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Jan 15, 2009 07:57 AM

Comprehensive Chowish Craft Cocktail Compendium '09

The holidays are over, the economy is in the toilet, the weather outside is frightful…seems like a good time to get serious about heavy drinking.

I have a list of places I feel I can rely on for great cocktail craft, but I thought it might be interesting to put together a comprehensive list of our favorite spots around town for serious cocktails, what we like, what we don't like...

A few examples on my side of the river:

-- Green Street --

Pluses: great vibe, going there always makes me feel in-the-know, solid upscale comfort food that never seems pretentious.

Minuses: the food falls just short of greatness, so I'm always a little bummed I didn't go to Baraka Cafe for dinner before grabbing drinks.

Favorite drinks: pisco sour (with frothed egg white!), aviation, Toronto.

-- Chez Henri --

Pluses: stellar bar menu, especially the Cuban sandwiches.

Minuses: the non-Cuban cocktails have generally underwhelmed me, the bar area is pretty tiny so it can get crowded and deafening.

Favorite drinks: mojito, periodista.

How about YOU?

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  1. Hey, I like drinking, I like you. Why not!

    Highland Kitchen is doing some very good cocktailery. Not up to the Green Street standards, but very good for a neighborhood spot. They do a nice winter warmer, and can also do interesting non-alcoholic drinks which is good to know.

    Gargoyles (Paul and Maureen) also do some very good drinks. Maureen's sangria is great, and there is an infused bourbon that one of my houndly friends likes a great deal.

    13 Replies
    1. re: yumyum

      Hey, I like you too.

      > Gargoyles (Paul and Maureen)

      Bad things if others are tending the bar?

      1. re: finlero

        I've never seen anyone else tending there. Just wanted to appear cool by knowing the names of the barkeeps there. Drat.

        1. re: yumyum

          Got an eggnog martini-style drink (made by Paul, I now know...) at Gargoyles a few weeks ago-- wow- delicious and deadly. Thank goodness we walked home. I also really like the fig martini that's on the bar menu right now- the house cured fig in vodka at the bottom of the glass is delicious.

          1. re: Parsnipity

            YEAH !!!! They do dabble in infusions and figs are one of my faves, so I guess I know where I'm having my next martini. Thanks for the heads-up Parsnipity.

            1. re: yumyum

              you can do a taste-off with the Figgin' Delicious cocktail at Radius

            2. re: Parsnipity

              Ooh, I've gotta get over and try that fig martini.

        2. re: yumyum

          Infused bourbon. It's been so long. But, that fig vodka sounds intriguing as well.

          1. re: yumyum

            I heard a rumor that Joe McGirk is behind the bar at Highland Kitchen -- true?

            1. re: tallullah

              The famous (and possibly infamous) Joe McGirk is behind the bar at times. He is actually the bar manager and can been seen working the floor as well. Claudia, formerly of East Coast Grill, is also often behind the bar and serves a tasty drink, but you can't beat having Joe wait on you.

              1. re: lovinlinecook

                Putting this disclaimer up front: I've only been to Highland Kitchen once.

                But this one time Claudia was behind the bar and my first drink, the take on a dark and stormy/moscow mule with Maker's and the chili-infused ginger beer was overwhelmed by the ginger beer. My second drink, a basic rye Manhattan, was just disappointing. Every Manhattan I've ordered at Silvertone exceeded this drink, no matter the bartender working. My DC found her drink, which was supposed to have fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, disappointing as the juice was obviously not fresh.

                Since I don't live in the neighborhood, I certainly would not recommend a trip to Highland in terms of cocktails. The food, however, was very good and I'm happy for those who can call it their local in that regard.

                1. re: Canadian Tuxedo

                  You must like your drinks sweet, as I have found Silvertone's cocktails are made on the sweet side. (That's why I stick to their excellent wine list now.) I preferred my Manhattan exactly as it was made at Highland Kitchen.

                  1. re: Alcachofa

                    Depends on what you mean by "sweet." I do like more than a rinse of vermouth in my Manhattans, and prefer wet to dry martinis. I do not like sweet, as in sugary, cocktails.

                    But really, online it is very hard to discern what each of us like in terms of cocktails. In forming my own opinion, I'd just like to make clear that I've been to Silvertone more times than I can count and as a baseline they are skilled and consistent in the standards. I've only been to Highland Kitchen once, and did not like what was made that night. It could have been an off night, or it could have been a difference in preferences of style. But I've been drinking Manhattans all over this town (and many others) and at home for more than a decade, so I know what I like and what is considered classic/standard.

                    All that said, if I lived in that neighborhood I'd be thrilled with Highland Kitchen. I just won't travel there specifically for cocktails (as I don't have a car). I am lucky to have Hungry Mother, Craigie, and (hopefully) whatever replaces the B-Side within walking distance so I have many neighborhood options.

                2. re: lovinlinecook

                  Not quite mixed-cocktailness, but I am adoring the del Maguey mezcals at Highland Kitchen. The crema is like drinking an english saddle.

                  ObMixed: also HK's sazerac.

            2. Hungry Mother: Great food and I'd sell my mom for a No. 43. Drawbacks - bar space can be unbearably crowded and with the door right there - a little drafty.

              4 Replies
              1. re: bostonbroad

                Ditto on the HM No. 43! I have made my own at home and it was equally delicious.

                1. re: hsquare2southend

                  Oh! What were the proportions you used? And what kind of bitters? I want to try my hand at making this in the very near future.

                  1. re: noradeirdre

                    I'll see if my husband will give up his recipe. He tinkered for awhile but finally got it down.

              2. From the Boston side of the river:

                Drink: the apotheosis of the high-craft cocktail trend, our one national-level old-school cocktail specialty bar, with the most talented crew in town, a setup that emphasizes the craft aspect of the operation, hand-carved Kold-Draft ice, house-made bitters (make that house-made lots-of-things), vintage barware and glassware, the greatest emphasis on and skill with punches. Drawbacks: a little off the track, a nibbles menu that gets less interesting with every iteration, a douchey after-work crowd.

                Bar at No. 9 Park. Used to be the best, now second only to Drink, even with a less-experienced team in place (quality hasn't slipped in my view). Downsides: not enough room for these folks to stretch out or hand-carve ice for drinks, cramped seating, very expensive food menu (worse since they eliminated the cafe menu last year), truly painful gin-blossomed old-money Beacon Hill regulars.

                Eastern Standard. Very close to No. 9 in terms of craft, seriousness, scholarly approach, plus a mostly interesting and more affordable food menu to go with. Downside: fuzzy descriptions on the cocktail menu that not all servers are capable of coloring in; baseball fans in season.

                Toro. Uninteresting till they hired Courtney from No. 9, but suddenly it's the best place for cocktails in the South End. Not quite at the level of the other three, but a vast improvement, and the best food to go with your drinking of the bunch. Downside: usually too crowded to be comfortable; you have to pick your times carefully to avoid a cramped, uncomfortable wait.

                Honorable mentions: Deep Ellum, The Alchemist, Marliave.

                On the Cambridge side, I think finlero captured my feelings about Green Street, still the best in Cambridge in my view, and the only one at the level of the top 3 above.

                One not yet covered:

                Craigie on Main. Many of the virtues of ESK, plus some useful new touches (house-made Antica Formula knockoff). Downsides: expensive food, cramped seating, very slow service. Very promising.

                23 Replies
                1. re: MC Slim JB

                  a douchey after-work crowd.......still laughing..........

                  1. re: T.Clark

                    I aspire to join that douchey crowd...tomorrow night...

                    1. re: MC Slim JB

                      MC Slim JB,
                      Can I ask exactly what Kold- Draft ice is? I have not made it to Drink yet and am dont know what Kold Draft ice is ( sorry if this is a silly question). thx

                      1. re: cassoulady

                        That’s kind of lazy shorthand on my part. What they do with ice at Drink goes well beyond their use of a particular, coveted brand of ice machine, though the fact that Kold-Draft cubes are bigger (1.25” a side) than the standard bar cocktail ice is one advantage. The machines also turn out perfectly cubical, bubble free ice that tastes cleaner and looks clearer and more beautiful.

                        As important is how the staff hacks, picks, crushes, pulverizes, and shaves ice into many forms from giant blocks (think neighborhood iceman sized). Producing cubes or spheres or irregular lumps or snow-cone-like shaved ice not only yields lovely aesthetic effects, but gives the bartenders more precise control over ice melt rate and hence dilution. I got an Old-Fashioned-like drink the other night with a handcarved 2” cube in it that melted very slowly. I watched a bigger lump carved for use in a small punchbowl. Order a mist there and it will, I expect, be made with hand-shaved ice. It’s just one more refinement in the cocktail-making process, and they’re the only ones in town doing it at that level.

                        1. re: MC Slim JB

                          ok, you have convinced me, I am headed there this weekend!

                          1. re: MC Slim JB

                            Marliave says it uses a Kold Draft machine as well?

                        2. re: MC Slim JB

                          "...gin-blossomed old-money Beacon Hill regulars." Point to one word in that description that's anything but delightful. Now, if they were douchey.... Haven't been to Drink, but No. 9 still sits at the top of the heap for me. I love their un-pink strawberry daiquiri and their Sloe Jack. I'd never order an exorbitant three-course meal there, but a couple of cocktails, a cheese plate and maybe dessert, coupled with the great service and elegant, warm and fuzzy ambiance are enough to fill me up. Also, cocktails there followed by a short walk and dinner at the cocktail-less Grotto packs a nice one-two punch. I like ES and Green St., but I don't think they compare to No. 9. The B-Side did. (Snuffles.)

                          1. re: pollystyrene

                            Speaking of the B-Side, a new bar might make it into that space after all:

                            "the bar will continue to have a fantastic cocktail list. i will also try to add a world class beer list. look for 40 taps, a bunch of bottles, and a consistent beer engine. there will also be a sick wine list.

                            we will serve great food at reasonable prices."

                            It will be great if he can deliver all that.

                            1. re: nfo

                              Great news, if it all comes together as planned. This was the original outcome I had expected but thought had unraveled for some reason. The guy behind the Moan and Dove and The Dirty Truth will almost certainly turn the B-Side into one of Boston's best beer bars. I love the notion that he will also retain some focus on classic cocktails there. I'll be following this story closely.

                              1. re: MC Slim JB

                                The scuttlebutt that i've heard was that the new owner would have to assume various financial responsibilities of the B-side. I've heard a few different versions of this story though, so it seems the telephone game is in effect here (if it was even true to begin with)

                          2. re: MC Slim JB

                            Who else besides me "hearts" MC Slim JB.

                            "A douchey after-work crowd" at Drink. Lordy, lord. Seriously, MC, I read that the cocktails at Drink somehow magically appear in front of you but not having been, cannot confirm or deny. If true, that somehow ruins the whole ceremonial aspect of getting my perfect manhattan.

                            1. re: Patricia

                              Drinks don't magically appear at Drink: quite the contrary! Half the fun is watching your cocktail painstakingly assembled.

                              That bit of snark about Drink's after-work crowd is based on a small sample; I usually go a bit after that crush has dissipated. I just felt a bit too much of that there-for-the-scene-not-the-drinks vibe on a couple of visits, which bugs me a little at a place like that.

                              But it's all good: they will need crowds to sustain the place, and I'm hopeful that today's It Place follower will become tomorrow's real-cocktail fan, and support other serious-minded cocktail bars.

                              1. re: MC Slim JB

                                My gf works right around the corner and has complained about the post-work mob scene. OTOH it sounds like a lot of those folks get annoyed at how long the drinks take to make, how crowded it is, etc and are losing interest (e.g. they can go the other way over to luckys and get their grey goose cosmo w/o the hassle)

                                1. re: MC Slim JB

                                  I definitely recommend trying to go during off peak (especially for your first time to really get the full treatment). Sunday at 6:00 was about 1/2 full and we got a lot of bartender attention. Saturday at 7:00, very good, but less interesting drinks. (also noticed we didn't get vintage highball glasses -- wonder if they are getting broken or stolen. Still saw other vintage styles there, just not our drinks)

                                  1. re: MC Slim JB

                                    MC's just tellin' it like it is. It IS a douchey crowd. I accidentally came across it a number of times before figuring out how to best avoid it.

                                  2. re: Patricia

                                    MC SLIM nut scrubbin' aside, half the fun of Drink is watching them craft the cocktails. I watched with interest as the bartender brought out a sand hourglass, flipped it in front of us and shook both my and my friends drinks simultaniously until the sand rand down. This was for drinks that were made with whole eggs and I guess a good shaking is in order but I wasn't aware that the lenght of time was necessary until i saw it with my own eyes.

                                    I was there on a Thursday night at 5:15 and the place was all but empty. We stayed until about 8:30 and even then it wasn't too crowded. The crowds started pouring in with the yuppie Gap hipsters around 7:30 ish

                                    1. re: cannedmilkandfruitypebbles

                                      > yuppie Gap hipsters

                                      I don't even know how to begin to parse this, but it made me smile.

                                      1. re: finlero

                                        Yuppie Gap hipsters and douchey after workers and sanctimonious hounds, oh my!

                                        I must say though, it is more enjoyable on the off times.

                                        1. re: sailormouth

                                          Just remember the gin-blossomed old-money Beacon Hillers made it all possible.

                                          1. re: Alcachofa

                                            No question, and for that, I am grateful. I just don't like striking up conversations with them.

                                  3. re: MC Slim JB

                                    On a side note, I was at No. 9 the other night for an amazing drink and was told by one of the bartenders there that the cafe menu is planning a comeback.

                                  4. A friend and I have a sctoch crawl route that we hit once a year, as follows:

                                    Omni Parker house
                                    Whisky Park
                                    Bristol Lounge
                                    Lock Ober
                                    Omni Parker

                                    Omni Parker- Pros: Warm, relaxing vibe. Scotch Selection, warm nuts Cons: touristy at times

                                    Whisky Park: not a lot to like, really. But it gives the route a good cirlce and we can pick up cigars at Prevetti's on the way.

                                    Excelsior: Pros: nice atmosphere Cons: prices

                                    Bristol Loung: Pros: great coctails, plenty of space to spread out Cons: clientel, prices

                                    Lock Ober: Pros: interesting setting, small bar with a history and complimentary house made potato chips Cons: Small bar, limited selection

                                    1. And the sorority girl vote goes to...Cuchi Cuchi, in between Central and Kendall Square in Cambridge. Funky 20's vibe, yummy innovative cocktails. Good tapas too, although they swear they are NOT a tapas joint.

                                      Cuchi Cuchi
                                      Boston, MA, Boston, MA