I hate to start off on a down note here, but to be perfectly honest, I’m not going to miss 2017.
Among the lowlights were an unplanned job change, my mom having a heart attack, and my dad suffering a stroke, the effects of which ultimately claimed his life. That’s to say nothing of a political climate that is ugly beyond words.
But if ever there’s a season to be hopeful, this is it. Despite the heartache and unease, I’ve found myself surprisingly in touch with the holiday spirit this year. Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for being in Boston when it’s humming with the sights, sounds, and flavors of December.
Or maybe it’s because I’ve spent a fair portion of the past two weeks quaffing down festive cocktails created by some of my favorite bartenders.
With that, it is my great pleasure to share with you my annual holiday post. As in years past, I’ve asked a handful of Boston-area bartenders to each come up with a special cocktail – something that captures the spicy aromas and flavors that make this the most wonderful time of the year.
So throw another yule log on the fire and add a splash of whiskey to your eggnog: this is the Sixth Annual Boston BarHopper Christmas Special.
The Smoke Shop
I’ve been to the Smoke Shop at least a half-dozen times since it opened. And with due respect to owner and pitmaster Andy Husbands, whose award-winning barbecue is second to none, I’ve only eaten there twice. Not because I don’t like the food, of course; but because the Smoke Shop is as much a destination for cocktails as it is for pulled pork and brisket.
With a remarkable whiskey selection at his disposal, beverage director Jordan McCusker leads a drink program that pays homage to the classics while offering up new cocktails that are as inventive as they are approachable.
Jordan’s holiday submission looks like eggnog but definitely doesn’t taste like it. The Cornbread Flip combines buttered bourbon, salted cornbread simple syrup (let that sink in for a minute), lemon, honey, a whole egg, and Angostura bitters.
More savory than its appearance would suggest, it’s a creamy drink with a surprising fruitiness up front. It’s unusual to sip a cocktail and say, “ah, I get notes of cornbread,” but there they are, with a buttery finish that gives this beauty a full, round flavor. “It’s the most Southern drink I’ve ever seen,” Jordan says, explaining both the cocktail’s seasonality as well as its fit with the Smoke Shop’s down-home ethos.
Whenever Jason Percival talks to me about one of the cocktails on Post 390’s menu, I come away with a healthy respect for the planning and ingenuity needed to maintain a beverage program that relies on seasonal ingredients.
Post 390 emphasizes locally sourced ingredients in its food menu, and Jason’s drinks are built with that same principle in mind. I am perpetually impressed by his ability to capture the flavors of New England’s seasons in every cocktail, even if it requires some obscure ingredients and a lot of legwork.
I was only vaguely aware of what a quince was when I recently visited Jason (it’s an apple/pear-like fruit that’s hard as a rock). For his cocktail, Jason baked a batch of quinces from Vermont and, along with torched cinnamon sticks, used them to infuse cognac. He then combined the infused cognac with Olorosso sherry, lemon, honey, and Peychaud’s bitters to create his Cinn-Quincial Order.
This is a wonderfully drinkable cocktail with a striking orange hue. The apple and cinnamon notes are soft and sweet, but with great depth from the cognac. A 20-year-old sherry adds some nuttiness, and the honey and lemon accentuate the drink’s sweetness and tartness.
The Cinn-Quincial Order is now on Post 390’s menu, so check it out while quinces remain in season.
For someone who lives nowhere near the South End’s Ink Block complex, I find myself becoming something of a regular at Lion’s Tail. The bar, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, is a comfortable spot with an exceptional beverage program (not to mention an outstanding burger). It’s easily worth the bus ride from Watertown, the trip on the red line, the 10-minute walk from the T, and the inevitable Lyft home.
For her holiday cocktail, Lion’s Tail assistant GM Jacki Schromm calls on the Italian traditions that her family embraces at Christmas. (She’s not actually Italian, but that’s a story for another day.) Her drink is built around her favorite holiday treat – pizzeles, the thin, Italian waffle cookies known for their distinctive anise flavor.
The Pizzelle Flip is a stunning cocktail that features Smith & Cross Jamaican rum, Swedish punsch, anise simple syrup, a whole egg, black walnut bitters, and a couple dashes of a cinnamon tincture. It’s garnished with a star anise and a pizzelle.
What a splendid drink. One sip transported me to Christmas Day at my cousins’ house, where my late uncle always used to make pizzelles. It’s elegantly presented but all about comfort – smooth and creamy, with nutty accents and just the right amount of sweetness.
And the pizzelle is more than just a playful garnish. The drink begins and ends with the cookie, as you catch its aroma with every sip, followed by mild anise notes in the cocktail. When your glass is empty, the pizzelle serves as a mini-dessert, its crunch a pleasant contrast to the drink’s silky texture.
Bully Boy Distillers
If Alex Koblan feels hamstrung in her ability to develop a cocktail program using only spirits made on site at Bully Boy Distillers, it doesn’t show. The drinks at Bully Boy’s beautiful tasting room, which opened this past April, are as dynamic and innovative as they are at any serious cocktail bar in Boston. Bully Boy’s growing line of spirits, coupled with a slew of house-made mixers, feature in highly original cocktails and clever takes on the classics.
With Christmas Stuffing, Alex summons the big flavors of the holiday dinners she had while growing up in an Italian household – lots of nuts and herbs, sweet-and-savory stuffing made with apple, sage, and pork, and rich aromas. At the center of her cocktail is a house-made roasted chestnut syrup with muddled apple and sage. She combines that with a tarragon simple syrup, lemon juice, Cynar, and Bully Boy Estate gin.
Alex said she wanted a drink that was “warm and toasty,” and I can’t think of a more apt way to describe this radiant cocktail. The sage jumps right out of the glass, both in the nose and on the palate. The chestnut syrup brings a warm nuttiness. With the gin’s botanicals, Christmas Stuffing is vibrant and perfectly balanced with sweet, bitter, and tart flavors.
And no holiday dinner, Italian or otherwise, would be complete without dessert. For her Torta de Noci, Alex made a walnut orgeat syrup that's delicious enough to drink it on its own. But she uses it in a dessert-worthy cocktail with Bully Boy Boston Rum, heavy cream, chocolate and orange bitters, and egg white, complete with a dusting of cinnamon and nutmeg.
Alex described this one as “pie in a glass,” so the name she ended up giving it – it’s Italian for walnut pie – is fitting. It’s a creamy, nutty flip that almost tastes like eggnog, but brighter. The blend of bitters recalls another distinctly Italian holiday treat – chocolate-covered oranges. At the end is a spicy sweetness, making for a drink that’s decadent as well as complex.
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I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to Jordan, Jason, Jacki, and Alex for making such incredible drinks and taking time to explain their approach. It’s been such a joy to spend time at their bars this year and to get better acquainted with them along the way.
This may be my final post of the year, so let me say that I hope your holidays are warm, safe, peaceful, and bright. And as always, thank you for reading.
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