Ghosts of Hangovers Past

With recipes that evoke the old days (or actually hail from them), bartenders are serving up lessons in local history.

Anyone who likes a well-crafted drink will be impressed with Boston’s current cocktail revival, with its emphasis on painstaking technique and fresh ingredients—especially when you consider that until recently things were much, much worse (I’m referring to the days of sidecars and whiskey sours made with powdered mixes and neon-colored bottled juices). The irony is that modern Boston mixology owes everything to old Boston mixology, which emerged in the mid-19th century and relied on a similar sort of devotion to craftsmanship and quality ingredients.


The rest of the country might associate us with lagers and ales, but Boston has long been a cocktail town. Want proof? Read Old Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide, a compendium of drink recipes, tools, and techniques first published in 1935 and held up as a gold-standard reference ever since. Both the original and the recently published platinum edition reveal the classic cocktails named after our fair city. (Disclaimer: Yours truly has served as the guide’s editor.) One such eponymous creation: the Boston sidecar, a 1920s drink that adds rum to the typical blend of brandy and triple sec, and replaces the squeeze of lemon with lime. There’s also the Boston Cocktail, a midcentury combination of one part gin to one part apricot brandy, with a dash each of lemon juice and grenadine.

Many longtime local bartenders are well practiced in these old standbys. Order a Boston sidecar at the Oak Bar today, and if you’re waited upon by Herbert Estrada or Luis Alvarenga, you’ll likely get a knowing smile. Meanwhile, the younger crop of mixologists is updating other classics. Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli at Eastern Standard loves to mix up his Le Grande Flip cocktail, based on a 19th-century drink from the New England pubs of yore. This variation on eggnog (as I mentioned in last month’s column, egg-based drinks are big this year) calls for shaking a whole egg with Benedictine liqueur, applejack, and Diabolique, an infused bourbon made by local chef Robert Fathman. All in all, the ongoing cocktail renaissance reads like a recipe out of Mr. Boston: one part history, one part invention.