Blazing a trail

Blazing a trail

Liza Weisstuchmeets cocktail writer extraordinaire David Wondrich as he launches his latest tome.

Whisky & Culture | 18 Jan 2008 | Issue 69 | By Liza Weisstuch

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Sporting a vest with a gold watch chain dangling from the pocket, David Wondrich took two mugs from his friend, renowned mixologist Dale DeGroff, and ignited a mixture of Glenlivet Nadurra and steaming water. With the mug containing the lit concoction in one hand and an empty mug in the other, he appeared nonchalant as he proceeded to pour the fiery potion back and forth, the blue flame cascading through the air. He was channelling the innovative 19th century mixologist, Jerry Thomas, demonstrating one of the more spectacular tricks Thomas may have pulled when he stepped up to an American bar in his bejeweled threads. The Blue Blazer was one of his signature drinks, but for the record, Wondrich says he’s not sure whether Thomas actually invented the drink or just took credit for it.It was a crisp night in November at the Art Deco-inspired Flatiron Lounge in Manhattan and an assembly of contemporary milquetoasts, dandies, swells, and allpurpose cocktail enthusiasts and epicures had gathered to celebrate the American launch of Wondrich’s book, Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to ‘Professor’ Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar.For three and a half years, Wondrich scoured libraries and archives around America, sifting through antique newspapers, travelogues and obscure novels with Sherlock Holmes-esque diligence to piece together the history of one of the most highly regarded figures in mixology whose life, until now, has been one based more on myth and legend than sound facts.With his 1862 book, How to Mix Drinks (also known as: The Bar-Tender’s Guide and The Bon Vivant’s Companion) Thomas was among the first to compile recipes for cocktails, a term that was coined in the early 19th century.The Professor’s book came at a pivotal time in the cocktail’s progress, an evolution Wondrich charts as only a scholar could.Indeed, Wondrich holds a PhD in comparative literature and was working as an English professor before he went on to create the drinks database for Esquire Magazine and help found the Museum of the American Cocktail, among other liquid endeavors. In Imbibe!, as he unravels the taxonomy of drinks through the eras — punches begat fixes begat sours, juleps begat smashes, etc.; vermouth changed everything generations later and paved the way for the Manhattan. It becomes clear that whisky slowly but surely steps up to play an increasingly prominent role as the epic drama surges.Rums dominated the tavern scene in the Colonial days before brandy and Dutch gin, or Hollands, entered the scene.American whiskey had long been produced, but at the time How to Mix Drinks came out, knocking it straight back was a backwoods practice and wasn’t of concern to urban society types.It wasn’t until a bit later in the game when whiskey had its day – and what a day that ultimately was. Consider an article Wondrich references that ran in Atlanta Daily Constitution in 1879 that proclaims, “When American meets American then comes the whisky sour.” The day after the vintage-glammy bash, Wondrich nursed a beer at a charmingly nondescript Irish pub near his home in downtown Brooklyn and distilled whiskey’s rise in the American cocktail scene.“For fancy drinking in big hotel bars, spirits of choice were brandy – particularly cognac – and Dutch-style gin and rum for punches. Whisky was considered a little vulgar,” he says.“Still, as far back as the time of the Revolutionary War, American whisky started to have its own character,” he adds.That was largely due to the practices of Germans, many of whom settled in Pennsylvania, then an epicenter of distilling. Taking cues from the rye schnapps made in the motherland, they distilled whisky from rye, differentiating it from the stuff their Scotch and Irish distant cousins made with barley.Regional variations were inevitable, though, and nearby, in West Maryland, West Virginia and Kentucky, wheat whisky and corn whisky were distilled. And what was common in one area was considered eccentric elsewhere, Wondrich says. “But by the Civil War, American whiskies ruined the roost,” he adds.Final bourbon and rye was highly prized and single malts were relegated to hot drinks. Flash forward to the 1890s when the “golf-and-Scotch Highball craze” hit the states like Beatlemania, only a few decades after the phylloxera epidemic wreaked havoc on the cognac industry. The book is loaded with original recipes, and in Wondrich’s extensive notes on ingredients and recipe execution, he explains why heavier whiskies from pot stills make for a superlative hot drink while woodier American styles became more widely used when ice came to the forefront of mixology.“In the early days of the Revolution, whisky shows up in some cocktails and juleps,” he said. (A “julep,” it should be noted, was historically a general term for a medicinal elixir long before the now classic Mint Julep recipe came about). “Before the Civil War, Scotch and Irish whiskies were mostly used in whisky punch or in toddies. A Blue Blazer is really a Hot Toddy on fire.” And the Hot Toddy, as far as Wondrich is concerned, rules supreme in the drinks kingdom.He writes: “Under the proper circumstances, a Hot Toddy – particularly one constructed upon a foundation of good Highland malt whisky – is one of the clearest signs I know that there is a providential plan to the universe.” In the recipes Thomas published, Wondrich said, he typically called for one of two styles of whiskies: Glenlivet, which was a catchall for Speyside single malts, and Islays.But even when whisky wasn’t called for, the spirit was, in a way, a spectral presence. You see, many formulas called for gin as the base spirit, and the go-to style of Thomas’s day was Dutch gin, which is markedly different from our modern gins. Hollands, Wondrich explained, was raw whisky that was double distilled – the second time through juniper berries, whereas today’s gin is essentially vodka flavoured with juniper and other botanicals.Hollands, therefore, was maltier, more whisky-esque, than English-style gins that later became popular.Wondrich’s approach may be scholarly, but as you can already infer, scholarly hardly implies staid and objective.Imbibe! is a dissertation on a flamboyant bartender and the history of drinking.Wondrich writes as he speaks, which is to say in lively prose peppered with casual turns of phrase like “pour ‘em,” and “damn tasty drinks.” Throughout the book, he drops suggestions on techniques, offers personal preferences on what brands work best in which formulae, and tosses out dares.In other words, you can almost imagine Wondrich, and through him, Thomas, telling you this while next to you at the bar.
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