David Wondrich on Cocktails, Cincinnati, and Surprises

One of the major highlights of the Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic this year was getting the chance to interview a spirits writer that I greatly admire, Esquire Drinks correspondent David Wondrich. Thanks to his books and articles, most notably Imbibe! and Punch, his name is closely associated with the classic cocktail movement and documenting the history of drinking culture in the Unites States. My partner Charlie and I sat down (more accurately, stood up in the corner of a tent in Washington Park) to talk with him about his writing and why he decided to attend the Food and Wine Classic in Cincinnati. You can listen to the full interview in Episode #195 of The Charlie Tonic Hour but here are the highlights.

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I’m a little nervous right now because David Wondrich is a really big name. If you are familiar with cocktail culture in the United States you have this man to thank to a large degree. Your writing about it, especially your book Imbibe, really took what was a very much a New York phenomenon and made it a much more national, global thing which we are seeing now. 

Well I think it fell on rich ground, let’s put it that way. There were a lot of people who were working on that stuff. What I tried to do with that book, which seems to have worked, was to collect the whole pre-prohabition culture and just kind of settle some arguments and straighten it out. I wanted to say that’s how people used to do things, and that way people could move on. Because before that everyone was arguing about “What’s the real original way to make a Manhattan.” So I went through all the old books and I was able to find the original ways people used to do these things and that let people stop worrying about that kind of stuff.

One question I had, because I really enjoy your writing and in it there is such a love of both the alcohol and the history. It’s so well researched. What came first, was it a love of the drinks and then you went into the history or were you already interested in history and historical research?

It was kind of both at the same time. I always liked cocktails, ever since I was a teenage, partly just because I liked cocktails. But I also liked the stories. I used watch old movies back when they had black and white movies on TV and the people were always drinking cocktails in those, both in the comedies and in the noir crime movies. So it was like, ok, all the stuff I like, they’re drinking cocktails and my favorite writers were full of cocktails. So I was always interested in that part of it, and then the history part of it, I’ve always been interested in history. I had a PhD in Comparative Literature and I was teaching as an English professor in New York and was completely miserable. I hated that job so I really needed to do something else to pay the bills. I tried writing about music, about old ragtime and jazz, stuff like that, but that really didn’t pay. But with cocktails I got a job and they paid me.

You’ve had the experience that I think that all of us want to have, which is to be intensely passionate about something that is very niche in our culture and then through your experience, you were not only instrumental in making it become part of the broader culture, but you got to take that ride with it. You got to see something that you love become something that we all love and we all enjoy. How has that experience been?

Oh it’s kind of unbelievable. I mean I don’t want to claim too much credit because there were all these people who were really very involved in this, but at least I was there kind of holding their coats. I got to watch this thing happen and it still kind of incredible. When it first started I thought no one would ever go back to making classic cocktails, I thought that was dead and gone. So when people asked me why I was doing what I was doing I used say “Well I just want to do this so that I can go to every city in the country and get a decent Manhattan” and then we’d all have a good laugh because that would never happen. And then it turns out I wasn’t alone. I feel really lucky to have been there for that. And this is something that grew up on the internet where people could talk to one another. There was always this grumpy, Dorothy Parker loving girl over there who said “That’s not a martini” and then I got to meet her. And then she got to meet the people secretly make huge tiki drinks in their basement in their little tiki bars tucked away in Orange County California. Everybody got to talk to each other a little bit, and then see that there were a lot more niche people than we thought. It wasn’t so niche.

I’m sure you get invited to come speak at these kind of events a lot. What drew you to come to the Cincinnati Food and Wine Classic?

My wife Karen and I were here. We took a couple of weeks of vacation a few years ago in the summer and went to Pittsburg, Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis and Chicago just because some of those cities we’d never been to. I’d never been to Cincinnati or Columbus. I was born in Pittsburg but left when I was eight, so I hadn’t been there in a long time. Indianapolis I hadn’t been since I was about twelve. So we just thought let’s check it out, because we’ve had good experience in other midwestern cities and American cities that aren’t necessarily major media centers. We found out that you really can’t believe what you read in New York. So we came here and thought that Cincinnati was great. Great architecture, really historic city, and we had a good time. So when Donna Covrett called me up and asked if I could do this we kind of jumped at it. Partially out of curiosity just to see what had happened in the past three years because when we came here Over the Rhine was just really starting to get going. The fuse was definitely lit then but the bomb has gone off now.

Following up on that, you go to a lot of cities. Backing New York out of the equation, what has surprised you about cocktail culture across the United States?

Oh there’s lots of stuff. I mean we were just in Rochester and Buffalo, which are two cities I’d never been to, and I live in New York State but they are all the way on the other side of the state. We went and we found world-class cocktails bars in both. When we were in Milwaukee we went to Bryant’s Lounge, this dark old cocktail lounge, which was just amazing. It has a stereo system that cost $25,000 in 1973. And it is just the best sounding music, in the darkest bar, with the craziest cocktails. All these 1970’s midwestern style cocktails.

At this point the interview was unceremoniously cut off by the arrival of hot steaks for the following demonstration. If you haven’t already discovered his writing I highly recommend you pick up a copy of one of his books today. It was a pleasure getting a chance to talk with him and I hope that the next time he visits Cincinnati we have some more great bars for him to discover.

Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic: A Foodie’s Paradise

This year I was once again lucky enough to be asked to attend the Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic, held September 11-13 in Washington Park. This year’s event proved itself to be a significant increase over last year, with an additional day of tasting and events on Sunday as well as more things to seek out throughout the weekend. I was immensely satisfied with this year’s event. Last year felt like a wonderful local event with a lot of potential. This year they went a long way toward meeting that potential. The Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic felt much bigger and more vibrant this year, and I was thrilled to see our city producing something that seems destined to grow into a nationally recognized event.

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One of the offerings from Orchid’s and Chef Todd Kelly on display this weekend.

There was a greater variety of programing and ticket levels this year so the event was able to appeal to a wider audience. The addition of a smaller, daytime tasting on Saturday and Sunday was a welcome expansion of the festivities. This gave smaller restaurants and food providers like 16 Bricks Bakery and Off the Vine Juice bar a chance to show off their products outside the grand tastings in the evenings, where they would have been somewhat out-of-place. The food at the grand tastings was as opulent as last year, but with more to choose from. My only complaint about the weekend was that there was so much to enjoy, it felt like I spent a lot of time just waiting to get hungry again so that I could make sure nothing was missed.

Table Steaks with Jason Rose from Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment.
Table Steaks with Jason Rose from Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment.

The food was amazing but of course I was really there for the drinks. I was pleased to see that one of my favorite panels, the Somm Slam, a blind wine tasting competition, returned to the schedule. But I was even more happy that the drinks sessions were greatly expanded overall. A Master Mixologist competition was held on Sunday on the main stage and several cocktail sessions and a beer tasting added to the wine and bourbon mix. Best of all, they brought David Wondrich, Esquire Magazine drinks correspondent, on board as a guest. Wondrich’s 2007 book Imbibe became an instant textbook for bartenders and cocktail geeks and helped to spread the classic cocktail revival across the country. At the Food and Wine Classic he gave a seminar on the German-American Art of the Cocktail, perfect for honoring Cincinnati’s German heritage. Look for my interview with Mr. Wondrich on Queen City Drinks early next week, but trust me when I say that he was charming and as good a speaker and he is a writer. His description of German-American bartender William Schmidt was vivid and humorous, showing just how similar today’s cocktail geeks are to their predecessors.

Cocktails from the Punch Drunk Love seminar with Spencer Warren
Cocktails from the Punch Drunk Love seminar with Spencer Warren of Butcher and the Rye.

I am the kind of person who spends most of their entertainment budget on eating and drinking out. I would rather spend three hours enjoying a meal than watching a movie and I will potentially discuss the quality of the cocktails I had before the concert longer than the concert itself. Taste is the sense that I enjoy indulging the most and I am deeply intrigued by the way that chefs and bartenders manipulate their ingredients to produce different flavors. If you are also that kind of person, I can’t recommend the Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic enough. 

Wolf's Ridge Brewery and Restaurant
Wolf’s Ridge Brewery and Restaurant


My Favorite Fall Beer Review: Great Lakes Nosferatu

Over the past few weeks I’ve run a series of posts about the different styles of beer that rise as leaves fall, from a hatred of pumpkin beers to a history of Oktoberfest and an introduction to wet hop beers. I didn’t write the post hating pumpkin beers though I share Brent’s views. I do enjoy a good Oktoberfest beer, and wet hop beers are okay, but only 1 beer gets me really excited for fall. That beer is Great Lakes Nosferatu.

Great Lakes Nosferatu Beer Review

Continue reading My Favorite Fall Beer Review: Great Lakes Nosferatu

Learning About Beer: Wet Hopped Beers

Sticking with the fall beer theme from the past two weeks I want to educate folks on wet hopped beers. Pumpkin beers dominate Fall with Oktoberfest beers coming in a distant second and wet hopped beers a bit of a rarity.

Hops are the source of IBUs in beer

Before we begin I have a quick word on words wet hops, fresh hops, and whole leaf hops all mean the same thing. I will do my best to stick to wet hops, but will use whole leaf hops and fresh hops on occasion, especially when quoting others.

Wet Hopped?

First off, what does “wet hopped” even mean? Hops are an agricultural product harvested in late summer and without proper packaging their usefulness fades within a few days. Proper packaging means drying them out, pelletizing them, packaging them in oxygen free bags, and keeping those bags cold. This really doesn’t damage the hops, 99.9% of beers are made with hops packaged this way.

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Pelletized hops, thanks to Brettanomyces on Flickr

Wet hopped beers are not packaged this way, they’re not packaged at all. Wet hopped means that the hops are cut down, rushed to a brewery, and thrown in a batch of beer as fast as possible. Matt Rowe from MadTree said that they worked closely with the growers and set MadTree’s brewing schedule so that the hops were harvested on Sunday and in a beer on Tuesday.

The limited shelf life means that the beers are strongly tied to the growing season. You can’t do a wet hop beer in July or December. Sierra Nevada manages one in the spring, flying wet hops in from the southern hemisphere. I really like the way Bret Kollmann Baker put this in Urban Artifact’s Brewer’s Wild Pitch #4

fresh hop beers are one of the last true seasonals in craft beer.

Challenges in Making Wet Hopped Beer

Another reason hops are pelletized is that they are a lot easier for brewers to work with. Pellet hops take up less storage space, they largely dissolve in the boil, and they don’t absorb as much beer, have consistent quality, and don’t clog your pipes. These are all major problems that breweries have to negotiate when using wet hops.

MadTree’s brewhouse isn’t set up to handle fresh hops, so when making Fresh 15 they put all the wet hops into the fermenters to use for dry hopping – adding hops to the fermenter instead of boil. Even then they had to put the wet hops into bags before putting them in the fermenter to prevent clogging the centrifuge and filters. The 72 pounds of Centennial they added in dry hopping sucked up another 5 percent of beer vs. a similar hopped pale ale. Losing about 5 percent of that batch accounts to nearly one barrel worth of beer – or about 248 pints. Given how much beer MadTree puts out in a single brew, that might not seem like much but it’s worth about $1,240!

Ohio Valley Hops farm
Dave Volkman on his farm at Ohio Valley Hops. Ohio Valley Hops provided the hops for Urban Artifacts Calliope.

Urban Artifact ran into bigger problems. They started adding the wet hops into the boil at the 20-minute mark, brewers add hops at various points to emphasize various characteristics of the hop like bitterness vs. flavor, and everything went smoothly until they went to cool it down. You add hops to boiling wort and then have to get the wort down to 70° before adding yeast. That cooldown process normally takes Urban Artifact 10 minutes, with the wet hops it took 4 hours. This extended cooldown was due to the amount of wet hop residue sucked into pipes, pumps, and heat exchanger. They then had to spend 10 hours the next day cleaning the hops out of everything.

A third problem is simply availability. You have to have a hop farm near you that produces enough quantity of a single style. Ohio has a rapidly growing hop farming community, but it’s still very small compared to what is grown in Washington and Oregon. Even with the number of farms increasing farmers are still testing out which varieties of hops grow best, so they may not have the volume of a single hop required by a larger brewery.

Wet Hop Examples

It seems nearly every brewery makes a pumpkin beer, and many make an Oktoberfest/Marzen, but few make a wet hopped beer. That said here are a few local and a few nation examples of the style for you to try.

  • MadTree – Fresh 15
  • Fifty West – Hoppy When Wet
  • Urban Artifact – Calliope – Belgian style Grand Cru fermented with wild yeast that’ll be out sometime in October.
  • DogBerry – Cascade Wet Hopped Pale Ale
  • Founders – Harvest Ale
  • Sierra Nevada – Hemisphere
  • Deschutes – Chasin’ Freshies
  • Fat Heads – Hop Stalker
  • Left Hand – Warrior IPA
  • Two Brothers – Heavy-Handed

What’s Your Favorite Beer of Fall?

With all this talk of fall beer styles over the past few weeks, I’m curious what your favorite fall beers are? Next week, I’ll be talking about my favorite fall beer, but for now what’s yours?

Learning About Beer: Oktoberfest

It’s the first week of September, there was a slight chill to the air last week though it’s in the 90s today, and there are too many damn pumpkin beers on the shelf. Pumpkin beers seem to be the new official beer of fall, but long before pumpkin beers became popular in America Germans were having a fall festival with its own style of beer, Oktoberfest.

History of the event

Bavarian King Maximilian Joseph held a 2-day festival for the 1810 wedding of his son, Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese. Besides plenty of food and beer for the entire town, there were also horse races. The event ended up being so popular that it became a yearly tradition.

I mention the horse races because what American’s see of Oktoberfest is people with giant steins sitting at long tables in massive tents, some that hold up to 6,000 people. The horse races at the wedding celebration were the first form of entertainment which has grown into a fairground amusement park with roller coasters.

While the wedding was on October 13th and 14th they’ve since moved the event forward a few weeks into the last two weeks of September, mostly due to weather. It’s still nice to be drinking outside in a tent in September… October, not so much.

Photo credit to uk:Користувач:Gutsul
Photo credit to uk:Користувач:Gutsul

While Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany attracts around 6 million people each year Oktoberfest Zinzinnati pulls in 500,000, making it the largest one in America and the third largest outside of German. Another fun fact about Cincinnati and Oktoberfest is that we’re home to the world’s largest producer of Oktoberfest beer with Sam Adams.

Märzen vs. Oktoberfest

The Oktoberfest style of beer we think of in America isn’t as historically linked to the event as we might like to believe. According to The Oxford Companion to Beer “In the first 60 or so years the then popular Bavarian Dunkel seems to have dominated the festival.” Dunkel ran out one year and they started pouring an 8% Vienna style lager which was a hit and hung around until World War 1. The strength began to vary after that, finally settling down to around 6%.

Starting in 1990 the beer served at Oktoberfest changed from the reddish-brown strong Vienna lager to a golden and slightly sweet beer. The 2015 BJCP style guidelines recognized this difference and created two styles: Märzen and Festbier.


This is the beer you think of when you think Oktoberfest. This is what was poured at Germany’s Oktoberfest up until the 90s.

Märzen is German for March which is the month this beer is brewed in. In the 1500s, brewers were not allowed to brew between April 23rd and September 29th. They didn’t have refrigeration then so the hot summer months would infect the beers with unwanted microbes. The beers of March were brewed stronger then stored in caves during the summer.

Märzens are malt forward beers focusing on toasty and bready flavors. The hop notes IPA lovers crave should be nearly non-existent. Same goes for the roasted malts you’d get out of a stout. These are beers meant to showcase malt, nothing else. Visually we’re looking for a rich coppery amber with great clarity and a strong off-white head. Your tongue gets treated to a smooth medium body and medium carbonation.


This is what’s served at Germany’s Oktoberfest today.

Festbiers falls short of a Märzen but more complex than a Helles. It’s a German lager with stronger malt flavors and light hoping. The toasty malts are still there, but less so than in Märzen. While the malt goes down the hops go up with an increased presence of noble hop notes (floral, herbal, and spicy flavors/aromas). While Märzens are reddish Festbiers are golden.

Why do I keep saying Festbier and not Oktoberfest? The European Union is big on regulations and appellations. Only breweries inside of Munich, Germany are allowed to use the name Oktoberfestbier. Luckily EU regulations don’t apply in America so American craft brewers can call their beers whatever they want.

Favorite Examples of Style

Most breweries in town don’t make an Oktoberfest-style beer, but here are a few locals to try. Rhinegeist Franz is in cans and on draft across most of the city. I haven’t had Franz this year, but remember it being a decent beer last year. Moerlein has Fifth & Vine available in bottles at every grocery store across the area, it’s a good Oktoberfest, but not great. Taft’s Ale House launched their Oktoberfest last week, it’s only available there, but I found it was a very good beer with strong toasted malt flavors and a great finish.

I always think of Sam Adams as quasi-local. They produce more Oktoberfest beer than anyone else in the world and they do most of that here in Cincinnati. This one will be available nearly everywhere in almost any package you could wish. Like most Sam Adams beers, it’s good and stylistically accurate, but not mind-blowing.

Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest

Further afield is Great Lakes Oktoberfest which in years past has been my favorite example of the style. That changed this year with the release of Sierra Nevada/Brauhaus Riegele’s collaboration Oktoberfest. This beer really knocks it out of the park. Both the Great Lakes and the Sierra Nevada will be available wherever great beer is sold. Venturing back to the fatherland Paulaner Oktoberfest, Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest, and Ayinger Oktoberfest-Märzen are all top picks.

If you’re looking for a fall seasonal beer that doesn’t involve gourds hit your local better beer store and try a few of the examples above. If you’re looking to try these beers and have a great time in a massive crowd then head downtown September 18th – 20th for Oktoberfest Zinzinnati.

The Bane of Pumpkin Beers

Ed. Note: What follows is a rant by friend & sponsor of the blog Brent Osborn. As always if you’ve got something you want to say then shoot me an email at Tom@QueenCityDrinks.com and I’ll check it out. Personally, I abhor pumpkin beers, plus many other writers have already trodden this path. But, since Brent felt like ranting I was happy to post it!

Fall’s just around the corner.

Fall is a wonderful season: leaves changing color, 2015-09-02football games, Reese’s pumpkins, hoodies, fires, and all that good stuff. Yet it’s also a time I dread for one very specific reason: the pumpkin-spice apocalypse. The list of pumpkin-spiced things has grown from run-of-the-mill lattes to include Oreos, gum, and even english muffins. But the worst culprit—the bane of my existence this time of year—is the pumpkin beer. And in case you didn’t notice the endcaps are full of pumpkin beers.

Continue reading The Bane of Pumpkin Beers

The Fallacy of Freshness: The PsycHOPathy Vertical

I’ve noticed increased chatter on Facebook groups about the freshness of IPAs. Of course, you should enjoy most styles of beer as fresh as possible because breweries release their beer when they feel it’s ready for you to drink it. However, what I’ve been seeing is the flat-out rejection of IPAs that are only a few weeks old. I decided to set out and see if that rejection is valid. After a year of waiting, a few friends and I sat down for a vertical of MadTree’s PsycHOPathy IPA.

Fresh IPAs

Continue reading The Fallacy of Freshness: The PsycHOPathy Vertical