Negroni

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.

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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