Prohibition proved its worthlessness in myriad ways. Not only did the 13-year-long ban on social drinking give rise to bootlegging and mob violence, it nearly killed cocktails in the process as American bartenders left to find work overseas.
When that pox on our nation was eradicated in 1933, brewers stepped up and distillers followed gradually. But when it came to cocktails, a thoroughly American creation, almost no one could make them—delicious ones, anyway. Those recipes were nearly forgotten or simply ignored as Americans were just happy to return to bars and drink anything without the feds crying foul.
According to Robert Simonson, author of “A Proper Drink: The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World,” the rebirth of the cocktail is also credited to Yankee bartenders, especially Dale DeGroff, the longtime mixologist at the now-defunct Rainbow Room in New York City. Not only did he trigger a movement to bring back the classics, DeGroff became a cocktail evangelist among bartenders, teaching them technique, insisting on fresh ingredients and pushing them to experiment with new creations.
DeGroff’s story is a fundamental part of Simonson’s book, which he’ll discuss at Copper & Kings American Brandy distillery on Feb. 12 from 5-7 p.m. In addition to Simonson telling stories from the book, there will be lots of Q&A time and cocktails, of course. Tickets to the event are $25 each, which includes a copy of his book and one cocktail.
**UPDATE: I originally neglected to mention that this event is free to all service industry folks!
But DeGroff’s story isn’t the only one. Simonson interviewed more than 200 key players in the modern cocktail movement, even traveling to London, Paris and Australia to get their stories. In the book they tell how our beloved drinks would have disappeared without their efforts to bring them back.
“They want back to their old cocktail books, most of which were of print, and tried to revive cocktail practices that had almost gone away,” Simonson said. “Even after (World War II), well after the end of Prohibition, the cocktail culture took a beating, one blow after another. … It got too simple and dumbed down.”
Low-quality bottled mixes didn’t help, nor did bartenders’ ignorance of good technique and product management. The sour mix so common to margaritas and whiskey sours obliterated flavors drinkers were supposed to taste in the original versions, and even simple mistakes, such as not refrigerating vermouth after opening, resulted in spoiled product and an unfair dislike of classics like the Manhattan.
“Things had to be relearned and corrected,” Simonson said. “That was a lot of the work that had to be done by DeGroff and people who followed him.”
People spread all across the U.S, England and France, specifically. With the growth of the internet, bartenders could discuss recipes and trends in chatrooms and watch videos to learn technique. Inspiration became innovation as the cocktail culture was reborn.
“We’ve all been touched by it because the quality of drinks and variety of drinks has gone up so significantly,” Simonson said.
Just like exploding curiosity about food among diners, drinkers are not only interested in what they drink, they want to meet drink makers, Simonson added.
“The average bourbon drinker is extremely curious, wanting to know about everything in every bottle,” he said. “And bartenders are not boring people. They’re very captivating personalities and a lot of fun to read about.”
In other words, this book is for anyone who craves a good story about America’s boozy past and present.
“Thing about the cocktail is America can claim it for its own,” he said. “It’s a piece of our heritage and we should feel a sense of ownership towards it.”
Want to hear Simonson speak and share a cocktail or two with him? Click here to get your tickets.
Post note: Simonson covers the cocktail and drinks beat for the New York Times, no less, and he’s authored five other books. So check out his work at his website.