Here’s our full interview with David Wondrich

David-WondrichPhoto: Doron Gild

David Wondrich’s book about Jerry Thomas and his influence on drinking history, Imbibe! has become a must-own book for any bartender wanting to make a career in the industry. Published in 2007, the book has now been updated and revised by Wondrich, taking into account new information he’s learned through the last eight years amid a maturing bartending scene.
Sounds like a good reason for us to give him a ring and talk Jerry Thomas, bartenders, and booze, no?

On the reasons behind his new, updated edition of Imbibe!
About three or four years ago I started seeing that Imbibe! was being used by many bartenders as a textbook, and that got me to thinking that there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s not 100 per cent up to date, just because knowledge marches on and the world marches on. And with every passing year it got worse, so I was finally able to persuade my publisher to do something about it.

Some of things that changed? There’s a lot of historical stuff I found since the book came out, and that other people have found and that sort of changed my perspective on things, so that had to go in.

There’s things like, I found out that Jerry Thomas wrote a second book, that is now lost, but I have pretty good idea of what went in it. I found out a lot of stuff like that, histories of various cocktails — the Jack Rose, the Clover Club — so there were things like that that needed updating.


All the products I said that weren’t available in America, and most of those not anywhere else, well those are available now, so there’s that. You don’t have to make Holland gin from Irish whiskey and Plymouth Gin anymore.

When Imbibe! first came out, there was still kind of the uncertainty over whether this new cocktail revolution was going to take. You know, it was still being argued. There were definitely exciting and energetic people getting into it, and they were opening bars, but not that many of those bars were open by when I was writing it. 2007, when I published it, New York had just seen PDT open, for instance, and Death & Company — those were still new bars, they weren’t the reigning orthodoxy.

The big fight was still with sour mix, cut-corner bartenders. So Imbibe! was an attempt to convince them to come back to their tradition.

For the second edition, that argument’s been won — and won convincingly. Those kinds of guys are still around but no one considers them very relevant. So a lot of the emphasis I had to move a little bit for the second edition to the people who are being too artisanal, too fussy about things. That’s another lesson you got in the 19th century, that there was a sense of proportion in these things.

On what Jerry Thomas would make of today’s bartenders
He’d hire a bunch of them, I’ll tell you that much. [There are} a lot of hard working young men and women who are very impressive, but he might want some of them to lighten up a little bit.

His bar — and this is stuff I didn’t have when I wrote the first edition — for the second edition I found all these advertisements for his bar where he’s talking about [how] he had a shooting gallery in the basement at one point, he had pool tables, he had every kind of bar amusement imaginable. So it wasn’t all about the cocktails.

On how he came to write about drinks
I was an English professor, and not very happy about that, I wasn’t enjoying my job very much. I started writing about music, and I was writing about old jazz and stuff like that and a friend of mine called me up one day. He was working for Esquire’s website and he was in charge of Hearst magazines, which is the company that owns Esquire, and he was looking after their websites.

He said, “I know you like the occasional cocktail, and I know you’re good at some of this history stuff. Well Esquire has their old cocktail book they need adapted for their website.” I was like, well I don’t know. And he said: “It will pay three thousand dollars.” For a junior English professor, that was a lot of money, so I was definitely converted. As it turns out, that was a fun job, so I’ve stuck with it ever since.

On the Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails which he is editing
That’s a huge project that is slowly gathering momentum and that is going to keep me busy for the next year and a half or so at least, but that’s quite an education.

I’m doing that, I have this Bar Smarts program with Pernod Ricard in the US that we keep trying to take internationally, it’s bartender training and part of the bar school I teach with Dale DeGroff and other noted spirits experts. We’ve even had people like Luke Redington come to it — if you’re getting people like Luke Redington coming to it, it’s very gratifying. You’re getting serious people there.

On his collaboration with New york Distilling
New York Distilling’s Allen Katz is an old friend of mine, I’ll help my friends out occasionally or they’ll help me out with ideas. I don’t do it for money, I just do it for fun and try to get more of these lost spirits back on the market, just for curiousity just to see what they were like. Sometimes you need a distillery to help you to do that!

On other people’s cocktail books
I’ve seen most of the cocktail books that come out, and I read as much of them as I can. Dave Arnold’s book is amazing, Liquid Intelligence — that’s a spectacular one. The Death & Company book I really like — that’s quite lovely. There’s a bunch, we’re living in a very good time for cocktail books.

On the challenge of work
I’m all over the place. It’s not always like that, I’ve usually got a burst in the spring and a burst in the fall, things get absolutely nuts. Then the rest of the year I try to scale it back some so I can get some work done. You’ve got to keep on top of things, and you can’t just stay home if you want to learn things — you’ve got to meet people.

You can pick up a copy through Amazon here.


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