Liquids: The Burden of Proof

Can you make a mean cocktail without hard spirits? At Boston’s wine-and-beer-only joints, creative bartenders are proving you can. And with surprising kick.

I have to admit I was pretty surprised to find a cocktail list at the Symphony neighborhood joint Betty’s Wok & Noodle Diner, let alone several cocktails I actually wanted to try. Should I go for the Bettypolitan with my udon? Perhaps a minty mojito? Before I could decide, though, my waiter insisted I try his favorite, the chocolate rocket. I was skeptical—treacly vodkatinis aren’t my thing. But when I sipped it, I found it was chocolaty, not too sweet, and balanced beautifully with a briny, underlying dryness from its main ingredient, sake. That’s right, Japanese rice wine, which is also the base of 18 more drinks on the menu.

The reason: Along with 319 other Boston establishments, Betty’s has a wine-and-beer license only. That means it can serve anything fermented or malted at less than 48 proof, like sake, but no hard spirits, like vodka, gin, and bourbon—which if you’re a restaurant is where all the money is. The result: Creative mixology is a must. And we get cocktails that people in cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco might never experience.

That’s great for us, but the restrictions are tough on restaurants. Why doesn’t the state just let everyone sell booze? Because Massachusetts is stuck with legacy laws that date back to Prohibition. After the repeal, the state put a cap on the number of spots that can serve hard liquor in an effort to keep too many bars from opening in a given neighborhood or peddling the evil stuff too close to schools and places of worship. (Somehow proprietors in the North End managed to score a seriously disproportionate number of licenses over the years, but who’s counting?) After many years of lobbying, restaurateurs persuaded the legislature to grant more, and in January, 25 new all-liquor and 30 wine-and-beer licenses began rolling out. Good start—but that still leaves hundreds of restaurants where necessity will continue to be the mother of invention.

Take Pava, Susan Regis’s new place in Newton, which pours the Pava Splash, a clever conjoining of Framboise Lambec, a Belgian raspberry dessert beer, and prosecco. The combo works because the Italian bubbly cuts the beer’s sweetness down to a hint of fruit. At Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain, owner Krista Kranyak muddles fresh mint, adds crushed ice, and then tops it with mildly sweet Pineau des Charentes, a potent caramelized cognac diluted by fruity white wine. She calls it the Ten Tables Tini, and it’s magnificent. Ditto Oleana, where wine director Theresa Paopao’s seasonal low-proof cocktails—like the Sortini, made with prickly pear, prosecco, and ginger maple sugar—are inspired by chef Ana Sortun’s cuisine. My favorite, however, is Oleana’s white port cocktail, made with a clear version of that venerable fortified wine that tastes just as strong and rich as its red sibling. It’s shaken with ice and garnished with mint and red grapes.

And don’t think that just because these cocktails are made without hard liquor they can’t get you hammered (if that is your goal). You see, there’s a timid-sounding supplement to the lowly wine-and-beer license that states that some restaurants can also serve cordials like amaretto, sambuca, Grand Marnier, etc. What’s ironic is that these liqueurs can have pretty hefty alcohol contents, some as high as 70 proof (typical vodka is 80 proof). That’s still powerful enough to get the job done.

And so at Mare, general manager and wine director Amanda Evey serves up her delicious lemon drop, made with fresh lemon and pineapple juice, UV citron vodka, and limoncello. (Flavored vodkas can count as cordials.) My favorite is Evey’s espresso martini, made with UV’s vanilla vodka, Kahlua, Bailey’s, a shot of espresso, and a splash of Vecchia Romagna brandy. “We do a great job of masking the fact that these spirits are slightly lighter in alcohol,” she says, adding, “Unless someone orders something straight up, they’d probably never guess that there’s a difference.”

But they would miss them if these drinks disappeared. Over at Pigalle, which after six years finally wrestled a full liquor license, manager and wine buyer Kai Gagnon still has many of his low-proof cocktails on the list; the fabulous Parisian sidecar, made by substituting Pineau des Charentes for a real sidecar’s cognac, plus Grand Marnier and orange juice, remains one of the most popular drinks.

That’s why I can’t help hoping none of these places will get one of the new full licenses. It might just spoil all the fun.