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Bar Review: Revisiting Boston’s Trailblazing ‘Drink’

In Robert Simonson's "Bar Review," he offers a look at some of today’s most notable venues. Here, he takes a fresh look at Boston's pioneering bar, Drink, nearly a decade into service.

On a busy Friday night at Boston’s Drink, a barback stands in the center island bar, flanked by a bucket of citrus, getting a no-fee workout manning a jumbo juicer. It goes on continuously—sometimes it’s limes, sometimes lemons, sometimes oranges.

A novice would wonder why such mundane chores couldn’t be performed out of sight. (In fact, they are—until the kitchen staff kicks the barbacks out onto the floor.) But a seasoned Drink patron would know the juicing is part of the show. It’s just one piece of evidence—and there’s lots of evidence—of the stubborn, principled, à la minute cocktail culture that defines this venerable bar, which opened nine years ago several feet below Congress Street in the once-gritty, now-trendy Fort Point neighborhood.

There are only a handful of bar openings from the last 20 years that marked a sea change in U.S. cocktail advancement. Among them: Absinthe in San Francisco, Milk & Honey in New York and The Aviary in Chicago. Drink is another. Drink took Milk & Honey’s bartender’s-choice ethos and doubled down on it. Not only is there no cocktail menu, ensuring that every order entails a personalized interaction with the bartender, there is no back bar where customers might spy their favorite brand and fall back into safe habits.

“I always got confused by the rows of bottles along the wall and never understood how someone who ordered, say, gin and tonics, could sample enough spirits to vastly prefer one brand over another,” writes Barbara Lynch, the chef-restaurateur owner of Drink, No. 9 Park and many others, in her new memoir, Out of Line. “Too many of those bottles sit there moldering while the widely advertised brand gets served.”

Lynch was that rare name chef who, in 2008, wasn’t annoyed by the rise of mixology. She longed to establish a bar, and put bartender John Gertsen, who had earned his stripes at Lynch’s No. 9 Park, in charge. Gertsen delivered, creating a bar that grabbed national headlines and accolades. It remains a destination, even as a field of buzzier bars have sprouted around it.

A Night at Drink

Drink has always had a bit of a split personality. On one hand, it’s spare and pared down, with its brick walls and monk-like focus on quality cocktails. On the other, it’s sneakily flashy. There are three stations to the maze-like, custom-made bar, each with its own attractions (the citrus juicer in the middle; a huge ice block to the right, regularly hacked at; the quieter left nook, suited for conversation).

On recent evening, I watched as the famous house Old-Fashioned was made in the old London style, painstakingly built and stirred down over five minutes, while the high row of windows looking out onto Congress Street framed a never-ending film of Boston passersby. In many ways, Drink is all around you no matter where you sit. It’s akin to immersive theater.

Still, even for a cocktail bar with the strengths and uniqueness of Drink, it’s a challenge to remain relevant. A lot of the practices that the bar helped champion—chilled glassware, block ice, craft spirits—are now old hat. But Drink has risen to the task largely by striving to perfect its original self, rather that reinvent. Gertsen left in 2014, and was succeeded by his protégé, Ezra Star, who has refined the things that make Drink hum. At times, there can be a rote familiarity to the goings-on, but when the bar is hitting on all cylinders, it’s as good and fresh as it ever was.

“Much of my work in the last few years has focused on systematizing and elaborating our in-house systems and training methods,” says Star. “Basically, all of the stuff we were working on before John’s departure has been further elaborated upon and organized, making it easier for our team to learn and grow.”

If a cocktail bar gives itself over completely to the concept of bartender’s choice, its drinks will be judged not only by how they turn out, but by the very cocktail that is recommended. On the first of three recent visits, my opening order should have been child’s play: I asked for an aperitif cocktail, “like a Negroni, but not a Negroni.” I got a Boulevardier, which is a Negroni made with bourbon. This would have been an acceptable outcome in 2008, when the Boulevardier was still obscure. Today, the drink is so well known that even a novice home bartender could have easily made that leap of logic.

Another night, with a different bartender, brought a more surprising result. When I said I wanted a tiki drink that resembled an Old-Fashioned, I got a Polynesian Paralysis, a rare tiki specimen that calls for bourbon. Three whopping ounces of it, in fact, abetted by orange, pineapple and lemon juice and orgeat. It was an unexpected turn, and a dangerous pleasure to drink. This, I thought, was more like it.

The same bartender charmed me later on when I asked for a nightcap. I was not, as I expected, given a boozy number along the lines of a Sazerac, but the outré Brandy Alexander. A nightcap from another generation, it was served in classic fashion, in a coupe, with grated nutmeg on top, inspiring no shortage of ogling from fellow customers. It was a smart, counter-intuitive call.

Drink relies heavily on classics, both major and minor, but it does have a few notable originals up its sleeve, including the Fort Point, a Manhattan variation that calls for rye whiskey, Punt e Mes and Bénédictine; and the Johann Goes to Mexico, a mezcal spin on the Trinidad Sour that calls for a full half-ounce of Angostura bitters. The latter, a cocktail-geek special if there ever was one, is dense and grainy, the smoke of the mezcal sneaking through cracks in the formidable wall of Angostura spice.

That notorious Old-Fashioned, meanwhile, is made with muddled lump sugar and Old Overholt rye, and the lemon twist is discarded after it kisses the lip of the glass. (Gersten was fiercely anti-garnish, and twists still hit the trash once they’ve performed their function.) The drink is low on sweetness and high on alcohol. It’s got a hard edge and takes a few sips to ease into, but once you’re acclimated, you want to stay.

As befits a bar owned by Barbara Lynch, the bar snacks are among the best you’ll find in any cocktail bar. Dense and satisfying are the watchwords here, from the famous Irish soda bread, with its sweet-sour accents of currant and caraway, to one of the best chicken parmesan sandwiches I’ve ever had, its layers of cooked-in flavor nestled inside a round, seeded roll.

The food menu is the only place where you’ll find cocktails listed; each dish has a recommended pairing. This is a recent phenomenon, though—the fruit of Star’s efforts to breed more collaboration between the kitchen and bar staffs. The suggested partner of the gnocchi and artichokes was the Martini-esque Means of Preservation, a Gertsen original made of gin, St-Germain, dry vermouth and celery bitters.

I had that pairing at the center station, the largest of the three bars and Drink’s center court of sorts. It is the best place to observe Drink’s often idiosyncratic attention to detail. One night, a barspoon-wielding bartender carefully hacked away at the ice that had formed on a coupe just retrieved from the freezer. Another, they prepared a new slew of drinks, lined up a row of wide-brimmed Oxo jiggers, and began filling them, bit by bit, with the needed ingredients, before transferring the liquid to a mixing glass. It was an exceedingly odd, and in many ways terribly inefficient, way to build a drink. But it was excellent ringside entertainment.

As I left the bar on my final visit, I scanned the various counters. Several customers were watching the show and chatting with bartenders. Others, long used to Drink’s theater, were talking among themselves, just as they would at any regular joint. The place where I had sat already had its fresh napkin and water glass. Behind the bar, a plastic bucket of oranges awaited the squeezer. Drink sailed on.

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