Mover, shaker

Photography: Belinda Rolland

It's safe to say David Wondrich knows his way around a cocktail glass. Having spent years as the cocktail columnist for Esquire, in 2007 the New York writer and former English professor published Imbibe!, a landmark in the field of history-texts-cum-annotated-cocktail manuals, with the great Jerry Thomas, the 19th century's bartender sui generis, as its focus. This month brings the publication of Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, a history of the mixed drink. He spoke to Pat Nourse.

Speaking as a visitor, David, would you say that Australian bartenders have a perceptible style of their own?
The perception of Australian bartending in the States is of a style I'd call unhinged baroque - people grilling pineapple behind the bar, stuff like that. That's what we hear about, that's it's gotten creative and wild, and the Australian bartenders I've met have done nothing to discourage that impression. We like that.

Ten years ago it seemed that Australian bartenders took their compass readings from London, but now it seems as though it's swung back to the US and to a lesser extent Japan. What's changed?
What's happened in the US is that we've built institutions to move knowledge forward, and that didn't happen in the UK. The bar school that I'm part of has been a little bit influential, we've got very active cocktail websites, we've got Tales of the Cocktail [the New Orleans cocktail culture convention] where everyone can come together once a year and exchange knowledge. In the UK I couldn't have got my book Imbibe! published because they don't pay drinks writers well enough for writing serious articles to make it worthwhile; in the States at least I can get them published and make enough money to survive and do a little bit of research on them. It's a bigger market, which is a plus. I write for Esquire magazine in the US and I can get paid for what I do. Above all I think the perception that this is a unique American art has really pushed it forward and brought people to investigate it. The kinds of kids who are going into bartending now, a lot of them are college-educated, there's a lot of disciplined middle-class kids going into it because it's seen as a cool job that you can turn into a profession. Sometimes you wish they could get some rough edges back and lighten up a little bit, but on the other hand, in terms of knowledge and technique et cetera, those guys are moving forward, they're doing crazy stuff. In London it seems like whenever somebody gets good enough to train they immediately become a brand ambassador and off they go, they're out the of bar. It doesn't lead to institution-building. In the States, too, instead of building a bar and keeping it going and cultivating regulars, all those old-fashioned bartenderly arts, some of the younger bartenders are impatient, they want to be on the fast track, and they think they know it all. For a while, though, it has been more about "teach me the craft", "what did Jerry Thomas know? How can I use that?" and that knowledge became really important to people.

How do you date the cocktail renaissance? Has there really been one?
There really has. Now it's moved into towns like Boise, Idaho - they have cocktail bars. Kansas City. I was a judge at the Kansas City bartending competition last year and there were 20 entrants, all great. That's a sea-change. I trained 150 bartenders in Los Angeles last year; the fact that that many people would turn out for training is just shocking compared to how LA used to be. There's definitely a renaissance.

The landmarks? There was the '80s Wall Street boom where people started drinking Martinis again because they wanted to be conservative, they didn't want to be hippies, they wanted to wear the red suspenders and smoke the cigar. You can't drink many 1950s-style Martinis, which is what they were reaching back to - those things are dangerous. The '50s guys were traumatised World War II vets who were alcoholics, so in the late '80s the Cosmopolitan came in. It was less strong and less forbidding than these all-alcohol Martinis that were just killing people. The Cosmopolitan didn't get a lot of traction with the drinking men of the world, but it did get a lot of women coming into cocktail bars and the men followed. They needed something to drink while they were there and suddenly you had Manhattans coming back, you started seeing more and more interest. At Dale DeGroff's Rainbow Room of 1988 you had the coolest night-time gig in the world - everybody wants to be there, drinking these cool retro-style cocktails, being sophisticated New Yorkers again for a change. It started finally bearing fruit in the late '90s when you started to see new cocktail books coming out with more than just pretty pictures.

Milk & Honey opened in New York in 2000 and that was revolutionary, the first hipster bar. A young cool guy in his 20s doing an obsessive craft bar, very small, with rules on how to behave so you didn't just act like you were a fraternity boy, coming in and talking loud and saying nothing. You had to pretend like you were a sophisticated film noir character. You had to learn these rules of how to behave in a bar, and it was a bit silly and widely commented upon at the time, but it was also widely copied and very effective. It showed people that there was a culture to this, and to really fit in you have to embrace that as well as just the drinks. The movie Swingers made the same point: there's this cocktail culture that's an alternative to the mass-produced-crap-culture. You're not drinking Midori melon balls and acting like you're in college, you're an interesting, sophisticated grown-up drinking a Hemingway Daiquiri. Of course there's the fact that you've had seven of them and your every word is slurring out the side of your mouth, but we won't talk about that. It's become this movement, a way of living urban life.

You're in Sydney and Melbourne to talk to bartenders about their profession. What do you hope to instil in them?
How fun it is. It's supposed to be hospitality, it's supposed to be a refuge from your day-to-day life. The 19th-century bartender William Schmidt, who was an odd and somewhat eccentric colourful character known as The Only William, was describing one of his drinks in a newspaper, and he said, "it pasteurises the mind against the germs of care." That's what I'm here to do. Cocktails aren't supposed to be a source of social anxiety for your customers, they're supposed to be a source of fun and epicurean pleasure. If you have a perfect cocktail, just for that moment, while you're drinking that perfect drink, life is so good. It's not about the cocktail, it's about the moment, and the cocktail is a prop to that moment, not the focus of it. For some of the young bartenders the focus is the drink and not the moment. The customer just wants something delicious.

Some of the wiser and more experienced bartenders I've met have been fond of saying that knowing how to make the drinks blindfolded is merely the most basic foundation of the craft.
It should be a given, yeah. You go to the best bars, like 69 Colebrooke Row in London, where they have some of the most creative cocktails in the world, and you wouldn't know it because they don't make a big thing out of it. It's just a tiny little bar with wonderful warm and efficient service, and - oh my! This drink is great. But it's incidental to this overall atmosphere of sophisticated fun.

What's your idea of a good bar?
When I walk in, the clock stops. There's nothing there to make me want to leave. The music isn't throbbing annoying techno, the sharp edges have been rounded off so I'm not always bumping into things and knocking things over, the glassware isn't so tall and thin that I feel clumsy holding it. All the details. I just want it to be smooth and pleasant. That pleasantness is a really important goal. The best old  bars are like that. You might get a little gruffness from the service staff, but they're worn in, they're comfortable. You go to McSorley's in New York and you don't go in the evening when it's full of yahoos, you go in the afternoon on a cold winter's day and you sit in a chair next to the pot-bellied stove, eat cheese and onions and crackers and drink some ale and talk to your friends and suddenly you look up and it's five o'clock. You've been there three hours and you've got no idea where the time went. That's a great bar. The Napoleon House in New Orleans is another. Their Pimm's Cup is nice and they make a great Sazerac. I wouldn't order anything else there, but hey, they've two great drinks and that's good enough. It's worn and patchy and falling apart, but it sure is pleasant.

What makes a good cocktail list?
That's a great question. For one thing, focus. I'm saddened by the really large books that people hand you because, as my friend Dale says, you need a beer while you're figuring out what to drink. I like a one-pager, I like at least some hint as to what's in the drink - a list of ingredients, say - and I also like a little story on each. If the bartender's busy and I want to order, I still want to know what this drink's about, what's behind it. Why is it here? I like balance, too. I hate those lists that have 12 drinks and all of them have house-infused vodka in them. "Well, that's our specialty." We know that. Maybe you could throw in something for the guy who likes a glass of whisky with a little bitters in it. If I'm doing a list I want it to have something for everybody. It should have a light, pleasant and floral drink as well as something dark and warm - you have to show people the possibilities of what you can do at the bar, but not everything you can do. I like simplicity and balance.

Where do you stand on those shop-worn cocktail quotations, the ones that always seem to have fudged attributions?
You probably don't want to use those. Whenever I'm teaching bartenders and we're talking about putting together lists I say I'm sure you have a writer who hangs out in your bar - if you gave him two free cocktails he'd correct your list for you. These are the people who are making fun of amateurs making cocktails, and then they don't want to bring in a professional to do a professional's job. Get somebody who knows how to spell, who can fix your grammar; be a little bit humble about it.

And learn how to spell Hemingway.

What are some steps we can take towards making better drinks at home?
I think many people at home start off trying to do too much. They think, oh, I have to do all these drinks. Pick a drink. Learn how to make it. Take the Daiquiri, learn how to make it. The real original Cuban-style one: you squeeze half a lime into a cocktail shaker, stir in a bar spoon of caster sugar, put in, say, 60ml of good white rum, something flavourful, fill it with ice, shake it and strain it into a chilled glass. There's really not much to it. Practise that, do it a few times and when your friends come over, say, "let me make you something." They taste that and say, "oh my goodness, that's fantastic." They might want a little more sugar in it and that's easily accommodated. But it's bright, it's refreshing, it's clean, it's vibrant - you've just made one of the most sophisticated cocktails in the whole book and it's not hard. But if you try to buy a whole bar full of stuff you're not going to realise that. All you need in life is to know how to make one great cocktail and already you've got something up on most of your friends who don't know how to make even one. Pick one that you like, and from there you can build on to ones that are like it and so on, but if you start with getting just that one drink right you're already so much ahead of the game. You don't need a whole raft of stuff.

What can you suggest those of us who like a drink can dally with this summer?
Some nice big bowls of Rum Punch or Genever Punch - absolutely delicious. Bols Genever gin is a really cool traditional Dutch product. It's the real stuff, they've brought it back. It's a little expensive, but boy is it good. You make a bowl of punch based on a bottle of that with just some lemon juice, lemon peel, sugar, a big block of ice and maybe a litre and a half of chilled soda water and you've got something delightful. Very refreshing for the summer, and it's something that people will cluster around and drink until they're licking the bottom of the bowl. That's my summer drink when I entertain.

Do you have any recommendations for how we can get the best out of tequila?
My favourite way to drink it is with a little chaser of sangrita - that's fabulous if you've got really great world-class tequila. They don't drink Margaritas in Mexico, they drink Palomas. Mexican cuisine has a genius for taking improbable combinations of ingredients and making them work: they take a shot of tequila - they use 100 per cent agave reposado-style tequila in Mexico usually - and they add a pinch of salt, the juice of half a lime, then ice, and then they fill it up with grapefruit soda. It's been popular in Mexico for generations. With that combination you've got umami from the tequila, you've got salt, you've got bitterness from the grapefruit, so you've got sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami and alcohol - what more do you want? It's a folk drink, not a mixologist's drink, so it wasn't created by consultants.

You've spent a lot of time digging through the history of cocktails. What do you think contributes to the durability of a drink?
The question of what gives a drink longevity is an interesting one. My friend Dave Arnold is a food scientist and he came up with the theory that one of the things that makes certain drinks popular is that they're difficult to screw up. I think that's true to a degree, and I think they have to use common ingredients, they have to be a little bit forgiving, but I think they also need to answer a need. The Martini and the Manhattan are twin drinks, versions of each other that came about at the same time, and they came out because the cocktail at the time in the 1860s and 1870s was all booze. It was very strong, and suddenly life was no longer that antebellum America where the railroads were just being built and there were bears and Indians roaming east of the Mississippi. America was becoming a modern place of streetcars and electricity and telephones ringing and suddenly you can't be that intoxicated all day. If you lighten your cocktail by switching out half the whiskey or gin for vermouth, you've got something that's a little less paralysing but still gives you that intense special something that a true cocktail gives you. It really filled a need. The same with the bowl of punch, the first popular drink made with spirits. It comes out of the age of exploration when suddenly you can't put enough beer or wine on a ship to make it to India, and if you can most of it goes bad. Horrible things happen to beer in the tropics, and transport was a problem. Spirits are transportable, and you could reconstitute them locally with sour and sweet, with water to weaken it and with spice to hide some of the off-notes of the liquor and you're done - you've got the bowl of punch. It turns out to be great in its own right, but it really comes about as a substitute for wine.

Which drinks of the last 40 years do you think will be with us 40 years from now?
I wish I knew. I hope it's not the Pickleback.

What about the ones from after Prohibition which have stood the test of time?
The Margarita, for one, the Bloody Mary. There are surprisingly few. The 19th century was a period of unprecedented creativity and out of it we got the Whiskey Sour, which is just the punch made small, and the Collins, which is just Gin Punch made larger with soda water (the cocktail goes back to the early 1700s, so that's not even a 19th-century drink). There's the Martini, yes, and then that's it, and we look on that as being a time of exceptional creativity. The foundations for most of the canonical cocktails were already laid. So for now, we're really not doing that badly. The Bloody Mary is a whole new thing - that's a weird drink and yet quite effective and delicious, and the Margarita is great. With those two the 20th century is actually doing okay.

What do you think people misunderstand about cocktails?
People are a little intimidated and think it's challenging, think you need to be James Bond and know your order and walk up to the bar, bang, and as a result they're easily victimised by the unscrupulous, which is too bad. I think people think they need to know it all, but they really need to understand how simple it is. At home, at least, get a whole lot of ice, use your palate and try not to make it too sweet.

No one ever has enough ice at cocktail parties.
I think the best thing to tell people at parties is to bring a bag of ice. Everybody's happy if you bring a bag of ice.


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