I don’t remember the first time that I met Christine Sismondo but I know that I was hooked; I wanted to befriend her instantly. If you live in Toronto, she is a familiar face at industry events and if you read any national newspapers, you will recognise her name in many an article. She wrote the book, America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops and recently earned her PhD (more about that further down). The wealth of knowledge that this woman has is incredible. She has traveled the world and read all of the books and she knows a thing or two about gin (and every spirit really!). She is humble and kind and is exactly the kind of leader that this industry needs.
Bartender Atlas: When did you start working in bars and what style of bartending were you doing?
CS: In the early 1990s, I worked at a Tex-Mex place at the Harbourfront (non-stop blended margaritas) and then, later, at Kilgour’s in the Annex, which is really a “local.”
BA: What lead you to get into the industry?
CS: I worked as a host in a restaurant for one summer in high school and it was easy to see that the restaurant industry was the best way to earn enough money to live on your own and pay rent as a young person. Plus, it seemed fun.
BA: What kind of drinks were you serving then?
CS: Terrible drinks. Especially at first. I recall trying to fake it through an interview when I had no experience and the guy caught me by asking me what went into a Caesar. I stammered out a few ingredients, but the interview was over, since I couldn’t reel them off. The funny thing is, though, that was the only cocktail anyone knew how to make back then. Everything else was rye-and-ginger. And beer. They hadn’t even invented wine back then.
BA: What was the bar scene like in Toronto then?
CS: I mostly only went to Bistro 422 and Sneaky Dee’s, so as far as I can tell, nothing’s changed. There were a lot of big clubs, and there was, of course, a scene in Yorkville. All of my friends were people I worked with though, so we generally went to play pool at Clinton’s or listen to music at Lee’s. We didn’t care that much about what we were drinking, which is a good thing, since there weren’t a lot of options back then.
BA: Have you always been a writer or was it something that you fell into later on?
CS: I thought I’d go to school for Sociology, but fell in love with James Joyce through an elective, so started taking literature classes. I knew I’d write, but I guess I thought I’d be an academic writer. After my M.A. though (English), I didn’t want to continue, since, at that level, it’s all about theory, not the books themselves. So I started writing for newspapers and magazines, as well as teaching and working at Kilgour’s to make ends meet. I make a living just by writing now, but it took a long time to get there. And, I’m keenly aware it could end at any time, especially with the death of print.
BA: How did you decide to focus on the cocktail industry when it comes to your writing?
CS: Pretty randomly! Inspired by the Bourbon Sour at Southern Accent, I started bringing in real ingredients to my Friday night shifts and making special cocktails for the regulars at the bar. There weren’t really any local cocktail bartenders for me to learn from at the time (late 90s/early aughts), so I started looking at old cocktail books. They were a lot of fun, so I started writing about them. That turned into a series of essays that became a book.
BA: Tell us about America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops. How did the book come about and what kind of research did you have to do? I imagine a lot of travel was involved.
CS: It’s part Kilgour’s, since I was blown away by how close that community was. It’s also partly derived from my travels through American League cities with my husband Al, who covered the Toronto Blue Jays for the Toronto Star. While I waited for the games to end and the writers to come join me, I’d scout for bars. I started noticing that a lot of American bars had some claim to being the birthplace of some political movement, like the American Revolution or some such thing. I found that interesting and that sent me down a serious rabbit hole.
BA: You recently received your PhD. Congrats, Dr Sismondo! What was your thesis project for it and will we ever get to read it?
CS: Actually, it’s online and anyone can read it. Just Google “Toronto the Gay” and “Sismondo” and you’ll find it here. I encourage everyone to flip through it, ‘cause there are some gorgeous photos in Chapter Two that tell a very different story of gay bars in Toronto in the 1950s and 1960s than the one you’d imagine. I’m struggling with how to turn it into a book, because I think it needs a lot of work.
BA: You travel a lot for work which must be a perk to your career. What was one of your favourite “brand” trips?
CS: I’ve been to some great places – sometimes independently and sometimes with a brand. I know how lucky I am – but I’m mainly in it for the education. I understand things better when I can see them in person. Although, sometimes there’s fun to be had, too–especially if you have a great group of people like we did in Nicaragua for a Flor de Caña trip.
BA: What advice do you have for anyone wanting to get into writing professionally? Do you have any tips for how to get their words out there?
CS: Read a lot. Write a lot. Pitch a lot. Try to understand what type of pieces the outlet likes to publish. You look foolish if you pitch a niche bartending piece to a general interest magazine. Always send queries, never finished pieces. Don’t take silence personally – people are busy. Check your ego. Writers can always get better, so re-write, edit and take editorial critiques seriously, even if they initially infuriate you. If possible, work with a mentor, take a class or hire/befriend an editor. Find something to write about that isn’t about you and how fascinating and clever you are. And don’t forget to open the Word document and type words into it. As often as possible.
BA: What projects are you currently working on that you are excited about?
CS: Adam McDowell and I just launched Moose Milk, a boozy newsletter that I’m really excited about AND Stephen Beaumont and I are releasing Canadian Spirits, a book about the nation’s distilleries in the fall of 2019. This summer, I have to write and produce a podcast on gay bars in Toronto and, when I finish up the podcast, I have a few book projects I want to get into, including something from the dissertation and one about monkeys in European art. I always have more things that I want to do than time.
BA: Favourite drinking city?
CS: Osaka. Tiny bars everywhere. No cultural hang-ups over drunkenness. I might retire there.
BA: Favourite booze book?
CS: Notes on a Beermat by Nick Pashley.
BA: Favourite wine?
CS: I just bought a case of 2014 Valle dell’Acate, Il Frappato, Vittoria Frappato DOC. I love it.
BA: Favourite at home cocktail?
CS: Pisco sour.
BA: Favourite cocktail to order at a bar?
CS: A Daiquiri.
BA: Favourite bar in the world?
CS: Marie’s Crisis in New York.
BA: Favourite bar in Toronto?
CS: Probably Clinton’s. I just love the log cabin thing.
Christine, thank you for taking the time to chat with us!