Thirst Boston 2016 – Day 1

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I’m not exactly sure what to call Thirst Boston – a festival? a cocktail conference? a hospitality convention? – but I know it’s an event this city needs and deserves. This weekend-long gathering of local bartenders, regional distillers, and national brand ambassadors, held primarily at the Boston Center for Adult Education, is an opportunity to exchange knowledge and revel in New England’s ever-evolving bar and distilling culture. Now in its third year, Thirst Boston attracts an array of professionals and enthusiasts who share a passion for cocktails and spirits – and who recognize what a unique era of innovation we’ve been enjoying. For some, it’s a networking event. For others, it’s an opportunity for education. And if you’re just there to drink? Well, you’re probably not alone.

The festivities began last Friday with “The Thing,” a black-tie gala featuring cocktails poured by some of Boston’s top bartenders, and concluded with a series of industry-focused sessions on Monday. Scheduling conflicts prevented me from partaking in those activities (along with Sunday night’s “Blender Bender,” which it pained me to miss), but I made it to a number of seminars on Saturday and Sunday. Today we’ll take a look back at Saturday’s events, and I’ll have a follow-up in another day or so focusing on Sunday.

Day 1

Cognac: Brandy of the Gods

Cognac hasn’t enjoyed the same surge of popularity that some other spirits have. Maybe it’s because when most people think of cognac, they envision a wealthy, silver-haired gentleman clad in a smoking jacket, relaxing in his private library, drinking it from a snifter while puffing on a pipe. OK, maybe not exactly that, but still – there’s a mystique surrounding cognac. Nothing about it seems approachable.

This seminar, led by Drink GM Ezra Star, aimed to soften that image. Bringing representatives from several leading brands of cognac, the session served to demystify the spirit and explain cryptic designations like XO and VSOP. Under their guidance, all it took was a few samples to understand that cognac is elegant and complex, but not stuffy.

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Craft Cider: From Orchard to Glass

If you’re a craft cider fan in the Boston area, you’re probably drinking Downeast and/or Bantam. (And if you’re drinking that appalling mockery of a cider made by Boston Beer Company, then you really should have attended this class.) Those are top-notch ciders, but this seminar demonstrated the breadth and diversity the cider category. Sponsored by Eden Specialty Ciders and Shacksbury Cider, both of Vermont, the seminar touched on every aspect of what makes hard cider special and unique – the types of apples used, the regions they’re grown in, the way they’re stored.

One of the standouts was a Shacksbury cider aged in a Whistle Pig bourbon barrel. It’s a wonderfully smooth cider that took 3 years of tinkering to perfect. Another was Eden’s Orleans aperitif cider. This brightly herbal, slightly bitter cider can be sipped or used as a cocktail ingredient.

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East Coast to West Coast: An Exploration of Gin

One of the drivers of our exceptional cocktail scene is the growing number of craft distillers, each offering fresh interpretations of traditional spirits. This session paired GrandTen, Bully Boy, and Vermont’s Silo Distillery with West Coast-ers Anchor, Aviation, and St. George for an engaging panel discussion about gin.

I’ve listened to GrandTen head distiller Spencer McMinn talk about his company’s spirits on many an occasion. But one thing I never knew is that GTD’s Wire Works gin has some family history behind it. Spencer’s late grandfather drank gin and tonics until the day he died. Wire Works gin was GrandTen’s first product, and while that was partly a marketing decision (quicker to shelves because it the spirit doesn’t require aging), it was a personal decision as well.

Gin is also personal for Bully Boy Distillers. Will and Dave Willis have been liquor enthusiasts since finding a stash of Prohibition-era booze on their family’s Sherborn farm. Today they still grow ingredients on that farm for use in their products. Their Estate gin has only been available for a couple of weeks, but it’s been in the works since last year. I only had a few sips, but I’d say it’s worth the wait.

And with respect to my East Coast friends, I was thrilled to learn more about one of my longtime favorite gins – Terroir gin by St. George Spirits, from Alameda, California. This is a truly unique gin. As brand ambassador Kevin Fethe explained, the distiller’s goal was to create “a forest in a bottle.” I can think of no better way to describe it.

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14th State Pop-Up Bar, Sponsored by Mad River Distillers

Learning about booze is hard work, but Thirst offers a variety of diversions in between those grueling classroom sessions. Mad River Distillers was on hand with samples of their craft whiskies and rums. The Vermont distillery’s Revolution rye is a standout, as is their Maple Cask rum. They also have a bear who likes whiskey (though I imagine most bears do).

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New England Craft Showcase

If Thirst is a celebration of Boston’s cocktail culture, the New England Craft Showcase is a testament to the growing availability of regional spirits, beers, and ciders. We’re spoiled in Boston alone, but this showcase is a chance to become familiar other distillers and brewers in Massachusetts as well as from Vermont and Rhode Island.  This has become one of my favorite parts of the whole event. It’s a pleasure to be able to talk to people who have devoted their livelihoods to creating spirits, and to have so many exceptional brands in one room truly demonstrates the evolution of this industry in New England.

Stay tuned for a look at Day 2!

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