I’ve had April 7th marked in my calendar for a few months now. Perhaps because I’m nerd, or because as a writer and cocktail enthusiast, the man is kind of my spirit animal. Either way, I have been darn excited for the release of David Wondrich’s updated and revised edition of Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar.
I recall reading the first edition of Wondrich’s award-winning tribute to Jerry Thomas; captivated not only by the stories but by his beautifully crafted prose. I kept reading paragraphs out loud to my husband. Over the years, he has become pretty good at tuning me out, but this time he was just as taken as I was and asked to borrow the book as soon as I was done. I told him to get his own. It’s that good.
If you are unfamiliar with his work, here’s a brief synopsis. David Wondrich is one of the world’s foremost cocktail historians. A walking encyclopedia, the man has written a number of seminal works on the subject including the aforementioned Imbibe! and Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl. He is the drinks correspondent for Esquire Magazine. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature. He is a James Beard award-winning author. He is also a founding partner of BAR (Beverage Alcohol Resource).
Yesterday marked the release of the updated edition of Imbibe! By a stroke of good luck, I was able to sit down with Wondrich last week in Seattle to discuss cocktail history, music, writing, and his very first gun fight.
What is your favourite historical story about a cocktail or a bartender?
I think my favourite is something I just found out a little while ago. It’s about Jerry Thomas, obviously. He’s my guy. He was bartender at the Metropolitan Hotel in New York. This is in 1859. There is this guy staying at the hotel who is planning to sail a balloon across the Atlantic. It was going to be the first trans-Atlantic balloon. He had this whole thing planned. It was like 250 feet tall total. It was a huge balloon with a steel, almost submarine-like thing dangling from it with a steam engine and a propeller in the back. They were going to inflate the balloon from the New York City gas mains on the site which is now the New York Public Library at 42nd street and 2nd avenue. It was totally steampunk. It was beyond steampunk. Jerry Thomas was the bartender at the hotel this guy was staying at and he signed on as a crewman for this thing. Everybody wanted to be a crewman. This was going to be the first trans-Atlantic flight and it seemed like the balloon guy knew what he was doing. According to his fellow bartender, Jerry Thomas went out and bought a seal-skin suit, jacket and pants, because it was going to be cold in the upper atmosphere. He also bought a long knife to fight the sharks in case the balloon went down.
They tried to inflate the thing and there was not enough pressure in the New York City gas main to inflate it, so it never actually sailed. Then the next year when they were going to try again something went wrong and then it was the civil war. The guy who built the balloon ended up running balloons for the Union Army which they used a lot to observe for artillery so he wasn’t an idiot. He was actually pretty serious. He was a fellow Yankee like Jerry Thomas and those guys must have gotten along. I can only imagine the conversations at the bar. But that’s a great story.
How did you find this story?
I found it in one of the obituaries in a newspapers and I just laughed. I thought that was super cool. It doesn’t have anything to do with cocktails whatsoever, but it’s a great story. And, you know, Jerry Thomas was a sailor. He would have been a perfect crew member. Sailor and bartender. He would have made drinks and been able to do any of the other tasks required.
What in your opinion is the greatest unsolved mystery in the cocktail world?
For me it’s finding a copy of Jerry Thomas’s second book. Supposedly one existed in the 1960’s. If so, I don’t know where it is. I’d love to get a look at that. Not because of the recipes, most of which were pirated in San Francisco. In 1867 somebody put out this book and you can compare that book to a long review of Jerry Thomas’s second book that appeared in one of the San Francisco papers. All of the quotes are in this other one, so clearly it was the same book and all the names of the recipes tally up, mostly. But the original by Jerry Thomas had biographies and it was illustrated by his own hand. It had biographies of the leading bartenders of the day. I would kill for that, almost literally.
What do you drink while you’re writing?
What do you drink when you’re done writing?
I’ll have a cocktail at the end of the day. Depends on what the day is. I always invent something because it’s easier than remembering a whole bunch of recipes. You know, I know how to make a cocktail. It’ll usually be gin, maybe whiskey with some fortified wine. Tends to be the stirred kinds of drinks. If it’s hot out, it might be a daiquiri.
The one non-cocktail book that should be behind every bar.
It used to be the almanac but now everybody has a phone with Wikipedia available so that’s out. It should be the manual on how to operate the Jukebox because they should have a jukebox. And I mean an old one. I don’t mean an internet jukebox. That’s not a jukebox. I mean a proper jukebox. It could be CDs. I’m not totally old school.
Do you listen to music when you write?
Yeah, constantly. I put my iPod on shuffle and I’ve got about 24,000 songs on it so it just goes on. It’s a mix of all kinds of music- old jazz, African music, classic rock.
Is there any music you would tend to listen to when you’re having a hard time getting motivated?
No. The one thing that really gets me motivated when I’m having a hard time is I have an office on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn which does not have the internet. That gets me motivated. Suddenly I have to work ‘cause there’s nothing else to do there.
I read an interview that you had done with Eater in 2013 in which they asked you about the oral history of bartending and what needs to be documented more diligently. You were talking about the exchange between bartender and client and how that’s something that fascinates you. And it certainly fascinates me as a consumer. It seems like some kind of magic and I was wondering about your take.
I would love to see an intelligent book on how to be a better barfly. There’s so many books on bartending. There are so few books on being a bar customer; not that you need one, but some people do. Some people need help. Most of my Esquire columns are about how to be a better barfly, how to be a little more knowledgeable, how to appreciate different kinds of bars. I would like to see that. I think it would be fun to read.
But what is it about the exchange between bartender and customer?
People work for a living and these days, you work in cubicles for assholes with boring people. There’s no way to sugar coat that. At the end of the day, you want to talk to somebody who’s fun. Bartending is a fun job. It’s a hard job but it’s a fun job. We got some peak Dale DeGroff today [at BarSmarts] when he was telling these amazing stories. Who doesn’t want that? Colourful stories, jokes back and fourth. It’s a better life.
You named Detroit Bar City in 2014. One year later, what are your thoughts on how the city as done?
I haven’t been back since last summer but I look forward to it. Detroit’s rough. I didn’t grow up there but I’ve lived in the same house in Brooklyn, New York since 1986 and it was pretty rough then. So that doesn’t necessarily freak me out. I think Detroit is a land of opportunity. It’s cheap and that’s something that New York, San Francisco and Seattle are not.
I read an interview with you where you said if you could speak to any historical figure it would be Jerry Thomas and you would have asked him to tell you a story. I want you to tell me a story.
One day in about 1981 I was having band rehearsal in New York. And band rehearsal consisted of me with my bass and a little practice amp and this guy Sid and his keyboard in his absolutely scummy apartment on Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side, which was terrifying. It was the worst neighbourhood in New York. It was just awful. We’re sitting there and he’s playing his keyboard. We had a song about Gypsy moths are eating my trees…we didn’t write it. Our band leader wasn’t there. It was this guy, Gerard Little. He was Frankie Lymon’s nephew- you know, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, Why Do Fools Fall In Love. Gerard was this flamboyantly gay guy who used to design ballroom gowns out of garbage bags. He had absolutely impeccable couture skills. He would lay them all out, cut the plastic and build these huge confections. I was a nice suburban kid and I just learned to shut up and watch and see what happened.
So, Sid and I are playing these silly songs and we hear yelling outside. We go to the window like idiots because as we hear yelling, we start to hear gunfire. We’re looking down and this guy had tried to rob the jewelry store on the ground floor across the street. This was not a rich person’s jewelry store either. There was no solid gold in there. It was all plated crap. The guy had tried to rob it and he grabbed some stuff and ran out. The owner, this old Puerto Rican guy, ran out after him waving a Saturday Night Special and started shooting in his general direction. The street was crowded and the guy that tried to rob the store turns around and starts shooting back. They’re probably 12 feet away from each other and neither one of them hits the other. Bullets are flying all over the damn place because they’re not pointing the guns. They’re just kind of waving them and pulling the trigger as fast as they can. We’re just standing there leaning almost out the window like idiots and bullets are flying here and there. And that was my first gunfight.
Was it your last?