When David Wondrich’s “Imbibe!” was first published, in 2007, it hit a market that was craving cocktail knowledge. The book, a meticulously researched paean to 19th-century bartender Jerry Thomas, won a James Beard award and became a widely read origin story for the bartending world: a true tale of a man pursuing the making of drinks as a serious career and apparently having a hell of a time doing it.
But Wondrich also had to tally the losses, acknowledging the difficulty of building drinks when some tools no longer existed: spirits that had been snuffed out or driven underground during Prohibition or that simply were no longer imported to the United States, the victims of changing tastes and two world wars.
The best absinthes were made abroad and very expensive; other spirits, such as peach brandy, survived only in poor, flavored imitations. Old Tom gin was unavailable, and the maltier Dutch gin that Thomas would have used would be hard for readers to get, and “the only substitute I know — and it’s not a particularly adequate one — is to mix 8 ounces of John Power & Son or Jameson Irish whiskey with 10 ounces of Plymouth gin and tip in
Scarcity, in other words, would have to mother invention.
In the years since the book’s original publication, the cocktail world kept exploding. You know those scary movies where lab-coated scientists stare into the microscope at a mutant virus replicating so fast they can see the petri dish darken before their eyes? Imagine that virus tattooed and armed with artisanal bitters.
“When ‘Imbibe!’ came out, I suppose there were maybe two dozen bars in America making up-to-date cocktails, and now there are 2,000 bars in Des Moines making them,” Wondrich jokes in a phone interview.
In April, he released a new edition of “Imbibe!,” extensively revised with new recipes, expanded histories of particular cocktails (including the mint julep, the pisco sour and the El Presidente, a drink that can now be made with the intended ingredients). There’s also more detail about Thomas’s life, including a bar he ran in New York that Wondrich says had every amusement a drunk could want. “Everything was in there: shooting gallery, pool tables,” he says dryly. “I mean, like .22 rifles, which I think should probably always be combined with alcohol.”
The original book fed a trend that was already on the upswing; you’d be hard-pressed to find a cocktail devotee who doesn’t know it or its follow-up, “Punch.” Less well known is that when Wondrich isn’t researching and writing articles and books to guide bartenders in their work, he’s often helping ensure that they (and, heck, he himself) have better tools for the job.
One of the biggest changes since the book’s initial release has been in the availability of ingredients. Check a good liquor store these days, and you’ll find absinthe at prices that don’t make us flush Moulin rouge, plenty of rye whiskey and Bols Genever (the much-missed Holland gin). And — in a development that Wondrich says makes him “happier than anything” — a few distilleries are now making real peach brandy.
Those changes are reflected in the new edition, and some spirits have come to hand in part due to Wondrich’s work with importers and distillers, projects for which he has rarely been paid more than a few bottles of product.
Wondrich’s reporting helped spur the availability of batavia arrack through importer Haus Alpenz; his conversations with Haus Alpenz founder Eric Seed were influential in the blending and import of Smith & Cross, the reincarnation of an old-style Jamaican pot still rum. And before “Imbibe!” came out, when Bols was reviewing its genever sales around the world, Wondrich “shared some of his notes for the book and told them that he was trying to make these gin drinks that Jerry Thomas was making,” says Tal Nadari, managing director at Lucas Bols USA. “It definitely made the case even stronger for the Lucas Bols company to introduce genever back into America.”
His first hands-on project was with an old friend, Tad Seestedt of Ransom. Seestedt had a 10-year history of making brandies, eaux de vie and grappa, but was looking to do a gin. Wondrich persuaded him that an Old Tom was needed and would generate a lot of interest. They worked for two years on the product, which has become a bartender favorite. Since then, they’ve developed another historical project, the Emerald 1865, a whiskey based on a Wondrich find: He had tracked down an old revenuer’s manual that listed the ingredients (known as mash bills) for Irish whiskeys from the 1800s and noticed they were different from contemporary ones.
“One major difference is they used oats in almost every mash bill,” says Seestedt. “That was something I hadn’t thought of trying before. It’s difficult to say this is exactly what the whiskey made in Ireland in 1865 tasted like, but I would guess it’s a pretty close replication.”
Wondrich has also worked with Cognac Ferrand, first on a cognac and later on the company’s dry orange curaçao — another ingredient that had to be substituted for in 2007 — and Plantation pineapple rum, which made such a splash at last year’s Tales of the Cocktail conference, the company has expanded its modest initial plans for it.
Cognac Ferrand was already working on an orange liqueur when Wondrich pushed its president and owner, Alexandre Gabriel, to produce a traditional old-school curaçao; some 50 recipes and much shipping of samples from Cognac to Wondrich’s home in Brooklyn later, the cocktail world has Pierre Ferrand, a curaçao it loves.
Describing his friend as a “match-on-the-gasoline guy” with a knack for finding just the right historical document, Gabriel says Wondrich’s strength is that he’s “both an intellectual and a gourmand. . . . Some people are really intellectual in their research, but the brain takes over the palate. And sometimes people are just all about the senses but not necessarily the level of education.”
Surveying the field now, Wondrich sounds like a satisfied man. He loves the increased availability of rye, the reappearance of old liqueurs, the fact of the microdistilling movement. As to what else we still need, “Nothing major. Most of what I’m interested in is available.”
Then he hesitates and admits: There is something. “I’d love to see a true Eastern rye, made with the old traction three-chamber stills . . . aged in heated warehouses . . . made in these old-fashioned stills that nobody uses any more and that are kind of lost technology.”
What the next few years will bring is anyone’s guess. Hopefully, late 2016 will see the publication of the “Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails,” a monster project Wondrich is editing. Regardless, Wondrich — who jokingly referred to the original “Imbibe!” as “what happens when I start to do a little research” — has a curiosity that keeps leading him deep into the past and coming back with great drinks.
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears regularly. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.