summers spent amid the slow-moving environs of Trieste, Sicily and Maine (his father was Triestino and Sicilian, his mother a Mainer). It could also be the result of years studying comparative literature at New York University, days on a tenure track teaching Shakespeare or nights spent bouncing from club to New York club writing about music. Likely though, it’s all of these experiences, capped by the past 20 years ensconced in the history of drink, that provide Wondrich with an aura of timelessness.
Since before the movement properly kicked off, Wondrich has been defining the arc of cocktail history; his unearthed records and mixological spelunking have become the scaffolding of so much current knowledge about the Western world’s habit of drink since, well, records of drinking were kept. When Imbibe! was published in 2007 (it was reprinted in 2015), Wondrich opened a door to another century.
He has chased subjects as disparate as Jerry Thomas’ lost catalog of 19th-century bartenders and the distillation of sugar cane in ancient Asia. And for the last seven years, he’s been cranking tirelessly on the 1,200-entry Oxford Companion to Drink that will likely upend—and correct—a great deal of the record. Because, as Wondrich acknowledges, the record can always stand for revision.
Nearly 20 years into a cocktail culture that grows ever richer with each of his discoveries, Wondrich is still insatiably curious. And though he realizes that the special moment when drink history was being exhumed in great, delicious slices has passed, he insists that research is only beginning to get interesting. After the renaissance, Wondrich occasionally allows himself to stand back to survey what he’s built—but just as quickly he’s back in the proverbial stacks sifting through the yet untold facts that could define the future.
What did you imagine you’d do when you grew up?
I thought I’d probably end up as a lawyer or something. But I didn’t really want to do that, especially after I worked for lawyers. I wanted to be a writer, but in my 20s I was a terrible writer. What I really wanted to be was a rock and roll star. I thought that would be really fun. I was part of punk bands. I was listening to pop and disco and funk. Jazz. Early hip-hop. I saw that coming down in the clubs and thought that was really exciting. I was a club kid.
Which clubs did you go to?
Danceteria. Area. All the New York dance clubs.
How did you get good at the writing part?
I’m still working on it. In my 20s I was awful because I was super pretentious. I didn’t have anything to write about, so it was just pretty wanky. I was at least smart enough to realize that. This is going to sound extra pretentious, but I ended up studying a lot of Latin and that taught me a lot about grammar, and when I was in grad school [at NYU] I learned to calm down a little bit. I didn’t have to prove anything, so I could just write like I was talking to my friends. My dissertation was on scientific poetry—Lucretius and stuff from antiquities and the Renaissance. I did Italian and French. I studied a lot of stuff about the Mediterranean. I spent four years studying classical Arabic, which I’ve forgotten all of. I loved doing that.
Do you see a bridge between that and what you do now?
I use stuff I learned in grad school every day. Some of it is habits of mind: Get sources for things and use the sources. Incorporate them in what you say. Some of the rhetorical stuff—how to make a point, how to structure things. Also, just the habit of never resting when you find a secondary source. Always go and try to find the source they got it from. I always try to find the primary source. And it’s just shocking how often the primary source and secondary source say something different.
This far into the cocktail renaissance, it feels like we know a massive amount about cocktails and their histories. Are we at peak cocktail knowledge?
I don’t see it as peak knowledge. I see it as now things are only starting to get interesting. I’ve been researching and writing and editing this Oxford Companion for years, and part of that is definitive histories of brands and cocktails. It’s an insane amount of work. Just the last couple years I’ve been rewriting entries because suddenly sources have popped up that were just not available before. It’s just starting to get really good. We will run out of [historical] cocktails to write about at some point, though.
What are some of the entries you’ve had to rewrite?
The Rose cocktail. We found out a lot more information about the bartender that supposedly invented it. I was able to put together an initial biography of him. A lot of it is stuff like that—filling out biographies of people involved. The Hanky Panky is another one that I was able to pretty much figure out when it was created and what the circumstances were.
Why is research only just getting interesting now?
You’ve got to have the sources, otherwise it’s difficult to say anything about the subject. And some of the stuff we don’t have sources [for], but now we can start to put pieces together in a way that wasn’t possible before. Some of the stories change. We found out a whole bunch of bars in Paris were serving cocktails. The story used to be that the only place that did cocktails outside of America was London, and that Paris came much later during Prohibition. But it turns out there were bars in Paris doing cocktails going back to the 1840s. Stuff like that changes how we look at everything.
What are some of the moments in research that have changed the way you think about things—some of the bigger, watershed discoveries?
The first one of those that convinced me that such things were possible was when I figured out that when they were talking about gin in Jerry Thomas’ book—and all the early cocktail books—they weren’t talking about London gin or English gin, they were talking about genever style. And that solved a lot of problems because I had been making all those drinks and they weren’t good. I was looking on microfilm at the New York Public Library at trade journals. They had monthly arrivals to the port of New York. There’s no English gin coming in, but there’s all this genever. Then I was able to find other evidence to corroborate it, but that was a mindblower.
I just recently found an amazing long article about Harry MacElhone of Harry’s [New York] Bar in Paris that gives his whole life and has great detail. That’s like catnip, when that happens. I’m practically throwing my computer up in the air and running around the house. It’s time to go out and drink a can of beer and celebrate. I just recently came across the Hawaiian recipe for the Scorpion Bowl that Trader Vic’s made and said was Hawaiian, but no one believed him. Of course, the other side of that is the million dry holes that you drill. I tried, I tried, I tried, I couldn’t find a damn thing. That happens all the time.
Do you think that history is going be as important to the culture of cocktails in the future—say, in the 2020s or 2030s—as it has been in the past 10 or 15 years?
I suspect it’ll probably be less important because there’s less work to do. There was a special moment where the history was very important because it had been lost and it was needed to see how to go forward. … But a lot of that stuff has been recovered now, and bartenders now have ammunition. They don’t have to just go with what’s trendy or what’s cheap. They can arm themselves with traditions and stories.
What do you think we’ve uncovered or changed in the last 10 or 15 years that has staying power?
I’ve been asked this question for 20 years. I never get it right. For me the thing that seems to have the most power is the professionalization of drink and bartending—the recovery of something that was pretty much lost. I remember bartenders doing just terrible, terrible things in the ’80s—not just about mixing drinks, but by how they treated their customers. In the ’90s I was out with [my wife] Karen and I asked for a Martini with more vermouth. And the guy goes, “No, you don’t,” dead serious. But, you know, he knew how to make a Martini and the customer was never right. That kind of thing was pretty common.
What do you think should stick around but probably won’t?
Dive bars. We’re seeing people coming back downtown and that drives the retail values and real estate values up, and once the real estate value goes up, the dive bars are gone. They’ve closed everywhere. I think there are places in the Midwest where they’re sticking around, but even there things are closing. In my part of Brooklyn they’re gone. In lower Manhattan, there’s maybe two. There used to be so many you couldn’t even count them. Of course, new cocktail lounges are replacing them, but we’re still a couple of economic downturns and a few decades of deferred maintenance and duct tape patches away from those places turning into dives.
What do you wish for the future of cocktail culture?
I’d like things to relax a little bit and not try so hard. Some of the mixology has gotten pretty ridiculous. But that’s me being old. I’m not interested in the latest innovations—in the activated charcoal and sweet potato juice and all that kind of stuff. I would like to see jukeboxes come back. I don’t like Spotify in a bar. I want to be able to choose my music. And I don’t mean like a video internet box where you can choose anything. I want a well-curated jukebox where the establishment gives the songs to choose from, and says, “Here’s what we’re about.” That’s what makes an atmosphere.
What could cocktail bars be doing better?
I like to see bars becoming communities. That’s something new cocktail bars have a little trouble with. They could be more individual. They tend to get pretty generic—we’ve got all the hot spirits, we’ve got our creative cocktails. Our décor is guaranteed to look elegant but not offend anybody. The cocktail lounges of the past, like the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard with its murals and photos of all the Hollywood stars—it’s just amazing. I mean, you get some heart in there. And ambitious art. I was at a great bar in Jersey City that had a bunch of old typewriters nailed to the wall. It was cool—you know what I mean? I just like stuff that says, “We’re not just a generic cocktail bar; we’ve got our own interests.” That brings people together. It’s like, “Oh, I can see a little bit of myself in here.”
Are there any areas you’re interested in that feel like wide-open fields?
The early history of rum. There’s a lot of head-in-the-sand thinking about it. A lot of people say rum comes the Caribbean and that’s the beginning of everything, but in fact rum was being made in Asia well before that—at least 400 years before our first mention of rum in the Caribbean, you see sugar cane being distilled. Distilled sugar cane in Asia could be as old as 2,000 years ago; it could be 2,500 years ago. That’s where primary sources are lacking. The history of distillation in Asia. I’m not equipped to do primary research on that. Early history of distillation. The history of the global spirits trade—no one’s put that together. The history of women behind bars has not been written about in an academic way.
Is there anything that’s been stumping you for years? A grail or something you can’t wait to figure out?
The grail is one object and that is Jerry Thomas’ second book—his Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Bar-Keepers that he wrote when he was in California and illustrated himself and published himself. No copies seem to exist. I have a business card he drew from that period—and he was a very good artist—in pen. It’s incredibly beautiful and it’s incredibly rare. Evidently, he drew pictures of America’s favorite bartenders and did little biographies. There was a very long review of it in a San Francisco paper when it came out, and a couple articles about how he’s writing it. But right after that he moved to Virginia City, Nevada, which was basically a mountain of silver that was being mined; Virginia City burned down. I suspect most of the copies didn’t make it. At least one made it to New York because there’s some information in a couple of his obituaries that couldn’t have come from anywhere else.
Do you ever feel exhausted with this subject?
Well, it’s a very big subject. Especially how I do what I do. I do the history of spirits, the history of cocktails. I do social history. If I’m tired of one part of it, there’s another part of it I can go to. I can go off into the 17th century and go on shipboard. I could write about something I see in a modern bar.
What happens after the Oxford Companion?
I have a desire to not ever write anything again. [Laughs.] That’s probably not practical. I want to do a history of bars and bartenders in New York City—a very detailed, anecdotal, granular one. … I would love to read that.