William Faulkner said civilization begins with distillation. What’s unquestionably true is that strong drink has evolved in parallel with mankind — growing more diverse, more adventurous, more nuanced. In short, more civilized. We’re long past hoping fruit ferments in a hollowed stump on a muddy forest floor; today, gloriously, we perch on barstools, and we drink cocktails.
Faulkner knew a thing or three about the cocktail — he mixed his own, even in bars. What he would learn about our current stage of civilization is that his beloved bourbon is becoming eclipsed by its older cousin, rye, and that the cocktail has entered a new golden age — one best not left to amateurs.
At Jackson Cannon’s elegant new bar, the Hawthorne, in the Hotel Commonwealth, and its peer establishments, the past isn’t even past. At these spots, bartenders can blend a traditional cocktail and recite its genealogy, both alcoholic and mixologic. On request, however, they can give it a twist and a stir and serve up something Faulkner wouldn’t recognize, but could very much cotton to. “A cocktail put together properly,’’ says Cannon, longtime drinks chief at Eastern Standard and co-owner with Garrett Harker of the adjacent Hawthorne, “is the height of civilized imbibing.’’
The best of Greater Boston’s civilized cocktail bars are grounded in history and elevated by fresh ingredients and a sense of fun. The bartenders are men and women of passion, erudition, and showmanship, respectful of Old Mr. Boston but able to sweep aside his beaver hat and greatcoat for a knit cap and skinny jeans in two shakes. They preside over warm, welcoming establishments where a dusty intruder can enjoy an old-time drink, and then ask for “something like this, but different.’’
That’s what we did. And here’s what we drank.
We know the Manhattan as a bourbon-based cocktail. But bartender Katie Emerson’s question was: Bourbon or rye? Emerson, and later Cannon, explain that rye is the drink’s original ingredient, and bourbon rose to prominence only after Prohibition. Rye, then, it is, theatrically mixed with vermouth and bitters, served iceless but refreshingly cold, rich brown, without the corn-sweetness of bourbon, but with distinctive cereal overtones.
For the riff on the classic, Emerson recommends a Red Hook: a transitional drink somewhere between the Manhattan and the Brooklyn cocktail, using rye, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, Punt e Mes vermouth, and a bitters blend. It conveys a wine-like nuance and sophistication, reflecting the swanky furnishings of the Hawthorne, which looks like a place where the old New Yorker crowd might have hung out.
As a finale, Cannon summons up a mini-flight of variations: the Green Point (Chartreuse), Prospect Park (Aperol), and Little Italy (Cynar). For each, Emerson graciously explains the drink’s origin, its creator, and a bit about the neighborhood it represents. She’s a docent and a drinkmaker. Hotel Commonwealth, 500A Commonwealth Ave., Kenmore Square, Boston, 617-532-9150, www.thehawthornebar.com
The dark rum in our Cuba Libre smooths out Coke’s sweetness perfectly; the tasty, well-iced cocktail slips down startlingly quickly. The Smoke ’n’ Coke, however, we sip slowly, as layer after layer unveils itself. Backbar manager and co-owner Sam Treadway recalls trying a smoked rum at a cocktail competition “and the flavor stuck with me.’’ Then Tse-Wei Lim, co-owner of the restaurant to which backbar is appended, Journeyman (with his wife, Diana Kudajarova, and Meg Grady-Troia), turned Treadway onto a New England classic, Lim’s beloved Moxie.
The mixologist blends Bacardi Oakheart spiced rum, Moxie, lime syrup, bitters, and smoked ice (water smoked over a cinnamon-stick fire and then frozen), topped with a spritz of Laphraoig Scotch. “You wouldn’t start to get that smoky flavor until the ice melts,’’ he says. “The Scotch gives you that first taste.’’ The drink is going over well - in large part when patrons spy Moxie behind the bar. “We catch them with that novelty,’’ he says. 9 Sanborn Court, Union Square, Somerville, 617-718-0249, www.backbarunion.com
The Old-Fashioned comes with Old Overholt rye, angostura and orange bitters, demerara sugar, a twist of lemon, and “a big ol’ chunk of ice,’’ as general manager Jason Gertsen describes it. It is a simple, well-made cocktail, with a powerful sense of history, recalling not only primal cocktail recipes, Gertsen says, but “a time when ice was delivered in blocks.’’
The riff is what Gertsen calls “the fruit salad,’’ Rittenhouse rye, demerara, a few muddled Luxardo maraschino cherries, and a slice of orange. “All that fruit flavor needs a little bit more aggressive spirit,’’ he says of the higher-proof whiskey. Cubed ice, melting more rapidly, further smooths out the alcohol, leaving a nuanced blend of flavor and texture.
Bartenders at Drink “use their entire body as much as possible,’’ says Gertsen, which means patrons can watch flashy two-fisted mixology while they sip. Most important, though, is “humility, a good smile . . . and good set of ears. They have to be good translators of what you’re asking for.’’ 348 Congress St., Fort Point Channel, Boston, 617-695-1806, www.drinkfortpoint.com
A Tom Collins is “very simple,’’ says bar manager Todd Maul: gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, soda water. His take on the classic, first recorded in 1876, was also very refreshing - lemonade with a juniper tingle. The Mary Collins - now, there’s some serious, postmodern complexity. Maul and bartender Mary Graham were “kicking around the idea of the most out-there Collins we could make,’’ he says. Drawing on a laboratory’s worth of technology in their Hotel Eliot bar - including a rotational evaporator, a blast freezer, and a centrifuge - Maul and Graham flash-infuse Plymouth gin with cardamom, and hibachi-sear more cardamom on an orange slice to give Tom the gender reassignment. The result: unexpected, playful, cascading flavors.
“We wanted to look at the things that everybody makes, think about what elements make the drink really interesting, and then kind of deconstruct them,’’ Maul says. Offering a novella-length cocktail menu, his bartenders have “broken open’’ port wine into component molecules, deconstructed Chartreuse and, in their latest po-mo whimsy, turned essence of cigar into a Manhattan ingredient - for those who want their vices all in one glass. 370A Commonwealth Ave., Eliot Hotel, Boston, 617-536-7200, www.cliorestaurant.com
Brick & Mortar
Brick & Mortar, the former Enormous Room, is a mystery inside an enigma: no website or telephone listing, not even a sign on the door. You inch past Central Kitchen, over which the bar sits, and with which it maintains an affiliation, and past a burly doorman, and, if you can find a seat or a place to lean, your perseverance will be rewarded by a large, boisterous room and perhaps the most perfect gin and tonic this side of the Atlantic. One sip with closed eyes and you’re in seersucker awaiting your turn with the croquet mallet; two sips and you’re under a veranda during the Raj.
Two bartenders appear to use eight arms to cater to a thirsty throng, so it’s no surprise that a request for a “new take’’ on the G&T engenders some beard-scratching behind the bar. Soon appears gin, Chartreuse, and soda. You’re not standing on the croquet court, but running barefoot in the grass. 569 Massachusetts Ave., CambridgeJim Chiavelli can be reached at email@example.com.