A few years ago I was absorbing as many books about beer as I could get my hands on, lately though as you can tell by my posts I've been obsessing more and more with books about the world of spirits and specifically cocktails. I am always on the prowl for new books and have even had some folks point out some older ones that I should check out. This book is the former, A Proper Drink: The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World is written by the great Robert Simonson. He writes for the New York Times but is also the author of another of one of my favorite cocktail books The Old Fashioned: The Story of the World's First Cocktail, I can not recommend that book more. To me an essential book detailing not just that one cocktail but a history of how cocktails changed, plus it has some killer drink recipes. Honestly, I feel the same about A Proper Drink as I did about Old Fashioned even though they are very different books.
A Proper Drink is an amazing book, to me it almost perfectly captures the rise of the current cocktail movement although I do have one significant quibble that I'll touch on in a bit. In general the book focuses on the rise of the cocktail movement by tracing the bartenders who made it happen. The book is relatively chronological, starting really in the mid 90's through today. Each chapter looks at a specific bartender or bar, restaurant or group there of, why they were important, and how they kept the movement transitioning forward. Most chapters ends with one or two cocktail recipes that were mentioned. The format of the book makes it an extremely quick read in my opinion, I breezed through the book.
The book starts where any book discussing ground breaking bartenders has to start with the king of the craft cocktail, Dale DeGroff who was really one of the first guys to use fresh juices and to eschew the use of soda guns at his bars. It didn't hurt that he tended the bar at the iconic Rainbow Room and that he is an amazing mentor to a whole generation of bartenders. On the other side of the pond, the book also discusses not only the rise of the craft cocktail movement in America but in Europe as well and that pretty much started in London with Dick Bradsell. This is another one of the things that I really appreciated about the book is that it didn't just isolate the rise of the craft cocktail movement to the states but really showed how it started in England, Europe (Germany), Australia, and even Japan. This shows that its not just some isolated fad but that it has moved around the world much in the same way as good wine and good beer has done in the past few decades.
Going back to the states, Simonson does a good job of flipping back and forth between the east coast and the west coast, detailing the rise of this new generation of ground breaking bartenders on both sides of the country. How they established their bars, how they mentored the next generation, and who their inspirations were. Its this last point that I really enjoyed reading about. I am a huge fan of biography's of musicians. All kinds of musicians, as I love reading about who inspired the music they make and in many cases its very similar to bartenders. Watching a great bartender make a new drink, using new flavor combinations, and even how they build a cocktail; to understand why they do those thing you need to understand who their mentors and inspirations were.
The book covers all the places we know as ground breaking, the aforementioned Rainbow room, Milk and Honey, Pegu Club, Employees Only, PDT, The Atlantic in London, Flatiron Lounge, and many other places on either coast or in London. The book also doesn't just give credit to the bartenders for the rise of the craft cocktail movement. It also highlights retail places like the venerable LeNell a retail shop where early bartenders could obtain hard to find bitters, amaros, vermouth, and more. The book discusses the rise of the annual Tales of the Cocktail event in New Orleans as well as the cocktail authors like David Wondrich. What this shows is how widespread the movement is and how many different people it has taken to make the movement successful.
While I believe that last sentence of the previous paragraph is a true statement detailing how Simonson succeeds in A Proper Drink, it is also where he fails some which brings me to my one issue with this book. As I stated many times the book does a great job of detailing the rise of the craft cocktail movement on both the east and west coast as well as in places around the world in London and Australia; it doesn't do a good job of highlighting the movement outside of those places. I truly believe that if the craft cocktail movement was isolated to just New York, LA, Chicago, and San Francisco it wouldn't be much of movement it would be fad. Craft beer didn't become sustainable until it traveled from the west coast and Denver, to places like Texas, Louisiana, the Carolinas, Kansas City, and many other places. I feel the same way about the craft cocktail movement, and I think the Simonson does himself a disservice by not highlighting the rise of craft cocktails in places like Houston, Denver or Kansas City, all places with a pretty damn good craft cocktail scene with some folks who are ground breakers in their own right. I would have love to have seen him highlight people like Bobby Huegel (who is briefly mentioned in a discussion about sustainable liquor), Sean Kenyon or even Adam Hodak. I think highlighting some folks outside of the east and west coast and yes even New Orleans (which Simonson does do a good job with) would really show how widespread and sustainable the movement is.
That's it though, that's the only negative thing I have to say about the book. Frankly, this book is tremendous and if you're a fan of craft cocktails it should be on your shelf. Not only is the book put together incredibly well, the recipes sprinkled throughout are tremendous. Each recipe has a little history with it that help explains who made it, when, and why. For me I like that type of stuff as its good cocktail party fodder. So go pick this book up, read it, and let me know what you think.
If you're looking for this book, support a local book seller and pick it up here.