Behind The Stick
Interviews with the Movers and Shakers Of Mixology
Hosted by Blair Frodelius of Good Spirits News

The Doctor Is In
A Conversation with Ted "Dr. Cocktail" Haigh
Ted Haigh is one of mixology's most respected authorities.  Not only did Ted help found the groundbreaking website, but he also was instrumental in launching the Museum of the American Cocktail.  This summer we were delighted by the publication of a new expanded and revised version of his classic book "Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails".  I asked Dr. Cocktail about his new book and what he's got on the speed rail these days.

GSN: Why did you decide to write a revised version of "Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails" instead of an entirely new book?

Frankly, it all started because the first edition went, unexpectedly, out of print – which launched a real scramble for the ownership of the book. I was surprised that Quarry terminated it and wanted to acquire the rights for did at least three other publishers. In defense of Quarry, I was the first cocktail book they ever published. In general, they do books on architecture, crafts, and the like. I think they were caught off guard by the fast outcry. They eventually said to me that they would retain rights and that they would really like a revised edition. I agreed with the following provisos....I would have creative control, I would have better royalties. With only one major exception, they kept that bargain, and in the end, I found myself quite proud of this book.

GSN: While doing research for this book, did you uncover any surprises?

TH: Oh, SO many. There were so many wonderful facts just waiting to be discovered and I reveled in every one of them. This book was an utter pleasure to do.

I think one of the limitations of cocktail books is that they limit themselves to the glossy veneer of cocktail culture. I always want to push deeper into the culture of the day...cocktails never happened in a vacuum, and yet they were iconic of what what happening in the larger world.

That said, the most interesting thing in retrospect was an abstraction: the farther afield I took the lines of correspondence between specific drinks (or cocktails in general) and the wider world that was the incubator for their creation, the more I enjoyed the telling, and the more broadly persuasive was the impact of both what I wrote and the cognition of how and why these drinks and the craftsmen (and that includes women) who made them were much more than a series of recipes in a misunderstood cut to the chase, the broader the zeitgeist, the more valuable the knowledge imparted.

GSN: What do you feel has revived the cocktail since its' near death during the dark days of prohibition?

TH: Cocktails had been around for over a hundred years already then – and were beginning to seem stuffy and tired. Prohibition made people miss them immediately and those lucky enough to journey to Europe met with a fresher take on the cocktails being made.

But to the question: I think initially it was the swank lounge scene that focused the interest – based on the chimera of sophisticated cocktail parties of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Trouble was, by then, cocktails weren’t what was being consumed at those parties, mainly highballs and lighter the ‘60s even VERIFIED cocktails were being served like highballs....Martinis, Manhattans, Jack Roses....all on ice (and sometimes crushed ice.) But no matter....the lounge set was really into music....Rat Pack and brash jazz. What they wanted was the iconic conical Martini-style cocktail glass, but they sure as hell didn’t want a real Martini in it. This was early to mid ‘90s.

Back at the end of the ‘80s, I was beginning to espouse the germinal concept of cocktail revival, but nobody was listening to me then. In New York Dale DeGroff was doing the same thing – but from a fresh and defined ingredient perspective. People WERE listening to Dale, but only in New York. Still, the combo of that info in the New York nexus and the swanksters promoting the iconic glass image (which I believe began -- faux-cocktail-wise -- in one or more chain hotel drink gimmick/promotions in the late ‘80s.) The “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” character of svelte sophistication as nostalgia. By ‘95 the Internet was becoming pervasive – if not yet exactly mainstream. I was an early cocktail adopter and began to have an impact, especially after I became the spirits maven for what was then the 800lb gorilla in the room, America Online. Being suddenly interconnected, even simply with only other AOL members gave individual interests national exposure. Here is were we learned of Dale, where I met Gary Regan, Bill Grimes, and Ted Breaux - and made contact with the future standard bearers of the cocktail resurgence. AOL began making a number of silly bureaucratic tactical mistakes with its forums, policies, plans and direction. It had become unpleasant to be around, and it forced my onto the very-much-wider World Wide Web. It wasn’t anywhere near as user friendly back then – especially considering that a 28.8 dial-up modem was considered blazingly fast. Yet the information began to flow.

On the other end of things, the Lounge crowd could only go so far began they would naturally encounter a REAL cocktail of some sort, and some would inevitably like it. This would lead to bartender involvement as a matter of necessity as they began making drinks of a style largely sidelined since the early ‘50s. At that point it was only a matter of time. By Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails in 2004, I was already an old hand and was worrying that I’d waited too long for my book to make an impact. By the new millennium, there was already some evidence of sublimation of our cocktail aims. As it turned out, the book hit the market like a long shot horse wagered to win by the crazy guy with a system, when everyone went wild as Beetlebomb was first by a nose! The hiccups of sublimation I spoke of were strongly counterbalanced by the emergence of the next generation of aficionados taking their own positions as beacons for the next wave of newbies to follow....thus Paul Harrington led to Robert Hess – and to my mind, that’s as clear as it gets.

GSN: If someone was just starting out as a cocktail enthusiast in 2009, what books would you recommend they read?

TH: Vintage Spirits, Killer Cocktails, Joy of Mixology, The Essential Cocktail, Chas. Baker, Sippin'’ Safari,  The Essential Bartender’s Guide, and Jerry Thomas – just for perspective as to how far we’ve come. I have to say, this list has changed substantially as web info has increased in quality. Much of what was previously mysterious has now been parsed conveniently for new cocktail explorers. All of the recent books now on my list provide good cocktail theory, good recipes, and good bar instruction. Most make it clear where ingredients can be found and tend to lead the reader on a journey into various worthy hideaways in the larger cocktail maze. The same can be said about the vintage books I include, but they mainly set the scene for a better understanding of the width and breadth of the culture we’d lost for quite some time.

GSN: You have been instrumental in getting the Museum of the American Cocktail established.  Why did you choose New Orleans as the location?

TH: It wasn’t just me, it was the whole Board of Directors who unanimously gave the nod to New Orleans...Dale DeGroff, the world’s most celebrated barman and his wife Jill, Phil Greene – a descendant of Antoine Amedee Peychaud, Chris McMillan – the patron saint of New Orleans mixologists – and his wife Laura, Robert Hess – cocktail evangelist and star of video series “The Cocktail Spirit”, Tim McNally and Brenda Maitland – journalists on wine and spirits, and myself. Speaking, I think, for all of us.... New Orleans is a perfect fit for us for several reasons: it is central in the country making it more convenient for travel than either coast would be, it exists as a referent to a world of a different time (exactly as does our museum) and most importantly it celebrates history and the convivial arts as no other city does. To that I would add that we all love it.

GSN: What forgotten spirit would you most like to see come back and why?

TH: We all have witnessed the long-awaited revival of a number of cocktail constituents. Of those, I’d say it is a tie between the original 70 proof Amer Picon and the original Lillet recipe.

GSN: What is your most treasured cocktail related possession?

TH: There are three: My bottles of Carypton, Secrestat Bitters, and Koosh Bitters.  Carypton was a product issued by Angostura before Prohibition.  We believe it was a seriously alcohol-laden version of falernum, though, according to Dave Wondrich (from whom I got the alert of the bottle's availability), the product's original color was green....presumably honoring the lime juice.  A serious stab at an alcoholized falernum is a worthy endeavor.

The other two are bitters that, once Prohibition took effect in America, gained credence as cocktail-worthy.  We NEVER saw them in the U.S. Yet they appear tantalizingly in the British "Cafe Royal Cocktail Book".  I'm just thrilled to own full examples of both.

GSN: What is your all-time favorite name for a cocktail?

TH: The Symphony of Moist Joy.

GSN: Speaking of moist joy, tell me about your acting experience in "Super Bad."

TH: Chris Spellman, the production designer, has always been a promoter of mine, both in my film graphic designer career and in my guise as Dr.Cocktail. I was hired to do the voluminous liquor labels and other graphics for the film. The director, Greg Mottola, and I because friends, and very unexpectedly he wanted me for the bartender in the movie. He and the crew advocated giving me a scenario, not lines. So I tried the role, by turns, as aggressive, judgmental, and obsequious. It was a lovely experience with lots of props from the REAL actors!

GSN: You've worked in the film industry for a number of years.  How do you feel cocktails have been portrayed in the movies?

TH: Great question! You can establish the era you are viewing by the depiction of cocktails in film. In general, the early days saw the upper class drinking. This might lead to some inebriation, but it was all portrayed with some class...often with sardonic intent. Cocktails were always a dramatic device in film, but exactly what they portrayed and represented changed continually over the years. In the final tally, cocktails have run the gamut from worshipped and reviled in film. To my mind, that suggests film, like journalism, is doing its job.

GSN: Who are some of your favorite imbibing actors and actresses in film?  Bogart, William & Eleanor Powell, Sean Connery?

TH: No one played intoxicated better than Charlie Chaplin. A meditation on his short reels displays a feeling for, and understanding of, the internal manifestations of “schnockered” better than anyone since. A larger (and equally-valued) number can play inebriation observed well, Chaplin took you into the boozy mind with (if I may use a countermanding term,) clarity. All those you mentioned I hold in great regard. There are so many more worthy of mention...why not give you one no one knows? Luther Alder: In the American remake of Fritz Lang’s “M” he plays the lawyer. Raymond Burr is a henchman.. Alder’s role is superb, and the film worth searching out.

GSN: If you were to nominate the most important, iconic cocktail, what would it be?

    TH: There can only be one answer: The Martini. Other cocktails are important, historic, cultural
harbingers of the future, but only the Martini rises to the level of icon. To figure out how and why this happened, check out Lowell Edmund’s “Martini, Straight Up”.

GSN: What is the best cocktail you've ever had and where?

TH: That is very hard to say. Best Martini was in a locals dive bar in Vegas. Best of so many classics were at my house...not because I mixed them so superbly, but because that first encounter of something wonderful ends up being the most memorable.  If I had to recall one utterly ascendant cocktail I had in a commercial venue, it would have to be the Mai Tai I was first served at Madam Wu’s in Santa Monica by the great Tony Ramos, with the future Beachbum Berry at my side.

GSN: What is the worst cocktail you've ever had and where was it?

TH: There were two. One was ordered for me in Richmond, VA by then-future GWAR member, Chuck Varga aka the Sexecutioner. It was in a joint named McLean' still exists there, but the one we frequented was on Grace Street in the Fan – a hotbed of artsy Virginia Commonwealth University students – and long ago closed. What I had was a Jackass Flat, and in modern parlance, it was a bar mat martini.

The second was more charming. I don’t remember where it was but I walked in and ordered a Singapore Sling. Without missing a beat the bartender made the drink and a waitress brought it over to our table. It tasted like gin, red wine, maybe a persimmon or two, and maybe some prune juice. I whipped my head around toward the bartender, and he just sagged. He simply played the odds he could bullshit his way through making a drink he knew the color of but had ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what was in. It was really pretty funny. Of course then there was the night of flaming shots of 151, but that doesn’t qualify as a cocktail does it?

Lastly, what in your opinion is the origin of the name "cocktail"?

TH: The only theory that has any substantiation to speak of is the morning angle. The position of the early cocktail as a morning beverage cannot be disputed. As such, it’s hard to dismiss the bitters. Bitters as medicine combine with hair of the dog to indeed create an “anti-fogmatic”. The use of the cock or rooster as an auditory symbol of morning awakening far precedes the any of the mixed drinks we ponder. Because of the bitters, the cocktail was a fancy drink, and calling it a “cock-tail” suggests morning, plus the end of something, (a night of over indulgence perhaps?) plus a certain liveliness as the rooster awakes to strut anew, plus the bird’s plumage – befitting a fancy drink. 

Ted Haigh is a regular contributor to Imbibe Magazine and currently works for the Hollywood film industry as a graphic designer.  His film work includes "American Beauty", "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", "The Road to Perdition" and the TV miniseries "John Adams" for which he won an Excellence in Production Design Award from the Art Directors Guild.  His latest project "Battle: Los Angeles" is in production. "Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails" was published on July 1, 2009.  He can be reached at

Blair Frodelius lives in upstate New York and is the editor of Good Spirits News.  He is also a professional musician and is co-founder of Out of the Box Entertainment.  He can be reached at

- Interviewed by Blair Frodelius; Aug 25 & 29, 2009

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