Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to ‘Professor’ Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar,” is an awfully long name for a book when you’re sober. And after a few drinks, it becomes next to impossible.
But David Wondrich, the Boerum Hill resident and Esquire magazine columnist who wrote the tome, had no trouble explaining it over cocktails at legendary Prospect Heights’ haunt Freddy’s.
“Four years ago, I was in a bar talking to some people, and they were [involved with the] Slow Food movement. They said that they wanted to do events, and I suggested they do a tribute to Jerry Thomas, the most famous bartender of the 19th century,” Wondrich told GO Brooklyn. “We organized an event at the Plaza, where we had top bartenders from all over the country making Thomas’s drinks. I put out a booklet with it, so I did some research on his life.
“After that, I said, ‘There really should be a new version of his bartender’s guide,’ since the recipes were kind of obscure. From there, it snowballed.”
From a boozy punch to old-time eggnog, Wondrich’s book features over 100 recipes for cocktails from the mixed drink’s heyday.
“The first culinary art from America that the world paid attention to was mixing drinks,” Wondrich explained. “For every traveler who came here in the 1800s, that was one of the first things they noticed and one of the few things they commented favorably on. Americans were rude, but a mint julep on a hot day was a fine thing.”
This international taste for the cocktail brought plenty of travelers to the United States, and quite a bit of success to Jerry Thomas who worked out of the Central Park Hotel in Manhattan. At a time when the fanciest hotel in town ran $2 a night — room and board, mind you — Thomas was raking in $100 each week, which made his salary larger than the vice president’s.
And it should come as no surprise that some of New York’s finest saloons were right here in Brooklyn. The Fulton Ferry Landing area, according to Wondrich, was chockablock with watering holes to quench the thirst of everyone whose boat docked there.
It’s possible that one of these bars was where “The Brooklyn” — a much-debated cousin of the classic Manhattan — was invented, but proving it might be difficult.
“There are blackouts and bulls—t and a lot of loose talk,” said Wondrich of the bar scene, then and now. “The more you dig into it, it’s very hard to find the history of drinks.”
Not that today’s cocktails are any easier to explain.
“The problem with modern cocktails is that there are none that are classic yet,” said Wondrich over a tumbler of Wild Turkey. “I’ll drink them, but I won’t make them at home. There are some that will become classic, but I don’t know what they are yet. The apple martini is, thank God, on its waning end.”
Growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, Wondrich said his earliest experience with the heady world of libations didn’t go down very smoothly. At age 12, a friend’s father caught him and his tween cohort with pilfered rum and cigars and forced the mischievous duo to finish the verboten hooch, which turned both kids off drinking for quite a while.
And for a guy with such significant experience on both sides of the bar — he mixes his own drinks at home, but doesn’t work professionally as a bartender — Wondrich seems to keep a pretty even keel. The author said that he has no more than a few drinks a day, and hesitated to share stories of his own inebriated adventures.
“I try to avoid it now,” he said, “very seriously.”
It might be that he’s a responsible parental type these days, or he could just hope to avoid hangovers — which, he conceded, could be marginally eased by an egg and cheese sandwich but not by having another drink, the old hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-you remedy.
“It makes you feel better, but then you’re drunk again, and you’re an alcoholic,” opined Wondrich.
With another book, this one on alcoholic punch, already in the works, and a regular column in Esquire about the joys of a good drink, Wondrich — who counts Smith & Vine in Carroll Gardens and LeNell’s of Red Hook as his local go-to spots for booze — is perhaps the borough’s leading expert on spirits, and that’s saying something.
After all of his research on drinks, we asked Wondrich what a cocktail named after him would include.
“It would have rye whiskey and maybe some cognac,” he said. But ever the historian, he quickly added, “The problem is that any drink I would really like has probably been invented anyway.”
“Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to ‘Professor’ Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar” ($23.95, Perigee Trade) is available at BookCourt (163 Court St. at Dean Street in Cobble Hill). For information, call (718) 875-3677 or visit www.bookcourt.org.