David Wondrich isn’t just the drinks don of Brooklyn—he’s the most esteemed alcohol expert in America. Consider his pulpits: he’s Esquire’s Drinks Correspondent, a contributing editor at Saveur and a columnist for the Whisky Advocate, and he’s covered cocktails for innumerable other publications including the Times, Gourmet, Newsweek and, we’re honored to say, us. His books on cocktails bagged every award out there. Imbibe! a Salute in Stories and Drinks to Professor Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar was the first cocktail book ever to win a James Beard award and Punch: the Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl won the Tales of the Cocktail Award for Best Drinks Book, a setting where the competition is as stiff as the drinks. Wondrich’s work takes him to all corners of the globe to learn and teach—he has trained literally thousands of bartenders—but he has long called Boerum Hill home, which is where we learned that he reads Latin, could live on rabbit and is mourning the death of the old-man bar.
I moved here in 1985. I grew up on Long Island and moved into the city as soon as I possibly could, in 1979 when I was 18. I moved out to LA to be a rock ’n’ roll star, which didn’t quite work out. My folks bought this house for next to nothing as an investment and I moved in as the super. We had a hooker block, which was better than a crack block—those were your two options. Somebody pulled a gun on us once, inside our front gate. I was, like, “You can have my wallet but there’s nothing in it.” We were poor as church mice.
The neighborhood’s changed so much since then.
Once Brooklynites realized Manhattan just wasn’t gonna get cheaper, people started opening their own businesses here. And after a while they looked around and said, “Hey, this is pretty damn charming.” Smith & Vine—it was a big deal when they opened. We were, like, “Oh my god! This is great!” Up until about ’98 we were still considering moving to Manhattan but after that we were, like, “Nah.” The neighborhood bars got worse was the only thing. O’Connor’s used to be a great dark bar with a jukebox curated by the ex-cop owner, who liked doo-wop and R&B, a cheap joint with a mix of neighborhood people. Then they started to get the information worker types. publishing industry people yuppiness. That took some of the character out; it’s still not bad, though.
Given your role in the cocktail renaissance, I figured you’d be more the Clover Club type.
I’ve been drinking in old-man bars since I was 16. I’m mourning the loss of that kind of neighborhood bar. On the other hand, Clover Club’s one of my favorite bars in the world. [Gentrification] goes both ways though. Some of the great old bars are struggling or closing because their rents are just through the roof.
I presume you drink every day?
I’ll have a cocktail after work, then maybe a whiskey before bed. I might have a glass or two of wine or beer with dinner, but I don’t make rounds and rounds of cocktails every day, because you can’t.
But your living room contains more liquor than most bars.
The reason we have all this is that we don’t drink very much—otherwise it would be gone. It just keeps accumulating. The doorbell rings almost daily, sometimes several times a day, with samples for review. If I’m doing an article on Irish whiskeys, suddenly I’ve got 12 Irish whiskeys, and I’m not gonna drink 12 bottles of Irish whiskey over the course of a week. Parties help.
This is my collection of vintage barware. Most of it’s from eBay. This is the first real jigger. It’s designed so you can’t stand it up on this end, so it drains. It’s clever. 1870s, probably, or 1880s. This is the original strainer. To me these are the most beautiful pieces of barware ever made. I definitely use this. Because it’s better.
These books are from when I was a classics scholar. I have a PhD in comp lit, and I taught as an English professor. I spent years studying Latin poetry at NYU, all of my 30s, and got trained to a very high level, which I have slipped from drastically, but I can still read it. It makes it easy for me to do research. Education has its uses.
It’s not legal, but it is fun. I had some leftover punch and I distilled it to see what would happen. It smells kinda sharp and punchy.
A Chemist’s Cocktails
This [acid phosphate] I got from my friend Darcy O’Neil in Canada, who’s a chemist and bartender. It’s a way of adding sourness to a drink. He wrote a wonderful book on the technology and history of soda fountains, so this part of his research. He resurrected it. Quite fun.
Write in White
The white paint marker is essential because you can write on dark bottles. It took me years to learn to label things. I don’t know what this is, for instance—oh, maybe I do! Cognac. I don’t know why I have half an ounce of cognac in an old bottle of St-Germain, but I do.
This is pre-Prohibition whiskey bottled right after repeal. My friend Gary Reagan gave it to me for my birthday about five years ago. I unsealed it and we all had a really lovely toast. It was quite good until I ruined it by forgetting to screw the cap back on tightly.
This is the first edition of the very famous 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, one of the greatest cocktail books of all time. My oldest friend is Kenneth Goldsmith, a well-known artist, and he inherited it from his grandfather. It’s got many cocktails that his grandfather checked off, that he tried. It’s in terrible condition because it’s actually been used—a real prized possession. For my 50th birthday this year, Kenny gave it to me, and for his 50th birthday I made cocktails for him and his friends, ones that his grandfather had checked.
Obviously it’s full of drinks. Vermouths, aperitifs of all kinds, some fortified wines, some sake that’s probably not good anymore. Maraschino cherries, made by Melissa Clark. The obligatory bottle of Champagne. Brooklyn Black Ops from [Brooklyn Brewery’s] Garrett [Oliver], who lives down the street—he’s a good friend. Some syrups that I made, Gum syrup, with gum Arabic and Demerara sugar. Leftover punch—of course I forgot to label it.
But we also eat like humans. Milk for our cereal—we like Organic Valley. They’re actually a cooperative; I like that.
The Melting Pot
You don’t see these very often: African Gin Bitters, from Ghana. Purchased on Flatbush. Brooklyn has such huge variety. On the other side of the park there’s all kinds of Caribbean food, Asian food, huge grocery stores full of fresh produce. Even the Pathmark here has a great fish counter, because it caters to the Caribbean community. I go out to Flatbush to get different kinds of cane sugar, coconut water, different sodas to mix with and good rum selections.
Serve It Forth
I have many punch bowls. My favorite is this Brooklyn Chinatown purchase, a $10 soup bowl, exactly what they would have used in the 18th century for punch. It holds three quarts, enough for 12 people to have a pleasant little party.
This Ra Chand is the best if you have to make a lot of juice. You get a real rhythm going. It cost just over $100. I make punch for various occasions, and after you’ve done a quart of juice with a reamer, you’re ready to drop a hundred bucks.
We cook a lot. Karen is a recipe developer and cookbook editor, and a former maître d’ at An American Place, and she worked at JAMS. Larry [Forgione] was a hell of a cook; the food was just ravishing. I used to smoke cigars with him and Jonathan Waxman. That was modern food right there.
No Passport Needed
Our favorite is everybody’s favorite: Al Di La. That’s the only Italian restaurant in New York that I know where the food tastes just like it does in Italy. I always get the rabbit—I could practically live on it. Unfortunately the Al Di La bar only serves beer and wine, and before dinner, I really want a cocktail.