900 pages of Drinking Wisdom, a decade in the making
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David Wondrich and Noah Rothbaum have studied bars, alcoholic beverages and beverages for 40 years. So they thought they knew their area of expertise when they started creating “The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails” almost ten years ago.
In the end, they did – and they didn’t.
“Naively, at first, I thought, ‘We’ll do this for two, three years,’ said Mr Rothbaum, 43, deputy editor of the gigantic project, which is nearly 900 pages long and includes over 1,150 entrees on everything from Lao-Lao, a Laotian rice alcohol, to Long Island Iced Tea. “We think we know X’s story. And then you find all these new things and you realize, no.”
“It was a revelation every day,” said Mr Wondrich, 60, editor of the book, which will be released on November 4.
Along the way, they learned that rum, a spirit closely associated with the Caribbean and the Americas, made its debut in Asia; that Old Tom Gin, a milder form of gin popular in the 19th century, the components of which have been the subject of much debate in recent years, was in reality only dry gin fortified with sugar; that the secret recipe for the famous Italian aperitif Campari was based on the bitters of Stoughton, an English product; and that rock and rye, a sweet whiskey drink that recently made a comeback, started out as a quack remedy, the ivermectin of its time.
“It is the most perfect drink for our time because it is a pandemic,” Wondrich said. In the 1870s, a reporter for The Sun, a New York newspaper, quoted a politician swearing by a diet of rye whiskey cut with rock candy to ward off tuberculosis. A fashion was born instantly.
Even the very nature of distillation has been reassessed by Mr. Wondrich and Mr. Rothbaum.
“One of the things you learn from hanging out with master distillers is that distillation is extremely precise work,” said Wondrich. “Then you read a description of someone in the mountains of Peru in 1900 making a still out of a clay pot, the broken bottom of another, a bamboo tube and mud and making a perfectly acceptable sugar cane alcohol. “
Mr Wondrich – who has been a cocktail historian since he practically invented the work in the early 2000s – first committed to making the book in 2012. Damon Zucca, director of content development and the benchmark at Oxford University Press, said the book was a natural addition to the company’s catalog, given its great success with similar volumes devoted to wine and beer, and that Mr. Wondrich was the natural choice for edit it.
“Dave has an incredible network and in-depth knowledge,” Mr. Zucca said. “But he’s also vigorous in the way he selects people to work on the project.”
In 2014, Mr Wondrich knew he needed help and recruited Mr Rothbaum, who edits the Half Full section of the Daily Beast. The pair, who both live in New York City, put together a list of topics that included cocktails, spirits, bars, bartenders, techniques and various other bibliographic items. To write them, they gathered more than 150 contributors. (Full disclosure: I am one of those contributors.)
Along the way, tough decisions were made. The story of the book ends around 2000, when the revival of the cocktail that has favored the careers of the two men explodes. “We had to do it,” Wondrich explained, “because if we cover a few people after the cocktail revolution has become unstoppable, we have to cover them all. And an executive order was issued that whiskey would be spelled that way, even though the world is divided between ‘whiskey’ and ‘whiskey’.
“It’s a typographical convention that’s been blown into all of this,” Mr. Wondrich said. “It does not matter.”
Both believe they have produced a text with no clear history. “There have been a lot of things where historians have written about spirits and their place in the world, but without understanding how spirits are produced,” Mr. Wondrich said, “and others have written in detail about the spirits production, but without a better understanding of their place in the world What we have tried to do is put the two together.
The world might still be waiting for the book if Covid-19 hadn’t stopped the gears of the globe. “I wasn’t traveling,” said Wondrich, who spends much of his time on the alcohol conference circuit. “It gave us time to really do nothing else.”
After such a Herculean task, one would think that a break – and a well-stiffened drink – might be in order. But the two writers are already on their next books. Mr. Rothbaum’s will be another meaty reference book, “The Whiskey Bible”.
“We’re going to spell this one with an ‘e’,” Mr. Rothbaum said.
“Okay,” Wondrich replied. “I don’t care which one you use. Only use one.
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