Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bitter Mai Tai

It is still February, and in New England that usually implies utter misery. In a regular year, it means filthy piles of petrified snow, blackened by the gunk of a winter's worth of snowplowing, muddy melt, dog piss, and plain old city dirt. It means subzero temperatures and despondent people grimly huddled at bus stops or hobbling along the streets, bent against the bitter wind, rendered obese by layers of puffy coats, scarves, hats, sweaters, long johns, and winter fat. People look as if they are ready just to die. It means a certain hopelessness: will this ever end?

This year is different. February is just about over and we have been graced by some pretty nice temperatures. The coldest day this month had a high of 30 degrees fahrenheit with a 16-degree low. That was one day. Otherwise it has ranged from a mild mid-40s to a balmy mid-50s. January was not dissimilar. Essentially, this winter has been like spring. There are already snowbells blooming along the sidewalks, and bright little patches of purple and yellow crocuses pushing up through the ground. No snow, little rain - what does it all mean? 

Well, here at Lakeville Road it means the first Mai Tai of the year, albeit with a considerable twist. The Bitter Mai Tai, from a recipe courtesy of Jeremy Oertel at Brooklyn's Dram, seems peculiar on paper because its predominant ingredient is Campari. As you probably know, Campari is bitter and a Mai Tai is tropical (read: not bitter). But even if, like my wife, you don't care for Campari, I'll wager that you'll enjoy this particular combination of flavors. There is some bitterness, but there is also the pungency from Jamaican rum and a bright tartness from fresh lime juice and orgeat syrup - which also provides a sweet counteraction to the Campari, with a little help from orange curaçao. While it shares four out of the five ingredients in a standard Mai Tai, this is quite different. The sweetness on the tongue is undercut almost instantaneously by the bitter notes of Campari. And then, the smokey flavor of the Jamaican rum kind of rises to the fore, and characterizes the aftertaste. This is definitely the kind of bitterness I can get with at the tail end of February. It makes me feel... happy.

To do this right, you'll want to seek out Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica Rum. As they say on the website, "Make no mistake, this is not a sipping rum by contemporary standards. Upon initial pour, allow a minute to open up before tasting." From an English company dating back to 1788, Smith & Cross is an unusual rum; in fact, sipping it straight you might not think it is a rum at all. It shares perhaps a few flavor characteristics with Myers's Jamaican rum, but it is a golden color and its odor is pungent, with a hint of burnt sugar or molasses. It contains "only Wedderburn and Plummer pot still distillates, famous for their notes of exotic fruits and spice." It is distilled in Jamaica and produced in London. It is Navy strength at 114 proof. It is worth finding purely for it's unique flavor. I found it at Cambridge Wine & Spirits, where you can also find orgeat syrup (or try the Boston Shaker).

That said, if you can't lay your meathooks on a bottle of Smith & Cross, try this with another aged Caribbean rum.

With the sun shining in the window and March just around the corner, this has proven to be a good choice of drink for today. And without boring you further by expounding relentlessly on the weather, here is the recipe:

Bitter Mai Tai

1 1/2 oz Campari
3/4 oz Jamaican rum (Smith & Cross recommended)
1/2 oz orange curaçao
1 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz orgeat syrup

Shake all the ingredients with ice until cold, and strain into a rocks glass filled with crushed ice. You can garnish this with a mint sprig or a lime (or both), as you would a Mai Tai.

Here's to you. Bottoms up!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

For a Friend

This one is a tribute to my friend Randy, who is in the hospital and in need of many wishes and prayers at the moment. He is a man whose wit and charm I admire, and whose mastery of tending bar stands unparalleled in my experience. I met him a long time ago...

Bukowski's, where Jack Lynch's once was...
Photo courtesy of Mattias Willefors
ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a drinking establishment by the name of Jack Lynch’s Webster Lounge, located at 50 Dalton Street at the very spot where Bukowski’s now stands. It was a nondescript dive tucked into the cliff-face of a monumental parking garage, overlooking the Turnpike just across Dalton Street from Hynes Convention Center. This literal hole in the wall advertised “Eating, Drinking, Piano,” but the only food was Chex mix (if you were lucky) and I never saw any piano. There was a worn, shabby red carpet. Old paintings of clipper ships. Cheap wood paneling and a long, L-shaped bar which faded into an eternal gloom. There was a short stairway at the back, leading to a landing with some booths that were empty most of the time. The only time I saw them occupied was by elderly, bawdy ladies who liked to tie one on in an undesirable establishment.

The short end of the L-shaped bar came out from the wall and pointed toward the entry before hanging a left and stretching straight back. Swiveling, vinyl barstools were anchored to the floor. Those that were occupied tended to be claimed by truckers working the convention center, and various lowlifes gripping onto the bar. That said, I was never made to feel unwelcome there.

When I was in college, Jack Lynch's was known mostly as the one place near Boston University that you could get a drink without an ID. This was historic in a city notorious for its strict adherence to “carding.” But while the visits made during college were driven by a certain desperation in my group of friends, my later relationship with Jack Lynch’s was rich, warm, predictable, and beloved.

It started like this. One spring day in the early to mid-1990s, I was walking along Boylston Street and for some reason I was free of obligations. After a long winter, spring in Boston makes a fellow do strange things, and I found myself gravitating to Jack Lynch’s. I was drawn to the seediness of it, I guess. It looked dodgy, but also, it had always been there. It must be established. So I thought, maybe a quick vodka is on order (yes, in those days I drank mostly vodka, or rum). 

With some trepidation, I passed through the outer doorway, I found myself in a small foyer filled with flyers and newspapers, and a dingy looking pay phone. Over the years, I would use this phone numerous times (it was in the ages before cell phones) as a sort of clarion call to my friends. Eventually, it went without saying that I could be found in this place between certain hours. I passed through a second set of doors into the smoky haze of the dive. I was a little nervous; after all, it was truly a dive and I was not exactly some street tough. In fact, I probably looked outlandish, in comparison to the regulars. A couple of heads turned my way and stared at me in the gloom. Then they went back to their short drinks, Marlboros, and Budweisers. I chose an empty seat at the short end of the L-shaped bar, in the darkness of the corner. I could see the whole narrow length of the place in front of me. The bartender, a half dead drunk with a tumescent nose, creaked over and raised his eyebrows inquiringly.

“Vodka with lime” was my request.

Now, it should be noted, I was not a practiced drinker at the time. I  didn't make too many cocktails, and honestly, I didn't know what I was doing. I deserved what I got, which was a rocks glass filled to the brim with vodka (no rocks, of course), and a dried up wedge of lime. I tasted. The vodka was warm as the day outside. Warmer even. Warm as if it had been coddled between the legs of an obese truck driver for a dozen years. It stung and burned. Nonetheless, I proceeded to wince my way through the substantial pour. I could have asked for ice but in retrospect, I must have been too timid. Realizing my mistake, I decided to play it off as if I meant it. This is how I like it: hot.

After that, it is a wonder that I ever went back for more, but I did. The atmosphere drew me back. The fact it was quiet, empty, dingy, yet reminiscent of another era when there might have been a cocktail piano. I was enchanted, in some peculiar way, by the underbelly world that inhabited what could only be referred to as a “joint” or a “dive” or a “shithole.” This place served up a thick slice of smokey, liquored-up atmosphere that I had read about in hard-boiled detective novels. This is where Philip Marlowe (go ahead, click it) or Sam Spade would sidle up to the bar and order rye neat. It didn't hurt that the pours were big and the drinks cheap.

The second time I stopped in to Jack Lynch's was not long after the first. However, it was whole new experience—one which has set me upon the path I now tread. I took the same seat as before. It was the same crowd, the same atmosphere. But where an old drunk had served me before, now came a man who was smiling broadly, a slight figure dressed in the black garb of the expert bartender. He welcomed me with “What can I get you?” As before, I ordered a vodka with lime. “Chilled?” he inquired. What an idea! “Yes, please!” A cocktail napkin was laid before me, and a bowl of Chex mix appeared. Then came the drink, in a frosty martini glass: brimming with ice cold vodka with a good squeeze of lime. So cold. How could I have stomached the warm swill I had the first time? What was I thinking? This was how you did it.

So I went back a couple of days later. I took my usual stool in the corner. Once again, the dapper gentleman appeared before me. And as he placed the napkin before me, he inquired: “Vodka and lime?” At that moment, a light came on. He remembered me! Then, I understood what made a great bartender. It was about hospitality, congeniality, remembering your customers. Of course, in that place, surrounded by old drunk truckers and lowlifes, I was going to stand out, as he did. This was Randy. From this point on, I was his loyal customer. I brought companions as well, for how could I not wish to share this charming, delightful experience. It was refined. We conversed. We shared jokes. Eventually, we became friends.

Improper Boston Best Bartender issue, year unknown
In fact, many a friendship was sealed at Jack Lynch's, under Randy's hospitable ministrations. I count one of my closest friends in Boston among these compatriots - Bob, a professor of animation at a local college and an evening student at the art school where I worked at the time. He and I had both been fond of the nearby dive “Peking Tom’s” on Boylston Street. However, it closed down when the authorities realized it was a true den of iniquity. Shortly after Peking Tom's was shuttered, Bob showed up at Jack Lynch's. We nodded politely the first time. Struck up a conversation the second. As we became regulars, we also became dear friends.

If Randy were not presiding over affairs at the bar, it is unlikely that I would have found friends such as Bob. He served as a source of light, to which we were attracted. He brought strangers together. Whether he was cracking jokes or impersonating Rosalind Russell from Auntie Mame (oh go on, follow the link), or recounting tales of the bar, he was a magnetic, entertaining personality. He lavished us with attention, often “topping” off our drinks as we sipped, so that our glasses were never less than full. This is what defines Randy, to me: the glass is always full.

The sad day when Jack Lynch’s closed (in true dive fashion, we all showed up at the same time as Randy, just to find the iron grate pulled down - it was shuttered and nobody had told the man on duty) was also the first time we all had a drink together. What else was there to do? That is when “bartender” became “friend.”

From then on, we were hooked. We followed Randy from establishment to establishment. Such was his skill that he soon found himself helming the bar at Anago, a fancy restaurant in the Lenox Hotel, next to the Boston Public Library. There, we tried to appear refined as we took our place at the bar next to guests in their finery. The cocktails were elegant and rendered with perfection. Here, my drink became the Manhattan. So long vodka. I don’t miss you! Bob, my wife Christy (who, alas, never knew the charms of Jack Lynch’s, but was quite familiar with Anago), and I would meet at the bar. We each knew when the other would be there. You could stop in on a whim and be assured of some friendly face. Randy drew regulars. People came back because of him. It was a happy time indeed.

Nathaniel, Christy, Randy, and Bob at Anago
Eventually, Randy moved to Philadelphia. A new home. From his reports, he was in his element there. Time went on. Many good Boston dives closed. And over the years, regrettably, we fell out of touch with Randy. Nonetheless, it was a shock when I recently heard he was in the hospital and it was serious.

So we raise a glass to Randy, a dear friend who brought so many other friends together. A man who kept our glasses full, and who continues to keep our hearts warm. Please get well soon!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Old Pal

Where did January go? In the hustle of the new year, I have been able to make only one post in the first month. Maybe I will get two in for the second.

Following the train of thought that began with the Boulevardier cocktail, I am posting a slight variation on that delicious drink. By all accounts, this first appeared in Harry McElhone's Harry's ABC of Mixing Cocktails in 1922. This was actually an earlier version of the Boulevardier, for in 1927 this was no longer written up in McElhone's book (evidently replaced by the Boulevardier).

First of all, while the Boulevardier traditionally calls for bourbon and sweet vermouth, the Old Pal demands rye and dry. It is altogether drier than its sweeter cousin, with the spiciness of the rye at mid-tongue complemented by the full, bitter complexity of Campari. A hint of orange peel, citrus oil, and herbal notes touch against a welcome caramel flavor from the rye, and round out with a gentle, mineral whisper of the dry vermouth. Served up with a lemon twist, it is quite a delight.

A few comments about this, to begin with: I used Old Overholt rye, and the results were very good. However, I think you might do better with a more flavorful, rye-forward bottling (Wild Turkey makes a good 101-proof rye that should not be too difficult to find, or too expensive), especially when standing up to Campari. Today's resurgence in rye whiskey opens the door to many variables; depending on your palate and preferences, there are numerous experiments to be made. For the dry vermouth, I used Dolin, which I think is outstanding. Others have expounded on Vya dry vermouth, but in some ways I find that it competes a bit too much with the other flavors. I am not discouraging you from trying it out, though, as it is truly unique.

Now, before March comes parading along, here is the recipe.

Old Pal Cocktail
  • 1 1/2 oz rye whiskey
  • 3/4 oz dry vermouth
  • 3/4 oz Campari
  • Twist
Stir with ice in a mixing glass until very cold, and strain into a cocktail glass. Twist a piece of lemon peel over the drink, so that the citrus oils spritz across the surface. Use the twist as garnish, if you like.

Bottoms up, old pals!