Archive for February, 2010

February 25th, 2010

I sipped D.C.


It’s true. I really only took a sip of D.C. compared to other cities of which I’ve drunk deeply, e.g. Portland and Seattle, Miami Beach, San Francisco and L.A. But what a fine sip it was.

There was a dual purpose to my short trip to our nation’s capitol: booze and poetry (not an unheard-of combination). My drinking buddy Jill McDonough is a poet who received the prestigious Witter Bynner Fellowship, which the U.S. Poet Laureate bestows each year upon two unsuspecting, rising talents. That’s right, you don’t apply for it; you’re just chosen. Being chosen means that you get to read your poetry in front of an audience at the Library of Congress, make a recording for posterity, and meet the poet laureate, who is currently Kay Ryan.

mcdonough-witter-bynnerSo, I gathered with Jill’s family and friends at the LoC and listened to her read poems about legal executions, car accidents, and captured terrorists. (“There’s no money in that,” a cab driver helpfully pointed out to one of Jill’s friends on the ride in from the airport.) Her work is not as dark as it sounds — she writes and reads in a compelling, frank, non-polemical way. After the reading, we cheered Jill on and, that night and the next, celebrated in some of D.C.’s best restaurants and bars.

The Tabard Inn. A real, old inn whose cozy dining areas serve deliciously executed homestyle fare like goat ragu bolognese, lump crab cakes and seafood gumbo. Bartender Chantal Tseng, who is married to another D.C. bar celeb, Derek Brown (see below), started us off with a round of perfect Sazeracs.

The Gibson. A great-looking, speakeasy-style bar that occupies what looks to have been an early-20th-century, second-floor apartment. The bar itself is in a narrow room at one end of the space, and a hallway leads to two separate rooms with vintage chairs and couches. Jill and the other Witter Bynner fellow, Atsuro Riley, and their entourages (it’s true, poets have entourages) took over one of those rooms and ordered a few rounds of well-made cocktails. Jill’s missus, Josey Packard, and I decided on Seelbachs and were not disappointed. I know we’re all supposed to be sick of speakeasies, but I live in Boston, where we don’t really have those, and I thought it was cool.

josey-jill-roundrobinThe Round Robin. Have I ever told you how much I love historic hotel bars? Sure they can be touristy and stuffy, and the quality of the drinks is often lacking, but their sheer character makes up for all that. The Round Robin resides in the Willard Hotel, a stone’s throw from the White House and the site of the 1861 Peace Congress that failed to defuse the Civil War. Abe Lincoln, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens — they all drank there. And so did we. In the afternoon, naturally. Mint Juleps, Bloody Marys and Hearsts, the last being an obscure classic which Josey cleverly ordered as “gin Manhattans.”

PS7’s. Named after its accomplished chef, Peter Smith, and the restaurant’s address, 777 I St., PS7’s is a chic restaurant with a bar to match, a space serving craft cocktails to the D.C. smart set. Jill ordered a Gina’s Gibson with a pickled ciopollini onion the size of a quail egg, and I had a Master & the Margarita (presumably named after Bulgakov’s book) with Milagro tequila, lime, apricot, marigold tea and citrus salt. Very tasty. I capped dinner with a glass of Madeira, which paired like a honeymooner with a pungent, taleggio-like cheese from Vermont.

The Passenger. We wound up at Derek and Tom Brown’s spare, dark, crowded, hip-but-not-too-hip bar, which serves a well-crafted cocktail if you want it but quietly suggests that straight spirits and beer are the cooler choices. We introduced ourselves to Derek, who helped launch the Gibson and writes a regular cocktail column for the Atlantic Monthly (which, as you may remember, moved from Boston to D.C. a few years back).


While Tom runs the raucous main bar, Derek, who admits to not totally cringing if you call him a mixologist, teaches cocktail classes, hosts small groups and concocts vermouth, bitters, etc. in a small bar in the back called the Columbia Room. He stowed Jill, Josey and me back there with a bottle of Yamazaki scotch from Japan, a bottle of Weller bourbon and a few cans of Oskar Blues beer while he stood in for the doorman out front. Occasionally, he’d check in on us, and we’d prod him to tell tales of making drinks at White House cocktail parties. Later, Tom joined us and offered us a taste of some funky, citrusy rum he bootlegged out of Guatemala. A fun pair, those Brown brothers.


Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian. OK, it’s not a bar. I mention it not only because it’s a piece of Americana from Cambridge, MA, but because its fridge has a sticker from one of Somerville’s most famous restaurants: eat. The scene of my dirty Bombay Sapphire martini years, eat is long gone, and so is Julia. But she liked the place, and dined there in the early 2000s before leaving Cambridge for California in her sunset years.

Thanks, D.C., for wetting my whistle. I’ll be back.

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Posted in D.C. | 7 Comments »

February 18th, 2010

Save the date: Boston Bartenders on the Rise

Put March 14 on your calendar, imbibers. Drinkboston and Green Street are teaming up for another event: Boston Bartenders on the Rise. The night will showcase four of the Hub’s emergent talents behind the bar, each of whom will serve a favorite cocktail:

  • Carrie Cole of Craigie on Main
  • Evan Harrison of Deep Ellum (recently of the Independent)
  • Bob McCoy of Eastern Standard
  • Emily Stanley of Green Street

While more familiar names in the Boston bar scene still command a lot of attention, the above individuals represent the up-and-coming generation of sharp personalities who know how to mix a killer drink and take good care of their guests. More details on this event in a later post.

Speaking of events, you’ll never guess what I’m doing this Sunday, February 21: judging a vodka cocktail contest. The Cocktail World Cup is put on by 42 Below Vodka and the U.S. Bartenders Guild and takes place at Bond, in the Langham Hotel, starting at 8:00 p.m. Bartenders in Boston and several other American cities are competing to go on to the national competition in New York on March 7. Three national finalists will then move on to the international competition in New Zealand, where they are expected to mix cocktails while bungee jumping and riding in speedboats. I’m not kidding. Hey, if a Boston barkeep gets to fly across the world for that kind of adventure, I’m happy to play a part.

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Posted in Bartenders, Events, Vodka | 5 Comments »

February 14th, 2010

Pouring on the pounds?


A fellow drinker said recently, “I just discovered you should never input your drinks into a calorie-counter app. No wonder I look like Santa Claus.”

Boozing makes you fat, right? Yes. No. Maybe. When it comes to alcohol and body weight, things get weird. That’s according to the scientific and medical literature out there on the web — a confusing hodgepodge of sites looking at alcohol consumption mostly from fitness, diet or addiction perspectives, or sites representing incompatible agendas, i.e. MADD vs the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, or the NIH vs the BATF. Of course, there are plenty of dense scientific articles on PubMed, but making sense of those and coming to any useful, real-world conclusions is a task I would only undertake for a lot of money.

In a way, it seems simple: alcohol has calories, and if you consume too many calories without burning them, you’ll gain weight. It’s funny how many people don’t realize that alcohol itself, aside from sugary mixers or carbs in beer, is calorie-rich. In fact, pure ethanol has 7 calories per gram compared to 4 for carbs and protein and 9 for fat. Of course, we don’t drink pure ethanol; we drink drinks. So here are some more relevant numbers based on the caloric content of various alcoholic beverages (according to CalorieKing) and recipes that represent the sort of cocktails that drinkbostonians are likely to consume.

  • Fort Point (among the many “Manhattan variations” out there): 2 oz rye whiskey, 1/2 oz Punt E Mes, 1/4 oz Benedictine: 174 calories.
  • Margarita: 2 oz tequila, 1 oz Cointreau, 3/4 oz lime juice: 223 calories.
  • Martini: 2 oz gin, 1 oz vermouth: 173 calories.
  • Gin and tonic: 143 calories.

Now, for comparison’s sake …

  • Coca Cola (12 oz): 143 calories.
  • Narragansett (12 oz): 152 calories.
  • Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine (12 oz, 10% abv): 330 calories.
  • Red or white Wine (5 oz): roughly 120-130 calories.

So, if you take the generic, 2,000-calorie daily intake on which standard nutrition labels are based, and you add up the two Fort Points, three glasses of wine, and beer nightcap you might consume on a night off — roughly 875 calories — you have 1125 calories left for food if you want to avoid gaining weight. Which means eating like a supermodel without any of the financial benefits. Depressed yet?

But wait. “Scientists have not been able to tie alcohol consumption consistently to weight gain,” according to this article on ShapeFit. Huh? It continues, “Researchers have also found that heavy drinking reduces body fat, but still others point to evidence that it raises the risk of becoming overweight or obese. There may never be a simple answer, since there are so many variables.”

Oh, those pesky variables. You’ve got to, for instance, stack up your eating patterns against your drinking patterns. Do you tend to eat — and eat a little more than you normally would — whenever you go out drinking? Or does your boozing often replace food and other types of caloric beverages? Also: Are you genetically programmed to be an alcohol-metabolizing machine? And perhaps the peskiest variable of all explaining why there “may never be a simple answer” to what role alcohol plays in weight gain: “People in studies are prone to under-report how much they drink, rendering many findings unreliable.”

Ah, yes. Under-reporting one’s booze intake is a rich, American tradition. It’s not surprising, given that our official definition of “drinking in moderation” is one drink per day for women, two for men. That’s not moderate, that’s puritanical. It’s like when nutritionists say that a serving of meat should be no bigger than a deck of cards. Oh, I guess that means I’m splitting this porterhouse steak with my date, plus the family of four sitting next to us.

My advice? Ditch the calorie-counting app, get some exercise, and pick up the recently reissued Drinking Man’s Diet, originally published in 1964. The guy who wrote it, Robert Cameron, died slender last year at age 98.

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Posted in Books & resources | 8 Comments »

February 7th, 2010

Maybe 2010’s our year


It’s campaign season for drinkboston again. For the second year in a row, this site is up for Best Blog in the Boston Phoenix’s “Best of Boston” readers’ poll. Last year, drinkbostonians conceded the race to the band-interviewing puppet podcaster Silly Gillman. This year, we’re up against the political commentators Blue Mass Group, the music-savvy Bradley’s Almanac, the local fashion photo album ClickClash, the college radio scenesters On A Friday, and the “all Boston, all the time” Universal Hub.

All worthy contenders. But as worthy as a blog about the drinking life in Boston? To the ballot, my fellow barflies. And for the love of god, don’t forget to click the “Finished” button after you’ve voted (and don’t forget to cast ballots for your fave bars and bartenders!). Here’s the fine print from the online ballot listing all categories:

FINISHED VOTING FOR YOUR FAVORITES? Please be sure you have finished selecting all the categories you wish to vote for, then click the link below to finish the voting process. We accept one vote per user per category a day.

I’m envisioning the victory party now…

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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 »