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Old School with Wayne Curtis

TOTC10 161

I recently got in touch with Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum. I was astonished to learn that he 1) lives in New Orleans and 2) reads this blog. Blow me down. He was even aware of my work with FOLC. I was momentarily disconcerted, embarrassed and abashed. Upon regaining my composure, I asked Wayne a few questions relating, more or less, to his upcoming seminar at Tales of the Cocktail. He’ll be doing a session called “Beyond Punch: Colonial American Drinks,” delving all the way back to the 18th century. That’s what I call “old school.”

If there is a story behind how your seminar “came to be,” I would love to hear it.

Not much of a story. I gathered a fair amount of information on colonial drinks when researching my rum book, but never really had time to process it and make more sense of it. Nobody seemed much interested in drink pre-Jerry Thomas. But once David Wondrich came out with his book on punch last year, the cocktail crowd seemed a lot more curious about what else folks were drinking, so I decided to dig back in and see what I could find. I’ll be curious to see if anyone thinks there’s much merit in drinks flavored with spruce sap.

Is the American palate shifting? Is there any quick and dirty way to characterize shifting tastes over the years, going back to the 18th century? Does the notion of a national palate even make sense in that context?

I’ve made the argument that late 19th century America once had a big taste for bitter — much as Italy still does — but lost it during the Prohibition when sweet was ascendent and has never regained it, at least until now. It always astounded me how many different bitters were available prior to Prohibition, and how many recipes there were in bar guides for crafting different styles of bitters. One of my favorite soft drinks is Moxie, which was a New England favorite (and is still available up north). It’s basically a gentian root soda, and sort of tastes like an Angostura soda. For years, until the 1910s, it outsold Coca Cola. And I’m willing to wager that Coke was once more bitter and less sweet than it is today. I’m glad to see that bitter is coming back, in everything ranging from cocktail bitters to Jagermeister to Starbucks Coffee to those frizzy, bitter greens now available in many supermarkets. It seems like an overdue re-discovery.

Vodka: for or against? (I tried to figure a way to relate this question to the subject of your seminar but failed.)

I used to be anti-vodka, but now I’m neutral. I realized I was reacting to the glitzy over-advertising of the big distillers, and the fact that people who argue about vodkas tend to be people I don’t want to hang out with. (BTW, have you seen the website I agree that there is a difference in vodkas, but those differences are relatively minute and are of interest only to people who drink vodka straight, which I don’t. On the other hand, I think the I Hate Vodka meme had gotten out of hand, and threatened to alienate topers who could be allies in Better Drink if brought along to other spirit pastures more gently. And I’ve found that a little vodka added to a drink with another base spirit (like a rum) actually can work to highlight other flavors by bringing up the spiky alcohol sense without adding much flavor. So I’ll never be a vodka person, but I’ve stopped being a vodka basher.

Do you have a favorite old-time cocktail, and if so what is it?

I like lots of old, bitters-forward cocktails, far more than the sweet ones. A Sazerac is still one of the most sublime drinks ever — I usually make it Dale DeGroff style, with half/half rye and brandy, and both Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters. This summer I’ve been favoring a lapsang souchang Manhattan. I use a simple syrup made with the smoky tea, and Bitter Truth’s Xocolatl Mole bitters. Very tasty.

Hm, I’ve got some lapsang souchang at home. Great stuff, but I never thought of making syrup with it. I will have to give that a try.

Of course, the drinks we’ll be considering (and hopefully tasting) in Wayne’s seminar will be even older than Sazeracs and Manhattans. They have funny names like bombo, syllabub, switchel, and flips. No, not the more familiar flip made with an egg — that came later. The earlier flip involved a red hot poker. We actually featured one of these years ago on ROX, though I had no idea then of its antique provenance. (An individual video is not available but you can get the full episode; the flip clip begins at 16 minutes and 40 seconds.)

Photo: TOTC10 161 / Rocky Yeh / BY-NC-SA 2.0

Published inFood & Drinx


  1. […] was “Beyond Punch: Colonial American Drinks.” Since I interviewed Wayne Curtis in advance, I thought I knew what to expect. I was not prepared, however, for the sight of Mr. Curtis in full […]

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