IMAGE VIA TALES OF THE COCKTAIL
For wised-up drink enthusiasts the world over, David Wondrich is a mountaintop guru casting his gaze over the history of the cocktail with a sagest’s eye.
As the foremost authority on libation history (as well as one of the founders of the modern craft cocktail blitz), he’s also the long-running drinks scribe for Esquire magazine, and a best-selling author of tomes like Imbibe! (which was the first cocktail book to ever win a James Beard award) and the acclaimed Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl (Perigree, 2010), where he chronicles the lifespan of the oft-overlooked and historically misunderstood beverage. His tendency to write makes sense, considering he has a Ph.D in Comparative Lit and lectures at the Smithsonian Institute and the American Museum of Natural History (yes, you may call him doctor if you like).
As he’s been cited for sparking the current punch renaissance, I caught up with him over the phone from his house in Brooklyn in advance of his next Boston appearance on November 24 at Empire Lounge in the Seaport for a master’s class on punch making. He was also just in town for Thirst Boston last weekend, where he spoke on a panel discussion about molasses and the return to form of rum production in New England. Turns out, he has a long history with the stuff.
“My mom comes from an old Maine family,” he says, “and when I was sick as a kid, my grandmother would give me a funky hot-buttered rum heated with a steel fireplace poker. Rum and molasses is such a part of old New England, and the history of it is the history of New England. Every bar I go into in Boston has local rums prominently displayed there. It tells me there’s room for more.”
Who do you see on the production side of things that are standouts in the crowd here?
It’s still too early to see who’s going to rule the category. I’m pulling for all of them right now, they’re all different. They’re not distributed [in New York] so when I’m up there I bring back Old Ipswich, Bully Boy, and Privateer who has three different ones in their pipeline. We just don’t see them down here.
You’ve written about a lot of our local spots in the past. Any personal favorites from the scene here?
Drink Boston is one of my favorite bars, made it on [Esquire Magazine’s] Best Bars list when it opened. That’s just a real stalwart. The Hawthorne is amazing. There are others too, but boy those are national-grade bars. Nobody anywhere doing it better than them, and that has to be taken into account. They’re not just “Boston” bars. They’re major.
And there are so many more popping up regularly.
Yeah. It used to be there was just a couple bars, but now you’re seeing more and more great cocktail bars opening, like Tavern Road in Fort Point. It’s a little weird in Boston sometimes, because there’s such a transient population. You build a crowd, and suddenly they’re out of school, and off they go. On the other hand, you have some of those people stay, and they are really educated. Boston bars are very smart. There used to be such a divide. I was recently at State Park up there, which is kinda dive-y but very smart at the same time, up to date everything, but their nose is definitely not in the air. That was interesting to see. There seems to be a bridging of the gap between the town and gown, of the two Boston’s.
Have you basically hit them all?
[Laughs] I’m in New York and I haven’t been to the new ones here, nevermind Boston. It’s always a challenge, but a good kind of challenge. It means more and more consumers [in the region] care. They want good drinks, and they are willing to pay for it and go out of the way for places that are standing out.
Are you excited for your next stop here? And having local bar-God and DJ Brother Cleave on hand for music?
Brother Cleve is an old friend, and it should be a really fun night.
Punch tends to make things fun.
Punch was the everyday drink of the 18th century. It was just mixed with citrus juice, sugar, and water, and you were supposed to be able to drink a lot of it. It’s basically the session beer of spirits. It was a very social thing to drink punch with friends [at] half the strength of [normal] cocktails to have a lot more, which is good. Punch is pleasant, and deeply traditional. Not that frat party stuff though, where you fill a trash can with mixed cans of fruit juice and then dump in a handle of Everclear. That works, and I won’t deny that, but it’s hardly an epicurean experience. It’s not delicious. Real punch is not a frantic race to get drunk. You have time to stop and smell the nutmeg along the way.
Then there’s the Great Boston Molasses flood of 1919, which sent a 10-foot high wall of the stuff surging through the North End after a storage tank burst.
Yeah I did a bit on that for “Modern Marvels” [on the History Channel]. I went to summer school in Boston in the mid-70s, and I remember back then you could still smell the molasses on a hot day in the area.
What would you have done if you saw that 10-foot wall of molasses coming at you?
I’d get on my surfboard and and surf verrry slowly into the sunset [laughs].
Dan is a freelance journalist and has written for publications including Vice, Esquire, the Daily Beast, Fast Company, Pacific Standard, MEL, Leafly, Thrillist, and DigBoston.