The 2015 Revision of the Bartender’s Textbook is Must Reading
It is not hyperbole to say that David Wondrich’s “IMBIBE!” is probably the most important cocktail book of the modern era. Certainly, other books have a major place in the libation renaissance, but “IMBIBE!” in many ways heralded the rebirth of mixed drinks — and has served as the bartender’s unofficial textbook since it was released in 2007.
Flash forward to 2015. A lot has changed in the spirits world. So much so that Wondrich felt it was high time for a revision. But this isn’t just any revision. In many ways, the 2015 version of “IMBIBE!” is an entirely new book. Still familiar, but full of so much new information that it is required reading once again.
This 2015 release of the book didn’t happen overnight however. Wondrich had to fight for it.
“I kept after and kept after my editor at Perigee, and she was beaten down by sheer persistence. Once I put the hood up, it wasn’t just replacing a block of text here and a block of text there. I went through it very carefully. I caught errors, I added explanations, I reworked things. I treated it like a draft that needed expansion and correction. It’s pretty much revised throughout. Because of the passage of time and the availability of sources, things I didn’t have access to.”
Here are just a few of the new elements and changes included in the book:
1. First off, the print is larger. Sound unimportant? Think again. When you are behind the stick — or even at home in the midst of mixing a drink — larger text is a godsend.
2. The book is longer. The actual page count may not seem that much greater — running only about 50 pages more than the original. However, a glance at the books side by side shows a fair amount of re-organization and — pardon the pun — re-jiggering of information. As Wondrich observes,
“It’s a heftier book. I added a lot of stuff. I’ve been using the book and talking about it since it came out. I’m always taking notes and seeing what’s changed. Some of the drinks I had new information on. Other things I’d thought about more.”
3. The entire spirits section has been reworked. “In the original book,” recalls Wondrich, “I talked about ‘work arounds’ for ingredients you could no longer get, Now, you can just buy the damn ingredients. It’s really radically different and radically improved.”
What ingredients is he talking about? Genever — the granddaddy of gin combining botanicals with a whiskey-like malt wine base — for one. When “IMBIBE!” was released, the Dutch company Bols had yet to bring authentic genever to the States. Now, we have two Bols varieties — standard and barrel-aged — as well as a Belgian genever called Diep 9 with more on the way.
Likewise, Old Tom gin, the bridge between genever and modern dry gin, wasn’t even being made when the first “IMBIBE!” was released. In Wondrich’s words from the latter edition, “the best thing to do is to take a good, fragrant London Dry and sweeten it.” This, of course, is no longer necessary. Today, we have numerous Old Tom gins to choose from starting with first-to-market Ransom (on which Wondrich consulted), continuing with Hayman’s, and quite recently Tanqueray.
And, then, there’s Absinthe, which in 2007 was still illegal in the U.S. Oh how the times have changed for the boozy best.
4. There’s more information about Jerry Thomas’s life. For instance, did you know that Thomas wrote a second book? Neither did Wondrich, until recently. As he notes, “we have yet to find a copy of it, but we have a sense of what was in it.” There’s also more about who Thomas really was. There’s “more detail on his bars, including the emphasis he put on entertainment,” explains Wondrich. “[And] the fact that he wasn’t a micro-mixologist. He wanted to make money.”
5. The Julep. Of this, Wondrich explains,
“I regretted that I’d not spent more time on the Mint Julep, the foundational drink in America. I didn’t really say much about it and the second time I realized I needed to go into it more because of its universal amazing-ness… It was a rum drink, then a gin drink, a brandy drink. I brought the history back to 1770 so it was the first characteristic American drink. A lot of the early history of it had not been written.”
6. Yes, there were bartenders before Jerry Thomas. Wondrich wanted to shed some light on this fact. Thomas may have been the first one to make the profession seem glamorous, but others came before him. Wondrich observes that pre-Thomas, “That’s really the dark ages.” But still, influential folks existed.
Cato Alexander, a former slave, was known far and wide by the sporting set, who visited Cato’s Tavern for juleps and gin cocktails. The famous Orasmus Willard worked his way up from office boy at the City Hotel and eventually became known as the “Napoleon of Bar-Keepers” for his mixing talents. And we can’t forget Martha King Niblo, who opened Niblo’s Garden and dazzled the clientele with her Sherry Cobbler. The list goes on. Thomas may be the superstar, but Wondrich insists, “There were people who needed to be dragged out of the shadows and given credit.”
Most of all, this reworking of the original “IMBIBE!” offers a thoughtful sense of re-consideration of the bartending industry and the spirits world. In re-examining his research and tinkering with it, Wondrich has given us a more complete history of the golden age of spirits, as well as how far we have come. He takes the time to look deeper into Thomas’s work, pointing out what was typical in the day and what was odd or offbeat. As he says, “It’s a better way of knowing what we do now.”
So, simply, the new “IMBIBE!” is, in a word, new. Buy, read it, re-read it. And celebrate the second golden age.