Liquids: Cocktail Historians

By Anthony Giglio | Boston Magazine |

I love my job because I get a lot of invitations to drink, but after a while they all start to look the same. Until this one, to the “Great Ward Eight Debate,” arrived: Hear ye, hear ye! Was it really just a whisky sour with grenadine? Where did the orange juice come from? What in the hell happened to the tradition and legend of Boston’s most famous drink?

The invite’s academic tone intrigued me, as did its sender, John Gertsen, a bartender at No. 9 Park and member of the Jack Rose Society, a group of Boston bartenders and cocktail aficionados. The subject, the Ward Eight, is a drink that was invented—and shortly thereafter forgotten—at Locke-Ober a century ago.

When I arrived at Gertsen’s Somerville home, the kitchen was already abuzz with activity, the members poring through ancient texts, stirring pots of simmering tinctures, and squeezing citrus beyond recognition. As historian and musician Brother Cleve and B-Side Lounge bartender Misty Kalkofen read citations about the Ward Eight, Jackson Cannon and Scott Holliday—bar managers at Eastern Standard and Chez Henri, respectively—tended two versions of grenadine on the stove. In the butler’s pantry, Gertsen hoisted a 5-gallon bucket of ice through the window with a 10-foot rope, while his wife, Rain, pulled a tray of glasses from the freezer.

Bartending, in case you haven’t noticed, has gotten really, really serious. Mixologists, as the elite are dubbed, look to superchefs for inspiration, often spending as much time in the kitchen as behind the mahogany slab. Just ask No. 9 chef-owner Barbara Lynch. “I’ll walk into the kitchen early in the morning and there are [Gertsen and colleague Ryan McGrale] using all of my equipment as if it’s a science lab,” she says. Is it only a matter of time before we have a Cocktail Network on TV?

Until then, we have the Jack Rose Society. It all started last year when Cannon wanted to put the Jack Rose on his debut cocktail menu at Eastern Standard. His fascination with the drink began when his father, who fancied gimlets and martinis, would read to him from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, in which the narrator kills time in a grand hotel bar swilling a Jack Rose. The first version Cannon mixed called for applejack (an apple brandy), lime juice, and grenadine, which he poured from a “cheap-ass” bottle of commercial syrup. Sickly sweet with no depth, the result “sucked,” he admits. So Cannon decided to make his own grenadine, heating two parts pomegranate juice to one part cane sugar, reducing it slightly, and adding a whiff of orange-blossom water. “The real stuff proved totally superior in every way,” he recalls. Armed with a list of 21 different Jack Rose recipes, he set to work with Kalkofen and Cleve, and the Jack Rose Society was christened. Its mission: to right the wrongs of misunderstood classic cocktails.

Next, the society convened to tackle the trouble with frozen drinks. As Kalkofen puts it, “Anything that could be stuck in a blender we could shake in a [cocktail shaker] and pour over crushed ice, resulting in a colder, better drink.” Period. At press time, blended scotch concoctions were under investigation.

But back to the Great Ward Eight Debate. Gertsen, Kalkofen, and Cannon coolly discussed whether Tom Hussion, an 1800s bartender at Locke-Ober Café, would have put orange juice in a classic sour, which calls only for lemon juice. Was it a showy display? The oranges would have had to come by steam train from Florida. Perhaps he needed something to impress notorious pol Martin Lomasney, a powerful man who was running for office representing Ward Eight. (Legend has it that Lomasney handed out prechecked ballots to voters on the streets.) According to Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology, the Ward Eight was created before the election results were in, to commemorate Lomasney’s certain victory. Whatever the motivation, pairing grenadine with OJ proved too sweet for the society’s taste. The members eighty-sixed the OJ after only two versions.

A dozen mouth-puckering renditions later, Holliday asked politely, “Is it possible that this just wasn’t a phenomenal cocktail?” The group exchanged pensive glances. Then Gertsen declared, “Sure!” With that, the Ward Eight was relegated back to history, leaving the society to more-important matters, such as its namesake drink. “Who’s up for mixing?” Gertsen asked. Everyone stood up. After all, no bartender wants to be outmixed. Or miss out on what could be the next great cocktail.

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