Lou Saban can be found behind the Oak Long bar at the Copley Plaza Hotel. Recently he found himself down south.
By Lou Saban:
Recently I took an investigative trip to the annual Florida-Georgia college football game, which is also known as the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party (in the name of science, of course). This game is more than a football game, it’s a celebration of a rivalry that has existed since 1914 (the same year as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand) and was played at a neutral site in Jacksonville, Florida for the first time the following year. There is a lot tradition to be sure, but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that it was officially named the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. After some extensive research I can tell you for certain that those people know how to have a good time.
Having been one of your friendly neighborhood bartenders for years now, I can tell you one thing for certain: Boston is a cocktail town. We have a long and storied history with spirits dating back hundreds of years from when we helped pioneer the distillation of rum for the New World. Today we love rum, vodka, whiskey and everything else. Shaken, stirred, with and without bitters, egg whites, infusions, rinsed glasses, orange oil, and almost any pieces of advice written by our drunken counterparts from the 1800s. As a lover of both cocktails and college football I thought it would be a shame to miss this combination of both. So I decided to go right into the heart of darkness… that’s right … Jacksonville.
Despite being largest city (area, not population) in the United States, Jacksonville has a reputation for being just a bit nondescript. It was the host of the 2005 Super Bowl where it was lambasted by many writers and bloggers for its lack of amenities. While there may be some truth to this criticism, it’s also pretty unfair. No, Jacksonville is not New York or Paris but New York and Paris are already doing a great job of being New York and Paris. It’s a sunny, friendly place with beautiful beaches and Waffle Houses as far as the eye can see (stop reading right now if you are anti-waffle). If I had to describe Jacksonville in one word it would be: nice. Despite its shortcomings, once a year it becomes host to an estimated 150,000 tailgaters for a game that these guests really care about. My good buddy
Kyle Powell (of Backbar) and I flew down to see what people are so excited about and, more importantly, what they are drinking.
So what is cocktail culture in Jacksonville and at the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party? Kyle and I interviewed about 100 people ranging from bartenders to cab drivers to fraternity pledges asking them two simple questions: What is your favorite cocktail? Why? The answers differed slightly but the most frequent response was a bewildered look followed by a sheepish answer of “…beer?” Other popular answers included: whiskey ginger, jack and diet, rum and coke, and the occasional bloody mary. It quickly became apparent that this was a question that these revelers had not only never been asked before, but also something that they had never even considered. Out of all the people interviewed we probably got about four drinks that had more than two ingredients. The responses did not change all that much when we polled the local bartenders. The majority simply gave us the “can you stop talking and order a drink?” face before saying they just drink beer. We did, however, discover some bright spots including Melanie at the Mellow Mushroom who loves a cocktail of her own recipe that is made up of gin, elderflower liqueur, basil, and soda. So why no Last Words or Vieux Carres? It became very apparent that in Jacksonville, it’s not what you are drinking but why you are drinking. Very few people were interested in the balance of acid and sugar in their drink or whether they should use one or two dashes of bitters to bring the whole thing together. They want something light, smooth, and easy to drink so they can get in the proper mindset to have positive social interactions. They want a sweet mixer to match the sweet southern palate. They want to cover up the flavor of the booze so they can drink without worrying about having whiskey face in the pictures that are going to be posted on Facebook the next day. There isn’t a big cocktail scene in Jacksonville because people don’t really seem to be that interested. It’s capitalism.
We are very lucky to live in a city like Boston where you have so many great options when you want to sip a well-balanced libation that hits parts of your palate that you didn’t even know you had. As a history-centric place we love not only the flavors but also the story behind the ratios and ingredients. At the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party they are more interested in the communal activity. The girls can’t wait to throw on their cocktail dresses and the guys can’t wait to show off the new addition to their tailgate set up. Kyle and I had an unbelievable time meeting new people and talking about their experiences and ideas. We drank their cocktails, laughed at their jokes, and didn’t really care that no one had ever heard of a Ramos Gin Fizz. This Keystone will do just fine thanks. If you ever find yourself in Jacksonville you might not find the Louvre but you can definitely have a great time. I personally recommend going to see the lovely and talented Jenine at Rogue Bar and hospitality expert Paul at North Beach Fish Camp. They will definitely make you feel at home.
So is it even a cocktail party? Nah. As one young lady said its just a fancy name for a trashy party. What the denizens of the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party lack in sophisticated cocktails they more than make up for in good times. And whether you are dreaming about that next Natty Light or that Sazerac with a Pernod rinse, 8 dashes of Peychaud’s, lemon oil but no lemon garnish, and just a little bit of sugar, isn’t that really the point anyway?
From what I witnessed firsthand, Thirst Boston was a tremendous success. “The Thing” began the long weekend with a bang on Saturday night at the historic Harvard Club on Commonwealth Avenue. Guests, dressed to the nines, were able to drink from various bars with great bartenders from all over Boston at their peak game. Why they invited me, I’ll never know, but I got to be pouring between Chad Arnholt (now of Trick Dog in San Francisco) and Joy Richard of Citizen. Watching us at work was proof positive that those two can easily make up for my short comings.
We poured the classic Ward 8 (rye, lemon and orange juice, grenadine) made with George Dickel Rye and Old Fashioneds (rye, sugar, bitters, lemon peel) with Bulleit Rye; what a delicious way to start the evening, particularly appropriate in the venerable architectural space.
After my short hour and half shift, I sadly had to leave, but not before witnessing a pop-up of legendary proportions. Andrew Dietz has championed daiquiri’s with his DTO mantra, which is really a way of life. Daquiri Time Out, in this case occurred when the doors swung open to the old front bar revealing legends Misty Kalkofen, Jackson Cannon and John Gertsen in a hail of cocktails and hip hop. Boom.
Let's do this again next year.
Thirst is just over a week away, and one event not to miss is on Sunday, November 10th, 8:00-11:00pm at The Esplanade (Hotel Commonwealth 2nd floor). Blender Bender. The best bartenders in town with frozen drinks for the ultimate brain freeze, my kind of night.
Cost: $50.00 (includes a bitchin’ tee shirt, island-inspired snacks, frozen drinks & Red Stripe). Tickets HERE.
From the lovely Brandy Rand:“Pull out that Miami Vice outfit, Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops as 1980s-meets-Tiki attire is strongly encouraged!”
Get ready, Thirst Boston is a month away, beginning Sunday November 10 (although I hear there is a party really kicking things off the night before). The word is used too often, but prepare for an epic celebration of bartenders, industry professionals, spirits, history and of course, all things cocktail. The founders, Maureen Hautaniemi, Brandy Rand, Andrew Dietz and TJ Connelly are a team of all-stars ready to knock this out of the park, in fact it's all happening steps away from Fenway. From tastings, seminars and blow-out parties this is not to be missed. Rumor has it I might even be bartending and helping in a seminar with some real legends: I better start studying. But all you have to do is check out the site, pick out events and get over to Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square- see you there.
Produced by Whisky Magazine, a British publication, Whisky Live Boston is coming up next week: on Wednesday, October 2nd at the Park Plaza Castle. Now that whiskey season is officially upon us, it's high time celebrate the spirit in all its glorious styles- over 150 examples. Tickets are at www.whiskylive.com, and because you're reading this, enter the code "Boston" at checkout for a 20% discount.
This year's event will also include the debut of the Indie Spirits Expo, featuring small spirits entrepreneurs- gin, mescal, vodka, liqueurs and more. The event is topped off with a lavish buffet dinner. 6.30PM until 10PM, tickets are $119. VIP tickets are $149. The event starts for VIP ticket holders at 5PM. Every guest receives a complimentary Glencairn crystal tasting glass.
I've talked about the classic Blood and Sand cocktail before, but to recap, it was made for the celebration of the screening of the Rudolph Valentino movie of the same name in 1922. Equal parts Scotch, Sweet Vermouth, Cherry Herring and orange juice- a seemingly preposterous combination that ends up working perfectly, balanced sweet and sour, with smoke and heat from the whisky.
Legendary social media maven, Rebecca Jane Millette has brought it forward- I have been substituting Mezcal (Tequila's counterpart from Oaxaca with smokey character from the smoked pina of the agave plant) for the Scotch and it's quite delicious. So good, in fact, that the menu at Silvertone proudly boasts "Becca's Blood and Sand." This is where the trouble starts: the awesome Nick Korn had also been whipping up a Mezcal version across town at Citizen, and he always has a secret ingredient (or two) up his sleeve. He's also a better bartender than me, damn it. So when challenged, I had to take the bait, although I was nervous to get in the ring with him- I wonder if it's how an aging Ali felt facing a young Leon Spinks. Hell, most of my career I've been popping open High Life and pouring shots of Fernet, but sometimes a seasoned, cagey veteran has a few moves left, a little magic with a bar spoon. Offsite events presents: Blood, Sweat and Sand…ladies and gentlemen, let's get ready to rumble.
We were kindly given the tools to work with: La Puritita Joven Mescal from Piedre Almas, Carpano Antica and Punt e Mes sweet vermouths courtesy of Fernet Branca. Our big differences were proportions and the cherry brandy, or in this case, substitutions we used. I picked Maurin, a French Quinquina (aperitif) that has loads of cherry, and Nick being a superstar made his own Croatian wine (vinified from cherries) reduction- I was in trouble. The crowd was there, scorecards held by four judges with categories like "moxie" and "pluck"- Blood and Sands began to flow.
.75 oz La Puritita
.75 oz Maurin
.75 oz Carpano Antica
.75 oz orange juice
Luxardo cherry garnish
1.5 oz La Puritita
.5 oz homemade cherry reduction
.5 oz Punt e Mes
.5 oz orange juice
flamed orange peel garninsh
With the Rocky theme song "Gonna Fly Now" in my ears, I relied on the classic equal proportions, which makes the drink a bit sweeter than Nick's (he's more "Eye of the Tiger"); of course it all really comes down to personal preference. Both were delicious, one could tell by the amount of people trying each a second time. As a friend pointed out, how often do you see people two-fisting Blood and Sands? Apparently when there's a fight. With the scorecards tallied, MC John Nugent declared me a winner by a mere point. One point.
I guess and old guy can still pull it out every once in a while.
Ever wonder who creates National "drink, food, specialty, etc." Days? I sure do. It seems like there is a day for everything, but to their credit those folks behind the scenes have certainly won the game- I'm in, promoting and encouraging yet another. August 25th, National Whiskey Sour Day: yes, you heard me right. If a classic whiskey drink like a Manhattan is Paul Newman, a Whiskey Sour is more Paulie Shore. Wait, that's not really fair, a sour is a delicious drink, what the hell do I know- I've been pushing the Amaretto Sour for years.
Let's make it right though, here's my advice: 2 oz Rittenhouse Rye, .75 oz lemon juice, .5 oz simple syrup. Shake all ingredients with ice and strain over fresh ice in a double rocks glass. Garnish with a lemon (or orange) and a maraschino cherry.
Hits the spot at the end of a hot August day, like a grown-up boozy lemonade even
Cool Hand Luke would enjoy.
At 8:00 pm, Tuesday August 13th, the documentary "Hey Bartender" will make its Boston premiere at the Brattle theater in Harvard Square. Directed by Douglas Tirola, the film focuses on two bartenders trying to achieve their dreams from different backgrounds; one an injured marine, the other a white collar worker making a career change. Numerous influential brand ambassadors, bartenders and restauranteurs are featured from Danny Meyer to Dale Degroff and even some of Boston's own. This is a glimpse of a unique world and should appeal not only to industry workers, but also anyone interested in modern cocktail and bar culture.
After the screening the director will sit on a panel moderated by Patrick Maguire, with local bartenders Jackson Cannon, John Gertsen, Misty Kalkofen and yours truly. Tickets can be purchased here.
This is Straight Up's 100th post, and to be completely honest, I never thought I'd make it so far. Hopefully I'm batting .500 (maybe half are pretty good), but I'm just a bartender after all and you, of course, are the judge. Actually, some of my favorites have been deftly written by friends and colleauges- so maybe I'm somewhere in the neighborhood of 90. Regardless, I celebrated 100 with, appropriately, a sparkling cocktail other than a Miller High Life.
Joanne Chang launched her second cookbook, Flour, too, this week, and it's not often that one can sip a cocktail in Flour Back Bay- perfect timing. Peter Juusola made punch versions of their house-made sodas, and Nicholas Orpik and Courtney Moy poured away. A Raspberry Fizz with Vodka, raspberry syrup, lime, soda and a Cantaloupe Juelp with Bourbon, cantaloupe puree, mint, soda. Needless to say, I had a private cheers to 100 posts.
The best part is you can get non-alcoholic versions of these in the bakery, and the food is superb. From the roast lamb sandwich to (my favorite) oatmeal raisin cookies, I couldn't stop snacking. And Joanne could not be a more gracious, lovely host- she is a real gem in this business, one of the nicest people who deserves every bit of her success.
Straight up posts may not always satisfy, but make sure you get into Flour soon, it will certainly hit the spot. Cheers, and hoping for 100 more.
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.