The cocktail historian who shaped the future
A conversation with David Wondrich
Sixteen of Tulsa’s top bartenders are scheduled to throw down once again for the coveted title of Philbrook’s MIX cocktail champion. The judges panel will consist of David Wondrich, Chef William Lyle (The Summit), and myself (The Humble Garnish).
The mention of Wondrich’s name to cocktail aficionados is sure to perk ears and raise glasses. Wondrich was an integral figure in what has been dubbed the “cocktail renaissance”—a period of enlightenment when the research and dedication of a small group of cocktail geeks created what is now the modern craft cocktail movement. He spent years as Esquire’s Cocktail Correspondent, authored five books, and has won numerous awards for his work.
In lieu of a flight to Brooklyn and a bar tab at Clover Club—which, between Wondrich and myself, would rival the cost of the ticket—I opted to phone him early on a Monday morning, as he was finishing his first cup of coffee, to discuss cocktails and MIX.
Andrew Saliga: You’re a household name to cocktail enthusiasts, but how would you describe yourself to the uninitiated?
David Wondrich: I basically invented my own job. I’m a former English professor, former rock and roll musician, who writes about cocktails and spirits and their history—and I have been doing it for the last 19 years.
Saliga: Do you ever order a specific cocktail to gauge the quality of a bar program?
Wondrich: I try not to put unrealistic tests on bars. I'm kind of over the elaborate cocktail as a ritual. I like Manhattans and martinis, then daiquiris in the summer. A sazerac if the bar looks like they've got all the stuff to make them, but I don't really try to push the bar too far. I no longer have to do the Esquire Best Bars in America every year, so I'm kind of in retirement from quality assessment of bars.
Saliga: Is there a particular cocktail history you unearthed that you’re most proud of?
Wondrich: The big one for me was punch. That involved a lot of reading sailors' accounts and going to the British library and looking through the incredibly rare recipe and apothecary books. Discovering how primary punch was and getting into where it comes from, how it was diffused around the world, and how it came to underlie everything we drink today.
Saliga: You collaborated on the Plantation O.F.T.D. Overproof Rum, which features an illustration of you on the label. Tell me more about that.
Wondrich: It was something that Alexander Gabriel wanted to do and so he put together a group of his friends that knew something about rum. He got his board together and we met at New Orleans during Tales of the Cocktail and tasted a bunch of components and made some suggestions. Then we all went to Cognac for the final blend and we spent the afternoon tasting, and nothing. Then we remembered that there was some good pot still rum that we had tasted, but it didn't really have anything to do with the project. We suggested putting some of it in and then it was like, “Oh, O.F.T.D.—Oh, fuck. That's delicious!”
Saliga: So the story is true. It’s not just a marketing ploy on the label?
Wondrich: It’s totally true. I was the one who shouted it.
Saliga: You’re the guest judge for Philbrook’s MIX this year. What’s your approach to judging?
Wondrich: I always look for the simplest drink that’s interesting. The more elaborate it gets, the more skeptical I get. I look for professional bartending, of course, and somebody who’s confident behind the bar and doesn’t put the burden of their nervousness on the judges. Basically, it’s a holistic approach.
Saliga: Tulsa isn’t thought of as a cocktail hub; however, cocktail culture is so prevalent that you can order a great cocktail in almost any city. Is there anywhere you plan on checking out while you’re in Tulsa?
Wondrich: I’ve long given up on that thinking about, “this place is a cocktail hub,” or “this place isn’t.” I have no doubt that there are some great, world-class bars in Tulsa. There are world-class bars all over America, thank God. And from what I hear, Tulsa’s a very pleasant place to live. So, I would be shocked if it didn’t have some great bars to go along with that.
Despite being one of the most qualified people to judge MIX, Wondrich has no air of pretension. Confident in his knowledge, his demeanor is casual and direct with nothing to prove. Regardless, tensions will still be high for the competing
The Philbrook’s 7th annual MIX competition is Sept. 15, and tickets sales fund Philbrook educational programming and museum operations. In addition to the main event, Philbrook has added a more relaxed Friday House Party as part of their new Friday night programming. Both nights are sure to be incredible opportunities to enjoy the creations of Tulsa’s world-class bartenders while supporting the world-class Philbrook Museum.