Savvor – Bartender Battle

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When Savvor opened its doors in Boston’s Leather District last February, I remember being curious about how well it would do. The neighborhood it calls home is a little quirky in terms of Boston geography, and opening any business in the middle of a brutal New England winter comes with its share of challenges. But Savvor seems to be cruising right along as it approaches its first anniversary. Their unique menu of Caribbean-infused soul food caught the attention of the Phantom Gourmet, which featured Savvor on its TV show in December. And I’m told the place gets packed on weekend nights, when a band sets up in the center of Savvor’s wide open bar area.

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What shouldn’t be overlooked amid the growing fanfare for Savvor’s food menu and music nights is that they’ve got a pretty cool cocktail program, too. When I first visited Savvor last year, I was impressed with their selection of classic drinks and original concoctions, their spectacular rum collection, and their genuine enthusiasm for mixology. And I recall owner Eddy Firmin telling me that the space was designed to enhance the cocktail experience – two separate bars minimize wait time, and customers can get up close to the bartenders, watch their drinks being made, and talk about the ingredients.

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Savvor seems intent on getting their cocktails a share of the spotlight, and to that end, they hosted a “bartender battle” last month in which three of their bartenders presented original recipes for a crowd of regular customers, who then got to vote on their favorites. Each bartender contributed three drink recipes, for nine cocktails in total, and attendees got to vote for up to four, with the top vote-getters being added to Savvor’s winter menu.

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The field of candidates was creative and diverse, with drinks ranging from strong, dark, and bitter to light, sweet, and fruity. Since the prize was a spot on the winter menu, I tended to vote for drinks that would be particularly suitable on a cold night – whiskey, brandy, other hearty spirits. It was only later that I saw the flaw in my reasoning: Savvor’s food menu is influenced by the Caribbean and the South. Places where the winters are warm. Oops.

Bartender Terral Ainooson’s entries appealed to a range of tastes. The Life Savvor contained just about every flavor you’d find in a roll of the ring-shaped candy that inspired the name. Combining gin, St. Germain, Amaro, pineapple, cranberry, grapefruit, and lime, it balanced sweet, tart, and herbal flavors in a fruity but complex drink.

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The Hennessey Royale captured some of the more traditional flavors of winter. Combining Hennessey cognac, St. Germain, and amaretto, it had warm notes of oak and almond. I found it a little too amaretto-forward, though it would probably warm you up on a cold night.

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But it was the Dark Shot that got my first vote of the evening. Mixing tequila, Averna, and Aperol, it was a bitter, spicy cocktail with the warm, distinctive bite of tequila. Terral later made me a version with mezcal instead of tequila, and that was even better.

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If there were an award for most provocative drink names, bartender Colin Hayes would have won it going away. The Mexican Wet Dream was a variation of a Sex on the Beach, made with Patron Silver tequila, amaretto, pineapple, simple syrup, orange juice, and cranberry juice.

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The Mexican Wet Dream was a little too sweet for my taste, but the Cucumber Sucker countered with a blast of sourness. Combining cucumber vodka, Liqueur de Rose, grapefruit, and sours, this one was cool, dry, and – you guessed it – sour.

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With a name like “Machine Gun Preacher,” Colin’s third cocktail was one of the most talked-about candidates of the night. This mix of Bulleit bourbon, Grand Marnier, Aperol, and bitters tasted like a classic Manhattan, but with some orange notes from the Grand Marnier. It won my second vote of the night.

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Rob Conklin is Savvor’s head bartender, and his three drinks packed some of the evening’s biggest surprises. I was expecting something kind of lightweight with his Spiced Cranberry Mojito, but unlike the cool sweetness of a traditional mojito, it was tart and spicy. A spicy simple syrup brought some unexpected heat to this mix of rum, mint, cranberry puree, and soda.

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I don’t know if there’s an old saying about not judging a drink by its color, but if there is, the Barley Martini embodies it. This one resembled your standard martini, but with Bruichladdich Scottish Barley whisky and gin, it tasted like anything but.

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The key ingredient here was the whisky, a white single malt made entirely with Scottish barley. The flavor was as distinctive as the unusual bottle, and it made for a crisp, utterly unique cocktail with a hint of sweetness.

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The Afternoon Delight served as a sweet complement to the spicy mojito and the bold whisky martini. Made with cachaça, grenadine, pineapple, and lemon juice, I was told that this fruity drink was named after a couple that was “getting a little frisky” one night at Savvor.

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The Barley Martini and Spicy Cranberry Mojito got my final votes of the evening, and not long after that, the scores were tallied. Drum roll please…

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Rob’s Barley Martini achieved honorable mention, and Colin’s Cucumber Sucker and Machine Gun Preacher came in third and second place, respectively.

Taking home the top honors? Terral’s Life Savvor. While it struck me as more of a warm-weather libation (see my aforementioned flawed voting criteria), there’s no denying the broad appeal of this complex but easy-drinking cocktail. It had a little bit of everything – a botanical-floral flavor from the gin and St. Germain, herbal notes from the Amaro, and a blend of sweet and tart fruit juices. Not to mention a catchy name that stirs up a little nostalgia and invokes the restaurant’s moniker.

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Best of all, the evening put into action the idea of focusing on the cocktail experience, which I’d discussed with Savvor’s owner last year. The event drew a crowd that was excited about cocktails, and I talked with plenty of people who put a lot of thought into their votes. And all three bartenders seemed genuinely excited to talk the inspiration for, and composition of, their concoctions.

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Overall, it was an evening of shared appreciation for quality drinks, and with the winning cocktails now being available on the menu, it held a sense of purpose that extended beyond the event itself.

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