In Search of New England's Classic Cocktail
Yankee Plus Dec 2015
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Emma Hollander is a bartender in Somerville at Trina’s Starlite Lounge, which is essentially a dive bar that furtively earned a graduate degree. Like her colleagues behind the bar, Hollander is both exceedingly educated about current cocktail trends and also slightly disdainful of them. That’s hard terrain to occupy simultaneously, but Hollander and the others here do it well.
For example, there’s a drink served here called “Bartender’s Bingo.” It’s basically a rye-based mash-up of all the trendy liquors of the moment: Chartreuse, maraschino, Fernet-Branca, various bitters, and a rinse of
mezcal. It’s reasonably potable, and you’d probably enjoy it even if you didn’t realize you’d ordered an inside joke. (Starlite also features a “Framingham Mojito,” made with lime, mint, sugar, and rum, topped with Bud Light Lime.) Trina’s does a great job with the classics, but it’s the kind of place where some drinks are served with an extra dash of “air quotes.”
I’ve stopped by here–one of dozens of places I’ve visited in recent months–in search of the classic New England cocktail.
Well, yes. You might think that’s not much of a quest. Cities everywhere, and even many regions, have their signature cocktails: the Manhattan in Manhattan; the brandy old-fashioned in Wisconsin; the mint julep in Kentucky; the Sazerac in New Orleans; the mai tai in Honolulu. They’re cocktails that have both grown out of a place and in turn have come to define it. New Orleans has even designated the Sazerac its “official cocktail.”
So, let me ask you: What’s New England’s official drink? Yeah. See?
When I ask this of Hollander, I get pretty much the same response I’ve gotten at bars, liquor stores, distilleries, and other places where one might find folks given to bibulousness. There’s a pause long enough to enjoy a few sips of a drink. And then comes the response: “I don’t know. Maybe the Cape Codder?”
Or the Dark ‘n’ Stormy. Or a Miller High Life and a shot of whiskey. Or–in Maine–Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy, slugged from the bottle. (Mainers buy about a million bottles of Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy every year, nearly four times the second-best seller, a cheap vodka.)
None of these suggested drinks is very inspired (vodka and cranberry? honestly?), but that’s another issue. Right now, it’s clear we’re far from a consensus on a regional drink. It’s like asking New England to pick its signature cloud.
Brother Cleve, a dean of craft-cocktail bartenders in Boston, told me that when he started bartending 25 years ago, he’d put a classic on the specials board each night. The first time he did that, a customer came in and asked what a sidecar was. Cleve explained that it was a classic cognac and lemon cocktail dating to the Jazz Age, first concocted in Paris. The customer nodded and said, “I’ll have a Bud Light.” That pretty much sums up the state of New England cocktails.
“Culturally, the trouble with associating New England with cocktails is that cocktails are fancy and frivolous (I mean that in a good way),” said Lauren Clark, a Boston-based writer and founder of Drink Boston (drinkboston.com), a blog chronicling Boston’s emerging cocktail culture. “New England is staid. Maybe the best ‘cocktail’ to represent New England is three fingers of whiskey or rum in a glass that says ‘Old Salt.'”
One drink actually emerged as a begrudging candidate for New England classic status, although with serious reservations: the Ward 8. Whenever this drink was mentioned, as it was by Hollander, it was always delivered with a pained expression and a shrug of surrender.
At least the Ward 8 has a well-documented history. It was invented in 1898 at Boston’s famed Locke-Ober restaurant to celebrate a political victory in the Eighth Ward. It’s a mixture of rye whiskey with both lemon and orange juice and some grenadine. People ordered it all over Boston until Prohibition, and then they picked up where they’d left off and ordered it again when the bars reopened. But its popularity didn’t last. In 1934, the Boston Herald surveyed local watering holes to see what people were drinking eight months after Repeal. Most of Boston was guzzling beer, but at the fancier hotel bars–which were serving some 3,000 cocktails a night–patrons were sipping a lot of old-fashioneds, Manhattans, dry martinis, and gin highballs. The Ward 8, however, was “on the wane,” the reporter noted, a trend he didn’t find troubling. He referred to the drink as the “scarlet atrocity of Boston.”
“It’s not a classic,” agreed Jackson Cannon, bar director at three Boston establishments–Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar, and The Hawthorne–all of which serve classics as well as more modern cups. We were sitting at The Hawthorne’s bar, his newest spot, when he told me, somewhat dismissively, that the Ward 8 was essentially a whiskey sour with pomegranate.
And it was a tricky cocktail, he added: hard to get the balance right, since the sweetness of the orange and the sourness of the lemon vary by season, and grenadine varies by brand. A classic should be able to easily handle these variations, plus compensate for a moderately distracted bartender. The Ward 8 doesn’t. “A classic drink is more resilient,” Cannon insisted.
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