Periodista Tales: Ted Haigh—Birth of a Pseudonym

I took the L train east to Bushwick and walked out into the death throes of whatever grit lingered in that rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Hipster hangouts were encroaching on the Boar’s Head meat factory like a Georgia kudzu. I rounded a corner and passed a specialty wine and spirits shop. I guess change isn’t all bad.

I was in the neighborhood to meet Ted Haigh. Haigh is the author of Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails, which was published in ’03 and came out in a second edition recently enough for it to win Best New Cocktail Book of the Year at the last Tales of the Cocktail. It’s a collection of drink recipes and stories about cocktails that hadn’t been tasted for decades—a handbook for the classic cocktail revival. If a craft cocktail joint has any books on its back bar, you can bet Haigh’s will be among them.

Haigh has lived in Los Angeles since 1990, but he was staying at an apartment in Brooklyn while he did graphic design work for the set of the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire. Haigh’s pseudonym is Dr. Cocktail, but cocktails aren’t how he makes his livelihood. They’re just what made him famous.

Haigh’s apartment is in a converted warehouse. Everything in Bushwick is in a converted warehouse. This one had a buzzer on the door. I pushed the number for Haigh’s place and the door clicked at me until I opened it.

When I arrived at Haigh’s third-floor doorstep, he greeted me with my favorite question.

“Can I make you a drink?” he asked. “I make a kind of pseudo-Manhattan with rye and Punt E Mes. How’s that sound?”

I told him it sounded fine.

Haigh has a modest ponytail, a salt-and-pepper mustache, and a belly consummate with the zeal of his interests. While he was putting the drinks together, I asked him where his fascination with cocktails came from.

“The first cocktail cognizance I had was before I ever had a drink,” he said, “not even close to when I had a drink. It was at the young tender age of fourteen that I got hold of Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual, which came out in 1934. I would look at the names of the cocktails, and they were just fascinating to me. I can recall to this day the three initial drinks that captured my imagination—and they speak very much to the fourteen-year-old mind: the Corpse Reviver No. 2, the Monkey Gland, and the Bosom Caresser.”

He turned to me, brandishing an Old Fashioned glass in each hand. His eyes were as big and wild as pool balls after a break. “The Bosom Caresser is a lousy drink,” he said, then laughed. Haigh laughs like a man who’s comfortable being the center of attention. If you’re in the same room as him and a good joke, you know where to find him.

“But I would think to myself, ‘What are these things?’” he continued. “These drinks that probably hadn’t been served in seventy years. See, all it had to be was old—it just had to be before my lifetime, and I was hooked.”

Haigh sat down with his pseudo-Manhattan and kept talking. I walked over to the floor-to-ceiling sash windows and glanced out at the warehouse across the street. Or maybe it was a mirror.

“Anyway,” Haigh said, “when I inevitably came of age and was able to taste the Corpse Reviver No. 2, it was a true eureka moment. I was able to really understand what chemists those bartenders were—even though we’re talking about a recipe of mostly equal parts—because I could taste each individual ingredient, and yet the whole was something else entirely. Something remarkable.”

It was a familiar story, but it was nice to hear someone else tell it. I asked him how he got to the point where he thought he could write a book on the subject.

“Well, I was starting to collect a lot of bottles,” Haigh said. “I loved the way the physical objects connected to the history. I was also doing research—taking notes and gaining these lines of correspondence. It wasn’t like I even knew what I wanted to do with the information yet—research for research’s sake, you know? Without the AOL gig I wouldn’t have necessarily had the audacity to assume that I could concatenate all of this knowledge and there-a-book-would-be.”

AOL. You don’t hear those three letters end-to-end too often these days. I asked him for the story.

“Oh, that,” he said, pausing and taking a dramatic sip from his glass, “that really created so much of what we now consider the cocktail resurgence.”

A big claim, but I was willing to hear him back it up.

“To begin with,” Haigh said, “in 1994, I believe, I was introduced to the Internet. At the time I had no idea what the Internet was. Almost none of us did. Now, granted, AOL was not really the Internet. AOL was entirely separate from the Internet. It was conducted sort of on the Internet, but it totally protected you from the wilderness of ones and zeros that was the true Internet back then.”

I remembered the days. Screen names. Keywords. Message boards. Funny how quickly new things can become relics.

“AOL was this gated community online,” Haigh said, “and within the gates they had many things—movie reviews, news articles—it was a whole town! So I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if they have anything on cocktails in here?’ Sure enough, there was a section called the Food & Drink Network, and if you burrowed down far enough you found a section on spirits. So I went in there, and like any young kid in a new town, I tended to keep my mouth shut.”

I had a hard time imagining Haigh keeping his mouth shut in any situation, but I kept that opinion to myself.

“But as I’m looking around,” he said, “I notice a lot of people have a lot of questions, but there aren’t too many answers. So, hesitantly, humbly, I start answering questions—and there seemed not be too many questions I couldn’t answer.”

Haigh’s expression is never too far from a grin. It made the short trip.

He continued, “Eventually somebody on the board says to me, ‘You need a better screen name. You should be, like, Dr. Cocktail or something.’ I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ So, within two days of me being Dr. Cocktail, I’m contacted by Craig Goldwyn, the leader of the Food & Drink Network on AOL, who asks if I wouldn’t like to be the moderator of the Cocktails & Spirits section. Why they didn’t want me when I was still agingwino@aol.com, I don’t know!”

Our glasses were empty and Haigh went to refill them. Outside, a semi announced it had shifted into reverse, but didn’t seem to be going anywhere. The droning beep played counterpoint to Haigh’s voice, which drifted in from the kitchen, a few feet away.

“I became the lifeguard for that section of the network,” he said. “And this is the realm where the core group manifested itself. And that included Gary Regan, who would later be instrumental in resurrecting orange bitters, author also of The Joy of Mixology. The great William Grimes, who was the food and drink critic for the New York Times, and would eventually write Straight Up Or on The Rocks.”

Haigh handed me a glass and I sat down opposite him on a short couch. I took a drink. If there was Punt E Mes mixed in with the rye, I couldn’t taste it.

“We were considered the authorities, back then,” Haigh said. “Of course, there was a lot of disagreement. Nothing is as clean and slick as we would like history to be. Even in that era some people cared most about the perfect way to make the drinks, some people cared about what trends were coming up next. Some of us cared about the historical resonance of them—I was in that camp, of course—but together we grew, we evolved as a result of this kind of DNA swap.”

I thought about how many virtual communities had formed within AOL’s walls during that period. Haigh’s story wasn’t just an early chapter in the story of the cocktail renaissance, it was also a snapshot of a moment in time. A time when communities of choice—communities based on mutual interest rather than geography—were just beginning to form. I drank silently to my memory of the moment.

“We were also dealing with a lot of shluff, of course,” Haigh said. “I mean, people asking how to make a Fuzzy Navel, people interested more in Appletinis than actual Martinis. But, by the same token, anyone who went away with, ‘I’m impressed by this,’ and who commented on it further, sent out these ripples. And the Internet was relatively small back then, you didn’t know how far any ripple would go. At the time, those ripples were more like tidal waves than we ever thought they would be. That was the start of things.”

1994 had been a landmark year for the burgeoning cocktail scene. It was the year Brother Cleve went on the road with Combustible Edison, and began to amass the fan base that would come to be known as the Cocktail Nation. Soon after, Joe McGuirk would put together the cocktail program that would eventually introduce me to the Periodista. And on AOL, the first online community of cocktail enthusiasts was born. Ripples upon ripples.

Haigh seemed to have finished his drink. I seemed to have finished mine, too, but Haigh didn’t notice. He was lost in the sway of his own story.

“Eventually I was forced off AOL,” he said, “because AOL was becoming the worst it would get before the merger with Time/Warner—but—it was largely because of the AOL experience that I felt comfortable with being considered an authority on this stuff. And I thought to myself, I have a book in this.”

He waggled his eyebrows at me. Not everyone can pull that off, but Haigh’s eyebrows are made for waggling. “It was actually a person who would later become rather famous,” he said, “who helped take me to the next level.”

I thought about asking who, but I was too busy trying to remember what round we were on. My glass was full again.

“That was a guy named John Hodgman,” Haigh said.

I knew the name. In case I didn’t, Haigh was prepared to fill me in.

“John Hodgman,” Haigh said, “played the resident expert on The Daily Show, and he played the PC on the Mac vs. PC ads. But before all that, Hodgman was a literary agent in New York, and a writer. Now, in the process of building up this presence on the Internet, I started getting well known among the journalists. I ended up being a source, either for quotes or simple fact-checking. And Hodgman originally contacted me as a source for a piece he was writing about—you guessed it—girly drinks. Then he contacted me for a piece he was doing on bitters.”

I stood up. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I was starting to regret it. I found the wall and leaned on it.

“Finally,” Haigh continued, “Hodgman decides he wants to write a nice article for the New York Times Magazine about—me! He came out to Burbank, I had him over to the house, plied him with liquor and so forth. The interview took three days. And at some point I tell him, ‘I’m getting a book published,’ which he knew because, unbeknownst to me, he’s the one who had recommended me to the publishers! John Hodgman was the real impetus for getting me published, really published. The book had been percolating for about ten years before that, but Hodgman was instrumental, just instrumental.”

These were the stories I was out here for. The little bits of biography that intersected with coincidence to create moments that would have a real effect on history. There was a story like that out there for the Periodista. I knew it. At least I felt it. Maybe it was the rye talking—it was certainly the one doing the thinking.

I shook my head, just to remind myself it was there.

“When my book first did come out in 2003,” Haigh said, “I was afraid we were at the end of it. I was thinking, you know, as a nerd who mostly had contact with other nerds, where could this possibly go from here? Like, we’re going to affect the general public? Pfwah!”

Haigh stretched out his arms on his couch. He was a bit of a recluse, Ted Haigh, but here in his own space, with a glass of rye in his hand, he was king of the mountain.

“But, man, we were just at the very pinnacle of the roller coaster,” he said. “And within the year that my book came out, suddenly I was getting calls from Europe. I appear in London, there’s a line of bartenders wanting my autograph. They really adopted it! And I realized that my book, whether brilliant, or merely timely—was timely! Right then the zeitgeist was right where it needed to be. I said things that people believed.”

I certainly did.

I don’t know if it was my idea or Haigh’s, but suddenly we were walking down the stairs and out into the night. Half a block down we entered a series of doors and found ourselves in a dark, quiet bar. It was an off night. I got introduced to the bar manager, Keith Cochran, and the name of the establishment, The Narrows. Haigh ordered a bittered Bronx and I got something off the cocktail menu, a Last Word variation with Scotch and jalepeño tequila called “Word.” (Full stop.)

Haigh and I sipped our drinks and I tried to remember what day of the week it was. Sunday, I thought. Then Haigh was talking again.

“One thing is for sure,” he said. “What we know about the cocktail world that nobody ever voices out loud is how imperfect it is. People create something, they drink it, they get drunk, they forget. It could be that easy. A different bartender says, ‘That’s good, but I want to do it this way.’ Somebody publishes it. They publish a wrong ingredient. It goes into the pantheon with the wrong ingredient. It’s all so part of the human foible. So, in researching the Periodista, God knows I hope you never come to some final conclusion, because that’s inhuman.”

I don’t know how many rounds passed before I was on the streets of Brooklyn, trying to pry my MetroCard out of my wallet. I was only five blocks away from the subway station and I wanted to give myself enough time to prepare.

I thought about the AOL Spirits & Cocktails forum. I thought about Haigh’s book. He had always been about spreading the gospel. Getting knowledge to as many people as possible. At the end of the day, he was right, I might never come to a final conclusion about the origins of the Periodista. And if I did, then where would I be?

I knew one thing: I’d never give up the chase. But maybe I had something else to offer.

Before I walked down the stairs into the subway, I took out my phone and dialed Los Angeles. It was time to try a new approach.

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