Imbibe! (Book Review)

May 6, 2012

While my last reviewed book, ‘Boozehound’, was a breezy travelogue through the land of spirits and mixed drinks, ‘Imbibe!‘ by David Wondrich, is a history and an archeology that land.

‘Imbibe!’ tries to do so many things that I admit to being slightly confused about Wondrich’s purpose at first.

Here’s what the book is:

1. A brief history of celebratory bartender Jerry Thomas, who wrote the first published bartender’s guide, or book of cocktail recipes, and his times.

2. A reprinting and interpretation of the recipes in Thomas’ book and others that came soon after.

3. A passionate history of the cocktail and its forerunners up to and through prohibition.

Jerry Thomas was an incredibly successful bartender at a time when (Wondrich suggests) bartenders were giants amongst men in hard-drinking America. In 1862 he published what was the first ever collection of drinks recipes (cocktails were a new drink at the time, so it’s not strictly speaking a cocktail book), ‘How to Mix Drinks: or, The Bon-Vivant’s Companion’, which you can download for free here.

Wondrich paints a colourful picture of the ‘sporting fraternity’ – fans of horse racing, boxing matches and the like – and their natural milieu – the bar. The tone is scholarly but far from dry. This book is the fruit of serious research, but it’s an extremely fun subject, full of great stories and anecdotes. Wondrich also tries to get to the bottom of where certain drinks and names (such as ‘cocktail’ and ‘martini’) came from.

The next section of the book, and the largest, consists of a history of the development of the mixed drink from punches to cocktails. This includes history, stories and the recipes themselves, all taken from either Thomas’ book or those of other authors who came soon after him.

But what really makes this book indispensible to a serious cocktail hobbyist is the way Wondrich provides a ‘key’ to decoding these recipes and making them into decent drinks.

After a brief survey about how bartenders would have made the drinks back in the day, he explains how we can make them now, and how we can do so in a way that makes the drink fairly authentically in the style that it would have been made in the 19th century. He explains what is meant by unclear references to various spirits and what brands or substitutes we can use now. He translates odd measures like the pony and the wineglass. He explains how to buy or make other ingredients such as bitters or syrups. He covers mixing equipment, glassware, sugar and ice.

Let me give you an example. Here’s a recipe for a Clover Club Cocktail as it appeared in an old bar book:

Juice 1/2 lemon

1/2 spoon sugar

1/2 pony raspberry

1/4 pony white of egg

1 jigger gin

Shake well. Strain.

‘Imbibe’ explains that the 1/2 spoon of sugar should be 1/8 oz (modern teaspoons are 1/6 oz; they used to be 1/4), that the 1/2 pony raspberry is 2 TSP raspberry syrup (and teaches you how to make it), that the 1/4 pony of egg white should be 1/4 oz, and that the jigger of gin is 2 oz of what is late enough to be Plymouth or London Dry (and that earlier recipes should be made with Old Tom when gin is called for, and even earlier ones with Genever).

Finally after reading through the recipes (and hopefully trying a few) you get a good idea about how mixed drinks evolved into cocktails and then started moving in directions that would take them well beyond the original definition of the word. Before the ‘cocktail’ there were (and occasionally still are) plenty of other drinks with their specific names. But even bartenders of the time disagreed somewhat about what exactly constituted what drink. Wondrich kind of synthesises and simplifies it a bit, but I found it very useful.

Here’s my little summary:

Punch: spirits, sugar, water, citrus (and other fruits), spices

Collins: spirits, sugar, soda, ice, lemon

Fix: spirits, sugar, water, lemon, fancy fruit garnish

Sour: spirits, sugar, water, ice, lemon

Daisy: spirits, sugar, soda, ice, lemon, orange cordial

Fizz: spirits, sugar, soda, lemon

Rickey: spirits, soda, lime

Cobbler: sherry, orange, sugar, ice

Egg nog: spirits, sugar, milk, egg

Toddy: spirits, sugar, hot water

Sling: spirits, sugar, cold water, ice

Julep: spirits, sugar, water, ice, mint, fruit garnish

Smash: spirits, sugar, water, ice, mint

Cocktail: spirits, sugar, water, ice, bitters

Improved and fancy cocktails: spirits, sugar, water, ice, bitters, liqueurs

Crustas: spirits, sugar, water, ice, bitters, liqueurs, citrus

(And then the fruit comes back even more and along comes Vermouth and soon anything goes!)


I don’t doubt that if a vote were held, ‘Imbibe!’ would easily win as the most informative book about cocktails and mixed drinks around. David Wondrich is a huge presence in the modern cocktail scene, and every serious cocktail hobbyist or bartender who hasn’t read this yet has it on their list. It’s a must read.


7 Responses to “Imbibe! (Book Review)”

  1. putneyfarm Says:

    We love the book and use it all the time. It is a bit dense, but once we went through the book we felt like we passed “Cocktails 101”.

    We are about to get his book on Punches (we tested a few recipes, they were good).

  2. theboolion Says:

    That’s exactly my feeling about it. I haven’t read ‘Punch’ yet, but it must be interesting.

  3. […] I wanted at the airport, I ended up buying the Australian Overproof Bundaberg Rum. I had read in ‘Imbibe’ that there was a really good old-style pot-still rum made in Australia, which David Wondrich […]

  4. […] first book review, ‘Boozehound’ was cocktail travelogue. The last one, ‘Imbibe’ was cocktail history and archaeology. ‘How’s Your Drink’ – a reworking of […]

  5. […] and even the original ‘cocktail’?)  The word is probably Arabic, and according to David Wondrich all early citations are for Julep as medicine pure and […]

  6. […] and water (or ice). The addition of mint, simply makes it a ‘Smash’, and according to David Wondrich, this was a pretty popular drink in the late 19th century. Another way of looking at it is as a […]

  7. […] ‘Imbibe‘, David Wondrich says that for the first 20 years or so of the Manhattan, the 1:1 ratio was […]

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