Behind the Bar Bar Talk

David Wondrich Thinks Cocktail Books Need a Makeover

David Wondrich shares the secrets behind enticing storytelling. (Illustration courtesy Ariel Dunitz-Johnson)

David Wondrich, author of Imbibe! and Punch, is one of the foremost cocktail historians in the world and a prolific booze writer. His research has been instrumental to bartenders and cocktail lovers around the country, and he’s currently working on a behemoth reference text, the Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails. We sat down with Dave to discuss the state of cocktail books, both historic and contemporary. To anyone who’s has been thinking about writing one, pay attention: Wondrich has opinions about how to stay above the fray.

How has the publishing industry’s stance on cocktail literature changed since you wrote your first book?

My first book was for Esquire magazine. I finished it in 2002, but it wasn’t released until 2004. Even then, it didn’t catch much interest. I wrote another, called Killer Cocktails, in 2005. It was an introduction to cocktails, for beginners, but instead of including recipes for whiskey sours and other familiar drinks, I tried to capture some of the modern drinks that were just starting to come onto the scene. That one got some interest. I pitched Imbibe! as a Cocktail Book 2.0. A little bit more in depth, more focused, building on what Dale DeGroff had written and what Gary Regan had done. It was a departure at the time and hard to sell. People were puzzled. But it still did pretty well for a cocktail book.

For a cocktail book?

Well, here’s the thing: Cocktail books will never get the same kind of sales as cookbooks. Lately people are coming into this thinking they’ll get rich off of book sales and it’s very difficult to do that. You can make money, but you’re just not going to get rich. That said, publishers are definitely warming to cocktail books. Many prominent bartenders are getting book deals right now, and cocktail books are getting coverage in ways that they never were before. Imbibe! was the first cocktail book to win a James Beard Award, and that was in 2008, pretty late in the game. Dale DeGroff should have won it for The Craft of the Cocktail, but nobody was paying attention when it came out [in 2002].

What about the recent Death & Company book? That book has already seen huge commercial success. Do you think it’s an outlier?

Let’s call it the best case scenario. It was expensive to produce and the publisher has a strong interest in promoting it to recoup that cost, so it’s seen a lot of exposure. It’s also maybe the most beautiful cocktail book that’s ever been done. They took their time and really thought it through. But still: It’s not going to outsell Ina Garten’s latest book.

Cocktail books have been around for a long time. How has this genre evolved?

It starts with Jerry Thomas’s book in 1862. The publishers aimed it at anybody who liked a nice drink, but Jerry Thomas was aiming it at fellow bartenders. It was all shorthand: no technique, no help discerning the peculiarities of the recipes. It was just the recipes. And that’s how pretty much all early cocktail books were styled. The best-selling book of the time, The Savoy Cocktail Book, had no framework to it, just recipes. There wasn’t a lot of handholding.

David Embury, a lawyer, changed that when he published The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks in 1948. He spends a fair amount of thought on how you assemble drinks, categories of drinks—all things that hadn’t been done before. I wouldn’t say it changed the genre, but it pointed out a path for future writers. Charles Baker pushed it forward, too: in The Gentleman’s Companion, it was his stories—not the recipes—that made it stand out.

Fast forward to the present. Everyone wants to write a cocktail book with the proprietary recipes from their bar. The problem is... nobody really cares! I think you need to adopt more of the David Embury–Charles Baker style to make a book stand out. Recipes, no matter how excellent, just aren’t enough anymore. It’s become a very crowded field and so books need to have more going on.

On that note, what would you like to see more of in cocktail books?

Well, there were several releases this year that filled major voids. We didn’t have a great book on the science of making cocktails, and Dave Arnold’s book [Liquid Intelligence] really does that. And I appreciate what the Death & Co. book did in portraying the actual culture of the bar. I liked the focus on the customers, and the forces beyond the drinks that make a bar great. I’d like to see more of that. I’d like to see a bar book that discusses music and ambiance. It would sell if it was written well.

Tell me about your current project, the Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails. How have you approached such a massive undertaking?

In the spirit of sheer terror. This has been way more complicated than any of my previous books. I started by surveying a bunch of booze books. I have a giant stack going back 60 years. Some are very well done, some are pretty cursory, but they all follow the same paradigm, more or less: They’re grouped by major spirit groups. So I’m trying to look around the globe and talk about some of the distilling cultures that generally don’t get discussed that way. Shochu in Japan, for example, has a very long history of distilling. I want an understanding of that to be part of the larger booze understanding. I’m trying to widen the scope of conversation; it’s my chance to say “It’s a bigger world.”

Also, as I’ve studied historical books on cocktails and spirits, I’ve discovered that the story is often wrong. There’s so much myth, and I’m trying to get beyond that. I want to create something well-sourced and accurate, that the information here is as good as we know.

What advice would you give someone interested in writing a cocktail book?

Make it as personal as you possibly can. Tell a story. Drinks are just drinks; it’s the stories that give you the edge, make a book unique. That way, even if it doesn’t sell as well as you’d hoped, it’ll at least serve as a calling card for your career and will advance it. Be independent, honest and personal.

Kaitlyn Goalen is a writer, editor and cook based in Brooklyn and Raleigh, N.C. She is the editor and co-founder of Short Stack Editions, a series of single-subject, digest-size cookbooks, and has contributed to a variety of national publications.