Why The Historian of All Things Drink Never Thought The Whole “Cocktail Revolution” Thing Would Work

15 questions for David Wondrich.

July 12, 2018 ● 4 min read

By Maggie Hoffman | Photo by Doron Gild/ChefsFeed

History grows fuzzy when it comes to legends of the bar; like fishing tales, the stories that get passed from host to guest tend to grow more and more epic in each telling.

That’s why we're lucky to have David Wondrich, devoted researcher and cocktail historian, author of Imbibe!, a biography of 19th-century bartender Jerry Thomas, and Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, to sort out fact from fiction. Perhaps more than any other contemporary writer, Wondrich cuts through the legends and helps us understand cocktail history. In doing so, he’s influenced countless bartenders across the country—the world, even.

So how does the longtime Esquire contributor, who’s currently working to edit The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, think we’re doing? Below, Wondrich muses on the current state of bars, as well as the lessons we still have to learn from the past.

How do you describe the changes in our cocktail scene over the last few decades?

It’s changed a huge amount, because we went from everything artificial and pre-manufactured to people relearning the old skills and doing things themselves, not pouring your drinks out of a gun. So that’s an impressive story. And the rise of small distilling and microbrewing and craft bartending is all a pretty impressive backlash to the homogenization of the 20th century. And I think it’s continuing. I was in Rockland, Maine, not too long ago. They have craft cocktails in Rockland, Maine. That’s amazing.

Do you think cocktails have gotten too complicated?

In some places, yeah. I find a lot of stuff I’m really not that interested in drinking, because it’s overworked and overthought. If I’ve been working all day and I come into a bar, I don’t really want something that will challenge me deeply, I want a delicious drink to sip on while I talk to my friends. I’m not looking for cocktails as entertainment, but that’s my generation also. Some younger consumers, that is their entertainment.

Where do you think we’re going next?

Oh, I’m bad at predicting. I thought the whole cocktail revolution thing would never work.

Really, why?

It seemed impossible; it was just a few geeks, and the country was big.

What lessons do you feel like the past still holds for our cocktail culture?

If you look at the culture of drinking in America in Jerry Thomas’s day, there was no reverence around the cocktails really. A great bartender was a great bartender because he or she was a great host, and that was considered more important than just making drinks, though if you were a good technician that was appreciated.

What did it mean then to be a great host?

To be able to talk to anybody, to make people feel welcome, to anticipate people’s needs. There was humor involved, you had to know jokes, you had to have a good line of patter.

Do you think there’s a moment in cocktail history that people forget is important?

People sometimes forget that during the so-called Dark Ages of cocktails, people still went to bars. People forget the things that brought them to those bars. Fun, and community, and so on—it wasn’t just the gourmet side of things.

Are there other characters in cocktail history that you feel deserve more attention and credit than they’ve gotten?

There are so many: There were tons of African American bartenders, and even in the 19th century, there were women bartenders. Those people have been sort of shoved into obscurity. That’s history I’d like to see explored more.

Are there any other weird novelties that you’ve seen pop up since the books?

The weirder drinks from the past don’t necessarily catch on, but I’m thrilled to see almost all of the full-flavored spirits that I was talking up when I first wrote Imbibe! return. Like genever, and funky Jamaican rum, and things that you just couldn’t get in America in 2007 when the book was published. Now, almost everything is here, even real peach brandy, which hadn’t been made since the 1950s. So that to me is the most fantastic thing. It’s easy to mix up a cocktail; it’s hard to put rye whiskey down for four years.

Who do you credit for those spirits coming back?

It’s a lot of people. It’s cocktail geeks and bartenders, with their demand. An importer or distiller may ask bartenders what they can sell, and for small guys, that’s important, because otherwise, you’re competing head-to-head with Diageo and Pernod-Ricard. Some of these oddball spirits are just too small a market for those larger companies to be in. So you can take those and make a place for yourself, and suddenly you’re doing pretty well.

Do you think the American palate has changed or is changing?

There are plenty of places—most bars in America, numerically speaking—where it’s the same as it ever was. But in the ones that are modern and cutting edge, it’s changing for sure. You’ve got this interest in bitter drinks, you’ve got people drinking things that are smoky and funky like mezcal and rum.  

Speaking of mezcal, do you fear that the availability of some of the world’s great spirits may be affected by our current political situation?

We’re ruled by morons, and that’s proven every day, and I worry about some of the consequences. Also, global warming is going to mess up a lot of things, and that’s gone completely unaddressed, so, yeah, there’s a lot of stuff to worry about.

Tell me about the last bar that you went to that surprised and delighted you.

The Bug Jar in Rochester, New York. Which I think is, A, an amazing name, and B, it’s just this great rock and roll bar that has live bands, and was just pumping. I was super pleased to see that.

If you could tell all the bartenders and bar owners out there what NOT to do today, what would you tell them?

Boy, I feel like they’ve got it hard enough. I like most things I find in bars, certainly better than most things I find outside of bars. But I do have one pet peeve: if you have an internet jukebox, please replace it with a CD jukebox.  

What songs do you play on a jukebox?

Anything that’s over 20 years old, except for Journey. I will not play Journey ever.