Tales of the Cocktail 2011 Coverage – “Drinking on a Deadline”: Seminar Notes #totc

As part of my continuing  “after-action” report on Tales of the Cocktail 2011, here is a brief synopsis, along with my notes from the “Drinking on a Deadline” seminar, held on 23rd of July, 2011 at the Royal Sonesta Hotel:

“Drinking on a Deadline”, sponsored by Pisco Porton and  moderated by Paul Clarke, featured panelists David Wondrich and Wayne Curtis, took a look at the “special” and often odd world of the drink writer. The experts provided historical examples, common themes, various sub-genres and bits of advice for the aspiring or accidental booze writer.

Cocktails served:

  • Pisco Punch, Pisco Apricot Tropicale
Tales of the Cocktail Logo

Tales of the Cocktail Logo

Paul Clarke

The first “segment” of the seminar kicked off with a bit of a love-fest for the classic drink writers of the past decades: Kingsley Amis, Charles H. Baker, Bernard Deveaux, Barbara Holland, Tom Wolfe, David Embury (though incidents in his legal career gave Wondrich some pause),  and Jason Wilson to name a few.

Kingsley Amis (1922 – 1995):

  • Columnist 70’s, 80’s
    • Refreshed approach.
    • A geek & a snob, but “not bound by the rules of orthodoxy”
    • Wrote about what he enjoyed and was “notoriously fond” of anything that went into his glass.
    • Enthusiastic consumer in both quantity and generousity
      • “I’ll pour you your first drink, if you don’t have another one after that, it’s your own fucking fault”.
      • Wrote a “cheap bastard’s” guide to a cocktail party
      • “On Drinking”
        • Hangover tales:
          • Both physical and metaphysical consequences
            • “What an absolute shit you were last evening”
            • The cure: a “well considered application of literature and music”

Bernard Devoto (1897 – 1955)

  • Total curmudgeon
    • Word “fun” is not what comes to mind first when you think about him
    • “Cocktail Hour”
      • Ill-concealed contempt for mid-century cocktail culture
        • Just enduring these cocktail parties
        • Hates the cocktail
          • Anything other than a slug of whiskey or a dry Martini is bad
            • Story is just how “bad” it is
            • Highlights the “silliness we all can descend to when talking about cocktails”.

Barbara Holland (1933 – 2010)

  • “Joy of Drinking”
  • Lovely language, but not a lot of cocktail info
  • Premise: Alcohol is an important social bond
    • Needed to defend it from how it is traditionally presented
    • Has proved a manner of good to civilization – “social glue”
      • For thousands of years, all we had for entertainment was other people
      • After a couple of drinks, we’re far more tolerant of our fellow man


Wayne Curtis:

Once Wayne curtis took over the presentation, the discussion took on a decidedly “epic” slant, and the relationship between drink-writing (more specifically HANGOVER writing), road tripping and the works of Joseph Campbell was explored:

Commonality with drinking and road tripping:

  • You’re going on a journey
    • A linear progression that never has a resolution

Temperance writing is very entertaining:

  • Fantastical tales of spontaneous human combustion attributed to alcohol consumption
    • Dicken’s Bleak House
      • Gin Sod character spontaneously combusts

Hangover Writing:

  • Follows the model of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” model:
    • You find a magical elixir which gives you powers:
      • Balance spoons on your nose
      • Make great conversation
  • But then it turns on you:
    • You need to find another
  • The “journey home” story = Odysseus

Joseph Conrad:

  • Lord Jim
    • “The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”

Thomas Wolfe:

  • Bonfire of the Vanities
  • “The telephone blasted Peter Fallow awake inside an egg with the shell peeled away and only the membranous sac holding it intact. Ah! The membranous sac was his head, and the right side of his head was on the pillow, and the yolk was as heavy as mercury, and it rolled like mercury, and it was pressing down on his right temple… If he tried to get up to answer the telephone, the yolk, the mercury, the poisoned mass, would shift and roll and rupture the sac, and his brains would fall out.”

David Embury (1886 – 1960):

  • 1948: The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks
  • Not an insider, just figuring out what makes a good drink

Jason Wilson:

  • “Boozehound”
    • A great “road book”
      • Pursues the “lore of drink”
        • Tried to find the “elderflower harvest” touted by St. Germain Liqueur

David Wondrich:

David Wondrich finished off the conversation, answering the question “How the hell do you become a drink writer” and offered some advice on how to be a good one, regardless of your medium:

1880’s Where do bartender’s spring from?

  • “few enter of their own accord, most just happen upon it.”

Drink Writing is similar:

  • It’s the bastard step-child of main stream writing
  • You’re just not that illustrious to the rest of the world
  • You work for ½ the pay

Check out the style of old newspapers

  • Pay attention to detail
  • Writers learned by experience
    • Worked their ways up ranks
    • Sketched out the story with a draft
    • Story then went to the re-write man
      • Turned the “story” into “literature”
      • Jocular, sensationalist tone
      • New York Sun:
        • Reporter got the facts, re-write man got the style
          • Overwritten, “working class art”, “verbal jazz”
          • Little formal training, but a lot of creativity
          • Needed to grab people’s attention
          • No bylines in these papers

Practical tips for bloggers:

  • Contribute to the discussion
    • Don’t recycle or restate material
    • Helps to have a broad background in other fields/subjects
      • Ex: Wayne Curtis pursued Rum, because he was more interested in the social culture of the time
      • Absolute worst travel writers are the ones who think they are travel writers
      • Always find a back door into the topic
      • Factor in the human equation
      • Drink writing is humor writing
        • No one cares about this stuff, so be amusing
        • Don’t be “Sonny Boy Williamson”
          • Don’t tell everything you know or every detail.
          • Stick to main thread of the story
          • Save the rest for later, it slows the story down
  • Remember the audience:
    • Show people why they should care
    • Assume they are smart
    • Give them the tools to figure out what the hell you are saying
  • Pioneers get arrows, Settlers get the land:
    • Attribute, always give credit
    • Someone had to find that information or fact
  • Drink Writing is the convergence of the two greatest sources of bullshit known to man:
    • Bars & the Internet
      • Get the facts right
  • Take the work, not yourself, seriously
    • Don’t be too divisive:
      • Don’t bicker about a Martini
        • Drinks are supposed to be fun
  • Don’t over-think
    • Sucks the pleasure out of the experience
    • Write as if you’re talking to an intelligent friend that you’ve had a few drinks with

PR & Marketing

  • Often hard to get a straight answer out of the fluff
    • Brevity counts
      • Information helps
  • Give me the product
    • Tell me how it’s made so I can write tasting notes
    • Don’t give me “the sizzle” as it’s often not fun or interesting
    • Wayne Curtis remarks:
      • Has a column: “Press Releases I didn’t finish reading”
        • A lot of useless info
  • You need to get access to the people actually making this stuff
    • Get the phone # of the distiller
    • Get a simple, short conversation
  • PR really should read the author’s column or blog
  • Dave Wondrich: Does not use sourced recipes from the brands or PR
    • Marketing:
      • should check the facts they send out
  • Editors:
    • Aren’t sure what the “cool kids” are drinking
    • Need to build a relationship
  • Being such a narrow, niche writer, you don’t have to “pitch” much

What is it Role of the Review?

  • Reviews are mostly pointless
    • Mostly specialized readers
    • Just one single viewpoint
    • Sometimes you feel that you’re reading someone with a random adjective generator








Leave a Reply