On the heels of my cocktail adventures at Scholars, I figured my next post should focus on something a little more run-of-the-mill. A simple bar where I could have a few beers, split a couple of appetizers with my wife Melissa, and call it a night. But our first destination was too crowded to allow for good pictures, and let’s just say the service didn’t inspire us to wait until the Friday after-work crowd died down. So we hopped on over to Marliave for what turned out to be a surprisingly fun and interesting evening – resulting in another cocktail-heavy post. My previous two trips to Marliave had been a mixed bag. While I liked the bar and loved their concept – serving Prohibition-era cocktails – my experiences there had been a little inconsistent.
But my third visit was like a cool, smooth chaser, quickly taking the sting out of the prior bitterness and leaving me with a new appreciation for this fairly unique bar.
Similar perhaps to the era it endeavors to recapture, Marliave is tucked away at the end of an alley in Downtown Crossing. It was originally opened in 1885, and while it hasn’t been in continuous operation since then, the modern version stays true to its late 19th century roots. The exterior is elegant but simple: a black and white façade with wrought-iron accents, gold lettering, and a classic hanging sign.
The interior is upscale yet understated – a low-lit black and white décor, nothing to grab your attention except the glorious collection of liquor bottles. The long, marble bar hearkens back to a time when going out for cocktails was the centerpiece of a very special evening.
There’s a surprising amount of space for what feels like an intimate environment. Marliave has two floors, each with its own bar, and a separate dining room upstairs. The upstairs area was full when Mel and I arrived at 7:15, but we managed to find two seats at the downstairs bar.
I’ve never eaten at Marliave, and since I’d filled up on appetizers at the previous establishment, I didn’t sample the culinary offerings on this visit (for what it’s worth, I’ve heard the food is excellent). Not surprisingly, though, the cocktails are the main event. The drinks are inventive but largely built on the traditional liquors you’d expect to find in the 1920s – whiskey and gin.
As I would at any establishment that has a menu devoted to specialty cocktails, I debated my options for a good 10 minutes. I finally settled on the Ulysses S. Grant. It’s Svedka vodka, Plymouth sloe gin, cranberry juice, seltzer, and lemon. It sounded like a solid, classic, old-fashioned drink. Unfortunately, it looked like this:
Yes, I know what you’re thinking…pink lemonade. Frankly, that’s what it tasted like, too. You know who would never drink this? Ulysses S. Grant. Don’t get me wrong – it was delightful, but my enjoyment of it came at the expense of ribbing from Melissa (thankfully, our other friends hadn’t arrived yet).
While I casually sipped my sophisticated cocktail (read: quickly sucked down my girly looking drink to quell the teasing), Mel and I noticed a small cask behind the bar. As we debated whether it was merely decorative or actually contained something, the bartender told us that inside was 6-week oak-barrel-aged Old Overholt Rye for use in their Manhattans – which, once the choir of angels in my head concluded their divine song, I ordered.
Marliave’s version of the Manhattan is called the Jennie Churchill, named after the mother of Winston. (Legend has it that Ms. Churchill created the Manhattan cocktail, but there’s some dispute to that. Regardless, it makes for a good story.) Combined with the oak-aged rye is Vya sweet vermouth, house-made (yeah, you read that right) cinnamon bitters, and cherries imported from Italy.
Please…I need a minute.
The Manhattan is my favorite cocktail, and I think the best ones are the most traditional, with no extra ingredients or variations. Marliave honors that tradition, the only departure being the cinnamon bitters; they weren’t overpowering, but were enough to distinguish the Jennie Churchill from other versions. And the imported cherries? Molto Bene! How I’ll ever go back to just a plain ol’ Maraschino cherry, I don’t know. I am forever spoiled.
Melissa was especially intrigued by the cherries and was clearly angling to have mine once I’d drained my Manhattan. Being the ever gracious husband, I…offered to split it with her. Fortunately, my half-hearted attempt at generosity was not lost on the bartender, who settled the issue by giving us these:
It was at about this point that I realized how astute and talented our bartender, Brian, was. While Melissa was contemplating her next order, Brian suggested the bar’s most popular cocktail: the Tres Curieux, made with Hendrick’s gin, St. Germaine, lime, grapefruit, Prosecco, and a cucumber garnish. Mel was unmoved by its apparent popularity, so Brian made her a sample. You know, it’s not uncommon to see beer samples handed out; but a cocktail sample? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that. I mean, that requires some work!
The sample, of course, made Mel feel obligated inclined to order the full cocktail…which was exquisite. I’m a recent convert to Hendrick’s gin; it paired perfectly with the fruit and the Prosecco for a strong drink with natural sweetness. The cucumber garnish added a burst of freshness.
With Mel all set for the next half hour or so, it was time for my next choice. I probably could’ve stayed with those Manhattans for the rest of the night, but with so many other intriguing options on the menu, and a bartender who was clearly devoted to the art of the cocktail, I felt there were new frontiers to explore.
Thus, after more careful consideration, I went with the Waterloo – Bombay gin, Champagne, and lemon. The dryness of the gin, the bubbles from the Champagne, a subtle contribution from the twist of lemon peel…pure alcoholic bliss. Of course, I was again derided for having a girly looking drink.
Maybe it was the cocktails, maybe it was the thinning post-work crowd, but at this point the evening turned decidedly social. All night we’d been sitting next to a guy who appeared to be a regular, given his rapport with Brian. Our neighbor’s name was George, who, as fate would have it, went to Suffolk University and now teaches in its English department. Since I’m also a Suffolk English department alumni, we hit it off pretty quickly.
George is indeed a regular at Marliave, and once he learned about my little project, he was only too happy to expound upon some of the bar’s lesser-known features. For example, at one point he said, “Hey, want to see something cool for your blog?” and asked the bartender for “a Coke with no glass.” My first thought was that Brian and George had worked out a routine whereby Brian would take the hose for the Coke fountain and fire the contents directly into George’s mouth from the other side of the bar. In fact, they were merely demonstrating that Marliave uses old-fashioned Coke bottles in order to stick with their classic theme (this is a pretty neat detail on Marliave’s part, eschewing fountain drinks for glass bottles; but I confess I was slightly disappointed at not seeing the hose trick I’d envisioned).
Catching up on Suffolk times, engaging in enlightened conversation, learning more about Marliave – this was all great, but George’s best contribution to the night was his knowledge of off-the-menu drink specialties. He implored me to ask Brian for a “smash.” This is Marliave’s version of a whiskey smash, with, as I understand it, Brian’s and George’s customizations. It’s made with Blanton’s single-barrel bourbon, lemon juice, water, agave syrup, with muddled mint leaves and another of those delectable cherries.
This baby was a work of art (and very manly looking).
But George wasn’t the only one to impart some knowledge of craft cocktails. Shortly thereafter, I heard the woman next to me ask Brian whether he could make a Moscow Mule. He responded in the affirmative, of course. You don’t exactly need a Ph.D. in mixology to stir up ginger beer, vodka, and a lime. But then she threw him a curveball – “Do you guys serve real Moscow Mules?” I missed the rest of the exchange, but it was clear that Marliave couldn’t satisfy her request.
I was intrigued by what constituted a real Moscow Mule. She told me that in Lebanon, where she’s from, the drink isn’t made with ginger beer – it’s done with muddled ginger, combined with orange juice or soda, a cucumber, and of course, vodka. If I was accustomed to drinking that version, I too would sneer at the more common ginger beer imposter. She mentioned that this version of the cocktail is pretty much impossible to find around here (which is kind of weird; it certainly isn’t hard to get your hands on fresh ginger). To his credit, Brian said that although he was lacking the key ingredient, he’d look into getting it.
Resigned to not having her authentic Moscow Mule, my new friend was stuck on the menu and couldn’t decide what to get. I recommended she start with the Tres Curieux. She was on the fence, but I told her that it was so good, if she got it and wasn’t completely satisfied, she could put it on my tab. She got it and, of course…loved it.
It was around this time that our friends Mario and Scott showed up and joined the festivities (which were pretty festive at that point). It was around 10:15, Motown music was filling the room, and there were only about 10 people at the downstairs bar (upstairs was full, though). Mel, me, and the girl from Lebanon persuaded Mario to get a Tres Curieux, which he did.
Mario has a knack for getting into conversations with most bartenders, so it wasn’t long before he was chatting with the amiable Brian. They talked about Mojitos – specifically, the proper amount of mint to include.
Mario was soon drinking one and declared that it was one of the best in Boston. And dear readers, Mario hails from Puerto Rico – home of the Bacardi distillery, and where they know a thing or two about Mojitos.
The night started winding down around 11, and the bar was pretty quiet at this point. I rounded out my night with a beer. Marliave doesn’t have any beer on draft; however, they have a small but respectable selection of bottled beer. I went with a Konig Pilsner – a light, crisp conclusion to the evening.
Mel closed out her night with a Jennie Churchill, and Brian thoughtfully included two cherries. Does it get any better?
Marliave takes its Prohibition-era cocktails seriously. It’s clear that some hard work went into these recipes, even the simplest ones; you can get a great Manhattan anywhere, but try finding a bar that makes its own bitters and imports cherries from Italy. Being served by a bartender who knows his stuff and clearly enjoys the process of mixing an exceptional drink makes a huge difference.
Marliave isn’t the sort of place you’d go for a few beers. Some might consider it more of a “special occasion” bar. And the drinks aren’t cheap, though at $10, they’re about what you’d pay for craft cocktails anywhere in Boston. But with thoughtful drink recipes and bartenders skilled enough to execute them, each Marliave cocktail feels like a special occasion unto itself.
Address: 10 Bosworth Street, Boston