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"The old-fashioned is the one drink I can order at any of my favorite New York bars and see the bartender's hand start to shake a little bit," cocktail connoisseur Robert Simonson laughs. Coming from a guy who literally wrote the book on the drink, we can see why.
Simonson is a cocktail and drinks writer for the New York Times and author of 2014's The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World's First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and Lore. Most recently, he also took on the task of documenting the full history of cocktail culture, penning A Proper Drink: The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World, which hit shelves this fall. In short, he knows more about cocktails than you, your parents and your amateur mixologist friend combined.
Simonson's love for cocktails was born in 2006 when he traveled to New Orleans for a liquor-soaked weekend at Tales of the Cocktail. There, he discovered the extensive culture surrounding cocktails and had a life-changing experience: tasting his first Sazerac (get the recipe).
"[The Sazerac] was a seamless, cultivated, elegant whole, and like nothing I'd ever experienced before," he writes in A Proper Drink. "It was a drink with a story, a past and more depth than most people I know. The world stopped."
The cocktail movement Simonson discovered that day is one he says took 35 years and hundreds of major restaurants, bars and bartenders to get started. He also found that the birth of this culture wasn't a story anyone had ever written down.
"There are scattered articles here and there, but nothing comprehensive," he says. "I realized people might start to forget about everything that had happened” and that “the major players might pass on. I knew that if it wasn't done soon, it wouldn't be done at all."
Simonson's task took years to complete as he traveled the globe, interviewing more than 200 people instrumental to the movement and collecting firsthand accounts of cocktail history. From London to San Francisco to New Orleans to Australia, from London’s "cocktail king" Dick Bradsell to pioneering bartender Dale DeGroff of the Rainbow Room in New York, Simonson covered his bases.
The resulting book is a comprehensive look at how modern-day drinking came to be, from the bars and cocktails that shaped it to the innovators who made it all possible—including TGI Friday’s. It's true: The ancestors of modern cocktail wizards trained for years at the oft-scoffed-at American chain, struggling to learn hundreds of cocktails by heart (some of which were required to be crafted while blindfolded).
"In its early days, TGI Friday’s . . . was an incubator of bartending skill and discipline during a period when bartending was considered a dead end," he writes. And that's just one of the wild tales the book offers.
Although A Proper Drink evidences how drastically the scene has changed over the years, Simonson is convinced cocktail culture is here to stay. "It’s clear now that this isn’t just a trend. Cocktails are better than they ever were. It has become the new normal."
History aside, where does one of the country's leading cocktail experts go for a good nightcap right now? The Long Island Bar in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.
"They’re very solid, they're not pretentious and they have a classic look in a renovated diner," he says. "Phil Ward bartends on Fridays, so I can order any drink he’s invented anywhere else, and he’ll make it for me. And whenever Toby Cecchini is bartending, I know I can get a great Cosmopolitan, since he invented it."
When not at his favorite neighborhood haunt, Simonson isn’t afraid to switch it up. "My go-to orders are Sazeracs, old-fashioneds, daiquiris and Negronis, but it depends on my mood, the menu and the place. It's best to play to a bar's strength: Order a drink they're known for or a true classic."
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He also recommends a simple highball, "because sometimes, simple is the order of the day.” Or a classic Tom Collins, "but get it with Old Tom Gin, not London dry gin." Just don’t order a Bloody Mary. "If I want a drink at brunch, I'll get a Ramos Gin Fizz," he adds.
Simonson even invented a few cocktails of his own, like the fruity, balanced, Champagne-topped American 25 (get the recipe). Most of the time, though, he insists on leaving it to the professionals.
Despite the wealth of great cocktail bars in NYC like Little Branch, Attaboy, Death and Co, Clover Club and Dutch Kills, Simonson stresses that San Francisco, Chicago, L.A., D.C., Portland and Boston are also becoming drinking destinations in their own right.
"I think the movement will just continue to grow and evolve," he says. "I think those big restaurateurs, the Danny Meyers of the world, who may have been playing the wait-and-see game to see if this cocktail thing was going to stick are going to get into it big time. They may even have more power than those who were doing it originally, because they have the clout, the business savvy and the power to get it done."
Until then, we'll be happily sipping a Sazerac, waiting to see what's next.
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