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What are some of your best bar and cocktail experiences?

I was talking with some friends last night and we started talking cocktails. One friend just got back from London and he had worked his way through a list of bars I recommended. A few in particular blew him away, and I know how he felt because I had the same experience when I visited last year. (I received a grant to spend a few weeks in London working at a cocktail lab / bar, and checking out the London bar scene.)

One evening during my visit to London I went to Lounge Bohemia. I introduced myself to the owner and head bartender Paul, and we immediately hit it off and for the next four hours I had the most amazing cocktails, interspersed with tiny bites of equally amazing food. I was served a multi-course meal of cocktails. Drinks were served in unusual containers like lightbulbs that gave you a slight electrical buzz as you sipped, and a series of test tubes with a flavor progression to each, and glasses topped of with various foams, interesting cotton candy garnishes flavored with Campari, leather infused whiskey with myrrh, etc.

At the bar with no name at 69 Colebrook Row I had quite a few serious cocktails, some made with vintage spirits, and some that had been made and bottled a decade ago. One of the house amuse-bouche is their famous Prairie Oyster. Served in a porcelain ramekin shaped like an abstract oyster shell. It's horseradish vodka distilled in a low temp. rotovap in the lab, with a centriguge and vacuum chamber clarified yellow tomato reverse spherification ball the size and texture of an egg yolk, Oloroso sherry, Worcester sauce, pepper sauce, shallots, red wine vinegar, topped with a julienne of the herb oyster leaf which tastes like oyster. When you shoot back the drink it turns into a Bloody Mary in you mouth. This was really fun for me because one of the things I did was make the ingredients for this cocktail while working in the lab.


Another great place is Nightjar. It's just an amazing bar. Fabulous cocktails with obscure, rare, and vintage ingredients, and insanely amazing garnishes. But the choreography of the bartenders, especially the bar manager Marian Beke, and head bartender Luca Cinalli takes it up another notch. Every movement they make is thought out and embellished as if it were ballet. It's a style of flair bartending, but not what most people think. If regular bartending can be compared to juggling, the Nightjar folks are dancing with their hands. Also the jazz they play, both recorded and live, is phenomenal. You can see a bit of what I am talking about in this video of Martina making the Caramel Nest cocktail, which she made for me on one of my visits.


Article about their garnishes.

And ingredients.

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  1. Ha. Just last night I commented to my wife that I wasn't interested in cotton candy unless it was made of Campari.

    Those are some great memories you've got now, Jonathan.

    www.kindredcocktails.com | Craft + Collect + Concoct + Categorize + Community

    1. Eastern Standard in Boston. After having made cocktails at home for quite a while and built up a decent library of books, my wife suggested we check out ESKD for she claimed that they were making drinks like we were at home. I was doubtful, but we found seats at their bar one Saturday in June, 2007. The bartender, Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli, set the bar pretty high for hospitality, knowledge, willingness to listen, and making us feel not only welcome but eager to return. At later visits, I observed him being grilled by two older ladies about the house Espresso Martini; his explanation was so beautiful and passionate that I wanted one too... for a brief moment in time, that is, but it certainly satisfied the ladies and made them feel comfortable with their drink order. Eastern Standard's food, drink, and hospitality program -- even when put under stress by Red Sox game crowds -- has been impressive.

      The Cure in New Orleans. We first sat at the bar there the day we landed for Tales of the Cocktail 2009. We got there a day before the festival kicked off, and decided to shoot over there. We appreciated the quirky cutting-edge aesthetic of some of the drinks, the great service provided Rhiannon Enlil that night capped it off. I returned in 2010 and sat in front of Turk Dietrich, and a year later, he was my bartender again; when I ordered a Cobbler off the menu, he replied that he had made me a Cobbler as one of my many drinks the last time I had been in there (a year ago). Impressive.

      No. 9 Park. As you would expect from Barbara Lynch's program, the bartenders there are quite the hospitalitarians. And the drinks they can provide have been executed in a high quality taste and presentation. From the early days with John Gertsen before he went to drink sharing his love of the Sazerac (before it had taken root in Boston) to the current staff under Ted Kilpatrick, it is rare that I have anything but an exceptional night there. While the restaurant is fancy and expensive, the drinks are very reasonable and they have never had a problem with me showing up in jeans and a t-shirt.


      3 Replies
      1. re: yarm

        Fred- I agree with you about Eastern Standard and Cure. Both great places with fantastic bartenders.

        I haven't been to No. 9 Park as far as I can remember. Remember is the key word because I did a bar crawl by bus and limo last year around Boston during the Boston Cocktail Summit and the USBG North East conference and although we went to a half dozen places, I only vaguely remember the experience after several days of cocktail events and parties.

        By the way, I got your book Drink and Tell on the Boston bar scene the first day it was available on Amazon. Now I have to head back to Boston this Fall, there are so many places I need to visit.

        1. re: JMF

          I don't send most people to bars like No. 9 Park or Craigie on Main for they can be crowded with diners. Describing No. 9 Park as "perfect if you can get there after 10pm but before they stop serving at midnight" or the limited number of seats at either bar makes for better options to suggest to groups or out of town guests. Luckily, both places have fall-back options close by if you can't get a seat or if you have to come back a little later to retry. I discuss that in the first chapter of Drink&Tell:A Boston Cocktail Book.


        2. re: yarm

          Eastern Standard is on my list, too. It was the first real craft-cocktail place I ever went -- I called a group outing and we tried just about everything on the menu among the group, passing things around.

          With an overlapping crowd of folks, many years later, the most memorable was at Citizen Public. That one, after the first round or two, some of us went off-menu and got amazing things. (I said "something with mezcal" (this was when tequila had just become the craft-cocktail darling and mezcal was still pretty rare on cocktail menus) and got some sort of many-ingredient mezcal flip that I still fondly remember.) They also did give us several recipes. We were sitting at a table, not the bar, but the bartenders were shooting us grins every time we put an order for another round in -- we were clearly the table with the most interesting requests for the evening. (And the food was better than ES.)

          In both cases, the company was part of it -- an enthusiastic-about-cocktails large group, so that we could try a ridiculous number of things without individually imbibing more than we wanted to, and people with wildly varying tastes so that we were all trying new things.

        3. My worst nightmare would entail most of what you mentioned. I would prefer a nice glass of Bordeaux or a simple martini as opposed to cotton candy flavored drinks and things like that served out of light bulbs and test tubes.

          We all have our own preferences though and I think one should drink what they like.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Fowler

            I am more into classic/vintage cocktails, but some of the modernist ones can be excellent. I've never had a cotton candy flavored drink, although I've had Campari flavored cotton candy. Which by the way and fabulous balance between bitter and sweet.

            1. re: JMF

              Cotton candy is super-gimmicky, but fun. I bought a cheap machine last year and messed around with making Peychaud's and absinthe flavored floss for an "instant" Sazerac -- just add whiskey (stirred/diluted) and a squeeze of lemon peel.

              Definitely an interesting experiment, although I lost a majority of the color and some flavor from the bitters along the way. Attached is a cellphone before/after photo I took one evening. I think the cotton candy in that glass contained something like 10 dashes of Peychaud's.

          2. Best bar experience? #1 was quaffing mojitos all day long with a companion at La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana on a 4th of July, with Cubans equally celebrating American Independence Day because they don't have one. Good fun.

            1. when you wrote you "....received a grant to spend a few weeks in London working at a cocktail lab / bar...." Please, please tell me it was not any type of government funded grant. Please.

              1 Reply
              1. re: genoO

                No. Not Gov't funded. I promise.

              2. I'd probably say my best bar/cocktail experience goes back to the Zig Zag in Seattle when Murray was still there. Specifically, my second visit. I'd been there years prior when I still lived in the US. I sat at the bar, had a rendezvous and let him lead from there. It was a great evening, albeit a bit more tipsy than I'd planned upon.

                Skip ahead a couple years later and I'm back in my hometown for the first time since leaving the country. I was going to a show that night nearby Zig Zag, so I stopped in. I ended up sitting at the bar again and poof! Murray remembered me. He remembered where I sat previously, what I'd drank and what kind of flavors I liked. Specifically, he walked up with a grin and asked if I was in for some Campari.

                I ended up late for my show and again, more tipsy than planned, but it was worth it. He just kept handing me small measures of base spirits, telling me about them and then he'd make weird drinks which he didn't really seem to have names for and they were all incredibly balanced with that base flavor he gave me still shining through.

                Meanwhile, it was a busy night, so he was doing this all the while doing similar with everyone else at the bar and filling drink orders from the servers. He kept cackling like a mad man and his arms were a blur.

                2 Replies
                1. re: thatwhileifound

                  I only met Murray briefly a few years ago, I think it was when he won Bartender of the Year 2010, and haven't had him serve me a cocktail, but he's a legend in the bartending game. That sounds like a great experience.

                  1. re: JMF

                    Yeah, I'd say he is one of those legends and has earned it. Not just for longevity, but for being a complete bartender and not just a "mixologist."

                    I should give props to Steve Da Cruz back when he had the Corner Suite Bistro in Vancouver as well. I was still pretty ratty looking and his joint came off as a lot more upscale than the places I felt most comfortable in at the time. I ended up there because Q-Tonic was doing a seminar and we were just listing the product on a retail level. Steve was instantly charming and friendly, so I decided to stop by there one day after a day long and very dry managerial training session that was nearby.

                    This place looked beautiful and it had one of the more impressive back bars in the city at the time. It was absolutely dead in there and Steve was behind the bar... He handed me their cocktail bible. It was a little insane and pretentious, but interesting: a huge book with a full page of drinks for each main spirit available as well as a page of house favorites and guest favorites. The latter were drinks pulled from other bars and bartenders with full pages detailing what went in and why it was on the list.

                    I hated the book initially and just asked for something he'd recommend as a first drink after a long day. He put together a Police Gazette and walked me through what was going in and how much and tidbits of history. I spent the rest of the time digging through the giant cocktail book that I never ordered from while pointing to unfamiliar bottles and getting an education and some great drinks.

                    Every time to follow, all of the bartenders I met there were fun and interesting while holding their own behind the bar and keeping their timing going. The drinks were good. The suggestions on point. While I haven't been to Steve's newest venture, I've followed a couple of those Corner Suite bartenders around their new stomping grounds as I've heard about them being there.

                    I guess, there's a common theme in both of these experiences. If I'm only looking for a good drink, I've got enough to do that at home. When I go out, I'm hoping for suggestions or methods that I wouldn't or couldn't have come up with on my own and to have the whole experience framing it to be enjoyable. Otherwise, why would I have left my house?

                2. Mine was a few years ago in a cocktail bar in London on the Thames near the Globe theatre (now sadly closed).
                  It was a hot sticky day and everywhere on the river was packed. Luckily I had spotted this bar a few days earlier which was one floor up from all the riverside places.
                  My missus and myself walked into a well air conditioned bar which was virtually empty.As we approached the bar the barman offered two cocktails he'd just made saying he was experimenting and would we like them. We stayed there for for 4 cocktails but only paid for one as the barman was on a roll trying out new cocktails.
                  Even better we had a window seat looking out onto the river.There was a 10K run going on whilst we were there. So we could see loads of sweaty people running past whilst we sipped our cocktails in the nice cool bar. A little cruel maybe but made it all the sweeter.

                  1. JMF.
                    Out of interest when in London did you go to Lab on Old Compton Street?
                    Used to be one of my favourite cocktail bars in London but haven't been for a while.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Paprikaboy

                      No, actually I haven't heard of it.