The Boozy Bookshelf: A Proper Drink by Robert Simonson

It’s Boozy Bookshelf time! Our monthly feature where our friends Marlene and Lucas of Famous Last Words Bar in Toronto review books of a boozy nature. This month, they hit up A Proper Drink: The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World by Robert Simonson and give us both of their opinions of said book.

Marlene’s Review:
On the heels of multiple how to manuals and recipe collections, this month’s more story-based selection was a very welcome change. Following industry trailblazers across roughly the past 30 years, A Proper Drink charts a course (albeit a slightly meandering one) through some of the most interesting bars, cocktails and bartenders we can credit for much of today’s cocktail drinking culture.

Cocktail nerds will rejoice at the insider look at celebrity bartenders and how their trajectories brought them their fame; marketing geeks like myself will enjoy the myriad stories of spirit brands being brought back from the brink of extinction by clever campaigns and industrious ambassadors, and anyone who loves pop culture (and/or NYC) will be pleased with the references to DB Cooper and the late night “bridge and tunnel mess” of Passerby circa 1999.

For someone in the industry, it’s fascinating to follow the lineage of some of Manhattan’s best-known bars and the mainstreaming of what were, at the time, ground-breaking tricks and techniques (cheater bottles! fresh citrus! dry shaking!). For a casual non-industry reader just looking to get some history and understand how suddenly every decent bartender in their city came to learn how to make a proper Old Fashioned, the cracks may be a little more apparent.

While the anecdotes are engaging on their own, the whole thing falls down a little on narrative structure and would almost certainly have benefitted from a more coherent, cohesive thread to tie the whole thing together. While it’s vaguely chronological, there are so many disparate locations, characters and storylines that I found myself wishing for some sort of list of dramatis personae at the beginning (or maybe one of those trees: C3 begat Flatiron which begat Employees Only and the Pegu Club, etc etc). Geographically it’s all over the place: we start on the west coast in San Francisco, spend loads of time in New York with some jaunts across the pond to see what’s happening in London (Milk & Honey, largely). At one point we find ourselves in Sydney, Australia for four whole pages…seemingly out of nowhere, and never to be revisited. (Likewise, Boston and Washington get a mention, and Chicago gets a chapter – presumably to broaden the book’s appeal, but doing no favours whatsoever to the narrative cohesiveness.)

Of course there are cocktail recipes. But this collection is far better curated than most, with an assortment of classics – both old and new – and lacking in obscure ingredients that so often find their way into cocktail books.

Marlene’s Last Word: Anyone craving an insider’s view to the cocktail revival will find much to enjoy in A Proper Drink. Although the later sections touching on the rise of the “startender” and the dawn of molecular mixology get, ahem, a bit hard to swallow, the vast majority of Simonson’s history lesson goes down like a perfectly made Manhattan.

Lucas’s Review:
A Proper Drink is quite a bit different than the other books we have read so far for this project, and as such deserves a bit of explanation: it is in no way a collection of drinks, a history of an individual bar, or instructional at all about the craft of bartending. There are a couple dozen drinks listed, typically at the end of a chapter where they (or their creators) are mentioned, and a short appendix containing six additional drinks at the end. Techniques are mentioned and sometimes briefly described, but an aspiring bartender would learn nothing from the book itself on how to perform them. The book is instead a history lesson — like Sismondo’s America Walks into a Bar or Ian Gately’s Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol (both excellent) — but a contemporary one, chronicling the last few decades. While I enjoyed most of my read through A Proper Drink, and it covers a subject that is exciting, current, and dear to my heart, it is a deeply flawed book. Robert Simonson is thorough, engaging, and obviously passionate, the book lacks a coherent arc beyond the cover blurb — “detailing the people who brought back cocktails to the public consciousness”.

Simonson has two major threads that I feel could make up a compelling narrative arc. The first is the almost familial descent of New York Bartending royalty from Dale Degroff to his proteges (Saunders, Reiner) to their staff taking eventually taking over the New York bar world (and founding PDT, Death and Co, and a million other killer bars) while competing with or working alongside the staff of Petraske’s equally influential spots. This is where the book spends most of its wordcount, and beyond the endless train of names being dropped, where it is the most compelling. I wonder if Simonson didn’t have enough of a wordcount to focus the book entirely on this history, or if the concept wasn’t broad enough for full-sized hardcover general release.

The other arc that is commented upon is stylistic rivalry between New York, San Francisco, and London. Unfortunately, the London aspect is lost for the middle third of the book, and while the New York style of tight, precisely measured and consistent recipes versus the West Coast style of tasting as you go and altering recipes to react to fresh ingredients is repeatedly mentioned, very few examples are given of the drinks in the West Coast style. Perhaps because the book ends in the late aughts, the defining element of what I know of the “modern London cocktail style” (as someone who has never been and only knows of it from bartending periodical) isn’t particularly present — namely the greater willingness to incorporate experimental concepts, kitchen techniques, or molecular elements in drinks — leaving the reader to think of London as a place where cocktails are slammed out in big busy clubs where liquor brands can donate cash to the bars, rather than the hotbed of experimental bar concepts it strikes me as. Other areas of the world are briefly mentioned — a single chapter devoted to Australia (which I think might exist just because of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mention of a bartender who moved to New York), quick mentions of visting Japanese bartenders, and other areas on the West Coast — but while I think this is probably the most interesting element of the book, it falls by the wayside of the thesis of the book (presenting the “handful of bartenders who saved the drinking world”).

That said, the book is filled with interesting anecdotes and hints at fun drama, but teeters between fleshing out its subjects given the relatively small space devoted to each one and listing names and pithy anecdotes. The structure doesn’t do it a lot of favors — in the attempt to keep things mostly chronological, it ends up jumping between settings and subjects rapidly and pretty disjointedly, especially as the book continues on. The first half — with its London vs. New York arc — works reasonably well, but once the craft boom really starts up in the mid-2000s it feels like Simonson is trying to pull as many strings together as he can while his cast of bartenders expands rapidly. Despite having relatively short chapters with self-contained arcs, I found myself lost if I put the book down too long — and I read Punch and Imbibe and bar books regularly and therefore know most of the cast essentially through osmosis, so I pity anyone who isn’t already a cocktail bar enthusiast and can’t read the book in a few sittings.

Finally, and this may be the only time I ever say this: I wish the book had *more* cocktail recipes. It does a great job presenting classics for the first few chapters and emphasizes the role of those drinks in the overall cocktail revolution. By the middle of the book, the recipes drop off, which is really disappointing — after the descriptions of the weird bar with oddball “untrained guy makes weird infusions” cocktails in the Australia chapter, or the fresh-ingredient salad-in-a-glass drinks of the west coast, I wanted to see examples so I could try them, but none were present; instead, a ton of drinks are backloaded with 14 showing up over four chapters (starting with 29). When I first started reading, the cocktails felt like a publisher requirement — can’t sell a bar book without some cocktails! — but honestly it’s a great reference for “modern classics” I’d otherwise have to Google off a blog or Imbibe, and on my second read I appreciated how much the drinks themselves can potentially illustrate what was happening the cocktail world at that time.

At times when reading I wonder if Simonson’s enthusiasm got the best of him — maybe, and perhaps rightly, he thought that this book was his one shot at telling the story of the modern cocktail revolution, and didn’t want to leave anything out. At times he lets his opinions bleed through, though I actually like it when he sets the reader up to read between the lines (like with some of the modern “startenders”), and he can turn a phrase pretty well, though the briskness in which he speeds through subject matter left me wishing he elaborated on a few of his clever phrases.

Lucas’s Last Word: I don’t want to sound like I’m tearing A Proper Drink down: I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think it’s more interesting and entertaining than several of the cocktail manuals we’ve read so far, and since the drinks themselves are given so much context, potentially more useful. That said, I would only recommend it for cocktail history buffs or bartenders who want to be able to wax poetic to their guests about the cocktail revival. I’m very glad A Proper Drink exists, as there is a story there that deserves to be told.

Famous Last Words
Famous last words, opened in October 2016 in Toronto's Junction neighbourhood, is a bit like a library - if the library made kickass cocktails and let you play vinyl. They regularly host book clubs, readings and book launches and have built a literary-inspired cocktail list over 40 drinks deep with chapters of "Short Stories", "Modernists" and "Classics". A self-described lifelong book nerd, Marlene opened famous last words to combine her two loves: reading and cocktailing. She can be found behind the bar a few nights a week and, according to Lucas, is the master of the four ingredient sour. Raised in Lexington, Kentucky, Lucas Twyman moved to Canada because it was the only other country in North America that makes whiskey. He bartended pretty much everywhere in Toronto's Junction neighborhood and can be found at Famous Last Words. Marlene recommends asking Lucas about his publishing career and/or his clarified milk punch recipes.
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