18 May 2011

Drink: Boston's Single Most Essential Craft Cocktail Bar

[This is a reprint of a piece I wrote for Serious Eats, originally published on March 31, 2011. All photos by MC Slim JB.]

Walk half a mile from Boston's South Station, over a bridge into the Fort Point section of South Boston, and you'll happen upon a bleak former warehouse district that is slowly being rehabilitated into an upscale residential and destination-dining neighborhood. Enter a door marked Sportello, an Italian eatery in local celeb-chef Barbara Lynch's empire, and head not upstairs to the restaurant, but downstairs and through a door, and you will arrive at Drink.

This spare, industrial-looking room still has much of its warehouse-basement skeleton of exposed brick, big wooden beams, and rough-hewn granite intact. Three U-shaped, connected bars line the front wall, forming three service and five seating/standing areas. With large soapstone workspaces behind the bars (recalling chem-lab tables) and bottles stowed out of sight, the space is remarkably uncluttered, a spanking-clean mise en place. Aside from bowls of fruit and fresh herbs, there's little to distract the eye beyond a collection of vintage barware and tools along the back work counter. Customers sip cocktails from unique vintage glasses and mugs.

I'm greeted by Misty Kalkofen, one of the star-studded team of bartenders here that boasts names like Josey Packard and Scott Marshall. (This includes most of Boston's BAR certifications, the profession's most coveted credential.) There's no cocktail list, though a letter board on the wall lists recently-popular drinks, few of them likely to be familiar (ever tried a Maximilian Affair?) "What are you thinking tonight?" Misty asks.

"How about something with mezcal?" I reply, knowing she loves this spirit and has created many originals with it.

"Have you tried Nux Alpina? It's a walnut-based liqueur from Austria."

I'm game.

Misty precisely measures and stirs up one of her own creations, In Vida Veritas ($11), which combines Del Maguey Mezcal Vida, Zirbenz (an Austrian liqueur with the scent of pine resin), the aforementioned Nux, Benedictine (the sweet/herbal French monastery cordial), a dash of The Bitter Truth's Xocolate Mole Bitters, and a spritz of orange oil. It's mahogany-toned, smoky from the single-village mezcal, and reveals layers and layers of herbal complexity, something different hitting the palate with every sip. I've never tasted anything like it. This is exactly what I come here for.

Where on earth did this place spring from? Its origins lie in manager John Gertsen's prior stint at Lynch's restaurant No. 9 Park on Beacon Hill, where he combined polished bartending skills with a subtle showman's hospitality. What really distinguished Gertsen's program at No. 9 was his nerdy technical obsessiveness: sourcing high-quality spirits, bitters, and other ingredients from around the world; always using fresh juices and produce from No. 9's larder; studying and relating cocktail history and origin stories; reviving 19th-century classics and creating new cocktails in their mold; fretting over tools and garnishes and glassware and ice. No. 9 took Boston's then-embryonic cocktail renaissance up another level, and did it in very tight quarters with just a handful of seats. When Lynch embarked on an ambitious three-venue expansion plan in Fort Point, she opened Drink to give Gertsen a bigger, shinier stage.

Misty asks my companion what she's thinking.

"Something fresh and springy, like a Mojito?"

Misty probes further: "How do you feel about genever?"

"Um, not sure?"

"Give this one a try," she says, and returns with a Bols Smash ($11): lemon, sugar, a lot of genever and fresh mint shaken together and strained over hand-crushed ice, garnished with another bouquet of impeccable mint. It's beautiful and refreshing, and the malty, almost-whiskeylike undertone of the genever adds a heft and balance that the typically over-sugared light-rum Mojito lacks.

Next round? "How about something with gin?", I venture.

Asks Misty, "Have you sampled Ransom Old Tom gin? You must try a Martinez with this stuff: it's from Oregon, and it's amazing."

The resulting Martinez ($11) is a mix of Ransom Old Tom, Cinzano Rosso vermouth, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, a dash of Jerry Thomas Decanter bitters, and a spritz of lemon oil. It's easy to see what Misty is excited about: this proto-Martini is much improved by the richer, dryer, barrel-aged Ransom.

Drink also serves punches, a specialty older even than Golden Age cocktails, one that few other Boston bars attempt. Most can be made to scale from two drinkers to much larger groups. One evening, Will Thompson concocts an unnamed punch for two ($24) that begins with lemon peels muddled with demerara sugar and macerated in tea. To this he adds Batavia Arrack, Jamaican and Barbadian rums, Cognac and fresh lemon juice. It's stirred with big, hand-carved chunks of ice in a lovely vintage bowl with a sterling ladle, finished with a flurry of fresh-grated nutmeg. It starts strong and delicious, gently mellowing over time, the ice cut large enough not to dilute it too quickly.

That highlights another detail that Drink sweats like no other Boston bar: ice. It sources 50-pound blocks from an ancient local icehouse, and makes Kold-Draft ice in crystal-clear, geometrically-perfect cubes. Bartenders wield antique ice tools to create a wide array of shapes and sizes carefully matched to the needs of each drink for cooling, texture, and dilution speed. It's a marvel to see a miniature blizzard of ice being planed off a giant block to make a mist, and startling to hear the thwack of a mallet on a Morris bag to produce ice with the texture of gravel.

Drink's no-set-menu philosophy aims to get drinkers out of their well-worn ruts, but I've noticed that some customers find it frustrating. They just want their usual, not a give-and-take to arrive at something unfamiliar. Vodka drinkers, beer lovers, and oenophiles are often flummoxed to learn that Drink offers them very few (and almost no familiar) options. I'm not certain why anyone would come here to pay $11 for a vodka and soda—it seems like going to a Chinese restaurant and ordering the hamburger —but Drink draws crowds of such drinkers on weekends, to the point where it must limit capacity, creating a queue on the sidewalk.

I guess they come for the cool vibe, not the chance to get into the spirit of the place. Quieter nights tend to attract more serious cocktail geeks, and that's when I encourage you to go. For although it has been joined since its opening by some fantastic places in the top tier, Drink remains the sine qua non of craft cocktails in Boston, the single best place to explore the near-infinite richness of the craft cocktail world. Having experienced it, you may never order another thoughtless Dirty Vodka "martini" ever again.

348 Congress Street, Boston, MA 02210-1236 (near A Street; map)
617-695-1806; drinkfortpoint.com