Pay attention to this magazine (or just about any local pub covering food and booze), and it seems obvious that the craft-cocktail revolution is in full swing in Boston, right? Think again. Remove the hardcore barfly nerds from the equation, and you'll find the general drinking public and the majority of watering holes around town are still in the dark when it comes to craft cocktails. Many bars don't even have bitters in stock (gasp!) or know how to mix something as obvious as a Manhattan.
You can't blame the lagging bars alone; a lot of them are simply reacting to the demands of their customers. If the bottle of Maraschino is gathering dust because no one has asked for it, then it's easy to forget. Despite all of the attention paid to classic cocktails and creative mixology, people at large still order the first thing that comes to mind when they approach the bar. And let's be honest: it's usually something shitty.
"There is definitely a group of people that are into craft cocktails, but I think the majority of drinkers go with what they know," says Allan Tidd, wine director at Harvest (44 Brattle Street, Cambridge, 617.868.2255).
Justin Ito-Adler of Rocca Kitchen & Bar (500 Harrison Avenue, Boston, 617.451.5151) says he doesn't know whether he would say the majority of people are ordering "shit" drinks as I suggest, adding, "I'm not even sure I am qualified to say what constitutes good versus bad cocktails." But, he agrees, "Most people, unless overtly encouraged, are hesitant to take a risk on a drink."
It is your money, after all. If you want to go into a nice restaurant and order a well-done plain hamburger every time, that's your (boring) prerogative. "You will always have your go-to drinkers who aren't interested in anything else," says Don Wahl, a bartender at Ginger Park (1375 Washington Street, Boston, 617.451.0077). "I often tell people who order mojitos that 1990 called and they want their drink back."
What gives? "Ultimately, the craft-cocktail trend hasn't reached its tipping point," says Augusto Lino, bar manager at Upstairs on the Square (91 Winthrop Street, Cambridge, 617.864.1933). "Mad Men didn't do for the old fashioned what Sex and the City did for the cosmopolitan."
For those of you still living in the dark ages of drinking, the first step if you want to improve your own cocktail acumen is to find bartenders like these whom you can trust. Ask them what cocktail they're excited about at the moment, and try it on a whim.
And just as you would when you're choosing the dishes you want to eat, think seasonally when it comes to drinking, says Bernie Keaveney, a bartender at La Morra (48 Boylston Street, Brookline Village, 617.739.0007). "The season dictates a lot. Peaches, strawberries, mint, and basil, to name but a few, are very prevalent on summer cocktail lists." You'd be amazed at what a difference fresh ingredients make.
Other drinkers simply have to find the gateway cocktail that opens up a wide world of boozy possibilities. Ito-Adler says that "a properly executed sidecar could be a great introduction into classic cocktails because it can assuage the fear some people have about consuming darker liquors, and it demonstrates the balance between sweet and tart found in a number of great cocktails."
Lino suggests the French 75 as a starting point. "If there was one single cocktail that killed the apple martini, it was the French 75. There's something about the perfect sweet-and-sour balance, plus the possibility to drink gin and Champagne at the same time, that is irresistible." A Hemingway daiquiri or an aviation might work as well, he says, and margarita drinkers may want to consider a pisco sour or a caipirinha.
From there you can move on to the serious stuff. "Nothing makes me happier than when I have a lady order a Sazerac or a Negroni," says Wahl. "That's the sign of an educated drinker to me."
The options are endless, so take a chance the next time you roll up to the bar. The payoff will be well worth retiring your watered-down vodka cranberry - I promise.