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Bar reporter Robert Simonson talks about theater folk, cocktails and his newfangled book about The Old-Fashioned

Written by
David Cote

Some drama critics quit the racket to turn political pundit (Frank Rich). Others switch sides, taking jobs at nonprofit institutions (Jeremy McCarter and The Public Theater). But Robert Simonson decided to hang up his reviewer's hat and do something useful for society: He covers liquor and bars. While Simonson (a Time Out contributor for Theater and Food & Drink) still files a weekly column for Playbill online, the bulk of his reporting takes place on a barstool, quizzing mixologists and liquor distributors about developments in their field. The latest fruits of Simonson’s boozy labors is The Old-Fashioned, a handsome hardback just out from Ten Speed Press that takes a good, long look (and frequent sip) at a drink that’s been having a big comeback. Whether you learned about this iconic drink from a parent (as Simonson did) or got hip to it via Mad Men (it’s Don Draper’s favorite tipple), the Old-Fashioned is alive and well in New York’s watering holes. Simonson takes us on a witty and engaging tour through the drink’s long history and ends with recipes for traditional mixes and experimental twists. Like a good old-fashioned, his writing is dry but sweet; it’s got a kick, but is also low-key and best savored slowly. If you want to catch the author chatting about Old-Fashioned lore, he will be appearing at Housing Works on Sept 3—details here.

I recently talked with Simonson about the overlap of theater culture and bar culture, writing about booze, and what makes a true old-fashioned.

Before seeing Don Draper order old-fashioneds on Mad Men, I’m not sure I’d heard of it. Did the TV show help the book get published?
I noticed old-fashioneds appearing on cocktail menus and started ordering them before I started watching Mad Men. The first liquor article I wrote for the dining section in the Times was about how old-fashioneds are coming back and I remember part of my pitch for that article was: Not only is it in cocktail bars, but it’s also on this show Mad Men. It certainly didn’t hurt; even though Don Draper drinks the fruited version, he’s helped to make that drink cool again. I’m sure there are lots of people who go into a bar and see it on the menu and say, “Oh I’m gonna order what Don Draper drinks and that’ll telegraph my hipness.”

And 50 years from now it’ll be called The Draper.
Oh, I guess it could. [Laughs] Have you ever heard people order it that way?

Not yet! So, how did you switch from being a theater writer and critic to writing about bars?
Well, quite honestly, I was burnt out around 2006. I had been writing about theater for a long time and felt I needed a change. I had always been interested in wine, so I started taking courses for The New York Sun and I enjoyed writing about that. And then by chance I met the founder of Tales of the Cocktail, which is a cocktail convention in New Orleans, a woman named Ann Rogers. She was opening a café in Soho and she said, “You should come down to this thing I do in New Orleans. And I thought, I want to go to New Orleans; I’ve never been. That opened a whole new world to me. I realized that there was this demimonde of spirits and cocktail people. The people who made them and the people who wrote about them. Going to that convention convinced me that these people were more interesting and more fun than the wine people. So I started writing about that for the Sun and then it built over the years, and I grew more and more enchanted with the bar world. I decided to write more about that and less about theater.

What’s the big difference between writing about bars and covering theater?
They’re both full of colorful characters, obviously. Many people before me have noted that the bartender is basically a performer. He has to command the stage and get the focus of everybody in the bar. And, of course, a lot of the bartenders are actors or ex-actors, although I’ve found that more are musicians or ex-musicians. You probably know, as a theater critic, you go to the theater, you’re there all the time. But our interaction with the performing-arts people is minimal. We interview them sometimes, but there’s not a community there. There’s a wall. Perhaps for the best. Whereas in the world of cocktails, I get direct communication with the bartenders, with the distillers, with the bar owners. I have found that once the story is written, I still talk with them. It’s a bit more convivial.

And are you allowed to wax more lyrical in your writing?
If that has come out, it’s in part because of my excitement in covering a new area. Also, this form of journalism is barely ten years old. Cocktail journalists didn’t exist 15 years ago because there wasn’t enough to write about. So going into a new area you’re able to write, perhaps, in a more fresh style.

Is it possible to write about the scene without writing about drunkenness?
If you’re writing about that world, that culture, you have an interest in it as something valuable. Not just a place where you’re drinking alcohol and becoming intoxicated, but bars as a nexus of a community, thinking about their longstanding role as a gathering place. Bars are often referred to as the poor man’s club. Historically, that’s where poor people went to gather outside home, that “third place” that isn’t home or work, where you can meet your fellow man and remind yourself why you put yourself through it all and why life might be occasionally worth living. So you think of it that way and also give more careful thought to what you’re doing there and what you’re drinking. The stuff that’s in the bottles behind the bars wasn’t put together in a slapdash manner. A lot of these spirits are centuries old and a lot of artistry goes into them. Once they’re in the bar they’re put together in blends and mixes by another artist, if you will.

You include many radical variations on the classic old-fashioned. But I get the sense you like them pretty, um, old-fashioned?
When I make it at home, I make it the simplest way possible: whiskey, bitters, soda and water and orange peel. In the book, I figured I had to like lay my cards on the table and be clear as to which I prefer, while also not condemning anything else. If you talk to a purist they’ll say the only variation is either bourbon or rye, and that’s it. But I do like some of the newer ones that they’ve come up with. There’s a recipe for the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned which has tequila and mezcal. It’s very simple and very delicious. I like variations that bring something new to the drink but you’re never in doubt that it’s still the same formula, basically.

What is the tipping point for it to stop being an old-fashioned?
If it’s got a lot of spirits, and you’ve got bitters in there, and you’ve got some kind of sweetener—a little bit, not a lot, and it’s served in a rocks glass on ice, you’re pretty damn close to the old-fashioned. It’s funny: When you talk to the purists, it’s like they want to have it both ways. You’ll show them a drink that uses, I don’t know, aquavit or something, and they’ll say, “Oh that’s not an old-fashioned." But if that drink were presented to them as a new cocktail they’d say, “Well, that’s just an old-fashioned!” [Laughs] You can’t win.

What does the persistence of the cocktail say about America?
America recognized a good drink and stuck with it. They never gave up on it. And you know Americans: They love immediate gratification. Here’s a good thing and it’s very simple, like a hamburger or a hot dog. And it’s a very individual cocktail. The idea of the cocktail is very American because it’s basically punch in a glass. So you’ve got the English, who invented punch—or are largely responsible for it. Punch is a communal drink; you get your glass and have group punch and share it with a bunch of fellows. Americans take that idea and say, I want my own punch. It’s just for me and it’s in my glass. And because it’s a small drink in a small glass, it’s quick. You can drink it relatively quickly. That’s exactly how it was drunk in the 19th century and Americans are always in a hurry because they’ve got some place to be and they’ve got money to make.

So if the old-fashioned could vote, would it go GOP down the line?
[Laughs] I might have said ten years ago, “Yeah the kind of person who would order an old-fashioned, either they’re old, so they vote conservatively, or they’re frat boys or club members or Wall Streeters.” But part of the reason the drink has come back is that half the people who are drinking them are women. So I would say that if you got a bunch of old-fashioned drinkers in the room and you put them in the voting booth, it would be a tight race.

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