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.

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.

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.

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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Derby Collage

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.

Sponsor Collage

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.

Avery Collage

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.

Bacon & Bourbon Brunch at Anthem

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I don’t have any hard data to back this up, but I think I can say with confidence that no meat product is celebrated as frequently, as fervently, or as lustily as bacon. There are websites and blogs devoted to bacon. A very quick web search reveals that at least half the states in the union have hosted a bacon festival within their borders in the past year. Put the words “bacon-infused” in front of anything, whether it’s a spirit, a food item, or just a glass of water, and people will order it, gleefully, no questions asked. You want to see a vegetarian sweat? Fry up some bacon. Even vegans gotta shout. Bacon’s hype is richly deserved. This simplest and least healthy of meats adds a dose of awesomeness to everything it touches. Put a few rashers of bacon next to a plate of eggs, and you have the most iconic of breakfast dishes. Toss a few slices on an otherwise average burger and suddenly that burger becomes extraordinary. Wrap some scallops up in bacon and watch the most mild-mannered of party guests jockey for position in front of a platter of hors d’oeuvres.

And if you combine bacon with bourbon and create an entire brunch menu focused on those two hallowed ingredients, I will head into Boston early on a snowy Sunday morning and stand outside your door, shaking with anticipation until you let me in.

That’s pretty much the way things went down last weekend at Anthem Kitchen + Bar.

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Anthem’s Bacon & Bourbon Brunch was nothing less than a meditation on the glory of being alive. The menu was a bacon and bourbon lover’s dream, featuring mouthwatering items such as French toast with bacon and bourbon-infused maple syrup, and lobster eggs benedict with a pancetta hollandaise sauce. Something like “bacon and eggs,” by comparison, might sound a little humdrum. Not so. This didn’t feature “bacon” in the conventional sense, but something arguably better – bourbon maple pork belly, along with a heaping pile of cheesy grits. The pork belly was absolutely out of this world – melt-in-your-mouth tender, bursting with the richest, sweetest, smokiest flavor imaginable. I could seriously have eaten this until my arteries put up a “not a thruway” sign.

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The bacon and apple Monte Cristo was loaded with house-roasted turkey and topped with bourbon bacon jam (!!), granny smith apples, and cheddar cheese, served on French toast with maple syrup on the side. This was a great big sandwich with a splendid combination of flavors. The apple slices added a crisp texture that contrasted with the soft, warm French toast.

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And just as bourbon infused the food menu, bacon found its way into nearly all the cocktails.

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If there’s an hour of the day that’s too early to drink an Old Fashioned, then I’d rather sleep right through it. But it’s hard to argue that the Bacon Old Fashioned, made with bacon-infused Bulleit bourbon, muddled orange, sugar, and orange bitters, wasn’t perfectly suited to the most important meal of the day. This variation of the timeless classic had a big, bold flavor, and a garnish of candied bacon provided a smoky aroma with each sip. Bits of mashed-up orange permeated the drink, and little flakes of bacon floating around made it taste like a true breakfast cocktail.

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There’s no bourbon in a Bloody Mary, but Anthem managed to squeeze the most traditional of brunch cocktails into the theme by coating the rim of the glass in chopped bacon and celery salt. It had all the usual components – a house-made bloody mary mix, tomato juice, and vodka – and added a slice of bacon as a garnish. The rim was a little too salty for my taste, with the bacon/salt combo, but it was solid overall.

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The Sweet and Smoky Sling, however, was perfect. As the name implied, this drink was equal parts smoky and sweet, made with bacon-infused Bulleit bourbon, simple syrup, fresh lemon, pineapple juice, and a slice of candied bacon. This was a well-balanced cocktail – sweet and fruity with just enough smoke, and grounded in bourbon’s characteristic warmth and depth.

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Loaded with tourist traps and memorabilia shops, Faneuil Hall holds limited appeal for those of us who live and work in the city. But I’ve always argued that it has a few gems, and I’ve long been fond of Anthem. I don’t know whether Anthem will be adding any of these bacon-themed cocktails or bourbon-infused food items to their regular menu. But even if it was just for one morning, it’s always encouraging to discover original ideas in an area of town better known for playing it safe.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Standard Education – It’s All in the Details

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It would be difficult to overstate Eastern Standard’s contributions to Boston’s drinking culture. Since its opening nearly 10 years ago, the Kenmore Square bar and restaurant has helped set the tone for craft cocktails in the city by reinterpreting classic drinks through a modern lens, unearthing age-old recipes and techniques, and of course, creating innovative original cocktails with a broad array of quality spirits and fresh ingredients. The bar attracts top talent, serves as a launch pad for respected mixologists who go on to open their own bars, and remains a cocktail destination in a neighborhood better known for baseball and beer. So when Eastern Standard offers a day’s worth of seminars on topics like how to create original cocktails, make French pastries, and identify subtle aromas in wine, you’d be wise not to miss class.

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Now in its second year, “Standard Education” is a chance for food and drink lovers to go behind the scenes at Eastern Standard and pick up a few tips from the pros. Those looking to beef up their personal hospitality game had a series of four 60-minute interactive classes, appropriately subtitled “It’s All in the Details,” to choose from. The day began with a lesson on how to make “flawless” French macarons, taught by Eastern Standard pastry chef Lauren Kroesser, and continued with a class on creating original cocktails, led by beverage programs liaison Bob McCoy.

Figuring that drinking and learning isn’t a bad way to spend a day, I attended a couple of afternoon and evening classes and was happy to pick up a few pointers from some of the best in the business.

“Scents” Memory: Bridging the Gap Between Wine Aromatics and Grape Varietals Through Olfactory Exploration

I experience the most remarkable phenomenon every time I smell rosemary. One whiff of this fragrant herb, and suddenly I’m a kid again, standing on my cousins’ front doorstep on Christmas morning. My aunt opens the door, and the first thing I’m aware of is the unmistakable aroma of my uncle’s cooking. My uncle was a fantastic cook, and if there was anything that could compare with the thrill of tearing open presents and emptying stockings in front of the fireplace, it was my uncle’s Christmas dinner. The feast would be in the works when I arrived, and despite the countless aromas that must have been wafting out from the kitchen, the one that always stood out for me was rosemary.

As a child, I can’t say I had any particular knowledge or affection for rosemary; it was only as an adult, when I got into cooking, that I began to associate the herb’s aroma with a specific, vivid memory. But the scent of that herb, and the personal experiences that accompany it, are embedded deep in my psyche, and with just one sniff, I can summon the warmth of my aunt and uncle’s home, the unbridled excitement of Christmas morning, and the joy of spending the holiday with my family.

That’s what Colleen Hein, Eastern Standard’s wine director, calls “scents” memory – the power of a certain aroma to transport you to a time, place, or episode from your past. Her class was geared toward teaching us to appreciate the power and sensitivity of our sense of smell, build a “memory database” of different aromas, and learn to identify those scents and flavors in wine.

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Before class began, attendees had a chance to peruse an aroma kit arranged on a table at the front of the room. This collection is meant to help isolate certain scents and create a language for discussing and enjoying wine. The items range from the aromatic, like lavender; to nostalgic, like apple pie; to the unexpected – like a boot and a glue stick.

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After sniffing around the menagerie of aromatic articles, we moved on to the wine. Set before each attendee was a series of five glasses of wine – three whites, two reds, but no other identifying features. Colleen asked us to sniff each wine and jot down our impressions of the aromas. The goal wasn’t necessarily to pinpoint every flavor in the glass or try to guess what kind of wine it was, but more to respond to the aromas, identify what we could, and see whether the aromas triggered any images or memories for us.

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I can’t say I had any revelations, but I did manage to pick out a few scents among the wines, like apricot, pear, and tobacco. Given how animated some of my classmates got over their discoveries, though, I was beginning to question my nose’s effectiveness.

The second exercise served only to confirm my fears.

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Colleen passed around a series of five kitchen shakers, each filled with an aromatic substance that we were supposed to identify. I struggled to figure out the first scent, finally settling on “chocolate cake mix.” Turned out to be toasted brioche. For a shaker that contained lime, I offered the incisive comment “some fruit.” At least I was in the ballpark with that one, which is more than I can say for the container filled with green pepper and pencil shavings. My interpretation? “Wet something.”

There was one shaker for which I couldn’t even hazard a guess, but since it turned out to be black olives, I’ll give myself a pass; I detest olives and rarely have occasion to smell them. I did manage to correctly recognize the smell of honey, but it’s safe to say I won’t have any winemakers asking me to help them pen descriptions for their labels anytime soon.

Aromanalysis action shot.

Aromanalysis action shot.

Despite my olfactory inadequacy, I found some measure of redemption in the third exercise, going three for five when asked to match the aromas in the canisters to the grape varietals in the wine. And when Colleen unveiled the mystery wines we’d been sampling, I realized I’d correctly identified one of them as a Sauvignon Blanc. (That doesn’t exactly make me the Sherlock Holmes of wines, since Sauvignon Blanc is my favorite type, but I’ll settle for a moral victory.)

So a career as a sommelier probably isn’t in my future, but my takeaway from Colleen’s class is that a wine’s aroma can be as important as its taste, and it’s worth paying attention to. Every person perceives aromas differently, but having a common language to discuss a wine’s character and complexity offers another way to truly share a bottle.

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Before moving onto the second class, I suppose I should attach a brief postscript to the aforementioned anecdote about my “scents memory” of rosemary. My uncle passed away about six years ago, but before he did, I made a point of telling him that his use of rosemary in his cooking triggered the warmest, most profound memory for me. And you know what he told me?

That he rarely, if ever, cooked with rosemary.

Maybe I was smelling the Christmas tree.

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Punches for Parties

Making a punch is an efficient way to serve drinks to your guests. Of course, punch has different connotations depending on your age and maturity level. There’s the kind of punch you see at kids’ birthday parties, a sugary mix of fruit juices and sherbet. Punches for the college sect are similar – just swap out the sherbet for a handle of vodka. Then there’s the traditional definition of a punch – a five-component beverage dating back to 17th century, when sailors in the British East India Company brought the concept back from India. You can probably guess which version you’ll find at Eastern Standard. (No, not the second one.)

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“Punches for Parties,” led by Eastern Standard bar manager Naomi Levy and held in the comfortable confines of the adjacent Hawthorne bar, offered a brief history of punch and a hands-on lesson in how to make a couple of recipes used at the bar.

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Dating back nearly four centuries, punch is a communal drink that pre-dates the standalone cocktail and requires five ingredients: booze, citrus, spice, sugar, and water. That’s a basic recipe with a lot of flexibility, and punch has been subject to near-infinite variations in its long history.

One creative and effective way to get two of those ingredients in there is by making oleo-saccharum. It’s fairly straightforward – according to Eastern Standard’s recipe, peel three lemons and one orange, and combine with six ounces of sugar in large bowl. With a muddler, you mash the peels into the sugar until the sugar is damp with the oil from the fruit. Then you let it sit for anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours.

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While our oleo-saccharum rested for a bit, we watched while Naomi demonstrated the rediscovered art of making a clarified milk punch. Milk punch is an Eastern Standard specialty that has its roots in the 18th century and has enjoyed a surge of popularity in recent years. In the most basic terms, making a milk punch involves heating milk to 180 degrees; combining it with a mixture of booze, citrus, and simple syrup; letting it curdle; and then straining it until the punch is clear. Then it’s just a matter of convincing people who aren’t accustomed to hearing the words “milk” and “punch” used in the same phrase that it’s actually much better than it sounds.

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That shouldn’t be too hard with this recipe. While the process of making a milk punch can occupy an entire day (the straining takes a while), Naomi managed to speed things up for demonstration purposes. After lots of heating, pouring, and straining, this bourbon-based milk punch was astonishingly clear, with a silky texture and a remarkable blend of rich, sweet, and spicy flavors. A maple-thyme simple syrup added an especially nice touch. And since milk does a body good, you can always justify a second glass.

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After polishing off some milk punch, it was time to revisit our oleo-saccharum. Having sat for a half-hour, it yielded a sweet, citrusy oil, to which we added six ounces of fresh lemon juice. After stirring to dissolve the remaining sugar and removing the peels, we had a sweet mixture that would factor into the Eastern Standard Tea Punch (actually, we got to bottle ours and take it home while Naomi did the heavy lifting).

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This punch is a lot less labor-intensive than the milk punch and probably a little more approachable. It involves combining VSOP brandy, Appleton Reserve rum, Rooibos tea, the lemon juice and oleo-saccharum mix, and water.

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If you have any huge, industrial-cut, perfectly clear ice cubes kicking around, adding them to the punch bowl will impress your guests (and chill the punch, of course).

There was plenty of both punches to go around, so we all helped ourselves to a second glass while chatting among ourselves and pelting Naomi with questions. And I realized that this traditionally communal drink was doing exactly what it was intended to do – foster a convivial atmosphere and promote conversation among a group of strangers. Even after 300+ years, a good punch still does the trick.

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Approachability has long been one of Eastern Standard’s hallmarks. Its beverage program attracts plenty of cocktail connoisseurs with adventurous palates, while its proximity to Fenway Park draws game-day crowds that probably aren’t coming in for the milk punch. I imagine it’s a bit of a balancing act, but Eastern Standard maintains the broad appeal of a neighborhood bar and restaurant.

The staff’s willingness to interact with customers and share their expertise serves as another example of that accessibility. For now, Standard Education remains a one-day annual event, so class won’t be in session again until next winter. But you can discover something new anytime you visit.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Savvor – Bartender Battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Death Comes to Boston – Death & Co. Cocktail Book Launch

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I own about a half-dozen cocktail books – an old-school classic or two, some contemporary offerings, a couple of more focused ones. So where do I turn when I’m looking for a recipe? The web, of course.

The notion of a hard-copy cocktail book might seem a little quaint in a day and age when thousands of recipes and their innumerable variations, along with pictures, instructional videos, and detailed tips, tricks, and suggestions, are instantly available to anyone with a computer or smartphone. But when one of the world’s most acclaimed cocktail bars publishes a book, it’s time to make room on the shelf.

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New York’s Death & Co. opened its doors in late 2007 to little fanfare. A few days and a New York Times feature story later, the East Village bar had become something of a local phenomenon, with lines of customers snaking around the block. And since that time, Death & Co. has come to be recognized as a pillar of the craft cocktail renaissance. The bar is universally admired – except, perhaps, by the grumpy neighbors who tried to shut them down – and their work is constantly imitated. Death & Co.’s inventive drinks have appeared on cocktail menus all over the world, including here in Boston (I was introduced to their Oaxacan Old Fashioned through Ward 8).

So when Death & Co. publishes a book, it’s not just another resource for professional and amateur mixologists – it’s an industry event.

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In an effort to promote Modern Classic Cocktails, Death & Co. has been sending its bartenders on a tour of major U.S. cities, where they’re whipping up a few of the cocktails that have won the bar such renown. For their local visit, they set up in shop in one of Boston’s top cocktail bars – The Hawthorne. Owner Jackson Cannon was on hand, greeting guests upon arrival and pouring cups of Bloodhound Punch, made with bourbon, spices, lemon juice, blueberry syrup, and club soda.

The setting could hardly be more appropriate. The Hawthorne has garnered its own share of national praise, and like Death & Co., operates on the principle that discerning customers care about more than just the warm buzz they get from a glass of booze. A comfortable atmosphere, a vantage point from which to enjoy the artistry of a cocktail being made, the chance to appreciate or better understand its intricacies – these are essential to the experience.

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Making a great drink is only one aspect of running a truly exceptional cocktail bar, so it’s only appropriate that Death & Co.’s book isn’t merely a collection of recipes. And since “The Specs,” as the recipes are called, only account for about half of the book, it’s almost a misnomer to call Modern Classic Cocktails a cocktail book. More than anything, it’s a story, and one with familiar themes – having a good idea and believing in it; finding the right people to share in your dream and help usher it into reality; making painful sacrifices for a greater purpose; overcoming adversity; starting small and not losing touch with your ideals, even when you find success. Essays contributed by regular customers enrich the narrative further; this isn’t just experts expounding upon their craft, but an open conversation with a multitude of voices.

Of course, the experts and their cocktails are still the stars of the show, and as someone who’s not yet been to Death & Co., I was excited to finally sample their legendary wares and meet the people who make it all happen.

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The recipe chapter of the book devotes individual sections to base spirits (except vodka; long story) along with classic and vintage cocktails, variations on popular drinks, punches, swizzles, and more. The list of featured drinks at the Hawthorne event combined original compositions with a few inventive twists on the classics, all executed with Death & Co.’s trademark ingenuity and flair.

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Gin was one of the evening’s predominant spirits, starting with the Moon Cocktail. Made with Plymouth gin, amontillado sherry, crème de pêche, and a lemon twist, it’s a mostly dry cocktail with fruity notes from the peach liqueur.

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The cucumber ribbon atop the Kew Gardens Cooler gets lots of oohs and ahhs, but this mix of Beefeater 24 gin, Aperol, grapefruit juice, cucumber, and Scarlet Glow tea syrup tastes as good as it looks.

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The elegant Bella Luna combines Plymouth gin, crème de violette, St. Germain, lemon juice, and simple syrup for a smooth but potent cocktail with distinct floral notes.

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A couple of whiskey-based concoctions made the list as well, including the sweet and smoky Little Engine, made with the Famous Grouse, a 10-year tawny port, lemon juice, maple syrup, and apple butter.

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The Scotch Lady also employs the Famous Grouse, combining the cocktail-friendly scotch with bonded apple brandy, lemon juice, simple syrup, grenadine, and egg white for a dark, creamy drink. A brandied cherry serves as a stylish garnish.

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In addition to their many original creations, Death & Co. is of course known for some daring interpretations of the classics. The aforementioned Oaxaca Old Fashioned is their most popular drink, but it’s certainly not their only rendition of this most traditional of cocktails. I’ve tried plenty of variations on the Old Fashioned (many of them unremarkable), but the Elder Fashion is easily one of the most intriguing. With Plymouth gin, St. Germain, house orange bitters, and a grapefruit twist, it’s a simple drink that’s truly greater than the sum of its parts. The orange bitters and the grapefruit bring out the citrus notes in the gin, and the St. Germain contributes an airy floral character.

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Similarly, the Negroni is endlessly customizable. The House of Payne, made with Beefeater London dry gin, Plymouth sloe gin, Campari, and raspberries, is fruitier than the average Negroni but doesn’t sacrifice the drink’s bitter bite.

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As splendid as the drinks were, half the fun was seeing bartenders Eryn Reece and Jillian Vose in action. They are masters of their craft, and I hope it doesn’t come across as hyperbole when I say that watching them make three and sometimes four complex cocktails at once, shaking, stirring, and straining with speed, efficiency, and grace, was at times mesmerizing. Working behind an unfamiliar bar didn’t seem to slow them down, and they managed to talk to each other and field questions from inquisitive customers without missing a beat.

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Skills like that may take years to hone, but you don’t need a PhD in mixology to make Death & Co.’s drinks. Many of the book’s recipes are straightforward, and yes, plenty more are labor-intensive; but every one of them seems accessible. Ingredients like cinnamon bark syrup and sugar snap pea-infused Plymouth gin might sound exotic, but the instructions are in the appendix and they’re actually pretty simple. Authors David Kaplan, Nick Fauchald, and Alex Day also seem happy to demystify the process of creating a drink, even revealing some of their naming conventions.

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The most likely obstacle for the home bartender will be a lack of resources – not all of us have dozens of styles and brands of whiskey, rum, and Sherry to play around with, and you won’t find specialized items such as Combier Pamplemousse Rose liqueur in any old liquor store. But the authors encourage experimentation and improvisation; that, after all, is how Death & Co. came up with so many of these drinks in the first place.

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While the book is a comprehensive resource for the amateur mixologist, devoting ample space to bar tools, glassware, types of spirits, and bartender jargon, it’s also a goldmine for industry professionals. The book is an official, reliable collection of recipes that have floated around in one form or other for years, and it explains more nuanced techniques such as making citrus flags, flaming orange twists, and batching ingredients.

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And whether you work in this industry or, like me, simply appreciate the art of the cocktail, it’s hard not to be impressed by the chapter called “A Night at Death & Co.” – from the inventory and office duties that begin at 8 a.m. to the night’s tips being tallied and divided some 19 hours later. It’s a grueling day filled with a stunning array of cumbersome small tasks, endless interruptions, and daily traditions, and it gives me an even deeper respect for the effort that goes into running a world-class bar.

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We on the other side of the bar are the beneficiaries of those long hours and painstaking attention to detail, and most of us have experienced Death & Co.’s approach to craft cocktails whether we’ve been to the New York bar or not. Death & Co.’s influence has spread far beyond the borders of the Empire State and left an indelible mark on cocktail culture. Modern Classic Cocktails memorializes their contributions.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Thirst Boston – 2014

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There was a time – not all that long ago, really – when the notion of a cocktail conference or convention would have been downright bizarre. What exactly would have been the content of a cocktail seminar in, say, the 1990s? The finer points of making a screwdriver? Even as recently as 10 years ago, when America was joyfully rediscovering the merits of a drink made by a skilled bartender using high-quality spirits and fresh ingredients, industry gatherings were small, relatively rare, and fairly narrow in scope. One need look no further than Thirst Boston to appreciate how the cocktail industry has evolved since then.

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This four-day day conference, now in its second year, opened with a black-tie gala last Friday night and closed with a bartender brunch on Monday morning. In between were two days’ worth of focused seminars, special events, hosted bars, parties, after parties, and vendor showcases, all inspired by and devoted to our renewed love affair with the cocktail.

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And judging by the diversity of Thirst’s attendees, it’s a love affair that exists on both sides of the bar. While many of the 20+ seminars had broad appeal, like “From Connery to Cruise: Cocktails in the Movies,” and “All for Rum and RUM FOR ALL,” others were more workshop-oriented, such as “The Art of Preparing Vermouth” and “Carbonation Station.” But even the most industry-specific presentations drew a mix of professional bartenders, amateur mixologists, and people who just appreciate good drinks and the process behind them.

The Aperitif Hour

With no shortage of interesting topics to choose from, the biggest challenge is deciding which seminars to attend. I started with “The Aperitif Hour,” presented by renowned bartender/writer Naren Young and local mixologist Nick Korn.

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Aperitifs are something I’ve long struggled to enjoy, and it’s only recently that I’ve started to understand the appeal of these bitter herbal liqueurs. The proceedings began with a punch that Nick made with oleo-saccharum, tea, Aperol, gin, and Prosecco, topped with grated nutmeg.

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While we sipped the punch, Naren walked us through a brief history of apertifs, explaining various types and uses and sharing some of his experiences with the liqueur, both as a bartender and drinker.

And then began the parade of Negronis.

Our first sample was Naren’s Chocolate Negroni, made with gin, Cinzano vermouth, Campari, white crème de cacao, chocolate bitters, and black cardamom tincture.

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Next up was a bottled Champagne Negroni and a short lesson in how to carbonate cocktails.

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The most intriguing portion of the seminar was Naren’s in-depth explanation of “sous vide” cocktails, a method of spirit infusion done with a vacuum seal machine normally used by restaurants to quickly bring food to their appropriate temperatures (there is no way I could do justice to this concept by trying to elaborate on it).

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The idea of a craft cocktail in a plastic bag might invite a little skepticism, but the lavender and lemongrass Negronis that came out of them were exceptional.

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The History of the Martini

I drink a martini about once a year. And as soon as that first sip crosses my lips, I remember why I don’t have them more often. My disdain for this iconic drink has long been a source of personal frustration; I want to like it. But I figured that if I was ever going to learn to appreciate the martini, attending a presentation by the makers of Tanqueray gin and Ketel One vodka might not be a bad idea.

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In fact, it was a great idea, because I made a valuable discovery: I don’t dislike martinis; I dislike poorly made martinis.

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Led by Tanqueray national brand ambassador Rachel Ford, the session began with a discussion of the various types of gin, the spirit’s versatility, and the relatively simple botanical blend of Tanqueray. With Tavern Road bar manager Ryan McGrale demonstrating the ins and outs of proper martini-making, Rachel then expounded upon the long history of this elegant cocktail, beginning with its presumed forebear, the Martinez.

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From there we tried the traditional dry martini and a few variations, such as the 50/50 martini, made with equal parts gin and vermouth, and the James Bond-inspired Vesper martini, made with vodka, gin, and Lillet Blanc.

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That led to a discussion of the fictional spy’s “shaken, not stirred” mantra – and how badly that oft-repeated phrase has damaged the martini’s reputation. Stirring the spirits brings out their flavor and gives the cocktail a smooth, silky texture, whereas shaking makes for a clouded, foamy drink. Mr. Bond can have his martini however he wants it, but “stirred, not shaken” is how I’ll take mine. And no olives, thank you very much.

Tales of Tattoo and Tiki Culture

It’s odd to think that there was a time when tattoo parlors were illegal in Massachusetts. Then again, there’ve been a lot of weird laws on the books in this state, so maybe it’s not that strange. It’s also pretty funny to recall the days when the most common companion for rum was Coke.

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But tattoo culture is huge these days, and the popularity of small-batch spirits has taught us to appreciate rum the same way we enjoy quality bourbon and scotch. That, in turn, has contributed to a renewed respect for tiki drinks, once maligned as overly sweet cocktails you’d only order in a Polynesian restaurant.

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The makers of Sailor Jerry rum brought these two worlds together for “Tales of Tattoo and Tiki Culture,” a seminar that celebrated the resurgence of tiki drinks and examined both the popularity and the remarkable artistry of tattoos. There’s an obvious historical connection there – rum was once considered the spirit of those who spent their lives on the high seas, and sailors were known for their tattoos.

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As much as I’d love to tell you more about this seminar, I’ll be honest – after a morning of aperitifs, an afternoon of martinis, and nothing more than cheese and crackers to eat, I was fading fast and decided to duck out a little early. It was fascinating stuff, and I’m a big fan of Sailor Jerry; but the class was to culminate with a lesson in coring a pineapple for a tiki drink, and I was cognizant enough to decide that my handling a sharp object and a large, unwieldy fruit was in no one’s best interest.

I will add that no one was overly impressed with my Negroni Week temporary tattoo, which I’d gotten at the aperitif session. Whatever.

Good Old American Ingenuity: Entrepreneurship in the Spirits Industry

With a fair number of lighthearted topics to choose from, like cocktails that have appeared in movies and literature, it’s telling that a seminar devoted to entrepreneurship was among the first to sell out.

Innovation is the cornerstone of this craft cocktail renaissance, and that extends beyond just the ability to come up with great drinks. The passion and demand for creative cocktails has spawned a small universe of new products – specialized glassware, bar tools, bitters, small-batch spirits, recipe books, you name it.

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In “Entrepreneurship in the Spirits Industry,” presented by Hendrick’s, a panel of three experts spoke about their experiences in going beyond cocktail creation and developing products that are helping to propel the industry forward.

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It would be difficult to overstate the impact Jackson Cannon has had on Boston’s cocktail culture. He was the opening bar manager of the renowned Eastern Standard and later the Island Creek Oyster Bar. His Hawthorne bar is considered one of the best cocktail bars in the country. Anyone with a resume like that is entitled to “a vanity project,” which is how he characterized the genesis of the Jackson Cannon Bar Knife.

Thinking it would be pretty cool to have a customized knife to give to friends and regulars, Jackson met with R. Murphy Knives, a knife manufacturer that’s been around since 1850, and looked through hundreds of their designs. The old-fashioned model that would eventually become his customized bar knife was originally designed for cutting shoe leather.

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Many bartenders will immediately recognize the knife by its oddly shaped, rectangular blade. And chances are, they’ll find it pretty useful, too. The sharp blade doesn’t dull quickly, and the squared-off tip is perfect for notching fruit, removing seeds, and making spiral-cut citrus peels.

Hawthorne bar manager Katie Emmerson does a little knife work.

Hawthorne bar manager Katie Emmerson does a little knife work.

Chicago-based mixologist Charles Joly apparently knows a thing or two about making drinks. He was named the best bartender in the world after winning the Diageo World Class 2014 cocktail competition in London, so…there’s that.

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Despite the international accolades, Charles’ venture into entrepreneurship has humble origins. He often found himself often being asked for drink recipes by customers, which he was happy to share – even when one customer called him at the bar, during a busy shift, to ask how to make a particular cocktail at home.

So he had an idea – why not bottle the drinks? Bottled cocktails, of course, are nothing new; dozens of them have been on store shelves for years. The problem is, they’re universally disgusting. Charles wondered whether he could make good drinks, with spirits he’d use in his own bar, and put them in a bottle.

And yes, it works.

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We tried samples of his Moscow Mule and Paloma, and I’ll give them the highest compliment I can pay to any bottled cocktail – they taste exactly the way they should. Products like these are ideal for someone who doesn’t have the time or inclination to make the drinks themselves, and while more discerning drinkers might be skeptical of a pre-made cocktail, it’s hard to argue with the results.

I’ve talked about gin with Hendrick’s brand ambassador Jim Ryan at a number of events over the years, but this was the first time I ever heard him speak at length about the spirit industry in general. His thoughts on the growing opportunities in this neo-golden age of the cocktail were interesting and informative. But what impressed me more was hearing that Hendrick’s, despite its popularity and stature, is still looking for ways to nurture creativity.

Maybe I’m overgeneralizing, but I always figure that a well-established brand like Hendrick’s, owned by a huge corporate distiller like William Grant & Sons, would find a formula that works and stick with it, valuing consistency – and the bottom line – above all else. But while Hendrick’s isn’t tinkering with their gin recipe (and well they should not), that doesn’t mean they’re inhibiting their distillers’ freedom to be creative.

Hendrick’s Quinetum is a quinine cordial that combines lavender and orange distillates with a host of other botanicals.

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The small, dark blue bottle is modeled on a poison bottle that someone at Hendrick’s found in an old shop. The flavor is sweet and the consistency somewhat oily, and it’s designed to be mixed with the gin or in a Hendrick’s and tonic. The Quinetum project is still very small – Hendrick’s only made a few thousand bottles, and they aren’t available commercially. Instead they’ve been sent to bars in a few cities (one of which is NOT Boston; ahem) for mixologists to experiment with.

You won’t find Hendrick’s Kanaracuni on store shelves, either, and probably not even in a bar – there are only 460 bottles in existence.

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In 2013, a team led by Hendrick’s’ master distiller ventured to the Venezuelan jungle in search of a new botanical to be used in a very small batch of gin. They eventually found the Scorpion Tail plant, so called for its resemblance to the poisonous arachnid. Scorpion Tail is the key ingredient in Kanaracuni, named for the Venezuelan village that served as the team’s home base. This floral, lip-tingling spirit has notes of coriander, anise, and citrus, giving it something of a tropical essence.

Products designed by people who work in this industry have a special, genuine kind of quality to them. A bar knife designed by a top bartender and bar owner; a bottled cocktail made by a celebrated mixologist; I think there’s more value in that than a celebrity chef allowing his or her name to be used on a kitchen tool or a venture capitalist deciding to dabble in the spirit business. And in the case of Jackson’s knife and Charles’ pre-made drinks, both explained the steps they’ve taken to ensure quality, eschewing shortcuts that could easily make them more money.

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Hendrick’s, of course, has the capital to fund projects like trips to Venezuela or designing cordials that may never be put on sale. But the desire and willingness to innovate is what unites a large distilling outfit with much smaller entrepreneurial projects like those led by Jackson Cannon and Charles Joly. And the takeaway is that there is no shortage of opportunities in this exciting, ever-growing industry.

Of course, Thirst Boston isn’t all about industry trends, marketing, and cocktail history. There’s also plenty to drink.

Hosted bars are set up throughout the day. Saturday morning opened with a French Café, serving up mimosas and pastries.

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In the afternoon, William Grant’s World of Whisk(e)y Bar took over. That’s a pretty impressive lineup of whiskies – Glenfiddich, Monkey Shoulder, Hudson, and a few other William Grant spirits.

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They factored into drinks like the Hunter’s Mark, Monkey Boulevardier, and the Irish Mule.

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Samples of Hudson were available neat or on the rocks.

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In the meantime, one of the larger function rooms was devoted to “State Lines: Portland and Providence Pop-Up.”

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Various bars from Maine and Rhode Island brought some of their favorite cocktails and other products to share in a New England-themed mini bar crawl.

The Schooner Punch, from Central Provisions in Portland, Maine.

The Schooner Punch, from Central Provisions in Portland, Maine.

The Boston Shaker, the Somerville barware boutique shop, also had a pop-up presence at Thirst. I was sure to buy something – and if you understand the significance of this picture, then be jealous. Be very jealous.

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On Sunday, things got started with a “Bloody “Bar” sponsored by Absolut, with plenty of spicy vodka options and garnishes to choose from.

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Later that day, Plantation offered a much-needed Daiquiri Time Out.

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And in the function room on Sunday afternoon was the New England Craft Showcase, and it was just incredible to see so many top-notch regional distillers and brewers under one roof. I got to try Grand Ten’s white rum and their Craneberry cordial, which head distiller Spencer McMinn told me differed considerably from the previous batch.

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Boston’s other distillery Bully Boy, was right nearby, offering samples of their expanding line.

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Berkshire Mountain Distillers was on hand with spirit and cocktail samples, along with Privateer, Portland’s New England Distilling, Vermont’s Mad River Distillers, and so many more that I can’t even begin to include here.

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But hopefully they’ll all be part of Thirst next year, too. I’d give anything to see a panel hosted by a few local distillers, discussing their experiences in the increasingly popular craft spirit movement.

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And the very fact that we can look forward to next year is significant in itself. Thirst Boston is a fairly small show compared to some of the other cocktail events in the country, like Tales of the Cocktail.

But like the industry itself, it’s only getting bigger.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Hendrick's Emporium of the Unusual

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Product launches and promotional events are typically festive affairs, especially when the product in question is alcohol. Enthusiastic PR reps expound on the virtues of their wares, a creative marketing team transforms an ordinary venue into a thematic panorama, and of course, there’s plenty of free booze to sample and discuss.

But few companies showcase their product with as much extravagance and theatrical grandeur as Hendrick’s Gin.

The “Emporium of the Unusual” is the latest iteration of Hendrick’s’ traveling circus, which set up shop in the Cyclorama in Boston’s South End this week. And I don’t exaggerate when I say it’s the sort of thing that one has to see to believe.

I was fortunate to attend last year’s Boston event, Voyages into the Unusual, and I still remember walking into the venue and feeling like I’d stepped onto the grounds of a macabre, Victorian-era carnival.

This year I knew what to expect – and still, it was hard not to be overwhelmed, at least momentarily, by this bustling whirlwind of colors and characters.

Before plunging into the Emporium proper, guests are ushered through a set of thick black curtains and into a softly lit antechamber that looks like a cross between an old library and the laboratory of a lunatic.

There’s a table of assorted oddities, shelves full of books and bottles, a few animal skeletons, a musical instrument here and there.

There’s a bar, too, where you can get a sample of the simplest and most iconic of Hendrick’s drinks – a Hendrick’s and tonic, with a slice of fresh cucumber.

After milling around a bit and taking in the sights, the real show begins. A bookcase suddenly slides open, and guests are led through a small greenhouse (which would be weird enough on its own) and into a huge room teeming with costumed performers, musicians, and a slew of bizarre attractions.

It’s a lot to take in, and the prevailing mood is one of curiosity and bemusement. Guests tend to approach various stations timidly, wondering whether the simple act of asking for a drink will get them roped into an impromptu skit with a strangely clad attendant (entirely possible).

But don’t stand in one spot too long – you might find yourself in the path of someone riding a penny-farthing bicycle.

The pomp and splendor of this vaudevillian pageant would all be for naught if the eponymous product didn’t live up to its dazzling presentation.

Fortunately, Hendrick’s gin is equal to the hype. Famously infused with cucumber and rose petals, it’s a unique spirit that’s accessible to drinkers who find gin too harsh, but it doesn’t stray far enough from traditional London gin to alienate purists. Hendrick’s’ unusual flavor profile allows for clever variations on even the simplest of drinks, and the results can range from subtle to spectacular.

And if you’re able to navigate all the hoopla of the Emporium, you’ll find a few cocktails to prove it.

You might have to work for some of those drinks, though. Getting your hands on a Benevolent Bog means enduring the probing questions of this barker, who then gives specific instructions about how to acquire a drink by knocking on the wooden wall behind him.

Assuming you clear the requisite hurdles, a portrait in the center of the wall glides upwards, revealing a red-hued cocktail made with Hendrick’s gin, cranberry compote, lemon juice, and Ancho Reyes. The cranberry and lemon combine for a pleasantly tart, sour, autumnal drink, with a surprising kick from the ancho chile spirit.

The Traveling Emporium Punch similarly evokes the flavors of fall in New England, with its blend of gin, herbal tea, lemon juice, simple syrup, sparkling water, Angostura bitters, and spices. Hendrick’s is fond of punch recipes, and this crisp concoction has prominent notes of cinnamon and a mild tea flavor.

Whereas punch is a popular, communal drink, the Negroni is more of an acquired taste. Mixing a botanical-forward spirit like gin with a pair of herbal aperitifs isn’t everybody’s idea of an easy-drinking cocktail.

I finally came around to this drink in time for this year’s Negroni Week, and as I worked my way through innumerable variations, I remember wondering how Hendrick’s would fare in this celebrated cocktail.

Pretty well, as it turns out. The Unusual Negroni combines gin, Aperol, Lillet Blanc, and a twist of grapefruit for a sweeter version that dials back the cocktail’s trademark bitterness. The grapefruit flavor is prominent, as the peel brings out the citrus notes in the Lillet Blanc. If Negronis aren’t your thing, this is a good way to ease into them.

The Unusual Negroni may have been my favorite drink of the evening, but the cocktail that truly allowed the featured spirit to shine was the Cucumber Southside. Elegant in its presentation, this variation of the Southside cocktail adds cucumber to a mix of gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and mint leaves.

The cucumber slice, of course, brings out the cucumber notes in the Hendrick’s, and the mint pairs well with the gin’s botanicals. With its simple composition and rich texture, this cocktail, more than any other, showcased the gin itself and clearly demonstrated how its distinctive flavor profile interacts with a few common, fresh ingredients.

There are a lot of forces competing for your attention in the Emporium, but even in this freakish tableau, there’s one attraction that rises above the accordionists, bicyclists, and general clamor. Literally.

Holding court at the center of it all, greeting stunned passersby below, is what appears to be the world’s tallest woman, attended by a pair of diminutive men in frightening, bird-like masks. She’s clad in a long, flowing gown, and if you’re lucky, one of her minions will escort you through the waves of fabric.

And what is to be found beneath the fair lady’s dress? Drinks, of course.

Beyond the garments is a dark, cozy sitting room that appears to be set up for an intimate tea party. But instead of tea, one of the attendants doles out potent servings of the Traveling Emporium Punch.

The dress might be the strangest place in the entire venue to be enjoy a drink – and that’s saying something – but ironically, it’s also the most peaceful. With the thick fabric muting the endless commotion, you might find yourself with a couple of quiet minutes to sip your drink and appreciate the nuances of this unique, complex gin.

And in some ways, that’s even more interesting than what’s going on outside.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Libations for Preservation – A Cocktail Competition of Historic Proportions

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One of the things that makes Boston such a remarkable city is its long, storied past. And so many chapters of that history are written in the city’s architecture. From beautiful old theaters like the Paramount and the Opera House, to classic Art Deco-style office buildings in the Financial District, to beloved Fenway Park, an abundance of magnificent structures give Boston its unique visual character, drawing thousands of picture-snapping tourists from all over the world and reminding locals of the city’s fascinating heritage. The Boston Preservation Alliance is devoted to maintaining that character as the city continues to grow and evolve. The nonprofit organization endeavors to create awareness about the importance of preservation and aims to achieve legal protection for certain historic structures and resources that are subject to demolition.

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In that sense, the group would have been hard-pressed to find a more appropriate venue than GrandTen Distilling for its most recent fundraising event, Libations for Preservation. The South Boston building that houses GrandTen’s distillery dates back to the 19th century, when it was an iron foundry and later a wire works. GrandTen took over the site a few years ago, completely refurbishing the then-decrepit building but keeping some of the original infrastructure, such as rafters and support beams. And thus the old foundry’s spirit lives on, while the spirits distilled within its walls continue to win over modern-day drinkers and mixologists.

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Imbibers and bartenders alike mingled with history buffs and preservationists this past Saturday at GrandTen Distilling for Libations for Preservation, a cocktail competition pitting mixologists from six Boston bars against each other in a boozy battle royale for a good cause. Each participating bar represented a different Boston neighborhood, and each competing bartender was charged with devising an original cocktail using at least one GTD spirit. Their drinks would be voted on by the event’s 60+ attendees, culminating in two bartenders moving onto a final round to battle for cocktail supremacy.

The normally pragmatic distillery was all decked out for the occasion.

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There were wooden high-top tables, a big spread of food, and a band keeping things lively. At the helm was GrandTen brand ambassador Lonnie Newburn, who among his innumerable daily responsibilities, can now add “emcee” to his resume.

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With all appropriate fanfare and ceremony, Round 1 commenced. The six combatants had been split into two groups, and the first three began composing their libations.

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The opening salvo was fired by Tom Hardy of Jamaica Plain’s Canary Square. Tom’s drink, the Ol’ Lamplighter, combined Medford rum, lime juice, mint syrup, house grenadine, mole bitters, and egg white. This was a smooth, well-balanced cocktail, with a little sweetness from the grenadine, notes of cocoa and spice from the bitters, and a creamy texture on account of the egg white.

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Dave Fushcetti of Lincoln Tavern in South Boston countered with the March 17, 1776, a blend of Wire Works gin, pear puree, rosemary- and clove-infused syrup, and lemon juice. The herbs and spices in the syrup paired well with the botanicals in the gin, and the pear puree provided texture and some muted sweetness.

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Jamie Walsh, bar manager of Stoddard’s in Downtown Crossing, closed out Round 1 with the Temple Bog. Attractively garnished with cranberries and sprigs of rosemary, this dry, tart punch invoked the flavors of autumn with Wire Works gin, GTD Craneberry liqueur, cranberry juice, lemon juice, and ginger syrup. The fresh aroma of rosemary was present in every sip.

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The crowd congregated around the bar, sipping and discussing the cocktail samples. It was a difficult choice; all three cocktails were well done, and each was entirely distinct. When attendees decided on a favorite, they deposited a drink stirrer in a jar in front of their chosen bartender. When all the straws were tallied, Lonnie announced that Tom Hardy of Canary Square would be moving onto the final round.

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Who would be Tom’s opponent? That would depend on the outcome of Round 2.

The always pleasant Mike Wyatt is the bar manager of Ward 8, a cocktail bar that stands out in the North End by virtue of its not being an Italian restaurant. His drink, the Copp’s Hill, combined Wire Works gin, St. Germain, lemon juice, Campari, and blood orange zest. Balancing dry and bitter components with the floral St. Germain, this was a very drinkable cocktail with bright citrus notes.

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Hailing from Tavern Road in the Fort Point area, Ryan McGrale offered Crane’s Courage, a mix of Wire Works gin, lemon juice, cranberry shrub, and egg white, topped with a few drops of Craneberry liqueur. This deceptively simple cocktail was surprisingly complex, with the vinegary tartness of the cranberry shrub, the dryness of the gin, and the creamy texture that the egg brought to it.

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The most unusually named cocktail of the evening was undoubtedly the Flugelbinder. Bartender Matthew Coughlin of Cinquecento explained that the South End building that now houses the Italian bar and eatery was once a factory that manufactured flugelbinders – the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces. The drink of the same name was vibrant, soft, and floral, combining Wire Works gin, a house-made rosemary cordial, pear puree, and lime juice, garnished with sprinkling of plastic shoelace tips (kidding).

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M.C. Lonnie gathered up the voting jars, counted the straws, and announced that Ward 8’s Mike Wyatt had emerged victorious. That meant the final contest was about to begin – but not without a couple of curveballs.

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First, as if the pressure of competing mano y mano wasn’t enough, Tom and Mike would not be remaking their winning cocktails. Instead, the final round would test their mixological reflexes by forcing them to devise a new drink using a mystery spirit. Lonnie kept the contestants and audience in suspense as long as he could, taunting everyone with a steel briefcase that held the secret ingredient. Finally it was unveiled – Fire Puncher Black, GrandTen’s seasonal offering that infuses vodka with chipotle peppers and cocoa nibs.

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Chocolate and spice combine in exciting, sensual ways, making this vodka a delicious, decadent treat. But mixing it into a cocktail would challenge any bartender. And they had only 15 minutes to make it happen.

The final round had one other twist. Instead of leaving the voting to the whims of the populace, the winning drink would be chosen by three handpicked judges: Fred Yarm, bartender at Harvard Square’s Russell House Tavern, author of Drink & Tell: A Boston Cocktail Book, and the writer of the Cocktail Virgin blog; Spencer McMinn, head distiller at GrandTen; and yours truly, Boston BarHopper.

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The atmosphere was understandably tense. As the seconds ticked away, Tom and Mike feverishly mixed, sampled, made notes, tampered with one another’s ingredients, exchanged unrepeatable insults, and ultimately came up with two completely different cocktails based on the sweet and spicy vodka.

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Tom’s drink mixed the featured spirit with fresh pineapple and GTD’s Amandine, a barrel-aged almond liqueur, for a surprising tiki interpretation. The combination of the chocolate and pineapple was unexpected, but it worked well, and the peppery heat was fairly prominent.

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Mike’s concoction was more of the seasonal variety, mixing the Fire Puncher Black with cream, egg white, and Amandine, dusted with shaved nutmeg. The combination of egg and cream muted the vodka’s heat but was a natural partner for the chocolate notes.

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Fred, Spencer, and I had our work cut out for us. Our loyalties wobbled and swayed as we sipped both drinks and discussed their respective merits. With the restless crowd circling us and demanding a ruling, we begged Lonnie for one more minute to finalize our decision.

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In the end, Tom Hardy’s tropical deployment of the Fire Puncher Black got the nod by a score of two to one. And while the vote wasn’t unanimous, our appreciation for both cocktails was. Being able to whip up an original drink on short notice with such an unusual spirit is no easy feat, but neither Tom nor Mike seemed overmatched by the task.

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The dueling cocktails made for a dramatic end to the evening. And while the spotlight was on the six bartenders and their excellent drinks, there was plenty of buzz about the Boston Preservation Alliance and their noble mission. The event was actually the brainchild of the Young Advisers of the Boston Preservation Alliance, a group of professionals under the age of 40 whose goal is to get younger generations interested in the Alliance and its work.

And holding an event in a modern distillery housed in a 200-year-old building reminded attendees that there’s much about Boston that should be preserved.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Ancho Reyes Comes to Boston

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Mexico’s contributions to the world of intoxicating liquors are well known and widely celebrated. Tequila, of course, needs no introduction. Nor does mezcal, really; once viewed as some poor relative of tequila with a worm in the bottle, the smoky spirit has enjoyed a surge in popularity and respectability as small-batch versions have found their way into craft cocktails.

Ancho Reyes, on the other hand, probably doesn’t ring a bell. There’s no reason it should – until recently, you’d be unlikely to find this spicy liqueur anywhere outside of Mexico. But distiller William Grant & Sons is easing Ancho Reyes into the U.S. market, giving us a chance to try a unique spirit based on a staple of Mexican cuisine – poblano peppers.

Specifically, Ancho Reyes is distilled with ancho chiles, a crop native to the state of Puebla. Ancho chiles are poblano peppers that have been sun-dried. The wrinkled peppers have a deep reddish-brown color, a sweet, earthy flavor, and typically range from mild to medium in terms of heat. They’re commonly used in Mexican cooking and are central to Ancho Reyes, which calls itself “the original ancho chile liqueur.”

That’s a bold claim, but there does seem to be some truth to it. While the spirit is new to the U.S. market, it’s based on a 1927 recipe owned by the Reyes family that was supposedly lost for decades and recently rediscovered. The distillation process follows strict guidelines for raising the peppers, which are handpicked, carefully assessed for quality, and then soaked in a neutral spirit for six months.

The result is a copper-colored liquor with a rich, natural pepper flavor, balanced with notes of cinnamon, cocoa, almond, and other herbs and spices. There’s heat, too, of course; and that’s where the liqueur really stands out.

Spice can be a difficult element to manage in spirits. Some end up being too hot, others taste artificial. But in Ancho Reyes, the level of heat is moderate – up front, but not muy caliente. You can drink it straight without scorching your throat, and it presents intriguing possibilities for use in cocktails.

Speaking of which, William Grant has been slowly unveiling Ancho Reyes on a city-by-city basis, giving bar managers an opportunity to experiment with the spirit and the rest of us a chance to see how it fares in a drink.

Ancho Reyes finally arrived in Boston this past Monday, and it would be difficult to fathom a more talented greeting party – bartenders from Drink, Backbar, Brick & Mortar, Tavern Road, the Hawthorne, and the Baldwin gathered at Fenway-area bar Audubon and dazzled a packed house with original cocktails that played off the peppery heat of this Mexican spirit.

Now if you’re a regular visitor to this space, you know I like to be thorough in my cocktail reporting – names of bartenders and their drinks, the ingredients they use, etc. Here, some of the details may be a little fuzzy; the folks behind the bar were pretty busy, and there was a lot of crowd noise. Plus, there are always challenges inherent in starting a conversation with someone who’s wearing a Mexican wrestling mask.

Then again, I’ll admit my grasp on the details loosened somewhat after a visit to the Ancho Reyes ice luge.

Anyway, onto the drinks.

Joe Cammarata, principal bartender at Union Square’s Backbar, combined Ancho Reyes with white rum, lemon juice, cucumber water, and sugar. The cucumber worked to tone down the spirit’s heat, allowing the pepper flavor to permeate this cool, refreshing cocktail. A perfect summertime cocktail.

With his Three-Day Stubble (that’s the name of the drink, not an editorial comment), Brick & Mortar bar manager Matt Schrage added smoke to the chile spirit’s fire. A blend of scotches brought a smoky essence to the Ancho Reyes, along with a little sourness from lemon juice.

A cocktail called Chris’s Old Fashioned was a like an homage to the Mexican liquor industry – mezcal, tequila, Ancho Reyes, and agave bitters. The mezcal’s distinctive smokiness was prominent but didn’t overwhelm the drink, instead complementing the chile spice in a manner similar to the scotch in the Three-Day Stubble. And as this drink showed, the Ancho Reyes has a natural drinking partner in tequila.

One of the more popular offerings was a variation of a classic drink called the Golden Cadillac. Appropriately enough for the evening’s proceedings, the cocktail has its roots in a small, western-style tavern in El Dorado, California. It’s traditionally an after-dinner drink made with crème de cacao, Galliano, and light or heavy cream. This version added Ancho Reyes and lime zest, making for a rich, creamy cocktail with mild heat and notes of citrus up front.

The Crook Patrol also played on that time-honored, sensual interaction of chocolate and spice by combining Ancho Reyes, crème de cacao, lime juice, and sweet vermouth. This bold, reddish-hued cocktail had a more pronounced chocolate component than the Golden Cadillac, and the interplay between the heat and sweetness was exquisite.

When he isn’t pouring shots of Ancho Reyes down an ice sculpture, Ran Duan heads up the cocktail program at the Baldwin Bar at Sichuan Garden (an exceptional cocktail bar in Woburn, of all places).

Ran brought a tiki dimension to the proceedings with his striking drink, which blended Ancho Reyes, pineapple, lime, and what was easily the most unexpected ingredient of the evening – caramelized miso. A refreshing balance of sweetness and spice, this tasted as good as it looked.

Hawthorne bar manager Katie Emmerson closed things out with a cocktail that demonstrated Ancho Reyes’s impressive versatility. Mixing the featured spirit with Hendrick’s gin, cinnamon, and lime, there was a lot going on in this one. The botanicals in the gin worked surprisingly well with the peppery heat in the Ancho Reyes, and the spice brought out the spirit’s more subtle cinnamon notes. Complex and vibrant, but smooth and highly drinkable, this was a full-flavored, well-rounded cocktail.

While William Grant & Sons may be better known for its line of whiskeys and scotches, Ancho Reyes isn’t the distiller’s first dalliance with Mexican spirits. They also produce Milagro tequila and import Montelobos mezcal.

But tequila and, to a lesser degree, mezcal, are known quantities. An ancho chile liqueur is more of a niche product, and potentially a tough sell. In that sense, this limited-release tactic is a clever one. The Ancho Reyes folks sure know how to throw a fiesta, and hosting small, coordinated events in major cities tends to create a fair amount of buzz (in more ways than one).

Getting an accomplished lineup of local mixologists to work with your product doesn’t hurt, either.

¡Salud!

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Negroni Week 2014

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I distinctly recall my introduction to the Negroni. It didn’t go well. All I could think was, what kind of madman would mix two bitter aperitifs with an intensely botanical spirit like gin? Was this a prank? A dare? And why the hell is this drink so popular?

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the Negroni, it’s a fairly straightforward cocktail. The traditional ingredients are gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari – a bitter, herbal liqueur known for its reddish hue.

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The drink dates back to 1919, when it was invented in a Florence, Italy café by Count Negroni, an Italian nobleman (and presumably, madman). In recent years it has enjoyed exalted status among mixologists and the craft cocktail crowd. But for the uninitiated, it’s a bitter concoction that takes a little getting used to.

“It’s an acquired taste,” acknowledges Luke, a bartender at Union Square’s Backbar. “It’s the kind of drink you need to have about three times before you ‘get it’.”

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If drinking three Negronis sounds like a good idea to you, now would be the time to do it. The second annual Negroni Week is in full swing, and whether you’re a novice trying to acquire a taste for this enduring cocktail or a devotee looking for new ways to enjoy it, bars in Boston and around the globe are featuring it on their menus from June 2 through 8.

But Negroni Week is more than just a celebration of the drink’s longevity and resurgent popularity. Presented by Campari America, which sells the Negroni’s signature ingredient, and industry magazine Imbibe, Negroni Week encourages bars and restaurants to donate a portion of every Negroni sale to charity. Each participating bar chooses a cause to support, and Campari will make a $10,000 donation to the charity of the bar that raises the most money.

If you’re a Negroni lover, you’ve probably had this week circled on your calendar since the day it was announced. But if you’re new to the drink or, like me, have struggled to enjoy it, you’re in luck. Bars all over the city are not only featuring the Negroni but also introducing clever, creative twists that make this challenging cocktail more approachable.

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The Merchant

The Merchant isn’t a bad place to start. Of course, I might be a little biased when it comes to this Downtown Crossing bar – after all, it was here that my own anti-Negroni resolve gradually began to weaken. I certainly had no intention of ordering one when I was visiting a few months back, but when bar manager Ian Strickland handed me an unsolicited Negroni and asked me to try it, what could I do?

I politely accepted, of course, and instructed my palate to brace for impact. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. The Merchant’s “Pegroni” is made with orange-infused Cold RIver gin, Campari, Punt E Mes, and orange bitters. The orange flavors make for a mellower Negroni, and while the drink still has its legendary bite, the bitter components are well balanced. Interestingly, this was my third ever Negroni – and sure enough, it was growing on me.

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The Pegroni remains on The Merchant’s menu, but Ian also designed a more traditional version for the big week. Made with GrandTen Wire Works gin, Campari, and Dolin Rouge vermouth, it’s sure to satisfy Negroni purists. Order either variety and you’ll be supporting the Animal Rescue League.

Cinquecento

The world may be devoting these seven days to celebrating the Negroni, but at Cinquecento, every week is Negroni Week.

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From the bottles of Campari that line the pillars of this South End Italian eatery to the promotional artwork hanging on the wall, Cinquecento proudly flaunts its affection for Campari. The centerpiece of Cinquecento’s drink list – a Negroni flight – offers the original recipe plus two variations.

So I first visited Cinquecento a few weeks ago and asked the bartender, Phil, to recommend a drink. You’ll never guess what he made me.

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Sure, I should have seen the Negroni coming. But even if I had, I wouldn’t have anticipated a bourbon Negroni. Trading gin for whiskey made for a smooth, accessible drink that had as much in common with a Manhattan as it did a Negroni.

Given their unbridled enthusiasm for this classic Italian cocktail, I can scarcely imagine what Cinquecento’s doing this week. A Negroni dunk tank, perhaps? Proceeds for Negroni sales at this excellent bar go to Autism Speaks.

Alden & Harlow

Swapping out gin for another spirit is not uncommon, but Alden & Harlow’s substitution of strawberry-infused tequila is entirely unexpected. The Lady in Red may be softer and fruitier than the typical Negroni, but Campari and two types of vermouth – sweet and dry – keep it strong and bitter, with a subtle dryness at the end.

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Throw back a few of these and you’ll be helping East End House, a Cambridge-based community center that offers education and training programs to families and learners of all ages.

Ward 8

Ward 8 offers a few variations of the Negroni, but when I asked the bartender which one he’d suggest, he directed me to the most complex of the bunch. The Count of Cadiz combines Plymouth gin, Campari, Amontillado sherry, and Carpano Antica. While the presence of sherry makes this Negroni unique, it’s the Carpano Antica that steals the show.

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This rich vermouth has notes of vanilla, toffee, and caramel, adding a warm, spicy depth to the cocktail. Buy any of Ward 8’s Negronis and you’ll support the Animal Rescue League of Boston.

JM Curley

Meanwhile, it’s bottle service at JM Curley, which offers one of the wildest versions of the Negroni I’ve encountered this week. They use Plymouth gin infused with spruce tips and combine it with Campari and a house-made amber vermouth. Incredibly, the Negroni then gets carbonated and bottled.

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This blew my mind. The natural pine flavor from the spruce-tip-infused gin is rich but not overpowering. The custom vermouth, made with caramelized honey and spices, contributes a little sweetness, while the Campari keeps things appropriately bitter. But the real surprise is the effervescence from the carbonation. One of JM Curley’s bartenders, Watson, attributed this easy-drinking, soda-like concoction to Daren Swisher, whom he calls “our in-house mad scientist.” When I was leaving, I saw the staff sampling a house-made Negroni carrot cake, and I had to get out of there immediately or I would have been there all night. JM Curley’s Negronis also support the Animal Rescue League of Boston.

Backbar

If, as Luke theorized, it takes three attempts to acquire a taste for the Negroni, then you can complete your entire orientation at Backbar. There are three dynamic Negroni options to choose from – a drink of the day, a drink of the week, and as anyone familiar with Backbar might guess, a milk punch.

The Negroni Milk Punch is easily the most daring of the three. As with so many of Backbar’s milk punches (and milk punches in general), it’s a weird drink and weirdly enjoyable. Mixing gin, Campari, sweet vermouth, Stappi bitters, and orange juice, this Negroni interpretation is smooth and balanced, with a subtle citrus component.

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Monday’s drink of the day was the Count ABC. The acronym derives from the geographies of each ingredient – an Austrian pine liqueur, a Brazilian cachaça, and California’s St. George Terroir gin. Punt E Mes provides the requisite bitter. Luke admitted there was some debate among the staff as to whether this truly qualified as a Negroni, but all the right flavors were there. The Zirbenz pine liqueur gave the drink an especially fragrant character.

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But for me, the real standout was the Oaxacan Condesa. Backbar’s drink of the week combines Plymouth gin, Campari, mezcal (!), and a grapefruit liqueur. Mezcal’s signature smoky essence is instantly distinctive, and while it may be a surprising addition to a Negroni, the spirit is well balanced. The grapefruit liqueur, enhanced by rimming the glass with a grapefruit peel, contributes a natural, citrusy sourness that pairs well with the mezcal and the bitter Campari. This is an exceptional drink.

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Whether you order one or all three of Backbar’s Negronis, a portion of the proceeds will benefit Wine to Water, an organization that provides people all over the world with access to clean water and improved sanitation.

Russell House Tavern

Given the outstanding cocktail programs at each of these bars, it’s no surprise to find so many variations of this simple drink, ranging from subtle to bold. But what about the original Negroni? Amid the clever innovations, does the traditional recipe get left out of the very week that celebrates its acclaim?

Hardly. You can dress up this classic cocktail with all manner of alternate or additional ingredients, but the original version commands as much respect as ever. And with that we turn to Russell House Tavern. The esteemed Harvard Square bar does offer a variation called the Palazzo on its regular menu, but bar manager Sam Gabrielli goes old school for Negroni Week – gin, Campari, sweet vermouth, and an orange peel. You’ll be supporting the Leary Firefighters Foundation when you enjoy this simple, bitter, well-balanced cocktail.

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And “enjoy” is the operative word here. I’m pleased to say that I’ve finally come around to the Negroni. Maybe I don’t celebrate it with the same fervor as longtime fans, but who knows? Next year at this time, I may be sporting a Campari tattoo (or maybe just a t-shirt).

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Regardless of what side of the bar you’re on, Negroni Week is an opportunity for education and experimentation. Talented mixologists get to showcase their interpretations of this surprisingly customizable drink, Negroni novices have a chance to ease into a sometimes inaccessible cocktail, and aperitif aficionados have a ready-made excuse to enjoy seven nights’ worth of Negronis. (I imagine Campari America does alright in this deal, too.)

But most importantly, local and international charities stand to benefit from this campaign. Last year, 120 bars participated in Negroni Week and raised more than $10,000 for a multitude of worthy causes. This year, nearly 1,300 bars are participating, with the goal of raising $100,000. Donations like that will help charitable organizations that are already doing important work in communities here in Boston and beyond. And that’s always a good reason to raise a glass.

Or three.

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We’re only at the midpoint of Negroni Week, so you’ve still got plenty of time to enjoy a Negroni and support a good cause. For a complete list of participating bars, check out this link:

http://negroniweek.com/participating-bars/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Brugal – Rum Redefined

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For a rum that’s been around for 125 years, Brugal keeps a relatively low profile. There’s no swashbuckling ad campaign. No pirates. No glossy posters showing bikini-clad models doing shots of rum on the beach. But being the life of the party isn’t Brugal’s goal. The Dominican distiller has a far loftier mission: changing the way we think about – and drink – rum.

Such is the theme of Brugal’s “Rum Redefined” campaign, which rolled into Boston for three nights this past week and transformed the South End’s Cyclorama into something reminiscent of a distillery visitors’ center. Guests had a chance to learn about Brugal’s unique distillation process, sample three varieties of rum, and get a hands-on lesson in rum-based mixology.

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If Brugal is outwardly distinct from other distillers in that it eschews the image of rum as an island-themed party spirit, the difference in the product itself is far more profound. As a molasses-based liquor, rum is known for its inherent sweetness. Many of the cocktails it features in are likewise sweet and tend to be made with a multitude of fruit juices. Brugal’s rums, by contrast, are uncommonly dry.

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“People don’t think of drinking rum straight,” says Brian, one of the Brugal reps at the event. “We’re trying to show folks that rum isn’t something you need to cover up.”

His point is well taken – most rums aren’t made for sipping. “The difference is the way we distill our product, Brian explains. “In distillation, we remove a lot of the heavy alcohols, the banana and coconut flavors.”

But the aging process is where the real magic happens. All of Brugal’s rums are aged in white American oak casks. And Brugal takes its cask aging pretty seriously. “We use the same wood policy as the finest single malt scotch,” Brian tells me.

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But while the wood policy may the same, the wood itself behaves very differently in the Dominican Republic than it does in chilly Scotland. The heat and humidity of the Dominican climate accelerate the rum’s maturation rate, meaning you don’t have to wait quite so long for the spirit’s rich character to develop. The downside of the warm weather is that Brugal loses 9% to 12% of its annual yield to evaporation. This disappearing act is charmingly known as the “angel’s share,” but angels clearly have a taste for rum – their portion translates to a staggering 25,000 barrels’ worth of lost rum every year.

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But those exacting standards and devotion to aging result in a series of exceptional rums that are clean, dry, and surprisingly complex. The amber-hued Brugal Añejo has unexpected hints of caramel and chocolate.

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The masterful Brugal 1888 is the first rum to be aged in two different casks – six to eight years in a whiskey cask, two to four more in a sherry cask. With a heavenly aroma and notes of toffee and licorice, it’s the sort of rum that calls for a cigar. My friend Mike, who joined me for the event, put it best: “If I brought this to a whiskey tasting, no one would guess it was rum.”

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But the star of the night was Brugal’s Extra Dry offering. This triple-distilled rum is crisp, subtly fragrant, and of course, dry. And it’s still an aged rum, despite its clear complexion; charcoal filtering removes the dark color imparted by the aging process.

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Like the Añejo and the 1888, the Extra Dry is good enough to drink neat or on the rocks. But its flavor profile makes it an especially intriguing choice for cocktails. “It’s versatile,” Brian says. “The Extra Dry plays well in a clean, simple cocktail, but one that you can experiment with, too.” So after sampling a few styles, our mixology lesson began, with bartenders from Eastern Standard and Lolita showing us the finer points of mixing Brugal into one of the simplest and most traditional of rum cocktails – the daiquiri.

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The daiquiri is a Caribbean classic that’s been unfairly maligned over the years, victimized by artificially flavored sweeteners, mixers, and juices. Frozen daiquiris are fun by the pool, of course, but they aren’t what you’d consider a serious drink. So our cocktail-making session returned the daiquiri to its most basic, refreshing roots – rum, syrup, and fresh lime juice. That last ingredient is especially critical; the dryness and subtle profile of the Brugal accentuates the flavors of the mixers, so using fresh lime results in a naturally sweet, uncluttered cocktail.

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After learning about the merits of a traditional daiquiri, we were encouraged us to branch out a bit. With various garnishes and syrups at our disposal, my friend Mike whipped up a sweet, herbal daiquiri with honey and basil.

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But the pros still do it best, and the highlight of the night for me was this strawberry daiquiri with jalepeño. Along with the fresh, natural strawberry flavor was a subtle undercurrent of heat from the jalepeño, which made for a pleasant, lip-tingling finish.

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Again, it’s the dryness of the Brugal that enables the other ingredients to shine. That hint of heat, and its interplay with the strawberry, is exactly the sort of nuance that would be overpowered by a sweeter rum with its own heavier flavors.

While historically one of the top selling rums in the Caribbean, Brugal has never enjoyed widespread popularity in the United States. That’s changing, though, as mixologists experiment with different brands for an American public that increasingly appreciates complexity in its cocktails. This is the market that Brugal envisions capturing with its Extra Dry variety.

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The white rum represents a departure from Brugal’s other styles, but not from its standards. “They want to leave a legacy that, 125 years from now, they can still be proud of,” Brian tells me. A devotion to quality doesn’t always translate to longevity. But for Brugal, it’s a formula that’s worked pretty well since 1888.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Smoky Cocktails With The Black Grouse

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Scotch has never been the most approachable of liquors. Like all whiskies, it’s an acquired taste; and while it’s certainly one worth acquiring, there are rules to heed before you even think about pouring yourself a glass. Some varieties are best enjoyed on the rocks; others must be consumed neat. A little water might open up the flavors of certain scotches – and completely ruin others. Ultimately it’s all a matter of personal preference, but scotch connoisseurs tend to be passionate – and vocal – about their customs. So if the simple act of dropping an ice cube into a glass of scotch can provoke outrage, mixing scotch into a cocktail must be on par with a capital offense, right?

Not according to the good folks at The Famous Grouse. And with more than a century’s worth of distilling experience, they’re free to keep their own counsel on the matter.

The Famous Grouse has been making blended whisky in Scotland since 1897. The smoothness, drinkability, and affordability of its flagship product have made The Famous Grouse the best-selling scotch in the land of kilts and bagpipes. But a newer addition to the Grouse’s line has rightfully earned its share of the spotlight.

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The Black Grouse differs from the original blend in that it’s made with peat, which gives many scotches their signature smoky character. It’s a smooth, aromatic scotch with a long, oaky finish. The Black Grouse is exquisite on its own, and its makers do recommend consuming it neat. But they’re not terribly preachy about the best way to enjoy their scotch, even going so far as to offer cocktail recipes on their website. Of course, you wouldn’t expect pretension from a brand that named itself after a Scottish game bird similar in appearance to a chicken.

That said, the Black Grouse flew into Boston this week and teamed up with mixologists at two bars to see how its smoky scotch fared in a range of cocktails. I was fortunate to be part of a small group that took part in a scotch-themed mini bar crawl that was as enlightening as it was intoxicating.

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The dark, elegant confines of the backroom bar at Carrie Nation provided an appropriately dignified atmosphere for the first two cocktails of the evening. Bartender Brian Kline explained that his first concoction, the Sweet Release, was modeled after a 1930s-era cocktail called the Remember the Maine. Combining Black Grouse, sweet vermouth, Luxardo cherry juice, Angostura bitters, and an absinthe rinse, the Sweet Release was strong, smoky, and tart. Brian noted that the cherry juice served to bring out the smokiness of the scotch, while the absinthe gave the drink a pleasantly bitter finish.

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“Part of what I love about this job is coming up with drinks with ingredients that people think they don’t like,” Brian said in his introduction to the evening’s second cocktail, the Ginger Kiss. "You'll like this," he added. Made with Black Grouse, yellow chartreuse, fresh lemon juice, and ginger liqueur, plenty about this could challenge the palate of a timid drinker. But the Ginger Kiss was a vibrant, well-balanced cocktail with a smoky essence and notes of citrus. The distinctive flavor of ginger permeated the drink without overpowering it, and the chartreuse was used sparingly.

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Thankfully there was some food, too, which kept us all upright while we sipped our potent libations. Hearty pulled pork sliders were a good match for the smoky notes of the Sweet Release.

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Peanut Thai chicken skewers were highly addictive and paired well with the sweetness of the Ginger Kiss.

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From there we headed to the cave-like, downstairs bar at Stoddard’s, where mixologist Tony Iamunno offered his take on how to employ scotch in a cocktail.

First up was Someone Else’s Girl, the name of which, Tony wistfully noted, was autobiographical. This decadent drink was a mix of Black Grouse, egg white, Crème Yvette, raspberry syrup, lemon juice, and Angostura bitters. Garnished with raspberries, this cocktail was nothing short of luxurious. The egg white gave it a creamy texture, while the Crème Yvette, a fruity, violet liqueur that reemerged in 2009 after a 40-year hiatus, provided a well-rounded sweetness. Using a smoky scotch like Black Grouse in such a sweet, velvety drink was clever and unexpected.

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Coming on the heels of that soft, creamy cocktail, the final drink of the night was like a bacchanal of bitterness. The Smoky Glasgow combined Black Grouse, absinthe, and dry vermouth in a well-conceived but intense cocktail. This was a serious drinker’s drink, with a prominent licorice flavor from the absinthe and an herbal dryness from the vermouth. Both of the bitter liquors served to enhance the smoky character of the Black Grouse, and an orange peel offered just the slightest hint of citrus. A challenging combination of flavors, but well done.

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All that bitterness was balanced by a plate of Stoddard’s’ chipotle citrus chicken wings, which brought some spice and a little sweetness to the party.

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And as a special treat, we got an order of that timeless staple of French-Canadian cuisine, poutine. These hand-cut fries topped with melted cheese curds and a delicious duck fat gravy went well with both cocktails. Then again, poutine goes well with just about anything.

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As it turns out, scotch goes well with a few things too. While there are, of course, a handful of traditional scotch-based cocktails, they have yet to enjoy a resurgence in popularity; it’s rare that I hear someone order a scotch and soda or a Rob Roy. But the drinks Brian and Tony made for us this week demonstrated an impressive range of styles for scotch drinks, from classic to indulgent to vigorously bitter.

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For those of us who typically wouldn’t pair scotch with anything other than a quality cigar, the experience illustrated the benefits of experimenting with this most distinguished of liquors. Granted, making a whisky sour with an 18-year-old Macallan would be considered an alcoholic atrocity, but using a more versatile scotch like The Black Grouse in a high-end cocktail is unlikely to invite scorn. A glass of scotch served neat may forever be the pinnacle of respectability in the world of booze, but even the most stubborn whisky drinkers know when to bend the rules.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Brewery Ommegang, HBO, and Game of Thrones: Fire and Blood Launch Party

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Our present-day conception of Belgian beer has its roots in an era marked by prolonged warfare, political upheaval, ghastly torture devices, and religious zealotry – the Middle Ages. It seems fitting, then, that a modern-day brewer of Belgian-style beers would devote a line of specialty brews to a Medieval-themed fantasy epic known for bloodshed, treachery, and mysticism (not to mention a whole lotta sex).

Brewery Ommegang has teamed up with HBO to release a series of limited edition beers based on Game of Thrones, the George R.R. Martin books that the cable network has turned into a blood-soaked TV series and cultural phenomenon. The collaboration began last year with Iron Throne, a blonde ale that paid tribute to the King Joffrey, the fair-haired but vicious young ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. It continued last fall with the hearty Take the Black Stout, inspired by noble bastard Jon Snow and his brothers in the Night Watch.

Last night at Davis Square’s Saloon, Ommegang unveiled the third beer in its series – Fire and Blood. The malty brew is named for the motto of House Targaryan and the beautiful Daenerys, the young woman who, like seemingly everyone else in Westeros, lays claim to the Iron Throne. Unlike everyone else, though, Daenerys commands three fire-breathing dragons – exactly the sort of pets you want when attempting to decimate opposing armies and declare yourself ruler of the Seven Kingdoms.

With its blood-red hue and spicy hop character, the latest entry certainly lives up to its name. Fire and Blood is a powerful red rye ale with a raisin-like fruitiness. Notes of licorice and star anise provide spicy depth, while ancho chilies add complexity and a mild hint of dragon fire.

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Ommegang also brought along the previous beer in its Game of Thrones series. The Take the Black Stout is robust and unusually vibrant, with notes of chocolate, caramel, and coffee. A complex, hoppy beer that finishes with a surprising sweetness, it’s just the sort of brew you’d want to enjoy while standing atop a massive wall of ice and watching for an army of undead invaders.

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Ommegang publicity manager Allison Capozza explains that the beers are truly a collaborative effort between the brewery and HBO. “HBO will talk to us about themes, nuances, and characters in the upcoming season. Then we think about style, color, and ingredients.” She says the reaction from the network has been overwhelmingly positive. And the beers themselves have become something of a phenomenon, as anyone who’s had trouble finding them in stores can attest. “The response was incredible,” Allison says of last year’s inaugural release. “We just had no idea how big it was going to be.”

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There was no shortage of the beer at Saloon, which was decked out in its Westerosian best for the release party. Sword hilt tap handles clearly identified the honored brews of the evening.

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Hors d’oeuvres such as beef skewers, chicken wings, and fig jam with goat cheese on bread would be right at home at a King’s Landing feast. And since Saloon is best known for its excellent cocktails, they didn’t miss the opportunity to whip up something special for the occasion – the Battle Axe.

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A mix of brandy, honey, and lemon, with an Ommegang Witte float, its composition was appropriate for a Medieval cocktail – simple, with classic ingredients, and packing plenty of punch.

The crowd of 200+ revelers got into the spirit as well, some donning attire for spending a day at court, heading into battle, or giving birth to a murderous shadow demon.

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And while there were no mock beheadings or reenactments of the Red Wedding (thankfully), Ommegang brought more than just beer.

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Upstairs, at Saloon’s sister bar, Foundry, sat a full-size replica of the Iron Throne. Forged from the swords of a thousand vanquished foes, the throne, commissioned by the enigmatic king Aegon Targaryan, is a sharp and notoriously uncomfortable seat. Aegon deliberately fashioned it this way, believing that “a king should never sit easy.” The replica wasn’t quite so austere, enabling attendees to pose for pictures without incident.

Fire and Blood will be in stores starting on March 31, just in time for the April 6 premiere of Season 4 on HBO. The 750-ml bottles are sold with three different labels, each commemorating one of Daenerys’s dragons – Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion. One note of caution: with an ABV of 6.8%, Fire and Blood is a potent brew. So think twice about downing one before a boar hunt.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

New Year, New You – A Cocktail Dinner

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Pairing food and drink is a time-honored practice, and one most closely associated with wine. In a typical wine pairing dinner, a chef prepares several courses, each accompanied by a different wine; done properly, the ingredients in your glass complement those on your plate, making the sum of your meal greater than the whole of its parts. More recently, the availability and complexity of craft beer have brought beer pairings into vogue. They may occur at gastropubs instead of five-star restaurants, but the principles are the same.

Cocktail pairings are comparatively rare. That might be surprising, especially in light of the culture and popularity of modern mixology. But matching cocktails with food presents a number of challenges. One obstacle is that the drinks themselves may already contain a complex mix of liquor, bitters, and herbs. Common mixers, such as citrus, don’t get along well with certain dishes, and some liqueurs may be so bold as to overwhelm your palate. Alcohol content poses another problem. Cocktails are by their nature more potent than beer and wine, and if you end up hammered before the second course even arrives, you’ll probably inhale your food just to soak up the booze – which defeats the purpose of eating deliberately and enjoying the flavor interactions.

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Difficult though it might be, it’s no surprise that Cambridge’s Moksa would embrace the challenge of a cocktail pairing. No stranger to hosting creative events, the Central Square Pan-Asian eatery and cocktail lounge hosted a “New Year, New You Cocktail Dinner” in late January, pairing a three-course meal of small plates with cocktails designed by beverage director Noon Summers.

An intimate crowd gathered for the festivities, which began with a champagne cocktail.

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Complete with a tea-smoked sugar cube, it was a light, elegant drink that lent itself to some engaging pre-dinner conversation among the dinner guests.

We also got a plate of edamame to snack on.

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And with that, the pairing officially got under way. The first-course cocktail was a classic – a Martinez, made with Edinburgh gin, sweet vermouth, and allspice dram. Even by itself, the drink was outstanding. Noon described it as “food friendly,” which it certainly was.

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Dry, with a hint of sweetness at the end, it matched well with the first dish – yellowtail sashimi with ginger, chive, and a sake-yuzu soy drizzle. The dry and bitter elements of the Martinez didn’t dominate the mild flavor of the fish, and the aromatics brought out the flavors of the citrusy, spicy soy sauce.

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The next cocktail would warm the heart of anyone who’s endured this horrendous New England winter – a hot toddy. With distinct floral and herbal notes, Noon’s hot toddy combined whiskey, Grand Marnier, tea that she brought back from a recent trip to Thailand, and spices, including a hibiscus flower syrup. The tea flavor was strong but not overpowering, and the drink was served at the perfect temperature. “I didn’t want to overheat it,” Noon explained. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t taste the whiskey.” (This may be why every hot toddy I’ve made at home has been disappointing.)

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Accompanying the hot toddy was a dish called Chow Fun – a roasted mushroom blend served with Asian greens and shrimp. As someone who doesn’t love mushrooms, I was a bit leery going into this one. But of all the evening’s pairings, this may have best demonstrated how flavors can work together to create something bigger than the individual components. The herbal flavors from the tea and hibiscus brought out the earthy essence of the mushrooms, which in turn took on the rich flavors of the vegetables and spices. The orange flavor of the Grand Marnier paired beautifully with the shrimp.

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The evening ended on an appropriately sweet note. The Radiant Orchid cocktail, named for the 2014 color of the year (you’ll just have to look that up), combined Grey Goose vodka; Noon’s “farmhouse cordial,” made from freshly grown herbs; Concord grape juice; and Lambise, a cocktail beer.

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Served alongside it was a smooth, creamy panna cotta made with Concord grapes. It was a simple yet masterful combination. Grape was clearly the central flavor, appearing in both the cocktail and the dish. But the tartness of the lambic and the herbs in the farmhouse cordial provided balance, resulting in a well-rounded dessert pairing that was fruity but not overly sweet.

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I spent the entirety of the evening enjoying the splendid flavor combinations and happily discussing the meal with the other guests. It was only later that I came to fully appreciate the forethought and expertise that made the night so successful. There were some obvious relationships between the food and drink ingredients, like the grapes that featured in both the Radiant Orchid and the panna cotta. Other connections were more nuanced, like the spices in the Martinez accentuating the yellowtail dish. No matter how pronounced or subtle, identifying those key flavors ahead of time and knowing how they’ll behave is critical.

What’s more, Noon’s carefully selected cocktails prevented us drinking too quickly and not appreciating the accompanying dishes. One would be hard-pressed to chug a Martinez; with such dry and bitter liquors, it’s a sipping cocktail if ever there was one. Likewise, no one gulps down a warm drink like a hot toddy. The drink portions were also smaller than usual, which made them well suited to the small plates.

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It seems inevitable that cocktail pairings will grow in popularity, and as “New Year, New You” demonstrated, the possibilities are enticing. But the success of such endeavors depends on the right balance of creativity, skill, and restraint. And it doesn’t hurt to have a mixologist of Noon Summers’ caliber at the helm.

This also wasn’t the last such event at Moksa. Tonight, in fact, they’re hosting a decadent chocolate-themed pairing, with items like warm cocoa nibs whiskey punch, spicy scallops with white chocolate and wasabi drizzle, and a house-made chocolate Irish cream.

Yeah, that doesn’t sound too awesome or anything.

Address: 450 Massachusetts Avenue

Website:http://www.moksarestaurant.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.