Sunday, January 30, 2011

Thursty: See Lolita for all your tequila needs

What comes to mind when you think about a tequila bar? Bright colorful murals and smooth yellow tiles, right? At Lolita Cocina and Tequila Bar, with its subterranean layout, pitch-black interior, dim-red lights, wrought-iron fixtures and gothic candelabras, it’s closer to the Fangtasia bar from True Blood. I kept expecting the vampire queen of the Back Bay to swish through and take a quick pull from my neck. With all the tequila in my system at the time, she probably would’ve fallen on her pasty ass. 

“It’s kind of gothic chic,” says co-owner Chris Jamison, who opened the Mexican restaurant and tequileria in late December. “A lot of people call it a vampire dungeon.”  

Perhaps the only thing monstrous here is the size of the tequila list (roughly 175 at the moment).

“People are developing a new or renewed interest in tequila, besides what they were puking on in college,” he says.

It’s about time people get to know tequila again. It may be the most misunderstood of all the major spirits. See the sidebar at right for a quick primer.

Get in the spirits

The menu is divided into normal tequila types, like reposado (aged between two months and a year in oak barrels) and extra anejo (aged a minimum of three years), but it’s also broken into flavor profiles like “cinnamon, chocolate and peppers”  and “pale honey and butter.”

I tried a Campo Azul Gran Anejo ($25) that was light and creamy vanilla, with a bitter aftertaste and caramel up front, and a Siete Leguas Anejo ($15) that was hot and almost mossy like a Scotch.

“Close your eyes, you’d be hard-pressed to tell some of these are tequilas,” Jamison says. “Especially once you start drinking Don Julio Real for around $100 a shot.”

The only scary thing about that is the price. 

Lolita Cocina and Tequila Bar
271 Dartmouth St., Boston

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Shaking up the cocktail scene


Do Boston’s bartenders need to sharpen their skills?

Bartenders don’t get the respect they want. Some don’t keep up on the latest trends in drinks. And Boston is considered by some a second-class city when it comes to the cocktail scene.

These are a few of the things that four local bartenders are trying to change. Last month they incorporated a Boston chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild, and already they’ve signed up more than 50 members. For $100 in annual dues, members will have access to training, education, networking, and a rigorous accreditation program.

The guild is not a union in the traditional sense. Rather, it will be more like a graduate-level study group. There will also be no pressure for local bartenders to join, said Corey Bunnewith, founder and president of USBG Boston.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Empirical Formulas: Top Boston bartenders create cocktails straight out of Boardwalk Empire

Consider if you will the top-notch television dramas that have become part of the pop-culture landscape over the past few years - Mad Men, Big Love, Breaking Bad, and, of course, Boardwalk Empire, just to name a few all-stars. Thanks to their stellar acting, rich storylines, multifaceted characters, and sumptuous production values, staying in with the DVR set to "stun" is the new going out. 

So for this year's Cocktails issue, we decided to filter our normal boozy coverage of the city's best imbibing locales, their libations, and their mix-masters through our current (and since the season ended, painfully missed) obsession: Boardwalk Empire. If you've never seen the show, think violence, sex, corruption, politics, illegal booze, and, oh yeah, killer costumes.

We decided to ask some of our favorite mixologists to create era-appropriate, Prohibition-y cocktails inspired by the show's dynamic characters. No, you don't have to wear two-tone wingtips to drink them (though nobody would fault you if you did). So sit back, throw a little Eddie Cantor on, and enjoy.

Nucky's English CousinInspired by Nucky Thompson
Created by Sabrina Wilhelm of Noir
2 oz. Canadian Club whisky
1 oz. Pimm's No. 1 Cup
.5 oz. Aperol
2 dashes of Regans' Orange Bitters 
Add liquors into a mixing tin over ice. Stir and strain into a cocktail glass. Top with two dashes of Regans' Orange Bitters and garnish with an orange peel. 
"Enoch ‘Nucky' Thompson is the treasurer of Atlantic County. In his spare time he also bootlegs and illegally imports alcohol, most notably Canadian Club. Mixing this whisky, the English-bred spirit Pimm's, and Aperol (born in 1919, the same year Prohibition was ratified) creates a smooth and lightly smoky but not overpowering flavor with a bright orange aroma." 

Small is brew-tiful

At the risk of blowing your minds with this late-breaking news, this whole craft beer thing seems like it's not going away anytime soon. You might think the market would have reverted to the mediocre mean by now, but sales from indie craft brewers have increased overall once again, climbing 9 percent by volume in the US in the first half of 2010. Who knew so many beer guzzlers care about quality? I may have vastly underrated the taste of the American consumer. Wait, what's the opposite of schadenfreude? 

Part of the increase has to do with the explosion of new breweries. About 100 new breweries opened in the States between July 2009 and July 2010, pushing the total up to well over 1,600; the vast majority of them are categorized as craft breweries. Not all of them are going to make it, of course: just because something is produced on the micro level doesn't automatically make it good. But if there's one outfit I wouldn't mind seeing stick around for a while, it's Haverhill Brewery ( in (surprise, surprise) Haverhill, Massachusetts. At first, it only supplied its adjacent brewpub, The Tap, but now the brewery's 50-plus styles of beer have started popping up on menus at bars around town, like The Publick House (1648 Beacon Street, Brookline, 617.277.2880), Joshua Tree (256 Elm Street, Somerville, 617.623.9910), and Ledge Kitchen & Drinks (2261 Dorchester Avenue, Dorchester, 617.698.2261). Since the folks behind Haverhill have doubled their outside-the-pub sales in the past year and a half, it seems like they might be on to something. 

The pub itself opened in 2003, but they didn't begin bottling and self-distributing around Massachusetts in earnest until about three and a half years ago. Brewing up 50-odd styles of beer in such a short time is no small feat, and that number can be a little daunting to consumers wondering which ones to try. Don't worry: we've done the editing for you. 

"That's a hell of a lot," says head brewer Jon Curtis. "Very few brew pubs do that many. We just love being able to brew some of these styles that you can't find fresh in bottles coming from England and Germany." Take the HaverAle Cream Ale, their first experiment in brewing. A lightly buttery, gently malty ale-and-lager hybrid, it's now one of the most popular and widely available styles, and a great introduction to Haverhill's brews. For your second bottle, try the Leatherlips IPA, an extraordinarily hoppy pale ale unlike the IPAs most people are accustomed to, or the German-altbier-style GestAlt. "It's an ale that's trying to be a lager," Curtis says. Malty like a brown ale, hoppy like a pale, and crisp like a lager, it just won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Fest in September. 

Curtis and company wouldn't be able to experiment with styles like those if it weren't for their small size and ability to adapt on the fly. "We have plenty of tanks to do all the crazy or experiential beers we want," he says. "Working at production facilities, oftentimes you're brewing the same beer over and over again. I brew a beer I've never worked with before about 10 times a year." He's biased of course, but many of these experiments turn out well - in part, Curtis says, thanks to their in-house quality-control biologist. And they only have to pay him in beer (which reminds me of some of the places I write for). 

But how big can it get? The market still isn't too crowded for a brewery like Haverhill, which has increased production to about 1400 barrels for outside sales this year - still small even by craft beer standards. "People are a lot more open to the idea now," Curtis says. "When we started, even seven years ago, the average chain restaurant wasn't interested. Nowadays most places are, and they'll have at least one or two local brews. Even small little mom-and-pop places are starting to use craft beers." Someone ought to tell their quality-control guy that he's due for a raise sometime soon.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Armageddon it on!

It wasn’t so long ago that Harvard Square was densely populated with record stores. For years it seemed like there was one on almost every block. A rash of closings in the last few years, including the recent demise of the beloved Twisted Village, have made them a little harder to find now. But that hasn’t dissuaded Ben Barnett and Chris Andries, co-owners of the Providence-based record store called Armageddon. They opened a second location of their successful shop in the old Twisted Village space late last month. We asked Barnett what on earth they were thinking.

Why open a record store now when so many others have closed?

We’re not worried about it. I think we’re both kind of workaholics. We take this stuff seriously. We’re not sitting here reading magazines and stuff. We’ve taken the business in Providence as far as we probably could take it there. As a business, you grow and change or stagnate. Lose interest and go out of business. We’re trying to go the other way. Stores are closing every day, but I guess we’re pretty dedicated to doing this right. We’ll see how this goes.

Do you think the recent resurgence in vinyl will be a boon to business?

For a store like us, we’ve always done vinyl, so it’s not really a resurgence. A resurgence would probably be more applicable to a store like Best Buy or another chain, because they think it’s going to be a novelty for a while. For stores like us, Planet, Weirdo — even Looney Tunes and Cheapo — vinyl has always been around, so it doesn’t seem like it died to us. Major labels have started pressing records again. We’ll see how long that lasts. I think that it’s going to outlast what’s left of the CD format.

Does your store have a specific genre specialty?

What Chris and I are interested in is doing vinyl and doing vinyl well. Genre-wise, we touch on a lot. We carry a lot of punk and metal and indie stuff, and we try to carry good rock, blues, jazz experimental, garage and random weird stuff here and there. Generally, if it’s vinyl and it’s got some quality to it, we try to make sure we have it in the store. We like music, so there’s no need to limit to one thing.

Was the history of this space appealing to you?

We’ve been looking for a place in Boston for four or five years. ... We heard Twisted Village was going to stop being here, and it seemed like a natural place for us to get into, with his blessing. Wayne [Rogers, former owner] spent 14 years here, and before that the Taaang! record store was [here]. I used to come up here and buy records.
12 Eliot St., Cambridge
MBTA: Red Line to Harvard

Thursty: If you need help cracking the Coda

The South End has a wealth of restaurants and bars, of course, but spend enough time there and even your favorite ones start to seem a little well-trod.

Lately I’ve been drawn back to Coda, a lesser-known bar that has the potential to become a regular arrow in my boozed-up quiver. With the latest offering from the same ownership group — Canary Square in JP — getting a lot of attention lately, I thought it might be time to revisit Coda to see what sort of gravitational pull the new bar across the city has had. Turns out the cocktails and beer at Coda have vastly improved from my last visit a few months back.

Inside, it’s a dimly lit, vertical slice of a room with swooping smooth surfaces on one side and a rough brick exterior on the other; the bar is large by South End standards, and the cocktail list is tidy and well-designed. One jumps out at me right away — The Fernet-Me-Not (see below).

What he’s having

The Fernet-Me-Not is made with Old Overholt rye, Fernet Branca, Domaine de Canton and Regans’ orange bitters. After a few sips, it instantly becomes my favorite cocktail of the new year. Bartender Brandon Carmack, who created it, says it’s his favorite as well. The bitter, burnt bark earthiness of the Fernet is balanced with the slightly sweet ginger spice of the Canton, with a little acid from the lemon and a hint of orange.

Fernet and rye can be a hard sell sometimes to people who aren’t in the know. Carmack says he loves it when his guests try something new.

“I wish people would be a little more adventurous,” he says. “I have a lot of people that come and say ‘Make me whatever you want.’ But it’s difficult when someone comes in and they say ‘Make me something that’s vodka, and make it really fruity.’ A lot of times I’ll say ‘Let me make you something, and if you don’t like it, I’ll make you something else.’” 

He won’t need to if you try this cocktail first. 

329 Columbus Ave., Boston

Monday, January 10, 2011

Buzzed boozing

In late November, the narcs at the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission decided to ban the sale of caffeinated alcoholic beverages like Four Loko, leaving legions of amateur imbibers wondering how to avoid passing out before the party ends. Sophisticated drinkers like you probably didn't mess around with that metallic, sweetly medicinal stuff - maybe because it tasted like a robot's balls, or maybe because your idea of a fun night on the town doesn't include a visit to the ER. "Caffeine and liquor should maybe not be combined in the doses that beverages like Four Loko were attempting," says Colin Kiley, beverage director at Skipjack's (199 Clarendon Street, Boston, 617.536.3500). Fortunately, there are other options for mixing caffeine with alcohol, but you'll need to look a little harder to find cocktails that aren't essentially adult milkshakes. 

"So few bars make a decent coffee cocktail. Most bartenders put some old coffee in a can and mix it with Baileys and Kahlúa, and the result is akin to an alcohol-laced ‘regulah Dunkies,' " explains Leo Crowley, general manager of West Side Lounge (1680 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 617.441.5566). Josh Eaker, bar manager at Church (69 Kilmarnock Street, Boston, 617.236.7600), has a simple solution: caffeinated spirits on the rocks. "Van Gogh Double Espresso vodka on the rocks ($10) is a great option if you need a kick. It has all the great flavor notes you enjoy about espresso without any of the overbearing sweetness of some other flavored vodkas," he says. You might also try Vincent Van Gogh 19/90 XXO EspreXXO Ultimo, which provides twice as much caffeine per serving, about 20 milligrams.

Since I always side with tequila over vodka, I prefer Patrón XO Café, which has about 10 milligrams of caffeine per serving - still not much compared to a cup of coffee, but not negligible either. Its spicy tequila bite dampens the usual sickly sweetness of coffee-flavored liquors, giving you more options for interesting flavor profiles, as in The Mon Cheri ($15); created by Kate Moore of L'Espalier (774 Boylston Street, Boston, 617.262.3023), it's made with Patrón XO, crème de cacao, Luxardo Amarena syrup, and chocolate bitters. Vincent Stipo of Deuxave (371 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617.517.5915) is using it too in his Flip Fix ($11), which combines Patrón XO with fresh espresso, Double Cross Vodka, cayenne-pepper simple syrup, and one whole egg.

At Canary Square (435 South Huntington Avenue, Jamaica Plain, 617.524.2500), general manager Bryce Mack is experimenting with ways to take the sweetness out of a boring old espresso martini as well. His Tres Loko ($8) - that's one less Loko! - features Three Olives Triple Shot Espresso vodka, milk, CREAM alcohol-infused whipped cream, and cayenne pepper. "I went through a Red Bull vodka phase," he says. "But it's not so good for you." This alternative offers just a little bit of a lift, but it won't leave you crashing (physically, or in the car on the way home). It drinks like an espresso martini, frothy and cold, but finishes with a peppery heat that gives it some substance. 

If tea is more your speed than coffee, you'll find plenty of options on cocktail menus around town. At Skipjack's, Colin Kiley suggests his Earl Gray Marteani ($9), made with tea-infused gin, honey syrup, lemon juice, and egg white. Alexei Beratis, beverage manager at Towne Stove and Spirits (900 Boylston Street, Boston, 617.247.0400), likewise prefers tea. He uses green tea in his China Pearl ($12) alongside pear vodka, ginger liqueur, and pear nectar. "It's both caffeinated and very high in antioxidants," he says. "It's a great alternative to some of the more typical selections and has its positive health benefits."

The biggest health benefit of all? With these moderately caffeinated cocktails, you'll still be getting a decent night's sleep.

Tapes 'N Tapes Outside

Tapes 'N Tapes 

Disentangling themselves from larger-label involvement seems to have lightened some of the load on this highly touted blog-band forerunner’s shoulders. Whereas their previous two records were on the cooler-than-cool XL Recordings, Outside returns Minnesota’s Tapes ’N Tapes to the DIY fold. Not to say this isn’t still indie-guitar pop of a darkened hue, but gone is some of the tightly wrought tension of previous favorites. Opener “Badaboom” bubbles along on a bright upstroke riff with open-chord space that allows the dirt of the chorus’s pleading to stand out. “SWM” is downright joyful: there’s still a thread of melancholy woven in, but acoustic jangle and footstomp are what pass for fun around this camp. That lasts until the repeated refrain of the climax — “You are alone. You are alone.” — kicks in. “One in the World” flirts with the predominant tropicália vibe du jour with a stick-on-stick beat and buoyant horns. And “Freak Out” is a grim dance party that threatens to push the honky-tonk into the swamp. It’s a broad spectrum of styles, but sometimes that’s just another way to describe the comfort of being your (multiple) selves.

Cake Showroom of Compassion

Showroom of Compassion

The sixth record from Californian arch indie foils Cake brings up a lot of questions right off the bat, like “Wait, Cake has six records?’’ The band, now recording in its own studio and releasing albums under its own power, has proven oddly irrepressible over its near 20-year end run around convention. Everyone knows the hits, of course, spoken-word gems like “The Distance,’’ “I Will Survive,’’ “Never There,’’ and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,’’ largely because they’ve proven to have such surprising staying power on modern rock radio. Add the latest, “Sick of You,’’ to the queue. It’s a winner in the classic Cake mold, with a stripped-down and dirty guitar hook, flourishing horn fanfare, and John McCrea’s trademark half-sung, disaffected vocals. Opener “Federal Funding’’ follows in that vein, with its clever take on the perils and pleasures of the academic grant-application process, of all things. Sounds like fun when put this way, actually. There’s more than just the “Cake’’ sound here, however, with forays into Beatles-esque day-tripping and mariachi-style border-jumping broadening the sonic scope and serving as a testament to how the band has stayed viable, one-trick pony misnomer to the contrary. (Out tomorrow) 

ESSENTIAL “Sick of You’’
Cake plays the Citi Wang Theatre on April 22. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

Port-based cocktails

There's a hierarchy of crappiness to those last-minute gifts you're likely to get this year. Socks, toiletries and Cosby-style Christmas sweaters are all at the bottom of the list, as is a donation in your name to, say, the Human Fund. But booze -- now, that's always a welcome afterthought.

Port wines
, for some reason, tend to be a typical booze-gift around the holidays, even if no one really knows what to do with them. To most guys, drinking port seems like an old-man affectation or something your girlfriend does with chocolate desserts.

It shouldn't. The deep fruitiness and earthy complexity of these fortified wines (true port comes from the Douro Valley in
Portugal), buoyed by the addition of grape spirits which make port higher in alcohol content than table wines, provide a depth of body and flavor profile that makes for hearty cold-weather sipping. But even if it's not to your taste on its own, you might take a cue from the many bartenders who have begun working ports into their cocktail repertoires. And since the younger ports tend to come relatively cheap, you won't break the bank experimenting with a few of them at home.

Tawny Manhattan

Of the four options here, this is definitely the simplest to begin with. While the Manhattan is probably the most perfect cocktail in existence, it doesn't hurt to experiment with a beloved recipe from time to time, just in case it turns out you can improve upon perfection. If you've got a bottle of tawny port that's been gathering dust on your shelf, consider using it to replace the sweet vermouth in a standard Manhattan. If you're used to treacly vermouths, the difference here will be striking due to the comparatively mature smoothness of the port.

2 oz rye
1 oz Sandeman Tawny Port
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients and stir over ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with an amarena cherry.


Clubland Cocktail

Although the original version of this recipe (in the 1937 Cafe Royal Cocktail Book) calls for white port, Jay Hepburn of the cocktail blog Oh Gosh! suggests substituting a tawny, which you're more likely to have on hand anyway. Tawny ports, like Dow's 10 Year, are cask-aged from anywhere between two years all the way up to a few decades. The older ones are known as vintage ports, which you wouldn't want to waste in a cocktail. Here, the comparatively youthful tawny adds nutty, vanilla and slight citrus notes to the flavorless but boozy punch of the vodka.


1.5 oz Dow's 10 Year Tawny Port
1.5 oz vodka
1 dash Angostura bitters


Stir all ingredients with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon zest twist.

Erbaluce Port Cocktail

Made from white grapes, white ports range from dry to very sweet, are lower in alcohol than tawny ports and are usually enjoyed cold. This makes them the best bet for mixing. The white port here has soft, fruity and floral flavors that emerge with the addition of the spicy cinnamon and clove bitters. This recipe, derived from a cocktail at the restaurant Erbaluce in Boston, uses anise hyssop grown in the chef's garden and dried at the restaurant, bringing an herbaceous quality to this aperitif cocktail.

1.5 oz Ferreira White Port
.75 oz anise hyssop extraction
.75 oz dry vermouth
Dash Regan's No. 6 Orange bitters

Method: Combine ingredients in a mixing glass, add ice and stir. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with half of a fresh Muscat grape.


Broken Spur Cocktail

While you'll find varying recipes for this cocktail under the same name, including one made with sweet vermouth, orange liqueur and tawny ports, this version is a better option for cocktails you'll be serving at home over the holidays. The port itself is dry, with stone-fruit notes like apricot and peaches that meld nicely with the botanicals of the gin, both of which are eased into a frothy smoothness with the egg white and a seasonally flavorful pop from the nutmeg.

1 Egg Yolk
1 oz Quinta do Infantado White Port
1 oz gin
1 dash anise liqueur

Method: Dry shake all ingredients thoroughly to emulsify, then shake again over ice before straining into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a dusting of nutmeg or cinnamon.


FREEZEPOP With the New Collisions
At: Great Scott, Saturday

It may sound strange to call a Boston band that’s been in operation for more than 10 years one of the scene’s best-kept secrets, and yet one can’t help but think after watching the synth-pop four-member Freezepop at Great Scott that they are not getting their full due. It’s even stranger when you consider that their music has gotten broad international exposure in some 10 popular video games such as the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series, and that their last album sold in the realm of 100,000 singles. Perhaps it’s just another case of a band being more highly appreciated outside its own scene.

There was no lack of love in the air in the sold-out crowd on Saturday night, the second of Freezepop’s two-night record-release party. Translating the type of computer-world synth pop the band has perfected over its four full-lengths and multiple EP releases (the latest, “Imaginary Friends,’’ has just arrived) has always been difficult. Plenty of like-minded robot Pinocchios forget the breathing part of the equation when unspooling their miles of laptop and keyboard wires onstage. Not so Freezepop, whose members traded off instruments, keytars, drum kit synth pads, guitar, and keyboards in a dizzying, high-energy set of tracks from throughout the quartet’s career. The dance moves onstage didn’t hurt either.

New songs, such as the wryly sung “Lost That Boy’’ and the darkly wrought (relatively speaking) title track with its ascending and descending harmonized key figures, washed over the dancing crowd bathed in multicolored strobes. Many in the audience were singing along to the new material word for word. On “Lady Spider’’ singer Liz Enthusiasm wrapped her microphone cord around multi-instrumentalist Sean Drinkwater like the titular arachnid.

Older favorites such as the shouty, arch “Bike Thief’’ and “Brain Power’’ were exuberantly delivered. Toward the end of the set, Kasson Crooker, a now-departed founding member of the band, rejoined his mates onstage. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many keytars in one place,’’ a dancing fan was overheard to say. Crooker brought a new-wave punk attitude to the stage for “Shark Attack’’ and the rocking “Less Talk More Rokk,’’ in which Drinkwater and drummer Robert Foster affected a heavy metal band complete with guitar slaying and anthemic drum rolls. It made it easy to forget that even if the instruments aren’t real, the creativity and the heart of the band are.

Boston’s the New Collisions channeled a parallel but distinctively different 1980s era with their Elvis Costello and the Attractions by way of No Doubt power pop. Bouncy bass lines and rich organ churning in smartly written songs and a sharply played set left room for singer Sarah Guild to charm the crowd with her alternately romantic crooning and brash shouts.

Boston Globe

Jamie Foxx

It’s just not a party track these days unless you’re calling out top-shelf alcohol by name in three-part harmony. So it goes as Jamie Foxx, actor, romantic crooner, and apparent tequila enthusiast, kicks off his latest full-length. The success of a record like this is pretty easy to track on a utilitarian level: After listening you either want to party with the dude or you don’t. The answer here? OK, sure. But you’re buying the first round. The charismatic Foxx enlists the aid of, well, everyone to argue his case. Wiz Khalifa, Rick Ross, T.I., Rico Love, Justin Timberlake, Ludacris, Soulja Boy, and Drake all stop by at one point or another, lending their tracks a tug into their respective stylistic orbits. Love’s appearance on “Freak’’ is one standout, with the duo croon-rapping over a hallucinatory synth squiggle that inches toward the indie/electro side of the dancefloor divide and melds a “Thriller’’ melody with a “Safety Dance’’ affect. Solo tracks backloaded onto the latter half, like the slow-jamming throwbacks “Gorgeous’’ and “15 Minutes,’’ seem less relevant. Never mind partying with you, dude, I just want to scroll through your contacts for a few minutes.  


Boston Globe