I was riding the streetcar down Canal Street toward the French Quarter. It was nearing 10 a.m. on my second day at Tales of the Cocktail and I was trying not to think too hard. Every time a neuron fired my head throbbed with equal parts pain and recrimination. At the Dauphine Street stop, two middle-aged men in wife-beaters and jean shorts were eating sausages out of a can. They knew how to start the day.
I’d gotten some good leads the day before, but I’d lost focus—lurched down the rabbit hole and passed out. Today I needed to be on my game. My first seminar was with David Wondrich and Jeff “Beach Bum” Berry, both experts at tracking down old cocktails. Berry had already delivered all he knew, but if there was anyone at that year’s Tales who might be able to give me a hard lead on the Periodista, it was Wondrich.
There was a crowd of people outside the Queen Anne Ballroom on the second floor of the Hotel Monteleone. They all had the same, haggard look. Long night. I spotted Jackson Cannon. He looked rough, but still bubbled with the usual effervescence. Like one of his own cocktails.
I asked him about the golden key he’d put in my hand the night before.
“That’ll get you into the bartender’s breakfast,” he said. “It starts tonight at eleven. It’s sort of the last hurrah. All the bartenders who’ve been working hard all week get to go wild. Except me—I’ll be working the breakfast.”
The doors opened and we filed into the room. Long rows of tables led up to a raised platform where Wondrich was seated next to Berry. The title of the seminar was New Tales for Old Cocktails: Techniques and Problems of Historical Mixography. I sat down next to Cannon in a middle row.
“Thank you all for coming down to listen to us at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning at Tales of the Cocktail,” Wondrich said, “which is like 5 a.m. for normal people on a workday. This is gonna be a little meandering—if you think it’s bad to come and listen to this, you should try coming and talking at this hour. Whew!”
David Wondrich is the author of Imbibe! From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar. Wondrich’s book set the standard for writing about drink origins. It’s part academic history, part swashbuckling historical fiction. If you want to know how they made a Manhattan in 1915 at New York’s Manhattan Club, read it.
Wondrich has the godfather of all goatees. Bare cheeks and chin hair down to his second button. He’s got a thinking man’s belly. When he speaks, you get the sense that he feels right at home being the most knowledgeable guy in the room.
“I’m Dave Wondrich,” he said, “spirits writer, historian—sort of. And I’m very, very pleased to have Jeff Berry with me. Jeff is responsible more than anybody else for bringing the drink part of the tiki world back to life—figuring out why these drinks were great, and how to make them great in the modern world. So it’s a real thrill and an honor for me to be speaking with Jeff.”
“Oh, you hush, Dave,” said Berry.
“Beach Bum” Berry was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a floppy straw hat. When I looked at him I started to hear ukeleles. I stopped looking.
“We’re here this morning to talk about drink history,” said Wondrich. “How to write it, how to research it, how to make it work. Mixography—okay, perhaps not a true academic field, thank god, but nonetheless, a practical one. The past decade has seen an upsurge of interest in craft cocktails, and a big part of the reason people drink these drinks is the context—the stories behind them. So a lot of people are starting to write histories of drinks.”
Young bartenders who had enrolled in the Tales of the Cocktail apprentice program were shuffling around the room in their drab apprentice uniforms distributing orange drinks in little plastic cups. There was a small bucket on the table in front of me.
“It’s a very tricky field, the history of mixed drinks,” Wondrich continued. “It involves traditional history, of course. Wars and battles and great men and women of the past. The movement of armies means the movement of vast amounts of thirsty people who really, really enjoy alcohol.”
People around the room laughed. I saw Wayne Curtis in the front row. Jim Meehan and Paul Clarke further back. Popular talk. I tried not to smell the alcoholic vapor wafting up from the plastic cup on the table.
“It also involves cultural history,” said Wondrich. “Folkways and cityways. Commercial history is a very big part of it, too, because in one way the story of a cocktail is the story of mixing products together, and you have to know the histories of the products.”
I thought about the Periodista. The liquor company pamphlet where Joe McGuirk claims he discovered the original recipe. The Bacardi family history Ed Hamilton had mentioned the day before. Stories of products.
“It also involves a good deal of literature,” Wondrich continued. “Nobody likes to drink more than writers, except for maybe the aforementioned soldiers. There will be frequent artifacts of mixology to be found in the annals of Western literature.”
Cannon nudged me. I knew he was thinking about Hemingway. I was, too. Jeff Berry leaned into his microphone.
“I’d like to add something,” he said, “which is, no pun intended, but the driest thing you could want to write about, really, is drink. Deconstructing a cocktail, putting it back together. Okay, it’s interesting to you, it’s interesting to me. Today it’s interesting to probably everyone in this room. But who are you writing these things for? Are you just writing for the people in this room? Are you doing a blog for twenty people?”
Twenty people. That was generous.
“Think about your audience,” said Berry. “People like reading about history, people like reading about people. When drink writing is the most interesting for me, and the most fun, is when you weave it into the fabric of life. It’s not just about the drinks, it’s about when people were drinking them and why they were drinking them. We get to bring the past to life through cocktails, which is really cool.”
Wondrich and Berry continued to lecture. They introduced what they called “Dave & Jeff’s 20 Axioms of Mixography.” Rules for the aspiring cocktail historian.
“Write with no attachment to outcome,” said Wondrich.
“Don’t start with a theory and then gather evidence to support that theory,” said Berry. “At that point you might as well be a Budweiser Clydesdale—all you’re going to see is that goal a hundred yards away. You’ll lose out on all the other information along the way that could have taken you in a much more interesting direction. Instead, gather evidence and let it lead you to a theory. Or not! But just let the evidence take you where it may.”
Wondrich introduced another axiom: It never stands to reason. Means, motive, and opportunity are not sufficient. You need testimony, not argument.
“This is the third rail of all cocktail history,” he said. “Just because ‘coquetier’ is the French word for egg cup and it sounds kind of like ‘cocktail,’ and just because a French egg cup looks a little bit like a cocktail glass, and just because they speak French in New Orleans, does not necessarily mean that the cocktail was invented in New Orleans.”
There was some booing and laughter around the room. Wondrich smiled.
“There are so many stories like that,” he said. “I love this one: it’s called a cocktail because the feathers in a cock’s tail kind of look like the rainbow colors of the liquors that go into a cocktail. Okay, what color liquors would have gone into an original cocktail? Brown! Show me a brown cock’s tail.”
He stroked his goatee thoughtfully. Probably no other way to do it.
“My current thinking,” he said, “is that a cocktail was something that, you know, cocks your tail up. Like you would call a nail-biter a bite-nail. And so it’s a cock-tail. It’s grammatically like that. Something to cock your tail up in the morning. That seems in some ways more likely, because there was a general class of drinks that you would have in the morning. Like, we would say eye-opener. What’s your eye-opener this morning? Well, in my case, gin, and plenty of it.”
More laughter. People were sipping the orange drinks that had been passed out. Cannon tasted his then spit into the bucket. That was one option. My stomach could think of another.
“This is how I comfort myself,” said Wondrich. “You’ll never get to the bottom of it. This is what happens in the eye of history, for the most part. The martini—that’s sort of the holy grail of cocktail origins. And even though we’re throwing huge amounts of computer software at it—you know, every book from the 19th century has been scanned for the origins of the word ‘martini’—we may never know who invented the thing.”
Then there was me, wandering around in the dark, shouting the word “Periodista” at anyone who would listen. But I wasn’t the only one. I just had the least funding.
“So, and I say this with a great deal of hyperbole, but The moment of creation is shrouded in stygian blackness, and if one should be granted a glimpse of it, one should be extremely suspicious. You’ll never find that actual moment, that active generation. You’ll never actually see that. Almost impossible.”
“But just because it’s unsolvable,” said Berry, “just because it’s this black hole that depresses you and makes you not want to get up in the morning, don’t let it stop you.”
Eventually, the lecture ended and a horde of people holding copies of Imbibe! and Sippin’ Safari! mobbed the front of the room. I should have been part of the mob, holding the Periodista question high above my head. Instead, I slunk out in silence.