Justin Stone is currently a manager at the DiBicarri brother's Tavern Road in Fort Point, Boston. He has worked in the hospitality industry as a doorman, busboy, maître d', server and bartender. In the fall, he will be part of the front of the house team at
Alden and Harlow, Harvard Square, Cambridge.
“The Lexicon” by Justin Stone
I would like to take this opportunity to first congratulate the people behind Drink on Congress Street in Fort Point for their accolades at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. They are neighbors of Tavern Road, where I make my nights, and have shown us both outstanding neighborly charm and great hospitality when we stop by for a beverage after work. Good neighbors in the restaurant industry are hard to find. In fact, John Gertsen's parting words to me after I met him were “Let us know if there's anything we can do for you.” Not an ounce of insincerity there. All hospitality aside, those words ring through to a deeper sense of meaning for those in the beverage service industry. The Drink model, from what I've learned through a handful of visits, puts the responsibility of composition in the hands of craftspeople who excel in their knowledge of ingredients, methods and assembly. We all know that there's no list at Drink. Some of us in the industry know why they're not offering something so traditional as a list. At Drink, the people behind the bar are required to be walking lexicons of cocktail knowledge. Yes, their tendencies lean towards the classics, which are my wheelhouse, but I'm always impressed by their ability to tweak a drink here and there and put something novel in front of me. I am a curious consumer, one who appreciates the odd or unexpected learning experience while out for a night. There's a cocktail for every day of the year and beyond. I question the necessity of the lexicon: Why is variety necessary, who cares, and when was the last time you ordered a “Sex on the Beach”?
Variety happens in nature. It's an inescapable facet of human behavior. In the search for individuality, most humans conjure something they believe is unique, they name it “The Mojito”, serve it to some expat transients in Cuba and a hundred years later, some 21 year-old bartender in South Korea is making his mojito with soju, kaffir lime leaves, hyssop mint, pine soda and Demerara syrup and calling it “The Kojito”. Is a soju mojito delicious, I'm not one to know, but in mixology, bartenders love to put a ring on it. Now, whether or not it's useful for a class A bartender to know the entire PDT lexicon or the catalog of drinks in The Gentleman's Companion is a debate left for closing time. I will venture to say that cocktail variety can go two ways, in the hands of the customer or the hands of the craftsman. It's a situation based on inventory, context, audience and sometimes even whimsy.
A few years back, before my journey to China, I held a brief position with the lovely folks at La Morra, a fantastic Italian restaurant in Brookline run by the Ziskin family. They were kind enough to give me Sundays behind the bar. I had to spend the greater part of my early days learning their drink list, their take on the Negroni and Manhattan. It was great to be back mixing again under the tutelage of Bernie Keavenany. Shortly after my first week behind the bar, my aunt sent me The Bartender's Black Book by Stephen Kitteridge, a friendly gesture as it'd been some time since I tackled the tickets. The book is rather ubiquitous at many of the bars I've worked at over the years. It is not a tome based on brevity or curating, but mostly based on gathering the who's-who of cocktails into an easy reference guide. It's a rookie's best friend, a bible where one is just as likely to find five drinks that include blue curaçao sitting right beside classics like the Sidecar or the Ward Eight. Flipping through the book is like thumbing through the old Yellow Pages tossed at your grandmother's doorstep. As a reference guide, it does the job, but as a statement of craftsmanship, there are other classic volumes that most bartenders would recommend.
I have never delved into the importance of lexicographical cocktail knowledge with my bartender colleagues. Most American customers do one of three things, I've observed. They either go “vodka soda”, they shoot off the cocktail list - “Tartini Sling” at Tavern Road, or they have some kind of classic in mind that they prefer made with a certain spirit, “Bulleit Rye Manhattan”. The need for bartenders to possess more than 20 or 30 drinks under their belt is rarely necessary for the general watering hole, but there is a trend lately, because of the abundance of information on cocktails, for the customer to let the bartender “make them something delicious.” The ladies and gents at Drink thrive on this model and are trained to work with it from the ground up. Yet I wonder, sometimes, what I'm missing. How many variations on the rye Manhattan can I find? I can tell you that I have been searching. I can also tell you that because of the nature of all this “research”, I have to start writing down recipes when I encounter a doozy.
Are we, as consumers, stuck at the extremes? What kind of customer has the sand to step into a place like Death + Company in NYC and tell the bartenders there what to do? As much as I like visiting some of my favorite mixologists in the city and let them take the reins, I too would like to possess some kind of control, beyond the cocktail list, over what I'm having and how I would like to have it. It's a tough line. Bars that have lists tend to get customers ordering off the list – not a bad thing, according to Mr. Childs. Lists, as I stated in a previous column, are a bar's mission statement of sorts. However, out there somewhere is my perfect whiskey drink and I don't want to get my wheels stuck in the mud drinking either something that I know, like the Toronto [a drink not every bartender knows, I've noticed] or something close to a Manhattan-style drink off a list. You won't find me carrying around a Moleskine with recipes nor will you see me take out my phone and look up the ratios for the Revolver (2 oz Bulleit Bourbon, 1/2 oz Stirrings Espresso Liqueur, 3 dashes Fee Brother's West Indian Orange Bitter). That's a kind of pretension I'm not prepared to offer to some professional that has a two-deep bar of customers and tickets popping like Jiffy.
Frankly, I would like to have it be a more complicated affair. However, most nights, I am just as content with a Vesper or a solid Sazerac, two drinks that are just right for my discerning palate which veer on the classic side. Palmer Matthews at Drink would be happy to mix up either of these beverages on any given day. However, I can't say that some of my land lubber friends could just rattle off a drink like the Carroll Gardens and expect any bartender from Boston to Philadelphia to know the deal. We, the general consumer, must rely on this thin line between the lexicon and the whim of the bartender. Some people just don't give a damn, and that's fine with gents like me or any of the bartenders at Tavern Road. The goal is to make you happy, right? I have spent enough years in this business to know that most customers have a short road to their contentment. Much like Mr. Childs, I am happy with a High Life and a whiskey back on any given night. At my beloved Quarterdeck in Hyannis, there's really no other way you should go. Jimmy or Buster would most certainly whip you up a fine cocktail if you requested it, but their specialty is cold, quick beer. I would never pop into the QD and ask for anything beyond a shot of Woodford Reserve, with a couple cubes of ice to loosen the flavors. When I am in the presence of skill and greatness, I let the bartenders have their way, or, on occasion, will riff off of my first round. My point is, don't carry around recipes, be flexible and always trust your bartender.
Even though Drink pioneered the model of “bartender's trust” by hiring staff with a propensity for learning and development, the trend exists throughout most major American cities. You need to do your homework if you want to explore the edges or even the true classics of the cocktail world. It's also necessary to engage the bartender, to ask questions. The bartenders at Tavern Road, Drink, Eastern Standard or West Bridge are happy to ask you about your preference of spirits and flavors. Yet it is far more entertaining for you as a customer if you come prepared. If you're into the cocktail scene these days, if you're a customer reading this column and love what recipes Josh has shared, learn a couple, find what you like. Expanding your personal lexicon of spirits and concoctions is just as easy as ordering a non-fat, half-caf, soy latté with extra foam. Maybe one day, you'll find yourself in Ward 8, drinking a Ward 8 and it will make all the difference.
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