Archive for April, 2010

April 25th, 2010

Probing Prohibition

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By Scott N. Howe

It was, of course, a stupid idea.

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” in the U.S., expanded government involvement in the lives of citizens and turned millions of regular folks who just wanted a beer into criminals. The amendment, and the Volstead Act that enforced it, also led to an explosion in organized crime, encouraged legitimate businesses to circumvent the law, and subjected the United States to the ridicule of many throughout the world. Winston Churchill called Prohibition “an affront to the whole history of mankind.”

Today, it seems amazing that it happened at all, but Daniel Okrent’s new book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, makes as much sense of the era as can be made. The book illuminates the social and political factors that led to Prohibition’s passage in 1919. The women’s suffrage movement, mixed with anti-immigrant sentiment and shaken vigorously with righteous, saloon-hating religious elements, created a potent cocktail that intoxicated just enough congressmen and state legislators to enshrine the 18th Amendment into the Constitution.

Last Call humanizes Prohibition, discussing many individuals who made their names on both the “wet” and “dry” sides of the issue — people like Al Capone, Billy Sunday, H.L. Mencken, William Jennings Bryan, Carrie Nation, Susan B. Anthony, and Sam Bronfman – the Canadian bootlegger who went on to run the Seagram’s empire. Okrent also re-introduces several long-forgotten figures who played important roles during the era, including the Anti-Saloon League’s Wayne Wheeler, a political operative Okrent compares to Karl Rove, and Assistant Attorney General Mabel Willebrandt, arguably the most famous and powerful woman in America during the 1920s.

Drinkboston readers will find plenty of local angles in Last Call. For example, the book examines the work of Dorchester’s Mary Hanchett Hunt, who brought temperance education to millions of American school kids in the late 1800s and even established a “Scientific Temperance Museum” at her home on Trull Street. You’ll also find a detailed look at how bootleggers along the East Coast’s “Rum Row” brought booze to New England during the ‘20s, as well as a convincing argument that Joseph P. Kennedy was not, in fact, a bootlegger.

Those looking for a rollicking ride through the Roaring ’20s, however, may be disappointed in Last Call. Yes, you’ll find flirty flappers, charmingly corrupt politicians, saucy speakeasies, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and even Elliott Ness’s “Untouchables.” Mostly, however, you’ll find a sober (sorry) look at a twisted time in American history. So sober, in fact, that Okrent includes the entire text of the U.S. Constitution in the book’s appendix. That’s because Last Call isn’t about what happens when you take a drink, it’s about what happens when the law takes that drink away.

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April 20th, 2010

Trina’s Starlite Lounge – Best Boston bars

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Established: 2009
Specialty: cocktails, High Life
Prices: Low to moderate
Atmosphere: Retro but not kitschy. Top-notch hospitality without the VIP price tag. Unofficial motto: Be yourself and have a good time. See Best Boston bars for address and contact info.

Remember those cool kids in high school or college who got along with everyone and threw the best parties? They grew up and opened a bar called Trina’s Starlite Lounge (3 Beacon St., Somerville).

Josh Childs, Trina and Beau Sturm, and Jay Bellao have collective decades of experience tending bar in Boston, and Childs is still co-owner of one of Boston’s most beloved establishments, Silvertone. This group’s level of hospitality is right up there with the city’s top-notch dining rooms, but VIP treatment at the Starlite comes dressed in T-shirts and tattoos and for the price of a hot dog and a High Life. And it comes without anyone looking harried; the staff often seems to be having as good a time as their guests. Many of those guests, in fact, are fellow restaurant industry folk who made this bar a favored haunt almost immediately after it opened in September 2009. The Starlite’s Industry Brunch on Mondays is testament to the goodwill between Childs, Sturm, Ballao & Co. and their colleagues. (Monday brunch is open to the general public, too.)

The drink list changes seasonally and tilts more toward accessibility than artisanal purity. That said, it doesn’t dumb things down. Even cocktail geeks can find items that grab them, like the Tony Montana (Pyrat rum, Benedictine, Carpano Antica, orange bitters, $9). Also, the bartenders have the skills — along with the quality spirits and house-made mixers — to accommodate off-menu requests. As for beer, High Life has the kind of cult status at the Starlite that PBR enjoyed a few years ago. You can even order it by the bucket (five pony-sized bottles for $11). Blessedly, there are a few craft beer options (Stone Pale Ale, Saison Du Pont) for those times when you want a brew that doesn’t taste like melted Crayons. The wine list is decent, too, and the food is classic American comfort fare like fried chicken and buttermilk waffles, homemade soup and the wacky DOTD (dog of the day).

Oh, another good thing about the Starlite, besides its affordability, is that there are two separate bars and dining areas with two distinct personalities. For all the regulars who have adopted this lounge as their living room away from home, this is a great way to mix things up.

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Posted in Boston bars | 4 Comments »

April 15th, 2010

Best Boston blog – thanks!

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I wish I could buy a drink for each and every imbiber who voted this the Best Blog in the Boston Phoenix’ Best of 2010 readers’ poll. But my bar tabs are insane enough as it is, so I’ll go with a simple “thank you.”

I’m tickled that the Phoenix refers to me as an “experienced taproom denizen.” Speaking of taprooms, many congrats to best Boston bars Deep Ellum, Drink, Eastern Standard, Franklin Cafe and Highland Kitchen for their wins in various bar/cocktail categories, and to Guerilla Queer Bar for Best LGBT Night.

Cheers and thanks again to all drinkboston readers!

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Posted in Boston bars, drinkboston in the news | 11 Comments »

April 9th, 2010

Event – Highballs!

dean-martin-highballOnce upon a time, when adults said, “Let’s get together for drinks,” they meant highballs. Guests would bring a bottle of their preferred hooch to someone’s backyard, and the hosts would provide the tall glasses, ice and mixers — tonic, ginger ale, Squirt. Lots of smoking and guffawing would ensue before everyone drove home tipsy without seat belts.

Contemporary society goes against all that. It not only sensibly condemns the smoking and drunk driving, it sadly also dismisses the most basic form of mixed drink, the highball. We have bazillions of cocktail choices now, and, unlike the highball drinkers of yore, we talk about them endlessly (damn drinks bloggers).

In celebration of World Cocktail Week (May 6-13), let’s re-embrace that simple pleasure of the booze universe. Join drinkboston and Trina’s Starlite Lounge for Bourbon & Gingers, Presbyterians, Gin & Tonics, Moscow Mules and other members of the highball family — all with quality spirits and featuring house-made mixers — and party like it’s 1965. The details:

  • Highballs! Hosted by drinkboston and Trina’s Starlite Lounge (3 Beacon St., Somerville)
  • Sunday, May 9 (yes, Mother’s Day — bring mom!)
  • 7:00 p.m. until last call
  • $35 in advance, $40 at the door
  • Highballs include bourbon & housemade gingerale, Presbyterian (rye, housemade gingerale, seltzer), gin & Q Tonic, Moscow Mule (vodka, fresh lime, housemade gingerale), Tom Collins (gin, fresh lemon, simple syrup, seltzer) and Calamansi Collins (the Starlite’s own creation with Thai basil-infused gin, calamanzi juice, simple syrup and seltzer).
  • Tickets include four highballs, such retro delights as pigs in a blanket, and DJ-spun, highball-appropriate tunes.
  • Call the Starlite at 617-576-0006 to purchase your ticket in advance, as there’s a good chance we’ll sell out.
  • Wear whatever you like, but anyone who shows up dressed as stylin’ as Dean Martin (or his date) will get extra credit.

Where does the term “highball” come from? Several sources trace it to the Irish expression “ball of malt,” which became Americanized in the late 1800s to “ball of whiskey” — both terms meaning a measure of whiskey. If a saloon patron wanted a longer drink with carbonated water, he asked for a “highball.” Then there’s the “highball” of railroad lingo — a signal, originally a ball hung above the tracks, indicating full speed ahead — that provides a fun double meaning.

nyt-oct-22-1927Did the scotch highball originate in Boston? This amazing article from the October 22, 1927 edition of the New York Times indicates as much. (Note the characteristic snark toward Boston.) Here’s some intel on William T. Adams, who wrote books for boys under the pen name Oliver Optic, and the Adams House hotel. It seems the NYT was lax in its fact-checking here — the Adams House was established by William T.’s father, not his son.

But wait, this DrinkBoy forum thread appears to contain a quote from a letter to the editor in the October 27, 1927 NYT by famed bartender Patrick Gavin Duffy, who makes a case for having first introduced the scotch highball in New York.

Whatever. All I know is that I’m craving a scotch and soda with a fried oyster on a toothpick. See you on May 9!

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Posted in Events, Whiskey | 7 Comments »

April 2nd, 2010

Nips – 4/2/10

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A few items to wet your whistle this month as springtime alternately entices and enrages us like a temperamental lover…

» Cheap drinks. Thank you, Boston magazine, for this article on where to get bargain cocktails around greater Boston. The list features establishments that sell mixed drinks for as little as $5.75 (for a Sazerac at Grendel’s Den in Harvard Square — formidable!) and no more than $10. Many of Boston’s best bars are included, which brings up a good point. I don’t think any of the “craft” cocktail bars in the city charge more than $12 for a cocktail, and several charge less than that. Yes, $12 is a nice chunk of change, but it’s not exactly $15 or $18 or whatever it is that swank nightclubs and hotel bars charge for the privilege of consuming an underchilled vodka martini on their glamorous premises. Generally, the creed of better cocktail bars has been that if you are forking over $10 or more for a drink, it should contain good ingredients (quality spirits, fresh juice, real grenadine, etc.), have balanced flavors (this usually involves measuring), be properly shaken or stirred, and be served with hospitality.

» Bar rules. Patrick Maguire, the blogger behind I’m Your Server Not Your Servant, has published a handy list of 64 Suggestions for Bar Customers. A couple gems: Rule # 12. “If you’re standing in the bar area, be aware that the folks seated at the bar need space too, particularly if they are eating.  It’s annoying for a seated customer to get bumped repeatedly by people standing behind or around them.” Rule # 45. “Don’t ask, Why don’t we get one?, loud enough for everyone to hear when a bartender announces something is on-the-house to someone sitting next to you. There’s a reason why they’re getting a complimentary treat and it’s none of your business.” If Maguire starts circulating photos of habitual offenders like they did in Edwardian England, look out.

» Manhattan Cocktail Classic. For cocktailians, if it’s springtime, it must be World Cocktail Week (May 6-13, 2010). The Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans launched the concept practically in tandem with the museum’s founding in 2005. Basically, MOTAC encourages bars and cocktail enthusiasts to throw a collective, worldwide party in celebration of one of our nation’s greatest inventions. As it tends to do, Manhattan has gone whole hog in this endeavor with the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, which launched in pilot mode last October and is debuting as a full-blown event May 14-18. If you’re planning on going, get your tickets now, as they are expected to sell out quickly. Meanwhile, drinkboston has a little World Cocktail Week party of its own in the works, so stay tuned.

» 19th century pub crawl. I have to admit I’m a bit ruffled that a group of New Yorkers, of all things, has organized a 19th century pub crawl in Boston, of all places. But hey, history is history and drinking is drinking. The crawl, led by the New York Nineteenth Century Society, begins at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 10. It starts and ends with 19th-century cocktails at Eastern Standard and Drink, respectively, and in between hits the Red Hat Café, Union Oyster House and Bell in Hand Tavern. The promo says, “Appropriate nineteenth century attire is encouraged, but by no means required.” Phew, ’cause I think I left my whalebone corset in a cab after drinking too much Fish House Punch.

» It’s official. We exist. Wow, this must be the NYC edition of Nips. The Village Voice has deemed Boston’s cocktail scene “not far behind” New York’s, praising us for our lack of “handlebar mustache and speakeasy aesthetic.” Um … thanks. The bars Drink, Eastern Standard and Craigie on Main and the cocktail supply shop the Boston Shaker all get mentions. Congrats to all!

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Posted in Boston bars, Cocktails, Nips | 4 Comments »

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