Four Whiskey Cocktails with Mixologist Dave Wondrich

by Tejal Rao
April 2008

It's 1806 in Hudson, New York and the word cocktail keeps coming up - at first in reference to any mixed breed horse in the New York City-Albany-Boston horse racing trifecta, but then to describe the hair of the dog cure for excess punch at the races: a morning time mutt of spirits, bitters, sugar and water.

Ice came a little later, in the 1850’s – huge 22-inch blocks from which bartenders chipped or shaved the shape and size they needed according to the drink. The original whiskey cocktail (the drink you got by default if you asked the barkeep for a cocktail in the 19th century) was this: a glass with 2 long-handled teaspoons of sugar hit with 3 dashes of bitters, stirred, and filled to the top with shaved ice. At the bar, the customer would pour his own generous shot of whiskey into the glass, squeeze a wedge of lemon, and wipe the rind around the rim.

Dave Wondrich was a college English professor who left academia to become a spirits writer, now editor, at Esquire. Wondrich’s mixology philosophy is simple: he loves classic drinks and he hates to see them mangled. He doesn’t stir, he “stirs pensively,” and he doesn’t shake, he “shakes the bejesus out of it.” His wiry walrus mustache and long beard, sometimes split into horns, sometimes curtaining down to his chest, are a gesture of solidarity with the 19th century bartenders who did more than mix drinks – who reveled in the spirit of showmanship.

At last September’s International Chefs Congress, Wondrich led us on an annotated tour of four classic whiskey cocktails dating from these now golden days of yore. Each was created sometime between 1860 and 1890, and Wondrich presents them here (and in his recent book, Imbibe! nearly in their native state, "balanced for the modern palate, but only just." He remarks on how our palates have changed - we're less used to the taste of booze, and accustomed to drinks that disguise it. But with the growth of cocktail enclaves across the country inspired by the characters behind early last century's bars - the showmanship, the flavorful spirits, the suspenders - this is starting to change.

Four Classic Whiskey Cocktails 1. The Tombstone

In October of 2005, while researching for his book about Jerry Thomas, Dave Wondrich finally located the revered bartender’s death certificate. It had been mis-filed, but he found it at the New York Public Library. When he called up the cemetery, they said “yeah, we’ve got him” and gave him a general area; so Wondrich emailed some mixologists and writers to organize a field trip to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York. The crew (Toby Cecchini of Passerby, Audrey Saunders of Pegu, Julie Reiner of Flatiron Lounge, and Alan Katz of Southern Wine & Spirits, among others) packed a bottle of rye, bitters, sugar, shakers, an insulated bag of ice, thirteen cocktail glasses, and met at Grand Central. At the end of line on the 4 train they walked for twenty minutes until they found the very simple stone marked JP Thomas. “That was it,” Wondrich says, “and miraculously, the ice hadn’t melted.”

They poured the whole bottle of rye into the shaker and heard Thomas’ voice stretch across the century, ignored the visitor’s guidelines (no picnics or alcoholic beverages!), and each took turns shaking the giant, timeless, whiskey cocktail. There, beside Thomas’ tomb, they proposed a toast – the drink: The Tombstone. Some old bar books say shake, and some say stir; Wondrich “shakes the bejesus out of it” then strains it into the glass and snaps a lemon rind over top, releasing some oil over the surface of the drink, then rubs it around the rim, and serves.

2. The Mint Julep

Visiting Europeans wondered what the hell the Americans were doing the first time they saw straws – an invention that was popularized around the same time as iced drinks. In the case of the Julep, the straw was originally there to keep the packed shaved ice off people’s sensitive teeth (let’s face it; American dentistry has come a long way since the 1800’s). And while we make cultural associations with the South, the julep was just as popular in Chicago and New York. Wondrich pours a splash or two of dark Jamaican rum over the back of a spoon and it lays on top of the drink. Instead of returning the pressed leaves to the drink, Wondrich discards them and garnishes with a fresh mint sprig for aroma. As Wondrich points out, true epicures use cognac.

3. The Whiskey Sour

Wondrich calls it “the fried egg sandwich of mixology,” a healthy and tasty drink as long as you go easy on the sugar… The sour was a pocket version of the whiskey punch, an American version of the classic punch served in big bowls made with rum and brandy. In America there was less time to take the afternoon off and drink a bowl of punch, and businessmen wanted a quick jolt – get in, get out, get back to work. When the sour was popular, men were popping into the bar 4, 5, 6 times a day; they weren’t operating heavy machinery, and they weren’t driving.

4. The Manhattan

For the classic Manhattan, Wondrich follows a particular mixologist’s recipe: William “The Only William” Schmidt. (Not to be confused with classical composer William Schmidt, who is not to be confused with William “the Human Mole” Schmidt, who spent 32 years digging through a half mile of granite in Kern County, California using a pick, a shovel, a hammer, and on occasion, dynamite.) The Only William made it into the New York Times in 1904 for his “triumph of liquid joy.”