In Search of New England's Classic Cocktail
“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.
Also, the Ward 8 commits the sin of not being very local. You might as well insist that Boston’s official bean dish is “black beans with mango.” When was the last time you spent an afternoon at a lemon or orange grove in New England? All of the Ward 8’s ingredients are imported. Does that reflect a proud New England spirit? It does not.
History may provide limited guidance on the quintessential New England cocktail, but it’s like trying to track down Moby Dick based on a 150-year-old book. If I were going to find this white whale, I’d have to track down my own ingredients, and assemble a quintessential New England cocktail myself.
Today, anything that claims to represent a region must consist wholly of ingredients from that region. A classic cocktail typically includes a base spirit, plus a modifier, a sweetener, and maybe a dash or two of something extra. All would have to be local.
I asked Jackson Cannon (whose name suddenly sounded like something out of Melville to me) what spirit he would choose for a contemporary New England classic. He drummed his fingers a bit on the bar and said, “Well, we’ve become disconnected from our rum roots.” But then he ordered up for me a “Red Maple,” made with an old-fashioned navy-proof rum called Smith & Cross (“like a Medford overproof”) and maple syrup, plus grapefruit juice and bitters. It was a sturdy, delicious cocktail, with the taste of wood and sap. Rum it would be.
Then Cannon showed me a simple, apothecary-style rum bottle with a yellow label featuring a silhouette of a horse. I looked more closely. “Handmade in Boston,” it said.