Three Questions for Robert Simonson
The latest book from Robert Simonson chronicles the “New Golden Age” of cocktails, a renaissance that began in the late 1990s and continues today. Many of the 60-plus “modern classic cocktails” featured in the book were created in the late 2000s and early 2010s, around the time that Death & Co (which opened in 2006) was finding its stride.
Simonson features three drinks from our early years in the book, including Joaquín Simó’s Kingston Negroni. Read on for the recipe and an excerpt from Modern Classic Cocktails that explains how this rum-based riff was born. But first, we ask the prolific author three questions about this formative time in contemporary cocktail culture.
D&C: Is the creation and proliferation of "modern classic cocktails" speeding up, slowing down, or remaining steady as the number of "craft cocktail bars" continue to increase?
RS: I would say the creation of modern classics is slowing down and has been for several years. It's just more difficult today to create a simple, new drink that could easily be replicated elsewhere. So many new cocktails were created in the last 20 years, it stands to reason that the number of new possibilities have diminished. There was such a perfect storm of circumstances in the aughts—new cocktail bars, inventive young cocktail bartenders, new spirits or newly rediscovered spirits, and a blank slate as far as mixology creativity was concerned. A bartender could come up with a great new cocktail with little effort and just a few ingredients. Today, you'd have to rely on seven or eight ingredients, and various techniques, to hatch something new. And then you end up with a cocktail that may be great but can't easily travel.
D&C: Many of the "modern classics" in your book seem to have predated the rise of social media. How has Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, et al. affected the spread and popularity of cult cocktails?
RS: It did predate much of social media, that's true. But it did coincide with the rise of the internet. Early chat rooms and digital media did a lot to spread the word about cocktails in the aughts and early 2010s. That said, social media, particularly Instagram, has furthered the cause of a few modern classic cocktails. The Pina Verde comes to mind. And it helps speed along the comeback of the Espresso Martini. Then again, Instagram favors cocktails of elaborate appearance, and elaborate cocktails don't usually develop legs. They're just admired from afar.
D&C: Were there any Death & Co cocktails that, in your mind, qualify as modern classics but didn't end up in your book?
RS: It's funny. Ever since the book came out, this is one of the questions I get most often. Everyone wants to know which drinks ended up on the cutting room floor. It's true that my app, “Modern Classics of the Cocktail Renaissance,” which predates this book, has more drinks than the book, which has 65. Death & Co. is represented by three drinks, which is a lot—Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, Naked & Famous and Kingston Negroni. If I had to add one, it would probably be the Conference by Brian Miller, an Old-Fashioned with a base split four ways between rye, bourbon, Calvados and Cognac.
Excerpted from Modern Classic Cocktails
Back in 2009, during the apex of the cocktail revival, sometimes all it took was the arrival of a new product to spark the creation of a new classic cocktail.
One day in late fall of that year, spirits importer Eric Seed, a Minnesota-based Johnny Appleseed whose bags were filled with rare and obscure elixirs, walked into the dark, low-ceilinged cavern known as Death & Co. The East Village cocktail bar had been open a little over two years, and represented the epicenter of cocktail creativity in New York. It was therefore one of the first stops Seed made whenever he was in town with a new bottle of liquid magic.
On this occasion, the specimen was Smith & Cross, a navy-strength Jamaican-style rum. Standing behind the bar was Phil Ward, Death & Co’s taciturn head bartender, and Joaquín Simó, Ward’s more approachable junior colleague. Both had been on the staff since opening day. The reaction was positive. “I remember comments of ‘Hey, it’s got the hogo!’” recalled Seed, using the rum term meant to evoke a certain hard-to-define gamey funkiness.
Simó did not wait to discover the rum’s mixability potential. He immediately grabbed the bottle and began to build a rum Negroni on the spot—a straightforward application of Ward’s “Mr. Potato Head” school of mixology, in which one ingredient in a classic cocktail is replaced with something broadly similar in character.
….The Kingston Negroni went on the Death & Co menu in spring of 2010. Simó recalls the cocktail being a hit right away, going over big with its hardcore clientele, then thirsty for anything new in the “brown, boozy, and stirred” category.
1 ounce Smith & Cross rum
1 ounce Carpano Antica vermouth
1 ounce Campari
Orange twist for garnish
Combine all ingredients except the garnish in a mixing glass half-filled with ice. Stir until chilled, about 15 seconds. Strain into a double rocks glass over ice. Garnish with the orange twist.
Reprinted with permission from Modern Classic Cocktails: 60+ Stories and Recipes from the New Golden Age in Drinks by Robert Simonson, copyright© 2022. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.” Photographs copyright© 2022 by Lizzie Munro.