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New York Times spirits writer Robert Simonson chronicles the cocktail revival

A Proper Drink ranges from London to San Francisco

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Cocktail bars continue their reign, popping up in major cities and nestling into the cultural consciousness. Now their recent history can rest on your bookshelf with the September release of New York Times spirits writer Robert Simonson’s A Proper Drink (Ten Speed Press). This is a history of the modern cocktail movement, based on 200 interviews with industry professionals. The book is broken into chapters based on famous bars, drinks and people (one of whom is eminent, Pittsburgh-born drinks historian David Wondrich). Simonson also sprinkles in the recipes of 40 important cocktails.

While some of the history might surprise, like the importance of TGI Fridays or where the word “cocktail” comes from, the origin points of the revival do not shock. “I decided early on ... that I would focus on three cities, London, New York and San Francisco, because that’s where the revival cropped up first, and it has remained strongest over the course of the 20 years of the revival,” Simonson told CP during a recent Pittsburgh visit.

Throughout the 1980s, which Simonson calls “dark days for drinking,” sour mix was used widely in place of fresh citrus, vodka was ubiquitous, and cocktails were seen as an outdated habit of the previous generation. Recipes had been muddled or forgotten over the years. New York City bartenders took up the mantle of rediscovery and precision in cocktailing, focusing on pre-Prohibition classics, which Simonson refers to as the “brown, bitter and stirred” style. “We’re [New York City], not in any kind of Sun Belt. We don’t have lots of fresh produce around us all year round, so it makes sense also that we would rely on things in bottles; martinis, old fashioneds, Manhattans.” 

More temperate San Francisco put its emphasis on fresh ingredients in the “garden to glass” style. “When you’re surrounded by that kind of thing, why wouldn’t you use it?” Simonson points out. This focus on ingredients took attention from proportions, so the cocktails tended to be inconsistent. That disappointed Simonson: “I wanted them to be diamond-sharp and they weren’t. I mean they were good, but they weren’t that.”

There was a lot of rivalry between cities, and each made contributions. The revival of the mojito in the late ’90s began in San Francisco, and the perfection of the classics originated in New York. “I would say that the New York style ended up prevailing; the obsession with the pre-Prohibition cocktails continues,” says Simonson.

London had a cocktail revival before either American city. “They didn’t invent the cocktail [Americans did], so they felt free to re-invent it,” says Simonson. This produced a cocktail culture that prizes flair, with showier drinks and bartending styles. “When I go to London, I’m expecting the drink to come with a lot of bells and whistles.”

When asked whether there is an up-and-coming cocktail city, Simonson mentions Paris and Berlin. “They [the Germans] have been doing this for 15 years; they just didn’t get the attention.”


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