Meet & Eat: Dave Wondrich, Cocktail Expert and Historian
"Our bars open later and the drinks are a lot more expensive. But then again, we've got Prozac, so we don't need as many 12 1/2 cent cocktails at 8 in the morning."
David Wondrich most certainly knows his booze. As one of the preeminent cocktail experts in the world, he has authored a wealth of books on the subject. The most recent is called Imbibe!, which won the 2008 James Beard Foundation award for "Best Book About Wine and Spirits."
David shares his insights with us on the role of bars and how they have changed since "Professor" Jerry Thomas' day, and gives the definitive answer on bartenders vs. mixologists.
Name: David Wondrich
Location: Boerum Hill, Brooklyn
Occupation: Cocktail expert/historian
How did you become a cocktail expert? Tell us the trajectory from your first "aha" cocktail moment to where you are today. I first started taking cocktails seriously, if that's the word I want, when I realized that I couldn't in all good conscience step up to the bar at a place called "The Mudd Club" and order something called a "Long Island Iced Tea." It had to be a martini, and it had to be with gin. That was in 1980. From there, it was easy. I was an English professor in the late 1990s, which helped guide my career choice--anything had to be better than that, and if it involved strong drinks, well, that's what I needed.
Who is this "Professor" Jerry Thomas, and how has he influenced what we drink today? He was a sailor, gold-miner, minstrel-show promoter and all-around sport who happened to be a hell of a bartender, and in 1862 he published the world's first bartender's guide.
What makes a good bartender? Quick hands, a good sense of organization, and a generous spirit.
You're traveling back in cocktail history on March 6 at one of Zagat's Vintage Dinners at Keens Steakhouse. Can you give us a sneak preview of some cocktails you plan to serve? There will be a bowl of USS Richmond Punch, a Morning Glory Fizz, which passed for a breakfast drink back in the 1880s, an Improved with Holland Gin Cocktail and a couple of others. Dale DeGroff, Andy Seymour, and I will end the proceedings with Blue Blazers, which involves tossing around flaming, cask-strength single malt Scotch.
How does the role of bars in our society during that "vintage" time period differ from bars today? Our bars open later and the drinks are a lot more expensive. But then again, we've got Prozac, so we don't need as many 12 1/2 cent cocktails at 8 in the morning.
What are some of your favorite bars in New York? A cocktail you've had recently that knocked your socks off? The usual suspects: Pegu Club, Clover Club, PDT, Death & Co and the other new cocktail specialists. But also Keens, McSorley's, Bill's Gay Nineties, the 21 Club, the Old Town--the great old bars. My favorite recent drink is the New York Sour at Clover Club: rye whiskey, lemon juice, orange juice and sugar, with a float of red wine.
If you had to settle on one cocktail for the rest of your life (the horror!), what would it be? A Rye Old-Fashioned is good.
You, along with some of the top cocktail experts in the country, have developed Beverage Alcohol Resource (B.A.R.), a training program for bartenders. What are you teaching? Boy. How to taste spirits. How spirits are made. The history of spirits. The history of mixology. How to mix great drinks. How to craft cocktail menus. How to toss flaming Scotch back and forth. Gin, vodka, tequila, rum, whiskey, whisky (and how they're different), cognac. Basically, blind tastings of every category of booze. And a whole lot of other stuff.
What's the story with bartenders and all that facial hair? It helps you blend in with the whiskey bottles on the backbar.
Bartender vs. mixologist: Which do you prefer and why? If you tend bar, you're a bartender. If you work hard on your cocktails, you're a mixologist. You can be one, the other, or both.
Best pizza in the city? Frank Pepe in New Haven.
Favorite burger? Corner Bistro.
Favorite bagel? Murray's.
Best late-night eats? New York Noodle Town.
Undiscovered gem? Or is there a bar that serves great cocktails that we likely haven't heard of? Bill's (see above).
Guilty pleasures? Grasshoppers (but only at Tujague's, in New Orleans).
Food you won't eat (or spirit you won't drink)? I won't drink any vodka that costs over $30 a bottle.
Most memorable New York City meal? Dinner at Lutece, back in the Andre Soltner years, when Madame Soltner ran the front desk.
Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant recommendations. Who's yours? My friend Melissa Clark, the food writer.
What's the best recommendation she's given you? Well, the most recent one is James in Prospect Heights.
The Zagat Vintage Drinks event will be held on March 6, at Keens Steakhouse from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $75 for two hours of drinks, tutorials and vintage bites. Call 212-947-3636 and mention "Zagat Vintage Drinks" for reservations.