20 June 2009

There’s a riot going on in the cocktail world

John Gertsen, Misty Kalkofen, and Jackson Cannon getting down.
Photo courtesy of Jackson Cannon
There’s a renaissance in bartending going on right now, and it’s the most exciting thing to happen to sophisticated drinkers in decades. As a sometime bartender and longtime cocktail nerd, I witnessed the beginnings of this movement in Boston with the 1998 opening of The B-Side Lounge in Cambridge, a venue that pioneered a kind of scholarly, high-craft mixology I'd never seen before. I’ve been gratified to see its influence expand, but for some reason, not everyone has followed along.

Consider the estimable Robert Nadeau, the lead restaurant critic at the Boston Phoenix for over 25 years. In my view, he's the best food writer in town, an éminence grise with nonpareil range, that rare character who can write authoritatively and evocatively about everything from fine dining to authentic Chinatown holes-in-the-wall, and wine and beer, too. But at dinner the other night, when I started gushing about the recent uptick in local craft bartending, Nadeau admitted this wasn't an area he'd been following closely; he'd thought that Boston bartending was still stuck in a pink-tinged, icky-sweet vodka cocktail moment.

I happily demurred on this point, convincing Nadeau to let me drag him to a nearby craft-cocktail bar, where over a couple of beautifully made drinks originally conceived during the late-19th century Golden Age -- a period when America's best bartenders garnered the same devotion and fame that our current Food Network celebrity chefs do -- I continued to sing the virtues of Boston’s cocktail revival. I'm pretty sure he caught some of my excitement, that sense of a wild frontier worth exploring. But afterward I thought, “Nobody's more plugged into Boston’s restaurant scene than Nadeau; if he's a half-step behind me on this craft cocktail thing, then the typical bar patron must have no idea.” So I decided to offer a few tips here for curious beginners on how best to enjoy what's happening at the leading edge of Boston bartending:
  • Forget “Sex and the City”. Nadeau’s take isn’t entirely unfounded: many Boston bars are still hawking specialty cocktails built on flavored vodkas, sweet liqueurs, and cream-based cordials. The sloppily-made Cosmopolitan is emblematic: sugary, pretty, potent, and profitable. These are aimed at novices, often younger drinkers who want sweetness to mask the taste of alcohol. The cool triangular glass may make the imbiber feel sophisticated, but its contents shouldn’t: a key hallmark of serious cocktails is balance -- an interplay of sweet, sour, bitter, and/or savory flavors in which no single element dominates. If you’ve ever looked at those candy-colored and –flavored drinks with disdain, or found them cloying after one or two, you’re a good candidate for the genuine old-school article.
  • Expect a different kind of bartender. The pros behind the stick at craft cocktail bars are a new breed: serious and formidable, a combination of fine-dining chef, lab chemist, and history geek. They go to extreme lengths to source high-quality ingredients from all over the world, uncovering exciting and original spirits, fortified and aromatized wines, exotic liqueurs and cordials, and aromatic bitters. They use fresh fruits, fresh-squeezed juices, fresh herbs. They make their own syrups, infusions, bitters, and cocktail cherries. They assemble drinks with great precision, measuring everything. They worry about the proper manufacture, shape, and size of ice for each drink, and fret over the right serving glass. They study cocktail history, collect vintage bartending guides and barware, learn the origin stories and recipes of hundreds of classic drinks, labor to create new ones that respect the history of the craft. And they take hospitality seriously, recognizing that the ability to make a superb drink means nothing if the customer doesn’t feel welcome, valued, well cared for.
  • Be assured that there’s a craft cocktail for every taste. While it might seem abstruse at first, this game is like bocce: you can have no idea what you’re doing the first time you play and still have a blast, but it gets richer and more interesting the deeper you get into it. The quickest entrée? Visit a craft cocktail bar at a time when it isn’t particularly busy, when you can have a leisurely discussion with a bartender about your likes and dislikes. These folks will find ways to gently ease you out of your well-worn rut to explore new alleys. Maybe a Manhattan variant will hook you, or a recreation of an authentic Tiki drink, or a long drink based on some obscure Italian amaro -- maybe even a carefully-conceived Boilermaker. It’s a strange new world, but the right guide can swiftly open it up for you. Don't be surprised if they try to wean you from vodka, which most craft bartenders consider too featureless a spirit, too blank a canvas, to merit inclusion in interesting cocktails.
  • Understand that the scene is nascent and dynamic. The bygone B-Side fired the opening salvo in the battle to bring back 19th-century verve, skill, and sophistication to cocktail making. Talent honed there fanned out to places like Green Street, the bar at No. 9 Park, and Eastern Standard Kitchen. Subsequent waves kept rippling outward, with Golden Age inspired programs emerging at Deep Ellum, Drink (perhaps Boston's foremost incarnation of the revival), Hungry Mother, Craigie on Main, and others. Now the friendly local competition, level of serious training, growing enthusiasm and awareness among consumers, and greater availability of interesting spirits and bitters are all combining to help the scene rapidly evolve and grow. It’s like the drinking equivalent of the advent of Dada or the Lost Generation: tremendous artistic ferment and technical accomplishment effected by idiosyncratic and unique characters -- a fascinating scene.
  • Look to the Internets for help. If we’re at the dawn of a boozy Nouvelle Vague, our Cahiers du cinéma is drinkboston.com, Lauren Clark’s acclaimed blog that limns the Boston cocktail landscape (and to which I occasionally contribute). This is a swell starting point, a way to get to know the key venues, star players, events, and recipes before you venture out. (It's also great fun; don't miss the hilarious comments from local bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts.) LUPEC Boston's website is full of edifying entries by members of a local classic-cocktail appreciation society comprised of lady bartenders and other women connected to the scene; it regularly sponsors terrific craft cocktail events. Cocktail Virgin Slut is another eye-opening read, a log of craft drinks sampled all over Greater Boston by four local cocktail mavens, with recipes and photos.
Like jazz music and basketball, the cocktail is a thoroughly, proudly American invention, one with a tradition that dates back 150 years. Prohibition gave it a sucker punch that has taken nearly 70 years to recover from, but it is bouncing back with a vengeance. This is not your auntie’s Raspberry Mojito – it’s more like your great-great-grandfather’s Martinez Cocktail (the historical predecessor to the Martini, made with Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth, Maraschino liqueur, and orange bitters, a drink you might love even if you profess to dislike gin.) Now just might be a great time to sneak a sip for yourself.