The substantial body of writing – perhaps half of it by David Wondrich – about the early history of the cocktail helped lay the foundation for its rebirth. In the dozen or so years since that revival began, bartenders have plowed through the literature and old recipe books, revamped old drinks and put them back on menus, and reveled in the return of once-vanished ingredients. At the same time they were rediscovering, they were inventing, stepping from the solid bedrock of Manhattans and martinis to create new drinks.
Until now, no book has explored that more-recent history, the bartender-driven Revolution of the Bibulous that has occurred in the bars all around us. If you’ve wondered what happened to your drink in the past decade, how you went from drinking crappy commercial sour mix leaded with vodka to some delicious and expensive concoction traced with European liqueurs and chilled with perfectly clear artisanal ice, you’ll enjoy some time with Robert O. Simonson’s latest book, “A Proper Drink: The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World.”
I’m not one for envying other writers; we’re all being ground up by the same publishing mill unless we’re Stephen King, which, last time I checked, only one of us is. But I’ll admit: Sometimes I’m jealous of Simonson. Partly because he can pull off a dapper fedora, but mainly because he lives in Brooklyn and therefore has regular access to many of the bars that formed the epicenter of the cocktail earthquake. Don’t get me wrong: There’s plenty for a cocktail geek here in the District; we have our own core of heavy hitters. But Washington doesn’t offer the density of the East Village, where you can’t swing a subway rat without hitting a cocktail den. Simonson’s book ranges the globe in its reporting, but New York is the perfect vantage point from which to cover the scene.
It’s somewhat ironic that a man who has spent the past decade seeking out and writing about elegant depressants stumbled onto the topic while on the hunt for stimulants. In 2006, Simonson was a theater writer trying to break into wine writing, and he had gone out to report on a combination coffee pop-up/theater experience in Soho (of course) when the PR rep for the event mentioned a little cocktail festival she was putting on in New Orleans and suggested he come down. Simonson, excited to check out a city he’d never been to, took her up on the idea.
That PR rep was Ann Rogers, now Ann Tuennerman; 10 years on, her conference, Tales of the Cocktail, can hardly be described as little. I can only imagine encountering New Orleans for the first time through Tales, a swelter of Louisiana heat and drinking that – while highly educational – can feel like the city’s bon temps have roulezed you, along with your overtaxed brain, sweat glands and liver, right into the Mississippi. Simonson was so smitten that he tumbled down the rabbit hole and has been sending up boozy dispatches from Wonderland ever since, most notably in the New York Times.
When I talked to Simonson about how he got started, I got déjà vu as he described an early meeting to test gin and tonics with Wondrich, mixologist Julie Reiner and bartender-writer St. John Frizell, all well-established figures in the cocktail scene by then. “They were such big deals. I was terrified of them,” he says. (How the student becomes the master, grasshopper: That nervousness over meeting people who have vast expertise in a subject you’re just getting into more deeply? Exactly how I felt when I first met Simonson.)
Simonson is such a fixture in the cocktail writing world that it was startling to be reminded that he hasn’t always been doing it. Thus I read with another weird whiff of déjà vu – or whatever you call it when an experience is so well described that it causes an intense sense memory of your own – about his first encounter with a Sazerac: “The edges of my vision blurred and my focus trained on the glass in front of me. I was simultaneously tasting three things I never had before: rye whiskey, spicy and bright; Herbsaint, as herbal as the name hinted; and Peychaud’s bitters, which – well, what the hell were they anyway, and what did they do?”
A broader version of that question drives “A Proper Drink”: What is the cocktail renaissance, anyway, and what has it done to the way we drink today?
Simonson captures the re-ascendance of bartending as a career and clarifies how drinks crossed various ponds, who took them there, how the word spread. He talked to hundreds of sources – bartenders and distillers and brand ambassadors and importers from around the world – to clarify who kicked it off, who influenced whom, how did particular drinks travel from one market to the next, what are the new classics? He leaves no coaster unturned.
At times, I was cast back to studies of various literary movements – the Romantics, the Beat poets – whose work was driven forward by conversations and rebuttals and examinations of one another’s output. Your patience for the book’s deep dive may depend in part on how inclined you are to see the cocktail as a work of, if not art, then at least popular culture; to believe that exploring its influences and origins is a worthwhile task. But if you just want recipes, the book’s got those, too, both rediscovered oldies and those “modern classics” (such as the Paper Plane) that cropped up during the past decade or so. My favorite is the Laphraoig Project, which appears in a section of “should-be” classics. It’s a Last Word-esque concoction, butched up with Scotch, one of those mystifying “why does this work?” type of drinks whose contents seem as if they’ll be at war and yet somehow form an amazing sip.
The sips, though, are only part of what has made the cocktail renaissance what it is, and when I asked Simonson for some of his likes and dislikes about the scene, he homed in on the social element, “the thing people have enjoyed since the beginning of time about bars: having that ‘third place,’ this place of conviviality where if you’ve had a bad day you can have a better one.” And he notes his pleasure in the way bars allow you to develop a relationship with the person making your drink, “which is not something you can usually enjoy at a restaurant with the chef.”
In that vein, he notes that the rise of celebrity bartenders, globetrotting competitors whose bars have become so famous that they’re rarely in them anymore, may be the worst thing that has ever happened to bartending. “This may sound ungenerous, because for so long bartenders didn’t have much of a career . . . but now I think careerism is in overdrive. When the career of being a bartender removes you from the bar, I’m not sure how good a thing that is. . . . It’s supposed to be about hospitality, and where’s the hospitality if you’re not even there?
“If I had a bar,” he says – one of those daydreams that, from my experience, every booze writer entertains from time to time – “I think I’d be the kind of bar owner who was always at my bar.”
We may never see what a Robert Simonson joint would look like, but if it replicated this book’s smarts, attention to detail and appreciation for people, I’d probably be there a lot, too. Maybe even if he opens it in Brooklyn.