Archive for August, 2009

August 28th, 2009

Nips – 8/28/09


Liquors launched. Bols Genever and Absolut Boston launched in Beantown recently. You will see the former at the city’s best cocktail bars. You will see the latter everywhere else.

Genever is an old Dutch spirit that, while it gave birth to modern-day, London dry gin, is in its own category. You could call it the whiskey drinker’s white spirit. It’s made with malted grain, same as whiskey, so it has a depth of flavor even before botanicals are added. If you want to time travel back to the days when Jerry Thomas was mixing up Improved Holland Gin Cocktails, this is your vehicle. Cocktail Virgin Slut and C. Fernsebner of the Bostonist both did fine writeups of the Bols Genever launch party at Drink.

As for Absolut Boston, what can I say? It’s from the benchmark vodka brand whose brilliant marketing made it an icon and launched the category of premium vodka into the stratosphere. It’s part of a series of special-edition flavors inspired by cities, in our case black tea (historically apt) and elderflower (currently trendy). It’ll sell like gangbusters.

bartender-raceBartenders on the move. Wow, where to begin? With the ladies — the Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails, that is. Joy Richard (aka Bourbon Belle) left her longtime gig managing Tremont 647 to manage and work the bars at both Franklin Cafes (South End and Southie). She is kicking cocktails up to a new level at these beloved neighborhood spots. Emma Hollander (aka Hot Toddy) also left Tremont 647 and will christen the shakers at Trina’s Starlite Lounge in Cambridge (where the Abbey used to be), whose soft opening should begin next week.

Now for the men. Andy “Hunter S. Thompson” McNees is moving from Green Street in Central Square to Toro in the South End. His esteemed colleague Nathan Bice (aka “just Bice”) is heading slightly northwest to Highland Kitchen in Somerville. Speaking of Highland Kitchen, I should also mention that Claudia Mastrobuono is leaving the bar there to go back to school. I’ll miss her skills and no-nonsense attitude. Meanwhile, joining Dylan Black and Emily Stanley behind the bar at Green Street are Colin Kiley, lately of Central Kitchen, and Joel Mack, lately of Deep Ellum in Allston (and Redbones before that). And to complete the circle, Patrick Sandlin just stepped behind the bar at Deep Ellum after managing Bukowski in Boston. Finally, Ben Sandrof will no longer be working behind the bar at Drink — or any bar at all for that matter (sniff). But he’ll remain a key figure in Boston’s booze world with his new career in wholesale at M.S. Walker. Whew! That was dizzying. If I’m missing anyone, let me know.

Manhattan & Montreal. If you missed Tales of the Cocktail and have a hankerin’ to schmooze and booze with fellow cocktailians from around the globe, you should get tickets to the Manhattan Cocktail Classic Fall Preview on October 3 and 4. This is a mini-conference to prep for a larger event in May, and, given the buzz I’ve heard, it could be a quick sellout. The details are still vague, but all you really need to know is that these are the organizers. Oh, I hear there are a few good cocktail bars in Manhattan, too. Tickets go on sale Labor Day weekend. Book your hotel now. Speaking of Tales and Manhattan, read On the Rocks, It’s a New Landscape in the New York Times if you haven’t already.

As for Montreal, I’m seeking news rather than reporting it. Specifically, does anyone know of any connections between the bar/restaurant scene in Montreal and the bar/restaurant scene in Boston? Like, Boston bar owners who are from Montreal, Boston bars that are using ice wine from Quebec, or dedicated barflies who divide their lives between the two cities… Anyone?

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Posted in Bartenders, Books & resources, Booze in the news, Cocktails, Gin, Nips, Vodka, Whiskey | 15 Comments »

August 22nd, 2009

How to treat a bartender


Joe McGuirk, one of Boston’s best-known bartenders, told me once, “My real bosses are the customers.” Wow. How refreshing. Joe’s philosophy stands in stark contrast to the bartenders I’ve encountered who have treated their customers like wayward pre-schoolers, annoying trespassers or unruly mobs (not that those characterizations aren’t sometimes true). It made me think: wouldn’t it be great for customers if more bartenders viewed them as employers? And then I thought, wouldn’t it also be great for bartenders if more customers thought of them as employees?

Don’t get the wrong idea. When I invite you, the customer, to view yourself as your bartender’s boss, I’m not talking about the dictatorial, fickle type of boss. I’m talking about the collegial, diplomatic type of boss, the boss who knows that attracting and retaining talent means treating workers fairly and with respect, and rewarding them for doing a good job. Being good to someone to get what you want is not exactly a radical concept, but it’s something the human race has always struggled to get right. And it works really well in bars. Serve your bartender well, and he (or she, as is implied from here on out) will serve you well.

Even before I started blogging about bartenders, I had a good rapport with them. First, I simply like being in bars (if you think about it, not everyone in a bar is psyched to be there), so I’m a pretty content customer to begin with. And I used to be a bartender, so my empathy for these people is pretty strong. But the rapport also stems from my adherence to some basic rules. They’re ridiculously obvious — or so you’d think.

Be considerate. It’s more than being polite with your pleases and thank-yous. In a busy bar, it’s knowing your order and stating it clearly when the bartender gets to you. It’s not saying, “Yo!” or waving a $20 at the bartender to get his attention. It’s being judicious about placing special orders. It’s refraining from, even if you know the bartender and have his cell phone number, texting him your order instead of waiting your turn. It’s asking for a shot and a beer instead of a Ramos Gin Fizz when the crowd is four deep.

Tip well. At least 20 percent of the total. I know, you’re supposed to tip on the pre-tax subtotal, but hey, this is about attracting and retaining talent, right? For me, this rule applies to, like, 99 percent of bar tabs. The other one percent are occasions when the service is scandalously indifferent or hostile, in which case those bastards are only getting 15 percent from me. Then there are those times when you get treated like a dignitary or celebrity, complete with a heartfelt compliment, a free round or two and a surprise appetizer. This is when you tip 25 to 30 percent on the would-be total of your bill. Finally, if you plan on spending the evening in a crowded rock club or similar situation where everyone’s clamoring for drinks and money changes hands every round, tip heavily on the first round. Like, if you order a shot and a beer and it comes to $10, leave $15. I guarantee the bartender will pick you out of the crowd the next time you go to the bar.

Manage your expectations. The odds of getting great drinks and great service at a bar are better now than they’ve been probably since the golden age of cocktails. Hallelujah! But we all realize that most bars still lack one or both of these luxuries. Sometimes we find ourselves at those bars, and that’s when we have to be that flexible type of boss who can make the best of a semi-competent, semi-disgruntled workforce.

It should be pretty obvious what kind of drinks and service you can expect as soon as you walk in the door of an unfamiliar bar. Chain restaurant off a highway? That bartender’s probably been on the job for all of two weeks and will last maybe another two. Wipe the previous customer’s crumbs off the bar yourself, grab your own cocktail napkin, and order a beer in a bottle. Fashionable new lounge with VIP bottle service? Don’t try to order an Aviation. Don’t even order the Melon Basil-Tini off the menu, as it will be served straight-up and lukewarm. Instead, fall back on one of your safety drinks or a glass of champagne, and have fun observing the mating habits of twenty-something trust-funders. Dive bar with surly regulars suspicious of newcomers? The bartender’s probably ornery, too, but just keep quiet, order a shot and a Bud, leave a solid tip on the first round, and he’ll warm up to you.

Of course, even the best bartenders can have a bad shift. If you walk into your fave cocktail bar on a Saturday night and observe what industry folk call a shit show, and if your plans mandate that you stick around, well … just pick your corner and watch the chaos. Waiting 15 minutes for a drink while observing the sweat fly behind the bar is a great way to understand what kind of hustle is required of a top-notch bartender. And if you can manage to be a patient, considerate, big-tipping boss in contrast to the unruly mob, you will reap the rewards.

Posted in Bartenders | 9 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 13th, 2009



I just want to say to anyone who thinks they have to stay home this Sunday night to see Old Overholt’s debut on Mad Men: you know you can watch it the next day on On Demand, right? And what better thing to do when hungover on Whiskey Smashes than watch 1960s ad men sit around their office drinking all day?

This Sunday night, Eastern Standard is celebrating the fact that it has sold 21,000 (!) Whiskey Smashes since opening in 2005. These classic cocktails take, like, five minutes to make. They’re filled with lots of crushed ice, good bourbon, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and a little simple syrup muddled with mint. The delicious and potent drink has done much to introduce restaurateurs all over the city to the idea that they can put a few whiskey drinks on their clear spirits-dominated menus without scaring away their clientele. In fact, some of their clientele just might like this.

I don’t know how McDonald’s celebrated when they sold their one millionth cheeseburger, but it wasn’t as cool as this: Starting at 7:00 p.m., Eastern Standard will throw a Whiskey Smash party that features the making of the largest Whiskey Smash ever; different iterations of the drink made with Chartreuse, peach, Cognac and rum; and guest bartenders and chefs from around Boston. Tickets, which include food and one Smash, are a steal at $30 (they can be purchased beforehand at the bar). If you’ve been to an event at ES before, you know that these people do not slack off when it comes to showing their guests a good time. So, for the love of god, get off the couch and over to Kenmore Square Sunday night.

See you there!

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Posted in Events, Whiskey | 4 Comments »

August 12th, 2009

The Negroni and other safety drinks


The number of bars in Boston that make serious cocktails is increasing despite the Great Recession (right, Lord Hobo and Trina’s Starlight Lounge?), which makes our livers quiver with excitement. But the truth remains that the vast majority of bars out there aren’t up on this classical mixology thing. That’s the case even for some of the establishments we love, as well as for places whose enticing cocktail menus belie their lack of bartending talent.

Take Aquitaine in the South End. Nice-looking brasserie with an intimate little bar at the entrance. I was thrilled to see they had the Scofflaw — the Chartreuse version! — on their menu, so I ordered one. The bartender free-poured it (not something you want to do with a drink containing green Chartreuse), added a mere dash of lemon juice (one of the drink’s primary ingredients), and proceeded to … stir the mixture. Oh my.

When you find yourself craving a cocktail in a mixologically challenged establishment, you need to have in the back of your mind a safety drink or two. You know, a simple mixture that even the most minimally stocked bar or dimmest bartender can make (or be instructed to make). This is an easy decision for a lot of people — hello, gin and tonic! Little chance for error there. But, inexplicably, I’ve never liked gin (or vodka) and tonic. Not even a little bit. So here’s what I order:

Negroni. All bars have gin and sweet vermouth, and most have Campari, so this is an old reliable. Plus, ordering one immediately gives you an aura of mystery, because the Negroni is still considered exotic in most bars. I was once at Red Line in Harvard Square watching the cute, young things behind the stick crank out Oatmeal Cookie shots. I had to walk one of them through a Negroni, but she managed. I enjoyed my drink and bought another for the DJ. (MC Slim JB, I know you disagree with me on this one, but I have had surprisingly good luck getting a decent Negroni in all sorts of places.)

Gimlet. I rediscovered these when I had to make one while studying for the BarSmarts class. A good London dry gin, a splash of Rose’s Lime, and a lime wedge — it’s a surpisingly kick-ass drink! And any flunkie can throw it together … on the rocks, anyway. Oh, and ordering one makes you feel like you’re in a Raymond Chandler novel.

Lowball. I only like a splash of soda in my whiskey, so I order one of these instead of a highball. Before I could reliably find Maker’s Mark behind any bar, I’d order a “Jack Daniels on the rocks with a splash of soda and a twist.” Especially at hinterland weddings and those occasions when I find myself at a bar in Weirs Beach, NH, during Bike Week, this is my go-to drink.

CC Manhattan. Yes, Canadian Club. Rocks (always safer than straight up). Twist or cherry depending on my mood or lack of will to specify. A pretty satisfying drink, and you can order it absolutely anywhere. I especially like asking for these in bars near touristy summer spots where everyone’s drinking Bahama Mamas. It’s kind of like wearing wingtips on the beach.

I love to know what other people’s safety drinks are, so feel free to weigh in.

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Posted in Cocktails, Gin, Vermouth, Whiskey | 31 Comments »