There are plenty of books to soak in knowledge from when it comes to the bar and spirits industry, but few chronicle its development like Robert Simonson’s volume, A Proper Drink, The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World does. In a know-your-roots fashion, The New York Times cocktail and drinks writer pieced together a recent history of how some of the industry legends we know now, each pushed new thinking forward and challenged the norms of drink-making in the 1980s to early noughties to develop the craft.
While reading the 352-pager, bar flies and those in the trade are bound to experience a tinge of FOMO. Simonson, through his 200-or-so interviews with the who’s who in the US, Europe and Australia, offers readers a retrospective look into the foundations that craft cocktailians laid in those early days. Chapter by chapter, he tracks the evolution of the cocktail world from the 1980s to the ’00s, while the narrative implicitly traces out a family tree of mentors and mentees – names now big enough to be winners of Spirited Awards prizes, World’s 50 Best Bars rankings, and occasionally headline a guest shift and masterclass all the way out here in our parts of the world. Here are four things we learned while reading A Proper Drink:
Fresh juices and liqueurs weren’t always the norm behind the bar
Lean towards the bar and peer at your bartender’s rail today and you’re bound to see a basket of fresh fruit or bottles of pre-prepped juiced citruses at the ready for mixing. Back in the 1980s though, chain restaurants such as TGI Fridays, Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood (remember those guys?) defined cocktail standards, and that means drinks that were usually “sweet and garishly coloured, used bottom-shelf liquors, and were served in glasses the size of fishbowls”.
Aurora, a fine dining restaurant in New York opened by industry legend Joe Baum, was considered revolutionary – silly even – for eschewing bottled sour mix and soda guns in their drink making. He hired aspiring actor Dale DeGroff to run the bar there, and later at the Rainbow Room, and the man is credited for dragging maraschino liqueur, Peychaud’s bitters and velvet falernum out from obscurity to make forgotten drinks like the Ramos Gin Fizz and Sazerac. The Rainbow Room changed minds on what cocktails were and DeGroff would eventually go on to do consulting gigs and train future bartenders on his novel way of making drinks.
Fun fact: DeGroff is also credited in the book for bringing back the old bar trick of flaming a twist of orange peel – “the bartender made it his calling card,” writes Simonson.
Brand ambassadors are a pretty recent invention
These days, we’re all too familiar with the Jay Grays, Charmaine Thios and Zac De Gits of the spirits world, pinging across guest shifts and masterclasses in Singapore and around the region. But in the early days of the cocktail renaissance, alcohol was sold to bars by salesmen with their eye on the bottom line, and not much else. Enter Simon Ford.
Hailed as “the most important person in the industry of the last fifteen years” by New York mixologist Eben Klemm, the charming former wine shop manager, together with marketer Nick Blacknell came up with the idea of selling the fledgeling Plymouth Gin to bartenders in America’s 50 best bars at the time by taking an advocate’s approach. He would teach bartenders about the gin and help them advance their bartending skills, as well as pioneer the concept of taking bartenders to a distillery for educational trips. Sales skyrocketed from “five thousand to a quarter of a million cases annually in five years” for his efforts, and the man can now say he’s single-handedly responsible for pioneering a new job title that’s become an essentially part of the spirits business.
In those early days of the cocktail renaissance, women played an important role in its growth
In the New York sections of the book, it’s hard to miss the narratives woven around Julie Reiner and Audrey Saunders. As two of Dale DeGroff’s most successful proteges (the other being Sasha Petraske of Milk & Honey), the two bartenders are said to have laid down some of their own conventions so widely adopted today. Reiner is said to have excelled at fruit-and-spirit infusions and mastered both classic cocktails and speed working at bars in San Francisco. In New York, she garnered plenty of publicity – she even lost a job for overshadowing a chef at a restaurant-bar she worked at – and became a vital source of cocktail knowledge for the city’s prominent newspapers and lifestyle publications. In her later stint at Flatiron Lounge, the mentee turned into a mentor, grooming a new generation of top talents the likes of Lynnette Marrero (Speed Rack), Phil Ward (Mayahuel) and Dushan Zaric (Employees Only).
Saunders, on the other hand, took a more sinuous route into the bar game, working for DeGroff for free for years while running a carpet and wall cleaning business, before she was hired full-time for a bar called Blackbird. The bar’s R&D approach to drink making, combined with her practice of borrowing ingredients from the kitchen at Blackbird in New York led her to create modern classics such as the Gin-Gin Mule and Jamaican Firefly.
Those cocktails you’re drinking don’t all hail from the Prohibition era
When the Speakeasy concept roared the cocktail scene into life in our part of the world, it was easy enough to get the impression that all the drinks put on the menus hailed from dusty old recipe books from the 1920s. A Proper Drink, however, knits a colourful yarn around the makers of drinks like the Cosmopolitan, the Chartreuse Swizzle, the Penicillin and Vodka Espresso.
We’re also introduced to the barrel-aged Negroni from 2009, when an “impatient” Portland bartender Jeffery Morgenthaler one-upped Tony Conigliaro’s invention of resting cocktails in glass vessels by experimenting with cocktails poured in small oak barrels.