Sunday, May 6, 2012

Liquid: Drink It Down

Photo: MELISSA OSTROW Charlotte Voisey, cocktail consultant for W Hotels

The best drinking often happens underground. There's something primal about the experience that harks back to the first dark, dank, primitive watering holes. (Which, come to think of it, were literally watering holes - and had absolutely killer specials on Schlitz, I'm guessing.) Two local subterranean bars, Saloon (255 Elm Street, Somerville, 617.628.4444) and Descent (100 Stuart Street, Boston, 617.310.6742), are brand-spanking new, yet both nod to the past. Slated to open at the beginning of the month, Saloon - a downstairs expansion of Davis Square's Foundry on Elm restaurant - looks back to an era even earlier than that which inspired the now-ubiquitous speakeasy aesthetic. And Descent, the ultra-modern W Boston's new underground nightspot, nods to the Theater District's not-so-distant past as a red-light district. Before the paint was dry and the tap wet, we pulled up a stool with their respective tastemakers to learn more.

You're designing the bar program for Descent. Will it lean more toward that of a nightclub or that of a lounge? It's going to fit somewhere in the middle. It looks like a nightclub, and the hours are going to be 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., Wednesday through Sunday, to start off with, so it will behave like a club. But it very much has a loungy feel through d├ęcor, the seating, the service, and obviously the cocktail menu, which is why I'm in town.

So the bar won't have a slinging-them-out club vibe, but more of a craft-cocktail vibe? Absolutely - exactly that. I think the cocktail menu is one of the reasons people will come here. It's going to definitely be a point of differentiation. My approach is always about fresh ingredients and having fun, combining flavors that are interesting but not intimidating. We're not going take craft cocktails to an extreme here. People coming to enjoy music don't want to be lectured on the history of Prohibition. There will be stories behind every drink, if people want to know them, and a few classics on the menu. But it's more about having great-looking and -tasting drinks people can enjoy without having to learn, necessarily. 

You manage cocktail programs at high-profile bars around the world, and you've been recognized at Tales of the Cocktail, on TV, and elsewhere. What has set your cocktail programs apart? I try to make cocktails unintimidating, to find the middle ground. There's no compromise on quality and flavor, but at the same time it's knowing your audience and making drinks for those people. I don't make drinks for myself, or to show off, or to appease historians or peers, but cocktails people are going to want to come in and enjoy.

David Flanagan, co-owner of Saloon

Why "Saloon"? In present day, we have this thing called a bar. Prior to that, they were called speakeasies because of Prohibition. Prior to that, they were called saloons. The whole focus is to keep it as close to a saloon from back in the day as possible. The beer will be served in beer mugs, and the food will be served on butcher blocks. There's no pretentiousness. . . . It's a celebration of the original barkeep, the original cocktails. 

What's the design of the room? Our furniture originally came from a 14th-century castle in England - this old carved oak, an incredible selection of furniture. The horseshoe bar is wooden with brass tips. It's going to be more casual than Foundry on Elm. . . . The bar has about 18 stools. There are going to be wooden tables, very plush furniture, rugs on the floor, and brick walls - dirty, chipped-away copper bricks. 

Will it differ in style from the upstairs bar? Absolutely. There will be a separate entrance. I feel like downstairs the menu will complement the drinks, [whereas] upstairs our beverage program complements the food. . . . We have a theater you can access from Saloon, so it will become sort of interactive. It's going be the Comedy Connection coming in doing shows in early November, and then the Actors' Shakespeare Project coming in for the remainder of the year. 

What's the focus behind the bar? We're going to open up with 16 beers on tap, but I want to focus on the brown spirits and move away from the clear spirits. There's going to be a significant amount of bourbons, keeping in the true style of an original saloon.


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