“Scott didn’t want to hire me. I was this punkass kid from Newbury street with silver hair. I’d been working across the street from a hair salon, and we used to trade drinks for haircuts. There was this guy who worked there—he was insane. He had horns—real horns, implanted into his head. He used to cut my hair, and I let him use me as a hair model for this one show. He died my hair ‘steel gray,’ put in this wax stuff and twirled it up into curls until my head was covered in shiny, silver spikes. That’s how I showed up to my interview with Scott. He really did not want to hire me.”
I was sitting at Drink listening to John Gertsen tell me about getting his start in the industry. He was wearing a conservative button-down shirt and vest combo with a bow tie. His hair’s short, not at all silver. No spikes, either—not that day, anyway.
Gertsen was leaning on the bar next to me. Behind it, Misty Kalkofen was mixing drinks for their few early customers—Drink opens at four and it was still a few minutes shy of five. Next to her, Will Thompson was sorting mint. He looked like he’d been doing it all his life.
“But, of course, he did hire me,” Gertsen said. “And it’s a good thing he did, because if I hadn’t met Scott Holliday I probably wouldn’t have had my first Negroni, and I never would have made a Sidecar, and I never would have met Barbara Lynch.”
Misty chimed in, “Can you do a little chart please?”
“We do need a flow chart,” said Gertsen. “The family tree of Boston chefs and restaurateurs is really like a family hedge. It’s so thick with connections you can’t even see through it.”
“And then if you start putting in who slept with who,” said Misty, “it’s gonna get thicker.”
“I gotta go,” said Gertsen. Misty laughed and Gertsen disappeared behind the doors to the kitchen.
I watched Misty work. Misty double-fists a pair of shakers like no one I’ve ever seen. Her tattoos blend together in the frenzy. She presented a drink to a customer next to me. It looked like an Aviation. I could smell the maraschino. The Luxardo cherry garnish sat in its own glass, next to the cocktail.
“What do I do with it?” asked the customer. “Should I put it in the drink?”
“You can do whatever you want,” said Misty cheerfully. “It’s your drink, now.”
The customer dropped the speared cherry into his cocktail. He didn’t look happy. Until he tasted it.
Everyone I’d talked to about the Periodista had mentioned the name Misty Kalkofen. Aside from Joe McGuirk, Misty’s been slinging Periodistas longer than anyone else in town. Here I was, sitting across from her, and I didn’t have anything to ask. All my blanks had been filled in. The Periodista’s trek through Boston was sketched out clear as a blueprint. So what was I doing there?
Going through the motions. I didn’t have any fresh leads on the Cuban story, so I was retracing my steps through my own backyard.
When Misty came back to my part of the bar I asked how she got her start.
“Oh, lord,” she said. “It’s been fifteen years since I started bartending. I barely know what I did yesterday.”
I waited. Misty grinned.
“I started at the Lizard Lounge shortly after it opened,” she said. “I was a cocktail server at first, but I ended up behind the bar shortly thereafter. I was attending Harvard Divinity School at the time, studying Early Christian History and Greek textual criticism. I was in school the whole time I worked at the Lizard Lounge.”
Misty placed four large ice cubes in a glass and laid a thick slice of cucumber between each cube. She dropped another four slices of cucumber into a pint glass and started to mash them with a wooden muddler.
“Brother Cleve started Saturnalia not long after,” she continued. “Man, that was a ball. Every week he’d come in and have his drink of the week, and he’d drink it all night long. Always a pre-prohibition classic cocktail. By the end of the night I’d have the recipe memorized. That’s how I got a huge selection of recipes in my head, just the repetition of making the same drink for Cleve over and over again. Then at the end of the night Cleve and I would go back to his house or mine and drink rye Manhattans and talk about booze.”
Misty added ice and a healthy dose of Pimm’s to the pint glass and shook it. She strained the drink over the stratified cubes and cucumber and handed it to another customer.
I asked for her thoughts on the Periodista. Motions were there to be gone through.
I suggested that there were still people in Boston who preferred them that way.
Will piped up from behind the mint, “You know Kazuo Ueda? He’s this Japanese bartender. He talks about how you have to have four recipes for every drink. There’s the original, classic recipe. There’s the recipe that fits the modern taste. There’s the recipe that’s perfect for you, the bartender. And then there’s the recipe that’s perfect for your guest.”
I thought about the Periodista. I had the classic recipe care of the Club de Cantineros de Cuba, with its light rum and extra sugar. Joe McGuirk’s original dark rum version would be the one that fit the modern taste. I’d collected favorite recipes for the drink from bartenders all over Boston. But which was perfect for me?
I asked Misty to make me a Periodista. She set it in front of me and I took a drink. It wasn’t the one, but it was damn good.
Misty looked out over the still quiet bar. She clapped her hands together. “Okay, Thursday,” she said. “Let’s do this.”
I watched the bar fill up. Drink attracts an eclectic clientele. A group of women were dressed for a Seaport gala. There was a clique of Government Center pinstripe types and a few lone cocktail nerds who looked like they hadn’t left the house in days. Somehow, at Drink, they gel.
I walked among them, taking in the scene.
Drink is buried a man’s height below street level. There are windows along the sidewalk where you can watch people pass by, and they can watch you watch them. Cases full of gemlike beetles on pins—cocktail garnishes for the Goth set—line the back wall, where people who got there too late for a seat mingle on foot. Three massive concrete pillars keep the nuovo-Italian diner, Sportello, from crashing through the ceiling. A long wooden bar snakes between the pillars, creating a series of three prosceniums, around which customers cluster to vie for a bartender’s attention. Because of the layout, catching an eye is easier than catching a drunkard’s drift.
The concept for Drink has undergone a few revolutions. The story I’d been told was that Drink’s original vision was for each of the three peninsular bars to have its own identity. The first bar would create cocktails in the tradition of the 19th century—heavy on the rye, hand-chipped ice from massive blocks—the second bar would focus on 20th century cocktails, and the third would experiment with modern techniques like molecular mixology. Back then they didn’t expect to get more than a hundred customers a night. These days they end up getting a hundred customers at a time, all night, every night.
I ended up in the elbow of the 19th and 20th century bars watching Scott Marshall hack away at a giant ice block. He’d brought it from the back room, hefting it with a pair of cast iron ice hooks.
John Gertsen reappeared and joined me, leaning on the other side of the elbow. There was one mystery I thought he could solve. I asked Gertsen if I had him to thank for putting the Periodista word out at Tales of the Cocktail.
“Well, Brother Cleve came in here a few weeks back,” he said. “Cleve, as you know, is kind of the Boston godfather. He’s the Yoda to the Obi-Wans and the Luke Skywalkers of the Boston scene. He came in wearing his little hat, and when we got to chatting he told me all about your investigation into the Periodista. And I thought it was just fascinating. Here we were, telling ourselves the same story about this drink, and for all we knew, none of it was true. So when I heard you were going to be down at Tales, I spread the word to Dave Wondrich and Dale DeGroff.”
That was one question answered.
“It’s funny,” said Gertsen. “For a while there was actually some controversy here at Drink about how the Periodista was going to be made. Because, of course, Misty’s here, and she’s been making them her way, tried and true, since the beginning. So I’d be on this side of the bar, talking to my guests about how I was sure it was originally a drier drink, probably made with a light, Cuban rum, and on the other side of the bar Misty’s making them in the Boston tradition, with dark rum. Of course hers is much less sweet than the original, but still a little sweet for my taste. In general the profile of Drink is a little less sweet than a lot of places. We have a spirit-heavy formula. A lot of classic cocktail bars, even in Manhattan, use a 2-¾-¾ basic formula. We go 2-½-½, because I think it lets the spirit dominate a little more.”
Gertsen took a breath. He’s a talker. I used the opening to ask about Drink’s reputation. Drink gets lauded and lambasted in equal measure. A recent issue of GQ ranked them among the top 25 bars in the country. Good press, but the magazine’s 70-word blurb found room for a dig at Drink’s unorthodox methods. I wondered how the author of those methods felt.
“I never thought that it was going to be what the press has made it,” Gertsen said, “which is, you know, ‘They’re mind readers down there at Drink.’ I remember getting a phone call from Mat Schaffer at one point and him being like, ‘Oh so you’re kind of like a cocktail consultant, right? Or a guru?’ I’m like, ‘No. I’m a bartender.’”
Drink doesn’t have a cocktail menu. It doesn’t have a visible back bar, either. When you walk into Drink, it’s just you and the beetles.
“The one thing that Barbara and I got back to time and time and time again,” continued Gertsen, “was that we didn’t want to open a bar that just has customers, where we’re making drinks as fast and as furious as we can. We wanted to have guests who we invited into our cocktail party. Drink is a cocktail party. Come on in. Sit down. I’m not going to give you a list to read, I’m going to ask you, ‘What are you in the mood for? I’ve got some gin, I’ve got some vodka, I’ve got some of this. What do you like?’ Just like what I’d do if you came over to my house for a drink.”
Marshall had separated a chunk of ice from the block and was chipping at it with a meat cleaver. Across the bar from him, Fred Yarm and Andrea Desrosiers, the duo behind the exhaustive Cocktail Virgin blog, were sipping from stemmed glasses. Not customers—guests. Desrosiers chatted with Marshall about the progress of his tattoos while Yarm scribbled furiously. He’d have the recipe posted before the night was out. I envied his dedication.
“My idea was that we could have people come in here and they wouldn’t be hit with a barrage of bottles,” Gertsen said. “You know, humans are such ocular beings that advertising has an unfair advantage. If you see something, say, an advertisement for a new flavor of Bacardi, that image will stay on the top of your mind long enough that you’ll go into a bar, you’ll see it, and you’ll want it. I have people come in here and go, ‘Oh, I’d like a Captain and Coke.’ And I say, ‘I’m very sorry, but we don’t have Captain Morgan. We do carry Coca Cola, and I’ve got a couple of other rums you could try.’ They’re like, ‘Nah, just give me a Tanqueray and tonic.’ They switch spirits completely! And then the last thing they say is, ‘Well if you don’t have that, I’ll have just a Bud Light.’”
Marshall had managed to sculpt a perfect, fist-sized cube. He placed the ice in an Old Fashioned glass, poured a jigger of rye whiskey over it, and began to stir.
“People get their heads filled with all these brand names,” Gertsen continued. “And I don’t want those names to be there. My sales reps will probably kill me for this, but I want drink names to be there. I want some of the work that we’ve all done looking through these old books, brushing the dust off of great old cocktails—I want the names of the cocktails to be back out. And I hope that that’s what’s really happening at Drink.”
On the wall above us, The Board illustrated Gertsen’s point. It was the kind of board you might find in an elementary school classroom—black, with white plastic letters that never quite line up right. In this case, they spelled out cocktail names. Hemingway Daiquiri was there. The Bee’s Knees. The Maximilian Affair—one of Misty’s. No Periodista, but I didn’t hold it against them.
“We have a long history as a group of talking about storytelling and taste of place,” Gertsen said. “Those are two things that the BL Gruppo does so well. We joke sometimes that we don’t even charge people for the drinks. We just charge them $10.75 for the stories. And I think there does need to be that dialogue, because that’s really what our bar is all about. It’s about conversation. And I’d be hard-pressed to look around here and find one person that’s not involved in a conversation right now. And to me that’s success. No TVs. No advertising. Let’s just have a bar where people can come in and talk.”
Marshall had chilled the Old Fashioned. He placed it in front of his guest, who paused her conversation to thank the bartender.
Shake with ice, strain into a chilled antique coupe glass. No garnish.
Tasting notes: “We certainly don’t use Rose’s,” Misty says. “We make a lime simple syrup at Drink. We steep lime peel, so you get the nice oil flavor. It’s much more complex, has a nice, long shelf life, and just tastes so much better. We also use Combier triple sec, which has that nice bitter orange quality to it.” Interesting to note that Misty hangs on to the addition of simple syrup, rather than sweetening the drink with just the liqueurs, as in McGuirk’s and Cannon’s recipes. A holdover from the old days?