The subhead of Robert Simonson’s latest book may seem a bit dramatic, but if you cover the spirits industry as thorough as he does, it’s everything. “A Proper Drink: The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World” chronicles the craft cocktail renaissance that began in the mid 1980s, interviewing more than 200 key players — bartenders, bar owners, patrons and visionaries — who resurrected the throwback cocktails now available at most bars throughout the country.
Simonson is the spirits writer for The New York Times and also author of “The Old-Fashioned.” Those interested in the topic and his latest book have two chances to hear him discuss the cocktail renaissance and also enjoy some drinks. On Sunday, Feb. 12, he’ll be at Copper & Kings Distillery from 5-7 p.m., and on Monday, Feb. 13, he’ll be at the Brown Hotel from 6-7:30 p.m.
“A Proper Drink” not only tells the stories of the folks who revived long-lost cocktails like manhattans, old fashioneds and sazeracs, it also includes 40 recipes of both classic and modern drinks. Some publications also are referring to the book as the first-ever tell-all of the contemporary craft cocktail revival.
Insider caught up with Simonson before his stop in Louisville to talk about his book, his thoughts on bourbon and his favorite way to drink it. He says he came up with the idea for “A Proper Drink” shortly after he finished his first book on the old fashioned.
He had covered the cocktail renaissance for The New York Times for more than 10 years and realized it hadn’t really been documented.
“By 2013, it wasn’t so young anymore — there was 20 or more years of history there,” he says. “All the major players were still alive. It occurred to me they had to be interviewed and the history recorded before it was too late. Also, nobody else seemed to be stepping up to the plate to do the job. And it was a job that needed to be done.”
He says feedback so far has been great, especially among the major players in the industry who have expressed gratitude to Simonson for finally putting it in writing. Also, the book gives younger bartenders a backstory to all the drinks they perfect every day.
If you look back on the rise of the cocktails, you can link it with bourbon’s increase in popularity. Simonson says that’s not a coincidence.
“The two dovetailed perfectly over the past 15 years,” he explains. “For bartenders, a renewed respect for pre-Prohibition cocktails had lead to a renewed interested in pre-Prohibtion spirits and the history of those spirits. Bourbon is a quintessentially American spirit, and it makes sense it found its way into a lot of cocktails, as the cocktail is as much an American invention as bourbon.”
And the same can be said for rye whiskey, he says, which barely survived Prohibition.
Simonson says his favorite way to drink an old fashioned — Louisville’s signature cocktail — is elemental and spare: a lump of sugar muddled with a little water and a few dashes of bitters, along with either bourbon or rye, depending on his mood. One of his favorites to use in the drink is Henry McKenna 10-Year, which is a Heaven Hill product.
Sunday’s Copper & Kings event is $25 and includes a signed copy of “A Proper Drink.” Monday’s “Sip & Study” event at the Brown Hotel is $35 and includes a couple cocktails. For tickets, call 583-1234.