As the city gets ready to wet its whistle at this weekend’s Manhattan Cocktail Classic, Fork in the Road sat down with cocktail historian and author of Imbibe!, David Wondrich, who will be presenting a seminar at the event. Wondrich will enlighten tipplers on “The History of the Cocktail in New York, 1810-1920” at the Astor Center this Sunday.
What will your seminar be about exactly?
Well, it’s like part 82 of a continuing exploration of the history of the cocktail in New York. I’m always researching stuff and I’m always finding new stuff. The details will be different, but the story is the same. And that’s how New York is the cradle of the cocktail in so many ways. I’ll talk about the first celebrity bartenders, famous hoteliers and hotels, the superstar bartenders and bars, like Jerry Thomas, who I’ve written about. Then, I’ll move into the years just before Prohibition.
What can be learned from what people drank 100 or 200 years ago?
We don’t have to learn anything. We can be happy to drink our Long Island Iced Teas in ignorant bliss. But I like a drink with a story. It’s one way of linking ourselves to the people who walked the same sidewalks and sat on the same stoops so many years ago. It’s one of the great things about living in an old city like New York.
It’s also amazing to see that, back in the day, people had really sophisticated tastes. They liked their drinks drier, their cocktails were boozier. They didn’t have chemical shortcuts like we do now. They pressed fresh juices, made their own bitters.
And, of course, many of these techniques are coming back now.
People are seeing that doing things the old-fashioned way is often better. It’s not just about being antiquated for the sake of being antiquated.
How does the new trend of bartending education fit into all this?
It’s not enough to be a good mixologist. I think the best bartenders are just cool to hang out with. They’re able to turn the bar into a cool private club for everyone hanging out there. But bartenders like that should also know how to make great drinks. You have to know your ingredients.
And can you learn the first part?
No! You can’t teach it and you can’t learn it.
How did you start writing about drinks?
I always liked cocktails. I used to be a musician and, back then, I drank gin martinis just because I thought it was more punk than drinking kamikazes. I was also an English professor, writing about music on the side. And I collected old cocktail books, and writers like Raymond Chandler and P.G. Wodehouse. A friend asked me to write about cocktails for Esquire and, within 15 minutes of writing my first article, I knew it was just the most fun thing to write about.
Is there anything you’ve come across in your research that hasn’t made a comeback yet but you wish would?
Aged peach brandy, which is basically peaches distilled and put in barrels like whisky or applejack. They still bootleg it in some places and Jack Daniels made it up until the 1940s. There are some great drink recipes using peach brandy.
I used to say the Old Fashioned but now everyone is drinking Old Fashioneds. I’ve been doing this just long enough that there are many things that were personal causes of mine that have now [been adopted by people]. It’s like the world has caught up with [me].
What do you think of molecular mixology?
It seems like fun. Some of the drinks are cool. Beyond that, I’m a little skeptical. But I have an open mind. To date, I don’t think there have been any breakthroughs that will become essential to mixology. But, who knows? Tastes change. People are fickle.
What about bacon-infused bourbon?
That might be the closest thing to a breakthrough.
What’s the next big thing in the world of cocktails?
1970s drinks. Superior shooters. We’ve gone so far into pre-Prohibition that I think it would be nice to see more recent drink trends come back. We demonized the 70s. Now, it’s nice to go back and see if there’s anything to salvage.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a book about the history of punch, which goes back to the 1600s. It turns out to be really hard [to research something that old]! And I thought the 19th century was bad.