Periodista Tales

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Periodista Tales: New Orleans, Part 4 — The Bar Room Brawl

Continued from Part 3…

Time passed like it does on long nights. The ornate galleries of the French Quarter blended together in streaks of light. My cab pulled up in front of a velvet rope. I didn’t remember hailing one.

Tales of the Cocktail‘s big ticket event that night was the Bar Room Brawl, a competition that pitted six bars from across the country against one another for the chance to be heralded as the Best Bar in America. Los Angeles was represented by The Varnish, Sasha Petraske’s newest speakeasy, with Eric Alperin at the helm. New York had sent the Long Island City bar Dutch Kills, under the command of Richard Boccato. There was Rickhouse from San Francisco and The Florida Room from Miami. I’d heard the team from Chicago’s Drawing Room was a favorite. These were the country’s elite.

And then there was Drink. Drink is part of the Barbara Lynch group of holdings, buried down in Fort Point in South Boston. Drink launched Boston’s cocktail scene onto the world stage. It gets all the press. New Yorkers brave Amtrak to drink there. Cambridge imbibers who haven’t crossed the Charles in years find themselves trekking across the channel, through high-bricked corridors and back alleys, just to for a chance to taste what they’re doing at Drink.

I’d been there a few times, but never in search of the Periodista.

Drink is managed by John Gertsen, Jack Rose Society member and former bar manager of No. 9 Park. This is a man who can make a cocktail. But Drink’s real superstar is Misty Kalkofen. The local legend, forged in the fires of Cleve’s Saturnalia, seasoned in the boiler room of Lansdowne Street. Drink had given Misty a chance for national and international exposure, and she had seized it, shaker in hand.

The Bar Room Brawl was being held in an anonymous event space they’d dressed up like a Vegas nightclub. Women in sequined fedoras and not much else danced on tabletops. Women in tiny red dresses carried around trays of cloudy Grand Marnier cocktails. Women with microphones dragged film crews from room to room. Men watched the women, goatees trembling.

Everyone who was anyone was there. And plenty of people who weren’t. A beautiful woman put a drink in my hand. I felt like an iguana.

Six stations had been set up across two main rooms. Each was designed in the style of the competing bar. Drink’s station was austere—some vintage glassware and a sign showing the names of the cocktails they were entering into the competition: Mission of Burma and the Alicante. The latter was attributed to Scott Holliday, friend of Gertsen. I thought about my conversation with Scott at Rendezvous, almost two months ago. I had the sensation of looking down at myself from far away.

The staffs of the competing bars were hidden behind velvet curtains until the showdown began. Aaron Butler, bar manager of Harvard Square’s Russell House Tavern, and Corey Bunnewith, bartender at same, were milling around Drink’s empty station. They were both Drink alums, there to cheer on the team.

John Gertsen peeked out from behind the curtain. Butler and Bunnewith hollered. Gertsen shushed them, but walked over and shook their hands. Then he shook mine. I’d never met the man. I told him who I was.

He kept his game face, but made a gesture of triumph and looked me in the eye. “Before we do anything,” he said. “Thank you for what you’re doing. You’re teaching us all a valuable lesson. The stories are better than the drinks themselves.”

I gaped at him until he vanished behind the curtains.

Jackson Cannon appeared with some of the Eastern Standard crew—assistant manager Kevin Martin, bartender Nicole Lebedevich, ace mixologist Tommy Schlesinger-Guidelli. Cannon saw me and rushed over, excited.

“I’ve been talking to my father a lot about the Periodista,” he said. “My father has read every word of Hemingway—letters, everything. He has some ideas, but we’ll talk about that later. I’m toying with this theory that it might be connected with the Sandanista movement in the ‘80s.”

Hadn’t somebody said that to me earlier?

“Whatever it ends up being,” he said, “I just want to thank you. You’ve made us turn a more critical eye on ourselves.”

Cannon took something out of his pocket and placed it in my hand. It was a golden key. He muttered something about a “breakfast” before being swept away by the crowd. I stared at the key for a full calendar minute. It didn’t have anything constructive to say, so I put it in my pocket and tried to remember what I was doing there.

Time continued to pass. Suddenly, a man with a microphone began to announce the main event. All I heard was enthusiastic static. Then the team from Drink began to file out from behind the curtain and take their places at the bar. There was John and Misty. Scott Marshall came out, Josey Packard and Sam Treadway, Cali Gold and Bryn Tattan. Barbacks Will Thompson and Tyler Wang slid in behind them. Even Drink’s hostess, Rebekah Powers, was there to work the crowd.

A moment later a globe of light appeared in front of the bar. It was filled by the forms of Dale DeGroff, David Wondrich, Audrey Saunders, Jim Meehan, Tony Abou-Ganim, and others I didn’t recognize. These were the kings and queens of the bar world. This is why I was here: to find these people and ask them what they knew about the Periodista. I had a goal, and there it was, lit up like a Broadway show. Only a velvet rope blocked my path.

The Drink team went to work churning out cocktails. Butler and Bunnewith shouted like Red Sox fans as DeGroff, Wondrich, and the others sampled the drinks. I tried to shuffle nervously on the spot, but my shoes were sticking to the floor.

Soon the judging was over and the six bars were opened to the guests. I ranged blearily from station to station, sampling drinks that had originated in New York, Florida, California. One from Chicago was named for a Tom Waits song and contained citric acid and baking soda. My head was a wreck. I wondered who’d been driving.

The man with the microphone turned out to be Steve Olson, of AKA Wine Geek. Suddenly he was on a stage with a look of deep meaning on his face. It was the moment of truth. The room fell silent as the runner-up was announced. Varnish, from Los Angeles.

The room cheered as rooms do for runners-up. I turned around to look at the crowd and saw a sea of Boston faces. Dave Cagle and Max Toste from Deep Ellum were there. The team from Eastern Standard. Lantheaume and the Glassers. Kitty Amann, Joy Richard, and the other ladies of LUPEC Boston. Drinkers I’d seen at various bars around town. All holding their breath.

“And the winner,” Olson said, “of the best bar in America is—DRINK.”

Then there was a moment in which we were all one. The Boston contingent erupted as only Bostonians can. Screams, tears, profanity. There was no tension, no competition. It was a community celebrating the triumph of one of its own. Where I fit in, I didn’t know, but there I was, and I hugged each of them like I was right where I was supposed to be. Scott’s wife kissed me on the cheek. I was lost in the collective outpouring of joy.

And later, even after they had won, Cali scrubbed the bar top clean and Will made sure everyone had a bottle of water in their hand.

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