The bar is a place to forget—forget your worries, forget about your liver, forget your credit card. So it’s easy to see why the stories behind the old-fashioned cocktails of the Pre-Prohibition era were muddled before David Wondrich dug into them. A former English professor with a Ph.D. in comparative literature, Wondrich is known among friends for his obsession with “old man” drinks and brewing his own absinthe. Life changed when he was hired by Esquire
to write essays on classic drinks.
Today the Brooklyn jazz and rock fan with a wizard-like beard is considered one of the leading experts on the art and culture of the American cocktail and is the author of Imbibe! From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash
. We recently sipped old-timey concoctions with Wondrich at one of his favorite bars, Clover Club
, to hear what the doctor had to say on all of this delicious tomfoolery sweeping the nation once again.
Do you remember your first cocktail?
The first thing I remember is mixing tequila sunrises in my water canteen when I was in the tenth grade. My friend and I thought that was the coolest thing to do, everybody else was in the sneaking Budweiser stage.
What was your first impression of New York bars?
I first moved into the city in 1979 from Long Island, where I went to high school. There were hardly any bars downtown—the East Village had maybe eight or nine bars, now there are eight or nine on every block. And those bars were pretty hardcore. I went to the last of the Bowery bars where bums would drink, and that was a really wild place, very depressing. I remember there was a bar down on Bowery by Chinatown where bartenders were behind glass, and they would slide the drink underneath to you. You wouldn’t get a good drink there, but you could get a drink. It was an education for a young kid from the suburbs—everyone was a junkie or a drag queen. People were drinking things like Alabama Slammers. I always drank dry gin martinis—I would always chose the most old man drink I could get, either scotch and soda or martinis.
You’re now working on a book about punch. Is punch the original cocktail?
It’s the original mixed drink really. Punch was invented in the 1600’s, probably by English sailors but we’re not sure if they picked it up spice trading in India or invented it, nobody’s really sure. It became a sailor’s drink, and by the middle of the 1600’s, people were drinking it in America and in England, and it caught on and became a sensation. It was what the upper class got hammered on until the early 1800’s. It was potent and exciting. A lot of cocktails are basically just small punches—booze, sugar, citrus, water (ice), and spice. Any sour is a descendant of punch. But then life started moving faster and you didn’t really spend the afternoon drinking bowls of punch, as much as you might like to. American drinks came in and changed things.
What do you think of NYC’s cocktail renaissance? Are the speakeasy-type bars doing history justice?
I think it’s really exciting. There are a lot of fantastic cocktails. Some of the bars probably need a little seasoning to truly become loveable, but they’re getting there. I think the greatest thing we’ve seen in recent years is that bartending has become a craft again. It was the first American culinary art, the first American thing that the rest of the world had any respect for. People always thought we were savages, except for those mint juleps, those were powerful convincers.
Do you think we’ll see more original 19th century spirits re-released like Bols Genever (Holland gin)?
The old-school stuff is coming back. Bartenders at influential bars put stuff on their menus and eventually people drink them, so it’s worth catering to them a little bit because there’s a chance it will take off. My first cause was [the return of] rye whiskey, and that has come to pass, and then my next cause was Holland gin, check. I still want a dark, pot-stilled Jamaican rum, something really old and funky, and there isn’t one. The holy grail is American peach brandy. The original is not like what we know now, which is a sweet liqueur. For the original one, they just took peaches and fermented the juice, distilled it, and aged it. It’s been gone for 50 years. They still bootleg it in Georgia but they don’t age it.
What’s your home bar like?
I have lots of antique bar tools but I don’t have a bar in my home—my wife won’t let me, we just don’t have the space. We have an 1850’s wood row house, which is lovely but small. But I mix drinks at home constantly—well, not all day long, ‘cause then I couldn’t actually write. But when I finish writing in the evening, I go downstairs and make a cocktail. Regularly I’ll make things like sazeracs, or daiquiris if it’s hot out.
What’s your favorite drink?
Lately, it’s a New York Sour—lemon juice, orange juice, whiskey, and a float of red wine.