David Wondrich: Wonder Man

20 November, 2015

“Bartenders are smart and ask great questions. Writing for the public though is a challenge. I have to ask myself how I make this stuff relevant – you have to tell them a good story. For Esquire I can’t just say ‘this is happening’, I have to say why you should give a shit if you’re not in the business.”

Wondrich has managed just that, but his discoveries through research are his legacy. Ever humble, he points to the great mysteries he is yet to solve, such as the inventor of two of the most famous cocktails in the world, the Dry Martini and Manhattan. He concedes he has made some small discoveries, such as that the first American gin drinks were actually made with geneva.

Many cocktails also bear Wondrich’s touch. In printing yesteryear cocktail recipes, many of which were nameless, Wondrich had to call them something. He now walks into bars around the world and sees his nominative creations on menus – such as the Prescription Julep, which he found in the form of a prescription. Rich simple syrup? That was Wondrich’s embellishment too.

Future historians may one day look back at the origins of such drinks and ingredients only to find a fellow historian named them. Wondrich chuckles at the prospect. “Future historians will have a hard time. Much more is written down today but what happens if the internet vanishes in a blizzard of electrons? Then we are screwed. Emails are not preserved. They’re [saved] on materials that decay. Unless they can archive on solid rock… turn mountains into digital storage.”

A conversation can wander with Wondrich. There is a light-heartedness to his patter. Yet he is also the type to stop and think about the industry around him. He is both immersed and analytically removed – something not all journalists can claim. When Wondrich spoke out about the “misguided return of the crappy drink” – one of his columns in Esquire a few months back – the industry listened. Some even retorted.

Wondrich is aware his articles are sometimes controversial in nature, but his piece on retro drinks goes deep. Unlike many of the recreators of these ‘dark ages’ drinks he was there the first time round. “I don’t want to keep slagging off on this but I used to go to bars in the 70s and drink these things and they were fucking awful”. 

Wondrich says these throwback trends are “fine in the hands of those that know what they are doing”, but once “into the wild have a habit of mutating”. He says this happened with stirred drinks which at times over the past decade turned into an arms race of “Campari, sherry, amaro, whisky, mezal and three kinds of bitters” in a glass.

Reflecting, though – as is his way – Wondrich thinks the industry is in fine shape. “The bar business is good. Globally, it’s back to the days of pre-World War I, the time of the American bar – the cocktail bar – when every great hotel had to have one. It was a lovely thing. That was the first golden age – now we’re in the second.” But just as the industry descended into the dark before, could it again? “I don’t think we will go back to the ways of the 60s, 70s and 80s in the foreseeable future. There are too many good bars doing it right. Back then mixology fell out of the job. They didn’t give a shit. Now it’s come back and you have to be good at that to be a top bartender, but the hospitality skills are reasserting themselves.”

He describes the industry as “narrow, but deep”. And few have dug deeper and revealed more than Wondrich.   

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