Q&A: David Wondrich - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Q&A: David Wondrich

If ever there was a person qualified to compile a compendium on the monumentally vast topic of cocktails and spirits, it’s David Wondrich. A James Beard Award–winning author, drinks writer, cocktail historian, educator, and comparative literature PhD and former English professor, Wondrich aligned his passion for both drinks and research as he served as editor in chief for The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails (Oxford University Press). Working on the project for nearly a decade, Wondrich was assisted by associate editor Noah Rothbaum (together they host the Life Behind Bars podcast), and the team assembled contributions from around 160 writers of the modern drinks zeitgeist, including Imbibe executive editor Paul Clarke and digital content editor Emma Janzen. With the impressive tome finally hitting shelves this fall, we caught up with Wondrich about the scope of the project, what he learned in the process, and the joy of falling down a rabbit hole.

Imbibe: How did you come to take on this project, and what was your aim at the outset?
David Wondrich: I was in a bar with my friend [brewmaster] Garrett Oliver, who had just done the Oxford Companion for beer, and they had asked him to suggest people for further companions if he had any ideas. He thought spirits and cocktails would be good, and he suggested that they talk to me about it, but he wanted to check with me first. I was like, “Well, I don’t know … you spent a lot of time on that thing.” But I talked myself into it, and that was a long time ago. I took way longer than Garrett did. He’s a very efficient man. Me, not so much. From the outset, my aim was to try to cover a much wider range of spirits in some detail than [is] usually covered in these sorts of things. There have been some other very good books—large, big-book-of-booze-type things—but they’re fairly focused on European stuff and North American stuff. I wanted to get a little beyond that, because it’s a huge world of distilling. So that was one aim, and another was to reflect the revolution in history writing we’ve seen in that last decade, certainly for spirits and cocktails, where we’ve got access to all these online databases that make it possible to use original sources rather than secondary sources—what people were saying at the time, not what somebody’s marketing department was saying a century later. Those were the two things floating in front of my brain. But it turned out to be difficult. Early on we brought on Noah Rothbaum to help strategize as associate editor and to talk everything over with and help organize the 160 or so writers. We got so many of the best writers in the business to graciously contribute, and that really makes the book much more interesting for sure, and also doable. I think the last figure was 1,160 entries? That’s enough. But the problem is, it’s not enough. But it’s a start.

What was the process like of determining the list of entries? How did you set those parameters?
We have an editorial board of experts in the business that we put together, and that was their biggest responsibility—to say, “What should we cover, what topics, and how do we break down this huge world of spirits?” We had a really good lineup of people that know everything. But there was still a lot of back and forth, and finagling and wrangling. The problem is, we had to cover not just spirits but spirits and cocktails, and those are two very different worlds. But we couldn’t see doing spirits without doing cocktails because that’s how spirits get drunk, at least for a large part of it. It took a lot of agonizing. For cocktails, how many do we do? Which ones? We could do all the rock- ribbed classics, but that’s kind of dull. We wanted others in there for seasoning to make it interesting. Basically, our rule was major highways and scenic byways. So we’re going to put in the Harvey Wallbanger even if it’s not one of the all-time great classics, but it’s got an interesting story. And there were some big classics that didn’t make the cut because they’re not very interesting—we just didn’t have much to say about them. Ultimately, we ended up doing a fair number of them—something like 200 cocktails at least. That’s a pretty good number for a book that isn’t really a cocktail book.

How do you anticipate people will use this book? I hope they’ll use it in the way I like to use similar books: They’ll go with a purpose to look up something and then follow the cross-references, and two hours later they’ll say, “Whoa, I didn’t expect to go there.” It’s sort of an opportunity for virtual travel through the whole world—and not just the world of booze, but the world in general. Everything is tied into regions and little regional histories and histories of companies, and biographies of famous bartenders, and one thing leads to the other—it’s all cross-indexed in weird ways. There are a lot of holes to fall down, for sure. But I hope people will use it for its basic intended use, which is, “I’ve got a question; where can I go that will give me something I can trust?” We tried to help with the origins of things a lot more, with less time spent on lists of regulations and things that you can just find online. Hopefully it will give people perspective on the topic they’re interested in, and give them an orientation and idea of how everything developed.

You’re already an authority on the topic of cocktails and spirits—what did you end up learning from this project? So much! You should see the stack of books I had to buy to put this thing together. It’s a room full of books. It was like writing a second dissertation for me. I spent months, for instance, going through Spanish books on pisco and the history of colonialism in South America to try to get an unbiased take on the history of pisco. Because there’s a lot of stuff like that, just basic-level stuff, where there aren’t a lot of great sources in English, so I spent a lot of time with foreign sources. My Spanish got a lot better, and so did my Portuguese. But it was a chance to really go back to my grad school days and just accumulate information. Distilling in Asia was just a blank canvas in my brain, and now it’s still mostly blank, but there are some patches with bits of color and places where you can make out a picture, so that’s good. And there were a lot of “I’d like to taste that” moments, so I drew on many friends to help me with that. My friend Colin Asare Appiah got some akpeteshie from Ghana, which is a palm spirit. That was pretty amazing, just because I needed to taste West African palm spirit, as one does. A bartender friend of mine from Buenos Aires, Tato Giovannoni, who owns the great Floreria Atlantico, sent me a bottle of aguardiente de Catamarca, the Argentine equivalent of pisco that’s just not exported at all. It was a real education on the world of spirits.

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