You can find Lou Saban behind Oak Long Bar at the Copley Plaza Hotel. Lucky for all of us recently he found himself abroad, and penned the following piece.
By Lou Saban:
Bartending is a real mixed bag.
When all is said and done, it’s pretty nice holding the keys to the stuff that most adults use to make themselves feel better about their spot on the planet. Unfortunately, for every generous tip or compliment on a well-balanced cocktail, sometimes you also have to answer the question, “So, what’s your real job?” In my head I respond, "when I am not doing this, I’m the CEO of a non-profit organization that provides neurosurgery for puppies."
Still, it’s a gig with a lot of cool benefits. In my mind, the greatest perk is the sense of community with your fellow barkeeps. If you do this job long enough, you start to recognize the people who also make their living pouring things into glasses. You always love to see these people sitting at your barstool because they tip well, are low maintenance, and can always relate to the condescending sneers that you may have received that day. Camaraderie is a beautiful thing.
What’s even better is that this bond doesn’t just stop at the nation’s borders. I am lucky enough to work for a hotel chain that has many locations around the world. When I noticed that there was one in London, I was interested. When I noticed that it was
The Savoy, I was elated.
Most bars worth their salt will have an old copy of the Savoy Cocktail Book somewhere on their shelf. It was written in 1930 by an American named Harry Craddock. Craddock flew the coop from the prohibition-afflicted United States in 1920, and became the head bartender at the American Bar at The Savoy in London. He spread the joys of the American cocktail to Europe and used his cocktail book to preserve recipes that may have otherwise been lost to antiquity. Despite a few renovations, the American Bar is still there, and it is really something.
When you first walk in, you notice the beautiful black and white sign that looks like it could have been there in 1920 as Craddock walked in for the first time. Immediately to your left, there is a small museum (you heard me right, this bar is so cool it has its own museum) full of old placards and menus from its many decades of existence. There are also telegraphs for Charlie Chaplin and Georges Clemenceau, bills for Sir Lawrence Olivier, and countless pictures of Vivien Leigh, John Wayne, Winston Churchill, and essentially anyone who was anyone in the last century.
All of that is well and good, but the real stunner is the case of vintage booze. Inside this treasure chest contains Gordon’s Gin, Pernod, Luxardo, and Carpano Antica from the 1950s; Van der Hum from the 1940’s; and a Jourd Cordial-Medoc from 1933. The crown jewel of the whole collection is this: a bottle of Sazerac de Forge Cognac from 1858. I wasn’t even aware that something like this existed, but there it was right before my very eyes. This bottle is pre-Civil War. Its nine years older than Canada! More notably, it’s a time capsule of what French grapes tasted like before they were nearly destroyed by the Phylloxera parasite in the late 19th century. It’s so beautiful that it even makes even its neighboring bottle of Moet Chandon from 1884 pale in comparison.
Once your head stops spinning, you proceed into the bar for a dozen or so of London’s finest cocktails. The bar consists mostly of a large lounge with a piano player to your immediate right. The bar itself is very small; only four seats with no standing room allowed. There is one man on service bar, and the friendly and knowledgeable Tom Walker for the rail. The small setting ensures that the drinks are made at a deliberate pace to ensure that nary a step is missed in both the creation of the drink and the presentation. The result is a simply wonderful libation.
The menu is a mixture of Savoy originals from the White Lady, to contemporaries such as the Green Park, to the totally outrageous. Remember that cognac that I mentioned earlier? They use it to make an original Sazerac cocktail along with the Pernod from the 1950s and Peychaud’s Bitters from the early 1900s. Its 5,000 GBP. Depending on the exchange rate, that’s about $8000 USD. For one cocktail. Once I picked myself up off the floor, I decided this cocktail was only for people who have absolutely no idea what to do with their money. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “It takes all kinds of people to fill up a world.”
All in all, it was a privilege to sit at this piece of living history and share a few drinks with Tom Walker and his more than capable colleagues. The international brotherhood of bartenders may not be out there splitting atoms or making contributions to string theory (or puppy neurosurgery), but we know how to take care of the people who do. More importantly, we know how to take care of each other, which makes it all worth it. And yes, this is my only job. Cut me a break, will ya?
As I left Tavern Road the other night I said to Louis Dibicarri that his spot is the kind of place I wish I'd opened up- but I'm not jealous, his team could not be more deserving. Led by the tandem of Chef Louis and brother GM Michael Dibicarri, both come with formidable backgrounds at Sel del la Terre and Eastern Standard. You'd think that would be enough, but add Ryan Mcgrale of No. 9 Park and Flatiron Lounge in New York to the mix and you've got the restaurant equivalent of the 2008 Celtics trifecta. Visually beautiful with a great open room highlighted on one side by the kitchen, the other, the bar. Built for success and fun.
I must confess that most of our drinking was a delicious bottle of Domaine Peyrassol rose, but we did start with cocktails. I had to get 'Straight to Hell,' not only because it's one of my favorite Clash songs, but features Scotch, Aperol, Amaro and lemon bitters- all things I like. Citrus (orange, lemon), rhubarb, spice and a little smokiness- an ideal aperitif! Nicole's 'Perfect Bamboo' was a perfect Manhattan without the whiskey, in its place, a cool twist- the nutty caramel of sherry. Judging by an already packed bar by 7:00, many people are also enjoying these libations.
Service and friendliness really sum up Tavern Road, exemplified by great bartender Andrea Novak who was pleased to make a terrific raspberry lemonade for my daughter Emily and checked to make sure she was enjoying it. Further, Mara Ratiu could not have been a more gracious server if we were visiting her own home. A terrific evening, I will be writing more about this crew again soon I'm sure. Oh, and one more thing, Louis has a guilty pleasure drink I've made him for years- but you will have to ask him what the acronym means.
Louis' POA by Louis Dibicarri
2 oz Maker's Mark Bourbon
.75 oz Lazzaroni Amaretto
Rocks, Luxardo Maraschino cherry
Beer cocktails are not easy, but when they succeed, well, everyone's happy, including me. Chris Balchum pouring the other night at Park in Harvard Square is doing just that with:
Tom Terrific by Daren Swisher
1 ¾ oz. Hayman’s Old Tom Gin (slightly sweeter style than London dry)
½ oz. Cherry Heering (Brandy based cherry liqueur)
½ oz. Demerara Syrup (richer simple syrup made with sugar in the raw- named after a formerly colonized area of Guyana)
½ oz. Lemon Juice
2 oz. Great Divide Titan IPA
Combine ingredients over ice. Shake and strain over fresh ice in a Collins glass.
Top with 2 oz. IPA; roll back and forth in a shaker tin.
Garnish with an orange and cherry flag. Sweet, sour, pleasantly bitter hops, perfectly balanced and ready for Spring refreshment.
Absinthe has it all, mystery, mystique, danger even. Once illegal, on Monday April 22nd get to the south shore, Alma Nove, Chef Paul Wahlberg's waterfront Italian restaurant in Hingham for some answers.
Mixologist Chris Lincoln will be pouring free cocktail samples straight from the restaurant's authentic Absinthe Fountain as well as discussing Absinthe history and debunking some of the many myths. There will also be complimentary small tastings from Chef Wahlberg's Italian Mediterranean menu.
Monday April 22, 8:00. Free tastes of Absinthe cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. Full drinks $10. Alma Nove, 22 Shipyard Drive, Hingham, MA.
It started for me in South Station the other day, but really years earlier.
Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon, elusive to say the least, equivalent to the cult cabernet fandom of Napa Valley's Screaming Eagle or Bordeaux's Chateau Petrus in the wine world. So, I began a voyage to Mecca of sorts, in Providence, RI, and Matt Jennings' stellar restaurant Farmstead. The Pilgrims with me: Ryan Sosti (Ruby Wines), TJ Douglas (Urban Grape and organizer of the trip), Chef Michael Scelfo (Russell House Tavern and soon to be Alden & Harlow).
It was also a trip down memory lane, my first bar shift ever was over two decades ago on South Main Street- maybe you can go home again? A sunny afternoon, I remembered one of my old haunts, The Hot Club, which was the same as ever; perfect, sitting on the deck enjoying a beer, there is a reason this place has been here so long. We met up with an old buddy of Ryan's who cringed (and affably took it in stride) when he regaled us with the story of his nickname- Vodka Bill. As if I didn't already know I was in for a long night? Then, on to Farmstead on the East Side (driven by Vodka Bill in an Escalade), for dinner, and of course, Pappy. Ushered in to a warm welcome from our gracious host and Chef Matt, we were quickly handed a cocktail.
The Kentucky Flower
1.5 oz W.L. Weller Bourbon, .5 oz St. Germain, .5 oz lemon juice, cranberry, egg white.
Light, frothy and delicious, be careful you could probably drink many of these- thank goodness we were in the process of being seated and greeted by the man himself- Julian Van Winkle III.
Matt Jennings had a tough task, to pair big, spicy, high proof whiskey with food. He performed with aplomb. Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 year Lot "B" is the lightest of the whiskeys we tried at only 90 proof- but this is by no means a simple spirit, delicious, rich vanilla and spice. Best part is you might even be able to get your hands on a bottle. Matt served a pungent and very tasty smoked cod rillette which held its own.
Next up was TJ's favorite, the Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 15 year, 107 proof. This is booming stuff- fig, vanilla, tobacco- spicy and tannic which paired with chicken terrine, vegetables, chicharrones and bourbon mustard. This was, indeed, bourbon lovers heaven- particularly after a couple of eyedrops of water to lower the proof (Julian's suggestion by the way).
Mr. Van Winkle introduced the main course with a nod to his grandfather who started working for the W.L. Weller distillery at the age of 18 in 1893. "I like to refer to this as butter bourbon, smooth and delicious." He continued with a wry smile, "I'm so glad you like our family's bourbon but in your enthusiasm you've created your own competition."
Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 20 year, absolutely my favorite with molasses, toffee and round vanilla creaminess. Chef Scelfo, across from me, thought this pairing was Chef Jennings' best- slow roasted pork shoulder and loin, turnip puree and golden raisins, fiddlehead ferns and pickled oysters. "Perfect along side the bourbon, not trying to go at it, you know? Let's the whiskey shine."
Ryan is a self-proclaimed dessert guy, so he was eagerly waiting on the final pairing, which beyond delivered. Pineapple upside down cake with candied ginger and bourbon ice cream along side Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 23 year? Wow, I don't know how I got past security but I'm glad I did. The spice and proof of this spirit married very well with sweetness and showed of the whiskey's honeyed character. As if this wasn't enough, Julian's southern gentlemanly nature treated us to a special surprise. From Kentucky earlier that day he grabbed 2 bottles of a bourbon his father made in 1970 and bottled in 1984, then sat in his garage for almost 30 years. It was 14 year Pappy that drank like a mellower 15 year- what a way to end the evening.
We found the terrific new bar (only a couple months) called The Eddy, on Eddy street downtown on the way back to the train. Perfectly made cocktails with a tight, well thought out beer and wine menu- check it out when you're in town.
A train ride home, full and a only little buzzed (thank goodness the pours were small), swirling thoughts of bourbons I may not try again- this was a legendary boys night out.
I received a wonderful email from Nancy Usiak a few days ago asking if she got the Apple Blossom drink from me (Spiced rum, St. Germain, maple syrup, Angry Orchard cider); which sounds delicious but I can not take credit. She continued, referring to modern cocktails: "new edge is not a current concept here in Tallahassee, FL, I'm a Waltham transplant here for retirement." Her drink of the moment? A classic warm weather sipper with an added surprise- cheers from the south!
Beady Eyes by Nancy Usiak
2 oz Beefeater, 4 oz tonic, dual olive and lime garnish.
The best boss I have ever had was Nelse Clark. Rewind to 1993, West Street Grille, downtown Boston- we were just a few blocks from the combat zone, The Naked Eye strip club was still there, adjacent to an old "adult" theatre. Playland Cafe was around the corner, a few steps away from what is a Starbucks now. But only a few blocks further North, the venerable Locke Ober Cafe was still packed.
Nelse was the face of West Street, a great front man always with a smile, you wanted to know him and hang out at his spot- I was lucky to work the bar. It does not surprise me at all that he is working with Andrew Cabot now creating a unique American Rum which can hold a place of honor in the deep New England distilling history. When I walked into the Privateer warehouse outside of Ipswich the other day, his friendliness made me feel like I was walking into his bar years ago- he's still the consummate host.
Andrew Cabot (1750-1791) was a merchant and rum distiller who became one of the most successful American privateers. He deployed a fleet of ships including Pilgrim, Revolution and True American for which this Rum is named. He was said to be uncommonly clever and an astute judge of men and situations. Whether smuggling molasses past British patrols or prizing British ships, Cabot was a true American. -Andrew Cabot, 2011
Of course I was there to taste the spirits, and also meet Maggie Campbell, Privateer's terrifically talented head distiller. The warehouse itself is impressive (Nelse mentions "you definitely get more space up here in Ipswich"), with thousands of square feet dedicated to racking barrel space, fermenters, still, and true to form, a bar. After a taste of cane sugar and wonderful fig-nuanced molasses, Maggie walked me first to the NSI Canadian fermenter where sugar cane and/or molasses will sit at 72 degrees for a slow 7 day process closer to what they do in Cognac as opposed to the islands for rum. This makes sense, as one of her mentors is Hubert Germain-Robin of the famous California brandy house. Distillation in a pot still and short column still for as Maggie says, "polish."
Privateer white rum is Agricole style, meaning it is distilled entirely from sugar cane, while the amber is from both cane and molasses. Maggie is constantly tasting and refining the spirit in the process, nothing is added or filtered out. "For me it comes down to marrying alchemy and science to make the best spirit I can," and even though young, she does mentoring of her own with recent visits from aspiring distillers from Sicily and Israel. As if her job wasn't enough, she's also studying for Master of Wine certification- no wonder her spirits are so good.
Don't just listen to me, the legendary Paul Picault, gave both the silver and amber 4 stars, superb and highly recommended. This is a big deal. He raves of the amber, "slightly bittersweet, and even slightly sherried; mid palate is delicate, honeyed, gently sweet, spicy, cocoa-like." Sounds like time for a sip with an ice cube, or better yet, a cocktail. I was honored to jump behind the bar and make a-
Privateer rum old fashioned:
.5 bar spoon cane sugar, drop off water to make a syrup in the glass, 1.5 oz Privateer Amber, 2 dashes Angustura orange bitters, stirred with ice, orange peel oil and garnish.
Nelse swept in to my left and fixed what he calls a-
Mexican Garden Party:
1.5 oz Privateer Silver, .75 oz fresh lime juice, .5 oz simple syrup or agave, small handful of fresh cilantro,1/3 of a Jelepeno pepper, muddle ingredients, add ice, shake and strain.
During distillation, the first off the still is called the "heads" which is imperfection heavy, then the "heart" (desired part for finished product) and finally the "tails," which are discarded. Maggie's art is defining the cut, and her comment, I'm taking and using as a metaphor for life: "when things get tail-y it gets messy." Thank goodness we have her to watch over the process.
Privateer rums can be found at the Urban Grape, Silver $25, Amber $36.
I think twitter and instgram have eliminated anyone's desire to send me a cocktail (c'mon... a quick photo and recipe to firstname.lastname@example.org- it can really be anything!).
So... I'll submit one we made this weekend: a variation of a classic.
Nicole's Blood Orange Blood and Sand
.75 oz Chivas 18yr Scotch
.75 oz Dolin sweet vermouth
.75 oz Luxardo Cherry liqueur
.75 oz blood orange juice
Luxardo cherry garnish
Smokey malt, sweet ripe cherry balanced with tart blood orange- but not too bitter or sweet. A little commitment to get the bottles which can be found (or easy substitutions) at liquor stores, and a bag of blood oranges is around $4 at supermarkets. Worth the effort!
Booze Époque. Mission statement: "boutique cocktails & spirit alchemy for private parties and events." Honestly, that is just the tip of the iceberg, co-creators Meaghan Sinclair and Harmony Dawn Kelly bring even more to the table. Wow, did they blow me away with a high level of skill (leaps and bounds over me) and more importantly, hospitality. We were friends who had not yet officially met; I was graciously welcomed into Meaghan's home, which by the way, is laid out for epic parties. I felt like a wide-eyed kid in a candy store, peering into a case full of bottles, baskets of fruits and herbs, glassware and bar tools.
These ladies both have worked esoteric jobs from therapist to tarot reader (that's pretty much what a bartender is anyway, right?). Harmony's family owned the Honey Lounge on the site that now houses The Pour House in the back bay, Meaghan's father (bartender and chef) worked on Legal Sea Foods original chowder recipe. The bar and hospitality world is clearly in their genes. But it took days of bartending at 2011 Burning Man to achieve their eureka moment (lots of people, I'm sure have these moments at such a festival and never end up acting on their epiphany). "We were sick of our jobs, thought let's get serious and jump in." Meaghan continues, "we knew the hurdles we might have, but let's elevate this and make it fun!" That's an understatement, by the way- Booze Époque has done more- weddings, pop-ups, competitions, drinks in a peach orchard on Martha's Vineyard, classes at Cambridge Adult education, even Kentucky Derby parties. They make an event an experience.
For me, they lined up careful rows of syrups, tinctures and garnishes which added to the kitchen's wonderful apothecary feel. Lemon, lavender- fennel, lemon grass, lemon thyme- cinnamon- Cocchi Americano (aperitif wine like Lillet) soaked raspberry- brandied maple cranberries- home-brined olive- ginger peppercorn- burnt Taza chocolate and caramel- hot pepper shrub- I was wonderfully overwhelmed. Meaghan's husband Pete arrived and showed off his very clean, pure, orange bitters. He makes his own bacon (as if I didn't love this group enough) which led to a taste of bacon infused Bourbon, then spicy pickled green beans, perfect for a Bloody Mary- or the juice for a pickle-back sip after a shot of whiskey. Flavors and smells swirled around me, I was, indeed in a different era.
Harmony and Meaghan kept my mini-event going, time for a Spring cocktail, a play on the famous Ramos Gin Fizz. Harmony called it the "Ostara, goddess of Spring, who's celebration eventually became our modern day Easter." These women are fabulous, I guarantee you'll being seeing a lot more of them in every season.
2 ounces Barrel Aged Ethereal gin
1 ounce Meyer lemon juice
1 ounce Ostara Syrup (see recipe below)
1/2 ounce cream
1 egg white
1 sprig lemon thyme leaves removed
2 inch piece of fresh lemongrass separated
1 ounce NOS'd Ostara Soda (see recipe below)
Add all ingredients to a shaker, muddle lemon thyme and lemongrass, dry shake. Add ice, shake vigorously for several minutes. Strain into glass. Garnish with thyme, lemongrass, and fennel.
1 Meyer lemon zest twist
1/4 cup lemongrass
1/3 cup chopped fresh fennel
1 sprig lemon thyme with leaves pulled off
1/8 cup fresh fennel fronds
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
Bring to boil then simmer for 40 minutes (see note below)
Strain out fennel at 20 minutes, add same amount of fresh ingredients at 20 minutes and cook together for another 20 minutes. Strain.
NOS'd Ostara Soda
3 ounces water
1 ounce Ostara syrup
Add to whipped cream maker, discharge nitrous cartridge, shake.