Joaquín Simó might have been a professor. The academic-turned-American-Bartender-of-the-Year studied English and Religion in Boston, and has the looks of a well-heeled Ph.D student from the 1950s. Behind the bar at his new East Village venture Pouring Ribbons (in partnership with Alchemy Consulting of the Violet Hour in Chicago and Patterson House in Nashville), Simó rocks a bow tie, tie clip and pressed shirt combo pretty expertly, but it’s clear he’s got more game than most fancy, green bartenders.
For starters, he cut his teeth as a door guy at a pub in a college town, and eventually worked his way up to noted NYC cocktail bar Death & Co. with a five-plus-year tenure. On a recent night at Pouring Ribbons, the scene felt like a mid-century living room, layers of blue, green and orange reflecting a warm glow tossed off by deco globes overhead and a familiar tableau of personal friends, fellow bartenders and curious neighbors. Amidst it all, the ever humble and charming host shuttled cocktails to-and-fro on a bar tray. “This is good practice,” he says, concentrating as he delivered an order. “It’s been a while since I’ve cocktailed.” Between shuttling and shaking, Simó sat down to talk about bartending — real bartending — who wows him behind the bar, and why his go-to cocktail is a Negroni.
In the beginning…
“My first, first job was the assistant parish secretary at my church. The first thing I learned was how to make coffee. Father took me aside and said, “Someone is going to come to the door, and you’re going to ask them if they want coffee.” And he brings me into the kitchen, and proceeds to make Cuban coffee. The very first thing I learned from this priest was hospitality, and that’s always stuck with me. Every job I’ve done since then, I’ve always known customer service comes first. You can’t say, “I’m doing the mixology thing now, I’ll get to the customer service later.”’
From barfly to bar owner
“I started at the other side of the bar. I was a really good regular at a little pub in Alston, Massachusetts when I was going to school. I would drink there after they closed on the manager’s tab and order pizza for the staff. I could walk the new door guys through closing because I’d watched it so many times. The end result of that was, essentially, a standing job offer. I took them up on it doing the door for a year and half. Me, being so big and intimidating, I was a natural at the door — you learn that talking someone down is the easiest way to diffuse situations. I got so good at it, I’d have people shaking my hand for cutting them off.”
Real live bartending
“I started bartending day bar shifts at a rock ‘n’ roll bar down the street. You can imagine. Regulars playing keeno and not tipping you, bitching about the lack of dollar drafts. Those places were formative for learning how to bartend. I didn’t learn how to make drinks there, but I learned how to bartend. If all you’re doing is pouring a shot and opening up a bottle of Rolling Rock, you’re doing something right. That’s bartending. Anyone can make a fancy drink.”
“When I started at Death & Co, Phil Ward was my head bartender. I didn’t even try to submit a recipe for the first menu. It was terrifying handing a recipe to Phil Ward. It doesn’t suck is high praise from him. His technique is so crazy. It doesn’t look like he’s jiggering very accurately, it doesn’t look like he’s got enough ice, his stirring technique is completely unrefined, and you’re thinking, “These drinks are not going to be that good.” But then he pours them and they’re blindingly cold and perfectly balanced. How does he do that? He’s really good. I learned a lot of theory about making drinks from Phil. He made sure I steered clear of the nine ingredients thing. He’d say, “What does this have in it. What can we take out?” If it’s superfluous, it’d be making the drink, as Phil would say, “brown.”
Looking up, literally
“I think the person that I continue to look up to is the first guy I was ever a regular of —Sean Gavin. When I first started going to his bar in Boston, The White Horse, Sean and Seamus, a monster of an Irishman with forearms like ham hocks, were unbelievably hospitable. They were so, so good. They could have three different conversations going while pulling two pints, and pouring two shots, and realizing this person had gone into the wrong bathroom and that dude was about to fall asleep. They were bartenders. They really owned that establishment. I remember looking at them and thinking, “Whoa. These guys know what the fuck is going on.” That degree of hospitality and sense of warmth I felt every time I walked into one of Sean’s establishments always had this great warmth. That’s what I’ve taken away. How would Sean treat these people?“
On bartender crushes
“The Mickey [McIlroy] and Sammy [Ross] show [of Milk & Honey in New York] is the most entertaining thing I can think of. They’re hysterical. Like the Bert and Ernie of the cocktail world. They’re just amazing, and so good. It’s really tough to top them. I’m most humbled when I sit in front of Ago Perrone [of The Connaught Bar in London]. There is no one else who can make me feel more inadequate as a bartender. He’s so elegant. He’s so freakin’ Italian. The perfectly done knot, the white dinner jacket with nary a speck on it, the way he pours…It’s just so humbling. When I sit and watch those guys, I’m blown away. I still have so much to learn, so much I can do better. At the same time I’d sit at Doug Quinn’s bar when he was still at P.J. Clarke’s, and watch him run that bar. He’d be three-deep and have a million things going on. I don’t think I could do that. That’s impressive. That’s badass. That’s something I aspire to.”
Common knowledge behind Simó’s bar:
• Always add all of your ingredients before you’ve added ice. Once you’ve added ice, the clock is ticking.
• In case of needing to make adjustments, always add too little of your sweetener. The easiest thing to change in a drink, all you have to do is add one element to it. If it’s too sweet, then you have to add at least three more ingredients and then reincorporate them to fix it.
• Taste your drinks! People add all of their ingredients and then shake it and wait until they put it into a glass to taste it. That’s stupid — learn how to taste if before it’s diluted.
At first taste
“The first time I was really blown away by a cocktail was a Manhattan at Pegu Club. I drank a lot of Manhattans, but I’d never had Rittenhouse, and I’d never had Carpano Antica. I was like, “Whoa, what was that?” I remember, I walked out, and I walked to the nearest liquor store I could find and I found out that that bottle of Rittenhouse was cheaper than what I’d paid for that Manhattan. I could have sworn they were using some crazy, expensive whiskey I couldn’t find. I didn’t feel ripped off. I just thought, “What a treasure.” I started buying Rittenhouse at $11 or $12. That was a song.”
The go-to cocktail
“A Negroni. Pretty much everyone has those ingredients. At bars that I think might know how to make drinks, I’ll get an Old Fashioned or a Daiquiri because those are my favorites. But any bar, or any restaurant has ingredients for a Negroni. At home I drink a lot of sherry, a lot of vermouth on the rocks, beer, wine.”
The secret to Simó’s perfect Southside
“I put a little love in it. That and orange bitters. Love disguised as orange bitters. Because sometimes love is a little bitter.”
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