Posts Tagged ‘Boston history’

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 »

February 1st, 2010

Locke-Ober – Best Boston bars


Established: 1875
Specialty: Wine, Martinis, Manhattans
Prices: High
Atmosphere: “Locke’s has no peer and few rivals. And the top-hatted ghosts at its bar are those great of the legendary past: Eben Jordan and Theodore Roosevelt, John Drew and Dr. Lowell. They are all drinking Ward Eights with Nick (Stuhl) and Mr. Camus and the founding fathers, Locke and Ober.” — Lucius Beebe. See Best Boston bars for address and contact info.

Oh, Locke-Ober. You’re like a politician who has been in office forever. Your stunning longevity, and all the historic moments in which you’ve played a part, give you an aura of grandeur. In your presence, people speak in hushed tones. You are an institution. But oh, how you rest on your laurels. How you favor the cronies who have propped you up and who expect things to be done a certain way. How you sometimes just seem like a decrepit, old man.

Because of the latter traits, the bar at Locke-Ober is probably the worst Best Boston bar. I am conflicted about the place. I love going there, often on my own, ordering a Martini and a bowl of JFK Lobster Stew, and feeling like a part of Boston history. But whenever I go, I think about how much better it could be.

I am far from being a regular — I don’t have that kind of money, and it’s not the kind of place where I run into people I know — but from what I’ve observed, the bar experience doesn’t come near the quality of the dining room experience. Locke-Ober is famous for its waiters who have worked there for decades. I notice that when they come to fetch a drink order at the bar, their poise and professionalism usually stand out in contrast to that of the bartenders. The bar seems to lack such elder statesmen.

Not that tending bar at Locke-Ober should require only elders, or men. In 2001, Lydia Shire took over the kitchen at this male-dominated institution (it took until 1970 for women to be admitted to the dining room!). She updated the food to meet contemporary fine-dining standards while ensuring the quality of classic Locke-Ober dishes like Dover Sole and the abovementioned stew. My dream is for someone to swoop in and similarly improve the bar. I mean, doesn’t it violate some city statute that the place that invented the Ward Eight makes perhaps the worst example of that cocktail in Boston? Crown Royal, sour mix and cheap grenadine — on the rocks. Yikes. Recently, someone ordered a Martini with a twist and got a dried-out, pithy peel that had been cut hours before. And the service at the bar is decent but lacks that special flourish you expect to find at the city’s oldest and most famous fine restaurant. It seems obvious that Locke-Ober’s dedication to excellence should apply to bartending, but the management has yet to subscribe to that idea.

Nevertheless, I’ll keep going back to toast the top-hatted ghosts, and urging history-minded visitors to do the same, as long as the place is around. I am hopeful that progress can happen, even at Locke-Ober.

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Posted in Boston bars | 26 Comments »

November 24th, 2009

Remembering Cocoanut Grove

Cocoanut Grove after the fire.

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.

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Posted in Books & resources, Boston bars | 12 Comments »

August 18th, 2009

A lotta history, a little booze


Boston imbibers usually like it the other way around, which is why I’m damn appreciative of last night’s great turnout for my talk at the Boston Shaker, “A brief history of drinking in Boston.” We covered almost 400 years in an hour and a half, and we sampled Ward Eights and Maharaja’s Revenges along the way. Not bad.

From Coles Tavern (Boston’s first bar), to the Bunch of Grapes tavern (known for its punch), to the New England rum industry, to the rise of saloons and statewide prohibition (that’s right — Massachusetts was dry for roughly 20 years starting in the 1850s), to the ice trade and Boston’s role in the birth of cocktails, to Beacon Hill speakeasies in the 1920s, to the popularity of tiki bars in the 1950s, to today’s revival of mixology … Boston has a rich and often conflicted drinking history. You’ll likely hear more about it here as my book-learnin’ progresses.

Posted in Events | 8 Comments »

August 6th, 2009

A brief history of drinking in Boston


Hear ye, imbibers of the Hub. I’ve been brushing up on my Boston booze history, and I thought it would be fun to lead, you know, a little salon with fellow boozehound-historians interested in the topic. So I mentioned this to Adam Lantheaume of the Boston Shaker one day, and he said, ‘Why don’t we do a class?’ And I said, ‘You’re on.’

“A brief history of drinking in Boston” will take place Monday, August 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Boston Shaker, which resides in the Union Square, Somerville, store named Grand. Tix are $20 (includes cocktails). Topics on the agenda include:

  • Colonial taverns
  • The New England ice industry & Boston’s role in the evolution of cocktails
  • Saloons
  • Massachusetts temperance and prohibition laws
  • Locke-Ober and the Parker House
  • Scollay Square
  • The Cocoanut Grove fire
  • Tiki bars
  • The revival of classic mixology in Boston

Sure, it’ll be educational, but it’ll also be informal and festive, as Adam and I will be serving samples of both classic and new Boston cocktails, including a Ward Eight made with Sazerac 6-Yr Rye (aka Baby Saz). Whether you know beans about Boston bar history or work for a tour company called the Boston Hooch ‘n’ History Trail (in which case we need to get acquainted), reserve yourself a spot — you’re bound to learn something.

See you there!

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Posted in Books & resources, Boston bars, Events | 4 Comments »

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