I was in Boston this past weekend visiting friends and had the opportunity to go to one of Boston’s premier cocktail bars, Drink. My best friend Austin is a semi-regular there and I’d been hearing about how good it was for quite some time. Austin and his fiance Arianna had recently been raving about one cocktail, the Maximilian Affair by Misty Kalkofen and I was excited to try it out. Derek Brown of The Gibson had also recommended I say hi to Misty during my visit to Drink; again, my hopes were very high.
Drink is in south Boston, in a fairly trendy industrial neighborhood. It’s below what I hear is a great restaurant, Sportello. From street level you can see into the bar, which exists in a sort of English basement below the restaurant. The space is a single large room, with a bar the runs its full length below the windows that border the sidewalk. The bar isn’t straight, but cuts in and out at right angles, so there are two horse-shoe cutouts that create more space at the bar. The back wall is lined with a ledge for drinks, as are the large pillars that hold up the rest of the building. There isn’t any seating but for what’s at the bar, though the amount of space actually is impressive. Over the bar itself are bare light bulbs, though they had interesting filaments that gave off really soft, warm light. The music was fairly generic, but enjoyable, indie rock.
We arrived at Drink on a Friday night at around 10pm. There was no door man and the bar was pretty crowded. This should have tipped me off to what would come. You see, in my experience at high end craft cocktail bars, I’ve never really had good luck with ones that have a completely open door policy and let guests stack a few deep at the bar (See my review of NYC’s Pegu Club). Every seat at the bar was taken and about 30 to 40 people stood in free spaces, making the bar seem very full. We waded through the crowd and found a semi-open spot near a group that was paying their check. After a couple minutes a space was open for us to sidle up to the bar, though this was in the horseshoe shape and where we were had no stools to sit – so we leaned on the small counter.
As we waited for a bartender to come and serve us, something struck me about the space. While there was a counter that ran along the entire back bar and while the two inverse horseshoe openings behind the bar had large islands on them with equipment and produce, nowhere to be seen was there actually any liquor. Instead, it was mostly hidden either in cabinets along the wall and islands or in very small, floor level liquor racks, effectively invisible to guests. While this created a very unique and visually interesting layout, it prevented me from doing what I usually like to do at good bars: decide what I want next by scanning the liquor available at the bar.
Another interesting thing was there were no menus at Drink. Or at least there were no cocktail menus. There was a menu with appetizers, beer, and wine. If there was a cocktail menu, I didn’t see it. Again, not a big deal for me, but lacking any direction when there were so many people as to resist solid one-on-one interaction with the bartender was a drawback.
Our first order included two Maximilian Affairs for the ladies, an Oaxaca Old Fashioned for my friend Austin, and I ordered a Boothby Manhattan. The bartender responded that they didn’t carry that brand of whiskey to which I informed him that it wasn’t a brand, but a Manhattan variation made with a float of champagne on top. I told him it was a creation of Cocktail Bill Boothby, one of America’s great bartenders from the late 1800s. He was unfamiliar with it, but said it wouldn’t be a problem. A few minutes later I saw that amidst Drink’s library of cocktail books was Cocktail Boothby’s American Bartender, which is now printed by the fine folks at Anchor Distilling. I guess the bartender had never familiarized himself with the small stack of books behind the bar, but oh well. The gentleman serving us said he was fairly new and I wouldn’t hold this relatively obscure reference against him.
The first round was generally a success, but unfortunately it was the high water mark of the night.
When we went to order our second round, my friend Austin gave the bartender freedom to make whatever he thinks he’d like with mescal or tequila. The bartender optimistically promised to “blow his mind.” Arianna ordered a Rosita. Since the bartender knew the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, a drink created at Death & Company by Phil Ward, I asked him if he knew other famous cocktails from the early days of Death & Co: The Conference and St. Columbs Rill. He knew neither, which I wouldn’t hold against him. So I thought I’d make it simple and ordered a Journalist. He didn’t know that either, which is odd, as it’s a fairly classic cocktail. At that point my expectations had dropped to about zero so I asked if he could make me a Martinez. [Edit: I want to be clear that I'm not trying to be hard on this bartender for not knowing The Conference and St. Columbs Rill. He'd served a drink from Death & Co. already for my friend, so I assumed he'd known others. But I really didn't expect him to, as I don't think it's that fair to expect people to know contemporary cocktails from bars in other cities. But he should know a Journalist.]
When the drinks came back, the results were pretty disappointing. Austin’s “mind blowing cocktail” was a hodge-podge of ingredients, including mescal, Benedictine, Campari, dry vermouth, and muddled white peppercorns and cloves. The bartender proclaimed it would have an apple cider type flavor to it, which it did. But really it tasted more like a ginger-based cocktail that could have been just as easily made with Domaine de Canton or Stone’s Ginger. It seemed needlessly complex. It also became way too strong with the spices as it was diluted, which likely means it wasn’t adequately filtered.
The Rosita and the Martinez had a different problem. Throughout the night, I saw cocktails sitting partially made on the bar. Our bartender would go so far as to combine the ingredients in a mixing glass, add ice, and then walk away for five to ten minutes at a time. As a result, there was a great deal more dilution in the drinks than there should have been, to the point of barely being drinkable. The Rosita tasted like a watery glass of Campari and tequila. The Martinez had no pop. But it got worse.
My girlfriend ordered the last drink of the night, a Dark and Stormy. Hard to mess this up, right? Sadly, no. As it was being made the bartender was using a homemade ginger beer, piped out of a large seltzer bottle. Part way through, the bottle seemed to run out of CO2. He put it down and left the glass, 3/4 full of ice, rum, and foamy ginger beer and didn’t come back to it for about 10 minutes. He made a number of other drinks in that time and never finished hers. After a little while we reminded him about the last order, at which point he found a new bottle, barely topped off the cocktail and served it. Had he stopped to taste what he was serving, he would have found the ginger beer had never actually properly mixed in the seltzer bottle and what he was serving was almost pure ginger. The ginger flavor overpowered the rum. It overpowered whatever sweeteners, water and spices were in the ginger beer itself. It tasted like straight ginger, which if you haven’t had it lately, is quite spicy and not exactly appetizing. In short, the Dark and Stormy was undrinkable.
Now I saw the problems with the second round of cocktails as they were happening. But the bar was packed and very loud – and our bartender was clearly slammed. The idea of asking for three of the last four cocktails to be sent back, which they should have been, struck me as an effort in futility. I doubted they would be much better and would likely cause the same fate to befall other bar patrons.
While I’d heard very good things about Misty’s bartending and Austin and Arianna had enjoyed other bartenders there, it seemed we just were unlucky. But from what we saw, it could have been worse. Our bartender seemed novice. He didn’t measure his pours at all and it is clear already that he was not precise with his techniques in the slightest. But at least he was trying. The other young man working next to him seemed to think he was bartending alongside Tom Cruise in Cocktail. He poured a round of neon pink shots for a bachelorette party and took one alongside them. He started mixing more shots for people at the bar, gratuitously humping the cocktail shaker as he mixed. This was followed by more dancing. On top of this, while he was using a graduated measuring cup for his cocktails, he wasn’t looking at it while pouring. I can’t imagine a bigger waste of time – if you’re going to free pour, just free pour and skip the jigger.
It should be clear, but I was really disappointed with my experience at Drink. I had very high hopes and they did not even come close to being met. I think the two biggest shortfallings were the particular bartender I had, whose name I did not catch, and coming on a Friday night. We had no clue that’s what it would be like – all of Austin and Arianna’s visits had been during the work week. They had never seen the bar so crowded and in fact like Drink a lot because they’ve had great experiences exploring cocktails with educated bartenders. This experience took them as a shock.
I trust the experiences Austin and Arianna and Derek Brown have had a drink, so I’ll just say this: Check it out for yourself, just not on a Friday night.
Lastly, I was able to find the recipe for Maximilian Affair, which really was a very nice drink. It is copied below.
Maximilian Affair by Misty Kalkofen of Drink
1 1/4 oz mezcal (preferably a smoky, single-village mezcal such as Del Maguey)
3/4 oz St. Germain elderflower liqueur
1/2 oz sweet vermouth (preferably Punt e Mes)
1/4 oz fresh lemon juice
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
Source: Eric Felten via DrinkBoston (a blog unrelated to the bar)