Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Liquid: Cordially Yours

photo: joel veak

The laws regarding drinking in Massachusetts are a bit complicated. In fact, they're so Byzantine that many bars, particularly those without full liquor licenses, have a hard time understanding what they can and cannot serve. This summer, the Boston Licensing Board dropped the hammer on two such spots, Cafe Meridian in Eastie and Vlora in the Back Bay, inspecting stock that had been seized by police to determine whether it complied with the specifications of their limited licenses. The board ultimately ruled that Meridian's infused vodkas and tequilas could be categorized as cordials; much of Vlora's product, on the other hand, was essentially hard liquor. 

What exactly is the difference between cordials and hard liquor? The law says it's a matter of sugar content. In layman's terms: if you float enough herbs, fruits, or plants in a bottle of booze, raising the sugar content to no less than 2.5 percent, then you're good to go.

But for some reason, the categorizations don't always seem so clear-cut. There seem to be a lot of exceptions to these supposedly hard-and-fast rules, and things can get very confusing for mixologists.
Jillian Rocco of The Salty Pig (130 Dartmouth Street, Boston, 617.536.6200), which operates with a license allowing for "wines and malt beverages with liqueurs," is among those who find the details hard to suss out. "It really has nothing to do with the alcohol content," says Rocco. "Surprisingly, I can carry Green Chartreuse, which is 110 proof, but not whiskey or gin, some of which are only 80 proof. To that end, cognac is considered a cordial, yet I can't carry it. What gives?" 

But there is an upside to working within this confusing category. A limited palette can prove as inspiring to a creative bartender as to any artist. Rocco says she thought her head would explode at first, but ultimately she relished the challenge. "I sat down and thought of all of the spirits that I love that are considered cordials and took it from there," she says. "It actually helped me focus on the task at hand. I had a solid list of things that I could carry instead of a never-ending beverage journal filled with scads and scads of spirits." 

Nick Korn of Erbaluce (69 Church Street, Boston, 617.426.6969) jokes that a limited license can feel "like bartending with eight fingers tied behind my back." But he's learned to channel his frustrations into new approaches. An attempt to make a gin-less Negroni ($10) led Korn to a recipe that "mimics the characteristic bitter flavor" using dry and sweet vermouth, as well as a bitter orange liqueur. "I found that I wasn't missing the alcohol content provided by the gin, but rather the depth added by its aromatics," he says. "I ended up making juniper bitters - with flavors of juniper berries, black pepper, coriander, angelica, and citrus peel - to add depth and add back in the intimation of gin."

And when he became too frustrated with the limited cordials available, Korn started making his own. They've shown up in his variation on a Pimm's Cup ($9), made with a cognac base infused with ginger, orange, sugar, and tisane (an herbal tea made with aromatics like angelica, lovage, coriander, oregano, and marjoram) and mixed with fresh lemon juice and soda water. Another reconstructed classic, the Aroma di Venus ($10), riffs on a gimlet. Here he infuses grappa with marjoram and sugar; then he combines it with fresh lime juice and a spray of lavender-leaf essence. It's intended to be an introduction to grappa, a spirit unfamiliar to many guests. "Since adding it to the list, many guests have asked for ‘that grappa drink,' a phrase I had never heard called out before at a bar, and about which I am very proud," says Korn. 

Limitation encourages guests to branch out and converse with their bartender, he adds, since they can't simply order their stock drink. A bartender can recommend a cocktail that calls to mind one of their favorites, like Rocco's Amaro Old Fashioned ($10). Modeled after the classic cocktail, it uses the bitter Italian digestif in place of the verboten whiskey. 

Something good does come from weird laws every now and then, it seems. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but scarcity is often the midwife. 

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