By the time I first encountered Ben Sandrof, a few years ago when he was working at the Charles Hotel’s chichi lounge, Noir, he had already done time at a few other high-end restaurants around Harvard Square, most notably Upstairs on the Square. His first bartending job, however, was in a Monterey, California, pub called the Britannia Arms. That is where, he says, “I learned to be fast.” In a not-uncommon trajectory, Sandrof started out in the restaurant industry with thoughts of becoming a talent in the kitchen, only to morph into a talent behind the bar.
Learning the fundamentals of speed is crucial for any bartender, but it has particular importance at Sandrof’s current place of employment, Drink. “Banging out” craft cocktails — with custom ice, muddled fresh herbs, house-made bitters and flawless technique, and with only the customer’s whim as a guide — is kind of a contradictory phrase, but it describes what Sandrof does at this marquee watering hole. I favor the nights when the place is bustling but not insane, and he has a few minutes to pour me a sample of milk punch he made, or tell me that he happens to be the grandson of Benjamin Ferris, the late Harvard doctor who pioneered air-pollution research.
My first impression of Sandrof was that “he’s a suave guy, which I mean in the good sense, i.e. ‘effortlessly gracious.’” That assessment holds. He is confident — some might say cocky — in his skills, which has yielded only good results for this customer. I give him the vaguest outlines of what I feel like drinking, and somehow he manages to set something exquisite down on my bar napkin every time.
Past bartending jobs
Upstairs on the Square, Middlesex Lounge, Noir, No. 9 Park, Drink.
Favorite bar in Boston other than your own
The drink you most like to make
The drink you least like to make
Most beloved bartending book
Jerry Thomas’ Bar-Tenders Guide.
If you weren’t a bartender, you’d be…
Out in the woods somewhere trying to distill whiskey.
People drink too much…
People don’t drink enough…
Drink for a rainy day
Rum Old Fashioned.
Least appreciated alcoholic beverage in Boston
Anything with tiki inspiration.
Most overrated alcoholic beverage in Boston
Anything that ends with -tini that is not a proper Martini.
The best thing about drinking in Boston
The cocktail culture is expanding rapidly. We have lots of creative bartenders.
The worst thing about drinking in Boston
Public transportation stops before the bars close.
» As I prepare to make my third annual trip to New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail, two New York Times articles this week combined in my head to form a timely and contradictory message: “Booze is bad for you. New Orleans is good for you.” The first article, Alcohol’s Good for You? Some Scientists Doubt It, looks skeptically at studies that show health benefits from moderate drinking. The takeaway is this: “It may be that moderate drinking is just something healthy people tend to do, not something that makes people healthy.” If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you figured that out a long time ago. I’m guessing that, even if you are a moderate drinker (one drink per day for women, two for men), you aren’t drinking for your health, but because it’s fun. Imagine — doing something that confers no benefit other than fun!
» Which segues perfectly into the second article, The Way of the Bayou, about New Orleanians being completely out of step with “progress” and not fretting about it one bit. “While the rest of us Americans scurry about with a Blackberry in one hand and a to-go cup of coffee in the other in a feverish attempt to pack more achievement into every minute, it’s the New Orleans way to build one’s days around friends, family, music, cooking, processions, and art. For more than two centuries New Orleanians have been guardians of tradition and masters of living in the moment — a lost art.” This is a rosy view of the city, but there’s truth in it. It’s something you pick up on pretty quickly when you’re down there, especially during an event as joyously frivolous — and bad for your health — as Tales of the Cocktail.
» Speaking of Tales, the event culminates in the annual Spirit Awards, which recognize the best bars, bartenders, writers, brand ambassadors, products, etc. in the cocktail world. This year, Drink has been nominated for Best New Cocktail Bar. Cross your fingers and hope for the best, ’cause Gertsen and co. deserve to win.
» Some Boston bar proprietors received a strange promotional item this week: a tasteful looking box with the words “Thanks for nothing” on the outside and an empty bottle of Knob Creek bourbon on the inside. An accompanying letter explains that consumer demand has literally drained the barrels dry, and it thanks the recipient for “helping make it happen.” As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up. The letter continues, “We ask for your patience and your continued support. We plan to capitalize on this temporary shortage by creating customer communications and conducting outreach that underscore Knob Creek’s commitment to quality. Working together, I’m sure we’ll all be even more popular and profitable once supply is restored.”
Ooooh. Commitment to quality. Working together. Popular and profitable. The boutique bourbon market is wielding some fancy PR! The letter should’ve just said, “If you’re paying $10 more a bottle than you used to for our bourbon, bless your soul. By the time supplies are replenished, your customers will be used to paying the higher price. Genius!”
» And good gawd, y’all, MC Slim JB (food/drink critic and occasional contributor in this space) just posted There’s a riot going on in the cocktail world, an eloquent tribute to and smart summation of the rise of the craft cocktail scene in Boston. If you’re a regular here, a lot of the nuts and bolts of what he’s saying will already sound familiar, but his thoughtful take on things is well worth checking out. As he explains, his food-oriented audience and writing peers are often surprisingly ignorant of what’s been going on for the past several years, drink-wise. It’s time they knew.
Now presenting: a discussion of the lore behind Boston’s Ward Eight cocktail, and a demonstration of how to mix one, in a video starring the somewhat-ready-for-prime-time blogger behind drinkboston.com.
You may already be familiar with how2heroes (tagline: cook. eat. be merry.), a video website that “celebrates people’s passion for food [and drink] – the flavors, the presentation, the secrets to success, the cultural inspirations, and of course the ‘heroes’ who share their knowledge and experience.” In just a year, the site has produced 500 short videos featuring food and drink professionals and enthusiasts demo’ing and talking about particular foodstuffs and drinkstuffs. Besides myself, featured Boston folk in the Beverages category include:
There’s a lot worth checking out on this site. The how2heroes staff does a good job getting a bunch of people who aren’t used to being on camera to convey their knowledge of food and drink in a straightforward and often engaging way.
I did my damnedest to get Locke-Ober, where the Ward Eight was invented, to let me shoot my video there. Regrettably, they showed no interest. A special thanks to Tremont 647 for letting me (and some of the others above) shoot at their bar.
The first definition of “cocktail” appeared in a newspaper in 1806. The same year, Frederic “the Ice King” Tudor’s first commercial shipment of ice left Boston harbor. Coincidence?
Maybe, but there’s no denying that the ice trade and cocktails came of age together in the 1800s. Boston, and by extension New England, tend to get overlooked in cocktail histories, what with the likes of New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, L.A. and even London making greater claims to fame when it comes to actual drink invention. But cocktails wouldn’t have been invented in the first place without ice. Which brings us to Boston.
Ice from New England’s ponds and rivers had been harvested for a long time before Tudor came along, but he was the first guy to bet that people would actually pay for the stuff. His first markets were places where ice was hard or impossible to come by: the West Indies, New Orleans, Charleston. (His first ice source was Fresh Pond in Cambridge.) But he later extended his business even to cooler places by offering a uniform product that became cheaper and cheaper through innovation in harvesting and delivery. We’re not just talking ice cubes, we’re talking ice boxes and ice houses and a slew of industries becoming dependent on the refrigeration the ice provided: fishing, meat processing, brewing, hospitals. By the 1850s, Tudor was shipping ice all over the world. He got rich — he was one of America’s first millionaires — and he pioneered an entire industry with many competitors. The industry was a significant part of New England’s economy until machine-made ice made it obsolete in the late 1800s/early 1900s.
There’s a fascinating description of the rise and fall of the New England ice trade in a book by an MIT business professor, James Utterback: Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation. I’m not kidding. I never get tired of reading sentences about Yankee ingenuity: “It was the resourcefulness of Tudor, and other Bostonians who became his competitors, that prompted historian Daniel Boorstin’s remark that ‘Using the sea, New England versatility made the very menaces of the landscape [granite, ice] into articles of commerce,’” writes Utterback.
But my favorite passage in the chapter (sexily titled “Invasion of a Stable Business by Radical Innovation”) is about one of Tudor’s rivals — Gage, Hittinger and Company — trying to break into the British market in 1842:
Hittinger knew that the tradition-bound British would not use ice unless they were shown how, so he hired a number of Boston bartenders and took them to London on a ship scheduled to arrive before the ice. When the cargo of “cold comfort” arrived, Hittinger and his bartenders were already set up in an opulent and brightly illuminated hall and there “initiated the English into the mysteries of juleps, cocktails” and “Boston notions” of various types. Before long, fashionable Britons were hooked on New England ice.
“Boston notions!” What the hell were those, I wonder?
Boston drinkers, know the story of the Ice King, so that when you cross paths with some New Yorker or San Franciscan who thinks his city pioneered cocktails, you can give him a smirk and tell him that your city invented friggin’ ice for chrissake.
It’s the moment cocktailians have been waiting for. Bittermens bitters are finally going to be available in stores and more widely in bars. After years — yes, years — of battling various authorities to make and sell their bitters, all the while providing their products to select bars in Boston and elsewhere on a “pre-release” basis, Avery and Janet Glasser have finally and happily entered a partnership with the German bitters producer the Bitter Truth.
The first Bittermens products being released under the partnership are Grapefruit Bitters and Xocolatl (Chocolate) Mole Bitters. Hopefully the Glassers’ other artisanal flavors, like ‘Elemakule Tiki Bitters, won’t be far behind. The goods won’t be available for purchase stateside for another few months; for now you have to buy them through the Bitter Truth website (and pay dearly for overseas shipping, I’m afraid). The price of an individual bottle is listed at 10.90 euros, which is about 15 bucks.
The Boston Shaker already sells several varieties of Bitter Truth bitters (Celery, Jerry Thomas’ Decanter, etc.) and hopes to begin offering Bittermens bitters as soon as they are available.