Boston Cocktails By the Numbers
Beantown Bars Have a Thing for Numerals.
In my new book Modern Classic Cocktails, there’s a drink called 1910. It’s a mezcal-Cognac blend, supported by Punt e Mes, maraschino liqueur and Peychaud’s bitters. It was invented in 2011 by Boston bartender Ezra Star, who ran the bar Drink for many years. She told me it was named after the year the Mexican Revolution began. Made sense, given the mezcal. And that, I thought, was the end of that story.
But it wasn’t. For each drink in Modern Classic Cocktails, I tried to get to the bottom of every origin story, and record them as accurately as possible. But there was more to the 1910 backstory that I didn’t know. I discovered that this past weekend. I was in Somerville, at the bar-goods shop Boston Shaker, signing books and talking Boston cocktail history with some locals. The subject of the 1910 came up and someone pointed out that it was based on an earlier cocktail at Drink, a cocktail called the 1919.
Wait, what now?
Sure enough, there it was in Frederic Yarm’s book about Boston cocktails, Drink and Tell, which, of course, Boston Shaker carried. The 1919 recipe goes like this:
3/4 ounce Rittenhouse Rye
3/4 ounce Old Monk Rum
1 ounce Punt e Mes
1/2 ounce Benedictine
1 dash Bittermen's Xocolatl Mole Bitters
The drink was created by Ben Sandrof and named not after the year Prohibition began, as one might guess, but, well, the Great Molasses Flood. Which was a real thing that actually happened, on the North End of Boston on Jan. 15, 1919. The name is also a reference to the rum in the drink, which is Old Monk Rum, an Indian rum that is very popular in India, but not easy to find here. But that was the way young, brash mixologists rolled back then, always reaching for obscure ingredients to amuse themselves and confuse their guests.
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I tend to take a broad view when I’m writing about the cocktail revival of the last quarter century, looking at global and national drinking and mixing trends and tracking their origins. But every city that has played a part in the cocktail renaissance has its own idiosyncratic, provincial drink history, one known primarily to locals. Boston is no different. Every bartender here knows how to make a Periodista, an obscure drink whipped by by Joe McGuirk in 1995. No bartenders anywhere else make this drink. And the Maximillian Affair, a mezcal cocktail by Boston bartender Misty Kalkofen that is fairly well known (and is in my book), is an absolute byword in area bars.
And then there’s the 1919, a cocktail with a reputation big enough in that Boston area that it has spawned several other city cocktails. In addition to the 1910, there’s the 1818 cocktail at Spoke wine bar, and 1919 ‘36 from Audobon, which runs this way:
1 1/2 ounces Old Monk Rum
1/2 ounce Kahlua Coffee Liqueur
1 ounce Punt e Mes
1 barspoon Allspice Dram
1 dash Bittermens Mole Bitters
The “‘36” part of the drink’s ungainly handle—order it and you’ll sound like a spy passing along a bit of code—refers to the year Kahlua was invented.
You may have noticed a pattern here. Boston and Cambridge have a thing for numbered cocktails. Cocktails with numbers in their names has always been with us. The French 75, 20th Century, Seven and Seven, Tuxedo No. 2 and Corpse Reviver No. 2 are just a few. But, as I paged through Yarm’s books (he has two, including Drink & Told), it seemed Boston bartenders were positively goofy about digits. I asked Yarm about it. Yarm is general manager of Drink and, in addition to his books, he is one of the authors of the long-running cocktail blog Cocktail Virgin/Slut. He probably knows more about modern Boston mixology than anyone.
“Boston does have a lot of number drinks,” he agreed, “especially for years like 1820 for Bols Genever, 1836 for Mexican independence, and 1638 for the Kopke port winery founding, besides the 1919 cocktail and spin-off drinks. There also have been some quirky number drinks like the 11+2/12+1 and the 47%.” But, according to Yarm, the star of the local numbers game was a place called Hungry Mother in Cambridge.
Hungry Mother closed in 2015. But, apparently, during its heyday, the cocktails were not named, but numbered in successive order. That made it the Chicago of cocktail bars, that imagination-starved rock band having named all its albums with Roman numerals: Chicago III, Chicago IV, Chicago V, etc.
The area’s numbers game haunted me again later that evening when I paid a call on Brick & Mortar, a long-standing second-floor cocktail bar in Cambridge. While I was there, a regular I was chatting with ordered a 4-5-6, a strong Scotch sipper. He said the cocktail was a staple at the bar. He added that the drink was a riff on another Boston cocktail, the 3-2-1. The latter is a rye-Chartreuse-vermouth mixture invented by Kalkofen at Green Street. (All cocktails roads in Boston seem to lead back to Kalkofen, who opened both Brick and Mortar and Green Street, and worked at Drink for a time.) The 3-2-1 gets its name from the proportions of its three ingredients. (See recipe below.)
A bartender at Brick & Mortar, however, wasn’t so sure about that story. He thought the 4-5-6, which was created by Kenny Belanger, was named after a Bar Dice roll. Either way, it was another cocktail named after a damned number!
I suggested to the gathered crowd that it was now time for some bartender in the Boston metropolitan area to invent a drink called the 7-8-9. Or 9-8-7, if they prefer. Since the 3-2-1 and 4-5-6 have almost nothing in common, ingredient-wise, the sky’s the limit on the 7-8-9/9-8-7. Once that’s done, we can work on a 10 cocktail. But that’s going to have to be a really good cocktail if it’s going to be a 10.
Ezra Star, Drink, Boston, 2011
3/4 ounce Mezcal
3/4 ounce Cognac
1 ounce Punt e Mes
1/2 ounce Maraschino Liqueur
2 dash Peychaud's Bitters
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass half-filled with ice and stir until chilled, about 15 seconds. Strain into a cocktail coupe, and garnish with an orange twist.
Misty Kalkofen, Green Street, Cambridge, Boston, 2007
1 1/2 ounces Old Overholt Rye
1 ounce Yellow Chartreuse
1/2 ounce Martini & Rossi Dry Vermouth
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass half-filled with ice and stir until chilled, about 15 seconds. Strain into a cocktail coupe.
Kenny Belanger, Brick & Mortar, Cambridge, MA, 2013
2 ounce Douglas XO Scotch
1/2 ounce Luxardo Amaro Abano
1/2 ounce Demerara Simple Syrup
2 dash Fee's Whiskey Barrel Bitters
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass half-filled with ice and stir until chilled, about 15 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass. Garnish with an orange peel.
Odds and Ends…
The “Cocktail of the Week” at Pammy’s in Cambridge is worth an order. It’s called a Bitter Bobby and is made of Monkey Shoulder Scotch, peated Scotch, Gran Classico bitter, oloroso Sherry and Cynar… Straight Line Crazy, a new play by David Hare starring Ralph Fiennes as legendary New York City planned Robert Moses, runs at The Shed through Dec. 18. Highly recommended… Saint Julivert Fisherie, the acclaimed Brooklyn fish restaurant, has brought back its Violet Hour special. Between 5 and 5:30 p.m., you may choose your own tasting menu, composed of one snack, one chilled dish and one hot dish. Cost is $45… Llama San in Manhattan is now serving lunch… Long Island Bar has a new pasta dish composed of sausage ragu with rapini greens, kalamata olives, Calabrian chili, bianco sardonic cheese and fried sage. There’s also a new endive and trevisano salad and an Arctic char has replaced the usual trout dish… In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Jessie J’s Barbershop has put an unused portion of its space to good use. They have converted into The Waiting Room, a small bar where patrons may enjoy a drink while waiting for their haircut. At 300 square feet, it is the smallest bar in town… New Modern Classic Cocktail book tour dates have been added for Hudson, NY (Wm. Farmer & Sons, Dec. 1), Washington, D.C. (Bold Fork Books, Dec. 8), New Orleans (Saba, Jan. 12) and Asheville, NC (Chemist Spirits, Jan. 28). Watch this space.