The Grub Street Diet

‘Cocktail Historian’ David Wondrich Sets Punch Aflame in His Kitchen, Doesn’t Care Where His Coffee Comes From

Yes, he drinks quite a bit.
Yes, he drinks quite a bit. Photo: Melissa Hom

It’s fair to say there’s nobody in the country who knows more about drinking than David Wondrich. He writes regular drinks columns for both Esquire and Saveur, he’s a co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail, and his 2007 book, Imbibe!, won a James Beard award for spirits writing. For his new book, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, released this week, he skipped so-trendy cocktails and dove into the fast-becoming-trendy world of punch. We asked him to keep track of everything he drank (and ate) for this week’s New York Diet.

Friday, October 29
I walked my daughter to school. She’s 13 and doesn’t need to be walked to school, but I needed to get coffee. I don’t like to make it at home because I like to get out of the house to wake up. I live in Brooklyn, on Dean Street, so I walked down and had a Starbucks grande black coffee. I’m not an anti-Starbucks person. It’s not my favorite coffee, but it’s available and it’s good, so fair enough. But I’ll get coffee from any one of a number of different coffee places. I’ll go for deli coffee if it’s in my direction, or if I really feel the need for something serious I’ll walk over to Gorilla, which is basically crack.

I had a handful of mixed nuts because I had to go into town and didn’t have time for breakfast.

I went up to the Esquire offices, and I tasted — and spat out, because it was early — five DonQ rums. They had pretty much the whole line there. Some of them were quite good, so that was nice.

It was a beautiful day so I walked down to Minar, which is a good Indian steam table place. It’s been there for, I don’t know, 20 years, and I’ve been going there for almost as long. Just when I’m in midtown because it’s cheap and tasty. I had a cup of shrimp curry and naan, which was fresh out of the oven. Quite good.

Home to Brooklyn. I had a couple of Ritz crackers while I watched my wife cook. She’s a recipe developer and a recipe tester. So she was preparing stuff for a dinner party we were having the next day.

My daughter went out to a dance, so Karen and I took the opportunity to have a little local night out, by which I mean extremely local. We’re between 3rd and 4th Avenues in what used to be known as Times Plaza, which is the nondescript area between Boerum Hill and Park Slope. We went to Hank’s. It’s the dive-iest bar left around here; all the others closed. We’ve been in the same house since 1986, and we moved here when we were punks, so we like dives. We went and did a shot of Powers and a pint, then got takeout from Stir It Up next door, which is a nice Caribbean place. We each got goat roti and some very intense hot sauce. And then we went home and ate that with a little bit of Brooklyn Local #1 that was leftover from beer cheese that Karen made for the dinner party.

Saturday, October 30
I had Honey Bunches of Oats with 1% milk, which is the traditional breakfast food of my people. My people being middle-aged white guys.

I walked over to Marquet on Fulton for a cup of coffee. It was another nice day. Then our daughter was babysitting in the morning down on Sunset Park, so we picked her up around 11 and went around the corner to the taqueria Metamoros on 5th Avenue and 45th Street, which is a good Mexican place. I had three little tacos: carnitas, carne asada, and chorizo. I washed it down with a Jarritos de limon, so that was pretty good. I can remember vividly when there was not such a thing as Mexican food in New York City, so I’m just thrilled to have actual Mexican restaurants with Mexican food for Mexicans, as opposed to, like, deep-fried chalupas.

My daughter and I took the train over to 18th Avenue to get pastries from Villabate for our party. It’s a place that’s almost painful for me to go. My father’s half-Sicilian and I spent a lot of time in Sicily when I was a kid. It’s painfully nostalgic — all the people speaking in Sicilian, and the pastries are as good as they can be made.

I made Charles Dickens’s Punch for the party. I peeled four lemons and pounded them with sugar in a metal bowl and let it sit for a couple hours to pull the lemon oil out. Then I covered it with 20 ounces of Ferrand Ambre cognac and 12 ounces of Plantation rum, which I then set on fire. I stirred it while flames shot up, which was most gratifying. Then I added lemon juice and chilled it.

Our dinner party was for our friend Cynthia Sweeney, who moved to L.A. because her husband is the head writer for Conan. She needed a couple days in New York, so she came back and we had people over for dinner. Melissa Clark made a really nice crab dip and a lovely salad. Karen made the beer cheese and spice walnuts with candied bacon. I made anchovy toasts, which I love. Slice a baguette into little rounds with anchovies that have been fork-mashed into melted butter, with thyme and black pepper. Then it just brushes on. It’s a traditional thing to go with the punch, which we had with the appetizers.

The main event was port-braised short ribs with horseradish mashed potatoes, which disappeared in absolutely no time. They were pretty intense.

Our friend and wine blogger Alex Halberstadt brought bottles of Scheurebe and Blauer Zweigelt, which were two wines I’d not heard of before. They were both quite delicious. Cynthia, our guest of honor, brought a couple bottles of 2006 Amarone. There were about ten of us and we went through all of that. Then I broke out the 1996 Graham’s port and the ancient Palo Cortado sherry, and I think that was pretty much the end of the night.

Sunday, October 31
I had a cup of coffee from Flying Saucer on Atlantic, who has Gorilla coffee without the lines. And I toasted half a sesame bagel and brushed it with leftover anchovy butter. That pretty much kept me until dinner.

I made pasta for dinner, linguine. I sauteed some garlic, used a little bit of slivered lemon, some fresh thyme that we had left over, and chopped parsley. It was very simple and tasty. Karen made green beans with roasted peppers and a little Maytag blue cheese crumbled in. It was good.

Karen opened a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, which was a present. Our 25th anniversary was last week — so far so good. So I had a couple glasses of Veuve, which goes with everything.

Monday, November 1
I had a cup of instant coffee at home because I didn’t have time to go out and that’s what was in the house. Also the traditional Honey Bunches of Oats. And then it was off to LaGuardia to fly to Chicago to do a day of bartender training on Tuesday. We do this thing called Barsmarts with Pernod Ricard, one of the big liquor companies, where they have us basically training and judging bartenders.

So I flew out of LaGuardia. I had a can of tomato juice on the plane. I don’t know why.

I had lunch in Chicago with my friend at Shaw’s Crab House. She ordered the oysters and an iceberg wedge and that sounded so perfect that I did the same thing. To drink with that I had a pint of Goose Island Matilda.

Around 5 o’clock Dale DeGroff, his son Leo, and I took a cab to the legendary Green Mill. It’s been there since like 1907. It’s just this fabulous old bar. The bartender was in his 70s and quite amusing, so we had Manhattans, which he made with Old Crow. I hadn’t had anything made with Old Crow in about 20 years. They were perfect.

After that we had a little reception for the bartenders who would be taking the test and I had half a gin-and-tonic and some passed hors d’oeuvres. I didn’t want to stay there very long.

We went to dinner at Mercadito. The food was good. I had a shrimp taco and a carne asada taco. They were pretty square. I had a bottle of Negra Modelo too. And then Doug Frost, one of the Barsmarts partners, popped out his hip flask of Tobala mezcal, which is this insanely rare stuff made by collecting the tiny little wild agaves on the northern-facing slopes of volcanoes in Oaxaca. It’s completely delicate and delicious.

Then that was it for me.

Tuesday, November 2
It was our training day, and before a big day of speaking I have to have a real breakfast. From room service I got two eggs, sunny-side up, hash browns, rye toast, grilled tomatoes and bacon. Coffee and tomato juice for good measure. Not bad.

During our morning training session with the bartenders I sipped and spat some spirits. Although I did let a little bit of cognac trickle down my throat. It tasted so good. Then I had single sips of the cocktails that Dale and our partner Andy Seymour made during the mixology part. I sipped some of the punch I made in order to show people about punch service. It’s a good alternative to bottle service at clubs — at least people get something tasty for their $250.

Then in the afternoon I had to judge nine different bartenders, and each had to make three drinks. So I sipped and spat 27 different cocktails.

At 5 I had to cut out because my book was released that day. So we went to the Drawing Room, which is one of the hot new bars in Chicago. Lovely bar. I was prepared to make up the punches for the party, but Charles Joly, the head bartender, had already made them and done everything perfectly. We had three punches, and I had maybe two cups of each. I sat around and talked to Charles and his associate Cristiana DeLucca for a while, then talked myself into doing a shot of Malört with Christiana. She used to be a zookeeper, so I think she’s good at wrangling people. Malört is like a wormwood-infused grain alcohol that’s served as a digestif. It’s only in Chicago, a real local thing — and it’s utterly vile. It’s like drinking shots of DDT or something. But what the hell, it’s traditional.

Then we went to dinner at this place called Sable. I had a pork-belly slider, which was pretty good, then duck-fat potatoes, which were also not bad. I had a couple bites of fried cheese curds, then a lamb ragu pasta with ricotta. And I had a Lagunitas pilsner with that. After sipping cocktails all afternoon, the last thing you want is more cocktails. You reach a certain point of spirits fatigue so beer is just, like, oh hell yes.

And I successfully avoided the after-dinner drinks.

Wednesday, November 3
Breakfast was at O’Hare: a cup of Starbucks, black as always, and one of their unspeakable croissants. They taste like asprin! There’s this weird sour-bitter thing going on. It was horrible, but everything else there was, like, pound cake. It was either that, Dunkin’ Donuts, or someplace serving breakfast deep-dish pizzas. Airport culture is not fun.

I had nothing on the plane because it was American Airlines and they don’t give you anything. They barely gave me water.

I came home and got a turkey sandwich from the local corner sandwich place, Canteen. It was fine. I had a couple potato chips because I can’t eat a sandwich without potato chips.

For dinner we made Spaghetti alla Pizziola with tomatoes, capers, anchovies, garlic, and hot pepper. And I made myself a martini. I like them very wet, equal parts gin and vermouth, two dashes of orange bitters, and a twist, stirred. I used to drink those dry things when I was younger, but not anymore.

‘Cocktail Historian’ David Wondrich Sets Punch Aflame in His