Liquids: The Bitters Truth
Ah, the perfect cocktail. It’s inspiring, technically demanding—and elusive. And so when my cohorts told me recently that three of the area’s best bartenders—Dylan Black, Joe McGuirk, and Misty Kalkofen—could all be found under one roof, I called the babysitter, paid her overtime in advance, and headed to Green Street.
Ah, the perfect cocktail. It’s inspiring, technically demanding—and elusive. And so when my cohorts told me recently that three of the area’s best bartenders—Dylan Black, Joe McGuirk, and Misty Kalkofen—could all be found under one roof, I called the babysitter, paid her overtime in advance, and headed to Green Street. There I found the talented trio in various stages of pouring, stirring, and shaking, crafting mouth-watering gimlets, lofty rum fizzes, and stunningly flawless Manhattans.
It was a memorable evening. But then, most of the great cocktails I’ve sipped recently were made on the other side of the river: Chez Henri’s rightfully famous mojito, the B-Side’s Aviation (a blend of gin and maraschino liqueur), and Om’s savory Rosemaya (a gin “aromatherapy” martini with cucumber, dill, and rose essence) all rocked my world. In fact, I’ve come to realize that Cambridge is to cocktails what Berkeley, California, is to food—the little city in the big city’s shadow that’s the breeding ground for creativity, integrity, and dynamism. I’ve never met so many scholarly barkeeps in my life as I have in Cambridge. And after much scholarly research of my own, I can now say with absolute certainty that Cambridge makes better cocktails than Boston. Period.
Now, now, I’m not saying Boston doesn’t have good bartenders; I had a perfectly respectable martini at Abe & Louie’s just the other week. What I’m saying is the majority of the truly great ones are in Cambridge. And even the great Boston exceptions—John Gertsen at No. 9 Park, Jackson Cannon at Eastern Standard, Nathan Bice at Beacon Street Tavern, and John Byrd at the Alchemist—all perfected their trade in Cambridge.
These are bartenders who can do more than follow a recipe. Instead, like the best chefs, they use recipes as inspiration for interpretation. Consummate bartenders, like the folks at Green Street, know how to build a cocktail, balancing the character of a particular spirit—not to mention variations among different brands—and the quality of the supporting ingredients.
Declaring Cambridge a cocktail capital is no small thing, so I wanted to test my theory. I called the babysitter again, and, over the course of a few weeks, visited nearly a dozen bars. At each I asked for a cocktail list, ordered a Manhattan, and—after a responsible amount of time—sampled one of the signature house drinks.
Every bar I visited—the B-Side, the Blue Room, Chez Henri, Harvest, Om, Rendezvous, Rialto, and UpStairs on the Square—made a magnificent Manhattan. Most, I was happy to see, poured rye, the traditional if often hard-to-find spirit. But even those that didn’t made memorable bourbon versions that outclassed their Boston rivals’. The key to every cocktail’s success? The bitters. Many big bars buy bitters, but smaller, labor-of-love places often make their own. And, boy, can you taste the difference.
The only thing worse than bad bitters is no bitters. You wouldn’t believe how many bartenders I have to ask to add bitters to Manhattans. But when I reflexively did so in Cambridge, I got quizzical looks from the bartenders, who already had bottles of Angostura in hand.
The Cambridge crowd also scored high on my test of modern, creative cocktails. I was particularly impressed by the spice-infused concoctions at Rendezvous. Though the drinks bear simple names like Ginger Cocktail and Cardamom Cocktail, each tastes like a liquefied version of its namesake, thanks to masterful muddling and acute attention to balance. I also loved UpStairs on the Square’s Brooklyn Haze, a brilliant play on the Manhattan that combines bourbon, citrus-and-vanilla-tinged Licor 43, Frangelico, sweet vermouth, and hard-to-find Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6. Garnished with marinated cherries, it’s simply delicious—though, of course, there’s nothing simple about it.
So, why Cambridge and not Boston? Well, it certainly has something to do with the real estate. In Boston most of the bars in the center of town are owned by big restaurant groups or hotels. “I think you can make a better drink here because rent is cheaper,” says Dylan Black, who owns Green Street. Without the huge overhead, Black can charge the same or less than Boston bars do, still procure the ingredients that set his cocktails apart, and actually make a living. The crowd also makes a difference. “People live here for a reason: There are a billion restaurants, and you can walk the whole town in a half-hour,” says B-Side co-owner Patrick Sullivan. Cambridge’s concentrated population translates into lots of discerning regulars who can walk to their favorite bar—or keep on walking past the bars that simply don’t measure up. “You have to work harder for regulars, not like at the Irish bars and corporate bars downtown,” Sullivan says.
Finally, it’s Cambridge’s cocktail culture. Unlike at corporate bars, where staff comes and goes, Cambridge has a tight circle of avant-garde drink experts who pass down their expertise and help aspiring mixologists start out on their own. Take Green Street’s Joe McGuirk, considered by many to be a legendary craftsman. He tended bar at Salamander before heading to Chez Henri, where he tutored Brian Ayer, who is now at the helm at Rendezvous. McGuirk then moved to the B-Side, where he worked alongside Black and Kalkofen. “I think there’s something about [the group] that groomed us to care about our craft,” Black says. McGuirk is less circumspect: “All the guys in Boston who are good came from Cambridge. We’re still here. End of story.”