CLCollectiveCOCKTAILCollectiveCOCKTAICOCKTAILCOLLECTIVECOCKTAILCOLLECTIVECOCKTAILCOLLECTIVECOCKTAILCOLLECTIVE
Podcast 2.0

The Golden Age Of Agave Cocktails With Robert Simonson

While a Margarita and a Paloma are fine, Robert Simonson want to show you we’re in a golden age of Agave with his new book Tequila & Mezcal Cocktails

By: Tiff Christie|May 5,2021

Agave spirits may have been around for hundreds of years, but it’s only recently the bartenders and the public have embraced all the tequila and mezcal have to offer.

While you might think that these liquids only have a few mainstay cocktails like the Margarita and the Paloma, author and cocktail writer, Robert Simonson wants to show you that the category and the cocktails associated with it are much broader and more versatile than you probably thought.

We talked to Simonson about his new book, Mezcal and Tequila Cocktails, the popularity of the category, and what you should be making in your home bar.

For more information, follow Simonson on Instagram or buy the book on amazon

Read Full Transcript

Interviewer:
Agave spirits may have been around for hundreds of years, but it's only recently the bartenders and the public have embraced all the Tequila and Mezcal have to offer. While you might think that these liquids only have a few mainstay cocktails like the Margarita and the Paloma, author and cocktail writer, Robert Simonson wants to just show you that the category and the cocktail is associated with it, are much broader and more versatile than you probably thought. We talked to Simonson about his new book, Mezcal and Tequila Cocktails, the popularity of the category, and what you should be making in your home bar.
Thank you for joining us, Robert.

Robert Simonson:
My pleasure.

Interviewer:
Now you've written quite a few books. What was it about Agave cocktails that interested you for this?

Robert Simonson:
Well, as a journalist, as a cocktail reporter, I always keep my eye out for what's going on in bars and with drinkers and bartenders. I've noticed for some time now, for around 10 years or more, that Agave spirits had become more popular, more popular as mixers and were being served more in bars and ordered more in bars. I thought it was maybe time for a book.

Interviewer:
When and where did your interest in the Agave spirits first start?

Robert Simonson:
I would say it would be in the late aughts. I think like most people out there, I thought Tequila had limited applications, you know? You drink it in a Margarita or by itself. I didn't know much about Mezcal at all, but there was a bar that opened in New York City, where I live, in 2009 called Mayahuel, and they were in Agave bar. They were the first really important Agave bar in New York. All the cocktails on the menu were based on Tequila or Mezcal. I mean, that was their focus. I went there quite a lot, and I think that's where my interest started to increase.

Interviewer:
Why do you think Agave spirits have seen the growth in popularity that they?

Robert Simonson:
Well, I would put the credit squarely with cocktail bartenders. The modern breed of cocktail bartender that we've seen in the past 20 years is very curious sort, and they're very interested in all the spirits that are out there, particularly heritage spirits that have been around a long time and maybe deserve a second look and haven't been getting their due. I think around the late aughts, at least here in the United States, but I imagine over there as well, they started to look at a Garvey spirits because they had already gone through gin and rum and liqueurs and brandy and everything else just to see if there might be some more possibilities there. I would credit the bartenders.

Interviewer:
How much of Agave's popularity do you think comes down to its artisanal nature compared to its ownership and promotion, in a lot of cases, by celebrities?

Robert Simonson:
I think as far as bartenders go and the kind of cocktail enthusiasts that followed them, I think the artisanal nature is very important. Particularly in the case of Mezcal, that these spirits have been made for hundreds of years, are made in a very kind of handcrafted way often by the same family generation after generation. I think that appealed to a lot of drinkers and bartenders. A lot of these bartenders went down to Mexico themselves many, many times, and met some of these families, met some of these Mezcaleros and that certainly forged an intimate connection. I mean, obviously lately, the celebrity aspect of it, I think that's a lot of people who have jumped onto the bandwagon. They've noticed that Agave spirits are much more popular than they had been. That's where the celebrities come in. They see a business opportunity.

Interviewer:
Over the past year, consumers of course have been experimenting with more cocktails at home.

Robert Simonson:
Yes.

Interviewer:
Do you think a lot of those have been Agave based drinks?

Robert Simonson:
That's a very good question. I'm curious about that. I really don't know the answer, if I had to guess, I would say no. Because all the people have been quarantining. They've veered towards easy drinks, familiar drinks. Everyone's become a home bartender again. They probably stuck to the classics and what they already knew and what they already knew they liked. The idea of mixing with Agave spirits is a fairly new one. People have mixed with Tequila a little bit over the years. Mezcal, not at all. But I think as far as this genre of drink is concerned, Agave cocktails, I think it's still kind of a thing where people are going to go to the bar and go to the expert bartender and have them mix Agave cocktails, which is part of the reason why I brought the book. I wanted to let them know that they could do it themselves fairly easily.

Interviewer:
You're assuming that Tequila and Mezcal hasn't really had a huge impact on home bartenders yet?

Robert Simonson:
No, I don't think so. I mean, if they really love Agave spirits, they probably drink it on their own or maybe they'll mix up a pitcher of Margaritas, but I don't think so. I like the idea that perhaps, we're still sort of in the midst of this, at least here in the United States. Maybe this book came along at the right time and people are at home now making simple Mezcal and Tequila cocktails.

Interviewer:
In the book, you talked about a Agave's versatility and ease of use. Do you think that your book and those points about the spirit will actually make people want to use it at home more?

Robert Simonson:
I hope so. I mean, whether the book will have an impact or not remains to be seen. I hope it does, but that is one of the big things I discovered in researching this book is just how versatile the spirits are, which was actually, I mean, even though I had drunk many Agave cocktails in bars, it still came as a surprise. I say in the book that I think it may be Agave spirits may be the most versatile spirits since gin, which has always been very mixable and always has been drunk with other ingredients. But it's versatility, it seems to, at least in my opinion, know no bounds.

Interviewer:
When you say versatility, do you mean with mixers and other spirits? Or how do you define that?

Robert Simonson:
Yes, yes. I mean, the things that it will go with, the things that it marries well within the glass. Also, I guess, I mean, it's presentation. You can obviously make a shaken drink with these things with citrus like the Paloma or the Margarita, but there are stirred drinks that work, there are drinks that are in the Tiki format that work. There are even kind of Agave dessert drinks that work beautifully.

Interviewer:
What do you think it means to the category that so many bartenders have created so many cocktail drinks?

Robert Simonson:
I think it means that Agave spirits are sort of joining all the other spirits on the back bar. You find purists in every category. There are scotch purists and bourbon purists and brandy. A lot of people who think the best way to enjoy these spirits is on their own. That's fine. I always say people should drink exactly what they want, the way they want it. But with this, with this new era that we're in, it means that Tequila, doesn't have to be just shots. Drinking Mezcal by itself is a beautiful experience, but it's nice to know that if you want to do it as a cocktail, this is now open to you.

Interviewer:
Now, you mentioned in the book a number of people who have helped move the needle, shall we say, for Agave spirits. Who do you think really has had the biggest impact?

Robert Simonson:
It's difficult to say. There were a few influential people who were kind of out there singing the praises of Agave spirits. This was in like the '90s and the early aughts, and it was a long road. If I had to pick one person, I would pick this artist from the state of New Mexico. His name is Ron Cooper. He used to go to Mexico a lot and he fell in love with Mezcal and he got to know a lot of the Mezcalaros. He made it his mission to bring the well-made artisanal Mezcals into the United States and beyond. That line of Mezcals, which is called Del Maguey is still probably the best known and the most popular here in this country, and the most used. They have a brand called Luna, which was created specifically for mixing. That was a new idea, a Mezcal that was meant to go on cocktails as opposed to be drunk on its own. Just for that single feat of bringing those Mezcals in and gearing them towards cocktails, I think Ron Cooper had a big impact.

Interviewer:
You've spoken about bartenders being incredibly influential. Which ones do you think really led the charge?

Robert Simonson:
This is interesting because you probably know as well as I do, sometimes there are bartenders, they take up a certain spirit as their bailiwick and they become champions of that spirit. The past 10 years, it's amazing how many bartenders have become Agave aficionados. That's their thing. They really want to bring these spirits to the world. I'll name a few, an early one here in New York was Phil Ward. He was the owner of that bar. I mentioned earlier, Mayahuel, the first Agave bar in New York City. There is a bartender in Chicago called Caitlin Laman, she is very knowledgeable in Agave spirits. Another one up in Boston named Misty Kalkofen. She's so passionate about Agave spirits that she eventually became a Mezcal brand ambassador for Del Maguey. That's her job now, I think she's told me that she'd never become a brand ambassador except for that one brand. She got that job.

Interviewer:
I suppose it's a little bit difficult to answer because the bars, especially in the US of being closed. But which bartenders and bars today, do you think are the standard bearers that are really leading the way?

Robert Simonson:
It is difficult because we're rebuilding here. Some of the best Agave bars have closed. There was one in New York called Ghost Donkey, and that is gone.

Interviewer:
I'm sorry about that.

Robert Simonson:
Yeah.

Interviewer:
Sorry. I've been to Ghost Donkey and I've really loved it. I'm sorry that it has gone.

Robert Simonson:
It was a lovely bar. There's a famous one of the early Agave bars in Houston called the Pastry War. I just saw online the other day that they are about to reopen. I think they'll still be at the forefront. Here in New York, around the corner from where I live in Brooklyn, there's a lovely bar called Leyenda. They aren't specifically focused on Agave spirits. They're focused on Latin American spirits. That's including Rum and Cachaças and Pisco, but Mezcal and Tequila have a large place there. That is a great place to go.

Interviewer:
Talking about rebuilding. Do you think that bars will come back experimenting more or do you think that they will actually go back sort of five years and go back to the classics and the things that people knew and loved and slowly build back up to experimenting again? How do you think that the industry will reopen?

Robert Simonson:
I think they will come back experimenting, but they're going to be experimenting in a different way. I think back before the pandemic, experimentation usually meant, ‘Let's do interesting, unusual, original cocktails and perhaps new presentations and garnishes, celebrate unknown liquors.’ But now the experimentation has been just kind of survivalist. Different ways to stay in business. I think the to-go cocktails, the takeway cocktails that we have now. I think they'll stay outdoor drinking has become a bigger thing for safety reasons, but it's going to continue afterwards. That's a different sort of atmosphere than being inside a bar. I think they're just going to be more nimble and limber because they have to be in that. They know that they have to be versatile and flexible in order to survive. Should this happen again, they're going to be ready. It could be interesting. One of the silver linings of this is, everyone over here has gotten very imaginative.

Interviewer:
How do you mean that?

Robert Simonson:
Well, because they have to come up with different business models. They have to come up with a business model that works. During the pandemic in New York, I spent the whole pandemic in New York. I didn't leave the city. You'd see the bars just trying whatever work, throwing things at the wall and see whatever stick. Just to keep the income going and coming in and keeping people employed. I think that kind of creativity, that business creativity will continue.

Interviewer:
When you are drinking at home, what are your favourite Tequila, Mezcal, or even combination of the two, cocktails?

Robert Simonson:
Yes. I do tend to drink Agave spirits in cocktail form, as you might guess. I mean, I love to make a standard, a Mezcal Margarita. The way I drink it is on the rocks and I do a kind of a half salt rim, so you can have salt or non salt. A couple modern drinks that I enjoy making that are very simple is the siesta, which is a Tequila version of a Hemingway daiquiri has little Campari in it. That's very nice. There's another one called a naked and famous, which is a Mezcal version of a paper plane, if you know that drink. I actually created a few drinks myself and the book, the one I liked the best, the one I think came out the best is based on an old cocktail from the '20s called Cameron's kick. Cameron's kick had Irish Whiskey and Scotch and Lemon Juice and Orgeat. I changed that to a Tequila and Mezcal instead of the whiskey. It worked very nicely.

Interviewer:
Have you actually created a lot of the cocktails that are in the book?

Robert Simonson:
Well, I created more in this book than I have in any other book I've written, but that said it's still only four of them.

Interviewer:
Right.

Robert Simonson:
I mean, that was just as much as I dare make. I've been doing this for about 15 years so I felt a little more confident trying to create a cocktails. But again, it's kind of a testimony as to how versatile these spirits are, that it was easy to come up with good cocktails with Agave spirits.

Interviewer:
Do you like creating?

Robert Simonson:
I do sometimes. Well, every time I write a book, I get a little creative burst and I'll spend cocktail hour at the bar sometime experimenting and see if I can come up with anything good. If you don't come up with anything good, you can be very dispiriting, very, very discouraging. I don't do it that often. I usually don't do it when I'm not working on a book.

Interviewer:
Now, talking about the book, who was it written for? Is it written for Agave connoisseurs or is it written for people who are just beginning to discover the spirit?

Robert Simonson:
I think a little bit of both. It should be for beginners, like if you know very little about Agave spirits, you just know you like them it's for that reader, for that home mixologist. But if you also know that you liked them a lot, like maybe this is your favourite kind of spirit, it's also for them, because I don't think there are a lot of books out there that are just recipes. There have been a few books recently that tell a lot of the history and the heritage and how it's made, et cetera. But perhaps this is just, you need recipes. If you just need recipes, this is the book.

Interviewer:
How long did it take you to assemble the recipes? I mean, are these ones that you've noted down over the years or did you specifically go out and seek them out once the book was in play?

Robert Simonson:
Yeah, about half and half. I go to bars a lot, obviously, in my work and assemble drinks. When you notice a good one, you just like stick it in your pocket and remember it. When I started writing it, I knew about half the drinks that I wanted already. Then it was just a matter of reaching out to a talented bartenders who I knew were good with Agave spirits and asking them if they had something that they were proud of and was relatively simple.

Interviewer:
A number of the cocktails that you've mentioned so far have been riffs on classics. Are the majority of the recipes in the book variations, or are there some that are completely original?

Robert Simonson:
I'd say the majority are variations because the bartenders were just discovering how to work with these spirits sort of plug them into old models. You know? It's what bartenders do. You've got the Mezcal Mule, a Mezcal version of a Moscow Mule, and you've got a Mezcal version of a Negroni, but then there are other ones that you look at them and they don't seem like anything in particular. They seem like an original things. There's a drink called the Polar Bear, which they served at a San Francisco bar called Trick Dog. Let me see here, the ingredients are Mezcal and Blanc Vermouth and Crème de Menthe and Angelica tincture. I mean, that's a bit unusual. Then there's another one called the Pan-Am, which I believe that's from a bar in Tulsa. I ordered it because the list of ingredients was so strange. There's a Tequila and Cachaças and a Grapefruit Liqueur, Ginger Syrup, Absinthe, Chartreuse & Salt. There are a few in there that I think are just out of left field.

Interviewer:
How easy is it do you think for home bartenders to recreate those ones that are a little bit out of left field?

Robert Simonson:
Well, with all my cocktail books, I try to keep the recipes simple. Three or four ingredients, five at the most. I would say 75% of the cocktails in the book are like that. When I put in a drink that has maybe seven or eight and maybe has a simple kind of special syrup that you have to create, I only do it because I feel the drink is really worth the extra effort. Even with the most complicated drink in there, I mean, it's still shouldn't take that long.

Interviewer:
At the back of the book, you've included a chart that shows popular cocktails and the Agave drinks that are closest to them.

Robert Simonson:
Yes.

Interviewer:
How important do you think it is to create that bridge?

Robert Simonson:
Yeah. I remember getting this idea and I felt this was a good idea because I think there are a lot of people who are very curious about these spirits and like them, but they don't know how to use them beyond the obvious. Whoever it is, whoever's coming to a cocktail book like this. They're probably already cocktail fans and they have their usuals. I mean, what easier way to figure out, "Well, how do I use this bottle of Mezcal that I have on my shelf?" "I like negronis." "Well, go back there. If you like negroni, you know, here are six cocktails in the book that you're probably going to like." I think that's a good way to start with a book like this. You've got 65 recipes. I mean, who knows? You know? Which one do I make first? Hopefully it'll answer that question.

Interviewer:
You think that through that chart at the back is how people should start to approach the book?

Robert Simonson:
Yeah. Yeah. I would recommend they start that way. Of course, if they just see one. I mean, there's some beautiful pictures in here by the photographer, Lizzy Monroe. If one catches their eye and they say, "Well, I got to make that one." I mean, they're all kinds of ways to figure out which one you want to make first. But if you need a kind of a helping hand, I think the guide is the best way to go.

Interviewer:
Do you assume that people will sort of dip in and out at different parts of the book in terms of the pictures and the ingredients?

Robert Simonson:
Yes.

Interviewer:
Would you like people sort of run through from the beginning?

Robert Simonson:
Oh, no. I mean, I think all cocktail books are things you pick up and then you put down. It's like, you're not going to be in the mood for an Agave cocktail every night. You might not be in a mood for a cocktail every night. But yeah, just pick it up and find something that sounds like it's right for the end of the particular day you just had.

Interviewer:
Which cocktails in the book do you think are particularly good for beginners?

Robert Simonson:
I mentioned the Siesta earlier, and I'm just going to say that one, simply because since the book came out, people post things on Instagram and such as that. For some reason, more than any other drink in the book, people have been posting pictures of the Siesta. I have to conclude that this is a drink that is easy and appealing. I think that probably is a good way to start. The drink was created in 2006, it's been around for 15 years, and it's kind of a modern classic as these things go. That would be a lovely way to start.

Interviewer:
Did that surprise you that that particular drink was the one that was posted most?

Robert Simonson:
A little bit. It's been popular. It's been growing in popularity over the years and cocktail fans know about it. It helps that there's a picture and it's got this beautiful pink colour. It looks like a Cosmo a little bit. Also usually cocktail geeks, they like little bitterness in their drink. That's attractive to them and so it's got a quarter ounce of Campari, and I think that probably catches their eye because they probably don't put those two things together, Agave spirits and Campari, so the curious.

Interviewer:
What is it about pink drinks that people always gravitate towards?

Robert Simonson:
I don't know. The bartenders say that you drink first with your eyes before you smell it and you taste it, you see it coming to your table. So there is that. I mean, as silly as blue drinks are, I think blue drinks make people smile. It's those bright colours.

Interviewer:
Now you've divided the book into three sections or the recipes at least in three sections, which are Tequila drinks, Mezcal drinks, but then the third one is Tequila and Mezcal. Do you think people would be surprised at the number of drinks that are available in that third category?

Robert Simonson:
I think they will be. It was one of the things that I liked about Agave spirits when I first started discovering them. That often bartenders paired the two together. It was not just one or the other. Mezcal was always described as Tequila's smoky cousin. They sort of were kept separate even though they were made from the same plant. But when you think about it, it's logical. There's no reason, you know why these two shouldn't get along together in a cocktail. There've been made with the same base material. I love that kind of idea. It's sort of like the Tequila creates a good foundation and then the Mezcal adds an edge to that. I knew I wanted to do it that way. There were already a number of drinks I knew I wanted to add with Tequila and Mezcal. It wasn't hard finding additional ones.

Interviewer:
It's a little unusual for a spirit though. I mean, you don't often get drinks that have, for example, a blended scotch and a single malt, yeah, in the same. Or two different types of gin, for example.

Robert Simonson:
That's right.

Interviewer:
It is a little bit unusual.

Robert Simonson:
Yeah. It's intriguing that way. It isn't usual, you're right, for that spirit. I thought it was worth putting them in their own separate section and then people can see for themselves, "Do I like a Tequila cocktail? Or do I like a Mezcal? Or maybe I just liked them both. Let's put them both in the glass."

Interviewer:
To your mind when somebody is first approaching either Tequila or Mezcal, should they do it through a cocktail or should they be sipping the liquid straight to get an idea of their taste and flavour?

Robert Simonson:
If they don't have a lot of experience with Agave spirits. I think they should taste it straight first. Even if it's something as simple as like before you start making the cocktail, you pour a little into the measuring glass, into the jigger or whatever, and you sip it. Then you sort of know what you're dealing with. I give that kind of advice for like a newMGin that you're trying for a martini or a new Rye Whiskey that you're trying for a Manhattan. You might, as you should know what it tastes like, because it's going to play a big role in the drink that you're going to make.

Interviewer:
What is the main thing that you want people to take away from the book?

Robert Simonson:
I want them to know that Agave spirits are versatile. They work well in cocktails. They're not just for drinking by themselves, that nobody should be intimidated by these things. They're very welcoming. They're very forgiving and it doesn't really matter what kind of cocktails you like. There is one that you're going to like that uses Agave spirits.

Interviewer:
Do you assume that people are going to make the drinks as written, or are you hoping that they will further experiment and create riffs off these drinks?

Robert Simonson:
Well, I will hope they'll do them as written first. I'm a big recipe guy. I cook a lot and I'm a big believer in follow the recipe, exactly. Because you have to start there. You have to assume that the person who wrote the cookbook knows a little bit more than you. Once you've had it, you say like, "Well, this is a little sweeter than I wanted or a little saltier than I wanted." Then you can make the adjustments and experiment, but I'd start with the recipes. Then once you feel really grounded in those, yeah, by all means experiment.

Interviewer:
What is the most surprising drink that you've seen made with Agave spirits?

Robert Simonson:
Well, surprising. I had a Tiki drink at a bar in New Orleans called Sean and Juan. I ordered it because it had both... Let me find it in the book here. It had both Whiskey, I believe Jamison, and Tequila. I thought, "Well, that's a very strange combination." You don't encounter many Tiki drinks that have Agave spirits in them. Obviously, most of them have rum. That's sort of a game I play, when I go to a Tiki bars. I go for the drink that sounds the most unusual. If I go to a Tiki bar and I see a Gin Tiki drink, I'm going to order that.

Interviewer:
Right.

Robert Simonson:
It was the same with this. Here it is. It has Irish Whiskey and Tequila, and hence the name Sean and Juan. Then it has Creme de Cacao and Benedictine and Lemon Juice and Guava Puree and Simple Syrup. But I trusted the bartenders at that place. I figured, "Well, they're not going to put it on the menu if it's not good." Indeed it was very good, in a surprising way.

Interviewer:
It would be surprising to find those ingredients together.

Robert Simonson:
Yes. Yeah. I love that. I love it when a surprising array of ingredients results in a kind of a smoothly put together whole.

Interviewer:
As things get back to normal. Do you think that books like yours will change the things that people actually do order when they go into bars again?

Robert Simonson:
Oh, that would be nice to think. Maybe if they've spent a few weeks or months still inside with the books, when they go out, I mean, it's very easy these days. One of the reasons I wrote the books is because Agave cocktails are everywhere. They're not just in Agave bars. You can go to a restaurant or a hotel bar, and there's usually an Agave cocktail or two on the menu. I would hope that people would go out and they would be more comfortable ordering those cocktails and they would have no trouble finding opportunities.

Interviewer:
Well, Robert, look, thank you very much for your time. If people want to order the book they can of course go to Amazon or other good booksellers to find it.

Robert Simonson:
Yes.

Interviewer:
I believe that you're also on socials, if people want to connect with you.

Robert Simonson:
Yes. I'm on Instagram and Twitter and the handle is @robertosimonson.

Interviewer:
Excellent. All right. Thank you very much then.

Robert Simonson:
It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

You Might Also Like

Follow for the latest on Instagram

Sign up for photos, stories, IGTV & more ... Follow
Reading

The Golden Age Of Agave Cocktails With Robert Simonson

Share It! URL Copied
Up Next

Jose Cuervo Has Margarita Variations For Cinco