In this last installment of Nips for 2009, let’s consider some of the key developments of Boston’s year in drink.
» Booming business for Boston’s best bars. Probably the pleasantest surprise of the year for imbibers. It’s usually expected that the cream of the crop will thrive, but we’re in the middle of the biggest economic downturn since the Depression, for chrissakes. I know, I know — people drink more when times are tough. But it’s not like we’re talking dive bars, here. And it’s not only existing bars that are doing well. So are some newly opened ones, such as…
» Trina’s Starlite Lounge, Lord Hobo and Woodward. These three fine establishments opened in 2009 for our drinking pleasure. The ’50s-inspired Starlite has quickly become the kind of place that’s like a second living room for denizens of Cambridge and Somerville. It has two full bars to choose from, the vibe is genuinely welcoming and easygoing, the prices are recession-proof, and if you don’t run into someone you know there, then you probably know at least a couple of the bartenders by name.
After months of wrestling with anti-bar curmudgeons from the neighborhood, and amidst much nose-wrinkling over its loony name, Lord Hobo finally opened in the space formerly known as the B-Side Lounge. With a beer list that keeps the likes of the Publick House and Deep Ellum on their toes, serious gastropub fare coming out of the kitchen, and a good-looking cocktail list (albeit one I haven’t tested enough to judge), Lord Hobo has already established itself as a place for serious bargoers.
I’ve only sampled Woodward, in the Ames Hotel, once since previewing it a few months ago. But it’s clear that the place is making a serious attempt to be, for downtown Boston, a rare combo: an upscale tavern with top-notch food; a serious cocktail bar; and a magnet for nightlife. It appeared to be succeeding on all counts when I visited. More study needed.
» The annual Craft Brewers Conference. It convened in Boston this year, giving a boost to our bona fides as a beer town.
» BarSmarts. Dozens of bar industry people around Boston and New England received top-notch training through this fast-growing program.
» Some positive trends… Tiki. Real tiki drinks could be had regularly at Eastern Standard and Drink, the latter of which had tiki Sundays all summer long. Shared cocktails. The above two spots also raised the profile of punch, one of the most sure-fire ways to put a whole crowd in a good mood. Meanwhile, the Marliave serves FDR martinis by the pitcher. Genius. Bitters. Bitters became more available, and in more flavors than ever before. The Bitter Truth is just one example, and bars continue to have fun making their own. Mezcal. I’m talking about the artisanal stuff, which Del Maguey pretty much single-handedly put on the map around Boston and elsewhere. Look for DM’s brightly colored, folk art-inspired labels at a bar that’s serious about spirits, and order a measure. You won’t look back.
» Last but not least, drinkboston got a stylin’ new design and taught its first class on the history of drinking in Boston. What’s up this blog’s sleeve for 2010? Let’s think about it over drinks.
Heads up, drinkbostonians: Josey Packard, one of Boston’s best bartenders, will appear tonight on the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC (9:00 p.m. EST) to mix up a flaming bowl of Christmas Rum Punch. Go, Josey, go!
Regular viewers know that Maddow often closes her political talk show with a bit on cocktails — I recall Dale DeGroff mixing Irish coffees on the set earlier this year. More recently, Maddow shared with her audience an investigative coup: an actual drink menu from one of the Obamas’ regular White House cocktail parties. As you see in the short video segment above, she not only described the cocktails (the Emerson, the Stone Fence and the Frost) but explained some of their ingredients (applejack, maraschino liqueur), named and photographed the bartenders who served them (Derek Brown and Adam Bernbach), pointed out that bartending is an American invention, and signed off with this delicious nugget: “And remember, Martinis do not contain vodka.”
Packard, a friend of Maddow’s who did guest spots about cocktails on the latter’s radio show back in her Air America days, will make a punch recipe adapted from the 1949 edition of Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts, about which Paul Clarke writes humorously on Cocktail Chronicles. I got a live preview at a recent Christmas party as Josey did a (not so) dry run of the flaming punch for the assembled guests. It was very cool, what with all the spices and orange oil making sparks as they were tossed into the bowl. Even the sternest Scrooge would be uplifted by this vessel of flaming goodness.
Watch the show, congratulate Josey the next time you’re at Drink, and have a merry Christmas!
Not to dampen your holiday spirit, but if you’re out on the town this Saturday, November 28, you might take a moment to drink to the memory of Boston’s infamous Cocoanut Grove fire — the worst nightclub fire in history — which claimed almost 500 lives that night back in 1942.
Formerly a speakeasy, the swanky South End club had three bars and a ballroom that was decorated with highly flammable paper palm trees and cloth covering the ceiling and walls. The fire started when a busboy lit a match near one of the palm trees where he was replacing a lightbulb. As flames rapidly engulfed the club, many in the over-capacity crowd were trapped; the revolving-door main entrance jammed, and the other exits were locked or blocked. Within 15 minutes, 492 people were dead or dying. In the aftermath of the tragedy, fire safety codes, manslaughter law and medical treatment for burns and lung injuries were transformed.
If you’re a student of Boston and bar history as I am, you might want to check out “The Haunting Legacy of the Cocoanut Grove Fire” on the anniversary of the tragedy. It’s a free, illustrated lecture by former Boston Herald reporter Stephanie Schorow, who authored The Cocoanut Grove Fire. I befriended Schorow in the course of doing my own research on bar-related Boston topics, and her book is a fascinating read. Her talk, which will feature newly discovered photos and explore various theories about the cause of the fire, happens on the 28th from 5:00-7:00 p.m. at Jamaicaway Books & Gifts, 676 Centre St. in Jamaica Plain.
The Boston Globe published a detailed remembrance of the Cocoanut Grove fire on its 50th anniversary in 1992, and the article serves as a good primer about the tragedy. One interesting tidbit among the hundreds connected to the event: one of the waiters who escaped the fire, Chico Adolf Cecchini, soon after began working at Locke-Ober, where he was headwaiter for about 40 years.
Shoot, y’all. Some mighty fancy folk are making their way to ol’ Beantown to open up swanky bars in a pair of purty new hotels.
First, the W Boston in the theater district. Come October 29, its “decadent indulgences await your exploration, immersion, savoring, lingering, mingling, socializing, canoodling and celebrating.” Lingering? Mingling? OK. But canoodling? We don’t do that in Boston! Irregardless, Sasha Petraske, well known in cocktaildom for opening Milk & Honey (the bar that launched 1,000 speakeasies), Little Branch and Dutch Kills in New York and the Varnish in L.A., is reportedly in charge of the cocktail menu at the W Boston’s “destination bar.” (Update: that bar, called Descent, will not open until early 2010.)
Meanwhile, John Lermayer, who leapt from head bartender at the Florida Room in Miami’s Delano Hotel to internationally acclaimed mixologist, is helming the booze program at Woodward, a “modern day tavern” in the Ames Hotel, which opens in the financial district November 19. Woodward’s PR says that Lermayer and William “English Bill” Codman (a longtime Boston bartender) are developing a “distinctive drinks menu featuring modern touches on beloved classics such as a Margarita infused with chamomile agave nectar and a Caipirinha with local apple cider and fresh rosemary.”
OK, these are talented guys who no doubt can write an impressive cocktail menu. But, once they leave town, who (besides Codman at Woodward) will turn their recipes into drinkable drinks? That’s the million-dollar question (no exaggeration). We all know that a bad performance can turn Shakespeare into crap. Cocktail lists in certain places around town look good until you actually order from them. Take the Back Bay’s new Post 390. They serve Sazeracs! … in snifters … without a discernable trace of Peychaud’s bitters. Sigh.
But rather than be cynical, I’m going to view this as a potential bonanza for Boston bartending. So many openings for skilled practitioners all of a sudden — where will they come from? Will they be pilfered from other high-end bars like Drink, Eastern Standard, No. 9 Park and Craigie on Main? Or will ‘tenders who already man the planks at Boston’s finest hotels and steak houses gravitate to the Ames and the W to learn top-notch mixology? Should be interesting.
And think about it, aspiring bartenders: we’re still in the midst of the Great Recession, yet quality bars in Boston aren’t just booming, they’re proliferating. I mean, Legal Sea Foods is getting in on the game, for chrissake. Get yourself started as a bar back and look toward a rosy future — Boston imbibers need you!
» The biggest news for this installment of Nips is the opening of a fun, new neighborhood bar: Trina’s Starlite Lounge in Inman Square, Cambridge (in the former home of the Abbey Lounge — R.I.P.). If the Starlite were a film, its opening weekend would make it a blockbuster. My preliminary review: energetic, funky vibe; a bar and management staff full of heavy hitters who balance skills with a good-time attitude; a somewhat spare-despite-its-retro-decor look; a very wallet-friendly menu of American picnic ‘n’ patio fare; a list of classic- and culinary-inspired cocktails that’s decent but doesn’t knock my socks off (although a rye Manhattan with Carpano Antica did); and a puzzlingly suburban beer list (Coors Light? Blue Moon? However, Reading Lager in cans and a bucket of High Life ponies are a nice touch).
» Two very different booze promotions rolled through town recently. One was for Grand Marnier, at Drink. The other was for The Macallan, at the Cyclorama.
Jeff Grdinich, New Hampshire barman and consultant with aka wine geek (which represents GrandMa), enlisted bartenders/mixologists around Boston to create cocktails featuring the sweet, cognac-based orange liqueur. Basically, GrandMa’s like, ‘Hey, all the cocktail geeks are mixing with Cointreau — we want a piece of the action, too.’ It’s true that a lot of vintage cocktail recipes call for the less syrupy Cointreau for orange flavor. But the mixologists stepped up, and the drinks at this party were for the most part tasty and balanced. I’m partial to one that I’ve written about before: Grdinich’s Root of All Evil. Also check out Cocktail Virgin Slut’s assessment of not only their own Lioness (of Brittany) but also Scott Holliday’s Alicante, Matt Schrage’s Hugo Ball and John Gertsen’s Mission of Burma. Interesting stuff.
Where the GrandMa event was a mingle-friendly, French-themed cocktail fête (co-organized by the saucy broads of LUPEC Boston), the Macallan event was a slick presentation, complete with pulsing club music and moody, black-and-white images of a nude model posing among barrels of aging scotch. Not what I expected, to say the least. Brand ambassador Graeme Russell, whose red tartan pants accented the bizarro atmosphere, told the 150 or so guests about the distillery’s history and methods, including its unusually small copper pot stills and predominant use of sherry barrels (as opposed to bourbon barrels). He talked us through tastes of the 12-, 15-, 17- and 18-year-olds, with the latter two being the most impressive (they retail for about $120 and $150, respectively). The 18-year, aged entirely in sherry barrels, was an ethereal balance of honey, flower and orchard fruit notes with just enough smoke to let you know you were drinking scotch. The 17 was earthier, with an acidic, phenolic character coming from a portion of whiskey that had been aged in bourbon barrels, which are more charred than sherry barrels and produce bolder flavors. Great scotch, weird presentation.
» And now for some literature… Finally, a useful dictionary. Drunk: The Definitive Drinker’s Dictionary just came out, with a record 2,964 terms for, ya know, blotto, plastered and Dean Martoonied. There’s a companion website, too. Once you’ve purchased the tome online, check out Wayne Curtis’ astute, witty profile in Downeast magazine of a Portland, ME, bartender who badly needed profiling: John Myers. We see Myers’ “Wild Bill Hickok” demeanor around Boston now and again, but not enough. Finally, you’re well aware that a brewer for Guinness perfected a statistical method called “small sample theory” in the early 1900s, thus ushering in the modern capability of brewers and other manufacturers to produce tons of product and produce it consistently, right? Oh, you’re not? Well, read this Salon post about how the human thirst for alcohol can lead to great scientific advances.