Are your cocktails crafty, or ain't they?
by MC Slim JB
| April 15, 2011
One of Boston’s great national claims to fame at the moment is the strength of the craft-cocktail movement here. We have several bars that can hold their own against any in the country trying to revive the spirit of the pre-Prohibition-era Golden Age of Cocktails and creating new drinks in their mold. The movement is spreading, too: I had some great drinks at Bergamot recently and noted that the bar manager had done time at Craigie on Main. Talent trained at Drink, Green Street, and Eastern Standard is fanning out all over town, bringing the gospel of properly made flips and swizzles to a host of new establishments.
Local restaurant-marketing folks have not missed this fact, and they're increasingly invoking the magic words “craft cocktails” in their announcements of new places. Two that recently caught my eye are Savin Bar & Kitchen in Dorchester and Scholars American Bistro and Cocktail Lounge in Downtown Crossing. Their cocktail menus offer a glimpse of what they’re about.
For example, Savin Kitchen pours something called a “Beekeepers Bourbon”: bourbon, honey, ginger ale, and Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur. Simple, but promising. Then there’s the “DBL Espresso Martini”: espresso-flavored vodka, Kahlua, Bailey’s, white crème de cacao, and coffee beans. Hmm. My grandma might enjoy that, but not many serious cocktail drinkers I know, unless they were looking for dessert.
Scholars seems to be chasing the serious crafters more closely, offering an original called “Living Waters”: Cognac, Fernet Branca, St. Germain, Peychaud’s bitters, Angostura bitters, and marinated cranberries. I have no idea if this mixture hangs together, but it is definitely leaning more toward the bar at No. 9 Park than a TGI Friday’s Frozen Mudslide. The Scholars list traffics a lot in house-made spirit infusions and modest variations on true classics.
Neither list lands its bar program in the craft-cocktail vanguard. I see no mezcal, genever, or white dog; not enough rye and gin; few interesting vermouths or quinine-aromatized fortified wines. But that doesn’t concern me as much as the specter of other bars that have tried to jump on the craft-cocktail bandwagon: the Back Bay joint that mixed my Sazerac over ice in a brandy snifter, the downtown hotel bar with a great manager whose lieutenants haven’t yet caught his magic, the Symphony bar with a speakeasy-style password that gives way to a typical college-friendly basement bar with drinks to match.
Clearly there’s more to craft cocktails than sleeve garters and a few bottles of aromatics bitters. To do them properly requires bartenders with a scholarly grasp of cocktail history, precision in their mixing (measuring rather than free-pouring is a good sign), respect for the classics as well as a soupcon of creativity, and concern about the right glassware, ice, garnishes, and technique. Oh, and let’s not forget hospitality chops to match the technical ones. That’s a tough combination to find, but that’s what separates the diamonds from the rhinestones. Here’s hoping the new kids are carving the right kind of rock.