For a long time Downtown Crossing has always been "five years away" from being a hot destination. When I opened a bar on Bromfield Street almost 17 years ago, the Suffolk Law School building was a hole in the ground and Hotel Nine Zero was a pile of rubble from a restaurant that had closed a decade before. Just as things were improving, 9/11 dramatically impacted the economy everywhere and our area, of course, was no exception. Filene's closed. Many retail businesses did the same.
But there's light at the end of the tunnel. I've always said (to anyone who might care to listen) that restaurants and bars just might be the savior of downtown. Recently, Stoddard's and JM Curley on Temple Street have entered that void. Now, go a bit further up Tremont Street and turn left. Enter Carrie Nation at 11 Beacon, running with the baton of renewed area nightlife interest, particularly in regard to cocktails. The space is very big and beautiful too, which is a little deceptive from the exterior. But to me, that's what is great about old downtown, old facades, businesses tucked around a corner just off a main street.
Industry veteran Brian Mantz heads the bar program, and he's like a kid in a candy store. "Josh, this is a dream job, I get to do my hobby for a living!" is one of the first things he says to me when I walked in interrupting his lunch (working a double) the other day. His enthusiasm is clear by a great cocktail list and a very extensive American whiskey selection. His side job clearly helps- he is a brand ambassador for one of my favorites- Angel's Envy Bourbon. As we sat together looking over his list, I suggested he maybe make a drink or two. He pulled out classics, much like the space and overall restaurant itself.
He does an Old Fashioned Old Fashioned, Bulleit rye, sugar, bitters. If you like, he puts an orange and a cherry on the glass. His Sazerac is very old school too, not made with rye, but Cognac. Hennessy, Pechaud bitters, Demerara simple syrup, Herbsaint rinse. However there's also new: try The Million Dollar Cup, Hendrick's gin, lemon, Chambord, egg, raspberries and bubbles.
Carrie Nation is named, of course, after the temperance movement crusader, who would enter a drinking establishment with a hatchet, creating obvious havoc. No ghost of her here (although she may be rolling over in her grave); the front room is large and beautiful, with a nod to the past- red leather, turn of the century fixtures. Even more my speed, check out the dark and well appointed back room, complete with two old billiard tables- you'll fell like it's 1915 and Carrie herself might bust in at any moment. Fear not though, Brian will just fix you another cocktail.
I'm usually pretty good about being detail oriented. However, I've been meaning to post for well over a month that I was treated over the summer to a wonderful seminar run by the Hawthorn Beverage Group, led by Josh Durr and AT Howe at Citizen Public House. The importer Lyons Brown of Altamar was there too and of course, the ever-present John Nugent was pouring some terrific cocktails- maybe he and the topic had me hallucinate and forget- Kubler Absinthe.
It has a remarkable reputation, many mistaken identities, one of which I just jokingly mentioned. Kubler, founded in 1863, is the only one that can claim authentic recipe and continuous operation in the birthplace of the spirit- Val-de-Travers, Switzerland. Painstakingly made in a unique micro-climate bordering France, with herbs grand wormwood, anise, hyssop, lemon balm, star anise, fennel, mint, among others- the original formula. No sugar or artificial color added, bottled at 106 proof, it's powerful but not nearly as mind altering as mistaken historical facts would dictate. Although only relatively recently did a direct descendant of J. Fritz Kubler, Yves (fifth generation), effectively lobby to lift the ban here in the states. Misinformation, temperance movement, myths and smear campaigns virtually eliminated the product for a century, but it's back and ready again for cocktails.
First, with huge credit and thanks to Josh form Hawthorn Beverage, a little timeline history.
AD- Pliny The Elder mentions that Roman Chariot race winners are given wine steeped in wormwood as a reminder that victory is bittersweet.
Hippocrates recommends wormwood for a number of ailments.
1769- Val-de-Travers, Switzerland a consortium led by Mere Henriod comes up with possibly the original recipe for "bon extract d' absinthe."
1769- Pierre Ordinaire makes a medicinal extract of wormwood "elixir d'absinthe" at 136 proof.
1798- The first commercial absinthe distillery in Couvet.
1805- Henri Louis Pernod needs to enlarge the facility and to avoid high Swiss taxes moves his operation to Pontarlier, France.
(The French style incorporated a maceration to achieve the green color)
1840s- French foreign legion soldiers use absinthe against malaria and other maladies.
1859- Edouard Manet's first original painting is "The Absinthe Drinker."
Late 1800s- Phylloxera wreaks havoc on wine production and with scarce availability, absinthe's popularity rises.
1871- 1914- Belle Epoque (beautiful era) Manet, Degas, Picasso, Tallouse-Lautrec often include absinthe in their work.
1905- Moral panic against absinthe starts to rise, led in part by Jean Lanfray murdering his family in Switzerland after a drunken rage. Ironically police revealed he drank brandy, wine, and other hard liquors yet only two ounces of absinthe- which took the blame.
By 1915- Bad science and prohibitionists led the way for banning absinthe in much of Europe and the US. Thujone has been blamed for the psychedelic effects of absinthe, but wormwood contains such small quantities that this is unlikely. In fact, while dangerous in very large quantities, chemists have determined it's not a psychedelic at all.
2001- Swiss ban is lifted and Yves Kubler revives the brand.
2007- US finally lifts the ban, it is approved safe and the label is accepted with the only stipulation that the word absinthe cannot be larger than the brand name. "Absinthe is in my blood and genes. No compromises are made regarding the quality and integrity of Kubler an authentic Swiss absinthe" -Yves Kubler.
Traditionally one would consume absinthe 3 to 5 parts water to one part absinthe, place a perferated spoon with a sugar cube on a glass and drip water over it. The water transforms the absinthe from clear to opaque in a process called "The Louche." Even if you don't think you love the licorice aspect of the spirit, try a few dashes in your next rum cocktail (you'll find it in a ton of great tiki drinks- think Don the Beachcomber). Harry Craddock got it from Spain in the 1930s, and it appears in many of his original Savoy recipes.
During the tasting, I particularly enjoyed a Strawberry Frappe, with Kubler, Luxardo Maraschino, diced strawberries, Angostura bitters, simple syrup and mint. Not overly sweet as you might imagine, the herbs in the absinthe perfectly balanced the tart-sweet strawberry and simple. Luxardo with the Kubler gives a wonderful viscous texture, and bitters always help bring the whole thing together. Delicious.
John Nugent poured The Improved Boulevardier, which was indeed! Bulleit Bourbon, Campari, Cocchi Torino vermouth, Kubler, Luxardo Maraschino, Angostura. Noticing a trend here? Use a dasher or olive oil pourer, include 1-2-3 proportions of Kubler Absinthe, Angostura bitters, Luxardo Marashchino. I'm telling you- use some in your favorite cocktails, you'll be a believer.
Oh, by the way, in regard to this post, at least my tardiness wasn't like the sad absence of absinthe for a hundred years. Now we can all taste a piece of history.
Hear me out please, I'm going to talk about another vodka in a crowded field of options. Cocktail enthusiasts may be sipping a wide variety of spirits, but the reality is the category accounts for 26.6% of US spirit consumption which equates to 400 million liters annually. Somebody's drinking and enjoying it (including me).
Enter American Harvest, a premium spirit organically sourced from a family owned farm in Rigby, Idaho, with winter wheat (planted in September, harvested in July) and water from deep below the Snake river basin. Nothing is artificially added, USDA certified organic, the bottles are recycled, ink used for packaging biodegradable and water soluble. The distillery even gets a third of their electrical from local wind power.
Beside doing the right thing, the taste result? Silky mouthfeel with a slight sweetness from the wheat, a high quality, small batch distillation, crisp and clean. I contacted
Todd Richman the other day who happens to be the Corporate Mixologist for the Sidney Frank Importing Company (American Harvest, Jagermeister, Gekkeikan Sake, Michael Collins Irish Whiskey and more). Todd recently and deservingly received "Best American Brand Ambassador" award at Tales of the Cocktail- a huge honor. Moreover, the perfect person to suggest a delicious summer libation, ready for August- the Harvest Cooler. He says "I love using fresh ingredients, it's seasonal and really refreshing during the heat and the technique is pretty straightforward. I feel that with an exceptional product like American Harvest, less is more. Simple drinks with fresh ingredients allow American Harvest to "pop" in the cocktail."
2 parts American Harvest
1 part freshly squeezed lime juice
½ part agave nectar
5 small cubes of fresh watermelon
Chilled Soda water
Combine all ingredients except soda water in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake well. Strain over fresh ice in a tall cocktail glass and top with soda water, gently stir to incorporate the ingredients. Garnish with a watermelon slice and lime wedge.
Dave and Will Willis of Bully Boy Distillers help kick summer into high-gear with the launch of their premium barrel-aged Boston Rum. True to Boston heritage and legacy it features a rich fruit flavor profile accompanied by vanilla, caramel and toffee- perfect for summer cocktails.
At Trade, Josh Mendez is offering up his take- an Old Cuban cocktail version on the rocks, made with Bully Boy Boston Rum, lime, mint, brown sugar and Champagne. Not the Hemingway Daiquiri, of course, he's calling it "Hemingway" because “after a couple of them you'll either be ready to A) get into a brawl, or B) run with bulls--both very Hemingway-esque activities.” I've always likened this drink to an elegant Mojito, and I love the Boston twist, I think the old man himself would have approved too.
The famous wine writer (and importer) of the 50s through the 80s, Alexis Lichine once said about learning wine "buy yourself a corkscrew and use it." The message clearly, taste, taste and taste again. I translated this idea with spirits into a visit at the Urban Grape South End the other day where I decided to purchase a bottle I'd never heard of, and, well, taste. As Ben Bouton (of UG and beer buyer) said to me "...either way trying something new is worth it. At worst, if you don't like it, you know you never have to try it again." Words to live by.
I picked Riga Black Balsam, an herbal liqueur from Latvia, created in 1752 to help heal the empress of Russia. Like so many old spirits, began in this medicinal way and today is sipped after dinner or maybe added to coffee or tea. What's in it? Secret recipe of course, but they do admit to birch bud, valerian root, raspberry, ginger, nutmeg, black peppercorn, peppermint and other herbs and blossoms.
It's kind of like Fernet Branca or other Amaros with the addition of berry sweetness (almost, but not quite, cough syrup-esque). Pretty rough and tumble though, trust me, a lot goes a long way, and at 90 proof you don't want to be drinking shots of this all night. So, what do you do with it? Here's what I tried, kind of a Riga Julep:
1.5 oz rye, .5 oz Riga Black Balsam, .25 oz simple syrup, mint, .5 lemon, ginger beer. Pretty tasty and surprisingly light.
Go out and try something new, you just never know.
Riga Black Balsam 375ml available at the Urban Grape, $18.
Hirsch Canadian Rye is sourced for the Anchor Distilling Company from Glenora Distillery located on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Double distilled (second in pot stills), aged in oak and bottled by hand this is serious stuff, true to older Canadian Whisky roots. The style is more subtle, lighter with fruit and honey flavors than American versions, but there is still spice from the 100% rye and 3 years in oak. Think of this selection's weight more akin to a lowland Scotch, where say the American Bulleit Rye would be like the much bigger Islay whiskies. Now I've confused myself.
Enjoy this with a couple of ice cubes, but really it shines in cocktails, particularly lighter Collins-style drinks. I've recently been re-making a variation I came up with last Summer:
Check the Rhyme
1.5 oz Hirsch Canadian Rye
.75 oz Cocci Americano (an Italian aperitif- like the French Lillet)
.75 oz thyme simple syrup
.5 oz lemon
Serve as a Collins- on ice with a splash of soda if desired. Garnish with thyme sprig.
Make simple syrup 1 to 1 water to sugar. Heat until sugar is dissolved, then simmer with thyme (a cup should work) for 15 minutes. Turn off heat, cover until cool and strain out the thyme.
It started for me in South Station the other day, but really years earlier.
Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon, elusive to say the least, equivalent to the cult cabernet fandom of Napa Valley's Screaming Eagle or Bordeaux's Chateau Petrus in the wine world. So, I began a voyage to Mecca of sorts, in Providence, RI, and Matt Jennings' stellar restaurant Farmstead. The Pilgrims with me: Ryan Sosti (Ruby Wines), TJ Douglas (Urban Grape and organizer of the trip), Chef Michael Scelfo (Russell House Tavern and soon to be Alden & Harlow).
It was also a trip down memory lane, my first bar shift ever was over two decades ago on South Main Street- maybe you can go home again? A sunny afternoon, I remembered one of my old haunts, The Hot Club, which was the same as ever; perfect, sitting on the deck enjoying a beer, there is a reason this place has been here so long. We met up with an old buddy of Ryan's who cringed (and affably took it in stride) when he regaled us with the story of his nickname- Vodka Bill. As if I didn't already know I was in for a long night? Then, on to Farmstead on the East Side (driven by Vodka Bill in an Escalade), for dinner, and of course, Pappy. Ushered in to a warm welcome from our gracious host and Chef Matt, we were quickly handed a cocktail.
The Kentucky Flower
1.5 oz W.L. Weller Bourbon, .5 oz St. Germain, .5 oz lemon juice, cranberry, egg white.
Light, frothy and delicious, be careful you could probably drink many of these- thank goodness we were in the process of being seated and greeted by the man himself- Julian Van Winkle III.
Matt Jennings had a tough task, to pair big, spicy, high proof whiskey with food. He performed with aplomb. Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 year Lot "B" is the lightest of the whiskeys we tried at only 90 proof- but this is by no means a simple spirit, delicious, rich vanilla and spice. Best part is you might even be able to get your hands on a bottle. Matt served a pungent and very tasty smoked cod rillette which held its own.
Next up was TJ's favorite, the Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 15 year, 107 proof. This is booming stuff- fig, vanilla, tobacco- spicy and tannic which paired with chicken terrine, vegetables, chicharrones and bourbon mustard. This was, indeed, bourbon lovers heaven- particularly after a couple of eyedrops of water to lower the proof (Julian's suggestion by the way).
Mr. Van Winkle introduced the main course with a nod to his grandfather who started working for the W.L. Weller distillery at the age of 18 in 1893. "I like to refer to this as butter bourbon, smooth and delicious." He continued with a wry smile, "I'm so glad you like our family's bourbon but in your enthusiasm you've created your own competition."
Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 20 year, absolutely my favorite with molasses, toffee and round vanilla creaminess. Chef Scelfo, across from me, thought this pairing was Chef Jennings' best- slow roasted pork shoulder and loin, turnip puree and golden raisins, fiddlehead ferns and pickled oysters. "Perfect along side the bourbon, not trying to go at it, you know? Let's the whiskey shine."
Ryan is a self-proclaimed dessert guy, so he was eagerly waiting on the final pairing, which beyond delivered. Pineapple upside down cake with candied ginger and bourbon ice cream along side Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 23 year? Wow, I don't know how I got past security but I'm glad I did. The spice and proof of this spirit married very well with sweetness and showed of the whiskey's honeyed character. As if this wasn't enough, Julian's southern gentlemanly nature treated us to a special surprise. From Kentucky earlier that day he grabbed 2 bottles of a bourbon his father made in 1970 and bottled in 1984, then sat in his garage for almost 30 years. It was 14 year Pappy that drank like a mellower 15 year- what a way to end the evening.
We found the terrific new bar (only a couple months) called The Eddy, on Eddy street downtown on the way back to the train. Perfectly made cocktails with a tight, well thought out beer and wine menu- check it out when you're in town.
A train ride home, full and a only little buzzed (thank goodness the pours were small), swirling thoughts of bourbons I may not try again- this was a legendary boys night out.
The best boss I have ever had was Nelse Clark. Rewind to 1993, West Street Grille, downtown Boston- we were just a few blocks from the combat zone, The Naked Eye strip club was still there, adjacent to an old "adult" theatre. Playland Cafe was around the corner, a few steps away from what is a Starbucks now. But only a few blocks further North, the venerable Locke Ober Cafe was still packed.
Nelse was the face of West Street, a great front man always with a smile, you wanted to know him and hang out at his spot- I was lucky to work the bar. It does not surprise me at all that he is working with Andrew Cabot now creating a unique American Rum which can hold a place of honor in the deep New England distilling history. When I walked into the Privateer warehouse outside of Ipswich the other day, his friendliness made me feel like I was walking into his bar years ago- he's still the consummate host.
Andrew Cabot (1750-1791) was a merchant and rum distiller who became one of the most successful American privateers. He deployed a fleet of ships including Pilgrim, Revolution and True American for which this Rum is named. He was said to be uncommonly clever and an astute judge of men and situations. Whether smuggling molasses past British patrols or prizing British ships, Cabot was a true American. -Andrew Cabot, 2011
Of course I was there to taste the spirits, and also meet Maggie Campbell, Privateer's terrifically talented head distiller. The warehouse itself is impressive (Nelse mentions "you definitely get more space up here in Ipswich"), with thousands of square feet dedicated to racking barrel space, fermenters, still, and true to form, a bar. After a taste of cane sugar and wonderful fig-nuanced molasses, Maggie walked me first to the NSI Canadian fermenter where sugar cane and/or molasses will sit at 72 degrees for a slow 7 day process closer to what they do in Cognac as opposed to the islands for rum. This makes sense, as one of her mentors is Hubert Germain-Robin of the famous California brandy house. Distillation in a pot still and short column still for as Maggie says, "polish."
Privateer white rum is Agricole style, meaning it is distilled entirely from sugar cane, while the amber is from both cane and molasses. Maggie is constantly tasting and refining the spirit in the process, nothing is added or filtered out. "For me it comes down to marrying alchemy and science to make the best spirit I can," and even though young, she does mentoring of her own with recent visits from aspiring distillers from Sicily and Israel. As if her job wasn't enough, she's also studying for Master of Wine certification- no wonder her spirits are so good.
Don't just listen to me, the legendary Paul Picault, gave both the silver and amber 4 stars, superb and highly recommended. This is a big deal. He raves of the amber, "slightly bittersweet, and even slightly sherried; mid palate is delicate, honeyed, gently sweet, spicy, cocoa-like." Sounds like time for a sip with an ice cube, or better yet, a cocktail. I was honored to jump behind the bar and make a-
Privateer rum old fashioned:
.5 bar spoon cane sugar, drop off water to make a syrup in the glass, 1.5 oz Privateer Amber, 2 dashes Angustura orange bitters, stirred with ice, orange peel oil and garnish.
Nelse swept in to my left and fixed what he calls a-
Mexican Garden Party:
1.5 oz Privateer Silver, .75 oz fresh lime juice, .5 oz simple syrup or agave, small handful of fresh cilantro,1/3 of a Jelepeno pepper, muddle ingredients, add ice, shake and strain.
During distillation, the first off the still is called the "heads" which is imperfection heavy, then the "heart" (desired part for finished product) and finally the "tails," which are discarded. Maggie's art is defining the cut, and her comment, I'm taking and using as a metaphor for life: "when things get tail-y it gets messy." Thank goodness we have her to watch over the process.
Privateer rums can be found at the Urban Grape, Silver $25, Amber $36.
Imbue is a hand crafted aperitif wine company from Portland, Oregon; products made with love by three veterans of the wine, restaurant and bar industry. In fact, the start-up company's funds began "without outside investment… seed money all came from bar tips and borrowed wine." I like their style. They take Pinot Gris grapes, secret herbs and spices (like all great producers hotly guard their recipes) and distillate from the famed local Clear Creek Distillery. Right now they have 2 aperitif offerings available, their flagship Imbue Bittersweet Vermouth and Petal & Thorn which aims to be stylistically like an Amaro (Italian Bitter) but aperitif rather than digestif.
The golden straw colored vermouth is excellent with characteristic herb flavors like thyme and lavender. There is also citrus and vanilla. While it worked great in a martini (I used 2 oz of gin, 1 oz of Imbue vermouth, with lemon verbena bitters and a lemon peel), I think I like it better on the rocks as an aperitif before dinner.
Petal & Thorn has a red hue from beet juice, orange citrus elements and is also bittersweet with a ton of cinnamon. I think I know what happened: The famous Czech bitter Becherovka travelled to Italy and had a Roman holiday with the Italian Amaro Montenegro. The daughter of the affair is Petal & Thorn, ready for cocktails. Nick Demjen of Origin Beverage played around and has a terrific Manhattan variation- 2oz Rye, 1/2 oz Imbue Petal and Thorn, 1/4 oz Meletti Amaro, 1/4 oz Luxardo Maraschino, Luxardo cherry garnish, 2 dases Fee Bros. Whiskey Barrel Bitters.
Nick kindly visited mutually friend and one of the best bartenders around Todd Maul at Clio. On the fly he came up with a delicious and esoteric blend of Plymouth Gin, Dolin Sweet Vermouth, Imbue Bittersweet, snap pea essence and shimeji mushroom.
So I've posted about Rock and Rye before, and yes, I make a personal version which is good enough for me if legendary woman about town Rebecca Jane likes it. However, leave it Rob Cooper (St. Germain liqueur fame) to come out with a great bottled version-
Slow and Low. His, appropriately is more rough and tumble at 98 proof. Bitter, sweet, citrusy, reviving, to be best enjoyed on ice if you ask me, although I hear alongside a beer works pretty well too. Like in the old days it may just cure what ails you, maybe a substitute for the flu shot?
Perhaps too obvious, but imagine the Beastie Boys of the cocktail world, which leads me to the following video:
"Slow and Low was inspired by the original Hochstadter’s Rock and Rye recipe and a few other 19th century recipes Rob Cooper discovered. It is made strong; using the best aged whiskey and matured slowly. 6 Year-Old Straight Rye Whiskey is macerated with three citrus peels: lemon, grapefruit and orange, pure cane rock candy, honey and a hint of horehound" (a wild bitter herb). 98 proof, about $32 in liquor stores.