In Search of New England's Classic Cocktails
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.
Bodine says he mostly drinks his spirits neat, but Constance likes a cocktail and stays up on trends. So she started tinkering with bitters a few years back, using blueberry wine as a base and infusing it with blueberries, plus other ingredients, like gentian root, dried citrus peels, cardamom, and allspice. Eventually she came up with something she liked. She makes a cranberry version, too.
I splashed a few drops of both bitters on the back of my hand and tasted. Both are delightfully pungent and concentrated, with the cranberry capturing the tartness of those berries and then some. With a bottle of each, I headed home.
There was one last thing to do: see whether these varied ingredients could be coaxed to sing the same song. That’s also part of the New England gestalt: This region honors the do-it-yourself culture. So instead of trekking to another dozen bars—yawn—I settled into my kitchen with a slew of local products before me, plus a mixing glass, a jigger, and a bowl of ice, and I set to work.
I tried some of this and some of that. I went too heavy on the maple syrup in many variations (it’s a bully of an ingredient, but I love it) and played with both the pear and the apple brandy. I even dipped back into the 18th century and made my own blueberry shrub—a mix of cider vinegar, sugar, and macerated blueberries. But it didn’t seem to play well with others.
Classic cocktails should be as crisp as an October apple and as solidly built as a barn. None of my cocktail experiments achieved those standards. They mostly seemed muddy and ill-focused; some just kept rambling on and on, like a doddering uncle in his cups, long after I’d put down the glass. I did love the pear in the pear brandy, but it tangled with the maple for sweetness supremacy.
None of my drinks found greatness—but none was horrible. (I poured only two down the kitchen sink.) And after a couple of weeks of near-misses—I got close with a blueberry shrub, rum, and apple brandy—it occurred to me that the looking was more important than the finding. It’s like what people said about the Red Sox: The anticipation of winning the World Series was more enjoyable than actually winning. (And look what happened afterwards.)
So I’ll keep mixing and stirring, adding this and subtracting that. With any luck, I’ll fit all of New England into a glass. Or better yet, I won’t—which will keep my quest alive.