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Can Boston’s Only Classic Cocktail Make a Comeback?

Boston's only classic cocktail has long been plagued by disrepute and bad sour mix. But a new crop of bartenders is helping it stage a comeback. Leah Mennies goes on a two-night crawl with local legend Brother Cleve to check in on the current state of the Ward Eight.

ward eight boston brother cleve yvonnes

One of the first known printed appearances of the Ward Eight cocktail occurred in 1907, in a column in the Boston Herald that referred to the beverage as “the most talked-of drink in Boston.” The ingredients, to be presented in a goblet, were listed thusly: whiskey, lemon juice, powdered sugar, “French” grenadine and soda, with “lemons, oranges, pineapple, and strawberries” as garnish.

Following that description, the article asked: “Wouldn’t that make your mouth water?”

Fast-forward over a century, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a Ward Eight on a cocktail menu in Boston (save for a downtown bar around the corner from the home of the Celtics and Bruins called Ward 8, with a solid if unremarkable version of the drink). Mainly that’s because the drink is basically a Whiskey Sour with the addition of orange juice and grenadine—or “something you’d make if you were raiding your parents’ liquor cabinet,” as a friend recently described it.

But like it or not, the Ward Eight is Boston’s signature drink—its credited answer to New Orleans’ Sazerac and New York’s Manhattan. And with regional identity trumpeted on cocktail menus all over town via small-batch New England rums and local craft ciders, could now be the time to see the Ward Eight make a comeback? And, perhaps more to the point, should it?

To check in on the current state of the drink in its spiritual home, I set off on a two-night, five-stop bar crawl with the newsboy-capped patriarch of the Boston bar scene, Brother Cleve—a real life consumer of the cocktail, which he got a taste for when it was the beverage of choice of his great-aunt in the ‘60s.  “When well-executed, it’s actually a very good drink,” he says.

But unlike the Sazerac or the Manhattan, “well-executed” lacks a standardized meaning when it comes to the Ward Eight. Since that first appearance in 1907, the drink structure varies widely in cocktail books throughout the last century, with the orange juice component flitting in and out of the specs, and bizarre wildcards like gin appearing (in addition to whiskey) on occasion. Some books call for it straight up, others poured over cracked ice and topped with soda, Collins-style. And the devil is in the details with this drink: use a too-low-in-proof whiskey or too much grenadine or citrus, and the whole thing goes off the rails.

“I was like, you know what? I want to figure this drink out, because every time I had it, it really sucked.”

Despite the variation, the version that’s most often associated with the drink comes from its alleged birthplace: Locke-Ober, storied bastion of Boston fine-dining on Winter Place in Downtown Crossing, where old white dinner-jacketed politicos dined on lobster Savannah and schnitzel a la Holstein (and where women weren’t admitted until the 1970s). As lore has it, the Ward Eight was first created at Locke-Ober in 1898 to celebrate the political victory of Martin “Mahatma” Lomasney, boss of Boston’s Eighth Ward district. While the drink’s origins have been since disputed (Was there even grenadine available at that time? Wasn’t Lomasney a teetotaler?), it remained a signature cocktail there, eventually devolving, according to Cleve, into a mix of whiskey, sour mix and bottled grenadine by the late ‘60s.

Locke-Ober closed in 2012, and in its place is a modern “supper club” called Yvonne’s, the name a nod to the subject of Locke-Ober’s iconic nude painting and private members-only club. Much of Locke-Ober’s architectural bones remain at Yvonne’s, but it’s been very thoroughly brought into 2015. Alongside a throwback plate of Baked Oysters “Savannah” you can snack on Korean fried chicken pizza and Negroni-flavored ice cream cones. There’s a nude painting here, too, but the disrobed Yvonne is taking a selfie.

Bar manager Will Thompson knew that the former Locke-Ober space had a lot of very bad Ward Eights to make up for, so he called on cocktail historian David Wondrich, who led the Yvonne’s staff through a tasting of about a dozen historic variations that he’d unearthed from various books and newspaper clippings (including the aforementioned 1907 Boston Herald recipe). “That’s why I was happy to go up and work with Will and his crew—let’s see if we can recover what people liked about this drink in the first place,” says Wondrich.

What they settled on is what Cleve described as a “fine retro-future version” that mixes Rittenhouse rye, house grenadine, a small proportion of orange juice, club soda and a curveball: palo cortado sherry from Lustau.

“It was always a fairly simple drink and simple in flavor profile,” says Wondrich, who discovered the version of the Ward Eight that calls for sherry in a New York Sun column from 1934. “The sherry really works to make it more interesting without making it weird.”

Perhaps the best-known riff on the drink was created by Cleve himself for the 2008 Tales of the Cocktail. The Ninth Ward—which was meant as an homage to the district of New Orleans home to his favorite dive bar, the Saturn Bar—combines bourbon in lieu of the Ward Eight’s more-standard rye, falernum in place of grenadine, lime juice for the lemon and St. Germain. The drink had a something of a moment at the time, with Cleve reporting that it was spotted at bars as far away as Ohio. 

A riff on Cleve’s Ninth Ward is now an off-menu special at the restaurant Trade, where bartender Tenzin Samdo runs an experimental cocktail program that routinely offers selections inspired by “Boston cocktail legends.” Samdo’s drink—called the Mahatma in homage to Martin Lomasney—is a hybrid of the Ward Eight and Ninth Ward, combining the grenadine of the former (here infused with hibiscus) and the lime of the latter, and nodding to the orange juice component with orange oil.

The orange substitution is a telling one, it turns out. While many things can make the Ward Eight go awry—bad grenadine, whiskey that’s too low in proof, sour mix, the list goes on—the best chance at standardizing it, actually, comes down to the orange juice, which is most often deployed in half-ounce portions alongside a half-ounce of lemon.

“I was like, you know what? I want to figure this drink out, because every time I had it, it really sucked,” says Chad Arnholt, who now runs the cocktail consulting company Tin Roof Drink Community out of San Francisco, and previously worked at Boston’s Citizen Public House. “I started with that, and thought of it more as a lemon and pomegranate drink, with orange as the accent…In a way it’s kind of cheating because I almost kicked [orange juice] out of the cocktail, but on the other hand it tastes a lot better.”

Arnholt uses just a quarter-ounce in his version of the drink, which Cleve says is still the best Ward Eight he’s ever had. “The Ward Eight reminds me of a talk I heard [bartender] Erick Castro give once,” says Arnholt. “Basically he said he doesn’t prefer the Blood and Sand [cocktail], but hell, who knows what oranges tasted like 100 years ago?” Just as the use of orange juice has morphed over time, so too have the oranges themselves.

It’s worth noting that the variation at Yvonne’s contains a quarter-ounce of orange juice as well, as did our final cocktail of the crawl, at perhaps the least likely spot to enjoy the Ward Eight: Hojoko, a new izakaya around the corner from Fenway Park, which offers cocktails on draft, boozy slushies and five different types of sake bombs.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not on the menu, but co-bar-manager Darren Swisher whipped up his variation on the fly, dialing back the orange juice by splitting it with a house tamari-lime cordial, and mixing it with lemon juice, grenadine with seasoned rice wine vinegar and high-proof bourbon.

Hojoko’s odd-yet-familiar version of the cocktail is instructive: If we don’t even have the same orange juice that we did when the drink was conceived, couldn’t it be high time we stopped obsessing about how the Ward Eight was made a really long time ago? Perhaps the only way to truly reclaim a historically not-so-great drink—or any drink, for that matter—is to acknowledge that its identity need not be fixed. It’s a mindset that, in its own way, is entirely in keeping with the Ward Eight’s unwieldy heritage.

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