Wednesday, October 31, 2012

:: book review - drinking boston ::

At the Boston Cocktail Summit book store, they had advance copies of Stephanie Schorow's Drinking Boston: A History of the City and Its Spirits for sale. The copy I bought sat around for a few days before I decided that I would read it on the plane trip over to Portland Cocktail Week. When I spoke with Stephanie, she mentioned that DrinkBoston's Lauren Clark was a possible author for it before Lauren departed to California. While Lauren would have made for an excellent story teller for this book, Stephanie's other books put her in a good position to make this her next step. Her last book, The Boston Mob Guide: Hit Men, Hoodlums, & Hideouts, has an overlapping cast of characters from the Prohibition days when liquor smuggling and speakeasies were rampant in the city. And her work on The Cocoanut Grove Fire book covers the post-Prohibition era when nightclubs began to take over from the speakeasy's and the saloon's reign.

One of the focal points of Drinking Boston is the Ward Eight cocktail in regards to tracing back the legend and lore of its creation at Locke-Ober and possible original ingredients. This aspect hit home because a few weeks before during the Boston Cocktail Summit, I had attended a charity gala there called TheThing and had the honor of drinking a Ward Eight there. It also was poignant because the weekend I was reading the book, Locke-Ober announced that it was shutting its doors forever (later, I learned that a buyer might re-open it with the history intact instead of the gutting we all feared).

After the Ward Eight introduction, the beginning of the book focuses on the early days of drinking in Boston. I touched on some of this information during David Wondrich's Greasing the Hub talk during the Boston Cocktail Summit and during Christine Sismondo and James Waller's The Bad, Bad Boys of Saloons talk at Tales of the Cocktail (in support of Sismondos America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops book). Even with those primers, Schorow's research uncovers stories and locations that were new to me, and her focus was rather sharpened to the Boston area.

The novel material to me appears with the later years that included the Jacob Wirth restaurant and how it survived Prohibition serving near-beer and about the sports bar run by Michael "Nuf Ced" McGreevy. The speakeasy chapter covers interesting tales about the Marliave, Club Garden, Faneuil Hall Club, and other establishments that figured out ways to keep the drinks flowing despite the great problem sourcing spirits and the risks associated with operating an illegal bar during Prohibition. The book also traces the term "scofflaw" to a newspaper contest here in Boston, and how the name was usurped across the Atlantic for a cocktail to honor those who went against the Dry Tide.

The crime tie-ins are great during this period with one of the more colorful stories being about the life of Charlie Solomon who switched from narcotics trafficking to opening the Cocoanut Grove nightclub and hanging out at the Cotton Club during Prohibition. For the section on Prohibition repeal, Schorow ties in the modern speakeasy movement by discussing the aesthetics of modern day Boston establishments like Saloon, Brick & Mortar, and Backbar.

Moreover, Drinking Boston covers the city's beer brewing history as well including the Haffenreffer brewery that later became populated by the Boston Beer Company, and the other breweries that used to dot the Stony Brook corridor of Jamaica Plain and Mission Hill. Also, the modern rebirth of breweries and distilleries in Boston is discussed.

The more modern day chapters focus on famous Boston bars like J.J Foley's, the Rathskellar, Doyle's Café, and the Merry-Go-Round bar at the Copley (yes, there used to be more carousel bars than the one at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans). In addition, gay bar history, such as the Eagle, Playland, and Jacques, as well as jazz clubs like Wally's showcase the wide variety of drinking establishments in the city. And the end features some of the modern cocktail resurgence by providing coverage of Jackson Cannon, John Gertsen, Misty Kalkofen, Jamie Walsh, Todd Maul, and Brother Cleve.

Overall, the book does a good job discussing over three hundred years of imbibing in Boston. The power of the stories builds as the time frame becomes more and more recent, and the photo and illustration selections help to root these stories with images of bars and bootleggers alike.

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