Cocktail Wonk Turns 200 – A Spirited Retrospective

Willett Distillery, KY

As I write this, I’m lingering over the last few vapors from a very wee dram of Gordon & MacPhail Long Pond rum, distilled in Jamaica in 1941 and aged for 58 years. It’s a glorious example of the Jamaican rum flavor-bombs I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with. My good fortune in acquiring this Holy Grail of rum, brought into existence before the atom bomb and the moon landing, is entirely attributable to this site. Fellow writer Lance Surujbally, aka The Lone Caner, saw my post about the historic Long Pond distillery and graciously arranged for a sample to be sent from Germany. The story of this dram arriving in my glass is a perfect synopsis of how life has changed since starting this little writing adventure. So, on the occasion of my 200th posting, I’ll indulge in a bit of navel gazing, historical retrospective, and wrap up with what’s to come.

Cocktail Wonk at the Long Pond distillery, Jamaica
Cocktail Wonk at the Long Pond distillery, Jamaica

When I published the first post back in September 2013, I had starry-eyed ideas of what this site would be. Lots of blogs get to three or four posts before petering out due to lack of content, time, or immediate gratification from adoring fans. Thus, I thought long and hard about what might differentiate my musings from a sea of exceptional sites already vying for readers’ attention. My particular spin was to concentrate on wonky subjects like cocktail recipe templates, spirits categorization, and how distillation works. Writing for the thinking drinker who wants to know more about what’s in their glass, and how to make it.

I didn’t know Camper English personally when I started, but I was well aware that his Alcademics blog already had years of serious geeky chops. I knew I’d tread heavily toward that vein–and far, far away from “Eight Fourth of July Cocktails You Need to Make Now!” I also knew I wouldn’t be happy rehashing what Camper had already written so well.

In addition, I revered the writings of early pioneers like David Wondrich, Paul Clarke, and Robert Hess. However, their decade-long head start meant all the obvious low-hanging fruit topics had already been deeply covered. I still smack myself every time I get excited about something, only to discover Paul wrote about it back in 2007.  And I could kick myself for being present in Seattle from 2005 onward, but oblivious to the heyday of Murray Stenson, Zig Zag, Drinkboy and Cocktail Chronicles going big time – well, big time in cocktails circles, at least.

My first few posts rolled off the fingertips with ease. Yet looking at them now, I cringe. Much evolving as a writer was to come. But more important, I soon exhausted all the easy-yet-wonky topics I’d dreamed up. Now what? What new content could I add my particular wonky spin to?

For a while I concentrated on spirit reviews as the path forward. Get some review bottles and go to town! While reviews provided meaty subject matter for a while, and I’m really proud of the reviews I’ve written (like this) I came to two key realizations:

First, reviews of new-to-market spirits typically get more attention than something on shelves for a decade or more. And getting ahold of these pre-release spirits is hard when PR reps don’t know who you are. It’s a chicken and egg problem: You can’t prove your site and reviews are particularly insightful and witty when you can’t get that hot bottle to write about.

Second, spirit reviews are a brutal numbers game, if you care about building mind share. Lots of people write reviews and plenty of sites have hundreds or thousands of reviews, cranked out on a daily basis. As for me, I work for close to ten hours on a typical review. Accounting for the fact that all my writing here is in my spare time, I can realistically write one review per week. Worse, at the end of the day, my lengthy, labored-over reviews appear fairly far down the list of web search results, courtesy of Google’s PageRank system which favors quantity over quality. I have the utmost respect for people like Nino Marchetti and Wes Burgin, who can crank out thoughtful reviews on a steady basis, but after ramming my head against the review system for a while, I started reserving my spirits review energies for highly interesting bottles with a great backstory, like this recently released Batavia Arrack.

Cocktail Wonk visiting E&A Scheer in Amsterdam
Cocktail Wonk visiting E&A Scheer in Amsterdam

Luckily, around that time, a new direction for great content became clear. A chance meeting with an Anchor Distilling rep led to a tour of the Berry Bros. and Rudd facility in London. I came out of that experience awed by the spirits and history of the company, yet surprised so few spirits aficionados knew about them. I set out to write a highly compelling post and challenge myself as a storyteller. (Mrs. Wonk put on her grouchy-editor hat for this one, rejecting the original post as boring and demanding a full rewrite—not great for marital bliss but better for the blog.) In the process I stumbled into a key realization that’s shaped the blog ever since: What really gets my writing motor running is long-form posts that go deep. Sometimes they tell stories – an untold yarn revealing something no one other than a few industry insiders knows about. My story on E&A Scheer in Amsterdam is a particular high point. Other times these long form posts pull together a vast swath of disparate debates and discussions to create a coherent overview, like this piece on rum categories or my Minimalist Tiki at Home.

This isn’t to say everything I write lately is 5,000-plus word essays. Sometimes my best moments are when I’m good and pissed off about something, firing off a quick thousand words to lay down some truth and call out stupidity. The mind is incredibly clear in those situations, and the words write themselves.

Cocktail Wonk pulling some fifty year Lagavulin from a cask at the distillery
Cocktail Wonk pulling some fifty year Lagavulin from a cask at the distillery

 Somewhere along the way I fell all the way into the rum black hole. Long before I started writing, I had a special fondness for rum, but I figured that once I got underway I’d be equally enraptured with bourbon, single malt Scotch whisky, tequila, pisco, and lord knows what else. And I do love those spirits with a deep passion– having visited and written about nearly every major American bourbon distillery, and trekked through thirteen Scotch whisky distilleries for my 50th birthday, for instance.  Yet I keep coming back to rum. I find myself reading centuries’ old texts about rum production and thinking “I HAVE to write about this!” My periodic posts on new TTB rum label approvals make it painfully obvious I’ve gone off into maximum rum-nerd overdrive.

Cocktail Wonk, Richard Seale (Foursquare), Josh Miller (Inu A Kena)
Cocktail Wonk, Richard Seale (Foursquare), Josh Miller (Inu A Kena)
Cocktail Wonk at Hampden Estate, Jamaica. In background: Peter Holland (The Floating Rum Shack), Camper English (Alcademics).
Cocktail Wonk at Hampden Estate, Jamaica. In background: Peter Holland (The Floating Rum Shack), Camper English (Alcademics).

Luckily I’ve found my second family in the rum crowd – kindred spirits who understand the obsession. Through Facebook, I interact with fellow hard-core rummies, and am extremely lucky to consider people like Martin Cate, Richard Seale, and Ian Burrell my rum compatriots. I’ve become friends with so many people that have been instrumental to expanding my knowledge and turning me on to stories I’d otherwise miss. It’s always dangerous to start listing names because you’ll inevitably miss somebody, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to Josh, Paul, Peter and Lance, who’ve welcomed me into the rum writer community, constantly challenging and inspiring me to push further.

Cocktail Wonk, and the brains behind the operation, Mrs. Wonk, at Speyside Cooperage in Scotland.
Cocktail Wonk, and the brains behind the operation, Mrs. Wonk, at Speyside Cooperage in Scotland.

If there’s one person who deserves credit for bringing up the overall quality of writing on the site since it started, look no further than Mrs. Wonk. She’s a far more witty and elegant writer than I and has professional writing/editing chops from way back. After my umpteenth boneheaded typo and mangled sentence (and her never ending frustration about the death of punctuation), I swore I wouldn’t post new content without running it by her all-seeing eyes. She’s ruthless in calling me out when something’s not right (see above re: Berry Bros. and Rudd), and while I sometimes resist the editorial input, she’s right 99.8 percent of the time. She’s more than earned her wonky stripes after countless distillery tours, endless copyediting, and a never-ending stream of, “Honey, try this. Tell me what’s in it!”

Something I’m particularly proud of is that this site doesn’t chase the almighty dollar. You’ve never seen an ad here, nor has anybody ever paid me to write a post– the advantage of being self-funded. While I don’t get to work on this site forty-plus hours a week, and I don’t get the same exposure  as writing for Eater, or Chilled, everything you see here is something I cared enough about to dedicate my unpaid time to. I am grateful for the review bottles that come my way, and I am honored to be included on press trips. All fun, but they don’t pay the bills. I am free to pick and choose what I write about, without worrying about where my next dollar (or sponsorship) comes from.

Top Posts…So Far

Being a techie at heart, I love metrics and stats. With 200 posts over three years, there’s finally enough data to meaningfully compile a list of the five most popular posts so far:

1) Rum and Sherry – A shared history and great together in cocktails!

An early post, and one of the first that wandered away from my original vision for the blog. I’m surprised this piece comes in at the top spot, but no complaints. I’ll likely revisit this topic after Mrs. Wonk and I  visit Jerez early next year.

2) Lost Spirits Distillery’s Aging Reactor Could Transform the Craft Spirits Industry

Thanks to Bryan Davis, I had a heads up that this was happening. I woke up at the crack of dawn to post this, so as to be the first to break the story on East Coast time. In a strange twist, the date was April 1st, so probably half my readers assumed it was a hopelessly nerdy April Fool’s joke. Surprise! It wasn’t.

3) Can Rum Survive Its Moment in the Sun?

The article where I wrangle together many key points of contention in the rum civil wars. Made properly, rum is just as noble a spirit as single malt Scotch whisky or cognac. However, many producers game the system, selling faux premium rums to unsuspecting consumers. Guilty parties are named.

4) Prohibition Hangover: How the U.S. Three Tier Distribution System Keeps You from the Spirits You Want

In an era with fantastic spirits choices from all the world and Amazon delivering toothpaste to your door within the hour, it’s ridiculous that U.S. consumers are hindered by liquor laws dating back to the Prohibition era. Each state has its own arcane rules, and knowing how the system works (or doesn’t work) is the first step to working around it.

5) Days of Dunder: Setting the Record Straight on Jamaican Rum’s Mystery Ingredient

I’m absolutely bonkers for high-hogo Jamaican rum. Rumors and misinformation about “dunder,” bats, and goat heads being responsible for the uniquely Jamaican flavor have spread within the rum community for years. Having visited Hampden Estate, I learned firsthand that “dunder” is no big deal, and that the bacterial atom bomb called “muck” is what’s really responsible for the flavor.

What’s to come?

At this point, my enthusiasm for spirits, cocktails, and bars have taken over my vacation time and travel schedule. Look at where I’m headed, and that’s what you’ll be seeing here. The next epic multi-week trip is Spain in early 2017. While we’ll spend time in Barcelona and Madrid checking out all the cool bars, the main reason for the trip is spending as much time as possible near Jerez, immersing ourselves in the world of sherry and Spanish brandy. (Mrs. Wonk will be sure to drag us to some architecture and history and culture—not to mention great food—in between the sherry.)

Speaking of brandy, fruit-based spirits are another huge area I’ve only begun to explore so far. Pisco, Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados…those words sing to me. I dream of spending weeks in France and Peru, soaking in the stories and then writing about them.

From the cocktail side, my article on Minimalist Tiki struck a chord with many readers. I believe the idea of a rigorous analysis of a cocktail category, followed by the concrete advice for how to dive into it, has legs beyond just the Tiki family. And while that post’s content isn’t revelatory to someone running a Tiki bar, the ideas really resonated with the home bar enthusiast community, which doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should. We at-home folks don’t all have wells, clear ice at arm’s reach, and an endless supply of pre-squeezed citrus juice in speed pours. We can’t possibly use a quart of exotic infusion like “Macadamia nut and chai tea infused mescal” in a reasonable time frame, and it’s not worth making an ounce of it for one drink.  Topics relevant to home bartenders interested in cutting edge craft-cocktails is an area ripe for exploration.

While the above is what I think will happen in my writing over the next year or so, I really can’t predict what boozy stories, cocktail recipes, or madcap adventures will come my way. What I’ve gotten out of this site is so much more than what I’ve put in. Huge thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to read what I’ve written, and especially so for those who’ve taken the time to comment on and share what they’ve learned here. 2016 was a banner year for stories here, and I have every intention to make my 2017 content even better!

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