Gin

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.

Good Things Come in Small Batches: A Tour of GrandTen Distilling

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For all the fascinating topics that the brand ambassador of a microdistillery could expound upon – the distillation process, the challenges of running a small business, the snazzy vintage pickup truck used to make liquor deliveries – it’s noteworthy how much time GrandTen Distilling’s Lonnie Newburn spends talking about labels.

No, I don’t mean “The GrandTen Label,” as in the line of craft spirits that have won favor among local mixologists and praise from national media. I mean the actual, physical labels on the bottles.

Lonnie points out the text and numbering on each label, signifying batch and bottle numbers. He comments on the style, shape, and length of the labels, even the type of paper used. He hints at images hidden among the floral designs of GrandTen’s line of cordials.

More than anything, Lonnie groans whenever he notices a label that’s askew, however imperceptible it may be to the untrained eye. “That label’s crooked because of me,” he mutters.

To the average person taking a tour of GrandTen’s South Boston facility, label design and placement might not be the most exhilarating subject of the day. But when you’re one of four individuals responsible for ushering a completely handmade spirit from still to bottle to shelf, details like that are important.

And if they obsess that much about the adhesive affixed to the bottle, you can imagine how much care goes into the product behind it.

Birth of a Boston Distillery

One of only two distilleries in the city of Boston, GrandTen Distilling has its roots in a business plan that Matthew Nuernberger, the distillery’s co-owner and president, wrote for his MBA program at Babson College. Upon graduating, he teamed up with his cousin, fellow co-owner and head distiller Spencer McMinn, who had earned a PhD in chemistry from the University of Virginia.

Armed with business savvy and scientific know-how, they acquired space in Southie in 2010 and set about creating small-batch spirits for a savvy drinking public with a growing appreciation for craft cocktails and quality ingredients.

After clearing the innumerable regulatory and licensing hurdles that all would-be distillers must face if they want their product to be considered something other than moonshine in the eyes of the law, in April 2012 the cousins finally unveiled their first spirit – an American gin.

Less than three years later, GrandTen has emerged as one of the most respected regional players in a fast-growing craft spirit movement.

They’re certainly one of the most visible. It’s not difficult to spot GrandTen doing business around town, considering their distinctive mode of transportation – a 1966 Ford F-100 pickup truck, custom-painted “Steve McQueen Green” and sporting the GTD logo.

Finding the spirits isn’t hard, either. Today there are nine original GrandTen products, which appear on the shelves of more than 300 Massachusetts bars, restaurants, and liquor stores. Distribution has expanded to Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania (and, oddly enough, Washington state), and when I toured the distillery a few weeks ago, they were readying their first international shipment.

Not bad for a company that only recently hired its fourth full-time employee.

Historic Location

While GrandTen is still a young company, the nondescript Andrew Square facility out of which it operates has deep local roots and a colorful history. It was built as an iron foundry in the early 19th century by renowned metallurgist Cyrus Alger. The foundry supplied munitions to the U.S. government, including cannon balls used during the War of 1812.

Later, the foundry’s focus shifted from weapons to wire production, and then lived a long life as a series of machine shops, small production companies, and automotive repair facilities.

When GrandTen took over the old foundry, it had fallen into disrepair and was in need of extensive renovation. Remarkably, some of the original structure remains – its rafters and wooden support beams have weathered the passage of time and imbue the space with a sense of tradition and longevity.

But despite the building’s historical aura, the distillery looks pretty much like your average industrial warehouse – plastic buckets and hoses strewn across a concrete floor, tools lying on tables, piles of cardboard boxes and packing materials, brooms leaning against walls.

Meet Adrian

Of course, most warehouses don’t have a 50-gallon copper still in the back. The Adolf-Adrian Brennereianlagen still, which Lonnie affectionately refers to as “Adrian,” is believed to be one of only five of its kind in the United States.

“Adrian is a very unique eau de vie or brandy still,” Lonnie explains. “He was born at the Adolf-Adrian Distillery Manufacturers in Germany. They used to be a copper works, and have been producing handmade copper stills since 1811. They are very low-volume and produce a limited number of stills a year – fewer than 10 – and most stay in Europe.”

With its spherical dome, various portholes, and a tall distillation column that looks like an upraised arm, Adrian vaguely resembles a killer robot from a 1950s sci-fi movie. But Adrian only does good deeds – nearly every day, he’s busy heating, cooling, and infusing the liquids that will become GrandTen’s next batch of spirits, from their flagship gin to more experimental items. Next to Adrian is a 1,000 gallon fermenter, and a storage tank beyond that.

All throughout the distilling area is evidence of the copper still’s output – oak barrels that have recently been hammered shut, pallets of whiskey ready to be shipped, bottles of gin awaiting labels.

The sweet aroma of molasses used in GrandTen’s new rum permeates the entire room, and on the floor is a large pile of chipotle peppers that had been infusing a batch of spicy vodka earlier that day. The peppers are locally grown, as are nearly all of the ingredients GTD uses – yeast for the rum comes from the Trillium brewery in Fort Point, and botanicals deployed in the gin are purchased from Christina’s, a spice shop in Cambridge’s Inman Square.

As Lonnie explains, it’s an approach that benefits the spirits as well as the community. “Using local products certainly brings a better flavor to the end spirits, keeps more money in Massachusetts, and ensures freshness,” he says.

The tour moves from the production area to the distillery’s front room, where dozens of spirits are aging in barrels. GrandTen barrel-ages six of its products – a not insignificant investment of time and resources for a small distillery.

Brandy in the Works

Some of those barrels hold GrandTen’s forthcoming tenth product – an apple brandy, which Lonnie calls “a true New England classic.” The brandy will stay in the barrels for at least another year, but judging by Lonnie’s enthusiasm, it will be worth the wait.

“We crushed thousands of pounds of red New England apples, fermented them on the skin, and distilled a truly delicious, creamy, caramel, and effervescent red apple brandy that has been aging for over 2 years now,” he says.

But there’s no need to wait for GrandTen’s other spirits, and after learning how they’re made, it’s time to find out how they taste. Much like the facility as a whole, the tasting area is a functional, bare-bones affair.

There’s a roughly cut concrete bar, behind which are shelves lined with bottles of GrandTen and a few mixers. Two large wooden tables are fairly recent additions to the tasting room, handmade by the GrandTen crew to get visitors more involved in the tasting process.

Visitors should get comfortable, too, because there’s plenty to sample.

Wire Works Gin

The tasting begins with Wire Works American Gin, the name of which is a nod to the foundry’s previous life as a wire works. American gins tend to be less strict than traditional London dry gins in their use of botanicals. While all gins must use juniper, which contributes the spirit’s distinctive pine flavor, Wire Works dials back that herbal pungency in its botanical blend.

The result is a clean, balanced, highly drinkable gin, with notes of white pepper, citrus, and Angelica root. The botanical recipe is secret, of course, but Lonnie reveals one of the more unusual ingredients – cranberries, which don’t impart flavor but add acidity and contribute to mouthfeel.

Wire Works Special Reserve

The Wire Works Special Reserve that Lonnie opens next was bottled that very day. It’s the exact same gin as the Wire Works, except it spends a year aging in American oak bourbon barrels. The barrel aging accounts for the gin’s darker complexion and, more importantly, its whiskey-like complexity. It’s a warmer spirit with a bit of spice in the nose and soft notes of vanilla at the end.

The Special Reserve is similar to an “Old Tom” style of gin, so it works well in a Martinez, but can just as easily substitute for whiskey in cocktails.

South Boston Irish Whiskey

Speaking of whiskey, the South Boston Irish Whiskey is the only GrandTen product that isn’t made entirely on the premises. The whiskey is fermented in Ireland and shipped to the South Boston distillery, where it’s blended, aged in bourbon barrels, and bottled.

The whiskey arrives from the Emerald Isle in a fairly raw state, often with pieces of wood and charred oak floating in it. The wood chunks get strained out, of course, but the oaky essence remains, combining with sweet cinnamon spice and notes of banana.

Medford Rum

Medford Rum may be GrandTen’s newest offering, but it’s been hanging around the distillery longer than any other spirit. Aged for two years in charred American oak barrels, the Medford Rum is what Lonnie calls an “old, tavern-style rum.” It hearkens back to the colonial era, when Massachusetts was home to upwards of 30 rum distilleries.

Rums made in Medford were especially renowned for their superior quality, and the term “Medford rum” became a general way to refer to any dark, full-flavored rum.

The last of those classic rum distilleries closed before Prohibition, but GrandTen picks up the trail with this updated version. Made with blackstrap molasses, the dark, thick liquid that remains after sugar has been boiled out of raw cane syrup, it’s noticeably less sweet than typical rums. With clear notes of butterscotch on the nose and rich caramel flavors, this is a smooth, complex rum that recalls the flavor of a Werther’s Original candy.

Without exaggeration, this is unlike any rum I’ve ever tried, a fact Lonnie attributes to the choice of local products. “Trillium provides us with a blend of New England yeasts that give the rum a regional character that simply cannot be reproduced with commercially available yeast strains,” he says.

Cordials

The rum seems like a tough act to follow, and I’m not sure what to expect as we move into GrandTen’s line of cordials. Cloying sweetness? Herbal intensity? Names like “Amandine” and “Angelica” offer scant clues about the character of the liqueurs, and the label on one bottle appears to be marred by an inexcusable typo.

Amandine

But one sip of the Amandine immediately alleviates my concern. This barrel-aged almond liqueur recently drew praise from the Wall Street Journal, which lauded GrandTen’s “less-is-more approach to Amaretto.” With a pure, full-flavored almond character and a unique mouthfeel, the Amandine recalls the softness and warmth of a homemade almond biscuit.

Angelica

The Angelica, meanwhile, utterly defies categorization. Described as a “botanical liqueur,” the name derives from the spirit’s primary ingredient – Angelica root, a tan-colored herb with a sweet, earthy flavor and hints of anise.

The eponymous herb is used to great effect in the cordial, combining with notes of cinnamon, clove, and juniper for an entirely unique liqueur. It would be like St. Germain and chartreuse having a kid; the Angelica lacks the brightness of St. Germain and the bitterness of chartreuse, but maintains an aromatic, floral essence and a fragrant bouquet of spices.

Craneberry

All throughout the tasting, I kept glancing at the third cordial – Craneberry – and wondered how a distillery that consistently demonstrates such painstaking attention to detail could have flubbed the spelling of “cranberry” and allowed the error to remain on the label.

But the extra vowel isn’t an oversight – “craneberry” is the word that early Massachusetts settlers used to refer to the cranberry flower, which resembles a crane. Here it’s a rum-based liquor infused with Cape Cod cranberries and aged with citrus in cabernet barrels. Like the Amandine and Angelica, the Craneberry is full-flavored but not overly sweet. A seasonal release, this is a holiday cocktail waiting to happen.

Fire Puncher Vodka

The tasting closes with one of GrandTen’s standard offerings – and another history lesson. Fire Puncher vodka was the distillery’s second product, and with its spicy bite, represents a thumbing of the nose at the preponderance of soft, fruity vodkas on the market. Each batch is distilled with 10 pounds of those fresh chipotle peppers, and Lonnie again credits the local ingredients with imparting such a unique flavor to the spirit.

“The chipotle peppers from Bars Farm [in Deerfield] are of a much higher quality,” he says. “Most chipotle peppers are made from a lower-grade jalapeno because they are going to be smoked; however, our chipotles are made from superior local jalapenos.”

And while the label warns that the spirit is “not for the faint of heart,” the final product is much more about flavor than heat. The vodka has a big, pure pepper essence, and the heat stays on your lips instead of setting your esophagus aflame. Hickory smoke, which is bubbled through the vodka before bottling, rounds out the flavor and makes for a smooth, warm spirit that seems destined for a bloody mary.

The name “Fire Puncher” is inspired by an incident from the distillery’s illustrious past. A fire broke out in the foundry one night in January 1887, and before the fire department could arrive, a concerned chap by the name of Tommy Maguire took it upon himself to climb up to the roof and fight the blaze – with his fists. His efforts, however well intentioned, earned him a ride in the paddy wagon.

Sadly missing from our tasting is Fire Puncher Black, a variation of the chipotle vodka made in collaboration with Taza Chocolate of Somerville. The combination of dark chocolate and spicy pepper sounds divine, but the stores are depleted (don't fret – it'll be back). And while it was only intended to be a limited-edition product, its absence highlights one of the challenges inherent in small-batch distilling – when a spirit runs out, sometimes it’s really, truly gone.

Life in a Small Distillery

Such are the facts of life for a distillery of this size and tenure. Capacity limitations and the inflexibility of the aging process directly influence GrandTen’s product line, even more than they would for a larger, older outfit. Regardless of the volume of spirit GrandTen can produce, there’s only so much space to store it.

And products that require barrel aging can’t be hurried along. If GrandTen ever has designs on releasing an original, 12-year-old whiskey, they need to get the spirit in barrels spirit today if they want it on shelves by 2026. Even now, an unexpected spike in demand can disrupt production schedules or, in the case of the barrel-aged spirits, lead to a gap in availability.

But while GrandTen’s output is restricted by time and infrastructure, their freedom to experiment with handpicked ingredients and design original, innovative recipes is limited only by their collective imagination.

Unlike industry titans, GrandTen isn’t tethered to age-old recipes or methods. Someone operating a still at Beefeater doesn’t have license to throw a handful of cranberries into the botanical mix to see how it might alter the gin’s flavor. But at a microdistillery, an idea like that has the potential to become a signature product.

GrandTen’s facility might look a bit like a garage, but it functions more like a workshop. It’s a creative environment in which energy and ingenuity thrive, risks can pay off, and even missteps have value. The result of that combination of artistry and grunt work is a line of unique, homegrown spirits for a city that’s come to appreciate quality and recognize nuance in its cocktails.

Every night we crowd into places like Backbar and Wink & Nod and wait for original, well-executed drinks made with the best ingredients by the most talented mixologists. It follows that we should seek out the same passion, patience, and devotion to craft in our spirits.

And if you find those qualities in a bottle with a crooked label, well…just consider it a personal touch.

Address: 383 Dorchester Avenue, Boston

Website: http://www.grandten.com/

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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.

Hendrick's Voyages Into the Unusual

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Looking back, I suppose I could have taken a few seconds and read the entire invitation instead of skipping ahead to what I thought was the most important part.

Let me back up a bit. Late last year, I attended a promotional event sponsored by Hendrick’s Gin. Called the “Delightfully Peculiar Cocktail Academy,” it was an opportunity to learn about Hendrick’s, how the spirit is made, and what distinguishes it from other types of gin. About 20 people attended, and it was held in a midsize function room at a Cambridge bar. Under the watchful eye of Brand Ambassador Jim Ryan, we learned a few cocktail recipes and made some excellent Hendrick’s-based drinks.

Overall, it was a fun, engaging, but fairly low-key evening.

So a few weeks ago, I got invited to another Hendrick’s affair. Now whereas it’s customary to familiarize oneself with the pertinent details of an event upon receiving an invitation, I just figured “free gin!”, and enthusiastically confirmed my attendance with the organizers. I assumed it was another cocktail-making class, something like that.

It wasn’t.

As soon as I stepped into the Revere Hotel’s enormous function room, known cryptically as Space 57, I realized this would be no quiet evening of cocktail instruction. But even if I’d studied every last letter of the invite, there’s no way I could have known what awaited me at the Hendrick’s “Voyages Into the Unusual.”

It was like stepping through a turnstile and into a late-19th-century traveling carnival. And not a carnival with cotton candy or ring-toss games, mind you, but the kind that mysteriously appears in an empty field overnight, unannounced. Think Something Wicked This Way Comes or The Night Circus.

No, there wasn’t anything sinister, like a supernatural carousel or a malevolent ringmaster. But there was a 20-foot-tall woman – a larger-than-life harbinger of the bizarre night that was about to ensue.

I arrived to find a troupe of costumed characters, dancers, and musicians buzzing around a gantlet of Hendrick’s-themed attractions. Some were instructive, like the botanist discussing the 11 botanicals that give Hendrick’s gin its unique flavor profile.

But the rest of it was straight out of a sideshow – two-headed skeletons, stuffed animals in glass specimen jars, and a slew of suspicious-looking apothecary bottles (the sort you’d find on the shelves of a creepy pharmacist who secretly dabbles in the occult).

On stage was a band called the White Ghost Shivers, a Vaudeville-themed septet whose mix of bluegrass, jazz, ragtime, and country music provided the score for an eerie yet upbeat atmosphere.

And eerie it was – the room was mostly dark, pierced by white spotlights that cast long, harsh shadows on the walls and floor. Seeming to have pulled into town just in time for the Halloween season, this was a spectacle bathed in the macabre.

While I never anticipated something on this scale, I was right about one thing – free drinks. Before a crowd of several hundred guests started oozing in, I was kindly handed a Hendrick’s and tonic. Even amid the spectacular scenery and a lineup of thoughtfully crafted cocktails, a standard like this is never dull.

Standing at an open table in the middle of the room, I sipped my drink and watched the dark carnival came to life. I wasn’t quite sure what to check out first: the hot air balloon with the acrobatic aviator?

The Wall of Curiosities, from which a hand would unexpectedly emerge and give you a cocktail book or a Hendrick’s newspaper?

Ultimately, I figured I’d start at the one spot where, in any environment, I can make myself at home.

The bar was called the Explorer’s Lounge, appropriately enough. I polished off my gin and tonic and moved on to the evening’s featured cocktails. First up was “On This Harvest Mule.” With crisp, autumnal flavors and a name inspired by a classic Neil Young song, this bold mix of Hendrick’s gin, pear liqueur, fresh lemon juice, ginger syrup, apple shrub, and pear-apple cider was ideally suited to the season.

I ventured away from the Explorer’s Lounge and headed over to the fearsome-looking Monster’s Box. This large, wooden crate, strewn with chains, was guarded by a keeper who, upon my arrival, knocked loudly on the front of the box. Out slithered two gray, scaly hands with long fingers and black nails – not to snatch passersby, thankfully, but to hand out drinks.

In this case it was the Traveler’s Testament – Hendrick’s, rooibos tea, lime juice, raspberry syrup, and sparkling water, deliciously topped with toasted coconut flakes. The tea was prominent but didn’t overwhelm the other ingredients, and its nutty, herbal flavor offered a contrast to the fruity elements.

From there I made my way to the Apothecary, which is a key element of Hendrick’s lore. In a nod to the days when gin was used medicinally, the distinctive Hendrick’s bottle is modeled after an old apothecary jar. There were many such jars at the Apothecary station, where the drink of choice was the Cucumber Blood Cocktail. This luminescent green potion was concocted with lemon verbena-infused gin, cucumber juice, simple syrup, and a dash of green chartreuse.

This one was a little too intense for me. I found the taste to be kind of medicinal – which, I now realize, was fairly appropriate, given that it was poured at the Apothecary. But despite the up-front cucumber flavor, which usually mellows things out, the lemon infusion was a bit much. I’m also not a big chartreuse fan, and that may have thrown the taste off for me.

It was around then that I crossed paths with Jim Ryan, the amiable Brand Ambassador who taught the cocktail class I attended last year. I asked him what his favorite drink of the night was, and he proceeded to mention every drink that included Hendrick’s. When pressed, he expressed a particular fondness for the Traveling Punch – which just so happened to be my next stop.

Hendrick’s loves its punches, as I learned at the Cocktail Academy. What we think of today as a cloyingly sweet yet economical way to get your party guests hammered on cheap vodka, punches were a centuries-old predecessor to the single-serving cocktail. Hendrick’s likes to hearken back to respectable, well-made punches, the kind that engendered a communal drinking experience.

The Traveling Punch was a robust combination of flavors meant to reflect New England’s most renowned season. It was a spicy, aromatic cocktail that conjured a vision of sitting on porch on a brisk October evening, wrapped in a blanket, sipping this mix of Hendrick’s gin, fruit tisane tea, cranberry liqueur, lemon/orange oleo-saccharum (a lemon-orange oil and sugar syrup), sparkling water, and Angostura bitters

I rounded back to the Explorer’s Lounge and ordered up the last of the evening’s featured cocktails – the Night of the Iguana. This one was pretty involved – gin, celery juice, cucumber juice, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, a cucumber wheel, ground sea salt, and ground cubeb berry.

For all its components, it was a surprisingly mellow cocktail, softer than some of its spicy predecessors. The cubeb berry gave it a bright, peppery flavor, but a prominent cucumber essence kept all the ingredients balanced.

Having exhausted the lineup of Hendrick’s drinks, only one objective remained – get into the skirt of that really tall woman. No, I wasn’t drunk or hallucinating. There really was a 20-foot-tall woman, attended by two little fellows with beak-like masks who would choose people from the crowd and escort them through the folds of her dress. What was beyond that silk barrier? No one knew, but it was a mystery I was determined to penetrate.

Getting in would prove to be a bit of a challenge, though. Only three or four people were admitted at one time, and pretty much everyone wanted in. And the guardians, though diminutive in stature, acted as judge, jury, and bouncer – no one got by without their say-so.

Fortunately, I was among the chosen few (how that happened is another story; many thanks to those involved, you know who you are). As I slipped through the thick folds of the skirt, I suppose I shouldn’t have been entirely surprised to find a cozy living room inside.

Enveloped by the skirt’s black fabric, the room felt like a fort made of pillows and bed sheets, though it was comfortably furnished with a table, four chairs, and a tasteful area rug. Small servers doled out more Traveling Punch from a bowl perched atop a black trunk, while candles and a decorative human skull provided some ambience.

Drinking a gin-based punch served by very short men beneath the dress of a very tall woman while a string band outside plays songs in a minor key is a good place to pause and reflect on the bizarre nature of this affair.

While only the latest chapter of an innovative marketing campaign known for colorful characters, eccentric taglines, and elaborate events, “Voyages” is easily the most extravagant. The production has been traveling to major U.S. cities for the past year and a half, entertaining and educating thousands of guests and leaving them with a message that, above the din of the bells and whistles, is abundantly clear – Hendrick’s is peculiar.

The relentlessness with which Hendrick’s tries to assert its uniqueness is almost as bewildering as one of these carnival-esque events. It makes me wonder whether the folks from Beefeater or Tanqueray occasionally prank-call an overly sensitive executive at the Hendrick’s distillery and say “Uh, why is your gin so boring?”, prompting him or her to exclaim “Boring? I’ll show you...somebody get Marketing on the phone, NOW!”

Perhaps not. But the irony here is that no one needs to be persuaded that Hendrick’s is an unusual gin. The signature flavors of cucumber and rose are hard to miss, and they make for a spirit that is at once accessible and complex. In my opinion, its quality requires little fanfare (this may be one reason why I don’t work in marketing).

But hey, if Hendrick’s wants to keep hosting offbeat events like this to notify, assure, and reassure the world that its gin is unusual, then I’ll gladly keep attending.

Next time I might even read the invitation.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Hendrick's Gin – The Delightfully Peculiar Cocktail Academy

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My dad used to receive bottles of liquor as gifts, typically around the holidays. But as a beer drinker who eschewed hard liquor, he had no use for them. He kept them anyway, though, in a cardboard box in the basement; and as a dutiful son who didn’t want his parents’ cellar to become overly cluttered, I kindly took the entire box off their hands at some point when I was in college. There were some valuable things in there, like a bottle of Johnny Walker Black, and a couple of mysterious black bottles of cognac, which I still have.

There was also gin. A LOT of gin.

If memory serves, there were two bottles of Tanqueray and three bottles of Beefeater – two enormous ones (the square kind, with the handle) and a more manageable 750-milliliter bottle.

That might sound like a gold mine for a poor college student who enjoyed a cocktail once in a while, but there was one problem – I didn’t really care for gin. I found it to be harsh and unforgiving. And given the infrequency with which I drank it, I suddenly found myself with pretty much a lifetime supply of the stuff. Those bottles followed me through college, grad school, three new jobs, and at least six different residences.

Finally, about two years ago, I decided enough was enough ­– the gin had to go. And since it runs counter to my programming to simply dump usable liquor down the drain, I was going to have to get rid of it the hard way.

So I declared gin and tonic to be my official drink of the spring and summer and embarked on a boozy tour de force: A gin and tonic after work. Sometimes one before work. A gin and tonic and a good book. A gin and tonic while watching the Sox. A gin and tonic on the front porch. A gin and tonic on a midsummer night’s eve. A picnic with a thermos full of gin and tonic. Gin and tonics on the beach. A flask of gin and tonic at church (kidding! I never go to church).

Slowly, the tide began turning. Bottle after spent bottle would land in the recycling bucket with a satisfying thunk, and as the days of summer got shorter and shorter, I could see victory within my shaky grasp.

And then, a cruel and unexpected twist! A friend of mine was moving across the country and opted not to take the contents of his liquor cabinet, donating to me the remnants of his collection – which contained (you guessed it) another full bottle of Beefeater gin. And thus the spring and summer of gin and tonic stretched into the fall and, inevitably, winter of gin and tonic.

Gin was one stubborn bastard, as I learned; but so was I. And then a funny thing happened – I actually started liking the stuff. That harsh, piney liquor that initially reminded me of a cleaning product gradually revealed its merits, and eventually we put aside our differences.

Of course, learning to appreciate gin is a lot easier when you submit to the talents of creative bartenders who skillfully mix it into things other than just tonic water. And as I sampled drinks like the Tres Curieux at Marliave, the luscious Greed at Church, and the Vesper Martini at the Gaff, among many others, I noticed they weren’t made with Beefeater, or Tanqueray, or even Bombay Sapphire. It seemed the gin of choice among Boston’s best mixologists was Hendrick’s.

So I started asking for Hendrick’s in my drinks when given the opportunity, and while I’m no gin aficionado, I could tell there was something different about it. It seemed gentler and more approachable than other gin brands. Turns out there’s actually a lot about this gin that distinguishes it from its peers – as I learned a few weeks ago, when I attended a Hendrick’s-sponsored “Cocktail Academy.”

Hendrick’s is a small batch gin made by William Grant & Sons, the same distillers that own Tullamore Dew, among other fine intoxicating liquors. Their gin-soaked road show, the Cocktail Academy, has been stopping in major U.S. cities over the past couple of years as part of William Grant’s aggressive American marketing campaign. It’s a way to spread the word about Hendrick’s while teaching attendees to whip up a few gin-based cocktails under the tutelage of a Hendrick’s brand ambassador.

“Timeless Tipples Worth Toasting” was the subject of the Cocktail Academy’s third stop in the Boston area, led by an affable brand ambassador named Jim Ryan. Held at Catalyst, a very cool bar in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, the event was a laid-back clinic in gin mixology.

About 20 of us settled into a conference room with long wooden tables, each with place settings outfitted with all the supplies we’d need – a lemon press, weighted spoon, jigger, two Collins glasses, and a tumbler; lemons and cucumbers; simple syrup, soda, green tea, and elderflower liqueur (aka St. Germain); and of course, a bottle of Hendrick’s gin. There was also a helm full of ice. Yes, a helm.

As we settled in with passed hors d’oeuvres and complimentary gin and tonics (any class that starts off with a free drink is going to be a good one, regardless of the subject matter), Jim regaled us with the history of Hendrick’s and, more importantly, what makes it such a unique spirit, from its botanical signature – a chorus of 11 different fruits, roots, and flowers – to its distillation in two separate stills, to its pièce de résistance: an infusion of cucumber and rose petals.

It seems only fitting that an exceptional gin should emerge from such unusual origins. Hendrick’s is one of the only gin distilleries in Scotland. It’s housed in a converted WWI-era munitions factory that the William Grant company purchased in 1960s, around the same time that it bought two very rare stills. The first, made of a thick copper, is a traditional pot still built in 1860 by Bennet, Sons & Shears. The second is called a Carter-Head still, built in 1948; only a few are known to exist in the world.

Now, why purchase two antique stills? To show off in front of all the other gin distillers? Maybe; but after the stills were restored to proper working order, they both came to play key roles in the production of Hendrick’s Gin.

The stills yield two dramatically different spirits. In the Bennet still, botanicals are added to the liquid and boiled, producing an oily, concentrated gin distillate with a rich, robust flavor. In the Carter-Head, by contrast, the distillers place the botanicals in a basket at the top of this still, through which the alcohol vapors pass, extracting the sweeter and more delicate essences of the flowers and roots. Hendrick’s then combines the spirits produced by both stills, which is pretty much unheard of.

The result is a gin with an entirely unique flavor profile. It seems softer than other gins, yet more complex; that’s on account of its unusual botanical signature. While most gins incorporate a handful of fruits and flowers, Hendrick’s loads up with a whopping 11 botanicals – lemon peel, orange peel, coriander, chamomile, juniper, Angelica root, cubeb berry, elderflower, meadowsweet, caraway seeds, and Orris root. The exact proportions are a closely guarded secret known only to three or four people, but it’s clear that the juniper – a necessary component any gin, and the ingredient responsible for gin’s distinctive pine-like taste – is dialed back a bit. That alone might make Hendrick’s a bit more accessible to someone wary of gin.

But wait, there’s more! Once it’s all distilled, cucumber and rose petals are added, giving Hendrick’s a remarkably fresh flavor up front. This is why a cucumber is preferred to the more traditional citrus as a garnish for Hendrick’s-based drinks.

As the history lesson drew to a close, it was time to learn how to make some cocktails. First up was an elderflower cooler – gin, elderflower liqueur, simple syrup, and soda, served in a Collins glass. Essentially a St. Germain cocktail made with Hendrick’s in place of champagne, this was crisp, light, and summery. St. Germain plays very well with Hendrick’s, since elderflower is one of the botanicals used in the distillation process, and the brightness of the flavor balanced the dryness of the gin. Our class may have been taking place on a cold December evening, but sipping the elderflower cooler gave me visions of relaxing on my front porch on a June evening.

My warm-weather reverie continued with the next cocktail. Even before we made them, the cucumber lemonade sounded like a heavenly match – the cool, refreshing flavor of cucumber and the zing of a lemon. The recipe called for gin, the juice of one lemon, simple syrup, soda, and a long slice of cucumber, with an optional lemon garnish. Sure enough, it was a dry, refreshing cocktail with just enough sweetness and a only slight tartness. The lemon juice activated the lemon peel in the gin, and the resulting flavor, complemented by the cucumber, was strong but not overpowering.

The last drink was called a tenured punch, and this was a group project. Jim explained to us that, a couple centuries ago, punch preceded the notion of a single-serving cocktail. It was very communal; having a punch with guests meant you were sharing an experience. In that sense, it was an appropriate way to round out the class; there’s no “gin” in team, but there was only one punch bowl per table, and everyone at the table had to work together to make the punch.

We threw pretty much everything we had in there – gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, sparkling water, green tea, Lillet Blanc, Angostura bitters, and cucumber and lemon slices as garnishes, all poured over a massive block of ice. The tea was the most interesting component; according to Jim, it “stretches” the punch out, helping you avoid overpouring the liquors.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about punch, I imagine something overly fruity, loaded up with cheap liquors and bunch of mixers. The Hendrick’s tenured punch challenged that notion, to say the least. I would call it a rather dignified punch, the pinnacle of knowing how good flavors mix in large quantities as opposed to haphazardly pouring a bunch of ingredients into a bowl and giggling about how much alcohol you put in (I mean, not that I’ve ever…).

What’s more, no individual component of the punch was particularly obvious; I couldn’t really taste the tea, nor did the citrus or even the gin stand out. The flavor was truly greater than the sum of its parts.

The only disappointment of the night was discovering that the table of Hendrick’s gift bags did not, in fact, contain complimentary bottles of Hendrick’s.

But the mere fact that I would have welcomed a full bottle of gin made me realize how far I’d come from my earlier skepticism of the spirit. And that’s exactly the kind of epiphany that the Hendrick’s people would like everyone to have. While gin distilleries aren’t exactly hurting for cash, gin doesn’t enjoy anything close to the global sales of other spirits, like vodka or whiskey. Vodka, for instance, is eminently marketable; with its neutral flavor, it can be mixed with just about anything, and distilleries can appeal to younger drinkers with products like Swedish Fish or Whipped Cream flavored vodka (and yes, both exist). It’s harder to portray gin as the life of the party; it tends to be seen as a stuffy liquor, something preferred by an older crowd.

William Grant is fighting that perception, trying to broaden gin’s appeal and put it in the cocktails and liquor cabinets of a younger population. So they designed a wildly colorful website and host events like the Cocktail Academy at trendy bars, trying to show people that the range of gin drinks is considerably broader than just martinis and gin and tonics. In other words, gin can party with the best of ‘em.

It even looks cooler than other gins. The Hendrick’s bottle, wide and round, is modeled after an old apothecary jar, hearkening back to the days when gin was used medicinally. During the class, Jim joked that Hendrick’s designed the bottle to make it as difficult as possible for a bartender to pour. (Somewhere, a bartender is not laughing at this.)

Of course, all the clever marketing in the world would be wasted if the product wasn’t up to snuff, but that’s not an issue here. Hendrick’s has taken home a plethora of awards over the past 10 years, even being declared the “Best Gin in the World” by the Wall Street Journal. And while you’ll never see a bubble gum-flavored gin on a store shelf (thank GOD), Hendrick’s manages to give the spirit as much of as twist as possible with its cucumber and rose infusion.

Maybe a gin purist would quibble with the softer complexion of Hendrick’s or the post-distillation flavoring (which renders it not a “London dry gin” but a “distilled gin”; oh, the humanity). But appealing to a new audience of drinkers requires a little innovation and a lot of fresh thinking. Hendrick’s employs both to great effect, and the result is a surprisingly approachable gin that can respectably stand among the classics.

In other words, an old spirit for a new generation.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.