The news that Downtown’s Watts Tea Shop would close at the end of this year saddened many Milwaukeeans, but locals might be surprised to learn that the shuttering of the 90-year-old tearoom and downstairs china and glassware store has made national headlines, thanks to Wisconsin-native and writer for The New York Times, Robert Simonson. In his article, which appeared in the Times‘ food section, Simonson details how the closing will leave a vacancy in the Milwaukee dining scene as well as in the hearts of those who have made memories and fostered traditions at the beloved tearoom.
Simonson’s Wisconsin roots have influenced his writing long before the Watts Tea Shop article. Having grown up around old-fashioneds and Tom and Jerrys and ice cream cocktails, it was until Simonson moved away (he has lived in New York City for many years) that he realized that Wisconsin has a unique cocktail legacy. Today, Simonson is regarded as one of the leading authorities on spirits and cocktail culture in the nation, and has written for the Times, GQ, Imbibe, Time Out New York, and more. Simonson’s interest in the history of cocktails and drinking culture are exemplified in his books, The Old-Fashioned and A Proper Drink.
Having grown up in the Milwaukee area, did Watts Tea Shop have any significance for you, personally?
My mother used to take me there. She was mad for china and glassware, so we’d go, browse and then go for lunch. As a male child, this didn’t excite me. “Mom, are we done yet?” But it became a tradition, and as an adult, I would go there out of tradition. It’s a unique place, particularly in Milwaukee, where there are beer and brat traditions and then you have Watts Tearoom, which is like a little bit of England in Milwaukee, and it’s very unique.
Where did your interest in cocktails derive from?
I was writing about theater for fifteen years and was burnt out on the subject. I was looking for a new beat that excited me, so I started writing about wine. I was invited to a convention called ‘Tales of the Cocktail,’ and I mainly went because I wanted to see New Orleans. My eyes were opened because there was this group of strivers who wanted to bring cocktail culture back to what it had been 100 years ago, when bartending was a respected tradition and there were these beautiful drinking emporiums. Those things were lost in prohibition. Prior to 2000, you could get a martini or a Manhattan, but not much else. There was this passionate group, and change was afoot. I switched to [writing about] cocktails and in 2009 started writing for The Times.
How has your Wisconsin background influenced your writing?
I realized in retrospect that I grew up in an interesting drinking culture. My father drank martinis, my mother drank old-fashioneds, and at Christmastime the Tom and Jerry’s were whipped up. It wasn’t until I started writing the history of drinks that I learned where these things came from. Tom and Jerry’s were an annoying drink until I realized the tradition behind them. Wisconsin was an incubator of these traditions. As my career goes on, I seem to write about Wisconsin more each year.