As far as cocktail writing is concerned, there’s hardly a name more recognizable than Robert Simonson. And rightfully so—over the course of a decade-long career, Simonson has pioneered a new way of writing, and thinking, about drinks and bars through his work at titles such as the New York Times, GQ, Imbibe, and Time Out New York. Beyond journalism, Simonson has also authored The Old Fashioned, an in-depth exploration of the world’s first classic cocktail, and the creator of the booze-centric mobile app Modern Classics of the Cocktail Renaissance. We met Simonson at Pouring Ribbons in the East Village to talk cocktails and catch up on his latest projects.
TAKE US BACK IN TIME. YOU WEREN’T ALWAYS COVERING DRINKS—YOU WERE A THEATER WRITER ORIGINALLY RIGHT?
Yes, I was a theater writer for 15 years. But theater is a small world, and I felt like I had interviewed everybody twice. I was looking for a change in focus and beat. My first idea was wine, so I started writing a column for the New York Sun called “In the Cellar” where I interviewed sommeliers—I did that for about two years before it went bust. Around that time, I met Ann Rogers, who is now Ann Tuennerman. She told me, “I do this little thing in New Orleans called Tales of a Cocktail, why don’t you come down?”. This was in 2006, and it wasn’t so widely known back then. The real reason I went was because I wanted to see New Orleans, but it opened my eyes to world of cocktails and spirits. After spending five days down there, I thought the community was a lot more fun, a lot more vivacious, and I also realized the cocktail scene was burgeoning and there was a great opportunity there. The world didn’t need another wine writer, but maybe it needed a cocktail writer.
WHAT’S YOUR GO-TO DRINK AT A COCKTAIL BAR?
If it’s a bar I don’t know, and I’m not working, I’ll order an Old-Fashioned. That’s a good place to start. You can find out if they do the fruity version, or the non-fruity version. You can also find out if they’re very attentive, whether they ask you if you want bourbon or rye. But mainly when I go to a cocktail bar, I order what seems like the most interesting thing to get a sense of what they’re doing with their program—a lot of times, that drink is at the top of the menu.
WHEN A FRIEND FROM OUT OF TOWN, WHAT THREE NYC BARS WOULD YOU TAKE THEM TO?
OBVIOUSLY TRENDS ARE VERY CYCLICAL, BUT HAVE YOU NOTICED ANY NEW INNOVATION IN THE MENU OR PRODUCT SIDE THAT YOU FEEL IS WORTH MENTIONING?
A lot of innovation right now has to do less with what’s in the glass, and more outside of glass. In this Instagram age of ours, presentation is so important, from the vessel to outlandish nature of the garnish. At Dante, they started serving Old-Fashioneds with branded ice—this stuff is happening all the time. And when I was in Prague, it was that times ten. I went to a bar called Anonymous, where they wear the masks from the film V or Vendetta while they shake your drink. I ordered a drink called the Hitman and it came to me on a tray with a fake gun on the side. It’s all sort of marketing in a way.
AS SOMEONE WHO’S OLDER THAN, WELL, ME, DO YOU FEEL INSTAGRAM HAS AFFECTED THE INDUSTRY POSITIVELY OR NEGATIVELY? YOU HAVE YOUR OWN RIGHT?
Yes, when I post a picture of a cocktail, everyone is happy. When I post a picture of something else, they’re confused. I don’t mind it. If it’s making the drinks more photogenic and pretty, that’s not a bad thing. And it’s a way of getting free marketing—there’s always one drink on the menu that takes off and there’s a hundred photos of it. At Mother of Pearl, the bloody shark and the bulldog-style one. As long as they’re not creating the drink to be photographed first, as opposed to creating it a good drink, i think it’s fine.
WOULD YOU SAY NEW YORK CITY IS YOUR FAVORITE CITY FOR COCKTAILS?
WHAT’S YOUR SECOND FAVORITE?
Right now, Chicago, I think the scene is very strong and they’ve got every kind of bar. The bars have really come up in just the last two-and-a-half years. It’s almost the equal to San Francisco. They’ve reached the point where if you go come and then go away for six months, you come back and there are 10 new bars to visit. And they’ve even got their own East Village—a neighborhood called Logan’s Square where the bars are concentrated.
DO YOU THINK WE’RE AT A POINT NOW WHERE PEOPLE REALLY UNDERSTAND COCKTAILS OR IS STILL ONLY THOSE WHO WORK IN THE INDUSTRY?
Yes, and no. It’s more so than it used to be, and smaller cities have cocktail bars now. But it’s still only one sliver of the industry. If you’re interested, you can find a cocktail bar in your city and learn. The important thing that has happened is that people know the classic cocktails and they have an idea of what they like, whether it’s gin or whiskey. It’s that little bit of knowledge that people carry with them now that they didn’t before. That’s the best kind of education, starting with the basics.
DO YOU START DRINKING LESS WHEN YOU HAD A KID?
No, I just drank less at home, but because of my job, I still have to drink when I’m out. The difference having a kid makes is, after a certain age, he knows what you do for a living and he starts to ask questions. You have to be careful and let him know it’s not a frivolous thing—it’s serious, and people should treat it seriously. Whether you drink or don’t drink, you’re going to encounter alcohol. It’s better to have knowledge than no knowledge.
WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU SHARE WITH PEOPLE IN THEIR 20’S WHO MIGHT WANT TO DO WHAT YOU DO, AND WRITE ABOUT COCKTAILS?
It’s very easy now to educate yourself. 10 or 20 years ago, the old cocktail books hadn’t been re-published yet, so you had to go to libraries and used book stores and find these documents that had been lost. But today, anyone who wants to learn about the cocktail scene and go to Barnes & Noble, pick up ten very good books and know everything! Do the research and read a lot before you write anything. Even though we have so much information at our fingertips, all the bad information and tall tales continue to get printed again and again. Because I wrote the book The Old Fashioned, the one that always gets me is that the old-fashioned was invented at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky. That myth has been exploded many times and yet people still print it—it’s lazy journalism. The other thing I’ll say that it is a very small field. And it keeps shrinking. It’s a small world, our cocktail world, and it’s hard to make a living of it.
DID YOU EVER HAVE ANYONE YOU SAW AS MENTOR, WHETHER IN JOURNALISM OR JUST IN THE DRINKING INDUSTRY?
No, not really. By the time I started doing this, I had been a journalist for almost 15 years. I didn’t need a mentor.
WERE THERE ANY BARTENDERS THAT YOU INTERVIEWED EARLY ON WHO HELPED MAKE YOUR CAREER, OR ANYONE YOU WERE PARTICULARLY CAPTIVATED BY?
I interviewed Sasha [Petraske] like a dozen times over his life, and I always found him an inspiring figure because it was so obvious he wasn’t into it for the fame or money. He just wanted to create a good drinking environment and good drinks. I saw an idealism in him, and that idealism spread. A lot of people caught it from him and other figures in the early days. That’s what I really liked about the movement—people just wanted to do it well, bartend well and create the best drinks. That was inspiring. As a journalist, you want to write about a field where people care.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE BEST FIRST-DATE BARS?
For a first date, any of the bars that are run by Meaghan Dorman. I wrote about that recently, and sorry, that’s what I really believe. If you want more of a fun night, if it’s that kind of date, Employees Only is good. But I don’t know anymore, I’ve been married for so long.
YOUR TAKE ON COCKTAIL-AND-FOOD PAIRINGS? ANY GOOD ONES?
I don’t like the idea of cocktails with food—I think you have wine with food. That said, bar food has really improved. In my little corner of Brooklyn, Long Island Bar has wonderful food, Leyenda has wonderful food. I just learned that the new bar Fresh Kills hired a chef from M.Wells to do the food for them. These bars are scoring food by really good chefs. But if it were up to me, I have a cocktail for two and then have the food with some wine or beer. If you’re having food and cocktails, you blast out your palate.
That’s nonsense, I don’t believe in them. Hangover cure—don’t drink too much.
WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE INDUSTRY BUDDY TO GO OUT WITH FOR A NIGHT OF DRINKING?
I’m of a bit of a loner when it comes to barhopping. I’m often in pursuit of several stories at once, and I can hit the most bars and talk to the most bartenders in the shortest period of time if I’m traveling alone. It’s also easier to score a seat at the bar. I also like the idea of running into friends by chance in bars, which almost always happens. But there’s a man from Notre Dame, Father Bill Dailey. He’s something of the unofficial spiritual leader of the bar tending community. He works with the bartending apprentices down at Tales of the Cocktail. When he’s in town, he makes an admirable drinking companion. He’s congenial, armed with plenty of good conversation and knows how to handle himself. And as you might imagine, if you walk into a bar with a priest, you get served with a certain extra deference.
YOU JUST LAUNCHED A COCKTAIL APP EARLIER THIS YEAR. WHAT WAS THE IDEA BEHIND IT?
Martin Doudoroff, who has done cocktail apps with such cocktail luminaries as Jim Meehan, David Wondrich and Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, was looking to put out an app devoted to modern classics—that is, drinks born during the cocktail renaissance that have gotten some traction. He knew I had been studying this subject for years, as part of my research for A Proper Drink, my upcoming history of the cocktail revival. So he asked me to collaborate. I readily agreed, because it’s an important subject to my mind. So much of recent cocktail history is being quickly forgotten by the younger generation of bartenders and drinkers, or recorded incorrectly by the media. It’s rather alarming. I felt it was important to get all the information—recipes, dates, authorship–down in one place, accurately and drawn from direct sources. It’s a user-friendly app, certainly. But I also think of it as a historical document.
ANY NEW PROJECTS ON THE HORIZON FOR YOU?
My big project, which is all but finished, is A Proper Drink. I’ve spent two and a half years traveling the world and interviewing hundreds of people, trying to get the origins of the cocktail renaissance down on paper as comprehensively and accurately as possible. It’s been a monumental task. After that, I have to begin work on a new book dedicated to three-ingredient cocktails. Which, as you probably know, means nearly all of the greatest cocktails ever invented.
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