Sunday, October 7, 2012

:: greasing the hub ::

The first talk on Thursday at the Boston Cocktail Summit was Greasing the Hub by David Wondrich. Wondrich took a subsection of his Imbibe! and Punch research and crafted a very Boston-centric view on drink culture from the Colonial years into modern day. The talk started a few minutes late since Wondrich refused to begin until the drinks arrived. Once they did, he fixed a bowl of punch and toasted the official start of the Boston Cocktail Summit.

Initially, the Colonists drank in an English style especially in the 18th century with small beers replacing water up and down the social strata. Gentlemen and those with social aspirations drank wine, but it was rather expensive and there was not a robust wine smuggling industry as there was in England. Most of the wine drank was fortified by wine merchants who altered the taste to the British palate as well as making transport across the Atlantic easier. Originally, the British thought that the American colonies were their hope to start their own wine industry for the British Empire; however, they could not get the native grapes to taste good. Moreover, almost every variety of European grape died for the phylloxera louse to which the local grapes were resistant were able to ravage the noble vines' root stock.

The British and their colonies were not big drinkers of distilled spirits until the 1660s coinciding with the East India Trading Company's activity. The sailors brought their love of punch to the colonies, and through manipulating components of spirit, sugar, citrus, and water, a balance akin to wine could be achieved. Punch quickly became the drink of everyone from rich gentlemen to the common man.

New England taverns had strong political affiliations which was something that Christine Sismondo discusses in America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops. These taverns sold punch, flip (not the egg version but the rum and beer combination heated with a red-hot poker), Tom & Jerry, sling, and glog. Basically a lot of egg, beer, and rum-rich drinks. Whiskey and fruit brandies came later once transportation from the grain and orchard growing regions to the people-rich seaboard took off thanks to the Erie Canal and trains. By 1702, the New England Almanac firmly supported that liquor culture here was strong.

Boston played a strong role in the cocktail triangle which had Albany and New York as the other two corners. The first reference in print of the cocktail in Boston was in the 1810s-20s. The first landmark of the Boston cocktail was the Tremont House. Built in 1829, it was the first modern hotel replete with indoor plumbing and key-locks for the individual rooms. The bar there was so notable that Charles Dickens wrote about it his 1842 travelogue American Notes for General Circulation. Not only did the gin slings, sangarees, cobblers, and cocktails catch his eye, but Dickens was introduced to the art of perpendicular drinking. Without the need to sit, more people had access to the bartenders' attention as people could approach and then move away to make room at the bar. Dickens drew a bit of attention to the Tremont, and his stories brought in celebrities. William Pitcher soon became one of Boston's celebrity bartenders with his time at the Tremont starting around 1860. Around 1855, the Parker House opened up across the street from the Tremont Hotel and later became the best bar in town.

During the 1840s, ice began to enter into the cocktail equation. Frederic Tudor became known as the Ice King and started harvesting, storing, and transporting around the country and world. His source ponds surround Boston such as Walden Pond, Fresh Pond, Spy Pond, and others. This ice trade began to cool the drinks of the Gold Rush saloons and help to change the face of the cocktail as well as advance the cobbler and julep.

There were not many Boston-specific cocktails recorded though. One was the Worthington Cocktail which was only captured by name only. Of the two major newspapers in town, the Boston Herald was a Temperance paper, and the Globe was not and frequently sent reporters to get news at the bars. This news was light and gossipy to fill space in the publication. The Herald company owned various properties including one that housed a bar. The Globe decided to create a drink a drink named after the Herald's top guy, and they would describe drinks at bars as being good, but not as strong as a Worthington Cocktail. The Temperance movement in the late 19th century did affect drinking in Boston. The governor banned perpendicular drinking and tried to ban Sunday drinking, but this was hard to enforce. While many women's organizations were Temperance related, Boston had its own toast club where ladies would drink Green Swizzles and other libations and speak of the chosen topic of the day; they pre-dated the Boston LUPEC group by well over a century but with a similar purpose.
Boston did play a role in cocktail tool technology. The Hawthorne Cafe opened up in Boston in 1890 and the Hawthorne strainer was produced through their ingenuity in 1892. Above is an original strainer from Wondrich's collection.

The best known cocktail from Boston is surely the Ward 8 created at the Locke-Ober in 1898. Lucius Beebe described how the sporting life was strongly entrenched at the Locke-Ober during this time, but the drink was created for the political crowd at a victory dinner before the election even took place. The first evidence of what was in the drink was in 1906 where A Bachelor's Cupboard describes how it was sweetened with grenadine. By 1915, it became the Boston cocktail with variations that used raspberry syrup or Bourbon. Wondrich served the room a Ward 8 -- the first of three that day for me. The next was by Gertsen and crew at my next talk, and the last was at the Locke-Ober itself for a cocktail formal that night! The last Boston drink that was mentioned in the talk was the Periodista, an obscure concoction created in Cuba in the 1940s that found its new home in Boston in the mid-1990s.

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