I often get asked why I started writing this blog in the first place. The true answer is such a mixed bag and it’s difficult to capture your audience with nuance and grey area. Sometimes it’s easier to simplify- I fell in love with cocktail one night at a bar manned by one of the most skilled bartenders in Vancouver. It’s a partial truth. It would suffice. But the more honest answer has to do with feeling lost and lonely in a new city, seeking a creative outlet, finding a way to connect with my new home. See! Nuance and grey areas. Far more complicated and not always the kind of answer people are looking for. I suppose then, what really drew me to this peculiar world was a sense of community- the fact that it was one of the only places in my life where I felt comfortable striking up a conversation with a complete stranger without my normal level of awkwardness. And, for some strange reason, this awkward little grasshopper has somehow found lasting friendships at the bar that transcend a single drink or a one-off conversation. That’s what got me here and that’s what keeps me coming back.
Which brings me to Shanna Farrell. Shanna and I first met at Portland Cocktail Week in 2015. She is an Oral Historian out of UC Berkeley and just happens to have a particular interest in interviewing bartenders. We bonded over this little niche that we both found so fascinating and our love of bearing witness to the stories shared with us. Which is why I was so damn excited when I got word this fall that Shanna was working on publishing a book detailing the Bay Area’s contribution of American cocktail culture. In support of her book release in summer 2017, I am honoured to share some of the interviews Shanna has conducted over the years. As it turns out, the publishing world is far more complicated than I was aware of and her book requires private funding for art and photography. I am keenly aware of the need for visual content to help connect your words with the story you hope to tell. As such, if you’re interested you can click here to find out more information on how to support you can support Shanna’s fundraising efforts.
And with that, let’s get started, shall we? First up, an interview Shanna conducted with cocktail historian, writer, author, co-found of BAR and all around badass, David Wondrich.
David Wondrich is a writer and cocktail historian. He has written several books, including Stomp and Swerve, Imbibe!, and Punch, and contributes to Esquire and the Whiskey Advocate, among many others. He co-founded the bartender training program Beverage Alcohol Resources and has worked collaboratively to produce spirits with companies including Ransom and the New York Distilling Company.
Shanna Farrell, a historian at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, sat down with Wondrich in 2014 for a life history interview. In their interview, Wondrich reflects on his childhood in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and New York, his early education and upbringing, his time spent playing the bass in punk bands, early jobs, his college education at New York University, and teaching at St. John’s University. He talks about writing his first book, making the transition from teaching to writing, and getting involved with the cocktail industry. He discusses his work writing, educating, and growing the bar industry, as well as his work with spirit producers, penchant for history, and hopes for the future.
This is an edited Q&A that is excerpted from their interview. The transcript of the full interview can be found here:
Q: Can you tell me about some of things that your parents were reading when you were growing up?
A: We always had a house full of books. My mom and dad liked to read mystery stories and there were just stacks of paperbacks. But they were also very cultured
and my father read all kinds of history and technical books. My mom read history books, too.
It was a bilingual household; I speak Italian. I didn’t read a lot of Italian books, but when I was in Italy I read whatever I could get my hands on. My grandmother—my father’s mother from Trieste—came from a very literate family. Her father had
founded a literary journal in Trieste around 1900 that had Italo Svevo
and people like writing for it—really serious people. She knew James
Joyce, at least just to say hello to on the street, because he lived there.
She spoke about eight languages. My father spoke about eight languages.
My grandmother was a religious subscriber to TIME Magazine and all throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. We’d be stuck there in Sicily—you know, I’m an American kid stuck in Sicily for two months in the summer—and I read every single issue, because she saved the back issues, cover to cover. I knew all American culture, at least everything worth getting into TIME Magazine. I knew every word.
Q: When you were in school, what was your favorite subject and why?
A: I did well in history and I did well in English. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a writer but my writing was pretty bad. I was reading a lot; I’ve always read just tons. I was reading Thomas Pynchon; I was reading [Louis-Ferdinand] Celine. By the time I was fourteen I was reading that stuff.
I had pretty advanced taste in literature but I didn’t really know how to turn that into good writing. I guess I was kind of adrift at that time.
I went to NYU. I applied to a bunch of colleges but didn’t get into most of them because my grades were very spotty. My SATs were 7 good. But I ended up at NYU, one of two I got into. The other was St. John’s College in Maryland where you have the Great Books Program. It looked very interesting but I didn’t want to be in Annapolis for four years; I couldn’t have faced it at the time. NYU was right in Greenwich Village and I was like, “This is great; I’m going there.” I started as an English major because I didn’t know what else to do. At the time I had started this band and I started playing in more bands once I was at NYU. I was a terrible bass player but I looked right; I was all skinny and rock and roll and into jumping up and down. I got better and I played in more bands. I played at CBGBs a bunch of times in different bands. You know, anyone could play at CBGBs at the time; they had practically open mic nights. But every once in a while the band that I was in got asked back and that was a big deal. So I played there. After a couple of years of NYU and a very spotty performance—so now we’re talking like 1980, ‘81—I dropped out. I had a day job. I was working for lawyers. I went to the NYU job board and picked the first and called them up and went in. They hired me as a clerk and messenger at this firm called LaRossa, Brownstein, and Mitchell, of which James LaRossa was one of the top mob lawyers in the city. That job was a real education. Just crazy shit. So that was my day job and at night I was playing in bands.
Wondrich left NYU, moved to L.A. to pursue music, and met his wife, Karen. They moved back to New York in 1986 and he resumed his studies at NYU.
In January 1987 I said, “Alright, I better do this and finish it up,” and it took me no time at all. Everything I thought was difficult was easy after being a little more mature. Not smoking so much damn pot helped and just being much more settled. I breezed through it got top grades. Suddenly it’s early 1988 and I have BA and there’s nothing to do with it. [Laughs] There was no internet then and no jobs for English majors then—you’ve got to be kidding. So I thought I would get a quick Master’s in Political Science. I wasn’t so interested in English anymore, I was really interested in international politics at the time. I always read the paper and all my early traveling as a kid kind of came back. I spoke languages and I thought that would be kind of interesting. So I went to NYU and it was too late to apply for the program. I went to talk to them and they said, “Well, we’ll let you take the classes and if you do well we’ll admit you to the program.”
I did a semester of Political Science and by the end I realized that I had done quite well but I hated it because I hated the books. They were really boring books written with the absolute lack of readability and style and I couldn’t see myself having to read stuff like that for the rest of my life. Out of nowhere basically I walked over to the Comparative Literature Department at NYU. You know, this is 1988, ’89—I guess ’89—and I sat and talked to this professor, who seemed nice, and he asked about myself and what I was into. I had started taking Latin while I was doing Political Science, which probably shows I wasn’t so committed to Political Science but I was in school and I wanted to know Latin because I liked all of the books and things like that. All of my ancestors knew Latin and it seemed wrong that I didn’t know it. So I told him all of this and then at the end of the hour that I’d been sitting and talking with him he leans over and says, “Well, we can’t give you a lot of money.” I was like, “Wait, you’re going to give me money?” That’s basically what happened. I went into this fairly esoteric department, comparative literature, and my whole education was paid for by NYU because that’s how it worked back then.
Q: What was the process like for you of writing your dissertation?
A: Oh, it was horrible. It took a long time. I hated it so much that I taught myself how to play jazz guitar. I was playing Miles Davis on electric guitar. But I got it done and it did well. I had a good degree and I went on to get a teaching position in New York City, which was amazing.
During that time, though, I’d started to get into the cocktail thing. When I was a musician, even in the early days when I was playing in bands, I was drinking martinis; the gin martini was my drink. Karen also liked martinis. We’d go have martinis before our dinners. Every once in a while we’d save our money and go to the Bemelmans Bar. We’d go up to the Met and go over to the Bemelmans Bar, the Carlyle. I’d put on one of my thrift store jackets and wear a collared shirt. We’d go walk around and look at art until we were good and thirsty and then go have Stingers at the Bemelmans Bar at, like, $10 or $12 a pop—astronomical prices. That was always fun for us in the ‘90.
In I think 1991 Barnaby Conrad wrote this book on absinthe. Karen and I had just gotten back from two months in Europe. Because she had a good job and NYU kept giving me scholarship money, in 1990 – I guess this was 1990—we took it and spent two months in Europe. There we discovered that some Europeans were still into cocktails and we saw a few cocktail lists; I’d never seen a cocktail list before. We didn’t have those in America anymore but Europe still had this barman culture with a person in a little jacket and every town had a fancy cocktail bar. I remember we were at Ferrara once and looking at all these drinks we’d seen in books and saying, “Let’s try a French 75; that sounds so cool.”
And then William Grimes came out with a book, Straight Up or on the Rocks, and it was a history of cocktails in America. We thought that was a revolutionary book but we couldn’t make the drinks in the book that we were most interested in. We couldn’t make Sazeracs because we couldn’t find Peychaud’s Bitters. I went to every fancy grocery store in Manhattan, literally, and every one of them –this was before the internet; you couldn’t look anything up, you had to go. So we got the phone book and I made a list of all the fancy groceries and I went to every one of them and they said, “Oh yeah, we used to have those. I think there might be a bottle in the back.” I’d go and look and there was not. That was kind of a low point. All of the traditional bars had closed, the traditional cocktail culture had died off, and the new one hadn’t started yet.
At the same time, early ‘90s, I started making my own absinthe. I went to the library at NYU, to the distillation section, and got a French distillation book that had a list of all the ingredients. Of course I didn’t have a still so we omitted that part. We just threw all of the ingredients in Everclear; I went up to New Jersey and bought some Everclear and shook it up and tried to drink it. It was just insanely bitter and absolutely horrible to drink, but on the other hand, quite psychoactive mostly because it was made with Everclear, a strong alcohol, that has this weird effect. But also, distillation burns off most of the thujone, which is the supposedly active ingredient in absinthe; nobody realized that then. I’d have this party where’d we make absinthe smoothies in the blender and I’d pour this horribly bitter stuff in and a pound of sugar and a bunch of ice and I’d grind it all up and people would choke it down. Everybody got quite lit and it was very funny. I did that and got written up in the Village Voice, one of the parties; one of my friends was there and he wrote for them. So that was just fun, really. There was no idea that this could ever be a profession.
Q: When you were first starting to write your “Drink of the Week” column for Esquire, it was in the early days of the internet. How did you find recipes that you were working with and when did you realize that you didn’t have a lot of information so you need to go find it yourself?
A: I went to bookstores. I don’t think eBay was around yet but it might have just started. I got Herbert Asbury’s Jerry Thomas book, the 1928 edition. That was the first book that I bought once I got this job. I was like, “I need that.” I had heard in William Grimes that he was like the first. I had a few random cocktail books that I collected over the years. I had a Kingsely Amis one that I loved the writing in and that was hugely influential on me. I had the Charles Baker, the Savoy book that I bought Karen for Christmas one year along with some maraschino liquor, and a couple other rare ingredients. We made Aviation cocktails and that must have been 1996, something like that. ’94 even. We have the book at home. So I had a few of classic books and I started to pick up more as I got more into it.
Q: What about the liquor that you were using? Were you having a hard time finding some ingredients?
A: I was having a very hard time finding some of these things. Early on even gin was sometimes a challenge to get a good bottle. If you found a good bottle of Maraschino it was like, “Hosanna! Now I can make Aviations!” That was like the secret handshake cocktail. Peychaud’s Bitters—we finally got our Peychaud’s Bitters. Karen, at the time, was a maître d’ at An American Place, Larry Forgione’s [restaurant]. This must have been around 1992, ’93 and Emeril Lagasse came in to be a guest chef one night. At the end of dinner Karen was talking to Emeril and she was saying how we would go all over the city looking for Peychaud’s Bitters. He goes, “Oh, I’m from New Orleans; we still have them down there.” Two days later Fed Ex comes for Karen with two big bottle of Peychaud’s from him. I’ll always be very grateful for him because then we were making Sazeracs and that made us happy. We thought we were so cool—we had rye whiskey, we were making Sazeracs for us and our friends. We were like, “You’ve got to try this thing.” And they were like, “What the hell is this? It’s all whiskey! This thing is nuts.” We didn’t have absinthe, though of course we used our fake absinthe to rinse the glass and it just made everything taste like shit. But on the other hand, we thought it was cool. Rye whiskey was another one. All you had was Old Overholt. You were lucky if you found it. It was always on the bottom shelf at some obscure liquor store.
Q: You work with some distillers, like Allen Katz of NY Distilling Company and Tad Seestedt of Ransom. At one point did you start working with distillers?
A: It was really after Imbibe! came out. It’s something that I think is fun for me and the products that come out were fun for similarly historically obsessed bartenders. You can make drinks that you couldn’t make before because you just didn’t have the ingredients. That’s really what it is about. It’s filling in the gaps. None of these products are going to be million sellers or massively popular because they are all a little on the odd side. But on the other hand most are quite good, they are well made, and they are fun to play with and that’s really what it’s all about, is fun, ultimately.
Q: What are some of your dream projects?
A: I’d like to open a bar, but I would have to own the building. There is no way to really make long-term money with a bar unless you own the building. But I’d like to run a small bar in the model of in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. There was this guy Bruno [Mooshei] in San Francisco who ran the Zam Zam on Haight Street where he only made gin Martinis. That was only drink and if you didn’t want a gin Martinis you could get the fuck out of his bar. I’ve always wanted to do that but with Old Fashioneds. I’ll just make Old Fashioneds and there will be like four bottles of whiskey behind the bar. Well rye— excellent rye—well bourbon—excellent bourbon. If I knew you I’d make you a punch with the peels from the lemons or oranges that I’d been peeling to make Old Fashioneds. And that would be it. That would be the sum total of my drinks. I’d have a piano and a piano player. A really small bar, just really cool. I’d work behind the bar a couple nights a week.
Q: If you weren’t a spirits professional or a professor, what would you want to be?
A: I would have loved to have been a rock and roll star. That was just fun. I gave it a good shot. I like traveling. Unfortunately, I’m a very poor financial planner and would have never been able to go on Wall Street to make enough money to travel for the rest of my life, but I would like to have enough money to travel for the rest of my life, basically. I’m pretty restless about that. I like to go out and see things; I’m very curious.
Q: What are some of your hopes for the bartending community?
A: Well, I think they are kind of coming true. What I’d hoped is this great American profession, and part of American culture, would be recognized again at its highest level as a dignified profession. Not a solemn one, but a dignified one. This is dignified labor. In the 19th century it was and it wasn’t. Among the sporting class it was a dignified profession and one of substance. Other people looked on it and sniped, the kind of respectable class. I’d like it without the sniping. I’d like people to say, “This is fine.” A chef these days doesn’t get much sniping and I’d like a bartender to have the same status. If you’re a master of this craft, and if you’ve proven that you’re a master of this craft, then you should be respected as a master of this craft—as a master of any craft.