In Search of New England's Classic Cocktail
But I hadn’t come here for the rum. I wanted to try his fruit brandies, another product of historic New England. Once you’ve got a base spirit selected, a good cocktail needs a modifier of some sort, and apple and pear both seemed firmly anchored to the region.
Bartlett’s uses a custom German still, resembling a cognac still with its onion top. But it’s what’s inside the big copper pot that makes the difference: a mixer. It’s a device that keeps the mash moving as it heats (lest it burn), and that’s essential because Bartlett doesn’t distill from fermented fruit juice, like most other brandy makers. Rather, he takes Maine apples and pears and nachos them to a pulp, which he then ferments. “It’s a lot more work and a lot more mess,” Bartlett says. “But using fermented fruit pulp rather than juice gives it a lot more flavor.”
Like his rum, Bartlett’s brandy is aged in new French oak. We sipped some apple and then some pear. The apple brandy, made from a proprietary blend of varietals (“I like the older ones,” Bartlett said), had an ethereal aroma, like cider that had taken wing, and a finish that tasted like autumn rendered in sepia tones.
The pear brandy was even more supple and remarkable, with a dry yet slightly fruity finish that somehow captured the fleeting taste of pears at their ripest. “I like making an old-fashioned but adding an ounce of the pear brandy,” Bartlett told me.
Yum. I took a bottle of pear and one of apple brandy–for research purposes–and continued my quest.
Aside from a base spirit and a modifier, a classic cocktail also needs a sweetener. White or cane sugar is commonly used in cocktails. But in New England? Well, duh … maple syrup.
I considered incorporating one of the New England maple liqueurs appearing in greater number these days. And while I greatly enjoy sipping them neat in winter (especially Flag Hill’s Sugar Maple Liqueur), I don’t find them very complex or overly interesting; they’re essentially one-note products that taste like, well, maple syrup, but with some ethanol added. Good maple syrup is already nectar of the gods. Why mess with it?
I ordered a quart from my local farm-buying club in Calais, Maine.
Cocktail aficionado Adam Lantheaume opened The Boston Shaker, a small supplies and ingredients shop in Somerville, in 2010, after a two-year stint in Allston. He sells to the trade (including a growing number of restaurants who are upping their craft-cocktail games), as well as to serious consumers–the sorts of people who want perfect two-inch-square ice cubes when drinking from their bourbon collections.
And he sells bitters. A lot of them. In fact, that’s what I first noticed when I walked in: dozens of small, colorfully labeled bottles arrayed on tiered shelves. Bitters are sort of the Higgs boson of cocktails: You can’t really detect them in a drink, but when they’re absent, the drink goes all to hell. They’re typically made of herbs, spices, barks, and roots infused in alcohol, and are usually administered by the drop or dash rather than the ounce. Bitters are, historically speaking, a defining ingredient in a cocktail. One original early-19th-century recipe defined the cocktail simply: spirits, sugar, and bitters. (In our era of cultural relativism, “cocktail” has become a more generic term.)
And that old-fashioned simplicity still suits Boston, Lantheaume said: “New England is more classic-focused than communities that have tons of fresh produce all year, like out West. And with the long winters, we’re more spirit-heavy, with bitters falling into that style.”
I perused the selection: dandelion-and-burdock, Moroccan, sarsaparilla. But two stood out, and I’m not saying it was because the labels featured a smiling pig that could have walked out of an E. B. White story. They also appeared simple, local, true, and eschewing any gimcrackery: cranberry and blueberry bitters from Sweetgrass Farm Winery & Distillery, in Union, Maine. “Here in Maine we are good at bitter,” the label reads. “Bitter drinks, bitter humor, bitter cold.”
I stopped by the farm a couple of weeks later.
A lot of people, especially bartenders, get into the liquor trade because they’re very social beings and like interacting with others. Keith Bodine is not one of those people. For starters, Sweetgrass Farm, which he runs with his wife, Constance, is pretty hard to find; it’s up a quiet, hilly country lane off another remote country lane, which itself is a pretty good drive from a lonesome stretch of Maine’s Midcoast.
Years ago, Bodine was writing software for defense work (“I couldn’t tell you what I was doing then, and couldn’t tell you about it now”). But he grew weary of it, and in 1992 went back to school to get his master’s in winemaking. He worked for California vineyards, and then moved East, working most recently at Nashoba Valley Winery in Bolton, Massachusetts, which makes cider, wine, and spirits. Then he and Constance headed north to Maine, setting up their own winery and distillery. Back River Gin was his first spirit, and it’s still his best-seller, although numbers are relative: His total output is 1,500 cases a year (all products combined), what Absolut Vodka produces about every 20 minutes.