Tanqueray Bloomsbury

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If you’re a gin drinker, this is a good time to be alive. Not only has the herbal spirit enjoyed a global surge in popularity in recent years, but the advent of craft distilling has introduced a stunning array of small-batch gins to the market. With so many products to choose from, it’s almost hard to remember the time when our choices were limited to just a handful of major labels. Of course, those long-established brands still dominate the market, unthreatened by the multitude of tiny upstarts. But some of the big guys seem to have taken notice of gin drinkers’ evolving tastes. Gordon’s gin, one of the oldest gins in the world and still the best selling, in recent years introduced a cucumber gin and an elderflower gin. Another titan, Beefeater, began offering a barrel-aged gin a couple of years ago.

And then there’s Tanqueray – the sexiest of traditional London dry gins and the subject of this week’s post.

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With roots dating back to the early 19th century, Tanqueray is among the oldest and most renowned gin brands on the planet. I’ve always found it to be the most alluring, as well. Something about that iconic green bottle, with its waxy red seal, commands respect as it evokes a sense of mystery.

As timeless as Tanqueray London Dry may be, the brand remains open to a little experimentation. The venerable distiller has debuted a series of limited-release gins in the past few years, beginning with Tanqueray Malacca, a spiced gin, in 2013. Tanqueray Old Tom followed a year later. And just last month, the gin distiller unveiled its newest variation – Tanqueray Bloomsbury.

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It’s not quite accurate to call Bloomsbury “new.” The gin draws its inspiration from a recipe by Charles Waugh Tanqueray, son of founder Charles Tanqueray, that dates back to 1880. The name derives from Bloomsbury, England, the London district that the Tanqueray distillery once called home. Whereas Tanqueray’s London Dry employs four botanicals in its recipe, Bloomsbury uses five – a special “Tuscan juniper,” angelica, coriander, winter savoury, and cassia bark.

Before I tried the new variation, several people remarked to me that Tanqueray Bloomsbury is “very juniper-forward” – a characterization I found somewhat amusing. The juniper berry is what gives gin its distinctive, pine-like flavor, and that quality is prominent in all English gins. So describing Bloomsbury as “juniper forward” seems kind of like describing a steak sandwich as “meat forward.” But I got a chance to try it out for myself this past week, when brand ambassador Rachel Ford – affectionately known as Lady Tanqueray – stopped by the Sinclair in Harvard Square to show off the Bloomsbury and demonstrate its versatility in cocktails.

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The event was marked by the elegance you might expect of such a classic English brand – candles and bouquets of flowers adorned the tables at the Sinclair, and soft lighting set the mood for sipping gin and indulging in easy conversation. The featured spirit was available for sampling, and given the way the Bloomsbury was described to me, I was expecting an intense blast of juniper. Yet I found it to be surprisingly soft and wonderfully floral. It’s definitely juniper-forward, but the botanicals are well balanced, with notes of spice and, less prominently, licorice. It differs noticeably from the London Dry but clearly remains within the Tanqueray family in terms of style and overall flavor profile.

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With that established, it was time to see how the Bloomsbury fared in cocktails. And why not start with the most iconic of gin drinks? The Bloomsbury Martini featured the specialty gin, dry vermouth, and your choice of olive or lemon (mine is always the latter). This traditional cocktail truly showcased the Bloomsbury, with vibrant notes of juniper and just enough dryness to make it a bracing, slow-sipping drink.

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The Satisfaction lived up to its name. This bold cocktail combined Bloomsbury, cranberry, cucumber, ginger liqueur, and lime. It was an impressive mix of flavors that were expertly balanced, making for a smooth, refreshing drink.

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The Ramble On, meanwhile, was simpler in composition but surprisingly complex in its flavor. A mix of Bloomsbury, Becherovka, agave, and lemon, a prominent cinnamon flavor accompanied the floral notes of the gin in this sour drink.

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Tanqueray has been making gin for nearly two centuries and remains a market leader to this day. The brand has no need to reinvent itself. But as the gin market gets more crowded and new voices join the conversation, Tanqueray’s occasional product diversification is a way to engage new audiences and capitalize on our evolving definition of what constitutes an outstanding gin. And by revisiting one of its own recipes instead of chasing the latest trends, Tanqueray demonstrates that its brand can be traditional and dynamic at the same time.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Committee

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A funny thing happened to me the last time I was at Committee. I ran into a friend of mine who was there having drinks, and as we were catching up, he said “So, this is your new spot, huh?” Well…not exactly. I’ve only been to Committee twice. But I can see how an observer might think I’m there on a weekly basis. This is, after all, the third time I’ve written about the Greek and Mediterranean restaurant since it opened two months ago. First there was the cocktail pop-up at the Baldwin Bar at Sichuan Garden in Woburn, which offered a preview of Committee’s innovative beverage program. Then there was the grand opening party with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. So yeah, I’ve become pretty familiar with the place. But it’s not like anyone yells “Opa!” when I walk in (as awesome as that would be).

Which is not to say that I wouldn’t be fully content to be a regular here.

Gergely Szabo whips up a couple of Blood Orange Old Fashioneds.

Gergely Szabo whips up a couple of Blood Orange Old Fashioneds.

Committee opened in the Seaport in June, filling a surprising gap in the Boston restaurant world: while plenty of establishments offer top-notch Greek and Mediterranean cuisine, very few do so in such a contemporary setting with a highly original cocktail program.

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Situated on the bottom floor of the Vertex building in the thriving Innovation District, Committee is spacious and open, with concrete floors, an exposed ceiling, and floor-to-ceiling windows that let in ample light on a sunny afternoon. Flower boxes and candlelight further soften the industrial look.

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And the restaurant is clearly designed for conversation. Guests congregate around long, communal tables that occupy the center of the room, while smaller, more intimate tables line the perimeter. Comfortable leather couches and chairs constitute something of a small den by the front of the restaurant, overlooking the street.

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Then there’s the expansive, three-sided bar where beverage director Peter Szigeti and his cohorts bring their European influence to a cocktail program that’s both imaginative and approachable.

The crowded bar and full tables give Committee a lively, jovial atmosphere, and that’s exactly what general manager Demetri Tsolakis wants. “Committee is all about bringing people together,” he says of his young restaurant. “We chose the name ‘Committee’ because, similar to the way a court committee unites to make a decision, people gather here to savor, pass, and sip together.”

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I’ve done my share of sipping at Committee. But on my most recent visit, I was finally able to get acquainted with the food. Committee’s menu comprises meze-style small plates designed for sharing. Among the warm and cold options are plenty of beloved staples of Greek and Mediterranean cuisine, like grape leaf dolmades – a savory blend of rice, pine nuts, and spices wrapped in soft grape leaves.

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Moussaka is another Mediterranean classic, a layered dish typically made with eggplant and ground meat. Committee’s version skips the meat and swaps out eggplant for artichoke, adding caramelized onions, potato, and a three-cheese béchamel sauce. The flavors in this delicious, lasagna-like dish are beautifully balanced – the artichoke isn’t overpowering, the cheese is rich but not heavy, and the spices contribute a peppery essence. A must-order.

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Then there’s olive salad, which I suppose is good if you like olives. I do not. Moving on.

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If you’re not terribly well versed in Mediterranean cuisine (like myself), you might find a few unfamiliar items on the menu. But the staff are all pretty helpful. Our server, Max, was happy to decipher whenever necessary, as with the Piperia Gemisti – a large, roasted red pepper with tyrokafteri, a warm, spicy dip made of yogurt and whipped feta, oozing out of the top.

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Keftedakia are Greek-style meatballs served with tzatziki. These bad boys are wonderfully spiced and fall-apart tender.

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Max was also happy to offer suggestions, and I deferred to his judgment when he recommended the grilled octopus. As much as I enjoy octopus, I admit I get skeeved out by seeing their suckers. But it’s worth getting past a little weirdness, because this is an exceptional dish – crispy on the outside, not squishy on the inside, and served with caper berries on a bed of fennel slaw.

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Between revered Mediterranean classics and culinary curveballs, Committee’s menu lets you be as comfortable or as adventurous as you want. The same can be said for the experience at Committee’s bar.

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Peter Szigeti’s cocktails manage to be inventive and complex without ever getting carried away. Peter was working at one of the premier bars in Budapest when Demetri made his acquaintance and persuaded him to lead the beverage program at Committee. He and his team have a distinctive, fluid style to their drink making, which Demetri previously described to me as “like ballet with their hands.” And the cocktails live up to their elegant presentation.

The Bitter Mendez is a refreshing, summery drink made with Milagro tequila, pineapple juice, fresh lime juice, and celery bitters. I’m tempted to compare it to a margarita, with the tequila and lime, but the pineapple and celery bitters take it in a totally different direction.

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The Mandarine Sour is a gorgeous drink that tastes as good as it looks. This intricate cocktail combines Mandarine Napoleon (a cognac flavored with mandarin oranges), cognac, dry curacao, vanilla syrup, fresh lemon juice, egg white, and aromatic and orange bitters. The citrus flavor is bold, no surprise, but the vanilla and egg balance it out and provide a soft texture.

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Even a simple drink like the gin and tonic is reinterpreted with unexpected flavors. G’Vine Floraison is a unique, grape-based gin made in France, sweeter than typical gins. In the G’Vine and T, it combines with Fentimans tonic water and is sprayed with a lavender perfume; a trio of skewered grapes serves as a garnish. This is one of the most unconventional gin and tonics I’ve ever had. The lavender aroma is surprising and permeates every sip (though the effect gets to be a little tiring at the end). It’s a big, slow-sipping drink, and don’t skip the grapes when you’re done.

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G’Vine gin shows up again in the Lady in White. A blend of G’Vine Nouaison (less floral than the Floraison), Esprit De June, vanilla syrup, fresh lemon juice, lemon bitters, and egg white, this elegant cocktail has a little bit of everything – a balance of sweetness and tartness, a soft texture, and delightful heart-shaped dollops of bitters on the foam that coats the surface.

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Before closing out, I recalled that when I first met Demetri back at the cocktail pop-up, he urged me to ask his beverage director for something off-menu. He assured me that Peter could whip up anything on the spot and that I’d love it. So I decided to test his skills once again, and asked for a drink made with the official spirit of Greece – ouzo.

An anise-flavored spirit made with grapes, herbs, berries, and spices, ouzo is an acquired taste, as even the most ardent ouzo enthusiast will acknowledge. And since I wasn’t sitting at the bar, Peter didn’t even have the chance to make sure I even liked ouzo (I don’t, actually) or ask me how I might want it prepared in a cocktail.

And yet he came through with a spectacular drink.

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I never found out what was in the cocktail, but it was creamy, smooth, and just slightly sweet. I could definitely taste the ouzo, but its signature licorice flavor was toned down and balanced by the other ingredients. If it ever appears on the menu, I’ll order it again.

Committee’s cocktail program will continue to evolve, and they have a special treat in store as the season draws to a close. The restaurant is soon opening a bar on its patio and will have a dedicated beverage program featuring warm-weather drinks that will be available by the glass and the pitcher. It’s a move that’s both creative and ambitious, and it shows that while Committee is only two months old, it’s already at home in a neighborhood poised for continued growth.

Address: 50 Northern Avenue, Boston

Website:http://www.committeeboston.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Daiquiris With Brugal

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In many respects, the daiquiri is a humble drink. Its ingredients are few and not difficult to acquire. Making one doesn’t require any extraordinary skill or technique. And yet the daiquiri enjoys a certain exalted status in the pantheon of cocktails – particularly among those who make them for a living. I remember seeing a segment on a local news show last year in which John Gertsen, the now former general manager of Drink and one of the country’s most respected bartenders, named the daiquiri one of his three favorite cocktails. The daiquiri is the pre-shift drink of choice at New York’s renowned cocktail bar Death & Co, and their recently published cocktail book devotes six pages to variations of the recipe – including a two-page spread that covers each bartender’s preferred ingredients.

The daiquiri has enjoyed something of a revival after years spent out of the limelight (no pun intended). For years I think there was a tendency to dismiss it as little more than a poolside drink. And really, as cocktails go, how seriously can you take those slushy, artificially sweet concoctions you see endlessly churning in a machine at a beach bar? Not that I’m above a frozen libation on a summer afternoon. But whenever I see a pre-made daiquiri, it makes me wonder – since it’s so easy to make the real thing, why wouldn’t you?

Which brings us to the purpose of this week’s post. A few weeks ago, the good people at Brugal were kind enough to send me a sample bottle of their Extra Dry rum. It’s a product I’ve long been familiar with; anecdotally, I’d say it trails only Privateer in terms of popularity among Boston-area mixologists. But the Brugal family has been making rum in the Dominican Republic since 1888, and a series of aggressive marketing campaigns in recent years have raised the brand’s profile in the United States.

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Last year I got to learn about the distillery and its rum line when I attended a Brugal Rum Redefined event in Boston. But having a bottle to myself gave me the opportunity to get better acquainted with the spirit – and to try it out in a homemade daiquiri.

First, a bit about the Brugal Extra Dry product. It’s a fairly unusual rum, given that dryness isn’t a quality one ordinarily associates with a spirit made from molasses. Brugal distills most of the heavy alcohols and flavors out of its rum, leaving a spirit that’s crisp, clean, and smooth. And its clear complexion can be deceiving – Brugal Extra Dry is an aged rum that spends 2 to 5 years in white American oak casks before a triple-filtering process strips it of color.

The result is a rum that’s more subtle than sweet. On the nose, there’s no alcoholic burn; just the subdued but unmistakable aroma of rum. Sipping it reveals notes of citrus and vanilla up front and a faint sweetness on the back of the palate.

Onto the daiquiri. The drink’s simplicity lends itself to all manner of alterations and modifications, but the three principal ingredients are rum, lime juice, and sugar. The most consistent recipe that I’ve found, and the one I use, is as follows:

2 ounces rum

1 once fresh lime juice

½ ounce simple syrup

Not only does it make the best daiquiri, in my opinion, the measurements are pretty easy to remember. The instructions are simple. Throw a few ice cubes in a cocktail shaker.

I prefer the cobbler shaker for a daiquiri. The wider holes allow little flakes of crushed ice to find their way into the drink, and I like the extra texture and bracing quality.

I prefer the cobbler shaker for a daiquiri. The wider holes allow little flakes of crushed ice to find their way into the drink, and I like the extra texture and bracing quality.

Add the rum, then the juice, and finally the syrup. Shake it for a good 15 seconds or so, then strain it into a chilled glass. If you want to impress your guests (or your Instagram followers), garnish it with a lime wheel. And there you have it.

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Of course, a daiquiri is only as good as the ingredients you use, and it should come as no surprise that Brugal works beautifully in this timeless cocktail. With its mellow character and citrusy notes, the rum allows the lime juice to shine, giving the drink a fresh, natural flavor. And because of the spirit’s dryness, the simple syrup doesn’t over-sweeten the drink. The result is a wonderfully smooth, well-balanced daiquiri that truly exceeds the sum of its parts.

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To get an even better understanding of Brugal, I thought it would be useful to make another daiquiri with a different rum. The obvious choice would have been Bacardi, one of the world’s best-selling brands and one that bears all the hallmarks of a mass-produced spirit. But I didn’t have any Bacardi on hand, so I used another old standby – Don Q. A solid, respectable rum made in Puerto Rico, I’ve enjoyed Don Q in many a cocktail and will continue to.

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But under scrutiny, the differences between Brugal and Don Q quickly become apparent. On its own, Don Q has more of that boozy burn when you sniff it. Sipping it neat isn’t bad, but with some prominent spices and heavier flavors, it’s more aggressive than the Brugal.

Those traits carry over to the Don Q daiquiri. It’s certainly enjoyable, but lacks the clean, refined essence of its Brugal counterpart. This version has a bigger, more noticeable mouth feel and a bolder alcohol flavor. Highly enjoyable, but not exceptional.

And yet with two freshly made daiquiris in front of me, I was reminded of my very first daiquiri experience. It was of the frozen strawberry variety, made with a sugary mix that came out of a can. Given what I assume my age was at the time, I’m sure I thought it was the best thing ever. But my appreciation for this classic, straightforward cocktail has grown considerably since then, and my idea of what constitutes a quality rum has been redefined.

Note: The bottle of Brugal rum I received was complimentary. I was under no obligation to review or promote it in any way, shape, or form.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Menotomy Grill & Tavern

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When you think about the early battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War, towns like Lexington and Concord quickly spring to mind. You never hear much about Arlington. That might be, in part, because Arlington wasn’t called Arlington back then – it went by the name Menotomy, an Algonquin word meaning “swift running water.” But Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride from Boston to Concord took him straight through Menotomy, and British and American blood was most certainly spilled on the streets of the town we now know as Arlington. You tend to pick up little nuggets like that during a visit to Menotomy Grill & Tavern.

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Arlington’s Menotomy Grill celebrated its two-year anniversary earlier this summer, but if you tell owner Billy Lyons that his restaurant looks a lot older than it is, he’ll probably take it as a compliment. Lyons is a lifelong Arlington resident and a history buff with a particular affection for the American Revolution; once in a great while, you might even see him decked out in Minute Man garb.

His restaurant reflects his passion. Paying homage to the town’s history, Menotomy Grill’s décor recalls the character of an 18th century American tavern.

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Brick walls, hardwood flooring, and an exposed ceiling give the space a simple, functional look, while a tall stone fireplace, antique-style chandeliers, and candle-lit tables contribute a sense of warmth. Reproductions of old town maps and the official flag of Menotomy adorn the walls.

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Iron lanterns resting on fixtures add a historical touch; you can almost picture rebels huddled around flickering candlelight, sipping ale and fomenting revolution.

Of course, they probably never had a bar as nice as this one. A large, wraparound bar is surrounded by 24 comfortable seats, and cozy booths round out the bar area.

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And speaking of ale, Menotomy boasts an impressive selection of microbrews that changes on a near-weekly basis. There’s plenty of New England fare among the 20 draft offerings, including Slumbrew, Downeast, and Peak Organic. Wormtown Be Hoppy, brewed in Worcester, has distinct notes of grapefruit, and is just as hoppy as its name implies.

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The spirit selection is expansive as well, and that’s not something to take for granted. It was only in recent years that Arlington, long a dry town, shrugged off some of its more arcane liquor laws and allowed restaurants like Menotomy to pour more than just beer and wine. Freed from such restrictions, Menotomy’s cocktail program is modern, inventive, and diverse. Bar staff are encouraged to contribute drink recipes, and the broad spirit assortment features offerings from Massachusetts distillers such as GrandTen, Privateer, and Berkshire Mountain Distillers.

The New Old Fashioned is a smart twist on the most classic of cocktails, combining Maker’s 46 bourbon, muddled Luxardo cherry, orange, brown sugar, and rhubarb bitters. It’s a bit sweeter than a traditional Old Fashioned, but the rhubarb bitters give it an earthy touch. This is an excellent cocktail.

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The Menotomy Sunset is an original drink created by one of the bartenders. This mix of Milagro silver tequila, Aperol, agave, and lime has shades of a margarita, but the Aperol gives it an unexpected herbal bitterness and – true to its name – a warm, orange hue.

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So it Goes, meanwhile, is crisp, floral, and dry. Made with Berkshire Greylock gin, lavender simple syrup, and lemon, it’s a simple, refreshing cocktail with a lot of flavor.

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And have no fear – rosé, the most fashionable of wines at the moment, is available too.

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Overall, Menotomy’s beverage program is thoughtfully balanced. While the beer selection leans heavily toward popular microbrews (definitely not a bad thing), the cocktails are as modern as they are accessible. That’s a smart move – given Arlington’s location, the bar draws customers from Cambridge and Somerville who may be accustomed to the latest trends in mixology, along with guests from farther-out suburbs who might be nonplussed by, say, a bone-marrow-fat-washed scotch.

Menotomy’s food program takes a similar approach. Chef Mark Thompson, who’s previously worked as a chef at Stoddard’s and the defunct Chez Henri, has authored a dynamic menu that is both creative and approachable. Upscale but reliable pub fare is served alongside daily specials that allow Thompson and his kitchen to flex their culinary muscles. The taco of the day always offers some surprises, like the combination of braised beef, purple potatoes, quinoa, and shaved radish that was available during my first visit. Topped with a spicy ají sauce, these bad boys were peppery and vibrant.

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Brussels sprouts with bacon and mustard are available as a side dish, but their ample serving size makes them perfect for sharing with the table. The mustard adds a little pungency, and what vegetable dish is not elevated by bacon?

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There’s no bacon in the chef’s vegetarian tasting, but it’s artfully presented and offers a mix of seasonal veggies, like orange glazed beets (which might make me rethink my aversion to beets), yucca rosti, and grilled green onions, served with gingered quinoa pilaf. The crispy yucca patty steals the show.

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One of the true highlights of the menu is the seared mahi mahi. This generous portion of tender fish in a crunchy coating is served on a bed of coconut scallion rice with vanilla-scented pineapple and crispy plantain. A habañero vinaigrette provides a distinct kick, but the sweeter notes from the fruit serve to complement the heat. There are plenty of unique flavors on this plate, but they work in concert – no individual component stands out or, worse, gets lost. At one point I wasn’t even hungry anymore but just kept eating.

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Which is not to say that I couldn’t manage to force down some dessert. Menotomy’s pastry chef creates a rotating array of mouthwatering treats and confections, like the orange creamsicle bomb. With a name like that, I was expecting something heavy and decadent, and was surprised to find that this mix of ice cream, orange, and a graham cracker crust was simple and light.

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And yes, it did sort of taste like an orange creamsicle. Elegantly presented, it made for a sweet conclusion to a summer evening.

Last Call

Arlington’s always had its share of culinary treasures. It’s short on chains and long on independently owned restaurants. But Menotomy Grill & Tavern is the only place I know of that embraces so many of the culinary and beverage trends that characterize the bar and restaurant scene in Boston and Cambridge. They have their finger generally on the pulse of what’s popular in the city, but they’re not just mimicking that. Their approach is fresh, authentic, and tailored to a diverse customer base. And the enthusiasm of the staff, from owner Billy Lyons on down, seems entirely genuine.

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Oh, and one more thing. As I mentioned earlier, chef Mark Thompson previously worked in the kitchen of Chez Henri, the popular French-Cuban restaurant that closed in 2013 after a 19-year run just outside Harvard Square. While Chez Henri’s inventive, high-end cuisine garnered widespread acclaim, it was the Cuban sandwich, available only at the bar, that won the restaurant such a fervent local following. That sandwich was absolutely amazing, and ever since Chez Henri closed its doors, countless fans (myself included) have mourned its loss.

Well, good news – chef Thompson made more than his share of those sandwiches during his time at Chez Henri, and he hasn’t forgotten the recipe. The Cubano isn’t on the regular menu at Menotomy Grill, but it does appear as an occasional special.

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I was fortunate to get one on a return visit to Menotomy, and it was just as divine as I remembered – house-roasted pork loin, cheese, ham, spicy aioli, and pickles on buttered, grilled, crunchy bread. I haven’t laid eyes on this beauty in far too long, and yet with just one taste, the lost time melted away and I fell in love all over again.

Address: 25 Massachusetts Avenue, Arlington

Website:http://www.menotomygrill.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

One for the Road – Taverne Midway

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As anyone who lives or works in an older city can attest, gentrification can be something of a mixed blessing. There’s no denying the benefits that accompany the revitalization of a neighborhood gone to seed, so to speak. The convenience and glow of new infrastructure, the excitement of modern businesses opening their doors, and the influx of new residents with cash to burn all contribute to the restarting of an economic engine, making a once-avoided neighborhood a destination for locals and tourists alike. Then again, if you already call that neighborhood home, a reboot might mean heartache. Gentrification inevitably displaces longtime residents and small businesses, either because they’re physically in the way of new construction or can’t keep up with rising rents. The process often disrupts traditionally ethnic enclaves and alters the character of a given neighborhood. It’s a difficult, painful balance to strike – how do you clean up a region of a city without scrubbing out its culture?

Montreal is no stranger to this issue. Over the past 10 years or so, the downtown area now known as the Quartier des Spectacles has emerged as the epicenter of the city’s annual summer festivals and year-round performances.

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Stretching nearly one square kilometer, this central location has been transformed by public real estate and construction projects into a polished, pedestrian-friendly hub that’s inviting, spacious, and comfortable. As an annual attendee of the Montreal Jazz Festival, I can’t exactly criticize the results.

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But the ongoing initiative has encountered its share of resistance – particularly from the remnants of Montreal’s red light district. Once populated by a slew of shabby bars, strip clubs, and prostitutes, the portion of Boulevard Saint-Laurent that overlaps with the Quartier des Spectacles has long been home to an element that isn’t exactly consistent with the sparkling vision promoted by city planners.

But that’s just the problem – you can’t expect corporate real estate executives to distinguish between a decrepit tavern and a humble but cherished local landmark. Like the venerable Montreal Pool Room. Established in 1912, this divey restaurant hasn’t actually had pool tables for years but is beloved for its steamed hot dogs and poutine. The business butted heads with developers before agreeing to move across the street in 2010.

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Café Cleopatra, meanwhile, remains in the same spot it’s stood since 1976, despite many spirited attempts to close it down. At first glance, this dated, seedy looking strip club might not seem worthy of preservation.

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But it isn’t your typical den of iniquity – while Cleopatra’s ground-level floor is occupied by a traditional strip club, the upstairs is home to drag queen and transsexual shows. None of this is my particular cup of tea and may not be yours either, but a business that welcomes such a disparity of clienteles is unheard of. Western culture is only at the dawn of widespread transgender acceptance, and yet this club has coexisted above a bastion of male heterosexuality for decades. Whether that should bestow upon Cafe Cleopatra any special privilege as the neighborhood evolves is not for me to say. But it’s a reminder that a building is more than its façade, and that an institution deemed out of place by an ambitious urban planner might be a sanctuary for people who don’t feel welcome elsewhere.

Situated across the street from Cleo’s and adjacent to the Montreal Pool Room, Taverne Midway has a long, colorful history of its own. It’s resided on Boulevard Saint-Laurent since 1927, though its sharp, modern exterior belies its age. The bar presumably had its heyday, but for much of its long existence, Midway blended right in with the other nondescript, faded storefronts nearby. It was a dive you might walk right past, if you happened to be walking in that area at all.

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“It wasn’t exactly a cocktail bar,” one of the bartenders tells me, diplomatically. Well, it is now.

Under new ownership, last year Midway reopened its doors after the completion of a dramatic makeover. It’s a new bar with an old name – and in many respects, an old soul.

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Despite the facelift, Midway’s décor remains simple and understated, with wooden fixtures and exposed brick giving the space a timeless appearance. A long bar is surrounded by about 20 wooden stools, and the shelving behind is made to look like brass or copper pipes.

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Cage lighting emanates from pipes affixed to the walls, casting a dim glow throughout the spacious room. Spread along the wooden surface of the bar are fresh ingredients, various bitters, vintage bar tools, and large jars of pickles and pickled eggs that recall the bar snacks of a bygone era.

Best of all, Midway’s cocktail program is devoted to the sort of drinks the bar may have served back when it first opened its doors nearly nine decades ago. The menu, organized by type of spirit, is heavy on the classics – Old Fashioneds, Sazeracs, Americanos, you name it ­– and each is made with the care and precision that define contemporary mixology.

As timeless cocktails go, it’s tough to top the Manhattan. Midway’s version plays it by the book but still manages to surprise. It’s made with Canadian Club 12-year whisky, which I didn’t even know existed. I’ve had Canadian Club’s flagship offering plenty of times, but this version, aged six additional years, is rich, complex, and well suited to a Manhattan. For a garnish, the bartender recommended that I opt for an orange peel instead of a cherry, and the citrusy zest brought out some of the spicy and fruity notes in the whisky.

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While a Manhattan is pleasant under any conditions, I chose the rest of my drinks with an eye toward cooling off on a hot July night in Montreal. Midway’s Mai Tai is faithful to the Trader Vic original, with Bacardi Superior rum, Brugal Añejo, orgeat syrup, lime juice, and hand-crushed ice. Refreshing but not too sweet, a sprig of mint adds a fresh aroma to every sip.

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The Paloma is something I don’t see often enough on drink menus, and I was excited to revisit this sour, fruity classic. Made with tequila, Campari, grapefruit juice, lime juice, and agave syrup, and garnished with an impressive grapefruit wedge, it’s crisp and invigorating.

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Midway’s Caipirina is made with Leblon cachaça, simple syrup, and lime juice, and poured over hand-crushed ice. Cachaça is earthier than its more popular cousin, rum, and this traditional Brazilian cocktail is ideal for a hot summer night.

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My final choice was a drink I’ve never seen on a menu at an actual cocktail bar. The Long Island Iced Tea is one of those drinks that has something of a dark aura surrounding it. With its reputation of essentially being a hyperspace jump to a state of astonishing drunkenness, the potent libation tends to appeal mostly to college-age drinkers who value quantity over quality when it comes to their booze. Of the Long Islands I’ve personally consumed, none have ever been made the same way, and most of them have tasted like crap (not to mention their lack of any resemblance, in color or in flavor, to iced tea, unless Long Islanders have a very different conception of the summertime beverage). Honestly, I figured there was no common recipe for the drink and that it involved little more than dumping a bunch of low-quality spirits into a glass and topping it with a splash of Coke.

Not so, Midway’s bartender told me, as he assured me it should be counted among the classics. Well…I was on vacation. So I watched as a parade of liquors – vodka, rum, gin, and Cointreau – got poured into a tall glass, along with orange juice, simple syrup, and of course that critical splash of Coke. And you know, it was pretty good!

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Boozy but respectable, I think I even detected something resembling the flavor of tea. Whether it was the use of quality spirits, or an artful, professional approach to making the cocktail, or some combination of those factors, Midway’s Long Island Iced Tea is bright, smooth, and surprisingly drinkable.

Now granted, I don’t remember anything that happened after I finished it…

Last Call

Taverne Midway links this Montreal neighborhood’s colorful past with its inevitably gentrified future. More than that, it presents an example of how a sense of tradition might be preserved while the city around it evolves. As far as I can tell, this bar has been at the same address since before the Great Depression and has always been called Midway. With a contemporary cocktail program based on the classics, the bar’s future looks bright. Patrons of the earlier, scruffier iteration may not be thrilled about the new look and the trendy $12 cocktails, but I think it’s preferable to a condo or an office building.

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And on that note, here’s hoping Montreal finds a way to keep improving its beautiful Quartier des Spectacles without totally eradicating its character. Maybe not every business in the area is on point with the larger message, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a place in the city’s growth. And a little grit doesn’t spoil the grandeur.

Address: 1219 Boulevard St-Laurent, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Website:http://tavernemidway.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Grand Opening of Committee

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Recently I had the chance to attend a pop-up preview of the cocktail program at Committee, the Greek and eastern Mediterranean eatery that opened about two weeks ago in Boston’s Innovation District. Held at the Baldwin Bar at Sichuan Garden in Woburn, the evening served to showcase Committee’s inventive drinks and the elegant style of their European-trained bartenders. This week, I finally got to see Committee itself.

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On Wednesday the seaport’s newest resident hosted a grand opening party that gave guests a chance to check out the new digs and enjoy some Mediterranean hospitality. Committee’s large, wraparound bar, open space, and communal tables provided a comfortable setting for snacking on delicious hors d’oeuvres and sipping cocktails made by beverage director Peter Szigeti and his talented mixology squad.

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Below is a look at this beautiful restaurant and a few pictures from the festivities. I’ll write a more traditional, full-length review within a couple of weeks, once I have a chance to stop in again.

Assuming they don’t burn the place down first.

Not quite as dramatic as it looks. Just one of my more amusing failed attempts to capture the flaming orange peel garnish.

Not quite as dramatic as it looks. Just one of my more amusing failed attempts to capture the flaming orange peel garnish.

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The Bitter Mendez, made with Milagro tequila, pineapple juice, fresh lime, and celery bitters.

The Bitter Mendez, made with Milagro tequila, pineapple juice, fresh lime, and celery bitters.

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Pins and Needles.

Pins and Needles.

Gergely Szabo whips up a couple of Blood Orange Old Fashioneds.

Gergely Szabo whips up a couple of Blood Orange Old Fashioneds.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Product Review – Mija Sangria

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Bottled mixed drinks have never enjoyed a glowing reputation. I don’t think I’ve ever tried one of those pre-mixed margaritas or daiquiris that can usually be found coated with a layer of dust on the bottom shelf of a liquor store; so, in truth, I can’t say I know they’re terrible. But in the same way that I don’t have to eat a forkful of cat food to know it’s not for me, I’ve always felt comfortable dismissing the pre-mixed cocktail genre in its entirety.

It may seem ironic, then, that in this era of handmade cocktails and fresh ingredients, bottled cocktails are experiencing an upswing in popularity and, more importantly, quality. Plenty of bartenders have been experimenting with carbonated, pre-mixed drinks, and several respected liquor producers have attempted to capture the complexity and freshness of a good cocktail, bottle it, and put it on store shelves.

On one end of the spectrum, there’s Charles Joly, a world-renowned bartender willing to put his name on his own line of bottled cocktails. On the other end, you’ve got those abominations I keep seeing Budweiser advertise, which I guess are maybe beer or some malt beverage that tastes like a cocktail? Honestly, don’t even tell me; I really don’t want to know.

And so it was with a mix of optimism and skepticism that I approached Mija Sangria, a bottled sangria made by Latitude Beverage Company, the founders of 90+ Cellars.

I received a sample of this bottled sangria earlier this month, just in time for the very type of weather that calls for this refreshing wine-based libation.

Why Sangria?

My first thought was this – why go to the trouble of bottling something that’s as easy to make as sangria? (Actually, that’s not true; my first thought was “free booze delivered to my door, YES!!!!”) All you need is a halfway-decent red wine, fresh fruit, maybe some soda, and you’re on your way. Why not bottle something that takes a more practiced hand or requires ingredients that the casual home bartender may not want to invest in?

But I digress.

Presentation

On appearance alone, Mija makes a winning first impression. The bottle is beautifully designed, and its resealable flip-top means you can reuse it. Further, the screen-printed label makes a strong case for the bottle’s contents, describing the sangria as a premium red wine blended with genuine, natural, unfiltered fruit juices.

The accompanying product description sounds promising too – no artificial additives, plenty of antioxidants from fruits such as pomegranate, açai, and blood orange.

How Does it Taste?

Of course, like so many things in life, it’s what’s inside that counts. And I’m happy to say that despite my reservations…it’s pretty good!

First off, it’s actually a sangria, not some flavored mix masquerading as the timeless summertime beverage. It’s full-flavored and well balanced, with a fresh aroma and a very natural fruitiness.

The product description promises pulp, just like a homemade sangria. I was disappointed not to find any in my bottle, but it did have a thick, rich consistency that compensated for any lack of texture.

One Problem

My only real criticism is that it’s too sweet for my taste. Many sangria recipes call for brandy, and I think that’s what’s missing here – an ingredient that adds some complexity, balances the sweetness, and gives the drink some bottom.

I didn’t have any brandy on hand, but experimented with adding a little dark rum. While I didn’t get the proportions quite right, it did contribute some depth.

And the Mija folks actually encourage that sort of experimentation. Although it’s bottled ready to drink, the serving notes suggest it can be used as a cocktail ingredient or as a base for your own sangria. So if it feels incomplete, depending on your taste, it will stand up to some customization.

To Make or to Buy

Given the choice, I’m always going to prefer making my own sangria. I get excited about spending hours looking up the best recipes, experimenting with different batches, and eventually settling on my own interpretation.

But I realize not everyone has the time or inclination for that. Plus, the best homemade sangrias tend sit for a while to let the flavors come together, and it’s hard to argue with the comparative ease of grabbing a bottle at the liquor store on the way to a summer party.

In that respect, I can definitely understand the appeal of a quality bottled sangria.

And while I may quibble with the sweetness and crave some more complexity, there’s one thing about Mija I should make abundantly clear – if you simply handed me a glass of it, I would never guess that it came from a bottle. Nothing about it tastes, smells, or looks processed, and being able to capture that freshness is a genuine achievement.

Note: The bottle of Mija sangria I received was complimentary. I was not asked or expected to review or promote it in any way, shape, or form.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Committee – A Preview

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For a city that boasts a fairly impressive range of ethnic cuisines, Boston has long lacked an upscale, authentic Greek restaurant. That changes today, when Committee opens in the Innovation District. Occupying the ground floor of the shiny Vertex building on Fan Pier, Committee will specialize in Greek and eastern Mediterranean fare, with a focus on meze-style small plates and staples like tzatziki. And, of course, cocktails.

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Last week the Greek eatery’s bar staff, led by Peter Szigeti, took over the Baldwin Bar at Sichuan Garden in Woburn (home base of the renowned Ran Duan) to offer guests a preview of Committee’s cocktail program. Peter hails from Budapest, as do his colleagues in mixology, Reka Kralik and Gergely Szabo. Together, they bring a fresh, European perspective to modern craft cocktails, with smart twists on the classics and some innovative original libations. Last week’s event, called “Drink and Kick Back With Committee,” featured five signature cocktails that will be available starting today.

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I imagine that candied bacon can bring a little magic to just about any drink, but the Smoke Show is impressive even without its decadent garnish. Combining strawberry-infused mezcal, amaro, sweet vermouth, and Aperol, there’s a host of bold flavors in this one. But the smoky essence of the mezcal isn’t too aggressive, and the strawberry softens some of the stronger notes.

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The Blood Orange Old Fashioned is a savvy update of the classic that manages to stay true to the essence of the traditional recipe. It’s made with rye whiskey, blood orange syrup, grapefruit oleo-saccharum, and old fashioned bitters, and garnished with a dried, candied blood orange peel that’s entirely edible (but still pretty bitter). The oleo-saccharum contributes the requisite citrus and sugar components, and the grapefruit base keeps it from becoming too sweet.

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The Committee Mule is a spicy rendition of the Moscow Mule, combining chili-infused Absolut Elyx vodka with fresh lime, ginger beer, and cardamom bitters. Garnished with a scorched dehydrated lime, it packs a little heat but isn’t intense.

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If you have a soft spot for Cosmopolitans but wouldn’t dare order one in public, you can opt for Committee’s bottled version – which is Notta Cosmo. With Hanson ginger vodka, fresh lime, orange liqueur, and cranberry juice, the Notta Cosmo has all the essential components of the old-school drink that was co-opted by the Sex and the City crowd. This carbonated offering is crisp and not overly sweet, with a fresh tartness from the cranberry.

The American flag cap is a nice touch.

The American flag cap is a nice touch.

While I enjoyed all of the featured drinks, the one that truly stood out was the Cuban Affair. Made with aged rum, fresh lime, vanilla syrup, and balsamic vinegar, this one is special. And I know it’s not just me; the woman to my right ordered one and declared it the “best thing I ever tasted in my life.” High praise for a relatively simple cocktail, but this is one of those drinks that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Complex but smooth, it’s a vanilla-forward cocktail that Peter described as “cheesecake”-like, and I can see what he means. It’s not desserty but has a full flavor and good mouth feel. The balsamic vinegar isn’t prominent but serves to balance out the other flavors.

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Committee general manager Demetri Tsolakis was on hand at the Baldwin Bar, talking cocktails, food, and his good fortune in being able to pluck Peter and company from a bar in Budapest. Demetri urged me to test his beverage director’s skills by ordering something off-menu and leaving the details to Peter, which I was only too happy to do. After posing a few questions about spirit preferences, Peter got to work while I asked Demetri about the differences between European and American mixology. The word he kept coming back to was “flow,” as he pointed out the rhythm and fluidity with which his bar staff handled bottles, shook drinks, and seamlessly wove around each other while fetching ingredients and tending to customers.

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“It’s like ballet with their hands,” he said, and as I watched Peter repeatedly transfer my cocktail from shaker to shaker with a dramatic high pour, I could see what he meant.

As it turns out, such artistry is more than just for show. The cocktail Peter made for me was a Blood and Sand – a drink I’ve never been particularly fond of. Made with scotch, cherry liqueur, and orange juice, it’s a combination that’s never really worked for me. This one was different. “It’s all in the technique,” Peter said, explaining that the Blood and Sand poses a dilemma from a mixing standpoint: the liquors would ordinarily be stirred while the juice should be shaken. The solution is that shaker-to-shaker transfer he performed earlier, which is called “throwing” – stronger than stirring but not as drastic as shaking. “You don’t shake the bejeezus out of it,” he helpfully added.

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The result was by far the best Blood and Sand I’ve ever had (though to be fair, it’s probably only the second one I’ve ever had). The scotch was very smoky, almost mezcal-like, but the drink was balanced and surprisingly delicate.

Watching Peter, Reka, and Gergely in action is nearly as enjoyable as sipping the cocktails they make. They work with grace and style, which would count for little if their drinks didn’t live up to their elegant presentation. Instead, they exceed it.

Committee Collage

Committee Collage

Committee opens today, and you can check back here in a couple of weeks for a full review.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Boston’s Taste of the Nation for No Kid Hungry

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This past Tuesday, national anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength hosted its annual Taste of the Nation fundraiser at Cruiseport Boston. Benefiting No Kid Hungry, a campaign that endeavors to end childhood hunger, this year’s event gathered more than 70 Boston-area restaurants, along with a slew of local and national brewers and distillers. Culinary wizards Jody Adams (TRADE, Rialto), Brian Poe (Tip Tap Room), and Joanne Chang (Flour) were on hand, and guests could dine on mouthwatering bite-size fare from establishments such as Alden & Harlow, Craigie on Main, Tico, Steel & Rye, Fairsted Kitchen, and many more, paired with an array of sample-size beer, wine, and craft cocktails. In 2014, Boston’s Taste of the Nation raised $123,000, a figure this year’s edition was poised to exceed. Below are a few pictures from the event.

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Silent auction. Shhhhh.....

Silent auction. Shhhhh.....

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I was honored to meet and TRADE chat with chef Jody Adams. I was so busy gushing over her work, I neglected to jot down what was in these sliders. They were good, though!

I was honored to meet and TRADE chat with chef Jody Adams. I was so busy gushing over her work, I neglected to jot down what was in these sliders. They were good, though!

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Mini grilled cheese sandwiches from Milton's Steel & Rye, which has long been on my list of places to visit.

Mini grilled cheese sandwiches from Milton's Steel & Rye, which has long been on my list of places to visit.

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Work off your dinner with a little cornhole.

Work off your dinner with a little cornhole.

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To learn more about No Kid Hungry and the important work they do, click here.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Have a Beer With Paul Revere

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Summer is tourist season in Boston. It’s the time of year when you see out-of-towners congregating around various stops along the Freedom Trail, taking pictures of the State House, snapping selfies in front of monuments, and crowding into Faneuil Hall. Ordinarily you just circumvent the masses and hope nobody asks you to explain why and how South Boston and the South End are two entirely different places. While they may clog up the sidewalks a bit, personally I have a great fondness for our city’s visitors. I think about how many times I’ve been traveling and have been eternally grateful for a local’s directions or advice, and I try to pay it forward, so to speak. Plus, I’m proud to live here – Boston’s a beautiful city with a rich history, and it makes me happy when I see people immersing themselves in it.

So, while it was a little outside the scope of my typical blogging assignment, I was only too happy to accept an invitation to “Have a Beer With Paul Revere,” a historical walking tour organized by the folks who oversee the Old North Church. The tour gives participants a chance to stroll through the North End in the early evening hours and relive one of the most thrilling chapters of American history – the midnight ride of Paul Revere.

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Having been on innumerable school field trips that exhaustively covered this and similar topics, I admit that the “Have a Beer” side of the equation appealed to me more than the “With Paul Revere” part. But as the organizers were generous enough to offer me a complimentary ticket, I figured a little refresher course wouldn’t hurt.

The tour commences inside the Green Dragon Tavern, named for the very tavern that was known as the “headquarters of the revolution.”

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Not that this Green Dragon is the Green Dragon; the actual tavern that hosted secret rebel meetings and served as the launching point for Paul Revere’s legendary ride was about a 100 feet away and was destroyed by a fire during the 1850s. The bar now that bears its name opened in the 1990s but does its best to capture the look and feel of a colonial-era public house. Wooden tables and booths, exposed brick walls, an ancient-looking hardwood floor, and a whole host of lanterns are part of a good-faith effort to make you feel like you might be sipping a brew in the same room where George Washington once sat.

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Speaking of beer, your ticket includes a pint of – what else? – Sam Adams. You get a Sam Brick Red, an Irish red ale that’s only available on draft and not sold outside of Massachusetts.

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Along with that comes another New England staple – a bowl of clam chowder. Spoon that up while listening to the events Paul Revere’s harrowing journey to Lexington, and you’re fully immersed in the Boston experience.

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After beer and chowder, the tour heads toward the North End, passing the spot where the original Green Dragon once stood. After pausing to look at a map of old Boston etched into the side walk, the tour winds through the streets of the North End.

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You stop by Paul Revere’s home and a number of other key historical sites, all the while learning about Boston’s involvement in the early days of the American Revolution and the cast of local characters who played critical roles. But it’s not merely a recitation of historical events; the tour seeks to separate fact from fiction and explores mysteries about that night which have never been answered. Much of Paul Revere’s ride has become the stuff of legend, and while the actual events may not be as poetic as “Listen my friends and you will hear,” the truth is more fascinating by half.

The tour culminates at the Old North Church, Boston’s oldest surviving church building and one of the most celebrated landmarks in the city. This is where the famous lanterns hung on that fateful night, signaling to colonists whether British troops, marching to Lexington and Concord to arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock, would be departing the city by land or by “sea” (actually the Charles River).

As much as I was in this for the beer and chowder, visiting the Old North Church at night was easily the coolest part of the tour. Climbing the narrow stairs to where the lanterns would have hung, it’s hard not to get a sense of the significance and danger of that night. The church’s interior is elegant but somewhat understated, which serves to underscore the fact that Paul Revere and his fellow revolutionaries were ordinary citizens pressed into performing extraordinary deeds in the interest of freedom.

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While it’s exceedingly rare that I attend events like this, I can say in all honesty that I was impressed. Our tour guide was positively unflappable – in addition to the vast knowledge he displayed of his subject, he was challenged by dozens of questions and had a quick answer for each one. And it takes a certain personality to don colonial garb and commit to the role; this guy had a comfortable blend of authenticity, humor, and irony.

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The tour is a fun way for visitors to explore one of Boston’s most famous neighborhoods and learn the true story behind an episode of American history that’s more daring and dramatic than its countless retellings. And for me, that old saying about being a tourist in one’s own city rings true. When you walk by monuments, statues, and landmarks every day, it’s easy to overlook the risks and sacrifices borne by the individuals they commemorate.

If you're interested in having a beer with Paul Revere, you can get tickets here. For more information about the iconic Old North Church, click here. To everyone visiting Boston this summer, enjoy your trip (and try to avoid driving, it's always a nightmare).

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Negroni Week 2015

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I have a hard time talking about the Negroni without recalling the rigors I endured before I could appreciate this celebrated cocktail. My first Negroni left me dumbfounded as to the drink’s popularity. Combining a botanical spirit like gin with Campari – a reddish-hued, bitter aperitif – and an herbal liqueur like vermouth, the Negroni struck me as an old-fashioned remedy for alleviating digestive issues, not something to be enjoyed recreationally. My second Negroni did little to improve my opinion. I probably wouldn’t have tried a third had not a well-meaning bartender handed me one without my asking. Funny thing about that third Negroni, though – I didn’t hate it. There was no moment of trumpets blaring from the heavens, but at least I was moving past the point of repulsion. Still, when I was told last year about something called “Negroni Week,” it was with tepid enthusiasm that I agreed to hit a few bars and maybe write something about my experience.

And that’s when the transformation began.

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At some point during Negroni Week 2014, I finally got it. On Monday I was a wary scribe; by the weekend, I was a devoted Negroni apostle. Blinded by botanicals and bitterness, I even invested in a Negroni tattoo.

Looking back, I can see that the conditions were ripe for my conversion.

Sponsored by Campari and industry magazine Imbibe, Negroni Week serves not only as a showcase for the cocktail but as an opportunity to raise money for worthy causes. Now in its third year, Negroni Week has expanded to include more than 3,500 participating bars and, over the course of the past two years, has raised more than $120,000 for a multitude of charities throughout the world. What’s more, Campari will donate $10,000 to the selected charity of the bar that raises the most money during the week.

Of course, Negroni Week also gives bartenders a chance to play around with variations on the traditional recipe. The Negroni’s simplicity lends itself to endless customization, and last year in the Boston area we saw the drink carbonated and bottled, done as a milk punch, and made with all manner of nontraditional ingredients, like caçhaca, sherry, mezcal, strawberry-infused tequila, and plenty more that I couldn’t possibly get around to sampling.

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Negroni 2014 Collage--2

The upside of all that experimentation is that Negroni Week offers something for everyone – even the uninitiated. Appearing in unusual forms and expanding to encompass additional and alternative flavors, Negroni neophytes may encounter more approachable renditions that can help them ease into an otherwise challenging drink. Negroni connoisseurs, meanwhile, can enjoy the cocktail in new ways. If nothing else, your purchase at a participating bar supports a good cause. And who doesn’t like that?

If you want to learn a bit more about the history of the Negroni and see some of the creative twists that Boston-area bartenders came up with last year, have a quick look at last year’s story. Otherwise, we’re on to 2015.

Trina’s Starlite Lounge

Trina’s Starlite Lounge started experimenting with carbonated cocktails a couple of months back, to great effect. It should come as no surprise, then, that their featured Negroni for the big week comes in a bottle. Made with a watermelon-infused Contessa gin and Cocchi Americano, this novel version is milder, fruitier, and considerably more playful than the original. Which is not to dismiss it as some kind of lightweight Negroni – the bitter components might be less intense, but the drink still packs a punch.

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The watermelon is the biggest surprise, in my opinion. I tend to be on my guard whenever I see watermelon in a drink, conditioned to expect something overly sweet and artificial-tasting. Not here – the fruit flavor is soft, balanced, and natural. The result is a fun, summery, highly drinkable Negroni with a crisp effervescence. If you hate summery fun, a more by-the-books Negroni is available as well. Either way, portions of Negroni sales at Trina’s Starlite Lounge support Autism Speaks.

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Kirkland Tap & Trotter

I’m sure plenty of bars plan ahead for this seven-day Negroni bacchanal, but no one plays the long game like Kirkland Tap & Trotter. Last year during Negroni Week, the good folks at KT&T mixed up the featured cocktail in a six-liter bottle – dubbed Negronizilla – and have been aging it ever since, with the intent of opening it up for the 2015 edition. That’s dedication.

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I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t on hand for the big unveiling on Wednesday night. Instead I stopped in on Monday and “settled” for the standard Negroni, made with Beefeater gin, Cinzano vermouth, and Campari. It may not have benefited from a year of aging, but this timeless recipe is never a letdown. A portion of every Negroni sold at Kirkland Tap & Trotter this week goes to the Greater Boston Food Bank.

On an aside, I admit that in the interest of writing about Negroni Week, I should have attended the Wednesday event. But on Monday, KT&T had a different kind of unveiling – the opening of the Celebrity Chef Hot Dog series. All summer, chef Tony Maws is hosting a guest chef every month, and that chef will create a variation of the house-made hot dog that KT&T is famous for. This past Monday, chef Ken Oringer of Clio and Toro led off with a Japanese ballpark street dog, topped with Kabayaki sauce, ramp kimchi, kewpi mayo, and bonito.

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Honestly, I don’t even know what half of that stuff is. But Negroni Week or no Negroni Week, I wasn’t gambling on whether these bad boys would still be available come Wednesday.

OK, now back to the Negronis.

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Brick & Mortar

There’s no dedicated Negroni Week recipe here, but it’s Brick & Mortar – you know they’re always capable of whipping up something special for you. Upon stating the purpose of my visit, I was offered everything from the traditional Negroni to a smoky take that included mezcal. I opted for a version with sherry – a “Sherry-groni” as the bartender casually coined it.

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Made with Amontillado sherry, Campari, and sweet vermouth, the sherry’s distinctive nutty notes steals the show. This complex, highly satisfying Negroni balances bitterness and sweetness and exudes an overall warmth.

Buy a Negroni at Brick & Mortar this week and you’ll be supporting the developing Minds Foundation, an organization that builds schools and promotes education in international regions that are stricken by poverty and violence.

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Moksa

Across the way from Brick & Mortar is Moksa, an old favorite of mine that’s hosted plenty of original events, offers a patio for those occasional nice days we have, and has a cocktail program that still bears the fingerprints of mixologist extraordinaire Noon Summers, who sadly moved on from Boston a couple of years ago. Moksa offers a traditional Negroni this week, but after a little negotiation, bartender Bhavik Mistri agreed that the Peking Sailor, a Negroni-type drink on the regular menu, could qualify for Negroni Week status.

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Made with Hendrick’s gin, Campari, elderflower vinegar, cucumber, and “bubbly,” this is admittedly a stretch as far as Negronis go. But it has a distinctive bite from the Campari, and the floral Hendrick’s gin pairs nicely with the bitterness. The elderflower vinegar contributes an unusual floral acidity to this refreshing, full-flavored cocktail.

Buy a Negroni at Moksa, or talk Bhavik into making the Peking Sailor count as one, and the bar will donate $1 of your purchase to GlobalGiving in support of the Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund.

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Pastoral

The Negroni traces its roots to a Florence, Italy café in 1919, when Italian nobleman Count Negroni is believed to have invented the drink as a variation on an Americano. So you’ve got to figure that Fort Point’s Pastoral, with Italian fare that balances traditional ingredients and a modern approach, would offer a top-notch version of the iconic Italian cocktail. Sure enough, the Negroni di Pastoral is a simple interpretation of the classic with a bit of a twist. Made with Bols Genever (a Dutch gin), Aperol, and Cocchi Rosa, this elegant Negroni is served “up” and rimmed with an orange peel.

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This remarkably smooth version has a mild sweetness up front, with prominent orange notes, and isn’t quite as aggressive with the bitterness. Purchase one of these beauties and you’ll be supporting the MSPCA.

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TRADE

TRADE’s bartenders are known for concocting some fabulously imaginative drinks using a full toolbox of flavors, ingredients, and innovative techniques. For Negroni week, they play it straight. Their traditional recipe combines Tanqueray gin, Campari, and Carpano Antico sweet vermouth. It might not be wildly inventive, but this recipe’s been around for nearly two centuries and needs no embellishment.

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Enjoy a Negroni at TRADE and a portion of your purchase will go to the Pan-Mass challenge, an annual bike ride that raises funds for cancer research and treatment at Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

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Ward 8

Stopping into Ward 8 was something of a last-minute decision, but a fortuitous one. I was delighted to reconnect with Amber Wirth, a longtime friend of BBH who we last saw representing Eastern Standard in a savage battle royale for cocktail supremacy. Ward 8 offers no fewer than five Negroni variations for the big week, the most liberal interpretation of which is a blended shot of Campari and Fernet Branca accompanied by a Miller High Life. On Amber’s advice, I opted for the Boulevardier, a classic twist on the Negroni made with Four Roses bourbon, Campari, and Cinzano Rosso. This smooth cocktail swaps gin for the warm, spicy complexity of whiskey but maintains the bitterness of a traditional Negroni.

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Ward 8 bar manager Mike Wyatt – who, coincidentally enough, also last appeared on this site as a competitor in a vicious bartender throwdown – came up with the Negroni Noir, a version that exceeds even the original in its bitterness. Made with Beefeater gin, cacao nib-infused Cinzano Rosso, and Campari, this Negroni exudes a rich, complex flavor on account of bitter dark chocolate component. It’s an intense interpretation but well balanced and full of flavor.

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A portion of every Negroni sold at Ward 8 will support the Animal Rescue League of Boston.

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Today marks the midpoint of Negroni Week, and you’ve got through Sunday to get acquainted with the classic recipe, try a few Negroni variations, and support some very deserving charities. For a full list of participating bars, in Boston and beyond, click here.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

One for the Road – Pangea Lounge

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Craft cocktails are by no means new to Florida, but the popularity of bars devoted to serving innovative drinks with fresh ingredients and small-batch spirits has been somewhat slow to develop. Modern cocktail lounges are sparsely distributed throughout the state but generally confined to cosmopolitan cities like Miami. Bars serving light beer and neon-hued, slushy rum drinks seem to vastly outnumber those that are up on the latest cocktail trends. I suppose it makes sense. Manhattans probably aren’t big sellers at beachside bars, and given the scope of Florida’s tourist industry, catering to an audience that favors quantity over quality is just smart business. But that’s not to say that Floridians are cool to the latest cocktail trends; you just have to look a little harder to find a bar that specializes in them. And in the case of Pangea Lounge, you might have to look really hard.

One of a handful of cocktail bars in Sarasota, Pangea Lounge embodies all the best characteristics of a speakeasy (like a hidden entrance and a sense of novelty) and none of the worst (like toxic liquor and the possibility of arrest). To get inside, you enter the Monkey Business sandwich shop and walk to the back of the room, past the counter.

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Right when you expect someone to reprimand you for stumbling into the kitchen, you’ll discover a pair of black curtains, beyond which is a spartan but stylish two-room space that looks like it was built in the sandwich shop’s storage area. Just beyond a dining area is a small, six-seat bar with circular shelving behind it. Bottles lying unevenly upon the shelves give it a deliberately makeshift appearance.

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With its unfinished concrete floor, low lighting, and dark blue walls, Pangea captures the look and feel of a bar that prefers to fly under the radar. While the speakeasy trend may have played itself out a bit in other parts of the country, here it still feels fresh and fun.

The cocktail program, meanwhile, embraces some contemporary mixology practices with its original concoctions and clever ingredient choices. Bartender Brad Coburn, who took care of my brother and sister-in-law (both of whom are new to Sarasota) and me when we visited last week, has won a number of regional cocktail competitions and been involved with national cocktail events as well. It’s fair to assume that he’s picked up a few ideas along the way.

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One of those, which I wish we could have here in Boston, is the practice of pouring your guests a complimentary glass of punch when they arrive. It sets a casual, welcoming tone, and it’s nice to have something to sip and chat about while perusing the drink list.

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The drinks are grouped by character in categories such as “Rich & Calming,” “Fruity & Exciting,” and “Tart & Invigorating,” and the cocktails live up to their descriptions. The Great Scot combines Great King Street scotch, Fruitlab hibiscus liqueur, fresh lime, tangerine syrup, and beet water, and is topped with a hibiscus foam. Although I have long disdained beets, I’ll admit the drink was balanced and complex, with a soft, floral sweetness from the hibiscus foam.

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The Chupacabra – Spanish for “goat sucker” – is named after a spiny, reptilian creature that is alleged to attack goats under the cover of night and drain them of their blood. First spotted in Puerto Rico but reportedly sighted throughout the world, the creepy chupacabra is largely dismissed as legend…but its existence hasn’t been completely disproved. The cocktail of the same name is far less terrifying. Made with pisco, habañero honey, fresh lemon, watermelon water, and – for the chupacabra in all of us – a goat cheese garnish, there’s a lot going on in this one. The big glob of goat cheese adds a funky essence to the proceedings.

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I personally wasn’t sold on the Chupacabra (by which I mean the drink; when it comes to the creature, I want to believe) until our deviled eggs showed up. Served on a bed of kale with a balsamic vinaigrette, the dressing was a perfect match for the goat cheese, giving the drink a different flavor profile. The bacon in the deviled eggs didn’t hurt, either.

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Speaking of eggs, this was my first experience with pickled eggs. Cured in vinegar and seasoned with spices like clove, these intriguing puppies make for an offbeat, tangy snack.

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Pangea doesn’t actually have a kitchen, but you can order this stuff from the neighboring restaurant Melange. They offer an eclectic menu (as evidenced by the pickled eggs), with plenty of late-night treats like krab rangoons. Aside from the enigmatic “k” spelling of crab, these dollops of deep-fried cream cheese are faithful to that celebrated but completely inauthentic staple of Americanized Polynesian cuisine. A guava habañero dipping sauce adds a spicy bite.

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Inspired perhaps by the rangoons, my next choice was a Mai Tai. It wasn’t on the menu, but Brad seemed happy to whip one up, even giving me a choice of the Trader Vic Mai Tai version or the Don the Beachcomber version. I opted for the former, with aged rum, orange curaçao, fresh lime, orgeat, and simple syrup. Fruity but not too sweet, it’s a tribute to the original recipe.

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Similarly, the Old Fashioned is made exactly as it should be. No graveyard of pulverized fruit or unnecessary soda water, Brad’s version combines Redemption rye, simple syrup, and a lemon peel.

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Brad also offered to concoct something original if we didn’t see what we wanted on the menu, so my brother helpfully requested “something mojito-ish.” With only those vague instructions to work from, Brad mixed up a complex variation of the classic rum drink, swapping rum for whiskey and adding grapefruit, mint, demerara sugar, lime, sparkling wine, and angostura bitters. My brother deemed it “exceptional.”

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But for all the complex and creative drinks on Pangea’s menu, it was one of the simplest that truly won the three of us over. The Salty Sailor combines Papa’s Pilar blonde rum, fresh grapefruit juice, and falernum syrup. Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s exploits in Florida and the Caribbean, Papa’s Pilar is a fantastic rum with a rich, creamy flavor; pairing it with the sour grapefruit and the sweet, spicy syrup makes for a wonderfully refreshing, tiki-style cocktail with depth and complexity.

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Served in a bowl-like glass coated with salt, which further enhances the flavors, it’s a simple drink that allows a few very basic ingredients to shine. And that’s the sort of thing that works as well in a sunny, beachside bar as it does in a clandestine speakeasy.

Address: 1564 Main Street, Sarasota, Florida

Website: http://pangealounge.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Puritan & Company

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When someone invokes Massachusetts’ Puritan heritage, it’s often in the context of annoyance or inconvenience. For many of us, Puritans are synonymous with blue laws, antiquated zoning regulations, and idiosyncratic rules about the sale and consumption of alcohol. Anytime we encounter a local or state ordinance that inhibits our freedom to engage in some pleasurable pursuit, we have a tendency to point our fingers at our stern, colonial-era forebears and their infamous zealotry. It may be unfair to blame the Puritans for the arbitrary vestiges of conservatism that infect our collective mind set, but make no mistake – these people were the enemies of fun. Theirs was a no-nonsense culture characterized by strict piety and a hearty intolerance of anything that didn’t accord with their religious principles. Puritan life was short on TGIF moments, since weekend festivities were prohibited. No such thing as Christmas cheer, either; the Puritans banned the popular holiday. Drinking in moderation got the Puritan stamp of approval, but drunkenness was harshly punished (I’m sure I’d spend half my days in the stocks). We won’t even get into the Salem witch trials.

The curtain closed on American Puritan culture about three centuries ago, and today stodginess and dogmatism are hardly the qualities that a restaurant or bar would wish to promote. Which makes “Puritan & Company” a curious choice of name for a contemporary eatery in Cambridge’s Inman Square.

Puritan & Company features classic American cuisine interpreted through a modern lens, with an emphasis on locally sourced and independent products. The restaurant’s moniker may evoke religious settlers and their rejection of pleasure, but its true roots are not quite so antiquated – the Puritan Cake Company, a full-service bakery, stood in this same location from the 1930s through the 1950s. Some of the bakery’s infrastructure remains; the ramp leading up from the front door was once used for wheeling baked goods down to delivery trucks parked outside on Cambridge Street.

And while the staff doesn’t dress in somber colors and won’t rebuke you for enjoying yourself, the restaurant does embrace some Puritan values. Just as extravagance was anathema to the Puritans, the eponymous restaurant thrives on a refreshing sense of simplicity.

The décor is one of an “urban farmhouse” – bright and modern, but unadorned. Skylights bathe the hardwood floor and exposed brick walls with natural light, giving the space a country-like, almost outdoorsy feel.

Vintage cabinetry and hanging lights encased in mason jars add to the historical complexion.

The main bar has a plain white surface and 12 comfortable chairs.

In the rear is a six-seat charcuterie bar, which saw a reboot in time for Puritan’s spring menu and now serves amaro flights in addition to fancy meats.

That sense of calculated reserve extends to Puritan’s cocktail program, starting with the unassuming glassware – drinks are served in either a very basic tumbler or a tall glass that looks a bit like a mason jar. Bartender Colin Kiley explains that the drink program has been evolving over the past year. When Puritan & Company first opened in 2012, their liquor license only allowed for beer and wine. The license was later expanded, but Colin admits that coming up with the drink menu at that point was like “repairing a car that someone’s driving.”

Wisely, they opted to keep things fairly simple and to create drinks that complemented the restaurant’s modest décor. Even the garnishes are understated, as is the case with the Up from the South cocktail. Combining Zucca mezcal, blood orange shrubb, pineapple-clove simple syrup, and lime juice, a malted salt “garnish” is simple but effective.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Colin says of the cocktail program. He’s playfully dismissive of offbeat ingredients (specifically mentioning kumquat) and favors a minimalist approach. “If it doesn’t need anything…” he says with a shrug, content to let quality ingredients and smart combinations do most of the work.

The Kingston Negroni stands as a representative example. A simple but thoughtful interpretation of the Negroni, it combines locally made Privateer rum, Aperol, and vermouth, with the sweetness of the rum balancing the bitter components.

Of the Paper Plane, Colin says “if [the drink list] were an album, this would be one of our covers.” Attributed to Sam Ross of Attaboy in New York, this mix of bourbon, Nonino amaro, and lemon juice is a straightforward cocktail in which each ingredient somehow brings out the most subtle notes of every other ingredient.

This interplay of flavors is not only central to Puritan’s cocktails but designed to interact with the food program. “We try to keep the drinks as food-friendly as possible,” Colin explains. “We’re a restaurant with a bar,” he says; not the other way around.

Puritan’s menu features dishes that would be familiar to any native New Englander, though even some of the most traditional recipes are transformed. The soft-shell crab isn’t blended into a typical crab cake but instead has a crispy exterior. Red jalapeño gribiche and succotash make for a sweet, spicy dish.

For those unfamiliar with Giannone chicken, it refers to a method of chilling fresh chicken using icy cold air instead of water. Pioneered by a farm north of Montreal, Quebec, the technique is said to inhibit bacteria and, ultimately, result in meat that is uniquely tender and moist. That’s certainly the case with Puritan’s Giannone chicken. Accompanied by artichoke, asparagus, and farro, the chicken is full of flavor and fork-tender beneath a crispy, buttery skin.

One item long absent from Puritan and Company’s menu was a burger. Which is not to say that a burger was unavailable. Debuting as a special and then retreating into the shadows as a “secret” item available to guests at the bar, Puritan’s patty melt has emerged from obscurity and can now be found on the bar and brunch menus. While many Boston-area burgers are lauded for their increasing complexity – think stuffed patties, unconventional toppings, buns infused with herbs or bacon – this rendition is like pure New England nostalgia on a plate.

Puritan’s patty melt is a generous slab of dry-aged ground beef served between two slices of grilled, house-made rye bread, with Swiss and American cheeses oozing out of the sides and a spicy homemade sauce on top. No sooner was it placed before me that I was reminded of the pan-fried burgers that my mom used to make back in our East Boston apartment when I was a kid. And while that may be a personal memory, the presentation is meant to conjure a certain wistfulness – as Colin notes, the patty melt recalls the sort of burger you’d get at a classic diner or a Friendly’s. Even the name is something of a throwback; how many people call it a patty melt these days?

Reinforcing the bar’s intent to design food-friendly drinks, Colin offered to make a cocktail that would pair well with this splendid burger. His variation of an East India Cocktail fit the bill. Made with Armagnac (a robust brandy that he referred to as “cognac’s country cousin”), Plantation 5-year rum, pineapple-clove syrup, lime, and angostura bitters, it was a bold yet refreshing drink with prominent notes of orange and a touch of spice.

Less deliberate but still effective, the Thaw in the Straw cocktail is a good partner for the pineapple brown sugar cake. Made with bourbon, honey, lemon, and ginger beer, the Thaw in the Straw is an odd mix of tartness and sweetness.

On its own, I can’t say I loved it. With dessert? Different story.

Evoking the Caribbean via New England, the pineapple brown sugar cake combines lime curd, graham caramel corn, and coconut-lime sorbet. It’s an intriguing mix of textures, with the crunchy popcorn offsetting the spongy cake. And the sweet, tangy flavors liven up the cocktail, bringing out the spice of the ginger beer and the vanilla notes in the bourbon.

In addition to the not-so-secret patty melt and an ever evolving cocktail list, Puritan & Company has unveiled a few new features to coincide with its spring menu. A six-course chef’s tasting menu, with the particulars changing nightly, is available for a reasonable $70. On Saturdays, the space next door to the restaurant becomes the “Puritan Meat Market.” From noon until 2 p.m., traditional New England lunch items, such as corned beef sandwiches and meatball subs, are available for takeout. And on Sundays, Puritan’s chef de cuisine Alex Saenz creates a southern-themed menu featuring fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and catfish.

Taken together, it’s exactly the sort of innovation and variety that I’m sure the Puritans would have just loved

Address: 1166 Cambridge Street, Cambridge

Website: http://www.puritancambridge.com

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Bourbon, Horses, and a Good Cause

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For the longest time – up until this weekend, if I’m being truthful – I never understood the appeal of the Kentucky Derby. I always figured that there’s a miniscule sliver of society that has a genuine, year-round interest in professional thoroughbred racing, so I was flummoxed that the event got so much widespread hype and media attention. I’d never attended a big Kentucky Derby party, and I’m not even sure I ever watched the race on TV. As for the activities that accompany the race, well, I don’t need a special occasion to drink a Mint Julep, and no occasion has ever been special enough to make me think “Hey, I bet I’d look sharp in a seersucker suit.”

Well, consider me a convert.

This past weekend, Boston Cares held its fourth annual Kentucky Derby fundraiser at Central Wharf Co. in the Financial District. A nonprofit organization that mobilizes more than 25,000 volunteers every year, Boston Cares coordinates programs and volunteering opportunities in support of schools and other nonprofit agencies in Greater Boston. The previous year’s Derby event raised $15,000 for Boston Cares, and with a packed house of colorfully clad revelers, the 2015 installment was poised to blow right past that. In addition to watching the race, the $75 per head event featured raffle tickets, door prizes, and awards given for apparel-related categories such as best-dressed guest and best hat. Given the number of men and women donning race-day finery, I can scarcely imagine the difficulty of the selection process.

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There were also plenty of fun ways to raise money. Guests had the opportunity to bid on dozens of items in a silent auction, with prizes including Red Sox tickets, trips to exotic locales, and this home bar from liquor sponsor Brown-Forman (and in the interest of full disclosure, I attended as their guest).

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But what better way to support a good cause than by having a drink? You don’t need to be toasting a winning horse to enjoy a glass of champagne, and for $100, you’d get a chilled bucket of G.H. Mumm, the official champagne of the Kentucky Derby.

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As a special treat, you could have the bottle “sabered,” a ceremonial technique that employs a large blade to not only pop the cork but also slice off the neck of the bottle in one clean, dramatic swoop. Below, you can see a bottle about to meet the saber. I’m told the bottle has to be extremely cold, otherwise the glass will shatter. (And on that note, there’s a reason you’re seeing the pre-sabering and not the post-sabering.)

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Of course, no Kentucky Derby party would be complete without the event’s signature cocktail. The Mint Julep has been the official drink of the Derby since the 1930s, and this mix of bourbon, muddled mint leaves, sugar, and water is even older than the race. Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, and at the race itself, they sell a $1,000 version that raises money for charity. The Boston Cares event featured a special Mint Julep for the comparative bargain price of $100. That’s still a lot to fork over for a drink, but with proceeds supporting the hard work of Boston Cares, it’s worth every penny.

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The signature Julep for this event was made with Woodford Reserve Double Oaked bourbon, bourbon-infused vanilla sugar, Cave spring water, and fresh mint, served over crushed ice in a commemorative copper cup (at least I hope it was commemorative, because I took mine home). The Double Oaked bourbon, with notes of vanilla, caramel, and toasted oak, made this traditional reading of the classic recipe truly exceptional. Whether you’re fanning yourself in the sweltering Southern heat at Churchill Downs or hanging out in a bar on a temperate afternoon in Boston, the Mint Julep is as refreshing as it is timeless.

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Even if you weren’t flush with Benjamins, you could still enjoy the Derby’s most iconic cocktail. A more reasonably priced Julep was made with Woodford Reserve bourbon, fresh mint, simple syrup, and soda, topped with powdered sugar.

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Despite the reverence bestowed upon the Mint Julep on Derby day, I may have been more impressed with the Strawberry Blonde. This refreshing libation combined Old Forester bourbon with strawberries, basil leaves, simple syrup, lime juice, and ginger beer for a fruity, aromatic cocktail with an effervescent, spicy kick.

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Of course, bourbon is just fine on its own. I’ve been big on Woodford Reserve since I visited their distillery last year. A smooth whiskey featuring complex notes of citrus, chocolate, and tobacco, it’s a versatile bourbon that requires no colorful ornaments or special occasions.

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Such simplicity might be easy to overlook amid the pageantry and high fashion of a Kentucky Derby soirée. People attend these parties for all manner of reasons – to drink Mint Juleps, bet on horses, donate to charity, or simply watch the race with friends. But it’s clear that what revelers look forward to most is the chance to outfit themselves in vibrant attire that evokes the elaborate styles of a bygone era.

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The women at the Boston Cares event were resplendent in their wide-brimmed, flower-adorned hats and radiant dresses, while men donned bright bowties, vests, and pants they ordinarily wouldn’t leave the house in. It’s an environment where elegance and irony walk hand in hand.

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It was about 6:20 p.m. when the horses and their diminutive riders moved into position, and the anticipation swelled at Central Wharf. Even though I had no vested interest in the Run for the Roses, I inevitably got caught up in the excitement as the crowd gathered around the bar’s TVs to watch the two-minute contest that had brought us all together. Before long, American Pharaoh crossed the finish line to a chorus of cheers and groans, and I found myself clinking glasses with complete strangers for no apparent reason.

While American Pharaoh took home the trophy (and a cool $1.24 million), Boston Cares was certainly the winner at Central Wharf. I don’t know what their final tally was, but given the high turnout, the feverish auction, and the number of Woodford Reserve cups I saw floating around, I’m sure that the causes supported by Boston Cares benefited greatly from the attendees’ generosity.

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As for me, well…I get it now. After years of being mystified as to why so many people mustered such fierce enthusiasm for horses running in a circle, I can see it now in a fuller respect – the lavish attire, the good-natured wagers, the invitation to sip Kentucky bourbon on a spring afternoon. And such enthusiasm can be contagious. I don’t see myself investing in a checkered sport coat or a fedora next year, but I suppose a bowtie wouldn’t kill me.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Farmed & Fizzed – Exploring Beer Cocktails With Peak Organic

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Experimentation has always been in Peak Organic’s DNA. The urge to continuously tinker with recipes is what led home brewer Jon Cadoux, back in the 1990s, to discover that his best beers were those made with organic ingredients. In 2005 he opened the Peak Organic Brewing Company in Portland, Maine, and that same spirit of exploration has resulted in the production of 20 unique beers, all of which use locally sourced, organic ingredients to the extent possible. Jon’s love of craft beer, passion for sustainability, and determination to remain innovative merged with Boston cocktail culture last Thursday at “Farmed & Fizzed,” an event hosted by Somerville’s Foundry on Elm and featuring cocktails made with Peak Organic beer. I spoke with Peak Organic’s Director Communications, Brendan Gangl, who explained that the brewery sent Foundry a bunch of ingredients they use in their beers, like hops, espresso, cacao nibs, and ginger. They challenged the bar to create cocktails using Peak brews and the locally grown products that distinguish the brewery’s beers.

Four Peak beers got the cocktail treatment, and they were available in full-size version or in flights composed of two cocktail samples served alongside the beers that featured in the drink.

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First up was Fresh Cut, a crisp, dry-hopped pilsner made with three types of hops. True to its name, it summons all the freshness of a newly mown lawn on a warm, spring day. In the Fresh Cut cocktail, the beer combined with GrandTen Distilling’s Angelica liqueur, yellow chartreuse, dry-hopped simple syrup, and lemon for a complex but refreshing herbal cocktail. I was expecting something sharp and bitter on account of the hops and chartreuse, but the flavors were surprisingly soft and well balanced. Mixing it with the GTD Angelica was smart; the aromatics and botanicals in the liqueur complemented the hoppiness and the herbal elements of the chartreuse.

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If the Fresh Cut cocktail captured the essence of a spring afternoon, the Summer Session cocktail was all about summer. Summer Session is a dry, citrusy wheat beer, and its namesake cocktail featured Ford’s gin, Orleans bitters, Cynar, and lemon. The result was a bright and crisp drink with a blend of herbal and citrus notes.

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“I was curious if maybe the flavors of the lighter-bodied Summer Session and Fresh Cut might get too muddled in cocktail form,” Brendan remarked. “But I thought the bartenders…did a great job accenting the fruit notes in the Fresh Cut and the citrus notes in the Summer.”

On the other end of the spectrum was the Espresso Amber. One of Peak Organic’s boldest beers, this malty, coffee-forward brew was mixed with Vermont’s Silo bourbon, St. George’s NOLA coffee liqueur, and Bittermens bourbon bitters for what seemed like an espresso-infused Manhattan. “It was almost as if we had taken our Espresso Amber and aged it in bourbon barrels,” Brendan said, clearly impressed with the cocktail. “It was just a touch and the right amount of heat to bring all the flavors together.”

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Rounding out the evening’s selections was the Ginger Saison cocktail. Peak’s Ginger Saison is a vibrant beer, with clear notes of spicy ginger and the unmistakable flavor of Belgian yeast. In the cocktail version it combined with Riverboat rye whiskey, raisin syrup, and Meletti amaro. This was a beer-forward cocktail with a prominent ginger flavor, and the raisin syrup gave it a boost of sweetness.

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Peak Organic head brewer Jon Cadoux made the drive from Portland to see what Foundry had done with his brews. Admitting that he was beer-focused and not much of a cocktail guy, he seemed genuinely impressed with the variety of spirits behind Foundry’s bar. That makes sense; given the character of Peak’s beers and the brewery’s tendency to experiment with flavor combinations, it’s easy to imagine a brewer’s gears turning at the sight of such a broad toolkit of flavors and styles.

I’ll be honest and say I’ve never been a big fan of beer cocktails. I’ve always found that they taste like two drinks uncomfortably occupying the same glass. The cocktails at Farmed & Fizzed didn’t completely change my mind, but I appreciated Foundry’s focused approach and ability to choose spirits and mixers that complemented the flavors – obvious and subtle alike – in Peak Organic’s brews. And while Farmed & Fizzed was just a one-time event, cocktails that incorporate beer are likely to become increasingly common.

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“I think it's certainly something that we'll start seeing more and more as the beverage culture continues to develop,” Brendan said. “People will look for new ways to differentiate themselves, and beer cocktails could very likely be that new genre that people explore.”

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Movers & Shakers

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Cocktail competitions have become something of a routine occurrence in Boston. Not that “routine” should be construed as “boring.” These good-natured contests are typically fun and lively affairs that give talented bartenders an opportunity to showcase their skills. More than that, they are symbolic of the city’s rich, ever-evolving cocktail culture.

As these boozy battle royales are increasingly becoming de rigueur in the Boston area, Movers & Shakers has grown into something of an institution. Now in its sixth year, the Boston Center for the Arts’ Movers & Shakers competition features representatives of 16 local bars and restaurants, each with an original cocktail employing a spirit made by one of five sponsoring liquor producers. Many of the participants brought along food, too, which is good – even cocktails sized for sampling can catch up with you in a hurry.

Among this year’s featured spirits were Privateer rum, Glendalough whiskey, Zyr vodka, and Berkshire Mountain Distillers.

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Sponsor Collage

Taking place at the South End’s Cyclorama, teams from OAK Long Bar + Kitchen, Wink & Nod, Emerald, Kirkland Tap & Trotter, and a dozen others competed for the favor of three judges. (The crowd got to vote as well, though I don’t know how those votes were weighted against the judges’ opinions.) I didn’t get to try every cocktail, but each entry was sufficiently distinct; and taken together, the offerings served as a testament to the creativity and innovative spirit that has made the Boston area such a wonderful place in which to enjoy cocktails.

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The evening’s emcee was Josh Childs, overseer of Silvertone, Audubon, Trina’s Starlite Lounge, and Parlor Sports. As the proceedings drew to a close, Josh revealed the winners. Taking home the award for Best Presentation was Kendall Square’s Catalyst, with a pairing called “Peas and Carrots.” Their vibrant, funky-hued cocktail featured Privateer Silver rum, muddled pea tendrils, yellow chartreuse, blanc vermouth, orange bitters, and lemonade.

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Served alongside the “Peas” was this beautiful dish of roasted carrots, carrot pesto, and pressure-cooked yogurt.

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Ward 8 snagged Best Food and Cocktail Pairing. Their Dreamcatcher cocktail, a recent addition to their menu, is made with El Dorado 8-year rum, Privateer Amber rum, spiced Earl Grey tea, orgeat, and lime.

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The Dreamcatcher was paired with bacon cashew caramel popcorn, a staple of the Ward 8 menu. This almost wasn’t fair; as good as the cocktail was, you could pair sour milk with this decadent popcorn and still get a few votes.

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And the prestigious honor of Best Overall Cocktail was awarded to Pastoral, a Fort Point kitchen and bar known for Italian cuisine and artisan pizza. Their Lucid Inspiration, a mix of Berkshire Greylock gin, absinthe, and pea consumé, was herbal and vegetal with a touch of sweetness.

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Not everyone can win an award, of course, but I do think some honorable mention is in order. In my humble opinion, the unofficial award for best overall display goes to the Ritz-Carlton’s Avery Bar.

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The colorful fruit and orchids adorning their table announced the tropical flair of their food and drink pairing. The Herbaceous Privateer combined Privateer rum, Clemént Créole shrubb, velvet falernum, and angostura bitters. Boosting the rum quotient was a tropical fruit rum cake made with mango, papaya, pineapple, and Privateer rum. The cake was delicious and made for a sinful complement to the tiki-style drink.

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Avery Collage

And if there were an award for most audacious cocktail presentation, The Living Room would win it going away. Showing up to a craft cocktail competition with test tube shots is an expression of either supreme confidence or stunning naiveté. I’ve had bottled craft cocktails, cocktails served in fancy shot glasses…but a test tube? This was a first for me.

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Chances are, you’ve been in a bar where there’s a waitress walking around with a tray of test tube shots. For a dollar or two, you get a test tube filled with bottom-shelf liquor and an overly sugary mixing agent. Given how affordable they are, you might even get talked into a second one. The night quickly devolves from there, and you wake up the next morning and wonder, in horror, what act of stupidity you committed that warranted 57 “likes” on Twitter.

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Thus it was with low expectations that I surrendered a ticket for The Living Room’s “Cherries Fo’ Real” – and if I was already skeptical about the drink, the name did little to instill confidence in me. The woman behind the table removed a test tube from what appeared to be a block of ice and shook it up, at which point the liquid inside turned into an opaque shade of red (a phenomenon I failed to capture with my camera). “Down the hatch!” she cheerily said, erasing any doubt that this was a shot and not something to be sipped.

And you know what? It was really good! Made with Greylock gin, Bolton Farms apple cider, fresh ginger, freshly squeezed lemon juice, simple syrup, and Bing cherries, it was complex, sweet, and spicy. Why they chose to serve it in glassware that in any context other than a laboratory is a harbinger of poor decisions, I don’t know. But hey, whatever works.

Congratulations to Pastoral, Catalyst, and Ward 8 on their richly deserved honors, and cheers to everyone who participated.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Wink & Nod Gears up for Spring

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Thriving in a mode of endless reinvention is a demanding proposition. In an industry where failure is more likely than success, most bars and restaurants would be more than happy to find something that works – an approach, a style, a signature dish – and stick with it. Wink & Nod turns that conventional thinking on its head. With a rotating kitchen and what is now the third iteration of its cocktail program, change is the only constant at the South End speakeasy, which celebrated its first anniversary last month. And while April has thus far brought us little more than gray skies and sleet showers, Wink & Nod is debuting a spring cocktail menu that moves away from what beverage director Mike Boughton calls “hard-hitting cocktails and slow-sippers for the colder weather” and toward a selection of lighter, more refreshing libations.

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At a bar known for brown liquor and complexity, that notion may seem like a departure. Not so, says Mike, who explains that Wink & Nod’s approach to cocktails hasn’t changed, even if the complexion of some of the drinks has. “For the warmer weather, we really want to focus on lighter cocktails that go down easy but still taste great, still have good depth.”

Mike was kind enough to walk me through some of the new offerings this past week. Like spring itself, the new drink list is a work in progress – ingredients and portions are still being finalized, and some cocktails don’t even have names yet, like this blend of strawberry-infused vodka with Thai basil, fresh lemon, and a sichuan peppercorn tincture.

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(Note: Many of the cocktails shown here are sized for sampling. Don't worry, you'll get the full-size versions.)

Moniker or no, this dry, refreshing drink has a peppery finish and a mild, very natural fruitiness that seems perfect for a summer evening.

The Picador has a name and a story. Made with Don Julio Reposado tequila, Royal Combier (a fancy triple sec), and freshly squeezed lime juice, this precursor to the margarita may have its roots in Prohibition, according to bartender Jace. “The Picador was introduced to people who would have to sail out of American waters in order to drink,” he says. “They threw these lavish boat parties. This is kind of an ode to that, since spring and summer were perfect seasons to sail.”

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For such a simple drink, it’s full-flavored and satisfying. “It’s really just a basic cocktail recipe, but all the right flavors are in there,” Mike notes.

The Peugot is anything but simple. A “riff on a sidecar,” as bartender Dave describes it, this mix of cognac, mandarin orange liqueur, lemon, and agave is a complex reimagining of the vintage cocktail. A cardamom tincture contributes a distinct spiciness, while lemon oil on the top boosts the citrus components. Cognac may seem like more of a cold-weather spirit, but the fruit flavors and sweetness balance it out.

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The new cocktails are ideal for whiling away a summer evening, but they’re designed with more than just the season in mind. With what it calls a “culinary incubator program,” Wink & Nod turns over its kitchen to a different restaurant group every six months. Chefs Philip Kruta and Jeremy Kean of Whisk ran the show for the first six months, and Joshua Lewin and Kate Holowchik of Bread & Salt recently completed their own engagement. Setting up shop this month is Akinto, the concept of chef Patrick Enage. Bringing the flavors of Southeast Asia to the South End, Akinto’s menu blends styles and dishes from Thailand, India, and the Philippines, to name just a few.

Spicy pork wontons are plump and tasty, and a trio of sauces – anise BBQ, toasted sesame-rice wine, and peanut paste – allow for three very different tasting experiences.

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Prawns with squid ink lo mein are a treat for the eyes as well as the palate. Served in a red curry broth and topped with scallions and slices of green mango, it’s a seafood dish with a host of vibrant flavors.

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Swordfish belly is just as heavenly as its better-known porky brethren. With a Kabayaki glaze, salted duck egg vinaigrette, and Taiwan lettuce, it’s melt-in-your mouth tender.

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Given that the flavors in Akinto’s menu are quite literally all over the map, designing cocktails to pair with the dishes can be tricky. “When I first looked at Akinto’s menu, my idea for the cocktail menu was much different,” Mike admits. “I wanted to go a little heavier on the spices in the cocktails, incorporate some curry and coconut milk to reflect the food. But these are very heavily spiced dishes at it is, so I wanted to find something that would complement that instead of just add to it.” Citrus seems to be the solution, since the acid “doesn’t negate the spice, but complements it,” he says.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the Real McCoy. Made with Cutty Sark Prohibition scotch, Ramazzotti (a citrusy amaro), orange juice, and a house orgeat, it’s a lightly smoky, spicy drink with a fruit-forward aroma. A solid cocktail on its own, it truly comes alive when paired with the braised ox tail. This absurdly tender serving of beef comes with black bean-water spinach, jasmine rice, and chili oil for dipping. The spices in the dish and the flavors in the drink, in combination, exceed the sum of their parts.

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Rethinking the cocktail list to coincide with these periodic menu overhauls is a challenge, but it’s one the staff seems to relish. “It’s like we’re a new restaurant,” Mike says. “It gives us the opportunity to take a different approach to our cocktails, and really try to make them fit with the food, create a new experience…every six months.”

Chances are, they’d keep updating the drink list anyway, as evidenced by a couple of other new features. A Moscow Mule made with house ginger beer will be something of a rotating special, each time featuring a different base spirit. Like grappa, of all things. I clearly recall the first time I had grappa; I decided, without delay, that it would be the last. But the tea-infused version in the Grappa Mule is gentler than the typical grappa, and its floral, woody flavor makes for a surprisingly easy-drinking cocktail.

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There’s also a weekly punch that will feature varying recipes. First up is the “Bing! There Goes My Cherry” punch (“I didn’t name that,” one of the bartenders muttered), made with Papa’s Pilar rums, a cherry-cranberry tea infusion, and lemon. Mike puts it best: “Goes down pretty easily, packs quite a punch, literally.”

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Not all of the cocktails are changing. The Cure, one of the most popular items, will remain. An Old Fashioned made with applewood-smoked Bulleit bourbon, honey syrup, angostura bitters, and orange oil, this smoky drink first appeared on the fall/winter menu and quickly became a staple.

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Another favorite is the Indian Summer, which combines Nolet’s Silver gin, fresh grapefruit, St. Germain, and the house ginger beer.

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It’s a vibrant drink that goes well with the new menu, though but Mike foresees one minor issue. “We might have to change the name. Nobody wants to think about Indian summer in the beginning of spring.”

I think everyone in this city would agree.

Address: 3 Appleton Street, Boston

Website:http://winkandnod.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Stellina

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Few of life’s pleasures are more satisfying in combination than jazz and cocktails. The two have enjoyed a long, productive relationship, dating back at least to the 1920s, when illicit speakeasies jumped and swayed to the sounds of live jazz. The pair may have reached their cultural zenith in the nightclubs of the mid-20th century; the image of men in sharp suits and women in glamorous dresses, sipping martinis while a crooner and big band fill the room with swing music and sultry classics, remains iconic. Jazz and cocktails have never truly been out of style, though their popularity has certainly ebbed and flowed over the years. Today you can find exceptional craft cocktails in any number of Boston-area establishments, and there are plenty of places where you can hear some smokin’ jazz. If you’re looking for nightly jazz played by an ever-shifting lineup of locals, Wally’s is your best bet. If nationally renowned performers are your thing, there’s Scullers and Regattabar. Fashionable entries like the Beehive and Beat Hotel fall somewhere in the middle.

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Watertown’s Stellina probably isn’t even on your radar. That’s understandable – it’s a suburban Italian restaurant, not a jazz club, and they only have live jazz on Tuesday nights. But for me, Stellina hits the sweet spot – solid jazz, above-average cocktails, a cozy bar, affordable food options, and a laid-back atmosphere. (It’s also a 10-minute walk from my home, which doesn’t hurt.)

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Having served Watertown for nearly 30 years, Stellina is a bona fide institution. Their Italian cuisine has won awards from Boston Magazine, and their beautiful back patio provides for elegant dining beneath the stars. Walled off from the main dining room is Stellina’s bar area, with a 14-seat bar and several two-seat tables. Dark wood and red lighting give the space an intimate appearance, but the mood is decidedly casual.

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This is where the Noteworthy Jazz Ensemble, the house band since 2008, sets up around 6 p.m. every Tuesday. The quartet – sax, guitar, bass, and drums – seamlessly blends timeless standards like “Caravan,” “Black Orpheus,” “Moanin’,” and “A Foggy Day” with original numbers and off-the-cuff jams (you might even hear a Black Sabbath riff or two thrown in).

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Overall, it’s a laid-back affair. The band fields occasional requests from customers and chats with regulars during breaks. If you’re sitting close enough, you can hear them discussing which key to play a particular song in. The music isn’t so intense that it inhibits conversation, but it doesn’t fade into the background, either. And while you can hear the Ellington and Coltrane tunes from just about anywhere in the restaurant, the bar is the place to be if you’re a jazz fan.

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Obviously, it’s the best place to be for drinks, too. Italian restaurants may be better known for wine than for cocktails, but Stellina is the only place I know of in Watertown with a cocktail program of this caliber. The rotating drink menu reflects some of the broader trends in nearby Boston and Cambridge, updating classic cocktails with inventive twists and offering a few original concoctions with house ingredients.

The Cool-Manhattan is the quintessential partner for some cool jazz. It’s an appropriately straightforward Manhattan made with Maker’s 46 (aged a little longer than the flagship Maker’s Mark), Carpano sweet vermouth, bitters, and a Luxardo cherry.

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In a similar vein is the Cocktail Italiano, combining Old Overholt Rye, Amaro Montenegro, grapefruit bitters, and lemon syrup, garnished with a mint leaf. Dry and sour, a fresh, minty aroma accompanies every sip.

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The Hot Toddy has no doubt been a popular item in this hellish winter, and it demonstrates Stellina’s tendency to mix things up a bit with some of the supporting ingredients. Applejack brandy combines with lemon peel and a ginger- and chamomile-infused honey for a sweet, apple-forward drink with plenty of flavor. Warms the belly and the soul on a brisk night.

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The Cocktail 47 (named after Stellina’s address) is sort of a vodka-based riff on the Hemingway daiquiri. Made with Belvedere grapefruit vodka, maraschino liqueur, fresh grapefruit, and lime, there’s a lot going on in this one – a blast of sourness and a prominent grapefruit flavor.

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The Caipirinha Sour is a more recent addition to the menu, and one of the few missteps. This mix of cachaça, muddled lime, homemade sour mix, and fresh tangerine has all the right ingredients for a refreshing variation of traditional Brazilian cocktail, but it’s topped with a flat soda that mutes those great flavors.

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There are plenty more creative high points, though, like the simply titled “Pear.” Made with Belle de Brillet Pear Cognac, Grey Goose vodka, reduced pear, and vanilla nectar, it’s a soft, smooth drink that nonetheless packs a punch.

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The Ransom Citrus-Lavender combines Ransom Old Tom gin, a lemon cordial, and lavender-citrus infused agave. It’s dry and full-flavored, with a distinct citrus component and a delicate floral essence.

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The Royal Snap is an unusually complex rendering of a whiskey and ginger, made with the intriguing Whippersnapper Oregon whiskey, which has some gin-like botanical notes to it, along with muddled blood orange, homemade orange bitters, a ginger reduction, and ginger beer.

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For those craving something more straightforward, the Moscow Mule is simple and traditional – Tito’s Handmade vodka, ginger beer, and lime, served in the customary copper cup.

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My good friend and fellow barhopper/Watertown resident/jazz fan Mario and I have resolved to hit Stellina at least one Tuesday a month for this jazz-and-cocktail combo, and so far we have a perfect record in 2015. It’s an endeavor made easier by some fairly economical dinner selections. On the antipasti menu, the handmade sweet potato gnocchi, tossed with Gorgonzola, sage, and Parmesan, is generously sized and delicious. I’ve always been curious to try gnocchi made with sweet potato; it adds a nice dimension.

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There’s a selection of flatbreads that you can customize if you so desire. This smoked prosciutto, garlic, Fontina, and rosemary pizza, with hot sausage added, is becoming my go-to order.

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And if you’re craving something sweet, the Crème Brulee Napoleon tastes as good as it looks. Layered with phyllo pastry, caramel sauce, and toasted hazelnuts, it’s crunchy and surprisingly light (I’m not necessarily speaking form a caloric standpoint here).

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Concluding with such a beautifully presented dessert seems fitting, in a way. Nearly everything about Stellina reveals a fondness for performance and artistry – from hosting live jazz to serving contemporary craft cocktails with lemon cordials, infused syrups, and fruit reductions. In addition to the weekly jazz nights are occasional opera nights, author nights, and wine tastings. Even the blog on their website is well written and regularly updated. To me that signals a creative spirit, and whether it’s in a restaurant in Watertown, a jazz club in Boston, or a modern cocktail bar, that’s a great attribute to have.

Address: 47 Main Street, Watertown

Website:http://www.stellinarestaurant.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Glendalough Distillery and the Independent Spirit

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Ireland’s history of distillation is as turbulent as it is long.

At its height of production in the 18th and 19th centuries, the small island boasted 200 licensed distilleries and perhaps as many as 2,000 illicit ones. But heavy taxation, regulation, two world wars, and the loss of a certain large customer due to Prohibition brought the industry to its knees, leaving only a handful of distilleries in operation to this day.

Loss of Independence – and Identity

Most of the remaining distilleries have ensured their survival by allowing themselves to be purchased by multinational conglomerates with multiple brands under their respective umbrellas.

That bittersweet progression reached a culmination of sorts in January 2012, when the last independently owned whiskey distillery in Ireland passed into foreign hands.

Now in one sense, this isn’t all bad news. Deep-pocketed corporations pouring money into a domestic brand can create or sustain jobs, modernize aging facilities, and open up new markets in far-flung regions.

But for a nation that cherishes its independence the way Ireland does, it must be galling to know that some of its most beloved products amount to little more than a line item on some foreign company’s balance sheet.

And while Irish whiskey has enjoyed an international renaissance in the past five years, there’s something perverse about Bushmills whiskey being owned by Jose Cuervo.

Makers of fine Irish whiskey.
Makers of fine Irish whiskey.

The Return of Craft

But Donal O’Gallachoir is helping bring Irish distillation back to its roots. Donal is one of the founders and owners of Glendalough Distillery – the first craft distillery in Ireland.

Founded in 2011 as the brainchild of five friends from Dublin and Wicklow, Glendalough Distillery represents an effort to recapture the character and heritage of a centuries-old industry that’s had more than its share of ups and downs.

“We wanted to bring back something real, something historic,” Donal tells me over drinks at Fort Point’s Blue Dragon. Glendalough’s brand manager, Donal relocated to Boston last year and has been bringing the distillery’s growing line of spirits to American shores.

And while Glendalough is a young distillery, Donal and company have cloaked their brand in Irish history, from basing their spirits on ancient recipes and methods to adopting the figure of St. Kevin, a 6th century Irish abbot, as something of a spiritual guide.

The Legend of Kevin

While from a distance it might look like Gandalf preparing to take down a balrog, that’s St. Kevin on the label of Glendalough’s bottles. The founder of Glendalough, the beautiful valley in Ireland from which the distillery takes its name, St. Kevin is known to have been a fiercely independent holy man, though the actual record of his life is long on folklore and short on verifiable facts.

The most enduring legend involving St. Kevin, immortalized in verse by the late Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney, is that a blackbird once landed in his outstretched hand, and such was Kevin’s patience that he remained completely still for weeks while the bird built a nest and laid eggs, not moving until the chicks eventually hatched and flew off.

The blackbird story is an allegory of determination and independence, and it’s easy to see why a fledgling distillery would draw inspiration from the celebrated saint.

Those characteristics are evident as Glendalough continues its gradual rollout. The product line is small but growing, consisting of three aged whiskies, a gin, and a spirit that relatively few Americans may be familiar with – poitín.

Irish Moonshine

Poitín (pronounced put-cheen) represents a fascinating chapter of Irish history and culture. A spirit traditionally made from malted barley, sugar beets, and potatoes in a pot still, poitín predates whiskey and is considered one of the oldest distilled beverages in the world, first appearing in written record in 584 A.D. Irish authorities prohibited its distillation in the 17th century, but production continued in secret, making it the Irish equivalent of moonshine.

And once it retreated to the shadows, poitín became the stuff of legend, with an alcohol content ranging from 50% to as high as 95%. After 300 years of illicit production, poitín was approved for exportation in 1989 and finally for domestic sales in 1997.

Poitín’s historical credentials make it an entirely appropriate product for a distillery trying to recapture the essence of old-school Irish spirit production. “It’s the definition of craft distilling,” Donal says.

At 40% ABV, Glendalough’s Premium Irish doesn’t quite approach the organ-melting potency of homemade poitín. But the recipe is rooted in tradition, dating back to the 1700s. Made from a mash of malted barley and sugar beet and aged in Irish oak barrels, the clear spirit has the body of a single-malt whiskey but a sweet flavor that’s almost reminiscent of rum.

Consumed neat or on the rocks, Glendalough’s poitín has a somewhat creamy mouthfeel with an overall earthiness and a blend of fruits that we don’t encounter often on our side of the Pond, like gooseberries and blackcurrants. It makes for an unusual but appealing tasting experience.

It also works well in cocktails, and Blue Dragon’s Cliffs of Glendalough features a bold, coffee-infused poitín with rich notes of chocolate and spices.

Resurgence of Irish Whiskey

An unfamiliar spirit like poitín might require some explanation, but Irish whiskey needs no introduction. After decades of playing second fiddle to Scottish whisky – in terms of popularity, anyway – Irish whiskey has spent the past several years reclaiming its onetime international glory. 2011 marked the first year that Irish whiskey outsold single malt scotch in the United States, and the spirit’s been on a global upswing since then.

That makes the timing of Glendalough’s entry to the market fortuitous. They offer three whiskies – 7-year and 13-year single malts, and as of this March, an intriguing product called Double Barrel. Hearkening back to a 19th-century style, it’s a single-grain whiskey that spends three and a half years in an American bourbon barrel before being transferred to a Spanish sherry barrel for six months.

Double Barrel

The result is a whiskey with an oaky vanilla flavor and an unexpected fruit character. Donal calls it “light, sweet, and complex,” with depth from malted barley and sweetness from corn. It’s a very accessible whiskey, but surprising notes of spice, ginger, and nutmeg make it complex enough to interest a veteran whiskey drinker.

After sampling it neat, I ordered the Double Barrel in a cocktail, expressing no preference for the type of drink as long as it showcased the whiskey. Our bartender went all out and made “something special” – an Old Fashioned variation with the Glendalough Double Barrel, Benedictine, allspice-infused honey syrup, and old fashioned bitters.

Special indeed! The honey and spice smartly complemented the sweet and spicy notes in the whiskey, while the Benedictine added a bitter, herbal character.

Growth of a Brand

According to the Irish Spirits Association, Ireland exported about 6.2 million cases of whiskey last year, and that figure is projected to double by 2020.

Amid this rapidly increasing global demand, Glendalough Distillery is gradually carving out a small niche for itself. As of March 2015, you’ll only find their spirits in Boston, New York, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., but the essence of craft distilling is starting small and worrying more about quality than sales figures.

And Glendalough seems content to build their brand not with flashy ad campaigns but by establishing relationships with bar owners, managers, and industry professionals – people who appreciate a small-batch spirit with a unique flavor profile that can feature in an original cocktail.

Irish Hospitality

Some good ol’ Irish charm doesn’t hurt either, as is evident during my conversation with Donal. Chatting with Glendalough’s brand manager is a genuine pleasure. The man has an inexhaustible supply of stories about his native Ireland, the history of Irish distilling, the spirits industry in general, his favorite Boston bars, you name it.

But it’s more than just idle chatter. Entertaining tales and anecdotes aside, Donal’s passion for Glendalough’s spirits is unmistakable, as is his respect for Ireland’s distilling heritage. The Emerald Isle's spirit industry is one of the oldest in the world and has endured staggering swings of fortune, from once having hundreds of distilleries to being nearly wiped out to having all of its major producers bought up by foreign investors.

A man and his booze.
A man and his booze.

Donal and company are adding a new chapter to that dramatic narrative.

And while it’s all well and good that huge corporations are bringing Irish whiskey to every corner of the globe, small craft distilleries like Glendalough are getting back to what made the stuff so popular in the first place.

“You can look back on it and say, I made that,” Donal remarks as I admire a bottle of his whiskey.

Call me idealistic, but that seems more satisfying than saying “My company bought the company that made that.”

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Fairsted Kitchen

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Even if you aren’t familiar with the name Frederick Law Olmsted, chances are you’re acquainted with his work.

Olmsted is widely regarded as the godfather of American landscape architecture. In the latter half of the 19th century, Olmsted devoted his career to the design of urban parks and green spaces. Among the highlights of his spectacular resume are New York’s Central Park and, closer to home, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the parkway that stretches from Back Bay to Dorchester and includes such tranquil sanctuaries as the Public Garden and the Arnold Arboretum. Olmsted moved to Brookline in 1883 and did much of his design work from his home office, which also served as the nation’s first full-time landscape architecture firm. He called his estate “Fairsted.”

More than a century later, Olmsted’s adopted hometown still bears his imprint. And on Beacon Street, a thoroughfare that would look unfathomably different without Olmsted’s influence, Fairsted Kitchen offers a nod to the famous landscape architect.

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“We always tell people that Fairsted [Kitchen] could only exist in Washington Square, nowhere else,” bartender Will Isaza says while expounding upon the spirit of the neighborhood’s chief designer and onetime resident. “He made Beacon Street what it is today.”

The restaurant honors Olmsted not only nominally but aesthetically as well, capturing the essence of a Victorian-era home with its antique accessories, vintage-style wallpaper, and long curtains clasped behind floor-to-ceiling windows. A long table in the dining room and a menu teeming with small plates recall the sense of community that Olmsted promoted with his public parks.

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But if the work of a 19th century urban planner doesn’t particularly resonate with you, Fairsted also evokes an atmosphere that may have a more sentimental appeal. “The owners wanted it to feel like grandma’s living room,” Will says. And that may be an even better way to describe the space.

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Despite having opened its doors just over a year ago, Fairsted has the appearance and character of an old-fashioned, well-maintained home. Hardwood floors and wooden tables, glowing candles, polished silver, and sconce lighting give it a sense of timelessness.

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And as you might expect of a beloved grandparent’s house, Fairsted is neat and tidy but dotted with conversation pieces. Behind the 12-seat bar, with its stainless steel surface, is a collection of odds and ends such as books, toy dinosaurs, and a globe. None of the plates, silverware, or glassware are coordinated, giving the impression that they’d belonged to disparate collections that have lost pieces over the years.

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Taken together, the subtle touches serve to make Fairsted feel cozy and lived-in, like a home that’s been blessed with a steady stream of occupants and visitors over the years.

Of course, your grandparents probably never made the sort of drinks you’ll find here.

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Fairsted Kichen stands out in a neighborhood that isn’t known for its variety of craft cocktail bars. Fairsted’s beverage program, designed collectively by the staff, is highly original but approachable. There’s a deliberate effort to “keep it light,” as Will says, particularly with drinks named for movies (Days of Future Past Punch) and songs. With a nod to both the Beastie Boys and the town Fairsted resides in, No Sleep Til Brookline combines bourbon, Amaro Montenegro, lemon, and Angostura bitters.

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The Fresh Tracks, made with vodka, thyme, lemon, and Chartreuse, is surprising. With strong flavors like thyme and Chartreuse, I was expecting something bold and intensely herbal. Instead it’s light, refreshing, and well balanced, with a mild bitterness. Will explains that Fresh Tracks is made with a thyme- and tarragon-infused vodka, as opposed to a syrup, which seems to soften the flavor somewhat.

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There’s nothing soft about the Foreign Legion, though, with its mix of mezcal, sherry, Ancho Reyes, and Punt e Mes. Mezcal’s distinctive smoky character is a natural partner for Ancho Reyes, a spicy ancho chile liqueur, and the Punt e Mes adds its trademark bitterness. The sherry contributes a rich, nutty flavor and keeps the whole affair pretty balanced.

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Much like the bar’s menagerie of mismatched oddities, Fairsted’s drinks are intended to spark conversation. On that note, few drinks command more attention than the Black Sails, with its unexpected display of pyrotechnics. This blend of rum, lime, Cappelletti, and cacao garners oohs and ahhhs when a dusting of cinnamon is ignited while being sprinkled over the top of the drink (an event I most assuredly would have photographed had I known it was coming). The cocktail itself lives up to its fiery presentation, with bold notes of chocolate and cinnamon.

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A cascade of sparks might be an obvious conversation starter, but many of the drinks are intended to prompt a question or two on account of their sometimes unusual composition. “Count Me In!” is a crisp, bitter cocktail made with fresh orange, Becherovka, Campari, and soda. You’re far more knowledgeable than I am if you know what Becherovka is without having to look it up.

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The Southern Cross is made with cognac, clove, Amaro Meletti, and bubbles. The source of the up-front clove flavor is mysterious – is it a liqueur? a syrup? an infused spirit?

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You can pull out your phone and discover that Becherovka is an herbal liqueur made in the Czech Republic (and that their website is maddening to navigate). You can speculate about the source of the clove flavor in the Southern Cross. Then again, why not just ask?

“We keep the lines of communication open,” Will says. “We don’t want to scare anyone away.” And he acknowledges that something like “clove” is deliberately vague. “We try to keep it simple in terms of the flavor components. If people want to ask about the ingredients, we can tell them. If not, at least they know the flavors.” (I did ask – it’s a clove and cardamom syrup.)

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If any of Fairsted’s drinks demand a little interrogation, it’s the rotating selection of draft and bottled offerings. Among local establishments, Fairsted has been at the forefront of this still emerging trend. Will acknowledges that the decision to offer pre-made craft cocktails has its roots in efficiency, a means of minimizing customer wait time and speeding up the production of some labor-intensive drinks. “But after that, it became ‘let’s see how weird we can get’,” he says.

There’s plenty of weirdness coming through those draft lines. The herbal Doctor’s Orders is an unusual cocktail made with rye whiskey, cherry, fenugreek, and Punt e Mes. The name is appropriate; fenugreek is a plant often used for medicinal purposes.

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The Katsura is a draft aperitif that combines sherry and a scotch infused with capers and apricot. It’s a variation of a Bamboo cocktail and named for the signature work of a famous bamboo artist. The flavor is utterly unique; I mean, who infuses scotch with anything, let alone capers and apricot?

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Will says the staff thrives on devising creative combinations like that, although there are limits to which ingredients can be served in draft form. Citrus and fruit juices, with their acidic content, would tear up the draft lines. But when it comes to bottling cocktails, pretty much anything goes. Will explains that the biggest challenges with creating a good bottled cocktail is making something that’s spirit-forward, fresh, and can be carbonated.

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The bottled Chasing Daylight combines aged gin with spiced pear and apple, with a twist of lemon over the top. Fruity but not sweet, it’s a crisp drink with a natural pear flavor and a little spice.

Beyond the twin challenges of being as weird as possible and approachable as possible, Fairsted’s cocktail program tries to make season-appropriate drinks that complement the food menu. This is a “kitchen,” after all. There’s an emphasis on sharing, with a diverse offering of snacks and small plates. Like the drink program, the food selection balances accessibility with creativity.

And yes, there’s a little “weirdness,” too.

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It’s not every day you see a pig head lettuce wrap, but it’s something of a signature item at Fairsted. The meat is indeed from a pig's head that’s braised overnight and crusted in panko. Served with carrot, daikon, cilantro, and chile pepper, it’s a crunchy, smoky, spicy bar snack.

Deviled eggs, topped with scallions and a sweet sauce, were on special during one of my visits. They were a little too chilled, but satisfying nonetheless.

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Seasonal ingredients and clever flavor combinations infuse the rest of the regular menu. Potato latkes are served with a sweet saffron apple butter and scallion cream. Gnocchi is made with crosnes (a Chinese artichoke), walnut, roasted garlic, and Parmesan cheese. Cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are savory and vibrant, while the hazelnut spaetzle has a warm, nutty flavor.

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The Turkish meatballs, though, are a true standout. Made with lamb, seasoned with allspice, and served with Greek yogurt, these flaky, spicy meatballs pretty much melt in your mouth.

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Thinking back to Will’s remark about Fairsted’s cocktails complementing the seasonal cuisine, it’s easy to see some thoughtful parallels among the winter vegetables, savory ingredients, and sweet flavors that can warm your bones on a chilly night. But I think the most effective pairing I encountered came during dessert. It’s rare to see a carefully thought out menu of dessert cocktails; I feel like after-dinner drinks are often limited to some combination of coffee, cream, chocolate, whiskey, and Baileys. But Fairsted offers a rotating list of dessert drinks that are as imaginative as their regular libations.

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The Armchair Sailor combines rum, vermouth, and homemade orgeat syrup for a rich, sweet cocktail served in a perfectly sized glass. It pairs beautifully with a slice of blood orange pie.

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Topped with two thin slices of blood orange, the spices in this custard-like pie complement the sweetness of the rum and the almond flavor in the syrup. With decadent pairings like this, you’d be wise to save room for dessert.

Just like grandma would have suggested.

Address: 1704 Beacon Street, Brookline

Website:http://fairstedkitchen.com/

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