Not too long ago, David Wondrich spent an evening in Jersey City sipping cocktails at the brick-walled bar, Dullboy. “I remember when this place used to be terrifying,” he says, noting the city’s once-seedy past. Now, like many urban areas across the country, it has undergone a complete transformation, thanks in no small part to a cocktail renaissance. “I was in Cincinnati recently and had great cocktails there, too,” says Wondrich. “It’s like we’ve gone back to a 100 years ago, when every city had at least one saloon that knew how to properly mix drinks.”
The evolution of cocktails—and the bars that sling them—is Wondrich’s forte. As a longtime writer for Esquire and the author of several books on drinking lore, including Imbibe! and Punch, the New York-based scribe is perhaps the globe’s most revered booze historian. Along with fellow history-loving industry pundits Ted Haigh and Robert Hess, his devotion to the political, social, and economic forces that shape the bar world has left a profound impact on the conversation surrounding modern mixology. With bartenders’ Facebook feeds cluttered with snaps of cocktail competitions and frothy egg-white tipples, Wondrich gives the industry a different point of view, gravitating towards the culture just as much as the technique.
“It’s like we’ve gone back to a hundred years ago, when every city had at least one saloon that knew how to properly mix drinks.”
Wondrich’s interest in cocktails stemmed from his time hanging around bars with musicians. But it wasn’t until the late 1990s, when he was asked to pen something for Esquire.com, that the idea of a liquid-fueled career became a viable possibility. He was a junior English professor writing about music for The Village Voice and “couldn’t bear the bureaucracy of teaching and people telling me what to do.” With encouragement from his wife, he abandoned the safe but stifling tenure track job with health benefits; instead, he advocated the return of the classic cocktail through sharp, witty prose.
At the time, the number of like-minded drink geeks was scarce. Americans were slowly slithering out of the Cocktail Dark Ages, an era defined by shoddy Cosmopolitans and cloying Long Island Iced Teas. By digging into the forgotten history of mixed drinks—and crusading for their resurrection—Wondrich helped give bartenders a new mission: a return to originals using high-quality ingredients.
“I chose this life because I wanted to go into a bar anywhere in America and get a good Manhattan. It’s just cool to have a lost tradition—not a fad—come back. The Manhattan’s not going away for a long time.”
That’s a relief. It’s also something we have Wondrich to thank for. From surreptitious nips of Tequila Sunrises, to a long-forgotten julep rendition from the 1850s, here are 10 cocktails that stand out in Wondrich’s vast canon of potables.
The Tequila Sunrise was the cocktail I learned to mix the year I went to boarding school in New Hampshire, before I got kicked out. It was the mid-1970s, and we were heavily under-aged, but we managed to get tequila and mix it up with grenadine and orange juice in a green-plastic army canteen we brought out to the woods. The tequila was maybe Montezuma or Cuervo, but it definitely wasn’t 100-percent agave. (Photo: yndella.com)
I turned 18 in 1979. They carded you in the suburbs, but back then you could drink in New York City as long as you were tall enough for your head to stick over the bar. The gin martini was the classic cocktail of the early ‘80s. I learned to enjoy them quickly instead of the high-school stuff because I could only afford to drink in old-man bars. I was a college student working in a mattress factory, and my pay packet was pretty slim; I couldn’t go to the Odeon. If you asked for a Cape Codder at these places they looked at you like something was stuck on the bottom of your shoe. Ask for a gin martini and they would grumble a bit, but they knew how to make it, and it was decent. There was no vermouth in them, just booze then, so it was the shortest distance between sober and drunk. (Photo: slovakia.co.uk)
The Old Fashioned
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I was more of a beer drinker, but I would drink Negronis in Italy and Schooners when I was on the Upper East Side. Then we started going to old steakhouses like Peter Luger and Musso and Frank. I thought it was cool all the bartenders knew how to make Old Fashioneds, so I started drinking them. They always had a cherry and orange muddled in them, but they were still fine. It was a drink, and it wasn’t the Appletini. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
Queen’s Park Swizzle
I started writing for Esquire at the end of 1999 and worked on their drinks database. I added the Queen’s Park Swizzle, one of Trader Vic’s favorites, because I thought it was a cool, underrated drink. It’s from Trinidad, and living in Brooklyn, you feel particularly close to the island. It’s also important to me because adding it in symbolized my starting to have opinions. (Photo: kevineats.com)
The Weeski is one of the first drinks I invented that got passed around. I had to go to somebody’s house and bring cocktails, but I was out of vermouth so I couldn’t make Manhattans. I did have Lillet and Irish whiskey, and thought they would go well together and with Cointreau and orange bitters; it turned out to be tasty. It’s a pretty simple drink. I was in Dublin last year and walked into a bar where I saw them aging the Weeski, but they didn’t know who I was. (Photo: thegrocerygirls.com)
Bombay Government Punch
Basically, it’s a simple punch with lime, rich simple syrup, brandy, and rum. When I really started researching punch, maybe 10 years ago, this was something I threw together based on proportions I found in an old book. My interest in punch stemmed from not wanting to bartend for parties anymore. Your friends come over and you’re shaking drinks and it brings out the worst in them—they don’t like what you made and they are asking for things you don’t have. They might be wonderful people, but they aren’t always great bar customers. Punch is democratic. I make it and no one complains. (Photo courtesy Chowhound)
The Poona Club
This is a tribute to my on-and off-again consulting career doing drink lists. I made the Poona Club, kind of a riff on the Pegu Club, for Zak Pelaccio when he opened Fatty Crab. Tanqueray’s Rangpur gin, distilled with limes and ginger, had just launched. I mixed it with blood orange juice, sweet vermouth, and bitters and it did really well there. I came up with the name because it sounded dirty, like, God knows what goes on there? It turns out there actually is a Poona Club in India. (Photo: thegrocerygirls.com)
I included this one in Imbibe! I found a mid-19th century julep recipe written as a prescription in an old issue of Harper’s Monthly and translated it. With three parts Cognac, one part rye, and the rest a normal julep, it’s a tasty, simple, old-school drink that’s good for the summer months. I see it on a lot of cocktail lists now, and it makes me happy. (Photo: ohgo.sh)
Improved Whiskey Cocktail
This is another drink from Imbibe! that I poached from Jerry Thomas. The whiskey, sugar, and Angostura bitters are familiar, but this has a splash of maraschino liqueur, Peychaud’s bitters, and a dash of absinthe—which I find irresistible in a whiskey cocktail. It’s very tied into the origins of the Sazerac. The cocktail is one people seem to like a lot and do riffs on, so it’s important to me personally. (Photo: drinkist.tumblr.com)
Chatham Artillery Punch
Combining rum, brandy, bourbon, and Champagne, it’s the most wicked beverage I know. I made it once for the Southern Foodways Symposium and filled a bathtub with it. Within three quarters of an hour it was empty and everyone was pretty loopy. It’s one of those drinks that is so smooth and pleasant, yet always brings the chaos. I like seeing people get a little drunker than they thought they were going to get. (Photo: visitsavannah.com)