I was sitting at Highland Kitchen in Somerville drinking my third glass of water. I’d sweat my weight biking up Central Street to get there. On my right, an old man with a handlebar mustache was chasing a cucumber slice around his glass with a straw. On my left, three women were talking loudly with Boston accents. ighland Kitchen is your best bet on finding a good Boston accent and a good Aviation in the same room.
Joe McGuirk was behind the bar. I’d been watching him for an hour. The man’s a maestro. He pours spirits with a sixth sense and quarters limes like a ninja. He’s a big man with a ponytail and a light beard—the Mario Batali of the bar. His face is a mirror of his guests’ faces. Serious drinkers get a somber McGuirk, happy drunks get a smile. Women always get the smile.
One of the women next to me leaned across the bar and leered at him.
“I’m looking for something strong,” she said. “Do you come in a glass?”
McGuirk winked and refilled her water. He keeps his bar packed and happy.
McGuirk was the last piece of the puzzle. For the past 18 years he’d been at the vanguard of Boston’s cocktail evolution. He’d been on the opening staff of practically every bar in town—The B-Side Lounge, Toad, Salamander, Green Street, Game On, Bleacher Bar, Highland Kitchen, to name a few. Most importantly, he’d been there at the beginning, when Chez Henri first opened. When the Periodista first appeared on the scene.
Paul O’Connell had led me to expect a challenge. “Joe’s grumpy,” he said. “He doesn’t have a lot of patience for people who are that enamored of what he does.”
When there was a drop in the action I asked McGuirk if he could solve a mystery for me.
“I can try,” he said.
I asked about the Periodista.
“We usually have it on the menu,” he said, “under Highland Classics. But we can always do them. You want one?”
I said I did, and McGuirk swept out of earshot.
At the front of the bar, tall windows look onto Highland Avenue. A kid on the sidewalk smoked a cigarette and reached through a window to drink his beer. On the back wall, a steer’s skull was celebrating Christmas while Jonathan Richman played on the juke. A family of five had wedged themselves in the front entrance and were being led to a table.
McGuirk returned with a full shaker. As he poured my drink I asked him where the Periodista came from.
“It’s a Chez Henri drink,” he said. “We had it on the opening menu there. We were the first bar to serve it that I know of. At the time nobody knew what it was.”
“I remember,” he said, “I was drinking at another bar—it must have been ’95, ’96—and somebody ordered one. I laughed, because I watched the guy make it. He put in, like, sweet vermouth, triple sec. He was just making it up. But it was really popular at Chez Henri, especially among regulars. Around ’97 or so, one of the local magazines, Stuff at Night or the Improper Bostonian, gave it props as the Best New Cocktail.”
Before he could escape I asked him how the Periodista ended up on Chez Henri’s menu.
“Paul and I were kind of under the gun when we were opening Chez Henri,” he said. “We were putting together the cocktail menu—we knew we were going to do a Mojito, and we were looking for an up drink. We found a recipe for this drink called the Periodista in this little tropical cocktail book.”
I held my breath.
“It was a really small book,” he said. “Almost like a pamphlet. It looked like something put out by liquor companies in the ‘50s or ‘60s to try to sell Bacardi, you know what I mean? It looked like Hawaiian Punch drawings on the cover. I can’t remember the name of it.”
Why was I not surprised?
“But the recipe in that book called for white rum,” he said. “White rum, triple sec, apricot brandy, Rose’s lime, and a pinch of sugar. We tried it and we were like, ‘oh, it’s kind of insipid.’ It lacked character, it lacked body. It was sweet, but it didn’t have any depth. So I decided to try it with dark rum. Myers’s was the dark rum at the time, Gosling’s wasn’t really around. So we tried it with Myers’s. It had a nice viscosity, a nice mouth feel, a nice smoothness. We decided that was the best way to do it. And that’s the way it’s been made ever since.”
“It was kind of a source of mirth when the B-Side first opened,” he said. “I was working there, and Pat Sullivan would be like, ‘Oh yeah, Joe, you invented the Periodista.’ And I’m like, you guys can keep laughing, but at some point I’ll be vindicated. It is my drink. The drink that we served at the B-Side is from Chez Henri.”
An old-timer waved to McGuirk from the other side of the bar and he disappeared again.
That was it. The cocktail that Boston has been drinking for the last fifteen years, the one on the menu at Noir, at Eastern Standard, at Clio—it’s a Joe McGuirk drink. I should have felt some sense of triumph. I had my answer. Except I didn’t.
McGuirk didn’t create the damn thing from scratch. He reinvented it, but there was an original Periodista out there. A white rum drink with a story. Where did the first Periodista come from? Did Hemingway drink them? Was it even Cuban? I still didn’t know.
McGuirk came back around. I asked him, just for the hell of it, if he had any idea where the thing originated.
“I would guess that that recipe is probably from the ‘50s,” he said. “We don’t get a lot of cocktail recipes out of Castro Cuba, so it must pre-date ’61. Of course, there’s La Floridita and the Hemingway Daiquiri, and everybody says the Mojito showed up at the same time—so I guess that’s the idea with the Periodista, too. But Hemingway talks about a lot of the drinks that he drank, and I don’t recall any Periodistas.”
He shook his head.
“It’s funny,” he said. “I don’t think any of us ever think, when we’re putting together a cocktail list, that anybody’s actually going to give a fuck. You know what I mean? We talk about how World War I history contributed to drinks like the Sidecar and the French 75. We should remember that someday, and maybe that day isn’t too far from now, people are going to want to know the history of these things.”
McGuirk ripped off a printout and started on an order from the restaurant. Mostly bottled beers.
“I would like to see that little book again,” he said as he popped the cap off a Bud.
So would I.
I biked away from the bar, letting the hillside on Central Street carry me back toward Cambridge. I thought about the people I’d talked to over the past two months. Paul, Scott, Dylan, Alice, Cleve, Jackson. I had all their stories. McGuirk had filled in the last part of the Boston puzzle. And after all that, I still didn’t know where the Periodista came from.
It was time for me to start knocking on some new doors. I needed to get at the heavy hitters of the cocktail world. The hard core historians. The true scholars of cocktailia. Fortunately, I knew where most of them were going to be…
Highland Kitchen’s Periodista
Shake over ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a wedge of lime.
Tasting notes: Joe claims that the Leroux apricot makes his Periodista taste the best. “The test for a Periodista is smelling it,” Joe says. “When I make them I smell it to make sure there’s enough apricot in there, because that really makes the difference in the drink—it’s that apricot flavor that wins people over.” With the same proportions as the Eastern Standard recipe, Joe’s Periodista makes for a nice comparison between the Myers’s and Gosling’s versions of the drink. Joe’s is a more intense, spicier cocktail than Jackson’s, but doesn’t taste as delicately balanced.
Bonus recipe! Below is the recipe that Joe used when the Periodista first appeared at Chez Henri. It underwent some modifications on that menu, including dropping the pinch of sugar, and eventually switching from Myers’s to Gosling’s (though that was after Joe had already left).
Chez Henri’s Periodista (1995)
Shake over ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a wedge of lime.