David Wondrich made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. That is, he wrote two books, back-to-back, that are to the world of cocktail history what the “Godfather” and “Godfather II” are to cinema. Groundbreaking, meticulously crafted, instant classics, and above all else, damned fine entertainment. I’ve always preferred non-fiction to fiction, and if you were to ask me specifically what type of non-fiction, I’d draw a target on Wondrich’s work. Somehow, the good Doctor (he holds a PhD in Comparative Literature) manages to interweave an amazing depth of research with a transfixing narrative in ways that seem to escape most of his contemporaries, no matter what the subject. If you’re a fan of 12 Bottle Bar, you’ll love Wondrich’s work. In many ways, we are the little acorn seeking the shade of his mighty oak. To say that Wondrich has been a major influence — not only on how we view cocktails but also how we write about them — would be an understatement. So, join us, won’t you, as we gather ‘round the fire to listen to Doc Wondrich spin his tales of cocktails and punch…
Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar.
Charting the history of the cocktail as it chronicles the life and times of Jerry Thomas, arguably history’s most important bartender as well as author of the world’s first bartending manual, “Imbibe” is, admittedly, a nerdy book. Now, I mean that as a compliment, because that’s exactly what makes it brilliant. Wondrich talks Cocktail the way Kevin Smith talks Death Star. There’s a supernatural ability to not just recite facts here but to be able to wield them with great purpose.
Loosely using the life of Jerry Thomas, the Babe Ruth of Bartenders, as his framework, Wondrich traces the evolution of the mixed drink from its beginnings as punch to the rise of its Vermouth-based form in such libations such as the Manhattan and Martini. Navigating the world of cocktail history is akin to navigating a mine field – you’re often taking steps in sideways and backwards directions in order to move forward. The truth has either been long forgotten or obscured by decades of braggadocio, and Wondrich scours literature, periodicals, diaries – any source possible – to unearth it piece by piece. Elsewhere, he accepts the apocryphal nature of his subject matter – you do not need to know how the Martini got its name in order to agree that it is delicious (but Wondrich offers all the possibilities for good measure, allowing us to decide). All of the major drink classes are here – Sours, Collinses, Juleps, Cocktails, and Crustas, as well as Bitters and Syrups – with Wondrich presenting the original recipes from Thomas (and others) along with his own commentary on modern execution of the drinks. Each story of creation and evolution is recounted with all the zeal of James Burke. Wondrich also covers spirits and tools – how they did it then and how to do it now.
If pretty, glossy pictures are what you’re after, I’m afraid neither of Wondrich’s books covered here will do the trick. This is a book for a broken–in club chair and the warm, mica-filtered glow of a tungsten lamp, cocktail at your side. It’s a history of society as seen through the bottom of a glass – of how we and our drinks shaped not only each other but also the map of the world. When Wondrich tells us “…in the best places, the barkeeper at work was, as we have seen, a marvel of the age… a juggler, a conjuror, and an artist”, he could just as easily be describing his own work in “Imbibe!”.
Punch: The Delights (And Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl
It’s interesting to see how artists follow a seminal work of universal acclaim. Some falter or fail to produce (Margaret Mitchell, the Wachowskis), while others embrace the shield of success as cover to pursue work that is more thoughtful, personal, and potentially less commercial. John Huston followed up “Prizzi’s Honor” with “The Dead”, the band Pulp departed from their chart-topping “Different Class” with the brilliantly brooding “This is Hardcore”, and Danny Boyle left behind his Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” for the risky “127 Hours”. And so, as a chaser to “Imbibe!”, David Wondrich gives us the just-released Punch. Above, I compare the two volumes to the first two Godfather installments, and I think it a perfect analogy on many levels.
Whereas Wondrich presents the story of Jerry Thomas and the evolution of the cocktail through a wide angle lens, in “Punch” he opts for telephoto. Despite its narrowed focus, “Punch” takes nearly twice as long to get to the recipes, of which there are less than half than in “Imbibe!”. Wondrich also reveals more of himself in Punch, making the overall effect a deeper, more personal story. “Punch” is a loose prequel of sorts to Imbibe, but, like Godfather II, it’s also a sequel. You see, anyone who has spent considerable time mixing drinks has most likely come to the realization that punch might be a better way. Why stay trapped behind the bar all night, mixing Whatever-tinis and Red Bull bombs, when you can put in your labor before the event and spend the night mingling with your guests? Wondrich certainly came to this conclusion, as have many of today’s leading bartenders – punch is not only the ancestor to the cocktail but also, quite possibly, the next wave in the mixed drink’s renaissance.
Amazingly, “Punch” is the first and only book of its kind. In it, Wondrich not only dives deeply into the factors that gave rise to the king of drinks, but he also sifts through the dusty pages of history to provide a staggering number of wonderful bowls. With each recipe comes a tale riveting enough to have been plucked straight from Kipling, as well as a deep insight – in Charles Dickens’s Punch, Wondrich recommends Courvoisier VSOP because that’s what Dickens kept in his cellar. Here, punch is the main character, and Wondrich has confidence enough in his subject to present it in vignette form and let us realize the greater sum of the parts. Along with the recipes, Wondrich also provides us with the Four Pillars of Punch –or the four steps to crafting something truly delicious – as well as a discourse on the proper tools for the job.
Above all else, “Punch” is a love letter to an all-but-lost art. Hopefully, as mentioned above, it is also a herald to a rebirth of the same. For those intimidated by our “vast” list of 12 ingredients (I’ve heard such claims) or Wondrich’s inclusion of bottles such as Arrack, take heart in the message at the core of all his work: “Drink the best thing you can, given what’s available.” If that best thing is canned lemonade and “booze”, Wondrich has a recipe for you too. After all, as he advises us – cocktail neophytes and snobs alike – “Flexibility in the pursuit of intoxication is no vice.”
In closing, I think Wondrich himself best sums up why you should pick up a copy of “Punch”: “It’s my fondest hope that anyone who reads this book will feel that it has rendered him or her fully capable of sizing up whatever the archives should disgorge and reducing it to a shopping list and a set of procedures.” “Teach a man to fish,” he tells us, “and he’ll always have Fish House Punch.”
- Dickens’s Drink, A Pauper No More (nytimes.com)
- Q&A with cocktail historian Dave Wondrich, author of ‘Punch’ (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- David Wondrich on Punch: “Wine & Academia By Other Means” (bostonist.com)
- Book Review: PUNCH by David Wondrich Straight Up Cocktails and Spirits (thekitchn.com)