Ask any cocktailian worth her salt and she’s sure to tell you that, hands down, New York City has the best cocktail culture in the country. Sure, San Francisco has its abundance of fresh, seasonal produce and New Orleans, in many ways, started it all. But, in terms of sheer number of establishments that will make you a great drink, New York is in the lead. Not far behind us is Boston. (Settle down, baseball fans.) Beantown is home to a number of excellent cocktail bars, but unlike Gotham’s, the requisite handlebar mustache and speakeasy aesthetic are (thankfully) absent.
Fork in the Road recently treated itself to a drinking tour of the city, hitting up three of its most prolific bars. If you can only make it to one, get your Boston drink on at Eastern Standard, located on the ground floor of the chic Commonwealth Hotel on Kenmore Square near Fenway Park.
The sprawling dining room and bar are like the antithesis to every cramped New York speakeasy you’ve ever had the pleasure of wedging yourself into. The reason being, according to one young barkeep we spoke to, that taxes are so high in Boston that no one can afford to open a small space. Because Eastern Standard is essentially a hotel bar, there is no sense of exclusivity at all. Locals and travelers drink side-by-side, choosing from a vast selection of cocktails, wine, beer, and a hefty American brasserie menu. The Prospect Park, a take on the Red Hook, which is a take on the Brooklyn, which is a take on a Manhattan, was made with 100-Proof Rittenhouse Rye, Aperol, maraschino liqueur, and Punt e Mes — a perfectly balanced bitter-sweet-strong combination that was like satin in the mouth. Next, a French Quarter — made with Cognac, Peychaud’s, cherry, and orange bitters — was like a smoother, brighter, more refreshing Old Fashioned.
Drinking and walking is a great combination. Fortify yourself with a plate of locally harvested oysters, savory salt cod fritters, and rich roasted bone marrow, and set out across the Massachusetts Avenue bridge to Cambridge. It’s about a 20-minute walk to Craigie on Main, a locavoric sanctuary serving excellent drinks alongside greenmarket cuisine. Here, however, we found ourselves missing New York’s brash door policies, as a hostess welcomed us in for what she promised would be a 20-minute wait for a seat at the bar that turned into well over an hour. As we stood behind lucky bastards on bar stools, we sipped a Northern Lights, lightly smoky from Scotch and very citrus-forward. It also contained something called Tiki Bitters, which upon later research revealed itself to be flavored with allspice, star anise, cardamom, and citrus — ideal for tiki cocktails. Next, a sweet-and-tart Latest Word, a riff on the Last Word made with genever instead of gin, brought back memories of home: the drink was created at Death & Co.
Boston’s most exciting cocktail bar is arguably Drink in the neighborhood of Fort Point. Part of the Barbara Lynch group of restaurants that includes the lauded Butcher Shop and No. 9 Park, it’s set on the formerly industrial waterfront amid converted warehouses that now house airy artist lofts. The decor is sleek and minimalist with bare brick walls and no back bar (bottles are stored out of patrons’ sight). The only adornment is cases of mounted insects that line one wall. The concept at Drink is that, with no set menu, the bartender makes you a cocktail based on how you feel. A suggested menu changes regularly — when we visited, it was a list of drinks corresponding to Zodiac signs.
The house cocktail, a Fort Point, is also a take on the Brooklyn (and, in turn, the Manhattan, as is Death & Co.’s Cobble Hill and Flatiron’s The Slope). It incorporates Rittenhouse Rye, Punt e Mes, and Benedictine, resulting in a liquid that is both complex and silky. The Toronto (served without the knowledge that it was going to a Canadian — a testament to the intuitive powers of the staff, perhaps?) was made with rye, Fernet Branca, demerara syrup, and Angostura bitters: another bitter-sweet concoction that favored a pairing with a bar snack or two (in this case, bacon candied nuts and fluffy gougeres). After this, things get a bit fuzzy, but we’re pretty sure we had a four-way rum Old Fashioned (four different rums, four different bitters) and steak tartare. One thing we do recall is that, at $10 or $11 for each of the drinks ordered (as opposed to the $14 price tags New York cocktails can carry), springing for a cab ride home wasn’t out of the question.