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Mix masters

In restaurants and bars, the cocktail has come back and evolved, alongside the sprouting of microbreweries

By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / December 4, 2011
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PORTLAND, Maine - John Myers, a traditional saloonist and cocktail historian, tends bar at The Grill Room, a steakhouse with a wood-burning grill in the center of the Old Port here. Myers, looking like a Wild West gunslinger with his wool vest and bushy beard, stands in the lamplight - a sommelier of cocktails ready to shake or stir.

I’m sitting on the other side of the bar, deciding what to order. I know that the bar man specializes in the tried and true.

I ask him what defines a classic cocktail.

“The great ones are spirit driven,’’ Myers says. “They possess the spirit of the spirit, the essence of the spirit. A margarita shouldn’t taste like limeade, it should taste like tequila.’’

I asked him if he has a favorite drink.

“Probably the Sazerac,’’ he says.

I ask him what goes in his Sazerac.

Myers lists the ingredients. “I start with Old Overholt rye whiskey, a dash of Angostura bitters, four to six dashes of Peychaud’s bitters, one-fourth ounce of simple syrup. I rinse the glass with Absinthe, throw in a twist of lemon, and throw the lemon over my shoulder.’’

I ask him to make me one, and while he mixes we talk about Maine’s drinking culture.

He says, “When I told a friend of mine in D.C. that I was heading up here, he told me that Maine was the perfect place to be when the world ends. ‘Everything happens in Maine,’ he said. ‘It just takes five years to get there.’

“The cocktail revolution is right on schedule.’’

Myers says that when he came to Portland in 2002, the chains at the mall were the only places in town with cocktail menus. He says, “They all had those garish colored booklets printed by the corporate office, heavy on the frozen drinks and whipped cream garnishes.’’

Good beer was probably easier to come by, but it was mostly from far away breweries or a small handful of ambitious local outfits.

Ten years later small breweries are everywhere and most restaurants have a mixology menu of handcrafted cocktails. The new Maine drinking culture is full of individual craftsmen plying their bar trade with geeky cocktail history and plenty of local and seasonal ingredients. Last week I made a few stops along the coast to check in with some of the best of them. The Grill Room & Bar, 84 Exchange St., Portland, 207-774-2333, www.thefrontroomrestaurant.com, house cocktails $9-$11

Mixology in a tiny temple of nouveau gastronomy

Hugo’s is just down the block from The Grill Room. In 2009 chef-owner Rob Evans won a James Beard award for best chef in the Northeast. Evans specializes in intricate and precise dishes with a scruffy edge - haute technique applied to the whole hog. The drinks, courtesy of general manager Arlin Smith and bar manager Roxanne Dragon, fit right in.

The “Amaro Amore’’ is Dragon’s version of the classic Negroni. Instead of Campari she uses Amaro Montenegro. “Campari can be bracingly bitter,’’ she says. “Amaro has nice floral notes, and flavors of cooked orange peel. It’s more elegant. A Negroni is a summery drink. The Amaro Amore is a cold season spin on it.’’

The cocktail comes in an elegant coupe glass (said to be modeled from the breast of Marie Antoinette), the perfect vial for sipping the brown stuff along with a side of Asiago cheese balls and pork buns from the kitchen. 88 Middle St., Portland, 207-774-8538, www.hugos.net, kitchen cocktails $9-$14

Craft drinks at the neighborhood haunt

The Blue Spoon is on the top of Munjoy Hill, up in a neighborhood of locals, way far away from the tourist traffic of the Old Port. Chef David Iovino owns the building and lives upstairs. The restaurant was open for seven years before they started serving cocktails. “We were short on space, so we waited until we could do it small and do it well,’’ he says.

Trey Hughes is the cocktail visionary. He has a day job selling guitars at Buckdancer’s Choice Music Co. He comes in a couple of nights a week to tend bar.

Drinks have evocative names such as Hang the Snow - a late fall concoction of Pusser’s rum, light rum, pineapple juice, Cointreau, rhubarb bitters, and cinnamon served straight up in a martini glass.

The bar works closely with the kitchen. Hughes and Iovino make their own winter simple syrup, grenadine, tonic water, celery bitters, and cocoa bitters.

Iovino says, “He tells me what he wants to do, and I tell him what I have.’’ 89 Congress St., Portland, 207-773-1116, kitchen cocktails $9-$10

Practicing the lost art of urban fermentation

The Urban Farm Fermentory is deep in the below-sea-level depths of the East Bayside industrial zone. For the past year David Homa, a permaculture designer, and Eli Cayer, a beekeeper, meadmaker, and graphic designer, have been brewing cider and mead, and transforming the fermentory’s 900-square-foot backyard of contaminated soils along an abandoned railroad bed into a vibrant edible landscape with beehives, greenhouses, and raised vegetable gardens.

Inside the fermentory it is warm and smells like cider and kombucha. Tilapia swim in tanks topped with culinary herbs. Homa snips the basil to flavor mead fermenting in the next room.

“We’re interested in lost arts,’’ says Cayer. “Using systems of nature, being patient, finding the flavor of this place.’’ 200 Anderson St., Bay 4, Portland, 207-653-7406, www.urbanfarmfermentory.com, cider $9-$14, mead $10-$20, kombucha $3-$5

World-class vodka and gin from potatoes

Maine Distilleries is about 15 minutes north of Portland, in Freeport, in a shingled barn on the side of Route 1.

Using their own Maine-grown potatoes and water from the Cold River Aquifer, they produce Cold River Vodka, and Cold River Gin (vodka plus botanicals - juniper, coriander, lemon peel, orange peel, angelica root, orris root, cardamom - equals gin).

Chris Dowe, the head distiller, says his favorite way to drink the gin is over ice with fresh ginger grated right into the glass, and a squeeze of lemon. “A deadly combination,’’ he says. 437 US Route 1, Freeport, 207-865-4828, www.mainedistilleries.com, vodka $34, gin $26 per bottle.

Rustic beers from the tanglewood

Oxbow, an American Farmhouse Brewery, is another 40 minutes up the coast on 18 acres of gardens, woods, fields, and handmade buildings, all surrounded by the tidal wilds of North Newcastle.

Owner-brewer Geoff Masland named the brewery for the twist of the nearby Dyer River, known to some as the “crookedest river in Maine.’’

He designed the logo with a barred owl carrying a barrel of beer in its talons.

“The barred owl flies silently through the woods,’’ says Masland. “We wanted our beer to have that sense of place. Loud beer from a quiet place.’’

They brewed their first batch of Saison-style ale in July. It was ready for the market in August.

Buccaneer bar with beer to boot

Right now head brewer and co-owner Tim Adams is working on a barrel-aged series fermented in old oak Jim Beam barrels. “It’s super laborious but worth it,’’ he says. 274 Jones Woods Road, Newcastle, 207-315-5962, www.oxbowbeer.com, growlers are available for purchase on Fridays from 2-6 p.m., half-gallon growlers $15 At Three Tides, another hour up the coast in Belfast, owner-brewer David Carlson and his wife, Sarah, have turned an old boat barn and granary into a beer bar, cocktail bar, oyster bar, and esoteric microbrewery. Seventeen of Carlson’s strange and delicious beers are on tap in the candle-lighted, radiant-heated, wood-paneled bar.

A repurposed giant grain mixer serves as a fireplace for his beer garden on the edge of the harbor. An arborist friend backs his truck in and drops off mountains of wood. “We trade wood for beer,’’ says Carlson. When the weather is clear the brewer fires up the monster and lets it burn. 2 Pinchy Lane, Belfast, 207-338-1707, www.3tides.com, draft beers start at $4

Jonathan Levitt can be reached at jonathanlevitt.com.

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