David Wondrich on Cocktails, Cincinnati, and Surprises

One of the major highlights of the Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic this year was getting the chance to interview a spirits writer that I greatly admire, Esquire Drinks correspondent David Wondrich. Thanks to his books and articles, most notably Imbibe! and Punch, his name is closely associated with the classic cocktail movement and documenting the history of drinking culture in the Unites States. My partner Charlie and I sat down (more accurately, stood up in the corner of a tent in Washington Park) to talk with him about his writing and why he decided to attend the Food and Wine Classic in Cincinnati. You can listen to the full interview in Episode #195 of The Charlie Tonic Hour but here are the highlights.

David Wondrich and Ginny and Charlie Tonic from the Charlie Tonic Hour

I’m a little nervous right now because David Wondrich is a really big name. If you are familiar with the cocktail culture in the United States, you have this man to thank to a large degree. Your writing about it, especially your book Imbibe, really took what was a very much a New York phenomenon and made it a much more national, global thing which we are seeing now. 

Well, I think it fell on the rich ground, let’s put it that way. There were a lot of people who were working on that stuff. What I tried to do with that book, which seems to have worked, was to collect the whole pre-prohibition culture and just kind of settle some arguments and straighten it out. I wanted to say that’s how people used to do things and that way people could move on. Because before that everyone was arguing about “What’s the real original way to make a Manhattan.” So I went through all the old books, and I was able to find the original ways people used to do these things, and that let people stop worrying about that kind of stuff.

One question I had, because I really enjoy your writing and in it there is such a love of both the alcohol and the history. It’s so well researched. What came first, was it a love of the drinks and then you went into the history or were you already interested in history and historical research?

It was kind of both at the same time. I always liked cocktails, ever since I was a teenage, partly just because I liked cocktails. But I also liked the stories. I used to watch old movies back when they had black and white movies on TV, and the people were always drinking cocktails in those, both in the comedies and in the crime noir movies. So it was like, ok, all the stuff I like, they’re drinking cocktails, and my favorite writers were full of cocktails. So I was always interested in that part of it, and then the history part of it, I’ve always been interested in history. I had a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, and I was teaching as an English professor in New York and was completely miserable. I hated that job, so I really needed to do something else to pay the bills. I tried writing about music, about old ragtime and jazz, stuff like that, but that really didn’t pay. But with cocktails, I got a job, and they paid me.

You’ve had the experience that I think that all of us want to have, which is to be intensely passionate about something that is very niche in our culture and then through your experience; you were not only instrumental in making it become part of the broader culture, but you got to take that ride with it. You got to see something that you love become something that we all love, and we all enjoy. How has that experience been?

Oh, it’s kind of unbelievable. I mean I don’t want to claim too much credit because there were all these people who were really very involved in this, but at least I was there kind of holding their coats. I got to watch this thing happen and it still kind of incredible. When it first started I thought no one would ever go back to making classic cocktails, I thought that was dead and gone. So when people asked me why I was doing what I was doing I used say “Well I just want to do this so that I can go to every city in the country and get a decent Manhattan” and then we’d all have a good laugh because that would never happen. And then it turns out I wasn’t alone. I feel really lucky to have been there for that. And this is something that grew up on the internet where people could talk to one another. There was always this grumpy, Dorothy Parker loving girl over there who said “That’s not a martini” and then I got to meet her. And then she got to meet the people secretly make huge tiki drinks in their basement in their little tiki bars tucked away in Orange County California. Everybody got to talk to each other a little bit, and then see that there were a lot more niche people than we thought. It wasn’t so niche.

I’m sure you get invited to come speak at these kind of events a lot. What drew you to come to the Cincinnati Food and Wine Classic?

My wife Karen and I were here. We took a couple of weeks of vacation a few years ago in the summer and went to Pittsburg, Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis and Chicago just because some of those cities we’d never been to. I’d never been to Cincinnati or Columbus. I was born in Pittsburg but left when I was eight, so I hadn’t been there in a long time. Indianapolis I hadn’t been since I was about twelve. So we just thought let’s check it out because we’ve had good experience in other Midwestern cities and American cities that aren’t necessarily major media centers. We found out that you really can’t believe what you read in New York. So we came here and thought that Cincinnati was great. Great architecture, really historic city, and we had a good time. So when Donna Covrett called me up and asked if I could do this we kind of jumped at it. Partially out of curiosity just to see what had happened in the past three years because when we came here Over the Rhine was just really starting to get going. The fuse was definitely lit then, but the bomb has gone off now.

Following up on that, you go to a lot of cities. Backing New York out of the equation, what has surprised you about cocktail culture across the United States?

Oh, there’s lots of stuff. I mean we were just in Rochester and Buffalo, which are two cities I’d never been to, and I live in New York State, but they are all the way on the other side of the state. We went, and we found world-class cocktails bars in both. When we were in Milwaukee, we went to Bryant’s Lounge, this dark old cocktail lounge, which was just amazing. It has a stereo system that cost $25,000 in 1973. And it is just the best sounding music, in the darkest bar, with the craziest cocktails. All these 1970’s Midwestern style cocktails.

At this point, the interview was unceremoniously cut off by the arrival of hot steaks for the following demonstration. If you haven’t already discovered his writing, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of one of his books today. It was a pleasure getting a chance to talk with him, and I hope that the next time he visits Cincinnati we have some more great bars for him to discover.

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