What Are You Drinking, Robert Simonson?
We're always thirsty, and we're always curious about what other people are drinking. In this new series, we'll check in with barflys, writers, brewers, distillers, winemakers, and other folks we find in various liquor-soaked corners of the booze industry to find out what they're excited about drinking these days.
First up: Robert Simonson. You might recognize him from the pages of the New York Times, where he writes about spirits, cocktails, and bars. He is currently working on a cocktail book for Ten Speed Press, due to be released in Spring 2014. Let's get crackin', shall we?
What are you drinking these days, Robert Simonson?
Last night, I had a couple Rob Roys before dinner. (I don't drink cocktails with dinner; that's wine's role, in my opinion, and will ever be.) I don't often drink Rob Roys; the Manhattan is a much better drink. But I recently received a bottle of Noilly Prat Ambre, which makes for an excellent Rob Roy. Previously, the brand had only been available at the Noilly Prat headquarters in France. But they're releasing it to a few bars in the U.S. soon, probably because a bunch of bartenders kept asking for it. I first tasted it in London in 2008, and liked it immediately.
What about the last time you went to a bar? What did you drink?
Last time I was in a bar I had a Guinness. It was the White Horse Inn in Greenwich Village, and there's no point making fancy drink orders at an ancient joint like that. A couple days before that, I had a Mai Tai and a Whiskey Sour prepared by the peerless Eben Freeman at The Butterfly in Tribeca.
What are your summer go-to drinks?
Pimm's Cup. Gin & Tonic, if I have good tonic on hand. Tom Collins, made with Old Tom Gin, not London Dry Gin. Cocchi Americano on the rocks with a twist of orange. The two-year-old Beach Plum Gin from Greenhook Ginsmiths in Brooklyn, mixed with tonic, makes for a wonderful summer drink. Rosé, of course, and a host of aperitifs. Anything low is alcohol. As with food, you don't want to go too heavy in summer.
How did you get into the drinks-writing business?
I was a longtime theater journalist, and desperately needed a change of scene. I had always been fascinated by wine, so I began educating myself. That led to a wine column at the late New York Sun. Then I met Ann Tuennerman (then Ann Rogers), who founded the Tales of the Cocktail convention down in New Orleans. She invited me down in 2006. That opened the door into the very-different-from-wine world of spirits and cocktails. Different people, very different vibe. Sort of like leaving a concert at Alice Tully Hall and wandering into Mercury Lounge. Some combination of getting more opportunities to write about cocktails, and of genuinely finding the drinks universe more intriguing and inviting, led to my reporting more on Martinis than Merlot—though I still do write about wine from time to time.
What spirits are you particularly excited about right now?
The Irish whiskey front continues to improve stateside. As interest in the category continues, and sales soar, the best stuff is making it's way over here. Powers John's Lane, an excellent pot-stilled whiskey, arrived earlier this year. And Green Spot, one of the best of the Irish whiskeys, will be here soon. Tapatio, a great old tequila brand, is now in the U.S., including a 110 proof blanco version, which is only available in America and may be the the most delicious blanco tequila on the market. Makes a great margarita. Braulio, a lovely amaro from northern Italy, is also new to our shores. I always get happy when a new amaro arrives.
What cocktail trends are you tired of?
Quite honestly, I'm tired of cocktail innovations being thought of as trends. The term trend communicates the idea of something we're going to indulge in, use up and then dispose of. Some of these so-called trends are actually spirits and techniques that had been lost for a century, and are only now being brought back by bartenders and distillers. There's been too much effort and passion involved for ideas to be junked the moment the public—and the press—get tired of them. I certainly hope things like punch, tiki drinks, bitters making and aperitif cocktails (to name a few) aren't trends. We've been without them—at least, in terms of quality and disciplined execution—for too long to lose them because of sudden consumer and media boredom.
Where do you see cocktails going in the US?
To your corner bar. At least, I hope so. No, but seriously, unless you live in Portland, your corner bar is probably never going to suddenly start making craft cocktails. But with luck, a regular-seeming bar in your area will, and start doing so without a lot of fanfare. Just as the food and wine revolutions of the past eventually elevated menus and wine lists across the board, so, I suspect, will the cocktail renaissance lift all boats. All the heavy lifting can't be done by destination bars like PDT or Violet Hour or The Varnish. And I've become convinced that craft cocktails and high-volume are basically natural enemies—so mixologists consulting with chain restaurants is not going to be the way the cocktail gospel gets spread. It's got to be indy bar by indy bar, where owners are inspired enough by what they see around them—and care enough—to improve their back bar and their drink building. Americans don't need to get a smoked, fat-washed shrub with housemade bitters at every bar. They need to be able to get a decent Manhattan or Negroni wherever they go.