Drinking Martinis With Robert Simonson: Talking About The World’s Greatest Cocktail, The Importance Of Glass Stirring Spoons And Respect For Vermouth

Author Robert Simonson at The Grill

Author Robert Simonson at The Grill

Photo by Adam Morganstern

For great conversation over — and about — cocktails, you’d be hard pressed to find a better drinking companion than Robert Simonson. The New York Times contributor, and winner of the 2019 Spirited Award for Best Cocktail and Spirits Writer, has just released his latest book: The Martini Cocktail: A Meditation on the World’s Greatest Drink, with Recipes. I met up with Simonson at The Grill, which has its own extensive Martini program, to discuss the new book, where Simonson started off our interview by presenting me with a long glass stirring spoon. 

What’s the importance of a glass stirring spoon for martinis?

Two authors of previous Martini books, Lowell Edmunds, who wrote The Silver Bullet, and Barnaby Conrad III, who wrote The Martini, both swore don’t let anything metallic touch the drink. And I had never heard that before, but I thought they'd probably made a lot of martinis in their day and maybe they knew a little something. So, I went in search for a glass stirrer — not easy. I found an antique one, and I started doing it that way, and I did notice after awhile that I liked it slightly more.

What are your other martini preferences?

A Martini is the one drink that you can go into any bar and be dictatorial about it. You tell them exactly how you want it and they won't blink an eye. I prefer gin — if people want vodka, fine. I prefer twists because that just makes sense with the botanicals in the vermouth and the gin. The olive thing never quite made sense to me, but people do like it —sometimes an olive and a twist is good. I get upset if it's shaken. I don't like that ice floe on top. I don't like the cloudiness. 

When it comes to olives, I’ve always known in my heart it’s one or three — never two. 

I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that I only learned that in the last year. I did not know that superstition, but since then, I’ve been spreading it far and wide. I was doing a photoshoot for the book at Long Island Bar, and a drink was prepared with two olives, and my photographer said “oh no no no, that's bad luck. You want to curse the book?” Since then, I’ve asked a few bartenders and they say it’s always one or three.

It’s tradition to find clever ways to say how little vermouth you want in a Martini — if the shadow of the bottle falls on the glass, that’s enough. Why does vermouth get such little respect?

Or you say the word “vermouth” over the glass, or you bow in the direction of France and all that kind of nonsense. It’s hilarious, because everyone talks about the gin, but the vermouth brings just as much to the Martini. People think of the cocktail as being made from those two things, and they never think about the bitters, but gin, at the very least has three or five botanicals in it, and then the vermouth — who knows what’s in there, it’s so many things. I think that's part of the reason why people are fascinated by the Martini, because it's this simple drink on the surface, that holds complexity within it. You're probably tasting at least 15 things, and that all of them should be balanced is a mini miracle.

Is there a right time of day for a Martini, or right occasion?

I've always thought cocktails to be the reward for adult behavior. So if you put in a good week of work, you definitely deserve that Martini on Friday at five. And for me, it's never before five, I think that's rather dangerous. Of all the drinks that are out there, the Martini was actually the only one that I was afraid of — they always hit me harder than all the other cocktails, which I can’t quite explain, because it has the same amount of alcohol as a Manhattan. There are certain meals they go really well with, like a steak, and I think it’s the cocktail to drink with oysters. 

In your book, you talk about watching your father drinking Martinis while growing up. When did you two have your first Martini together?

Quite frankly, I think we probably had our first Martini together about five years ago, before he died. I didn't really get into cocktails until I was in my 30s, and I was living away from home, so there was a long gap where we were not living in the same place. So it wasn't something we shared together, just something that I observed in him over the decades. It was the same with my mother. It was only in her waning years that I would fix her Old Fashioned and we would drink them together.

Did you realize at those times you were finally sharing their favorite drinks with them?

I did. I always knew what my parents drank, but I didn’t realize the effect that it had on me until recently. You tally all these facts about your parents — they do this and that — and you don't think much about it, or that it has any effect on your life. But there must be some connection that they drink Old Fashioneds and Martinis and I ended up writing books about both. It's like the seeds are planted way down deep and then they take a while to rise to the surface. 

Any memorable occasions you’ve had Martinis with someone?

I was lucky enough to interview Gay Talese once. He invited me in his home, and we talked for a while, and then it was five and he said “would you like a martini?” He went to his bar and made them for us. He's very old school, so the glasses were big he used gin — I think it was Bombay Sapphire — and he made them very dry. That was very special, because he's a writer I idolized and he also exemplified a certain kind of New York and a certain kind of journalism that has faded away. The Martini was strong and I think I sipped it very cautiously because I was still interviewing him. He seemed to handle it pretty well. 

What did you learn about Martinis while writing the book that you weren’t familiar with before?

More than any other drink, it has to be cold. As I progressed in my experiments, I would fill the mixer with more and more ice, and just get it as cold as friggin possible and that made a better Martini. Also cracked ice seems to work better. Just take ice cubes and smash them into pieces. I always chill glasses at least an hour before serving drinks in the freezer — but don’t leave them in there too long or they will pick up smells from whatever else is in there. 

How do you feel about bars serving pre-chilled Martinis?

I’m on both sides. I understand that some people, when they order a Martini, expected it to be created immediately in front of them by the bartender — that's one of your privileges as a citizen of the world. But I also understand pre-chilled, because they're ensuring consistency and perfection as they see it. And when a bar is busy, a lot of people would rather get their drink fast than watch it being made.

You’re headed to the beach for the weekend. What’s the Robert Simonson traveling cocktail kit?

I premix a thermos of Manhattans or Martinis — and then on the beach you just pour them out. I mix the gin, vermouth and bitters over ice — the dilution is important — and then pour it in the thermos. For gin, I like the London Dry stuff, Beefeater, Tanqueray and Bombay — the original, not the Sapphire. For vermouth, Dolin is very dependable, and Noilly Prat is very traditional. It doesn’t have to be exacting, if it tastes good, it tastes good. 

You’re always so well dressed. I picture you on the beach, sipping Martinis, in some 1910 bathing costume.

(Laughing) No. I’ve got on shorts and probably a button down shirt — maybe a t-shirt. (Pointing to his jacket) I’m just trying to get the most out of this seersucker until Labor Day.

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For great conversation over — and about — cocktails, you’d be hard pressed to find a better drinking companion than Robert Simonson. The New York Times contributor, and winner of the 2019 Spirited Award for Best Cocktail and Spirits Writer, has just released his latest book: The Martini Cocktail: A Meditation on the World’s Greatest Drink, with Recipes. I met up with Simonson at The Grill, which has its own extensive Martini program, to discuss the new book, where Simonson started off our interview by presenting me with a long glass stirring spoon. 

What’s the importance of a glass stirring spoon for martinis?

Two authors of previous Martini books, Lowell Edmunds, who wrote The Silver Bullet, and Barnaby Conrad III, who wrote The Martini, both swore don’t let anything metallic touch the drink. And I had never heard that before, but I thought they'd probably made a lot of martinis in their day and maybe they knew a little something. So, I went in search for a glass stirrer — not easy. I found an antique one, and I started doing it that way, and I did notice after awhile that I liked it slightly more.

What are your other martini preferences?

A Martini is the one drink that you can go into any bar and be dictatorial about it. You tell them exactly how you want it and they won't blink an eye. I prefer gin — if people want vodka, fine. I prefer twists because that just makes sense with the botanicals in the vermouth and the gin. The olive thing never quite made sense to me, but people do like it —sometimes an olive and a twist is good. I get upset if it's shaken. I don't like that ice floe on top. I don't like the cloudiness. 

When it comes to olives, I’ve always known in my heart it’s one or three — never two. 

I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that I only learned that in the last year. I did not know that superstition, but since then, I’ve been spreading it far and wide. I was doing a photoshoot for the book at Long Island Bar, and a drink was prepared with two olives, and my photographer said “oh no no no, that's bad luck. You want to curse the book?” Since then, I’ve asked a few bartenders and they say it’s always one or three.

It’s tradition to find clever ways to say how little vermouth you want in a Martini — if the shadow of the bottle falls on the glass, that’s enough. Why does vermouth get such little respect?

Or you say the word “vermouth” over the glass, or you bow in the direction of France and all that kind of nonsense. It’s hilarious, because everyone talks about the gin, but the vermouth brings just as much to the Martini. People think of the cocktail as being made from those two things, and they never think about the bitters, but gin, at the very least has three or five botanicals in it, and then the vermouth — who knows what’s in there, it’s so many things. I think that's part of the reason why people are fascinated by the Martini, because it's this simple drink on the surface, that holds complexity within it. You're probably tasting at least 15 things, and that all of them should be balanced is a mini miracle.

Is there a right time of day for a Martini, or right occasion?

I've always thought cocktails to be the reward for adult behavior. So if you put in a good week of work, you definitely deserve that Martini on Friday at five. And for me, it's never before five, I think that's rather dangerous. Of all the drinks that are out there, the Martini was actually the only one that I was afraid of — they always hit me harder than all the other cocktails, which I can’t quite explain, because it has the same amount of alcohol as a Manhattan. There are certain meals they go really well with, like a steak, and I think it’s the cocktail to drink with oysters. 

In your book, you talk about watching your father drinking Martinis while growing up. When did you two have your first Martini together?

Quite frankly, I think we probably had our first Martini together about five years ago, before he died. I didn't really get into cocktails until I was in my 30s, and I was living away from home, so there was a long gap where we were not living in the same place. So it wasn't something we shared together, just something that I observed in him over the decades. It was the same with my mother. It was only in her waning years that I would fix her Old Fashioned and we would drink them together.

Did you realize at those times you were finally sharing their favorite drinks with them?

I did. I always knew what my parents drank, but I didn’t realize the effect that it had on me until recently. You tally all these facts about your parents — they do this and that — and you don't think much about it, or that it has any effect on your life. But there must be some connection that they drink Old Fashioneds and Martinis and I ended up writing books about both. It's like the seeds are planted way down deep and then they take a while to rise to the surface. 

Any memorable occasions you’ve had Martinis with someone?

I was lucky enough to interview Gay Talese once. He invited me in his home, and we talked for a while, and then it was five and he said “would you like a martini?” He went to his bar and made them for us. He's very old school, so the glasses were big he used gin — I think it was Bombay Sapphire — and he made them very dry. That was very special, because he's a writer I idolized and he also exemplified a certain kind of New York and a certain kind of journalism that has faded away. The Martini was strong and I think I sipped it very cautiously because I was still interviewing him. He seemed to handle it pretty well. 

What did you learn about Martinis while writing the book that you weren’t familiar with before?

More than any other drink, it has to be cold. As I progressed in my experiments, I would fill the mixer with more and more ice, and just get it as cold as friggin possible and that made a better Martini. Also cracked ice seems to work better. Just take ice cubes and smash them into pieces. I always chill glasses at least an hour before serving drinks in the freezer — but don’t leave them in there too long or they will pick up smells from whatever else is in there. 

How do you feel about bars serving pre-chilled Martinis?

I’m on both sides. I understand that some people, when they order a Martini, expected it to be created immediately in front of them by the bartender — that's one of your privileges as a citizen of the world. But I also understand pre-chilled, because they're ensuring consistency and perfection as they see it. And when a bar is busy, a lot of people would rather get their drink fast than watch it being made.

You’re headed to the beach for the weekend. What’s the Robert Simonson traveling cocktail kit?

I premix a thermos of Manhattans or Martinis — and then on the beach you just pour them out. I mix the gin, vermouth and bitters over ice — the dilution is important — and then pour it in the thermos. For gin, I like the London Dry stuff, Beefeater, Tanqueray and Bombay — the original, not the Sapphire. For vermouth, Dolin is very dependable, and Noilly Prat is very traditional. It doesn’t have to be exacting, if it tastes good, it tastes good. 

You’re always so well dressed. I picture you on the beach, sipping Martinis, in some 1910 bathing costume.

(Laughing) No. I’ve got on shorts and probably a button down shirt — maybe a t-shirt. (Pointing to his jacket) I’m just trying to get the most out of this seersucker until Labor Day.

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As an American kid growing up in Italy, I discovered food, wine and travel at an early age — well, mostly wine. After graduating from NYU Film, and feeling the constant

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