Devin Hahn

Multimedia Storyteller, Writer, Cocktail Blogger

Month: June 2010

Periodista Tales: Noir—A Mystery in Print

If you’re lucky enough to be biking past the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square at 1:30 in the morning, you might begin to hear a dull roar. It’s summer, and the patio at Noir is a dense, throbbing mass of loosened ties and fallen-strap dresses. From one until two in the morning, Noir is your last chance for a last call in Cambridge.

If you show up during daylight hours, it’s a different story. I locked my bike by the Legal Sea Foods, walked through the hotel lobby and past the beaded curtain into Noir. It was happy hour, when you can drink at any bar you want. Most people were drinking elsewhere. Inside, a small staff of young women in black uniforms shuttled beers from the bar out to the patio. On the sound system, James Brown was singing about it being a man’s world. I couldn’t argue the evidence.

I took a bar seat and asked for the menu. There it was, under “classics”—Periodista. I ordered one.

Noir has the curious honor of being one of the only bars to have a recipe for the Periodista attributed to them in print: Food & Wine magazine’s Cocktails 2006. For all posterity knows, the damn thing cropped up at Noir one night in a frenzy of misplaced bottles.

As Alice Rodriguez made my Periodista, I told her what I was up to. Her reaction was typical.

“Really?  Not even in New York?  That is so strange!”

A row of martini glasses sat upended in a bed of crushed ice. Rodriguez flipped one over and filled it. I asked her how the Periodista found its way onto their menu.

“The whole classic cocktail revival really started around here with this bar called the B-Side Lounge,” she said. “And one of the guys who quit there and came here brought the Periodista to our classics list. Yep, a guy named Paul McGowan. He doesn’t bartend anymore, he teaches.”

The name was new but the story was familiar. I asked her about the recipe.

“I think I have that book around here,” she said, and disappeared under the bar for a minute. Across the room, a black and white film flickered blearily on an exposed brick wall. I couldn’t tell if it was Cagney or Sinatra.

Rodriguez emerged with the book, dog-eared and water-warped, and flipped to the page. “Yep, here it is,” she said. “I really don’t know how this recipe got into the hands of Food & Wine. It was so many years and so many managers ago. Just a sec.”

Rodriguez went to consult with a group of waitresses gathered around the cash register. I watched the couple sitting three seats down from me sip languidly at piles of olives wet with vodka. I drank my Periodista.

Rodriguez returned. “I think I was the only one here who would have been around for that,” she said. “I’m honestly not sure how it happened.”

I nodded. A dead end. I finished my drink and ordered another. It’s what Cagney would have done. Or Sinatra.

As Rodriguez made my second, I flipped through Noir’s menu. A solid selection of classics. Some inventive originals. I began to wonder why no one ever mentioned Noir in the same breath as other craft cocktail joints around town. I asked Rodriguez.

“Well,” she said. “It’s probably because we’re really known for being an after hours bar. We’re open until two every night, so lots of restaurant industry people come here, but it’s right when they get out of work, so they can only just get in here before we close. And by that point in the night every other person that’s been drinking is here, too. The place is jam-packed—it’s crazy, we move all these tables here out of the way—and it’s just, like, High Lifes and Fernets, High Lifes and Fernets. I can easily double my sales in one hour.”

One of the waitresses had been listening in. “Never a dull moment,” she said, laughing.

“And everyone is just wasted, too,” said Rodriguez. “I can understand cocktail people not wanting to come here, and that’s too bad—I do enjoy having a conversation like this, instead of just ‘youyouyouyouyouyouyouyou,’ late-night.”

Rodriguez smiled. “But I love that, too.  It’s like my hour when I get to do whatever I want.”

I smiled back. It was a fine story, but I began to see a list of interconnected names—McGuirk, Gertsen, Cannon, Kalkofen—with Rodriguez’s name not on it. That told a different story.  Maybe the wrong one, but I wondered.

A chill breeze washed through the open patio doors, carrying with it cigarette smoke and the promise of rain. I thought about the B-Side Lounge, which by all accounts had that same manic, late-night energy and still managed to make a reputation for its cocktails. I asked Rodriguez if she used to go there, knowing the answer.

“The B-Side was such a hub for all of us,” she said. “You never had to call anybody, you could just show up and someone you knew would be there. A bartender you knew would be there—no matter who it was, you loved them. And it was such a weird place because it was just a little bit out of the way, you know? It was good food, but it wasn’t exactly outstanding. It wasn’t super cheap. It was kind of dingy. It smelled. But it was fantastic.”

Lightning in a bottle, I thought.

“Pat was actually here today,” she said. “Yep. You pretty much just missed him.”

I raised my eyebrows. Patrick Sullivan, the former owner of the B-Side Lounge. Add that name to the list. I ordered another drink. Rodriguez was kind enough to oblige.

Back at my inbox that night, a little foggy from Rodriguez’s Periodistas, I found a message waiting from another name I recognized. Ben Sandrof, former bartender at No. 9 Park, Drink, and former manager of—coincidence?—Noir. I thought that maybe Alice had enlisted him to clear up the Food & Wine situation. I was wrong. His message was four words.

“Talk to Brother Cleve.”

Noir’s Periodista

1 ½ oz Myers’s dark rum
½ oz Marie Brizard Apry
½ oz Cointreau
½ oz freshly squeezed lime juice

Shake over ice, strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a small wedge of lime.

Tasting notes:  These proportions are the ones published by Food & Wine.  The brands were scouted at the source.  Myers’s is a much rounder, sweeter rum than Gosling’s, and the Marie Brizard is one of the sweeter apricot brandies.  However, using only fresh lime (Alice: “I don’t like anything with Rose’s”) keeps the drink from getting cloying.  A solid combination.

Periodista Tales: Green Street—The Steward

The Red Sox were at home. Kenmore Square was a river of red caps and jerseys flowing toward Fenway. Inside the Hotel Commonwealth, the bar at Eastern Standard was packed. B-school types wrinkled their noses at dirty martinis while cocktail nerds ducked Sox fans who were in for a quick one en route to the game.

I sipped my Periodista.

Eastern Standard makes them differently than Chez Henri. The character is softer, drier. But all the right flavors are there and the tart slap on the tongue is unmistakably Periodista. The mythology is the same, too—their menu reads:

rum for the intrepid reporter
one of the many cocktails
Hemingway adored

I took another sip. I was watching the landing at the top of the stairs that leads into the hotel. I’d been there an hour already and he hadn’t surfaced—Jackson Cannon; ES bar manager, Jack Rose Society founding member, Boston cocktail luminary. He runs one of the busiest craft cocktail bars in town, but he doesn’t take up the shaker too often these days. Not that day.

I paid my bill in cash and biked across the river to Green Street.

Dylan Black greeted me with a handshake. I knew he’d worked at the B-Side Lounge and Chez Henri, dueling ground zeros for Boston’s Periodista. These days he owns and operates Green Street, a neighborhood bar tucked away on a Central Square backstreet of the same name.

I sat at the bar and asked for the A to Z. It was medium busy. Some guys from the neighborhood were drinking bottles of Budweiser and craning their necks up to the TV. Manny Ramirez was back in Boston wearing Dodger blue and opinions were being expressed.

The A to Z is Green Street’s cocktail menu. It’s six pages and a hundred and two drinks long, but the Periodista isn’t on it. When Black came behind the bar to pull some beers, I asked him why. Dylan Black talks about cocktails the way he talks about the Celtics. He’s a stats guy. He knows a player’s history and what he brought to a team. Same with a drink.

“Because it’s a Chez Henri drink,” he said, “And coming from Chez Henri I didn’t want to take it. A certain Joe McGuirk will claim he invented it, but it’s an old cocktail that’s been around since like the thirties.”

Black delivered the beers and I flipped pages. Brambles, flips, snifters, fizzes—all fresh juices, house-made syrups—classic cocktails, local nods, originals. It may be hard to find, but Green Street’s no modern speakeasy. It’s the closest you’ll find to a beloved dive on the craft cocktail scene in Boston, with the best menu.

When Black passed by again I asked about the A to Z’s origins.

“I knew that when I opened I wanted to have a big, giant cocktail list with everything that I like,” he said. “So I went over to Gertsen’s house one night, got him drunk and stole all his cocktail books. I spent about a year going through them, pulling out drinks I thought would be appropriate for the tone of this place. Then one night before I opened I invited Jackson, Misty, Scott, and John over to my house and made them drinks. We talked about the list, how to pull it off right, that kind of thing.”

John Gertsen, Jackson Cannon, Scott Holliday, and Misty Kalkofen. All the key players. I asked Black his connection.

“Well, I worked with Misty at the B-Side,” he said, “and everyone came in there. I mean everyone. Like, growing up around here, everyone I knew came in there. My friends, their families. My folks. Just everybody.”

The B-Side Lounge was before my time. Its doors closed in 2008, but it casts a long shadow over the Boston cocktail scene. People go teary-eyed when you mention it. It was where Joe McGuirk brought the Periodista when he left Chez Henri. I asked Black what it had been like.

“Some people said it was like lightning in a bottle,” he said. “You know, it just shouldn’t have happened. I’d say the B-Side is definitely responsible for the idea of really doing cocktailing in Boston. Okay, probably eighty percent of our cocktail business was Cosmopolitans, but still, it was a place that created trust with cocktails. Cocktailing without pretension. You could drink an Aviation while the Misfits were playing on vinyl and it was totally packed. I worked there six nights a week for four years. The energy of the place was really, really, really great.”

I wondered if the Periodista might have reached more people there than at Chez Henri. When Black came around the bar again, I said as much.

“Well,” said Black, “I made more Periodistas when I was at Chez Henri than the B-Side. Absolutely. It’s a small place, but they have a crankin’ little service bar.”

No doubt, but could Chez Henri, a ten-seat bar on a Cambridge side street, hope to match the exposure of a hotel bar next door to Fenway Park? I thought about the Periodistas cranked out nightly at Eastern Standard. I needed Jackson Cannon’s angle, but the guy was harder to nail down than an eight-penny in a grease storm.

The B-Side talk had put a little half smile on Black’s face. I flattened my palm against the wood of the bar and felt the rumble of the dishwasher beneath as he spoke.

“It was seeing the success of the B-Side that made me realize I really wanted to do this,” he said.  He gestured at the bar around him.  “I’d always had my eye on this place.  You know, I’m from the neighborhood. I’d come in here when I was a kid, play the juke box. The old man threw me out once for getting too close to the bar. So there’s memories. There’s also history. I have the oldest operating liquor license awarded in Cambridge—1933—and the 69th common victualer’s license. I’m only the fourth person to own this place. My landlord is Charlene Wax, and her father was Charlie Wax, who opened up Charlie’s Tap. He was the first owner here, and he sold it to two guys, O’Driscoll and Feeney, and then Feeney dropped out and O’Driscoll sold it to John Clifford, who opened Green Street Grill in the ’80s. Then Clifford sold it to me back in ’06. Doing research for the place I came upon all these old ads that really give you a sense of its history. There used to be a piano upstairs in the back, shoe shines, blue plate specials.”

As he spoke, Black gestured at the large, black-and-white prints that adorn the walls of the bar. Archival images of the pre-war streets of Cambridge. The Charlie’s Tap marquee. The names O’Driscoll and Feeney in lights. I could almost hear the plink of the old upright in the back.

“I don’t really think of Green Street as my bar at all,” Black said. “It’s Cambridge’s. I’m just a steward, shepherding it on to its next phase of life.”

I’ll drink to that.

Green Street’s Periodista

1 ½ oz Gosling’s dark rum
½ oz Rothman & Winter Orchard apricot liqueur
½ oz Bols triple sec
½ oz Rose’s lime juice

Shake over ice, strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a small wedge of lime.

Tasting notes:  Dylan’s recipe makes a slightly smaller—and more affordable!—cocktail than the Chez Henri version. However, if you were to multiply every quantity by 1.5, it would give you the same dimensions as Chez Henri’s Periodista (and Beth concedes that when she makes it at Chez, she often puts in closer to 2 ¼ ounces of Gosling’s). This may be the closest currently available Periodista to the Chez Henri original.

“I always felt the Periodista was a soulful cocktail, meaning imperfect,” says Dylan. “You either love it or hate it, it’s a very personal thing. Like if I was drinking one it would be the hottest, most humid night, but some people consider it a winter drink. Because dark rum is sluggish, it’s slow, but it’s cold and with a little tartness it can be refreshing. And obviously the alcohol behind it is very refreshing as well. It turns from, this is fucking hot, to this is fucking hot, you know what I mean?”

I’m not sure what he means, but I agree one hundred percent.

Periodista Tales: Rendezvous—When Jung Met Freud

Five minutes on Brookline Street got me from the BU Bridge into Central  Square. I pulled my bike up in front of the bright yellow awning that crowns the entrance to Rendezvous.  Through the floor-to-ceiling windows I could see Scott Holliday slicing limes behind the bar. Of the three names Paul O’Connell had given me, Scott was the only one who had still been at Chez Henri during my time in Boston.

I took a seat at the bar and the hostess put a stack of menus in front of me. The eight-drink cocktail menu has turned over a number of times since Scott took the reins as Rendezvous’s bar manager in 2008. The Periodista’s never been on it.

I ordered one.

“You got it,” said Scott. He went immediately into action. Scott has an economy of movement and speech that suggests a quiet delicacy, but he’s a gunslinger behind the bar. I’d never seen him without a vest and tie, and his cuffs are always buttoned.

Scott set an empty martini glass in front of me and poured my drink from the shaker. The amber liquid hugged the lip of the glass.

I took a drink, then explained why I was there.

“Chez Henri was the first place I ever saw it,” he said. “I remember Joe McGuirk would tell me that back when they opened, the Periodista was more popular than the Mojito. It was the big thing.”

Scott disappeared for a moment to fill some orders from the dining room. Ray Walston looked down at me from the flatscreen mounted high on the back wall and said something I couldn’t hear. Scott set two shakers down and continued talking as he fixed the drinks.

“In a lot of ways Chez Henri was my ideal job,” he said. “Every night had kind of two separate shifts. There was dinner service, which was busy and sometimes frustrating—you know, everything that working at a restaurant bar should be—but then late at night the bar became its own thing. All of a sudden it would be like I was hosting a party. Most nights I knew over half the people in the room by name. I could play the music I wanted to play, people would ask me what they should drink. It really made me fall in love with the idea of a good, simple neighborhood bar.”

I asked if that was when he started to get serious about cocktails.

“I’d say I started approaching cocktails a lot more seriously in ’02,  ‘03 maybe,” he said. “I think a lot of it had to do with my friendship with John Gertsen and other people in the industry. John was pushing hard to do good things at No. 9, and I’d apply a lot of what we would talk about in a version that would work at Chez Henri. Jackson Cannon worked in the neighborhood, and he would come into Chez Henri for a drink after work. Jackson was super fanatic about it—he got the cocktail religion hard—and I would say to him, ‘You have to meet John. You have to meet John.’ I wanted to be there when it happened, you know? It was going to be like when Jung and Freud met. That’s how the Jack Rose Society came together.”

Scott delivered his drinks and went to pour wine for some customers at the other end of the bar. You could tell the regulars from the newcomers by the way Scott’s demeanor shifted—switching from casual to formal and back again like clockwork. When he came back I asked him about the Jack Rose Society.

He smiled. “Me, John, and Jackson. I think there may have been three actual meetings in total—back in ’04, ’05—and I only went to the middle one. But we’d often end up at the same house together, late-night. Jackson would bring a mini-suitcase with a portable bar kit and some bottles in it. And we’d make drinks and talk about, you know, ‘Cocktails are becoming important in Boston. We want to help make Boston a great cocktail town.’”

Not long after that John and Jackson would be running two of the most important bars in Boston, Drink and Eastern Standard. I knew there was a Periodista on Eastern Standard’s menu. Drink, of course, doesn’t have a menu.

Scott disappeared again. It was beginning to rain. I watched drops of water trickle down the slanted glass overhang at the front of the restaurant. Scott returned with a set of fresh shakers.

“So, if you’re talking about whether Boston is a great cocktail town,” he said. “John and I actually went to a cocktail show in Paris last week. And there were these amazing bartenders from all around the world doing all this  phenomenal stuff. Molecular mixology, using really hard to source liquors, vintage glassware. It was all very impressive.”

He paused. It’s not something Scott often does.

“But,” he said, finally. “What impresses me is that at Highland Kitchen in Somerville you can get a properly-made Sazerac, at the Independent you can get a properly-made Sazerac—without anyone blinking an eye. It’s not just cocktail bars. And that to me is really is exciting, because it means that there’s a critical mass of customers, of the public, that know what these things are, that know when they’re good and when they’re not. It means it’s really gotten out in the culture of Boston.”

That was nice, but it didn’t get me any closer to the Periodista. I said as much.

“Well, it makes sense that Joe McGuirk would have brought it to the B-Side,” Holliday said, “and a lot of people passed through there—Dylan, Misty—but that’s not me. Joe’s worked everywhere. Basically, you open a new bar in Boston and Joe comes and works for you for a while.”

I nodded. All signs seemed to point to McGuirk, but I was intrigued by the Cannon-Gertsen connection.

“Did you ask Robby about it, at Chez Henri?”

Rob Kraemer. He’d made my drink but I hadn’t asked for his take. I’d been too focused on O’Connell.

“It seems unlikely,” said Scott, “But I’d be curious if Rob ever had a Periodista while he was in Cuba.”

So would I.

Scott Holliday’s Periodista

1 ¼ oz Gosling’s dark rum
¾ oz Barbancourt 5-Star rum
¾ oz Rothman & Winter Orchard apricot liqueur
¾ oz Cointreau
¾ oz freshly squeezed lime juice

Shake over ice and strain into a cocktail glass.  Garnish with a thin disc of lime.

Tasting Notes:  Scott calls this the anti-Chez Henri Periodista.  “I wanted to achieve a balance that was more on the boozy and tart end of the spectrum,” he says, “rather than the rich and sweet end.  That would be the Chez Henri version.”  Scott’s is a cleaner, lighter version of the drink.  He loves Barbancourt, but you could substitute any white rum to cut the Gosling’s.  The Orchard apricot is a little less sweet, and arguably more apricot-tasting, than Bols.  On the other hand, both it and Cointreau are substantially more expensive than Bols brands.  If this version is too tart for your tastes, you could always consider the split shot of Rose’s and fresh lime, à la Rob Kramer’s recipe.

Periodista Tales: Chez Henri—Point of Origin?

“Chef Paul takes over the bar tonight at Chez Henri!” Twitter told me first, Facebook close behind. Gmail shot me the inbox wink a few seconds later, that same message on the subject line.

Chez Henri was where it had all started for me—the first Periodista I ever tasted—so five minutes to six found me standing in a light rain holding my bike helmet and waiting for them to unlock the door.

Chez Henri sits about fifty feet from Massachusetts Avenue on Shepherd Street, a mostly residential block that shoots off Mass Ave at the Starbucks and cuts along the southern edge of the Radcliffe quadrangle. Chez Henri’s bold red facade and gold-lettered sign have weathered the years well enough to become a Cambridge icon.

When they opened I grabbed a seat at the end of the bar closest to the kitchen. Raw concrete shapes decorate the red walls of the interior, bulwarking light fixtures and gilding the edges of the bar. At six on a Wednesday it was dead in there—just the way I like it.

I frowned as Rob Kraemer, the bar manager, swept in and slid a glass of water in front of me.

“Something to drink?”

I told him I was waiting for someone.

“Someone” appeared moments later, standing behind me with his hands on his hips, staring up at the chalkboard that displays the daily specials. Paul O’Connell, Chez Henri’s owner and chef de cuisine. O’Connell is a sturdy man in his middle-forties with a concentration-lined face and thick-rimmed glasses. He wore a blue-checked shirt with the sleeves rolled past his elbows, and his hands looked like they belonged to a lumberjack.

Apparently satisfied by what he saw on the chalkboard—Tonight! Chef Paul takes over the bar!—he walked over to me and held out one of those massive hands.

“You here to check out the new bar menu?” His eyes twinkled cannily as we shook.

I told him why I was there.

“Oh, sure.”  And suddenly he launched into it. O’Connell speaks with a sense of urgency, like a man who’s spent years trying to tackle too many things at once. “Yeah, we’ve had the Periodista on the menu from the beginning. I think we found it in some Esquire book—da, da, da—I forget, but it was like Hemingway’s favorite drink. And you know, we were doing Mojitos from the beginning, too. Probably the only other place doing them was Division 16 way back.”

Chez Henri opened “way back” in the mid-90s. O’Connell bought the restaurant from its previous owner on the sole condition that he retain its character as a French bistro. So Chez Jean (est. 1958) became Chez Henri (est. 1995).

“And—not like I was a visionary or anything—you know, people ask me, like, ‘How did you do the Cuban sandwich thing?’ I just liked it, and I did it, you know? And Mojitos—when we first started doing these drinks people were like, ‘What is it?’ Now you’ve got raspberry Mojitos, everything.” He chuckled. “But yeah, the Periodista was one of our first.”

I asked how it came to be that you could get one at any bar in Boston.

O’Connell furrowed his brow and sat down at the bar next to me. “Well, you know, Joe started here, then went to the B-Side, so then they had it there. And Dylan worked there and then came here, and now he’s got Green Street. And Scott was here on and off for years, and he’s at Rendezvous now. So there’s been a lot of cross-pollination.”

He was talking about Joe McGuirk, Dylan Black, and Scott Holliday—all prominent names on the Boston bar scene.

“So, it really is a Boston thing, and—I don’t know, maybe we should get—”

O’Connell paused, thoughtful. Latin guitar chords floated down from the bar speakers. I took a drink of water.

“You know,” he said, “We’re not at the forefront of—like Eastern Standard, all these places with the super-duper, startender thing. There are people in town who are incredible, people like Tommy Schlesinger who can make you a drink that’s just unbelievable. But here we keep it simple. Like, I’ve been tweeting ‘Chef Paul takes over the bar’—but I’ve been in the kitchen all day, you know? And yesterday I was tweeting, like, ‘I’m working on my gin and tonic recipe, my rum and coke recipe,’ right?”

I asked about all the tweeting.

“Well, I went to a seminar for it,” he said, “you know, the social media thing. I wanted to try to see if we could push an event just using Twitter and Facebook and all that.  Just reaching for something, I guess.”

I wondered what social media could do for a place like Chez Henri, fifteen years old and full of regulars every weeknight, walls bulging with drinkers on weekends. Then I thought about the look on O’Connell’s face when he mentioned the buzz around Eastern Standard, ten years Chez Henri’s junior.

I told O’Connell about looking for Periodistas outside of Boston and coming up empty.  That I hadn’t been able to find references to it even in cocktail books, including Esquire’s Drink Book from ’54.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” he said. “You don’t really see it in other cities.  And try to find it on a menu before fifteen years ago. It wasn’t in that Esquire book, huh?”

I shook my head.

“Joe McGuirk will know,” O’Connell said. “He’s got a mind like a steel trap. But he’s always busy, and he’s grumpy. He’s also—Joe’s sort of anti that stuff, you know? He doesn’t have a lot of patience for people who are that enamored of what he does.” He laughed. “Unless you’re a twenty-four-year-old girl.”

I smiled and suggested that wherever it came from, Boston had claimed the Periodista as its own.

“Well,” O’Connell said quietly. He shrugged. “Maybe we should get some credit for that.”

In the end, Rob Kraemer made me my Periodista, but Chef Paul did end up behind the bar, apron around his waist. Beth, Chez Henri’s general manager, was there to get pics with her iPhone and post them on Facebook. I don’t know if O’Connell deemed his social media experiment a success, but I counted two small triumphs for myself that night. One, it seemed likely that Chez Henri was the Periodista’s point of origin in Boston. And two, I finally managed to get a recipe.

Chez Henri’s Periodista (2010)

2 oz Gosling’s dark rum
¾ oz Bols triple sec
¾ oz Bols apricot brandy
¾ oz lime, half fresh-squeezed, half Rose’s

Shake over ice, strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a small wedge of lime.

Tasting notes: The main things to notice here are the Gosling’s rum and the split pony of Rose’s and freshly squeezed lime. You’ll find a lot of people using Myers’s dark, but the Gosling’s adds a hint of spice, almost like subbing rye for bourbon in your whiskey sour. Beth asserts that Periodista purists, many of whom have been drinking at Chez Henri from the beginning, will insist on 100% Rose’s lime, no fresh, and that the split pony is a small concession to the hoards of cocktail revolutionaries who want everything to be fresh-squeezed. These are Rob Kramer’s proportions, and he claims to like his Periodistas a little more tart. Rob has been with Chez on and off since ’95, and he notes that this may not be the original Chez Henri recipe.

Tales of the Periodista

I was walking up Mass Ave on a hot September night in 2007. It was raining bullets. We don’t get that combination in California—rain’s cold in San Francisco, heat’s dry in Los Angeles. I was raised in one and educated in the other. I was new to Cambridge and adjustment was coming slower than a download on dial-up.

I ducked into a bar to get out of the stew. A place called Chez Henri. The room was cool and the bartender smiled and I was sold. I put back two glasses of water and looked at the menu. I needed a drink, something stiff that wouldn’t hurt going down. One offering on the cocktail list caught my eye.

Periodista—the menu said it was Spanish for “journalist” and a favorite of Ernest Hemingway. I ordered one.

That’s how it started.

If you live and drink well in Boston, you’ve probably had one: the Periodista; that dark, seductive cousin of the daiquiri, made at times with dark or aged rum, sweetened with a combination of orange liqueur and apricot brandy, finished with a hint of lime juice. The best Periodistas play a tango on your palate. Rum dictates the key—sometimes spicy, sometimes rich—while orange and apricot meld together in the lower registers and lime dances tartly across the tongue. It’s a drink to savor in loud, smoke-filled pool halls or sip under the shade of a seaside palm.

It’s enough to make a guy wax poetic.

I learned all the stories. The Periodista’s a classic Cuban cocktail, they told me. Hemingway drank them at El Floridita in Havana. Esquire magazine revived it in the ‘50s. American reporters sucked back Periodistas during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This drink was the stuff of legend.

I discovered the Periodista on menus all over Boston, from Highland Kitchen in Somerville to Eastern Standard in Kenmore Square. I drank them at Deep Ellum in Allston and Green Street in Cambridge. There wasn’t a bartender in Boston who couldn’t make one from memory.

Then things got strange.

I went on a business trip to New York in the winter of 2008. I’d been drinking Periodistas for a year. I followed someone through the back panel of a phone booth in the corner of an East Village hot dog joint into one of the city’s hottest bars, PDT. I asked for a Periodista. The bartender had never heard of it. Later that winter I was back in California and someone took me to the Varnish, a downtown LA speakeasy hidden at the back of a French Dip sandwich shop. The bartender spent ten minutes checking his bookshelf for a Periodista recipe. Nothing. The Periodista seemed not to exist outside the loop of Route 128.

I became a man obsessed. I pawed through all the cocktail books I could find. Nothing. I trawled the internet for answers. Not a word about Hemingway. Nothing from Esquire—not even a recipe. My kitchen became a madman’s laboratory. Bottles of dark rum stacked three deep, limes everywhere. Nothing I made ever tasted right.

Now it’s 2010. The cocktail renaissance is in full swing and the Periodista, one of Boston’s most popular cocktails, remains a mystery. My mystery. The only way to solve it is to talk to the men and women who make this drink and collect the stories behind it. My goal is to find the truth, or at least get close enough to taste it.

Note: Though I love a drink named for one, I am not a journalist. On my best days I’m a creative writer who tries to weave a little magic into the everyday, so I hope those actual people and places mentioned in this blog will forgive a little creative license in the service of a greater sense of wonder.

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