Periodista Tales

New to my blog? Why not start at the beginning?

Forgot where you were in the story? Visit the Table of Contents.

Mailing List

To be added to the mailing list, please email me at devhahn [at] gmail [dot] com

Subscriptions

Periodista Tales: Greg Boehm—The Collector

The winter months slunk by and I was back in New York. A cold rain fell on the banks of unmelted snow lining the sidewalk along Sixth Avenue. Dogs wore coats and ski-gloved hands fumbled with umbrellas. I’d have said it was perfect Manhattan weather, but I didn’t want to risk the pun.

It had taken me this long to arrange some face time with Greg Boehm. Boehm owns Cocktail Kingdom, a company that imports Japanese and European cocktailing paraphernalia and publishes replicas of vintage cocktail books. Boehm owns most of the originals himself. He has one of the most extensive collections of rare cocktail books on the Eastern seaboard.

Boehm had already been my informant in absentia, clueing me in to the Periodista recipe in the 1948 Club de Cantineros manual—the oldest I’d found so far. I wondered what he might have turned up since.

When I stepped into the 21st Street offices of Cocktail Kingdom, I was assaulted by a forest of wooden swizzle sticks and pitchfork-tipped bar spoons. Phones rang, a handful of people scurried from printer to fax machine and back. Shelves were stacked high with Cocktail Kingdom reprints of David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks and William Schmidt’s The Flowing Bowl. Where I didn’t see books I saw bottles—vintage rums and ryes and more types of bitters than I’d ever seen in one place.

Boehm showed up late. He was wearing a knit pullover and a five-day beard. His hair was slicked back from his forehead, but long enough to fall around his ears in wet strands. Boehm took me into his office. Apparently someone had turned a used bookstore on its side and dumped all the contents onto Boehm’s desk. Somewhere among the chaos he found a chair and sat down. I stayed on my feet.

Boehm pulled out a tiny leatherette folio and placed it on top of a stack of ephemera. After a minute I recognized the bar manual of the Club de Cantineros de Cuba, first edition, 1930. It was smaller than I imagined, tiny compared to the 1948 edition.

I picked it up and flipped to the index. The Periodista wasn’t in there.

“It’s not in there,” Boehm said.

I tried to laugh, but the noise that came out was more sea mammal than human. Where was that Manhattan I ordered?

I told myself that an absence of information can be as good as a solid lead. At least this improved the odds that the Periodista was born sometime between 1930 and 1948, a window which happened to include the years when Ernest Hemingway was living down the street from the Floridita. Points for the Papa camp.

I glanced around Boehm’s office. His desk was piled high with Cuban cocktail pamphlets, books on Cuban rum and Cuban history. It looked like my desk would have if I were a more dedicated investigator—and if I had an office.

I asked Boehm how he got Cuba on the brain.

“I’m in an office full of bottles of Cuban rum,” he said. “The new stuff from Havana Club and also I’ve got all the old Bacardi from Cuba. I have some of the oldest bottles—and when I say bottles, I mean full bottles—full, unless we’ve started drinking them. But I don’t collect the glass, I collect the liquid.”

Boehm gestured to a shelf where decaying labels struggled to cling to cloudy glass bottles. I saw the familiar bat—Bacardi’s logo to this day—and the words Ron Superior, Santiago de Cuba.

“It all goes back to Salvatore Calabrese,” Boehm said. “Salvatore was my first major influence in the cocktail world, and his whole thing is liquid history. I’ll give you an example. My father published all of Salvatore’s books, which is how I got into this business. My father’s first name is Lincoln. After they had sold, like, a million copies of Salvatore’s book, he gave my father a bottle of Cognac from the year Lincoln was assassinated.”

Forget the Manhattan. I’ll have a slug of the Rémy Dead President XO.

“So I’m tasting all this stuff,” Boehm continued, “drinking Cuban rum from the 1930s and 40s. And reading recipes from my library, and it just suddenly seemed like I should bring it all together. So I’m going to be co-authoring a book with Dave Wondrich on Cuban cocktails.”

Wondrich. Was there any piece of the cocktail world’s pie that he didn’t have his fingers in? I asked Boehm what phase of the project they were in.

“Right now I’m collecting all the recipes,” he said. “Recipes that were extremely common or typical in Cuba. The recipes are coming from the 1890s through the 1950s, but predominantly the 1920s and 30s. I’ve been going through my collection of promotional pamphlets and transcribing recipes from there.”

Boehm started fumbling through his piles. Brightly-colored booklets cascaded over one another. Rum brands and logos blended together like a flipbook.

“The Cuban liquor companies put out so many booklets,” he said. “Here’s a Bacardi booklet from the 30s. This one’s in English.”

He held up the pamphlet with the word Bacardi blazing across it.

“One thing you have to know about Cuban cocktails,” Boehm said, “Cuban rums and cocktails, is that a lot of the history has been offered up by brands. And going back for years, too. Now Havana Club is flying me out to Cuba for a research trip. It’ll be pretty interesting to see how much of the information the brands have disseminated is actually true. And it’s a two-way street. I think Havana Club is as interested in learning what we know as we are in learning what they know.”

It was in a pamphlet like this that Joe McGuirk claims he found the Periodista recipe that started the revival of the cocktail in Boston. I asked Boehm if he could speculate on the drink’s origin, based on his current research.

“The drink that you’re looking into,” Boehm said, “the Periodista, it’s just so rare to see it at all. But, judging by approximately when it’s from, and what I’m hearing from you, it’s probably going to turn out that one of the liquor companies created it.”

Boehm started flipping through the pages of the booklet in his hands.

“I mean, a lot of fantastic cocktails came out of those booklets,” he said. “The Air Mail cocktail is originally from a Bacardi booklet. With the Air Mail a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, it’s from here, it’s from there,’ but by far the oldest I’ve gotten it back is in a Bacardi booklet. Now, I’ve never come across any literature from the liquor companies saying outright, ‘We created this,’ or claiming direct authorship of these cocktails, but certainly their first printed appearance is in the booklets. Of course, you never know who really made those booklets. That’s always a source of frustration.”

He closed the book. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s not in this one.”

I asked Boehm if it was ever possible to get a true origin story for a cocktail from that era.

“I’ve definitely read things that say, ‘This was invented by such-and-such a person on such-and-such a date, and usually they’re just not true,” he said. “I mean, I see that all the time. So, it’s hard. Especially for things like the Daiquiri. Those are frustrating—the oldest of a very basic cocktail. Okay, we have rum, we have sugar, we have limes. Hmm, we put them together! Wow! I mean, who created that? You’re never going to know. Maybe you could go after who named it. But the Jennings Cox stuff, is that true? I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I can’t even prove that not true.”

Boehm picked up another pamphlet.

“With Cuban cocktails there’s a couple tricks,” he said. “One thing that’s interesting is that they like to name drinks after people, which helps. Because you know when that person became famous, and the drink’s not older than that.”

He held the pamphlet open to a cocktail recipe, the Mary Pickford: pineapple juice, grenadine, and Bacardi. A sweet drink for America’s sweetheart—a Cuban-born drink named for a Canadian-born actress.

“But nothing’s absolute,” Boehm continued. “The best we can say is that this drink was an important drink in Cuba at this time. Is it going to be the first? I don’t know.”

I asked him if there was anything in particular he was hoping to uncover with his project.

“With this I’m not really looking for a big paycheck,” he said. “The closest thing to a big paycheck might be finding the oldest Mojito. I’m not worried about the oldest Daiquiri, because that’s just never going to happen, but the Mojito stuff I’m finding is pretty interesting. I’m a little surprised how many gin Mojitos seem to have been drunk. It wasn’t really a rum drink, you just made it with whatever you had—it was a category. That’s been one of the most interesting things, but I haven’t gotten even to the 20s yet.”

Boehm put the pamphlet back down and scanned the surface of his desk. It undulated with cocktail history, a recipe for every wave on the ocean.

“I’m really just trying to find the common thread in all the Cuban drinks,” he said. “I think people will be a little surprised at what cocktails are of Cuban origin. At the end of the day, I think the book’s going to define what makes a cocktail a Cuban cocktail. And there isn’t just one answer to that. But there are so many great personalities and stories in Cuban’s cocktail history, so I’m pretty excited about what I might be able to turn up.”

7 comments to Periodista Tales: Greg Boehm—The Collector

  • fred

    Nice piece, and sweet pics of the neolithic bacardi. Funny thing, the concept of a cocktail company inventing a drink, because on the one hand, it seems cheap and commercialized, but on the other hand, they had to have someone on staff who actually invented or adapted the drink. So the answer “the drink was invented by a cocktail company” is really only half an answer.

  • Damn, I misread Fred’s comment and thought he was calling Greg a neolithic bastard.

  • As Eben Freedman has pointed out numerous times since his talk at Tales of the Cocktail (and probably much before), spirit companies love to re-write history and claim inventing things they pilfered from less vocal bartenders.

  • fred

    Frederic – wouldn’t spirit companies want to do the opposite? Aka disseminate information that made it seem like their invented cocktails really had a colorful historical pedigree?

  • beth

    i gotta say the liquor company booklet is a very real and very good hypothesis- i lift shit out of those things all the time! nice piece devin.

  • I think it’s time you visited the place where Fredo ran away in shame from his little brother. I look forward to the “Periodista Tales” ….in Cuba.

  • [...] his search brought him to New York City, where he talked to a collector of cocktail ephemera and dug in the stacks of the New York Public Library looking for old drink menus. A filmmaker by [...]