A Conversation with Robert Simonson
Talking to the author and New York Times cocktail columnist about the past and future of drinking, as well as his newsletter, The Mix.
You're listening to “From the desk of Alicia Kennedy”, a food and culture podcast. I'm Alicia Kennedy, a food writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Every week on Wednesdays I'll be talking to different people in food and culture, about their lives, careers and how it all fits together and where food comes in.
Today, I’m talking Robert Simonson, a contributing cocktail writer at the New York Times, Punch, and other outlets. He’s the author of many cocktail books, including one of my favorites, A Proper Drink: The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World
We discussed how he went from theater critic to cocktail writer, the methodology behind 2016’s A Proper Drink, launching his newsletter The Mix, and the non-alcoholic beverage scene.
Alicia: Thank you so much for being here, Robert.
Robert: Oh, it's my pleasure.
Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
Robert: Yes, I grew up in a small farming community in Wisconsin. It had the name Eagle with about 395 people in it. And my parents had moved there for a change of pace and their lifestyle, and we lived on a working farm. So my mother had a huge vegetable garden and my father raised pigs and other animals, so I kind of grew up knowing where all the food came from, all the vegetables came from our garden, all the meat that was in the large freezer in the basement, had once been living on our land, and we sent it away to a butcher and it came back.
So I guess this kind of gave me a sort of a trusting attitude towards food, which is perhaps not well founded or well founded and how you look at it. I was very lucky in that respect. My mother was a good cook. She made a lot of, you know, home meals, mainly Germanic, the kinds of things that you would get in Wisconsin. And of course, you know, you eat a lot of cheese out there; you eat a lot of bratwurst. One thing we did every summer that I did not realize was special until the last ten years is, we took one of our pigs and we roasted it whole over a spit and we invited all the family over and we had this day-long pig roast. I think at the time as a kid, I probably thought it was pretty gross. But now of course, you know, that's, that's a very cool thing to have.
Alicia: [Laughs] Well, when did you end up coming to New York then?
Robert: I came to New York in 1988. I came here to go to graduate school at Hunter College.
Alicia: Nice. And what did you study? Did you study journalism?
Robert: I had studied journalism and English Literature at Northwestern University in the Chicago area. And I came here with the quixotic idea of getting a master's degree in dramatic criticism, which is not, you know, a going concern, not a way to make a living. But that's what I wanted to do. I really wanted to be a drama critic. My family is a theater family; they're a group of actors, directors and designers. I've… I've always been a writer, I knew I would be a writer from the age of 11, or 12. So that seemed what my role should be, although later on, I tried playwriting as well.
Alicia: What did you take from dramatic criticism that now sustains you as a cocktail writer? Because you really, you've spent most of your career writing about cocktails, right?
Robert: Yes, about 16 years writing about cocktails. There was a brief interval with wine, and before that, 15 or 18 years writing about theater. At first, I didn't see the parallels, but then they were very clear and right in front of me. Obviously, the bartenders behind the bar, many of them are former actors or current actors, but they are all performers, they are on a stage, we are looking at them, we are evaluating their performance, enjoying the show. The theater has a long and rich history, I always like the historical aspect if anything. And cocktails have been around for a long time, more than 200 years. So there was that history to dig into. There are a lot of traditions and superstitions; there are a lot of rituals surrounding both theater and the bar. So there's actually quite a lot between the two. And now… now in retrospect, I can see why I would have made what would seem like a very unorthodox career transferred from theater to cocktails.
Alicia: How did that transition happen? What got you actually started in writing about wine and cocktails and going more in that direction?
Robert: I think after about 20 years of writing about the theater, I was, quite frankly, burnt out. The theater is a very small world, even in New York, and I felt I had written all the stories I had interviewed all the people I… I hadn't seen all the plays, but I'd seen hundreds upon thousands of plays.
And I thought to myself, you know, does a person have to do the same thing their entire life? I knew I had to write but I was… I was tired of writing about theater. And I just looked around, like I said, I did wine for a while. I was always fascinated with wine. I educated myself and wrote about that for a while. But then I found out that the wine world is kind of stuffy, frankly.
And also there were… there wasn't a lot of opportunity there. The people who write about wine are quite entrenched, and they don't really open the door for a lot of new people. And then I discovered—this was like 2006, and the cocktail world was just discovering itself, and at least bartenders are reclaiming cocktail history, bringing back all these classic drinks, opening cocktail bars. So I was able to kind of get in on the, you know, so called ground floor on that. I'd always been interested in mixology and cocktails. Again, this was a thing that was in the back of my head, I didn't really realize it. But my parents always, you know, steadfastly honored cocktail hour, my mother drank old fashioneds. My father drank martinis. I'm from Wisconsin; drinking is a big part of the culture.
And so I was fascinated with how you put those drinks together and where they came from, and where the names came from, and all that stuff. And so I made that switch and I'm glad I did.
Alicia: Well, and your book, A Proper Drink: the Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World, is one of my favorites, because it caught me up to date on all these things that I had missed in the cocktail world, and then kind of came into it late. What was the research process for writing that book? Because it really is such a deep and extensive historical record, but also has a real narrative thrust to it as well.
Robert: Yes, that was the second cocktail book I wrote, after The Old Fashioned at that point, it was in the middle of the 20 teens, it was about 2014. And I was looking around and having this historical bent in my mind, I was thinking what history is happening right now in the cocktail world, in the bar world. And nobody's really writing it down.
I mean, they're writing it down piecemeal, article by article, but they're not taking the broad view…long view. And part of what we were all doing as cocktail writers was trying to rediscover the past because it hadn't been written down very well. So we were going back, like, who were the bartenders who created these cocktails? Why do we drink martinis? Why do we drink old fashioneds? How do you make them all that kind of stuff? So I thought, Well, let's not, let's not go through that again… let's write it all down while everyone's around, and everyone's alive, and the bars are still alive. And you can interview everyone. I went to 10 Speed Press, which is my publisher, and they thankfully took the idea I was… I was happy and surprised. And then, of course, I had the task in front of me, which was a daunting task. And so I interviewed more than 200 people in several countries, a few continents. It was just a matter of doing one after another.
You just couldn't look at the entirety. So you started with one interview. And then it went on, I think I interviewed Dale DeGroff first, who seemed like the perfect choice for the first interview. And at this point, I had been writing about cocktails for about eight years, so I knew all the players and they trusted me when I interviewed them before and wrote about them. They knew that I wouldn't do a disservice to them or the history or this culture. I did the interviews and I think it took about a year and a half to do all the interviews. Then of course, you have to transcribe the interviews, which is absolute torture; it took so much time. And you know, just thinking about it right now, I'm exhausted. I could not… I can tell you right now, I could not do that again.
If you… if you had given me this book contract today, I could not do it. It's just too tiring. It's the hardest thing I ever did. But I'm glad I did it and I'm glad I did it at the time I did because as you know, some of the major characters in that book are no longer with us.
So I got to talk to them. But while they… they were still here.
Alicia: Right, and, you know, there is a quote from Giuseppe Gonzalez at the start of chapter nine that ever since I read the book, I think about this quote all the time. But he said when you think of the classical bartender, it's always a tall white guy with a funny mustache. And he goes on to say how that erases people like him, Audrey Saunders, Julie Reiner. And that's been a real guiding point for me, but, you know, how have you tried in your work to kind of write the modern history of cocktails, not just in that book, but in your… in your journalism that you do, really do a justice to how diverse this… this job is really, and how diverse you know, the world of cocktails is. There's cocktail bars literally everywhere now in the whole world where they're all doing different things.
Robert: Yes, yes. That's a great quote by Giuseppe, that moment. Giuseppe was always a good interview, he was always very unguarded, and candid. And the moment I heard that, I thought, Well, that's gold. That's going in the book.
Alica: Yeah. [Laughs]
Robert: And there's a reason I started a chapter with it, I knew it was a good quote. And it was an accurate quote; he was absolutely right. Happily, this world is becoming a more diverse world. I don't think it was when the craft cocktail movement began. All the people in it were just so excited about what was happening that bartenders were being respected again and cocktails were being made well again and seen as the liquid equivalent of what was going on in the kitchen. It was just this sense of discovery that they weren't necessarily looking around and aware of whatever inequities were right within the community. And they were, quite frankly, the same inequities that you see in every other field of enterprise, and achievement. One of the good things, I think, that has happened over the past two or three years is, the cocktail community has begun to recognize that and try to correct that. Bring more diversity, because it was an overwhelmingly male world, and overwhelmingly white world and these were the people who were interviewed. So I'm just as much at fault as anybody.
But, you know, with the #MeToo Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement, it opened a lot of people's eyes, both within the bar world and the people who cover the bar world. And so you start to reapproach your job, reapproach your assignment and say, like, well, who have I been neglecting? And maybe I should stop interviewing the same people over and over again, and look a little deeper and find someone else, you know, and concentrate on bars that are owned by women, that are owned by people of color, also, to look back into history, and find out those forgotten figures, which were indeed, you know, forgotten, and written out of history. They were there, though. And so it's… it's been our job to tell their stories, bring them back, I still think there's, of course, lots of work to do.
Alicia: Well, you know, you recently launched a newsletter called The Mix, which is about drinks, but it's also, you know, a really, really big mix of content and subject matter. So what was your inspiration for going independent right now?
Robert: Well, so many things changed during the pandemic, during the past two years, I think, you know, the scales fell from everybody's eyes. You know, what their lives were, what their employment was, what… what the greater culture was. Freelance writers are no different. You know, we fight and scrap and, you know, scrape together our living, you know, day by day. And then something like the pandemic comes along, and like, the scaffolds fall down, and then you realize you have no support whatsoever.
Alicia: Right. [Laughs]
Robert: It got harder to get assignments. I don't envy, uh, the editors and publishers; they didn't know what to do any more than we knew what to do. But at the same time, you have to make a living. And so I was lucky, because I was working on two book assignments during the pandemic, and that kind of kept me afloat. For much of it.
But I knew that I had to reorganize my career to, I don't know, just find a new way to go about the same thing that I was doing. And I, quite frankly, I had never heard of Substack before the pandemic came along, and suddenly, there were lots of articles about Substack, talking about people like you, and people like you became an inspiration. You know, I was looking at what you were doing; you were charting your own territory, you were becoming independent and writing about what you wanted to write about. And that was very appealing to me. And it also allowed me a lot of freedom, because I can choose what I want to write about. I think there used to be a lot more generalists in journalism, who could write a little bit about everything. I've always been pigeonholed: I was pigeon holed as a theater writer and then I was pigeon holed as a cocktail writer. It's kind of a miracle that I actually got out of theater writing, because they… once you're in the box, the editors don't let you out.
And I love… don't get me wrong. I love writing about cocktails, and bartenders. It's a very nice box to be in. But it's not the only thing I'm interested in. And now that I have this newsletter, I assigned myself you know, I can write about food, I can write about travel, I can write about regional eating traditions, I can… I can even go back to the theater. I mean, once I left the theater, I sort of burned all those bridges, and they cut me off, you know, no more theater tickets, no more free theater tickets. But now if I choose to, I can. And we've been doing it for six weeks and it's well, you know, it's a tremendous lot of fun. I don't know if you thought… do you find it fun? I find it fun.
Alicia: I find it fun, it's… it's interesting. I mean, like you, I like to write about lots of different things. I started out as a writer thinking I'd be a book critic and so my first love is literature. And so I felt like I never got to talk about books anymore when I was a food writer, you know, and then… but even when I was, you know, writing about food, you know, as a freelancer and as some as not really a contributor, any… to any one place, I got to write about tons of different things, but at the same time, you know, people would be like, well, you sort of dabble in this world, but you're more of this world and then someone else would be like you're really of this world but you dabble in this other world like and so it was always this kind of trying to pin you down, always. So that was that…
Now, as someone writing for myself and doing more essays and cultural criticism, I get to kind of combine everything that I care about. And I think that the reason I've had a moderate amount of success in this format is that people want that; people want to see, like—people love a voice, obviously; this is why we love art—but also people love to see connections between things, you know, we aren’t all people who just, we just go out to eat, or we just read books, like we all do all of these things. And so it's like, how do all of these things that I care about fit together? And I think that the reason we've seen so many writers really take to doing newsletters is because finally, they have a place to do that without editors saying like, no, you only can do this. And the only places I've found where I'm allowed to do that, at a bigger scale, are like literary places that don't pay well at all.
And so, you know, you're doing 3000 words, and doing really what you want to do and like weaving all of these things together, and then you're getting like, you're spending hours and weeks on it, and you're getting not even the equivalent of a month's rent. So at least within the newsletter format, you can kind of set your own boundaries, and trajectory [laughs].
Robert: That's right… I mean… that's why I called it The Mix. I struggled with the title. And The Mix, of course, is evocative of mixology. You know, and I know that most people are going to come to the newsletter looking for that drink stuff. But it's also a mixture of material and hopefully are getting… people are getting that, you know that yeah, just like I'm going to get a little bit of this a little bit of that little from Column A, Column B. And, and then they like that, but it's wonderful, removing all those impediments. All those middle people, you know, between you and the reader.
It's just wonderful. I will say that I have rather stupidly given myself 100 percent more to do. I write… I write twice as much as I used to and it's a little exhausting sometimes. It's a little overwhelming, because I'm still writing for the same freelance outfits that I did before, and I've still got a book too. But now I have to feed the beast, which is the newsletter.
Alicia: Yeah, no, finding that balance is really hard. How have you been? How have you been trying to structure your time these days?
Robert: Well, I've settled upon certain days that I post on the newsletter. And so the day before that is all work. You just wake up every day and you know what you have to write that day, and you get it done. The stuff for the newsletter doesn't seem like work, however, it just seems like fun. It seems like something that you're doing for yourself. I mean, I can tell you, most of the things that I write about are things that I would not be allowed to write about anywhere else. And whenever this story has been something that I really care about, and then really passionate about, or, or I'm just having a great time researching, it's never work.
Alicia: Right now is an interesting moment, though, in the cocktail world, like, how are you feeling about the rise of the nonalcoholic beverage and spirit and why? And you know, how is that? How is that fitting into your work? How is the, I would say, the rise of sobriety influencers as well—it's become a really interesting time to talk about drinking at all, because I don't know if you've found this, because people are really in a strange moment in their relationship with alcohol. How have you been experiencing this?
Robert: Yeah, that's been an interesting trend and it's been going on for a few years. It was… it started before the pandemic came along but it was kind of pushed along by the pandemic. And we started out with low ABV drinks. I kind of think a lot of these things are often pushed by the bartenders themselves. I mean, we perhaps think that we're choosing our own drinking trends, but the person behind the bar decides what's on the list or what they're going to serve. And, you know, it could very well be you could argue that a lot of these people in the cocktail industry, perhaps overindulged for the first decade of this movement, and then they thought they took a, they took an appraisal of their life and said, I better take a few more steps back here, because this party can’t go on indefinitely. So they started drinking low ABV drinks. And then maybe some of them were actually quite a few of them stopped drinking altogether. And they said, okay, how can I have a good time in a bar if I'm not having an alcoholic cocktail? So they've come up with the low ABV drinks.
That's been interesting to see during the pandemic. There was a real swing toward the beginning. We were all in shock, and we're just trying to comfort ourselves. So there was a lot of overdrinking. And then after six months, it was like, okay, let's not drink at all. So it's just, it was a swinging from extremes. I quite honestly did not know how to approach the subject for some time. Because I have schooled myself on the history of cocktails and cocktails are alcoholic drinks. And that's how they were invented. That's how they were made. And the world of the bar—for much of the bar’s history was a place where you drink spirits, or beer, or wine, or whatever. And to a certain extent, I wondered if non-alcoholic drinks weren't better covered by food writers? Because I just kind of thought of them as soft drinks, you know? So maybe this should be written about by somebody other than me.
But lately, I've begun to take them more seriously, look at them more closely. My wife recently decided to stop drinking for a while and so it became important to find good things to drink. And so I had to go out and she had to go out and find what were they offering in terms of non-alcoholic spirits? Every time we went to a bar, she would order the non-alcoholic option. And of course, I tasted all these, and then you, you come to find, you know, what are the faults with these things? Where are the good ones? Who's doing it well? Who’s doing it badly? Where do we have to improve? And I now see, one of the most important aspects of the genre. I think, to a certain extent, these things can only be made as well as they can be made, but I think the more important role they play is that they invite everybody into the bar.
So everyone comes in the bar, everyone gets their special drink, they're comfortable, they have a good time, and they can hang out together, as opposed to hanging out in separate places. So I like the social aspect of it that has changed things in recent years.
Alicia: For sure. And you know, I'm not in New York anymore, so I feel very detached from what's going on. So now that we're kind of coming out of, I don't know, I feel like I don't want to say we're post-pandemic, of course, but I do want to say we're coming into a new phase, I guess, of the pandemic. And so, what's exciting about bars right now in New York, where are you finding excitement?
Robert: Well, bars have had to reinvent themselves in so many ways. We lost a lot of great bars during the pandemic here in New York, and the other ones have struggled mightily. I'm sure that they're still reeling. Actually, I think it… is it today, or was it yesterday that they lifted the vaccination requirements at restaurants and bars, which I personally think is a mistake. But that's how it is now and so they're gonna have to struggle with that as well. How are they changing, what's exciting? Right now, everyone's just so excited to go back out again and there are a lot of new bars opening, obviously, almost no new bars open for almost a two-year period. And now there's a kind of flood of them. And so there are conventional stories to cover, as there used to be. I think the smart bars are trying to figure out how to do business differently and better, because they realized their relationship with the government was broken… their relationship with City Hall, their relationship with customers was based on a lot of perhaps unhealthy assumptions and habits. Changes in how they deliver the menu. I've seen in real time, they offer a lot more non -alcoholic drinks, like we were talking about. It's been a big wake-up call. I don't think running a bar is—well, it never was really a carefree enterprise… running a bar is really, really hard. But I think there are more worries now. And it's just, it's also too early.
Somehow after going through the pandemic, it feels frivolous and a disservice to talk about drinking trends. Like, you know, blue drinks are hot, you know, yeah, who cares? You know, we've got bigger fish to fry. You know, there are a lot more important things to write about.
Alicia: Well, that's actually really exciting to hear, because I can't wait to see what does change about… about cocktail writing and bar writing now that we've been through this and restaurant writing as well, because I think, yeah, when when you read a piece that kind of ignores all this context that we now have spent two years mired in, it feels very out of touch. And so like, how are people going to get back in touch with the audience? Is the audience going to be okay with talking about different things like labor issues, and you know, the policies that affect bars and restaurants, etc., etc.? So, it's going to be an interesting time for sure.
So I usually ask people if cooking is a political act for them. Do you cook a lot?
Robert: I do cook a lot, and I cooked a hell of a lot during the pandemic. I'm pretty good.
Alicia: For you, is cooking a political act, then?
Robert: Well that’s a good question. On one level, it's not because most of the time I'm cooking for my wife, or my son or my stepson. And so it's just a loving act, you know, a family act, but you do choose what you want to cook. I'm lucky enough to get a lot of cookbooks coming through the mail from 10 Speed Press and Clarkson Potter. And so I've been looking more at cookbooks of cultures that I'm unfamiliar with, or written by people of color and saying like, like, I've never made a dish like this, why don't we try?
And so that's been eye opening, and very rewarding. So I guess you could say, in that small way, it's a political act.
Alicia: Well, thank you so much for being here today and for chatting with me.
Robert: Oh, this has been a pleasure. Thank you so much.