The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails Will Answer Every Question You’ve Ever Had About Cocktails

This 834 page tome corrals, essentially, the entire planet’s history of drinking.
Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails on a table with a few cocktails.
Photo by Joseph De Leo

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A lot of people assume drinks writing is a plum gig, and it can be, but at the pinnacle of the craft, it is without a doubt scholarly work. It’s surely no coincidence that David Wondrich, the most significant chronicler of cocktail history via his previous books Imbibe! and Punch, has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from NYU. Those academic post-nominal letters fittingly come on the title page to the new Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails ($65), which Wondrich has been working on as editor in chief for the past nine years, with his Life Behind Bars podcast cohost Noah Rothbaum acting as associate editor.

The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails

 by David Wondrich and Noah Rothbaum

Wondrich describes the project as a “quixotic attempt to squeeze this whole world of spirits between the covers of a book.” He mostly accomplishes the Sisyphean task (you push the fat-washing rock all the way up the hill and suddenly acid adjustment is a hot, new trend) with the help of over 150 other writers including bartenders, bar owners, brewers, distillers, historians, anthropologists, academics, bloggers, and fellow spirits journalists like Chloe Frechette, Robert Simonson, and Lew Bryson. (Full disclosure, I am friendly, if not outright friends—and sometimes even frenemies!—with many of the industry professionals who have written entries, so take my praise and/or scorn for jealousy in not being involved, for what it’s worth.)

Throughout the book’s 834 pages, even the most ardent spirits aficionados will find entries for topics they know nothing of, whether it’s Ghanaian akpeteshie or Portuguese bagaçeira, In a way, the Oxford Companion becomes a choose-your-own-adventure book: An entry on the Pegu Club leads you to 1990s “-tini” culture, which leads you to an entry on the Elizabeth Taylor–created (seriously) Chocolate Martini. Yet there are also enlightening entries for more well-tread topics like mezcal, baijiu, and the Sazerac. I learned something new on just about every page.

Wondrich makes it clear in the book’s intro that he doesn’t want these entries to be something a quick Wikipedia search could just have easily done for a curious party, instead having them focus on things that “are not quickly-found online: origins, early history, context, analysis,” all the better if the record can be set straight on “long-held myths, legends and misconceptions” (no, most Prohibition-era speakeasies did not have a sliding window and necessitate a password to get in—that’s pure Hollywood fantasy).

To be clear, this is not a quick, breezy thumb-through like the dozens of cocktail books released every single year, all full of pretty pictures, ample recipes, and scant words. This book is almost strictly text; with 1,150 entries it is a reference book in an era when people have quit referring to books when they have a query. There are photos here and there, and a few recipes to boot, “basic and, we hope, noncontroversial,” says Wondrich, though they are offered in metric measurements which will surely foil most Americans.

In trying to corral, essentially, the entire planet’s history of drinking distilled spirits, Wondrich’s opts to focus on a few key categories: bartenders (both historical, like “The Professor” Jerry Thomas, and contemporary, like late Milk & Honey impresario Sasha Petraske), spirits brands, mixers and garnishes (who knew 400 words on the olive could be so illuminating?), cocktails, bars, techniques and tools, and personalities, among several others.

This is not something to be read in a straight line, and I kept the weighty volume on my desk for a couple months, visiting it here and there in leading up to writing this review. Sometimes I used it purposefully—say, to fact check a feature I was concurrently working on about the tragically uncool Cadillac Margarita—other times I used it as a fun diversion, killing a few minutes here and there by opening up to a random page to read about the Blow My Skull Off, a punch from colonial Tasmania, the history of spirits in the military, or the Hoffman House, a fashionable hotel bar in New York that served late 19th-century A-listers like Randolph Hearst and Buffalo Bill Cody.

By the time this book is on shelves, real wonks will have gathered a laundry list of errors and worthy omissions—the same thing occurred with Garrett Oliver’s Oxford Companion to Beer, which was mostly a masterpiece. Of course, even with one-thousand-plus entries and eight hundred–odd pages, not everything can be included. There’s no entry for Pappy Van Winkle, the catalyst if not poster child for the current bourbon boom, nor St-Germain, the so-called bartender’s ketchup that dominated the late-aughts cocktail scene, nor for boundary-pushing bar owner Ryan “Mr. Lyan” Chetiyawardana, nor for Death & Co. and PDT, two of the most seminal cocktail bars of modern times (though perhaps I’m letting my New York City bias show).

Just like Oliver’s 2011 work, I certainly see this book being an invaluable, nearly definitive reference for people in the drinks world—journalists, historians, people who have trivial arguments in bars lacking good cell phone service—but it’s hard to see the hoi polloi having a prolonged interest and permanently keeping it at hand. Don’t get me wrong, this is hardly some dry, scholarly tome and it’s not without charm and voice; I was particularly amused by Wondrich’s disclaimer on how he will be choosing to spell whisky (or “whiskey”) throughout the book and how we’re all going to have to just live with that decision.

By that same token, Wondrich smartly recognizes that cocktail history has often been populist, unpretentious, and sometimes even cheesy: TGI Friday’s gets a much-deserved entry, and now-déclassé drinks like the Bahama Mama and Harvey Wallbanger are given proper studies.

Perhaps just like TGI Friday’s, this book will find a larger, more mainstream audience—the foreword from celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson and blurbs from Dan Aykroyd and Chopped’s Ted Allen hint at the publisher’s perhaps misguided aspirations. But, to be clear, this is a geeky text and it certainly doesn’t go down as easily as that coconut liqueur-coated Bahama Mama.

Though, maybe that doesn’t matter. In this era, when the world has increasingly become a series of 0s and 1s, drinking remains one of the few enjoyments left that can never be turned digital (though the recent issuing of cocktail NFTs have sure tried). And, for the same reason all those apartment mixologists now have living room bar carts stocked with maraschino liqueur and Green Chartreuse, maybe the tactile sensation of grabbing an esoteric bottle or two and mixing a Last Word is the same one that will compel the accountant or school teacher or stay-at-home dad to become a bit more scholarly about their drinks, and start giving this book the same proud placement in their home that would have previously gone to the Encyclopedia Britannica.