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To-go cocktails present new challenges for bartenders

Making memorable drinks that travel well takes some engineering and imagination

Larissa Kortis of Medford spoke to server Angela Noveli through the pick-up window at Trina's Starlite Lounge in Somerville. To-go cocktails were part of her order.
Larissa Kortis of Medford spoke to server Angela Noveli through the pick-up window at Trina's Starlite Lounge in Somerville. To-go cocktails were part of her order.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

The question of whether a cocktail would hold up for hours — or even days — is not something that Jared Sadoian ever gave much thought to over his decade of bartending, which includes stints behind some of Boston’s most illustrious bars, including the ones at Eastern Standard and the Hawthorne, where he was general manager. A drink’s appearance, temperature, and flavor at the moment he puts it in front of a guest are of utmost concern. But with the long-awaited passage of House Bill 4856, an amendment that allows bars and restaurants in Massachusetts to sell mixed drinks to-go, considerations have changed. Drastically.

“At the bar, we have total control. We deliver a product to a guest that’s made in the moment. It’s perfect at that moment and we know they’re gonna drink it then. But now we’re at the point where we let the thing go,” said Sadoian, now general manager at Craigie on Main. “People get to choose their own destiny with the cocktail. Will they drink it the way we intend? Put it on ice? Add soda water for some reason? We’re trying to make versatile drinks that stand up on their own, but they can also be messed with and adulterated and still taste good.”

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To that end he came up with the Summer Rosa, a simple mix of blanco tequila, hibiscus tea lemonade, and Angostura bitters that delivers flavors that pop no matter how it’s twisted or stretched, be it over ice, diluted with seltzer, or served neat.

The bill was proposed to help the bar and restaurant industry, which has suffered dramatically since Governor Charlie Baker ordered the state shutdown in mid-March. Now, as businesses scramble to stay afloat, selling cocktails from a storefront can provide a revenue trickle that might bolster the bottom line. Sales of beer and wine with takeout and delivery orders have been allowed since April. The effort to legalize to-go cocktails took root around the same time and was largely spearheaded by Jackson Cannon, bar director at Eastern Standard since its opening in 2005 and, later, the Hawthorne. He also consults. He created a #cocktailsforcommonwealth social media campaign. Today bars are using the hashtag to promote their drinks.

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Pre-bottled cocktails to-go from Trina's Starlite Lounge.  
Cocchi fizz (left), made with Cocchi Americano, house-made lemon vervena bitters, and soda; and a raspberry fizz, made with raspberry-infused vodka, lime, and soda.
Pre-bottled cocktails to-go from Trina's Starlite Lounge. Cocchi fizz (left), made with Cocchi Americano, house-made lemon vervena bitters, and soda; and a raspberry fizz, made with raspberry-infused vodka, lime, and soda.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

The bill faced a number of obstacles in the legislative process, mainly resistance from the Massachusetts Package Store Association, which said bars’ and restaurants’ mixed-drink sales would cut into stores’ revenue. But on July 20, Baker signed the bill into law, and homebound tipplers put down their “quarantinis,” masked up, and stepped out.

Bartenders like Sadoian in and around Boston have been working to engineer cocktails for this unusual scenario. At Trina’s Starlite Lounge in Somerville, Josh Childs, a partner who’s been in the bar business since 1997 when he opened Silvertone across from Boston Common, is selling carbonated cocktails like a raspberry fizz. He seals the six-ounce bottles with caps lined with an oxygen-absorbing material, a technology common to the beer industry. He also cleverly modified the Bee’s Knees, a classic recipe of gin, lemon juice, and honey syrup that calls for shaking with ice, which dilutes the cocktail. But to keep things low-maintenance, Childs adds a small measure of water to simulate the ice-melt, so all you need to do at home is quickly shake the bottle, pour it over ice, and indulge.

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Little did Sebastian Canas know months ago when he installed a draft line at the Mariel Underground that he would be positioning his staff to seamlessly pivot to takeout. According to Canas, beverage director at the nightclub/restaurant hybrid, the club could churn out more than 2,000 mojitos in a night, thanks to pre-batching and kegging the drinks, then pouring them from a draft line. A mint simple syrup stands in for fresh mint, and pressurizing the drink with CO2 preserves the perishable lime juice, all of which makes it ideal for takeaway.

But the mechanics of cocktail-making are only part of this pandemic-era experiment. Any bartender worth her weight in brandy-soaked cherries will tell you that what people really want when they hunker down at a bar is the experience, the setting, the banter, and the theater of it.

Emma Hollander and Josh Childs at Trina's Starlite Lounge.
Emma Hollander and Josh Childs at Trina's Starlite Lounge.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Some bars have figured out how to provide a flicker of personality, a clever wink to remind you you’re getting a handmade item, not a bottled commodity grabbed off a shelf.

At Trina’s, Childs spends about 45 minutes a day drawing little bumblebees on the cap of each four-ounce bottle of Bee’s Knees. Call it a message on a bottle.

“It’s nice to be able to be doing something creative and let a guest take a piece of what they love about an establishment with them,” says Childs. “It’s grounding. We can show there’s personal contact, even if it’s not live contact at a bar.”

At the tequila-focused Citrus & Salt, managing partner Colleen Hagerty is offering several flavors of the restaurant’s signature frozen margaritas, but with a bit more spectacle. The 16-ounce drinks are served in a kitschy plastic container shaped as a palm tree or bikini-clad glamour gal. But if you lean toward function over form, opt for the cocktails packaged in CapriSun-like pouches.

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If there is a silver lining to any of this, it’s increased access. Consider the renowned high-end restaurant Uni. Now you don’t have to wait for a seat at the small, intimate bar to try their imaginative drinks, which bar manager Amanda Saladino creates with ingredients the chef passes along to her.

“By all indications, to-go cocktails seem [to be] popularly received by people,” says Cannon. “It’s great to see extra revenue stream for local establishments, but the most important thing about a bar is that it’s a place to come together. Since that’s something we can’t do right now, it’s a way to support them so they’ll still be there when they can.”

Like late-night television hosts adapting to doing comedy without an audience, bartenders are finding solace knowing that they’re providing a pleasurable diversion, even if they don’t have the instant gratification of a reaction.

“I never thought that putting plastic containers of food in a bag and handing them to people over a table was going to be refreshing or soul-filling. But it is,” said Sadoian. “We went several months without being able to offer hospitality to our friends, family, and strangers. Service and hospitality are paramount, but it’s also important for me to scratch that creative itch. This is a chance to draw that line and start to play. And at the same time see same gratification from guests. They’re taking what we’re giving them and the response is delayed, but still there.”

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Liza Weisstuch can be reached at liza.weisstuch@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @livingtheproof.