Review: Imbibe! From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, A Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas
If anyone ever deserved to have a bottle of the good stuff poured over their grave, it should be Professor Jerry Thomas, and David Wondrich should be the guy to do it. Imbibe! From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar is Wondrich’s amazing James Beard award-winning salute to Professor Jerry Thomas and the history of American cocktails.
For someone who likes good cocktails, sometimes too much, loves history, and thinks witty writing is the most sacred gift the gods can bestow, it’s hard to adequately express what an amazing and eye-opening book Wondrich has put together.
What Wondrich does is use Jerry Thomas’ original cocktail book as a starting point to lead us through the history of cocktails in a way that brings to life frontier salons, upscale clubs, and the shakers of cocktails in ways that make you want to put on a pair of suspenders, learn some classic barbershop, travel back in time, and drink all night.
In some ways the book has a simple premise, Wondrich one of America’s most well-known classic cocktail historians provides an update of Professor Thomas’ book How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion as the starting point to tell the history of the cocktail. Thomas’ book itself was revolutionary in 1862 when it was the first book published on how to mix drinks in America.
Throughout the book, he updates the original recipes to include more understandable directions, provides substitutes for things no longer made, and variations he’s found along the way. This alone makes the book worth having for anyone interested in mixing classic cocktails.
However, the book’s real genius is how Wondrich uses the recipes as a jumping off place for writing about the origins of different drinks, where they got their start, who claimed to have invented them, and how they were drunk. What Wondrich shows in stories about the Ward 8, the Manhattan, the Aviator, and others is that for drinks, like superheroes, the origin story is always the most interesting part of the tale.
As I worked my way through the book it was hard to fathom what it would have been like to be part of the sporting life, ordering punches, watching bartenders mix drinks by tossing the liquid back and forth between two glasses, spending all day drinking – oh wait, I went to college and I’ve seen Cocktail, so it must have been something like that with bigger mustaches and piano players in the corner.
The book opened my eyes to all sorts of drinks that I never imagined existed. One example is the Milk Punch, which is a little sugar, water, cognac brandy, rum, and shaved ice shaken and served with some grated nutmeg on top. As Wondrich quotes from the Brooklyn Eagle “Milk Punch is ‘the surest thing in the world to get drunk on, and so fearfully drunk, that you won’t know whether you are a cow, yourself, or some other foolish thing.’” As a foolish thing, I’ve adopted it as one of my favorite late night drinks, it’s kind of like having warm milk before bed if the warm milk came with a sledgehammer.
Wondrich lays out in a clear way why there is so much confusion between different types of drinks, especially when it comes to toddies, slings, and juleps “or anything else you wanted to call a glass of beverage alcohol with a little sugar in it, a little water if needed, and maybe a scrape of nutmeg over the top or a sprig or two of mint stuck in the glass.”
He points out that the simplicity of the drinks is the source of confusion, especially when regional differences in nomenclature are added to the mix. In some ways, this helped reassure me about some of my confusion about what goes into what and will hopefully make me less indignant when I get quizzical stares from bartenders who look at me like I’m an idiot when I’m ordering anything that wasn’t taught in a cheap bartending school.
Whether you’re a serious drinker or just a casual imbiber of spirits the book is full of useful hints and recipes; one of my favorites is the recommendation to use a peaty scotch when making hot toddies, trust me this is fantastic advice you should follow the next time you’re stuffed up.
What makes this book so special is how Wondrich is able to mix together the history of cocktails with practical advice in ways that makes you feel smarter while having a good time – or maybe that’s just the drinks.