What To Read: Richard Godwin is mixing the perfect cocktail

This week, we interviewed Richard Godwin, who writes The Spirits, a publication that blends cocktail recipes, essays, bar talk, and music.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What’s your Substack about in one sentence?

It’s a book club but for cocktails; every Friday you’ll get a recipe, a matched playlist, a light essay, a few links to nibble on, plus a shopping list so you know which ingredients to get for next time.

What inspired you to start your publication? 

Lockdown. I had written a cocktail book (also called The Spirits) a few years ago, but I had mostly sidelined that part of my career to concentrate on journalism. Then suddenly, in March 2020, I started receiving loads of messages: “What vermouth should I use in a Negroni?” “What can I make with green Chartreuse?” “Can I whisk a Ramos Gin Fizz?” It felt like everyone who had bought my book was finally getting around to using it, which made sense. People often turn to cocktails when times are hard. And during those early months of the pandemic, the cocktail ritual became a proxy for the things we weren’t allowed to do: traveling, socializing, laughing, being silly. Then I discovered Substack and thought, here’s the perfect medium for the subject.

What are you hoping readers get out of it? 

I spent a while thinking about the format—there’s no point starting something that you can’t continue, right? But I knew that it would be based around a recipe and that those recipes would be based around a few ingredients, so that as many people as possible could mix along. Initially it was six bottles; we’re up to 12 now. 

By the time I sent out my first dispatch, a grim winter lockdown was looming here in the U.K. I still wanted to help people make better drinks, but I also wanted to provide some escapism and lightness too. So I started seeing it as something like a virtual bar; a place to shelter and hang out. It immediately became this happy Friday night ritual, and even a year later, it continues to bring me pleasure. I love the rhythm it adds to the week. I love the intimacy of the medium. And I particularly love the community it has created. People send me pictures of their cocktails from all over the world, which makes me very happy.

You create a new playlist to go along with each week’s cocktail recipe. How do you choose songs to pair with drinks?

Before I made drinks, I made mixtapes. And cocktails are rather like songs, if you think about it. They both have this magical way of transporting you to other times and places, and they’re both over in about the same amount of time. Anyway, I knew right away I wanted to combine the two.

Sometimes a musical theme lends itself quite naturally to a drink: I made a calypso playlist for the Trinidad Sour; a New Orleans playlist for the Sazerac; a bird-themed playlist for the Jungle Bird. Sometimes I have to be a bit more creative. For the Americano (a classic Italian cocktail), I collected a bunch of songs about America by non-Americans; for the Fig Leaf Old Fashioned, I chose songs about paradise; for the Boulevardier, all of the song titles were cities; and so on. (The main weekly list updates each week, but there’s an ongoing megalist here, which makes quite a good cocktail party soundtrack, now that such things are legal again.) 

I like to keep things funky, eclectic, and not too thumpingly obvious—and try to resist the temptation to use Lana Del Rey every single week. There’s always a few songs that I have in mind when I start out, but it’s nice to have an excuse to seek out new music. I’m certainly not above typing every dairy product I can think of into the Spotify search bar, if need be. 

In your first-ever post, you describe in detail the imaginary bar you dream of owning one day. What does a great bar provide, beyond a buzz?

I’ve been meaning to go back to my hypothetical bar for a while now! I wrote that at a time when the nighttime industry here was on its knees, so a lot of that was really a free-form love letter to bar culture. But the point of that place was that it was sort of impossible (even though it was loosely based on Floreria Atlantico in Buenos Aires). It was in Venice but also in New York somehow; it was moody but lively; rainy but balmy outside. I’ve always liked the idea of a neighborhood bar, where the bartender knows exactly how you like your martinis. But what I really love are those bars that you swing by once on your travels and catch a glimpse of this whole mysterious, glamorous scene that you wonder about forever. 

Read Richard’s love letter to bar culture in his first Substack post.

What are the components of the ideal winter cocktail, and do you have a particular favorite?

I always find myself reaching for a good, rich Italian vermouth at this time of year. I’m currently working my way through a bottle of Luxardo Antico, which is made from cherry wine. The Ingénue is a recent discovery: two parts brandy to one part Italian vermouth, with a dash of cinnamon-infused syrup, served up. It’s decadent, warming, conspiratorial, and it hints at places far away.

Who’s another Substack writer you’d recommend?

So many! But I’m always happy to receive The Contender by the American style writer David Coggins. He writes about men’s clothes, road trips, diners, interiors … and also about things in which I have zero interest, like fly-fishing and baseball. As with all the best writers, it’s really about tone.  

Subscribe to Richard’s publication, The Spirits, and find him on Twitter, Instagram, and his website.