“Business shapes what we drink and how spirits get around the world, and it’s not a story that’s often told,” David Wondrich said on the latest Drinks With The Deal podcast. Wondrich and Noah Rothbaum tell that story in the newly published “The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails,” an 800-page guide to the subject that took nine years to produce and features hundreds of entries. Wondrich is the volume’s editor-in-chief and Rothbaum its associate editor, and on the podcast they discussed their wide-ranging book, in which both large beverage companies and entrepreneurs play important roles. (Read a review here.)
Wondrich noted that Pernod Ricard SA’s 1988 purchase of Irish Distillers Ltd., which at the time was the only distilling company in Ireland, saved Irish whiskey.
“They were dying, they were undercapitalized, they had very little export, they couldn’t compete with blended Scotch,” Wondrich said of Irish Distillers at the time of the sale. Since then, of course, the category has seen a remarkable resurgence, helped by both the investment from Pernod Ricard and the cocktail revolution of the past generation, which has placed a premium on easily blendable spirits such as Irish whiskey.
The use of Irish whiskey in cocktails made the category edgy and fresh. Starting about 2000, Wondrich said, “Bartenders became the alpha customers for brands. If you could convince bartenders at the tastemaker bars that your brand was cool, to the customers that was an absolutely critical endorsement.” The Covid-19 pandemic has threatened that role and pushed brands to communicate more directly with consumers.
Rothbaum and Wondrich cited entrepreneurs Michel Roux, the creator of Absolut vodka, and Sidney Frank, who came up with its great competitor Grey Goose, as two of their favorite characters in the book. “A healthy liquor ecosystem” has both big companies and smaller, nimbler ones, Wondrich said.
The editors also discussed their favorite cocktails and admitted that their views have been shaped by their years of work on the book. “They’ve become like close friends or relatives,” Rothbaum said of various drinks. “Some of them you want to see a lot; some of them, once a year at the holidays is enough.”
Here’s the podcast: