In Search of New England's Classic Cocktails
“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. Classic cocktails 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.
Will Willis, the tall, young, tousled- and sandy-haired co-owner of Bully Boy Distillers in Boston, was in the middle of a sentence when he held up his finger in the international “Hold that thought” gesture. He then dashed into an adjacent room housing his burbling still. Curious, I followed. A clear, aromatic fluid spewed erratically out of a pipe attached to a tall column, overshooting a glass jar set atop an upended spackle bucket and pooling on the concrete floor. Willis repositioned the jar so as to catch the newly unleashed freshet, then resumed his thought.
There’s an essentially steampunkish feel to a distillery: gauges, small portholes through which something murky and frothy is violently agitated, the friendly and burnished-brown feel of the copper, the sudden smell of something solvent-like. A distillery remains a remarkable thing: a heady mix of past and present.
Willis and his brother Dave, his partner in the distillery, are the first to make rum in Boston in about five decades. (They’ve recently been joined by GrandTen in Southie, and at least one other aspiring distiller is looking to revive the Boston rum trade.) They’re not the first modern rum makers in New England, though. Triple Eight has been making rum on Nantucket for about 10 years, and a number of entrepreneurs have jumped in since then: Ryan & Wood (Folly Cove) in Gloucester, Berkshire Mountain (Ragged Mountain) in Great Barrington, Privateer Rum in Ipswich, Newport Distilling (Thomas Tew) in Rhode Island, and several others.
This is as it should be. New England had well over a hundred rum distilleries on the eve of the American Revolution. Clever colonists understood that West Indian molasses could be had cheaply and in limitless quantity; it arrived as part of a complicated web of transactions that sometimes included slaves. But New England could eat only so much gingerbread and baked beans. So enterprising sorts set up distilleries along these chilly shores to turn a treacly, dark byproduct of sugar processing into liquid gold. The rum industry thrived until Prohibition, and then had trouble regaining its footing after Repeal. By the middle of the last century, rum was more associated with Caribbean Island vacations than with wintry New England.
“I’ve been fascinated by rum since I was 15,” Willis said, adding that his fascination might have resulted from sneaking sips of his parents’ rum-and-tonics. After college he went into real-estate development for a while, but in long discussions with his brother, a lawyer, they decided they wanted to make something tangible. Also, they were in their thirties and figured that if it failed, they’d still have time to pick up the pieces and move on to something else.
After some experiments with stovetop distilling, they leased an old storage building on an industrial edge of Boston, went through the year-long process of getting the proper permits and licenses, bought a lovely new Ulrich Kothe still, and came up with a name. (“Bully Boy” was their great-grandfather’s horse. “He was a big Teddy Roosevelt fan,” Willis noted.) In addition to rum, they also make vodka and whiskey and are experimenting with liqueurs.
Part of the distillery is cluttered with blue plastic totes the size of Jacuzzis, filled with molasses shipped from Louisiana; it will soon be fermented and run through the still. Some of what emerges will be put away in used wine casks to age for a couple of years; the rest is marketed as their ethereal dry white rum, touched with transcendent notes of molasses and caramel–a product that goes more or less directly into bottles without a detour through a barrel. “It’s a mixing spirit,” Willis added.