Sometimes you walk by a bar, peer into its big, picture windows, and think “Oooh, that place looks cool; I should check it out sometime.”
You will never have this experience with Somerville’s Backbar.
Backbar isn’t the sort of establishment one simply happens upon. Even if you’re looking for it, finding Backbar can be a little tricky. You arrive at the address, which is down an alley-like side street in Union Square. The entrance is almost completely unmarked, save for a small, plain sign; if it were any subtler, the owners would have jotted “Backbar” down on a Post-it note and stuck it on the door.
So you spend a minute or two looking around, perplexed, wondering whether you’re in the right place. Finally you pull open the unmarked door, hoping nobody yells “hey dumbass, that’s the service entrance, go around front!”
You then walk down a long, featureless hallway that gives you the impression you’re heading to the HVAC room of an industrial building. At the end of the hallway is a heavy, steel door with a helpfully illuminated “Backbar” sign, so at least you know you’re headed the right way. Still, the door offers no clues as to what lies beyond. Is the place busy? Is it even open? Is it a room full of plumbing and heating equipment?
Rest assured, there is indeed a bar on the other side. But while the interior isn’t nearly as drab as the entrance, it’s not exactly like stepping into Oz, either. Beyond the door is a small, sparsely appointed room with concrete flooring and walls. There’s a small bar with a black surface and eight chairs. Long sectional couches with thin, gray cushions and red pillows surround plain iron tables anchored by blocks of wood.
There are no windows; the only natural light comes in from the glass panels on the ceiling above the bar, and they’re partially painted over. Caged lights hanging from angular metal fixtures add to the industrial effect.
Some cool artwork on the walls and a huge black-and-white mural make the space feel a bit like one of those buildings in South Boston that house art studios.
Honestly, part of me was expecting the owner of the building to storm in, discover that someone had set up a bar in the basement of his property, and say “What the hell is going on in here?”
All told, it’s is a decidedly modest setting for one of the very best cocktail lounges in the Boston area. And whether its minimalism is by design or dictated by the existing space, the scant décor keeps your focus right where it should be – on the drinks.
Backbar’s been concocting some of the finest cocktails in the city since December 2011. I finally got to sample their wares a couple of weeks ago with my sister, Kelly. We arrived early on a Saturday evening, before the small room got packed, and grabbed a couple of seats at the bar. We were treated to a complimentary bowl of Backbar’s signature spicy caramel popcorn, which we promptly devoured while perusing the drink list.
Backbar displays creativity and agility with a cocktail menu that offers modern renderings of lost classics, original creations, and a few rotating specials: a drink of the day, a drink of the week, and a milk punch (!) of the season. And if you’re feeling a little adventurous, there’s the “bartender’s choice” – tell them your spirit and fruit of choice, and they’ll whip up something special just for you.
Our guide for the evening was Joe, a soft-spoken mixologist who, despite making complex drinks for a gradually swelling crowd, managed to find time to explain the composition of each cocktail and offer suggestions if we needed them. Behind him was a collection of potted plants and herbs, from which he’d occasionally pluck leaves for muddling or garnishing drinks. Fresh ingredients are essential to craft cocktails, and it doesn’t get much fresher than that.
Kelly inquired about the drink of the week, which turned out to be something called the Dino’s Downfall. An update of a cocktail known as the Missionary’s Downfall, it was made with pineapple-infused rum, apricot-infused brandy, lime juice, and mint syrup, and gets its “Dino” moniker from the enormous mint leaf used as a garnish. It was a pleasantly fruity drink, tempered by the brandy, with an overall sense of freshness from the mint.
I began with the Barrel-Aged Palmetto. A comparatively simpler drink, Backbar calls this mix of white rum, vermouth, and bitters “a rich, old, rum Manhattan.” Served in a chilled glass, it made for a cool, slow-sippin’ start to the evening.
With Round 1 in the books, Kelly turned next to one of Backbar’s “modern inspirations” – the Pavlovian Response. This mix of Bison Grass vodka, fresh lemon, caraway-infused honey, and muddled Russian sage made for a fresh, herbal cocktail that was most certainly worth drooling over (Pavlov would approve). The caraway contributed an anise-like bitterness that was nicely balanced by the sweet honey. The glass was beautifully garnished with flowers of the Russian sage plant, which added a pleasant, lavender-like aroma.
My next move was the milk punch. Now there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of milk punch before, and an even better chance that you just read those words and said “GROSS” to yourself. I only became aware of it when a mixologist-pal of mine posted a fairly detailed milk punch tutorial on her Instagram account. I’ve been curious about it ever since.
It’s an odd drink, and an old one – there are even recipes proffered by the likes of Ben Franklin. In a nutshell, you make milk punch by heating milk until it curdles and then combining it with liquor and spices; after straining the curds, the resulting mixture barely resembles milk.
While milk punch is enjoying a resurgence among the local cocktail cognoscenti, it’s still a fairly obscure drink…so of course Backbar not only has one on the menu, but even has a rotating milk punch of the season.
Despite all this buildup, I didn’t really love the milk punch. Made with cherry-orange shrubb, bourbon, and lemon juice, it certainly had some bold flavors. But I found it a little too sour for my liking, probably on account of the vinegary shrubb. I’ll give it another shot, though. And since Joe told me the milk punch “of the season” is really more like a milk punch “of the month,” given how quickly they go through the stuff, I’ll soon have another chance.
Now that we were a couple of drinks in, Kelly and I were ready for something a little more substantive than our long-since-exhausted bowl of popcorn. Backbar’s food menu is a lot like the bar’s décor – minimal. No entrees or sandwiches here, just a few snacks, small plates, and some platters, like charcuterie.
The servings are enough to sustain you on your cocktail journey, but they won’t necessarily fill you up. Kelly and I split two small plates. First up was the “Pig & Fig” jam, made with pureed figs and bacon, served with crispy, house-made crackers. The earthy sweetness of the fig paired well with the smoky awesomeness of the bacon, and the seasoned crackers contributed a savory touch.
We followed that with Pork Buns – tender pork belly, topped with daikon slaw (made from a type of Asian radish), wrapped in a soft, doughy, steamed bun. It’s the sort of dish that’s hard to ask for without giggling, but it’s worth it. Sweet, smoky, and spicy, these babies were phenomenal.
Finally it was on to the last round of the evening, and needless to say, we both opted for the bartender’s choice. Joe dutifully inquired about our respective liquors of choice and any types of fruit we favored (or reviled). Kelly expressed a fondness for St. Germaine cocktails, and Joe made her a drink called A Whole New Word – a mix of St. Germaine and jasmine tea-infused gin, served in a chilled glass. (There’s a reason why it was a called Whole New Word instead of Whole New World, but I forget what it was.) Neither Kelly nor I have ever been big fans of tea-infused cocktails; personally, I feel like the tea often dominates the other ingredients. But this was perfectly blended – the tea flavor was delicately balanced with the St. Germaine and the gin.
I told Joe that I’m traditionally a whiskey guy but have been on a rum kick as of late. I didn’t have a strong preference in this case, but I trusted his judgment. He gave it a little thought, cracked some ice, and started mixing and vigorously shaking the mystery ingredients. Then, much to my delight, he retrieved one of the funky ceramic parrots I’d been eyeing all night and presented me with a drink called the Jungle Bird.
This classic Tiki drink combined Jamaican rum, Campari, pineapple juice, lime juice, and sugar. The natural sweetness of the rum and the fruit juices was kept in check by the bitterness of the Campari, making for a refreshing, well-balanced drink. For me, the Jungle Bird was the high point of the night. Then again, anything served in that colorful, bird-shaped cup would have made me pretty happy.
As Stephanie Schorow describes in her excellent book Drinking Boston, the local craft cocktail movement didn’t begin in a big, fancy bar in the middle of the city. It started at the now-defunct B-Side Lounge in Cambridge; and before that, in the apartments of a circle of friends who experimented with classic recipes, updated them with the freshest ingredients, and sampled and refined their work until they got it just right.
Nowadays, nearly every bar in the city has a “craft cocktail” menu. And that’s to say nothing of the sleek new cocktail lounges that have opened in recent years, some of which are long on style but short on substance.
In that sense, Backbar recalls those early, formative days of modern craft cocktails, when the whole thing was a smaller, more personal affair. New bars keep increasing in size and grandeur, yet Backbar maintains a humble, unassuming atmosphere. And in an age of relentless marketing and promotion, Backbar is more of a word-of-mouth kind of place. I find this deeply refreshing.
People’s willingness to seek out places like Backbar tells me that whether you run the fanciest bar in Boston or one built in unused basement space, what matters most is the quality of the drinks and the skill of the people making them. There’s no gimmickry here – just an appreciation, shared by staff and discerning patrons, for top-notch, innovative drinks.
Our cocktails were all $10 or $11, which is pretty typical. The Pig & Fig jam was $4, and the Pork Buns (hee hee) were $8; pretty reasonable. You can get a full order of the spicy popcorn for $3 ($8 if you want to add bacon), and the platters, if you’re sharing with a few people, range from $15 to $18. Most enticingly, there are house-made ice cream sandwiches for dessert; regrettably, we passed on those.
Like the ingredients kept behind the bar, the drink list stays very fresh. Even the non-rotating options have changed since I was there, and that was just a couple of weeks ago. But if you have your heart set on drink that isn’t on the list, I’m sure someone can whip it up for you anyway. After all, Backbar is one of those rare establishments where the people behind the bar seem as excited about making cocktails as you are to drink them.
Address: 7 Sanborn Court, Union Square, Somerville
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