Periodista Tales

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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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