Monthly Archives: November 2010

Periodista Tales: David Wondrich—The Historian

I was standing outside McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village waiting for David Wondrich. McSorley’s is not a cocktail bar. They serve one drink—ale—and have done since 1854. Manhattan’s East Village has probably the highest concentration of craft cocktail bars in the United States—PDT, Death + Company, all the biggies—but Wondrich wanted to meet at McSorley’s. Not five o’clock yet and it was bedlam in there, so I waited on the curb.

After a few minutes, Wondrich came ambling down the street with a beaten leather man-bag strapped across his chest. Last time I’d seen Wondrich, he’d spent two hours telling me and a roomful of people that it was practically impossible to find the true origin story of any cocktail. I shook his hand anyway.

He looked at the bar. “Crazy inside?”

I nodded.

“Worth a shot,” he said. “Sometimes you get lucky. It’s the oldest bar in New York—great place if it’s not too busy.”

We ended up at Vandaag, a new Dutch joint on the corner of Second Avenue and East Sixth. Wondrich ordered kopstootje for both of us, which turned out to be a shot of Bols Genever and a beer. The bartender poured the genever just short of overflowing.

“Perfect,” said Wondrich. “That’s so you have to take the first sip like this.”

He stood up, clasped his hands behind his back, and brought his face down to the tiny glass to sip. I did the same. The genever burned, but was gentler than its cousin gin. I drank some of my beer.

I’d spent four hours on a Greyhound bus trying to decide what I would say in that moment. David Wondrich has made a career out of doing the very thing that I’ve been trying to do for the Periodista. He’s dug up and told the stories of countless forgotten cocktails. But, more significantly, Wondrich is the person who has come closest to articulating what the cocktail renaissance is really about. His 2007 book, Imbibe!—half biography of Jerry Thomas, the world’s first celebrity bartender, half a collection of famous cocktail origins and recipes—has become the handbook of today’s barmen. It might also be to blame for the preponderance of vests, bowties, and handlebar mustaches behind so many craft cocktail bars.

I asked Wondrich how he felt about Imbibe!’s influence on the scene.

“Well, the mustache thing, for sure,” he said. “They weren’t doing the 19th-century look too much before Imbibe! But people had already been looking in that direction. I think what I’m probably most proud of is how the book has helped bartenders understand the history of their profession, and see some nobility in it. The story of Jerry Thomas illustrates that, yes, this is a respected profession with exacting standards, and bartenders were traditionally people who were looked up to. I think that’s been really chuffing, so to speak, for a lot of young bartenders.”

I asked what led him to start looking toward the 19th century.

“Well, I love researching,” he said. “I hate writing. Oh, god. I just loathe the process. It’s a very ugly process for me and just takes forever. I like having written. But I love the researching part. For me, that’s the most fun.”

Wondrich took a sip of his genever. He was outpacing me. But then, he was a professional.

“I’m not a very disciplined researcher,” he said. “I’ll go looking for one thing and then—‘Hey, shiny!’—and I’m off in another direction. I can be very tenacious if I have to be, but I’m also not one of those people who can spend twenty years researching the same thing, because you’ll never really get to the bottom of it, but eventually you have to put a book out. Like, I’ve probably learned more about Jerry Thomas since Imbibe! came out than I did before it was published.”

I asked how a man who hates writing got into writing about cocktails in the first place.

“I started out as a music writer,” he said. “I had been writing about music for the Village Voice and the Times. But to be a rock critic or a music critic, you had to write nice stuff about stuff that you thought was shit, because otherwise you just wouldn’t get any work. You know, you can’t be the guy who hates everything—there’s already one or two of those and that job is taken—”

“Hey, how are you?” A man interrupted us. It was Brendan Spiro, Vandaag’s owner. “Nice to see you! Welcome, welcome.” He chatted for a moment with Wondrich, who said gracious things. I worked on my beer.

“So,” Wondrich continued, “around ’99, 2000, I get an assignment from Esquire magazine. They had digitized Esquire’s 1949 Handbook for Hosts, and they wanted me to edit it into a form that would be usable on the internet. There was this big, fat wad of cocktail recipes. Some of the drinks had little essays with them, and I thought, ‘Well, all the main drinks should have one.’ So I wrote up some of my own and handed this thing in. ‘We like those little essays,’ they said. ‘Can you do more of those? Can you do one a week?’ I was like, ‘Okay.’ This was before there were such things as blogs, but that’s what they wanted, really—a weekly web column on cocktails.”

Wondrich had finished both parts of his kopstootje and ordered another beer.

“After I’d been doing it for about a year,” he said, “I went to see David Granger, Esquire’s truly excellent editor, and said, ‘Uh, this cocktail thing’s kind of popular. We should make a book out of this.’ And he said, ‘Okay.’ And that was Esquire Drinks, which is a very cheeky book, indeed.”

Wondrich’s latest book, Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl, delves even further back than Imbibe!, to a time when proto-cocktails were mixed in large bowls by historical figures—Charles Dickens and company. I wondered if Wondrich could possibly go any further back in the history of booze.

“In a perfect world,” he said, “my next step would be to write a history of how spirits became a recreational drink around the world. But that’s a really complicated tale from a time when the world was not unified. To do it right, to tell the actual story, you need ten languages. You need access to archives—the Spanish Colonial Archives, the East India Company, the Dutch East India Company. That would be a great project, but short of being a well-funded academic with graduate students and sabbaticals and summers off, I can’t see any way of doing it. I would have to be twenty years younger starting out.”

Another person stopped by our corner of the bar to shake Wondrich’s hand. It was Phillip Kirschen-Clark, Vandaag’s chef.

“You have room for a snack tonight?”

“Well, if you’re making bitterballen—”

“Sure.  I can bitterball you up.”

“That would be a very, very friendly gesture,” Wondrich said. “Thank you.”

The chef left and Wondrich looked thoughtful for a moment. He sipped his freshly-delivered beer.

“It’s interesting,” he said. “If you look at the world today, nobody gets anything made for them anymore. Everything comes in packages and is just given to you fully formed. Even if you go to restaurants, everything happens behind closed doors, you never see the cooks working. But in a bar, you see somebody making your drink. And you can say to yourself, ‘That’s my drink, right there. And that’s somebody making it. Somebody who’s going to talk to me about it, and make my drink as I like it.’ In today’s world, that kind of thing is really rare. And thank God for it.”

We raised our glasses. That was my moment. I asked Wondrich his advice on the Periodista—one cocktail detective to another.

“There’s no guarantee you’ll ever get to the bottom of it,” he said. “The main thing is, never give up. Keep looking. Every day they’re digitizing new newspapers. Somebody’s gotta digitize the Cuban papers eventually, right?”

Wondrich lifted his man-bag onto the bar and pulled out a thick envelope.

“I brought something to show you,” he said. “Some guy was selling these online. Not on Ebay, just on the internet. He wasn’t even a bookseller, just some guy.” He opened the envelope and a half-dozen small magazines slid onto the bar top.

I recognized them immediately. Back issues of Coctél, the trade magazine published by the Club de Cantineros de Cuba. I never imagined I’d see them in person.

“These are the few, rare issues I have,” Wondrich said. He started flipping through one. “It’s a union magazine, you know? It’s got stuff like, ‘English for Bar Men.’ Lots of advertisements. Mentions of local bars and characters. There’s only a little bit of cocktail stuff in there. Here’s ‘Cocktails of the Last Century,’ a recipe for Vermouth Cocktail Francaise.”

He looked me in the eye.

“I looked through all of these,” he said, “and none of them have the Periodista.”

I was a little disappointed, but not surprised.

“But these are only a few scattered issues. There’s tons more stuff like this out there.”

He picked up another issue. “Here,” he said. “Check this out—this is wild. You look through all these issues, and they’re all just regular bar magazines. Until you get to this one. This one is February 1960.”

Wondrich opened the magazine to reveal a full-page illustration of Fidel Castro.

“And that’s all you need to know. After this, you’re not going to find anything fun in there. It’s all Soviet culture, none of the international brands are advertised. It’s like, boom, right there—end of the Cuban cocktail scene.”