In Search of New England's Classic Cocktails
It also happens to be quite delicious. I put a bottle in the back seat.
I sampled another memorable New England rum a week later and five hours up the coast, at Spirits of Maine Distillery in the small coastal town of Gouldsboro. Bob Bartlett, who got his start making award-winning blueberry and apple wines three decades ago (at his Bartlett Maine Estate Winery), ordered a state-of-the-art still in 2007 and started messing around with fermented fruits and more. His rum is made from molasses imported from the islands, which is then aged in new French oak barrels, the sort more commonly used for wine. (Most rum makers age their product in used bourbon barrels, which Bartlett considers “flavoring” the spirit. “To me it’s a sin,” he said.)
At the time of my visit, Bartlett hadn’t started bottling his rum yet, but it had been aging close to two years, so he popped open the bung and stuck in his “thief”–a narrow glass tube designed for barrel sampling. I sipped. It was a light, delicate rum, dry yet edged with the robust flavor of molasses.
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, classic cocktails 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.)