A Spirited Life

By Noah Rothbaum ’00

The other day I started the morning off with a bit of Sazerac 18-year-old rye whiskey. Neat. Not only did I enjoy the dram, but it was actually for my job. 

Noah Rothbaum at Macao Trading Co., one of his favorite Manhattan bars.
Noah Rothbaum at Macao Trading Co., one of his favorite Manhattan bars.

Although many writers were prolific boozers, with alcohol featuring prominently in their work—Hemingway and Bukowski first come to mind—drinking straight whiskey before 10:00 a.m. is quite a feat for a journalist, and not for the faint of heart. But despite the strength of the liquor and the early hour, I have to admit my work is usually not quite so scandalous. I’m a cocktails-and-spirits expert and editor-in-chief of the website, which publishes a range of articles every week from the world’s top bartenders and drinks experts, including fellow Vassar alum and rum authority Wayne Curtis ’80.

So while most days usually start with coffee and oatmeal, nobody, not even my mom, bats an eye when I say I have to taste a flight of single-malt Scotches before lunch. And there is, of course, a big difference between drinking for my job and drinking with my friends. For one thing, I usually need only a few sips of a spirit to write tasting notes, and I often add water to whiskey to reveal its full flavor.
Having written about liquor for nearly 15 years, I’ve built up an experienced palate, not to mention an impressive liquor cabinet. Friends and family who visit my wife and me are either horrified or amazed by my collection. I am quick to point out that most of the bottles are still full.

When people hear what I do for a living the response is usually overwhelmingly positive. They immediately ask me about my favorite cocktail (for the record, I don’t have one; there are just too many options) or my favorite
whiskey (it would be like choosing between one’s children). Often they pepper me with questions about where to find a bottle of the rare Pappy Van Winkle bourbon that they saw on the HBO show Treme (give up the dream, it’s not going to happen) or whether the absinthe on store shelves is the real thing that they tasted in Europe (yes, it now is). Their enthusiasm and curiosity keep me motivated and engaged.

I have asked myself more than once why I am so fascinated by alcohol. The answer is that it represents the perfect combination of history, large personalities, innovations, and, of course, delicious things to drink. The industry also keeps changing and evolving, which makes it fun to follow and write about. In the span of only a few years, craft cocktails and fine spirits have gone from being a niche interest among a small group of people whose passion and obsession approached Trekkie levels, to a major part of pop culture, with even casual dining chains like Ruby Tuesday investing in serious bar programs and offering a variety of cocktails. Sure, Americans have always had a thirst for alcoholic beverages—George Washington was the country’s largest rye distiller after he left the White House—but today there’s an actual movement to rediscover the traditional bartending techniques and recipes of the golden age of cocktails, which started in the late 1800s.

During that era, when many of the cocktails that we still know today were created, being a bartender was a noble profession. But due to the two world wars and Prohibition, much of this knowledge was lost, along with the respectability of the craft. It didn’t help that the Atomic Age made cutting-edge technologies like blenders, premade mixers, and the bar soda-gun popular. While this might sound like a big to-do about nothing, try making a margarita using cheap tequila and a sugary supermarket cocktail mix. Then fix one with a good tequila produced from 100 percent blue agave and a homemade sour mix. (If you’re up for this mixological challenge, you’ll find the recipe here.) You will quickly be able to taste the difference between the two margaritas. Seriously. I swear on Matthew Vassar’s acorn-shaped gravestone.

There’s a common misconception that you need to be a connoisseur or an expert to tell the difference between a good cocktail and a bad cocktail or a good Scotch and a bad one. It’s actually quite the contrary. This isn’t some secret test of intelligence, and there are no wrong answers. If you like something, drink it. If not, move on to something else. The only bad choice is to drink something because you’re afraid of ordering a cocktail you won’t like. It is particularly important to experiment now that we have access to an amazing selection of spirits from around the world and a huge range of classic and original drink recipes.

This wasn’t always the case. I grew up in a household where the bottles of spirits collected dust in my parents’ pantry, taken out only for special occasions. My first real drinking lessons, besides a few tastes in high school, occurred while I was at Vassar. I even had a set of cocktail glasses, a shaker, and my grandfather’s cocktail recipe book in my room at Cushing. I remember trying to mix up all kinds of crazy concoctions for friends and neighbors. Some were delicious and some were not. And many nights were spent at the Mug drinking cheap beer and sampling many badly made cocktails.

During my junior year, my good friend Rob Goldberg ’01 and I decided to write a series of humorous restaurant reviews for the Miscellany News, where I had worked since passing through Main Gate. That led to a summer internship at Food & Wine under the editor who covered restaurants and spirits. He introduced me to liquor luminaries like Dale DeGroff, who led the rebirth of the cocktail and now writes for me regularly. Dale made me the first truly great drink I had ever tasted.
After enjoying a few sips, I knew that this was the life for me.

Noah Rothbaum ’00 is the author of The Business of Spirits: How Savvy Marketers, Innovative Distillers, and Entrepreneurs Changed How We Drink. He is also the editor-in-chief of, which won a 2013 James Beard Award for its How to Cocktail video series.