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THE EXAMINED LIFE

Looking for Mr. Boston

AS ANYONE WHO has ever tended bar can attest, the "Mr. Boston Official Bartender's and Party Guide" is the mixologist's bible -- the Little Red Book of America's permanent cocktail revolution. Earlier this month, Warner Books published the 65th edition of the guide, including 300 new drink recipes and entries on such latter-day phenomena as flavored vodkas and "shooters." But where does the title come from?

 

Old Mr. Boston was a distillery founded by Boston natives Irwin "Red" Benjamin and Hyman C. Berkowitz in 1933. (The distillery itself, best known by the 1970s for its semi-toxic flavored brandies, was located at 1010 Massachusetts Ave. in Roxbury -- now the site, ironically, of Boston's Public Health Commission.) The first edition of the eponymous drink recipes guide, published in 1935 by Ben-Burk Inc., proclaimed, "Sirs -- May we now present to you Old Mr. Boston in permanent form. We know you are going to like him."

A portrait of the fictional Old Mr. Boston himself, a crapulous gent in a Dickensian beaver hat, along with editor Leo Cotton's assurance that he'd picked up tips on mixing, mashing, and muddling from "Old Time Boston Bartenders," added a certain dubious authenticity to the book's promise of "many good times in store."

The distillery changed hands several times. In 1980, it was acquired by a Louisville, Ky., company that dropped the "Old" from Mr. Boston's moniker and depicted him as a younger and younger man -- until he disappeared altogether. By 1987 the brand had dwindled to "Boston," its logo a stark "B." Then, in `95, the Barton Inc. liquor unit of New York's Canandaigua Wine Co. (now Constellation) acquired the brand and restored Mr. Boston himself to something resembling his former glory.

Today, Barton reserves the distinguished name for a line of liqueurs and cordials, the crucial ingredient of such "Mr. Boston" concoctions as the Fuzzy Navel, the Quaalude, and -- naturally -- the Boston Iced Coffee.

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