David Wondrich: Wonder Man

Hamish Smith drinks in some pearls of wisdom from the cocktail world’s top historian

Just a few short hours before The World’s 50 Best Bars ceremony, David Wondrich is dressed in his best British tweed, perched on a wooden barstool in a pub, sipping on a whimsically named ale. He couldn’t look more in character for his annual London appearance. 

It is Wondrich’s job to call out the names of the best bars in the business, making history as he does. Which, of course, is his currency – Wondrich is the drinks industry’s premiere historian. 

Yet, despite the high station, Wondrich has only been writing about and researching the drinks industry for 15 years. Before that he was a professor of English, before that a bass player in a punk band and, going back further, the son of an Italian immigrant from Trieste who settled in Pittsburgh, Chicago and then New York. 

“I was a professor for 10 years, but it was the worst job I ever had,” says Wondrich. “I hated it so much I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. Teaching was OK but administration? I hated people telling me what to do.”

Despite having studied hard and taking the academic route, Wondrich gave it all up. He started writing about music, a passion relinquished in his mid-20s, when his punk band didn’t quite make the grade against the “new wave” of music. Through a friend, he scored a gig writing on cocktails for Esquire’s website in one of the earliest examples of online cocktail writing. 

As a professor of English, he knew his way around the alphabet but his knowledge of cocktails back in 1999 was not exactly broad. “I was new to the whole thing. I didn’t know a huge amount but at that time not many others did either. I knew about the culture of cocktails, had drunk a lot of cocktails and owned a few books. But I was able to use my historical knowhow to break some new ground. All the tools I had learned researching, juggling and evaluating sources – that stuff’s universal.”

The same month Wondrich joined the industry Milk & Honey opened in NYC – one of the frontier bars of the cocktail renaissance. It was a watershed moment for an industry in ascension and for the man who would one day reach its summit. But cocktail writing was still in the infancy of its second coming and it wasn’t easy for Wondrich at first.

“I wasn’t paid very much. It was a little challenging – we were very poor. Poor but happy, which is better [than the opposite]. I was able to grow [my role] and eventually support my family. It turned out after a couple of years this new job was way more fun. I didn’t work in an office and have to answer to anyone apart from my editor at Esquire.”

From there Wondrich barely took a backward step. He wrote books starting with Esquire Drinks, which was published in 2002 and is “a rare collector’s item” in 2015. He co-founded a bar school named Beverage Alcohol Resource (“We had to come up with a phoney baloney name, the initials of which would spell ‘bar’.”). The school became “a big deal” in most people’s minds, not just in Wondrich’s, and has trained thousands of bartenders.