David Wondrich: “A mixologist knows all the drinks. A bartender knows all the dirty jokes”

If you’ve read a quality article or a book on cocktails history, chances are it was David Wondrich’s writing. The “Imbibe!” author, Esquire drinks correspondent and bar historian has been documenting American drinks industry for over two decades, thus becoming the most popular and the most trusted voice in the sphere. Mr Wondrich has won multiple Spirited Awards and co-founded the bartender training programme Beverage Alcohol Resource, he has also been named one of the the most influential people in bar world by the Drinks International rating. He was generous enough with his time to speak to Barometer about the 2005 cocktail revolution in the United States, the experience Ukrainian bar culture can use and three books every aspiring bartender should read. 

– What does it feel like – to be the most trusted voice in modern bar writing? Have you changed anything in your approach over the years? 

– Yikes! If that’s true, it’s quite humbling. For me, though, I’ve always done exactly the same thing I do now: try to find as many facts as I can about any particular topic, with special attention to primary sources (that is, things written back at the time), try to put them in context, and try to tell a story that fits the facts as I understand them. I’ve been doing that for 20 years now, and I haven’t really changed my approach. 

– Can you pinpoint the exact moment when you realized what responsibility your job entails? One could say that over the years you’ve not only grown the fan following, you’ve made the cocktails writing a big thing.

– When I first started, I didn’t think anyone was reading my stuff, and I might have made up one or two historical drinks. But I stopped doing that by 2002, when I realized that people were not only reading what I was writing, but were taking it seriously. I guess that was really when things changed; when I realized that I better act responsibly. 

– You’ve been recently named number three in the most influential people of the bar world rating by the Drinks International. What’s your take on lists like that? What do you think defines influence in the modern drinks industry?

– I don’t believe that such lists are in any way definitive, but they’re a pretty good indicator of who people have heard of; of who is traveling and meeting people and offering them something they find useful. I do a lot of traveling and a lot of lecturing, and write a great deal, so that gives me a strong leg up in these things. In this industry, I don’t think there’s any substitute for going out and meeting people. Writing, video or press coverage alone won’t do it. 

  • Cocktail Revolution

– You’ve covered the American drinks industry over the decades and basically there’s two different worlds – before and after 2005 and the whole cocktail revolution. What would you say is the main difference between these two time periods, culture wise? We have a particular interest in this period because we’re going through seismic changes in the culture here in Ukraine right now. 

– Back in 2005, the world of people who took both mixing cocktails and bartending seriously was quite small. There were a lot of career bartenders, of course, but few of them bothered much with the details of drink mixing or knew all that much about spirits. The few that did were either elder statesmen (and stateswomen), or the handful of young insurgents who were swimming against the current, and most of these people’s concerns were more with recovering the traditions, techniques and ingredients that had been lost than with moving the art forward into new territory.  Now, young mixologically-inclined bartenders are coming of age in a culture of abundance: almost everything that was lost has been recovered, and they can take for granted things that were rare or non-existent back then. For many, that means that much of their energy is directed toward novelty and innovation, while the now-older bartenders are directing their energy toward hospitality. 

– You obviously have quite a career and quite an experience. How do you learn to differentiate between short-term trends and the things that really do change the industry?

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– There’s no rule. As you get older and more experienced in any field, your perception of time changes. Some things move very fast: trends, in particular, come and go like the seasons; you learn not to pay too much attention to them, unless they stick around for a good long while. When you’re younger, those trends seem to last a lot longer, because time is moving much more slowly for you. That’s how I see it, anyway.  

– What would you say is the most important event in the recent history of drinks?

– That’s a tough one. Maybe the opening of Pegu Club in New York in 2005, which demonstrated that you could do uncompromising craft cocktails at high volume.

  • The difference between a mixologist and a bartender

– You have this anecdote about the dream to be able to get a good cocktail any city in the US you come to. It’s a notion that seemed quite funny in the late 90s but is very much true these days. Would you say the country has finally got there? Can you get a good cocktail everywhere in the States now? 

– Yes. In any city in America you go to there is a now bar where you can get a proper Manhattan. There is even such a bar in a great many smaller towns. That is real progress.  

– Ukraine’s cocktail culture is gaining momentum but it’s mostly the big cities that lead the drinks revolution. Taking into consideration your experience, what would you say was instrumental in exposing the whole country to the cocktail boom? Can we use any American experience to build it up here in Ukraine? 

– The revolution worked in the United States because young bartenders went to the cities to work and learn and then went home to open bars, and when they did they found out that everybody likes a good cocktail if you can get them to try one. To do that requires charm and patience. From the Ukrainians I know, charm and patience are not a problem there.

 – You also have this great bit about the difference between a bartender and a mixologist. What would you say discerns the two terms?   

– A mixologist knows all the drinks and all the ingredients. A bartender knows all the dirty jokes and how to pour a pint of beer. It is possible to know all those things. 

  • Going forward (and back again)

– What’s the next big thing for the drinks industry? Is that the modern technology being implemented? Is that the baijiu culture or whatever making strides in the Western market?

– This I cannot say. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that I cannot predict the future. I don’t even try anymore. We’ll see, won’t we, whether we like it or not. 

– The low abv and non-alcoholic trends – are they here to stay and do they have any historical roots? It seems that every other major alcoholic brand has already launched either non-alcoholic beverage or a low-abv version of the classic drink. Where do you see this trend going?

– There are strong historical roots – look into, for instance, the history of the soda fountain. Will this last? I don’t know. In tough times like these people tend to drink alcohol. So I don’t think it will be dominant. At least I hope it won’t. 

– Can you recommend a couple of books or even whole roadmap on the drinks history that make for an essential reading for every young bartender? (We’re positive that our readers have already read your books.)

– Here are three of my favorites that you won’t find on every list: “Kentucky Bourbon” by Henry Crowgey is a wonderfully detailed history of the rise of bourbon. “Le buveur du XIXe siècle” by Didier Nourrisson is a wonderful piece of social history. “Fix the Pumps” by Darcy O’Neil – a great history and examination of the soda fountain.