Writing About Drinking Isn't All Boozy Fun: A Chat With David Wondrich
After nearly three years of writing professionally about beverages (primarily beer), I've found a few flaws in this dream job. Yes, I get to meet great people, travel to wonderful places and drink incredible beer for free (careful here, Ethan…), but there are a few pitfalls to beware of.
As a drinks writer for Esquire and the author of two highly regarded beverage-themed books, James Beard Award winner David Wondrich has consistently inspired me in much of my own work. I wondered if such a seasoned, well-respected author might be able to offer me any advice at this juncture in my career. He was gracious enough to sit down with me for a brief chat in his Brooklyn office, where I learned some valuable tips and how not to be a whiny little crybaby when writing about beer:
So, you've been writing about beverages for…
I started at the very end of 1999. I was an English professor [at the time], but I got the job because I was a jazz critic for the Village Voice. My friend who worked for Hearst knew that, and knew that I liked cocktails, so he called me up with a project for Esquire.
It seems like everybody stumbles into this. No one is "born" a cocktail writer.
Oh, no, no, no, there's no guidance counselor to tell you that. Well...now, maybe! When I started doing it there was no such thing—there were no cocktail writers. There were some general-purpose writers who wrote about cocktails sometimes—that's what I thought I was doing.
What was the first thing you wrote?
I edited an online edition of Esquire's Handbook for Hosts.
Wow, you jumped in pretty quick.
Yeah, well, they offered to pay me $3,000, and I was a junior English professor at the time. I was like, "WHAT?" That's actual money! After that, I started writing for the magazine occasionally, and then about ten years ago I got a monthly column.
Over all this time, have things changed a lot in the liquor industry and the cocktail world?
Oh, hell yeah. The cocktail revolution happened on my watch. Not because I made it happen, but it happened on my watch. When I started the Esquire job, I used to tell my friends, "I'm just doing this because I want to be able to go into a bar in any city in the country and get a perfect Manhattan." And then we all had a good laugh. [Laughs.] That was never gonna fucking happen. And suddenly now, you can get a good Manhattan pretty much anywhere!
Is there anything negative that's happened to cocktails since you started?
Well, I see a lot of young bartenders inventing cocktails for the sake of inventing them. It's the same problem you get in restaurants, where the chef is making dishes for fellow chefs. They're making these cocktails for the other mixologists. They don't taste delicious, they're weird, they've got too many ingredients. Bitter is the new sweet, and classic cocktails seem a little old fashioned to some of the new people who, five years ago, were drinking Mike's Hard Lemonade.
With more people making cocktails these days, there are going to be more misses.
Yeah, 95 percent of everything is crap.
Is that a fact?
It's a theorem that has been propagated over and over for at least 80 years, and it's not necessarily wrong.
Have you learned anything about yourself while writing about drinks?
Yeah, I've got to stay away from strong cocktails! [Laughs.] Too many in a row is a bad idea.
You've had experience with that?
Yeah, I get drunk. You know, the older you get…these things hit you harder. So I've learned over the years to back off in the early rounds.
I think people don't realize that when you're writing about alcohol you have to come in contact with so much alcohol—
Yeah, you have to have management strategies.
So how do you do that?
Uh, I go home early. I don't feel the need to close out the bar. I try to back off from having, like, three strong cocktails in a row. I try to hydrate ... I'm not always successful.
How does that affect your family?
I'm still married. I'm still housed. I'm still employed. So, so far, so good.
Sometimes my wife nags me about drinking. I really am responsible—I don't get drunk very often, but I do drink many days of the week. And I worry about my health. Do you?
Yeah, you've gotta worry about it. But my health was worse when I was unemployed. [Laughs.]
What's your proudest achievement as a writer?
I think my book, Punch.
When you're writing a book like that, do you ever face that maddening cycle where you're working so hard on something, and then it's done, and then you're like, "What's next?" Don't you feel that constantly?
Usually I have something next, though, and that makes it even worse. [Laughs.] Because then it's like "Ah shit, I'm really not free of any of this stuff." So right now I'm working on the Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, which is a huge job and is going to take a while.
That is quite an endeavor.
Tell me about it. I'm a fool for taking it. [Smiles.]
Do you ever doubt yourself as a writer?
Like every writer, occasionally I'll doubt the piece that I'm writing. But having done this for so long, I know I'll get it to work somehow. The real gift that experience gives you is knowing that you've done it before, you'll do it again.
Does drinking ever become an obstacle to writing?
I don't drink and write.
Nah, the minute I start drinking, I'm done writing.
I'm more of the "Hemingway school": write drunk, edit sober.
I can't do that, because I won't write. All my motivation is gone. [I lose] that finely tuned sense of panic—that, "I better fucking get this in because otherwise I'm not gonna get paid." Once I have a drink, it's, "Oh, I'll get paid another time…"
Do you face any challenges in actually writing about drinking?
It's hard to explain to some people what you're doing. Some people are never gonna take [writing about drinking] seriously, but that's their problem. I'm having more fun than they are.
That's true, and a lot of people want your job. But I don't think just anyone could do it. You have to have a lot of control. An alcoholic couldn't do it.
[An alcoholic] wouldn't last very long. You have to manage your drinking. You also have to do your work, and you’ve gotta have something to say. I've got a PhD in comparative literature, so I'm trained in doing research and collating sources, and that helps a lot, because most of the stuff I do is historical.
But at the end of the day, there are people just as brilliant and educated, who wouldn't have as much control.
Yeah, or they take everything a little too seriously. One of the realizations I had very early on is that drink writing is, and always will be, a branch of humor writing. People don't need to read about drinks—it's gotta be amusing. It can't be too geeky.
Not to kiss your ass, but that was the most poignant thing I've ever heard about drink writing. Because I'm a professional comedian, and I only started writing about beer because I was visiting breweries while on tour.
Yeah, it's true, though, right? I mean, the best drink writers have a sense of humor. English beer writers are almost always amusing. I mean, [writer] Michael Jackson wasn't like, doing comedy, but he was funny and clever. He was one of my main influences when I started doing this. Him and Kingsley Amis.
Yeah, I read Everyday Drinking...
Yeah, that was one of the few cocktail books I had when I started this thing. I was like, okay, this is kinda funny. I can copy this and maybe it'll all be okay ... You just can't bitch too much—you can hardly bitch at all, frankly. If you bitch about your job, it better be funny bitching, because nobody's gonna have any sympathy at all. You just have to realize what people are paying you to do.
Any other advice for a beverage writer?
Do your own fucking research. [Laughs.] Go to a library, take out books. Not everything is on the Internet…. And any time you can visit a distillery, visit the distillery. They may say that they do things one way, and you see there's all these weird little wrinkles…
When I first went to distilleries and breweries, the process went right over my head the first few times.
It takes time to get up to speed with that, but once you are, there's [still] no substitute for being there. Because that gives you the color, the human interest, and often the humor. I was at the Maotai distillery in central China with Dale DeGroff, and we're sitting there drinking from these little thimble glasses. And then they bring in this girl who's kind of a bruiser, and her job is to make us drink four shots at once in a cup instead of in these little things. That was just so badass. And that gives you a real insight into the culture. "I knew I was fucked when the Toast Terminator came in”—start your story like that. You gotta go to the distillery to get that.
Thanks for talking with me, man. Last question: what's the most annoying thing that any junior writer has asked you?
The worst is people asking for shortcuts—asking with the expectation that I'm gonna tell them something that's gonna save them ten years of hard work. "What's the secret?" There is no secret!
I'm your junior in terms of experience, but people sometimes even ask me, "How do I get your job?" It's like…well, you have to just write.
Yeah, oh, that's the other one. People are like, "How do I get my article into Esquire?" Well, you know, Esquire has one drinks column—and I'm the columnist. So you're telling me you want my job. [Laughs.] I'm not gonna tell you that! It's my job.