Rum

Numbing the Pain of Snowpocalypse With Local Spirits

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If you know me at all, even just as an occasional visitor to this space, then you are doubtless familiar with my loathing of winter. My disillusionment with this irksome season probably dates back to the moment my parents decided I was old enough to operate a shovel. In all likelihood, that was the first time I realized that a snowstorm meant more than just an impromptu day off from school, an occasion to be occupied with such leisurely pursuits as snow fort construction and sledding. Suddenly, there was work involved – forced manual labor in harsh conditions. At the time, I certainly didn’t appreciate the gravity of the moment, unaware that it was my indoctrination into a lifetime of arbitrary inconvenience between the months of November and April (give or take a few weeks). That realization came gradually, in the form of sore muscles, untimely falls, white-knuckled car rides, and the abandonment of long-scheduled plans. This year, it’s meant impossible commutes in and out of the city, subzero temperatures, and ice dams forcing water into my dining room.

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I tell you this not because I think you need to hear another person complaining about the weather, but because this menace of a winter has become an encumbrance on my weekly posts. Of course I realize, fully, that my having to postpone a couple of bar visits doesn’t exactly qualify as a hardship. But in the face of parking bans and the utter catastrophe that is the MBTA, I’ve been hampered in my efforts to share a tale of barhopping on my preferred schedule of once a week.

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It was in the midst of this frustrating, snow-induced torpor that, late one night, I decided to treat myself to a glass of bourbon; specifically, Berkshire Mountain Distillers bourbon, a bottle of which was given to me by my friend and fellow barhopper Kat. I had opened the bottle some time ago and used it in a cocktail or two, but had never tried it on its own.

And let me tell you – it was a revelation. The inviting aroma, the smooth texture, the notes of caramel in the finish; I felt revived.

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Now my intention here is not to anoint Berkshire Bourbon as the king of whiskies. I’d call it a good, solid spirit, and a genuine pleasure to drink. But given the circumstances of that particular night, it felt like something more. I wanted no other bourbon than that which I’d just poured into my glass.

The episode also provided some much-needed inspiration. I considered writing a short piece about my experience with Berkshire, but then decided to expand it to include some of the other local spirits I’m fortunate to have in my collection. I’ve long been an advocate of drinking locally, but I think that takes on another layer of significance when the region is affected by something like this brutal stretch of winter weather. If you pour yourself a well-earned drink after a marathon shoveling session or a painful commute, there’s a certain kinship in knowing that the booze in your glass was made just a few miles away, by people who are enduring the same frustrations.

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That said, here’s a tribute to three local distilleries that are cranking out top-notch products in and for a state that’s been driven to drink by the 100+ inches of snow we’ve racked up over the past month.

We begin with the inspiration for the post.

Berkshire Mountain Distillers – Bourbon

As the name would imply, Berkshire Mountain Distillers makes its home in Massachusetts’ mountainous Berkshire County. When BMD set up shop in 2007, it did so as the first legal distillery in the Berkshires since Prohibition. Their line of handcrafted spirits has grown to include rum, vodka, and several varieties each of gin and whiskey. A few of their offerings have won awards, and all of them have won praise among discerning drinkers.

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Berkshire Bourbon is made with corn grown on a farm near the distillery and aged in American white oak barrels. It isn’t aged terribly long; like any young distillery, BMD is unable to speed up time to produce a 10- or 12-year-old spirit. But if it lacks some of the complexity of an older bourbon, its smoothness, aroma, and flavor more than compensate. It’s an approachable, easy-drinking bourbon with just enough bite and a hint of spice; prominent notes of caramel and vanilla give it an overall sweetness. I’ve found Berkshire Bourbon makes a mean Old Fashioned, but after my winter’s eve epiphany, I’m drinking it neat from now on.

Website:http://berkshiremountaindistillers.com/

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Bully Boy Distillers – Hub Punch

While Berkshire Mountain Distillers was the first legal distillery to open its doors in the Berkshires since Prohibition, Bully Boy was the first to do so in Boston. And yet, Bully Boy’s roots date back to the days of that so-called Noble Experiment. Bully Boy’s owners, brothers Will and Dave Willis, trace their distilling roots at least as far back as the 1920s, when liquor was quietly available on their family’s farm in Sherborn, Massachusetts. Today their small-batch distilling is entirely legal, and yet there’s an obvious appreciation for history in their ever-expanding product line.

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Hub Punch is a most intriguing elixir. Inspired by an 1800s-era recipe associated with a long-shuttered New York hotel, Hub Punch infuses Bully Boy’s barrel-aged rum with a blend of fruits and botanicals. The result is an unusual combination of fruity and bitter components, giving an unexpected herbal bite to a spirit normally known for its sweetness. Consumed neat, it’s drinkable but intense, with a fruit-forward character. It’s excellent in a cocktail, though, and Bully Boy offers a few recipes on their website.

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The most traditional partners for Hub Punch are ginger ale and soda water, as with the eponymous “Hub Punch” cocktail. This mix of Hub Punch, ginger ale, soda water, and lemon is a crisp, fruity, refreshing drink with a hint of tartness.

Website:http://www.bullyboydistillers.com/

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GrandTen Distilling – Fire Puncher Black

Last summer I visited GrandTen Distilling’s historic South Boston facility for an up-close look at small-batch spirit production. While there, I had the pleasure of sampling eight of their nine products. Why not all nine? Because they were out of Fire Puncher Black – a seasonal offering that combines GrandTen’s chipotle vodka with cocoa nibs from Somerville’s Taza Chocolate.

I finally got to try the spirit later that year when GrandTen hosted a bartender battle at its site. As part of the final round of the competition, two contestants were asked to create original cocktails using Fire Puncher Black. And you know, that’s no mean feat. With its complex blend of spicy pepper and dark chocolate, Fire Puncher Black is not exactly the most versatile of spirits.

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It’s definitely fascinating to drink on its own. You get chocolate in the aroma, pepper in the first sip, and a finish that’s neither too hot nor too sweet. But if you’re looking to use it in a cocktail, GrandTen offers a few ideas on their website, the most exciting of which is called Joe vs. The Volcano.

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Named for a 1990 film starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, this tiki-style drink features tropical flavors, a chocolate base, and a hint of fire. It combines Fire Puncher Black, GrandTen’s Medford Rum, lemon juice, lime juice, pineapple juice, and coconut milk. There’s a lot going on in this one, but it’s ultimately a smooth cocktail that packs a punch. The chocolate really comes through in the finish, even with all those vibrant flavors. And while there’s a bit of chipotle pepper in the final product, the effect isn’t so much about heat as it is warmth.

Website:http://www.grandten.com/

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Warmth is something we could use right about now, whether it’s in the form of a spicy tiki drink, a fortifying rum cocktail, or a soul-warming tumbler of bourbon. Or, you know…the sun, melting the snow and ice.

On that note, it looks like we might be moving past the worst of the winter, and BBH will be back on a regular schedule soon enough. But I swear, one more snowstorm, and I’m rebranding myself as Florida BarHopper.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

One for the Road – Key West: The Adventure Continues

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About a year ago, my travels took me to one of the most celebrated tourist destinations in the United States – Florida’s Key West. It’s a city rich in culture, legend, and history; but since the occasion of my visit was my brother’s bachelor party, the vast majority of my sightseeing was relegated to the island’s many bars. I can’t say I had any complaints. But Key West is much more than just a cluster of bars. And so I promised myself that if I ever returned, I’d take the time to explore the nation’s southernmost city and get better acquainted with its unique character. This past fall, I did exactly that. With a little more time and a lot less urgency, and accompanied not by 13 other dudes bent on drunken shenanigans but by a small, dedicated team of fellow barhoppers, I was able to immerse myself in all those activities that make Key West famous.

Like getting up close to schools of radiantly colored fish on a snorkeling expedition.

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Visiting the onetime home of Ernest Hemingway, a writer whose work earned him a permanent spot in the canon of American literature and whose exploits infuse island lore to this day.

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Relaxing with a cigar on a warm, lazy afternoon.

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Partaking in a sunset celebration in Mallory Square, with musicians and other street performers putting on a show while the sun gracefully bowed out for the day.

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Visiting the concrete buoy marking the nation’s southernmost point and the mile markers designating the start/end point of U.S. Route 1.

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Having an obligatory margarita at the original Margaritaville.

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You could even say we made a few friends this time around.

When not hunting down rogue Jedi and Rebel scum, the Dark Lord of the Sith enjoys relaxing with the banjo.

When not hunting down rogue Jedi and Rebel scum, the Dark Lord of the Sith enjoys relaxing with the banjo.

Now don’t worry – we still did our share of drinking. We chugged down Pirate’s Punch at Captain Tony’s, walking away a few commemorative cups the richer.

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We drank craft rum drinks at the Rum Bar at the Speakeasy Inn, listening to tales spun by bartender Bahama Bob.

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And there was plenty of cheap, light-bodied beer to help us keep the good times afloat.

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All of that might embody the typical weekend in Key West, but we also managed to find a few bars that stood in sharp contrast to traditional island drinking culture.

The Porch

You don’t see many people walking around Duval Street sipping a Guinness. No offense to the godfather of dark beers, but Key West’s perpetually temperate climate naturally calls for lighter fare – Corona, Land Shark, Bud Light, that sort of thing. Even the choosiest beer snobs tend to adopt a when-in-Rome attitude in the Keys. And that’s what makes a Key West craft beer bar so unusual.

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The Porch occupies one half of the Porter Mansion, one of the oldest houses in Key West. Built in 1839, the mansion is named for Dr. Joseph Yates Porter, Florida’s first public health officer, who lived in the house for eight decades. Despite his death in 1927, some say Porter never actually left – the house is reported to be haunted.

But The Porch feels more homey than haunted, with two small, cozy rooms, hardwood floors, and a well-worn, scraped-up bar.

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Movie posters and other memorabilia adorn the walls, giving the space the atmosphere of a man-cave. But for all its interior charm, the best place in The Porch to drink is, well, the porch.

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This spacious veranda, decked out with tables, chairs, and ceiling fans, overlooks the mansion’s garden, with tall, leafy trees helping to keep the sun at bay.

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All you need to complete the picture is a good brew, and The Porch offers 18 rotating beers on draft and another 50 or so in bottles. Everglades Pale Ale is one of a handful of local options. Bold but drinkable, with clear notes of citrus, it’s well suited to sipping on a warm afternoon.

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High-quality craft cider has also made its way to the Keys. Rekorderlig Pear Cider is light, crisp, and sweet, with a natural, subtle pear flavor.

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If beer and cider aren’t your thing, the B. Nektar Meadjito is an unusual mead that features elements of a mojito. It still has a strong honey profile but the sweetness is tempered by hints of mint and lime.

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Address: 429 Caroline Street, Door #2, Key West, Florida

Website:http://www.theporchkw.com/

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The Other Side

The Porch isn’t the only bar to have set up shop in this allegedly haunted mansion. On the other side of the hall is a bar called, appropriately, The Other Side. And like The Porch, it offers something that’s a bit of a rarity in Key West – classic cocktails.

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Just as complex microbrews tend to take a backseat to lighter, simpler beers in Key West, you don’t see Manhattans or Old Fashioneds on many drink menus down here. Tiki drinks and rum drinks are norm, and they come in every flavor and variety – from hand-crafted cocktails made by a skilled mixologist to slushy plastic cups full of cheap booze poured out of a machine.

But The Other Side caters to drinkers with a more refined palate, or at least anyone looking for a change of pace from the sweeter drinks that dominate the island. It also differs notably in terms of décor; a marble bar, cushy bar seats, and a fireplace give The Other Side a sense of sophistication that sets it apart from the many dives that populate nearby Duval Street.

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Comfortable leather couches, a coffee table, and bookshelf wallpaper make you feel like you’re enjoying a cocktail in a friend’s living room.

Not that it lacks that vital sense of Key West irreverence.

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As with The Porch, I didn’t encounter any ghosts in The Other Side, but I did see plenty of spirits (har har har). The Other Side’s cocktail menu is loaded with classic choices like Manhattans, Blood and Sand, and Negronis, along with some inventive twists like the Raspberry Ramos.

Needless to say, there’s a Hemingway Daiquiri available, made with the excellent Papa’s Pilar blonde rum, grapefruit, lime, sugar, and maraschino liqueur, garnished with a generous wedge of grapefruit. This one was a tad sweeter than other Hemingway Daiquiris I’ve had, but I’m sure “Papa” would still be OK with it.

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The French 75 is pleasantly dry and effervescent, combining gin, lemon, sugar, and Prosecco.

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The unusually named Polish Apple Juice is a variation of the Dalmatian cocktail. Simple and sweet, made with Bison Grass vodka and a rich apple juice, it was like drinking a glass of apple pie.

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And our bartender was happy to whip up something that wasn’t on the menu. The Million Dollar Sunrise is a variation of a Tequila Sunrise.

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Address: 429 Caroline Street, Door #1, Key West, Florida

Website:http://theothersidekw.com/

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Agave 308

Rum is unquestionably the most popular spirit in Key West, but tequila might take home the silver. This is, after all, “Margaritaville.” And who knows how much tequila gets consumed via shot glass in Duval Street bars while cover bands tear through classic rock and 80s tunes.

You can get sugary margaritas and shots of Jose Cuervo anywhere in Key West, but Agave 308 is the island’s only bona fide tequila bar.

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Named for its address on Front Street, Agave 308 specializes in tequila-based craft cocktails made with fresh ingredients. There’s more than 50 types of tequila, a small selection of mezcal, and not one bottle of sour mix.

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Despite being steps from popular destinations like Mallory Square and a block from Duval Street, Agave 308 has a tucked-away, hidden feel to it. Dimly lit, with candles on tables and funky artwork on the walls, it can serve as a respite from the hustle and bustle of those arduous Key West days.

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You can, of course, get a margarita here, which by virtue of its being made with fresh lime juice and high-quality tequila will differentiate it from what you might find elsewhere. But bar manager Jules Mavromatis’s drink list is fun and inventive and bears some exploring.

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The Basil Citrus Splash seems to be the most popular offering, and it’s easy to see why. Made with Milagro Reposado tequila, orange, agave, and fresh lime. The distinctive herbal aroma of a basil leaf accompanies every sip.

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The Mezcalita swaps tequila for mezcal and adds jalapeno for a smoky, spicy twist on a margarita. It’s garnished with grilled pineapple, and bits of chopped cilantro contribute an aromatic freshness.

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There’s also a variety of house-infused tequilas, with flavors like ranging from strawberry to pineapple to jalapeno.

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I mean, if you’re going to do a shot of tequila, you might as well make it a good one.

Address: 308 Front Street, Key West, Florida

Website:http://agave308.com/

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On the final night of my trip, before heading out for the evening, my brother and I were sitting in the hotel bar, quietly sipping drinks and waiting for everyone else to get their shit together. At one point we toasted and made a solemn pledge that we would someday return to this quirky tropical paradise. Key West may seem like party central and all that, but having vacationed there twice now with my brother, it’s become a place where we’ve not only drank and laughed but bonded and made a lot of memories (even if some of them are a little hazy).

And one of the great things about Key West is that when you go back, whether it’s a year later or five years, or ten, so much of it looks exactly the way you remember it. Every day will end with a breathtaking sunset.

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Sloppy Joe’s Bar will be in the same place it’s been since 1937. Same with Captain Tony’s Saloon.

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There’ll be icy rum drinks everywhere you look and plentiful cheap beer to cool you down on a hot day.

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With its deep roots and colorful history, much of Key West feels preserved and unalterable. At the same time, the island isn’t impervious to trends. Microbrews, old-school cocktails, and handcrafted drinks will always be exceptions in a city where people like to keep things simple, but Key West is anything but uniform. And I’d like to think when I go back someday, there’ll still be plenty to discover.

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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.

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.

Brugal – Rum Redefined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Novo Fogo Cachaça

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Cachaça.

It’s an odd-looking word. Most people’s first question is, How do you pronounce it? A common second question is, What is it?

The first question has an easy answer – it’s pronounced ka-SHA-sa.

The answer to the second question has long been a topic of contentious international debate that recently led to a modification of the U.S. government’s regulations concerning the import of this distilled spirit.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Cachaça is a liquor made from fermented sugar cane juice and produced exclusively in Brazil. It is best known as the key ingredient in a Caipirinha, the national cocktail of Brazil and a drink enjoyed around the globe.

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DSC08273

It would be difficult to overstate the popularity of cachaça in Brazil; with 400 years of history, a National Cachaça Day (June 12), and upwards of 30,000 different producers of the spirit (many of whom are unlicensed), it’s safe to call cachaça the national liquor of South America’s most populous country.

Just don’t call it rum.

See, that’s where things get a little sticky. In accordance with a litany of complicated trade regulations, the U.S. government has long classified cachaça as rum; or more specifically, a “Brazilian rum.” It’s understandable, at least in the sense that both spirits are derived from sugar cane. But whereas rum is made from processed sugar cane – aka molasses – cachaça is made from fresh cane juice. The result is a spirit that might be considered a cousin of rum, but is less sweet, with a more herbal, grassy freshness.

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For many years, though, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) refused to acknowledge such nuance. A spirit made with sugar cane? That’s rum. What has this meant for most of us? Honestly…not much – mainly, that bottles of cachaça had to have “rum” somewhere on the label and, in compliance with the TTB’s definition of rum, had to be at least 40% ABV (whereas cachaça is traditionally 38% ABV). But what was a low-level item of arcane federal bureaucracy for the majority of American consumers became a cause célèbre among cachaça purists.

And so in 2009, a grass-roots group launched a national campaign to persuade the TTB to amend its regulations…which, surprisingly, it did. As of February 2013, the U.S. government classifies cachaça as a unique Brazilian distilled spirit – still a subclass of rum, to the continued chagrin of the devout, but no longer requiring the word rum on the label (the same way cognac doesn’t have to identify itself as brandy). Of course it’s a little more complicated and political than all that, but you get the idea.

While cachaça’s never enjoyed widespread popularity here in the United States, it hasn’t exactly been obscure. If you’ve ever had a Caipirinha, of course, you’ve probably had it. Sometimes you’ll see it in a variation of mojito.

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DSC08611

But one by-product of this formal shift in cachaça’s designation is that the spirit has enjoyed an uptick in publicity – and yes, the reclassification campaign was driven by a cachaça distiller that sponsored promotional events all over the country. And as its popularity continues to rise here in the U.S., so does the quality of the cachaça that reaches our shores. Despite widespread production in Brazil, very little cachaça gets exported (which is a whole other story), and the brands that do are typically industrial-produced in factory-like settings. But with our ever-growing taste for small-batch spirits, craft-made cachaça is making inroads into in the U.S. market. And with that, I give you Novo Fogo.

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Novo Fogo (which translates to “new fire” in Portuguese) is a microdistillery in Morretes, Brazil, with a presence in Bellevue, Washington. Their focus is on making a small-batch, organic cachaça in an environmentally friendly manner. Every step of the production process in their zero-waste facility is done by hand – from the sugar cane that they cut with machetes to the unique, handcrafted bottles, made from recycled glass, that hold the final product.

Swiped from Novo Fogo's Facebook page, entirely without permission.

Swiped from Novo Fogo's Facebook page, entirely without permission.

The Novo Fogo folks recently stopped by Cambridge’s Moksa as part of its Bars on Fire tour to whip up cocktails and educate us on all things cachaça. I’ve had a few Caipirinhas in my day, but this was my first opportunity to get up close and personal with their key ingredient. Unlike most industrial-produced cachaça, Novo Fogo’s varieties – silver and barrel-aged – are clean, smooth, and can be easily enjoyed neat. Even with one sip of the darker, barrel-aged variety, I could see why purists would bristle at this being so crudely classified as rum. Yes, it did have a rum-like quality on account of the sugar cane, but warm notes of oak and vanilla were just as prominent. That makes sense, since it’s aged in small oak barrels, and the resulting elixir seems to have more in common with a good bourbon than rum.

Introductions aside, it was time to see how the spirit fared in cocktails.

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First up, appropriately, was the standard – a Caipirinha. This was a traditional recipe made with silver cachaça, muddled limes, and sugar. Even with the mercury gradually falling outside, this tropical classic was refreshing. As a special bonus, it was “served in a mason jar so you can shake it yourself.” Wow. I mean…wow.

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Next up was presumably a Novo Fogo original – the cleverly named Bossa Novo, combining silver cachaça, apricot, lime juice, and bitters. The scent of apricot was apparent even before the first sip, and it was prominent in the flavor as well. I have no doubt that my mason jar shaking added a customized dimension to this strong and fruity beverage.

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I was excited about the Rio Punch because it gave me a chance to try barrel-aged cachaça in a drink, mixed with Sorel (a hibiscus-infused liqueur with hints of clove, cinnamon, and other spices), coconut water, and most intriguingly, grilled pineapple. This one didn’t quite live up to the exciting ingredients. The smoky sweetness from the grilled pineapples was pleasant, but the coconut water didn’t contribute much flavor, and even the cachaça didn’t stand out. And weirdly, there was an inexplicable bubble gum-like flavor. I didn’t see a Hubba Bubba “floater” or anything, but I’ll give them a mulligan on this one.

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Things improved with the Maine Kimura, which boldly combined silver cachaça, brown butter and maple syrup, blueberry preserves, lemon juice, and “bubbles.” This one had a thick texture, almost like a smoothie. The maple and butter flavors were appropriately autumnal, and the preserves gave it a rich sweetness. It was smooth and satisfying, though I detected no bubbles.

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Now what goes best with Brazilian cocktails? Why, Asian food, of course! As part of the event, Moksa was offering a menu of $1 and $2 appetizers.

First up was delicious, tender pork belly served in a soft, doughy steam bun.

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I followed that with the baby back rib, which was superb. The juicy meat practically fell off the bone.

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This tuna dumpling tasted as good as it looked.

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My only prior visit to Moksa was for a bartender blood feud earlier this year; if this is representative of their food menu, I’ll be making a return trip.

My final drink of the night, the Prata Bolo, was also the most surprising. Made with barrel-aged cachaça, banana milk, lime juice, and nutmeg, this creamy concoction reminded me of eggnog, despite there being no egg. Maybe the dusting of nutmeg on the top was putting me in an early holiday mood. While the banana flavor was surprisingly mild, the lime added a tangy sweetness. It was one of the simplest yet most effective cocktails of the evening.

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Overall, it was a fun, informative evening. It was cool to learn about cachaça’s interesting history and its versatility. But if I have one complaint, it’s that a night devoted to the national spirit of Brazil didn’t have enough…well…Brazilian spirit. Sure, a soundtrack of samba music lent a festive air, but when I think about the breadth and diversity of Brazilian culture, it seems that an event like this offers an opportunity for international cuisine, live performances, colorful costumes, that sort of thing. Maybe I’ve been spoiled byalcoholic spectacle lately, but I feel like the evening could have been infused with the Carnival-esque sounds, sights, and energy we associate with our neighbors to the south.

Granted, I don’t foot the bill for these things, I just show up and drink.

Saúde!

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

One for the Road – Adventures in Key West

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Shortly after my brother Andrew announced his engagement this past spring, I asked him a question that was sure to elicit a zinger. “Have you been thinking about what you want to do for your bachelor party?”

He didn’t disappoint.

“Yeah, since I was about 14.”

If you know my brother at all, you realize he wasn’t exaggerating.

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andrew-edit

So what was the outcome of his approximately 19 years’ worth of planning? A weekend of drunken debauchery in one of the most popular destinations in the world ­– Key West.

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Known for its tolerant, easygoing island culture, Key West has been called home by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, whose spirit still looms large over the island, and Jimmy Buffett, who made a career and a fortune by singing about its boozy, laid-back lifestyle. A favored destination of presidents and celebrities of all stripes, the southernmost city in the United States has a lot going for it – fun tourist attractions, a long and colorful history, unique architecture, breathtaking sunsets.

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At least, that’s what I hear.

My brother didn’t choose Key West for its sightseeing opportunities (actually...eh, never mind). No, this was a drinking trip, and the city’s (in)famous Duval Street boasts one of the more impressive concentration of bars in the country. The bars open early and close late, and there’s a lax open container law – meaning you can roam the streets with a drink in your hand. In Andrew’s words, “it’s like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, but clean.”

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So a bunch of us piled into a van and made the four-hour trek from my brother’s place in Pompano Beach to Key West. There won’t be a quiz or anything, but just for archival purposes, the crew ultimately consisted of the following characters: Andrew and myself; our friend Paul, who was celebrating his own bachelor party; my cousins Adam and John; and Mickey, Kenny, Mike, Gary, Steve, Ryan, Kevin, Powell, and “Mayday” Malone.

Part of the crew.

Part of the crew.

What followed were two days and nights packed with all the shenanigans, nonsense, and sophomoric humor you’d expect of a proper bachelor party. We made no friends and possibly a few enemies. There were exhilarating highs and embarrassing lows (the nadir coming when one member of our group emptied a bar of its customers with his flatulence, drawing a stern reprimand from the bartender). There were also plenty of bars, needless to say, and since there’s no point in mentioning every one we hit, I thought I’d pick a couple to focus on. The two we’ll look at are complete opposites, in many respects; but both are steeped in local history, and each offers a different perspective on drinking in this splendid, quirky city.

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Opinions may differ on which Key West bars are considered “must visit,” but given the illustrious clientele that Captain Tony’s Saloon has entertained over the years, you’d be hard pressed to pass this one up. More importantly, this is a bar that truly epitomizes the character of Key West – a kaleidoscopic mix of history, legend, charm, and delightful eccentricity.

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Captain Tony’s is named for its longtime owner, the late Tony Tarracino. Even in a city known for its colorful characters, Tony was truly larger than life. Born in New Jersey, Tony dropped out of high school and made money as a bootlegger during Prohibition. He later graduated to gambling, but when one of his schemes burned the Mafia, the mob took him to a New Jersey dump, beat him within inches of his life, and left him for dead. He survived, though, and fled to Key West in 1948.

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You might say life improved a bit for Tony upon his relocation. After a series of odd jobs such as a charter boat captain, a shrimper, and a gunrunner smuggling weapons and mercenaries to Cuba, Tony purchased the bar that still bears his name. He owned it until 1989 – when he was elected mayor. Universally lauded as one of the most popular citizens of Key West, Tony died in 2008 at the age of 92. But his legacy lives on at his namesake bar.

It seems only fitting that the history of this bar is as long and peculiar as that of its legendary owner. The building itself dates back to 1851, when it served as a morgue. In subsequent decades it became the site of a telegraph station, a cigar factory, a brothel, and during Prohibition, a series of speakeasies. It began legally serving drinks in 1933 as Sloppy Joe’s, which later moved down the street and still operates today.

Varied and unusual as the building’s past may be, the present-day incarnation is infinitely more bizarre.

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Captain Tony’s is without doubt one of the strangest bars I’ve ever set foot in. The walls and ceiling are almost completely plastered with business cards, dollar bills signed by patrons, license plates from all over the country, and a collection of bras that would rival the inventory of Victoria’s Secret.

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And that’s just the beginning.

You can’t help but notice the 200-year-old tree growing from beneath the floor and through the ceiling. This is known as the hanging tree – because it was used for hanging people in the 19th century. Apparently 17 people got the noose here: 16 pirates, and one local woman who murdered her family…and is rumored to haunt the bar to this day.

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Indeed, there are plenty of creepy accounts of paranormal activity in the bar. And while there may or may not be a ghost in Captain Tony’s, there most certainly is a corpse.

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I thought this “grave” was just for effect, but no – the remains of an actual person are under there.

The fire hydrant almost seems passé by comparison.

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The rest of the décor is less grim but no less fascinating. A gallery of framed photos, news clippings, and paintings of the Captain adorn whatever wall space isn’t already occupied by dollar bills and undergarments.

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news-collage

There’s a good-size pool room. Right off of the pool room (you’ll need to step over the grave) is another room with a foosball table and an old Ms. Pacman arcade game.

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There’s a stage in the back, which is where Jimmy Buffett got his start as a performer (he immortalized the bar and Tony in his song “Last Mango in Paris”).

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And speaking of famous, check out the barstools. Each is painted with the name of a celebrity who’s visited the bar. Actors, musicians, authors, politicians, presidents, athletes; you’re drinking in pretty good company here. (I assume the owners got started on the Boston BarHopper stool shortly after I left.)

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stool collage

In addition to serving as a monument to its former owner, a depository of random mementos, a de facto museum of local artifacts, and a resting place for the dead and undead, Captain Tony’s also serves drinks. The beer selection is pretty standard, but the drink of choice here is the Pirate’s Punch. The recipe is a secret but, like most Key West drinks, contains plenty of rum. You get a generous portion in a commemorative cup for $7.99.

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For all the things that make Captain Tony’s unusual, it is in many respects typical of the bars in the vicinity – dark, divey, and well worn. You can enjoy a mellow afternoon with some light beer, listening to the singer/guitarist as he customizes songs for the sparsely populated crowd.

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By nightfall the crowd will have swelled, you’ll have downed some frozen drinks and maybe a couple of shots, and you’ll be screaming along while the cover band plays “Don’t Stop Believin’” or some other crowd-pleasing staple.

This is not, by any stretch, a bad thing.

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At the same time, you can be forgiven for wanting a change of pace. While plenty of the bars on and near Duval Street cater to revelers in search of a quick and easy buzz, there are options for the more discerning cocktail crowd. And for that we head a mile or so down the road.

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What is now known as the Speakeasy Inn was once the home of Raul Vasquez, another favorite son of Key West. Vasquez worked in the cigar industry until 1920, which is when Prohibition went into effect. Recognizing the entrepreneurial opportunities associated with the 18th Amendment, Vasquez set up a speakeasy behind his house and became a rumrunner, making frequent trips to Cuba to stock his illicit bar.

Of course, one of the challenges of running a hidden bar is that it’s difficult for customers to find; and you can’t exactly put up a big sign advertising your illegal products and services. Vasquez found a clever way around that problem. On one of his trips to Cuba, he purchased some elaborately carved balustrades for his house.

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Tasteful and decorative, yes they are; but a closer inspection reveals liquor bottles, hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades carved into the woodwork. These shapes served as a subtle hint to those in the know that liquor and card games could be found in the club behind the main property.

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The balustrades still exist, as you can see, and the Speakeasy Inn is now a Key West landmark. It is one of the only buildings in Key West with a basement – which, of course, was used for hiding liquor. But the booze doesn’t need to be hidden anymore, and neither does the bar, which has moved to the front of the building and is now known as the Rum Bar.

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This refurbished building truly feels like an old but well-maintained home. Small and cozy, its creaky hardwood flooring, wooden walls, and crown molding make for a comfortable, intimate atmosphere (though I suppose the bras in Captain Tony’s evoked a sort of intimacy in their own right). There’s an L-shaped bar with about 11 seats, and a few tables in the corners. Windows on all sides of the room let in ample sunlight, further contrasting the Rum Bar with some of the darker dives we’d been inhabiting up until that point.

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It was fairly early on Saturday (“early” being a relative term at this point) when I stopped in with Andrew and Paul. The Rum Bar is, unsurprisingly, known for its expansive selection of rums, which find their way into some of the best drinks on the island thanks to the cocktail sage behind the bar – “Bahama” Bob Leonard.

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I’d first heard about Bob from my brother, who makes the occasional trip to Key West even when he’s not having a bachelor party (ah, the benefits of living in South Florida). Andrew would often tell me about the great drinks he was having at the Rum Bar, urged me to follow Bob’s blog, and even sent me an autographed copy of Bob’s book of cocktail recipes and island tales (autographed by Bob, not by Andrew).

So here I was, at long last, face to face with the man, the myth, the mixologist, Bahama Bob…and I suddenly realized I needed to order something. So of course I was like….”ohhh, uhhhh, I don’t know…rum and Coke maybe?” Thankfully Paul stepped in and recommended I try one of Bob’s many specialties – the Papa Dobles. Also known as the Hemingway Daiquiri, the Papa Dobles is made to the late author’s specifications – no sugar and double the rum (hence the name, which roughly translates to “Papa’s double”). Hemingway liked his drinks strong and not too sweet, and this mix of white rum, grapefruit juice, lime juice, and Luxardo maraschino liqueur was almost like a dry daiquiri. The grapefruit added a pleasant sour essence.

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dobles-edit

With that we settled in for a round of classic island drinks. Now let’s face it – there are few scenarios in which you can order a Pina Colada at a bachelor party without enduring some heavy taunts from the rest of the group; fortunately, drinking at a rum bar in Key West is one of them. Paul took advantage of the setting and began with an exceptional Pina Colada.

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Andrew went with another regional favorite in the Rum Runner. A mix of light rum, dark rum, banana, blackberry, and fruit juices, it was strong and bursting with flavor.

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Next up for me was the Pain Killer – Pusser’s rum, cream of coconut, orange juice, and pineapple juice. Pusser’s rum differs from most other rums in that it’s distilled in a wooden pot still instead of a metal one, with no flavoring agents or sugars added after distillation. Rich and dark, it made for a strong, naturally sweet cocktail with a distinct rum flavor that didn’t get buried beneath the juices.

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As much as we were enjoying our drinks, it was Andrew’s next choice that demonstrated what a unique place the Rum Bar can be to drink. The “Bark” and Stormy is a variation of the well-known Dark and Stormy, swapping out dark rum with something called “Bahama Bob’s Bark Juice.”

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stormy-edit

Intrigued, I had a sip of Andrew’s drink. Yes, it was reminiscent of a Dark and Stormy, but the mysterious bark juice gave it a smoother, more vibrant freshness.

The bark juice is Bob’s own innovation, and as the name suggests, it involves tree bark. In short, Bob takes different types of bark from all around the Caribbean – Key West (of course), Barbados, Antigua, St. Lucia, the Virgin Islands, and more – and infuses them with white wine and honey. After a couple of weeks he strains the mixture and adds 151-proof rum, letting the barks soak for a few more weeks.

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The resulting elixir is positively exquisite. I quaffed down a generous shot, expecting the familiar burn that accompanies any straight alcohol. But this was smooth as silk – not bite whatsoever. The earthy, woodsy, herby freshness made me wish I had sipped it slowly to savor the spirit as well as the moment.

In addition to being a highly skilled mixologist, Bob is quite the genial character. As he whipped up complex cocktails for an ever-expanding crowd, he regaled us with stories about his drinks, his travels, and the island he calls home, never missing a beat or anybody’s order.

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Eventually the rest of our group started trickling in, and we began discussing our next move. I opted for one more round, knowing that my chances of finding cocktails this good anywhere else on our journey were pretty slim. My final choice was the Goombay Smash – a potent mix of light rum, coconut rum, peach schnapps, orange juice, and pineapple juice.

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Strong and fruity, with a prominent peach flavor, it was a satisfying conclusion to my long-awaited visit to the Rum Bar and set the tone for the rest of the day.

Which included a rum-induced nap.

Last Call

No, I didn’t make it to the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. Nor did I witness one of the island’s majestic sunset celebrations in Mallory Square. I didn’t smoke a cigar, eat Cuban food, or get a picture of myself at the concrete buoy marking the southernmost point in the continental United States. Not that I feel like I missed out; I just have a lot of reasons to go back.

Besides – who among a group of 14 dudes in various states of inebriation and rowdiness is going to say “Hey guys, let’s go watch the sunset!”

What a Key West sunset might look like.

What a Key West sunset might look like.

Local attractions or no, I definitely soaked up the Key West drinking experience. I’m sorry I don’t have a full report on bars like the Lazy Gecko (known as the nation’s southernmost Red Sox bar), Irish Kevin’s, the Green Parrot, or anywhere else we stumbled into. They all have their own style and character, but the scene is similar to what I described at Captain Tony’s – a laid-back vibe, live music, cheap drinks and lots of happy people throwing them back.

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At the risk of unfairly painting all those bars with one brush stroke, I’d say they’re more about quantity than quality when it comes to drinks. Almost everywhere you look, you’ll see happy hour specials, cheap beer in plastic cups, and very basic, island-themed mixed drinks. There’s nothing wrong with a $6 cup of some brightly colored, cloyingly sweet concoction, but they can be hit or miss.

I'm pretty sure this "Mai Tai" was mostly grenadine with a splash of rum. Still, I drank it.

I'm pretty sure this "Mai Tai" was mostly grenadine with a splash of rum. Still, I drank it.

Fortunately, quality drinks are available if you know where to look. The Rum Bar certainly isn’t the only place where you can get expertly crafted cocktails, but with “bark juice” and a slew of house-made syrups, you’re getting original creations that you won’t find anywhere else on the island.

So whether it’s a quiet afternoon of craft cocktails with Bahama Bob or a booze-fueled Duval Street bar crawl – or both – there’s more than one way to enjoy yourself in Key West.

Finally, I’d like to congratulate my brother, who gets married next month, and Paul, who gets hitched in February.

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andy-paul-edit

They orchestrated an incredible weekend for 14 people, and in the haze of it all, it was sometimes easy to forget that they were the guests of honor.

Then again, on a weekend like this, it was easy to forget a lot of things.

Captain Tony’s Saloon: 428 Greene Street, Key West, Florida

Website: http://www.capttonyssaloon.com/

The Rum Bar at the Speakeasy Inn: 1117 Duval Street, Key West, Florida

Website: http://www.speakeasyinn.com/

Bahama Bob’s Rumstyles:http://bahamabobsrumstyles.blogspot.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.