Devin Hahn

Multimedia Storyteller, Writer, Cocktail Blogger

Category: Periodista (Page 1 of 3)

Periodista Tales: Ted Haigh—Birth of a Pseudonym

I took the L train east to Bushwick and walked out into the death throes of whatever grit lingered in that rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Hipster hangouts were encroaching on the Boar’s Head meat factory like a Georgia kudzu. I rounded a corner and passed a specialty wine and spirits shop. I guess change isn’t all bad.

I was in the neighborhood to meet Ted Haigh. Haigh is the author of Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails, which was published in ’03 and came out in a second edition recently enough for it to win Best New Cocktail Book of the Year at the last Tales of the Cocktail. It’s a collection of drink recipes and stories about cocktails that hadn’t been tasted for decades—a handbook for the classic cocktail revival. If a craft cocktail joint has any books on its back bar, you can bet Haigh’s will be among them.

Haigh has lived in Los Angeles since 1990, but he was staying at an apartment in Brooklyn while he did graphic design work for the set of the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire. Haigh’s pseudonym is Dr. Cocktail, but cocktails aren’t how he makes his livelihood. They’re just what made him famous.

Haigh’s apartment is in a converted warehouse. Everything in Bushwick is in a converted warehouse. This one had a buzzer on the door. I pushed the number for Haigh’s place and the door clicked at me until I opened it.

When I arrived at Haigh’s third-floor doorstep, he greeted me with my favorite question.

“Can I make you a drink?” he asked. “I make a kind of pseudo-Manhattan with rye and Punt E Mes. How’s that sound?”

I told him it sounded fine.

Haigh has a modest ponytail, a salt-and-pepper mustache, and a belly consummate with the zeal of his interests. While he was putting the drinks together, I asked him where his fascination with cocktails came from.

“The first cocktail cognizance I had was before I ever had a drink,” he said, “not even close to when I had a drink. It was at the young tender age of fourteen that I got hold of Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual, which came out in 1934. I would look at the names of the cocktails, and they were just fascinating to me. I can recall to this day the three initial drinks that captured my imagination—and they speak very much to the fourteen-year-old mind: the Corpse Reviver No. 2, the Monkey Gland, and the Bosom Caresser.”

He turned to me, brandishing an Old Fashioned glass in each hand. His eyes were as big and wild as pool balls after a break. “The Bosom Caresser is a lousy drink,” he said, then laughed. Haigh laughs like a man who’s comfortable being the center of attention. If you’re in the same room as him and a good joke, you know where to find him.

“But I would think to myself, ‘What are these things?’” he continued. “These drinks that probably hadn’t been served in seventy years. See, all it had to be was old—it just had to be before my lifetime, and I was hooked.”

Haigh sat down with his pseudo-Manhattan and kept talking. I walked over to the floor-to-ceiling sash windows and glanced out at the warehouse across the street. Or maybe it was a mirror.

“Anyway,” Haigh said, “when I inevitably came of age and was able to taste the Corpse Reviver No. 2, it was a true eureka moment. I was able to really understand what chemists those bartenders were—even though we’re talking about a recipe of mostly equal parts—because I could taste each individual ingredient, and yet the whole was something else entirely. Something remarkable.”

It was a familiar story, but it was nice to hear someone else tell it. I asked him how he got to the point where he thought he could write a book on the subject.

“Well, I was starting to collect a lot of bottles,” Haigh said. “I loved the way the physical objects connected to the history. I was also doing research—taking notes and gaining these lines of correspondence. It wasn’t like I even knew what I wanted to do with the information yet—research for research’s sake, you know? Without the AOL gig I wouldn’t have necessarily had the audacity to assume that I could concatenate all of this knowledge and there-a-book-would-be.”

AOL. You don’t hear those three letters end-to-end too often these days. I asked him for the story.

“Oh, that,” he said, pausing and taking a dramatic sip from his glass, “that really created so much of what we now consider the cocktail resurgence.”

A big claim, but I was willing to hear him back it up.

“To begin with,” Haigh said, “in 1994, I believe, I was introduced to the Internet. At the time I had no idea what the Internet was. Almost none of us did. Now, granted, AOL was not really the Internet. AOL was entirely separate from the Internet. It was conducted sort of on the Internet, but it totally protected you from the wilderness of ones and zeros that was the true Internet back then.”

I remembered the days. Screen names. Keywords. Message boards. Funny how quickly new things can become relics.

“AOL was this gated community online,” Haigh said, “and within the gates they had many things—movie reviews, news articles—it was a whole town! So I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if they have anything on cocktails in here?’ Sure enough, there was a section called the Food & Drink Network, and if you burrowed down far enough you found a section on spirits. So I went in there, and like any young kid in a new town, I tended to keep my mouth shut.”

I had a hard time imagining Haigh keeping his mouth shut in any situation, but I kept that opinion to myself.

“But as I’m looking around,” he said, “I notice a lot of people have a lot of questions, but there aren’t too many answers. So, hesitantly, humbly, I start answering questions—and there seemed not be too many questions I couldn’t answer.”

Haigh’s expression is never too far from a grin. It made the short trip.

He continued, “Eventually somebody on the board says to me, ‘You need a better screen name. You should be, like, Dr. Cocktail or something.’ I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ So, within two days of me being Dr. Cocktail, I’m contacted by Craig Goldwyn, the leader of the Food & Drink Network on AOL, who asks if I wouldn’t like to be the moderator of the Cocktails & Spirits section. Why they didn’t want me when I was still, I don’t know!”

Our glasses were empty and Haigh went to refill them. Outside, a semi announced it had shifted into reverse, but didn’t seem to be going anywhere. The droning beep played counterpoint to Haigh’s voice, which drifted in from the kitchen, a few feet away.

“I became the lifeguard for that section of the network,” he said. “And this is the realm where the core group manifested itself. And that included Gary Regan, who would later be instrumental in resurrecting orange bitters, author also of The Joy of Mixology. The great William Grimes, who was the food and drink critic for the New York Times, and would eventually write Straight Up Or on The Rocks.”

Haigh handed me a glass and I sat down opposite him on a short couch. I took a drink. If there was Punt E Mes mixed in with the rye, I couldn’t taste it.

“We were considered the authorities, back then,” Haigh said. “Of course, there was a lot of disagreement. Nothing is as clean and slick as we would like history to be. Even in that era some people cared most about the perfect way to make the drinks, some people cared about what trends were coming up next. Some of us cared about the historical resonance of them—I was in that camp, of course—but together we grew, we evolved as a result of this kind of DNA swap.”

I thought about how many virtual communities had formed within AOL’s walls during that period. Haigh’s story wasn’t just an early chapter in the story of the cocktail renaissance, it was also a snapshot of a moment in time. A time when communities of choice—communities based on mutual interest rather than geography—were just beginning to form. I drank silently to my memory of the moment.

“We were also dealing with a lot of shluff, of course,” Haigh said. “I mean, people asking how to make a Fuzzy Navel, people interested more in Appletinis than actual Martinis. But, by the same token, anyone who went away with, ‘I’m impressed by this,’ and who commented on it further, sent out these ripples. And the Internet was relatively small back then, you didn’t know how far any ripple would go. At the time, those ripples were more like tidal waves than we ever thought they would be. That was the start of things.”

1994 had been a landmark year for the burgeoning cocktail scene. It was the year Brother Cleve went on the road with Combustible Edison, and began to amass the fan base that would come to be known as the Cocktail Nation. Soon after, Joe McGuirk would put together the cocktail program that would eventually introduce me to the Periodista. And on AOL, the first online community of cocktail enthusiasts was born. Ripples upon ripples.

Haigh seemed to have finished his drink. I seemed to have finished mine, too, but Haigh didn’t notice. He was lost in the sway of his own story.

“Eventually I was forced off AOL,” he said, “because AOL was becoming the worst it would get before the merger with Time/Warner—but—it was largely because of the AOL experience that I felt comfortable with being considered an authority on this stuff. And I thought to myself, I have a book in this.”

He waggled his eyebrows at me. Not everyone can pull that off, but Haigh’s eyebrows are made for waggling. “It was actually a person who would later become rather famous,” he said, “who helped take me to the next level.”

I thought about asking who, but I was too busy trying to remember what round we were on. My glass was full again.

“That was a guy named John Hodgman,” Haigh said.

I knew the name. In case I didn’t, Haigh was prepared to fill me in.

“John Hodgman,” Haigh said, “played the resident expert on The Daily Show, and he played the PC on the Mac vs. PC ads. But before all that, Hodgman was a literary agent in New York, and a writer. Now, in the process of building up this presence on the Internet, I started getting well known among the journalists. I ended up being a source, either for quotes or simple fact-checking. And Hodgman originally contacted me as a source for a piece he was writing about—you guessed it—girly drinks. Then he contacted me for a piece he was doing on bitters.”

I stood up. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I was starting to regret it. I found the wall and leaned on it.

“Finally,” Haigh continued, “Hodgman decides he wants to write a nice article for the New York Times Magazine about—me! He came out to Burbank, I had him over to the house, plied him with liquor and so forth. The interview took three days. And at some point I tell him, ‘I’m getting a book published,’ which he knew because, unbeknownst to me, he’s the one who had recommended me to the publishers! John Hodgman was the real impetus for getting me published, really published. The book had been percolating for about ten years before that, but Hodgman was instrumental, just instrumental.”

These were the stories I was out here for. The little bits of biography that intersected with coincidence to create moments that would have a real effect on history. There was a story like that out there for the Periodista. I knew it. At least I felt it. Maybe it was the rye talking—it was certainly the one doing the thinking.

I shook my head, just to remind myself it was there.

“When my book first did come out in 2003,” Haigh said, “I was afraid we were at the end of it. I was thinking, you know, as a nerd who mostly had contact with other nerds, where could this possibly go from here? Like, we’re going to affect the general public? Pfwah!”

Haigh stretched out his arms on his couch. He was a bit of a recluse, Ted Haigh, but here in his own space, with a glass of rye in his hand, he was king of the mountain.

“But, man, we were just at the very pinnacle of the roller coaster,” he said. “And within the year that my book came out, suddenly I was getting calls from Europe. I appear in London, there’s a line of bartenders wanting my autograph. They really adopted it! And I realized that my book, whether brilliant, or merely timely—was timely! Right then the zeitgeist was right where it needed to be. I said things that people believed.”

I certainly did.

I don’t know if it was my idea or Haigh’s, but suddenly we were walking down the stairs and out into the night. Half a block down we entered a series of doors and found ourselves in a dark, quiet bar. It was an off night. I got introduced to the bar manager, Keith Cochran, and the name of the establishment, The Narrows. Haigh ordered a bittered Bronx and I got something off the cocktail menu, a Last Word variation with Scotch and jalepeño tequila called “Word.” (Full stop.)

Haigh and I sipped our drinks and I tried to remember what day of the week it was. Sunday, I thought. Then Haigh was talking again.

“One thing is for sure,” he said. “What we know about the cocktail world that nobody ever voices out loud is how imperfect it is. People create something, they drink it, they get drunk, they forget. It could be that easy. A different bartender says, ‘That’s good, but I want to do it this way.’ Somebody publishes it. They publish a wrong ingredient. It goes into the pantheon with the wrong ingredient. It’s all so part of the human foible. So, in researching the Periodista, God knows I hope you never come to some final conclusion, because that’s inhuman.”

I don’t know how many rounds passed before I was on the streets of Brooklyn, trying to pry my MetroCard out of my wallet. I was only five blocks away from the subway station and I wanted to give myself enough time to prepare.

I thought about the AOL Spirits & Cocktails forum. I thought about Haigh’s book. He had always been about spreading the gospel. Getting knowledge to as many people as possible. At the end of the day, he was right, I might never come to a final conclusion about the origins of the Periodista. And if I did, then where would I be?

I knew one thing: I’d never give up the chase. But maybe I had something else to offer.

Before I walked down the stairs into the subway, I took out my phone and dialed Los Angeles. It was time to try a new approach.

Periodista Tales: The Joe Baum Papers

New York again. I had decided to try my hand at some academic-style research. Maybe Greg Boehm’s project had inspired me. Maybe meeting writers like Dave Wondrich, Jeff Berry, and Wayne Curtis—true scholars of the cocktail—had left a mark. Maybe I was one jigger shy of a full shaker. In any case, I had to acknowledge the possibility that not all my answers were hidden in the minds of heavy drinkers. Some might be in a library.

The floor of the uptown 6 train was slick with mud and snow melt. Next to me, a man in an electric orange ski jacket diddled an iPod three generations out of date. When the train stopped at Grand Central Terminal I got out feeling like a new dollar bill on its first day in circulation.

As I worked my way down 42nd Street I looked up. New York towered over me. It towers over everyone. The trick is not to knock over any old ladies while you’re craning your neck. I made the three blocks to the New York Public Library unscathed.

Signs directed me to the Manuscripts & Archives Division on the third floor. I walked through the McGraw Rotunda, past Ed Laning’s murals from the 1940s. I hear they’d considered Sargent and Whistler for the job, but a trustee had landed on Laning—I guess he was the budget version. To my right, Gutenberg showed off an early print edition and above me Prometheus brought knowledge to mankind. Lucky mankind.

The librarian who buzzed me in looked like he might have been a side tackle in college. He was nervous, he stuttered, and he liked eye contact about as much as a shiner, but somehow he managed to nail that befuddled charm so particular to the profession. I described my “project” and the librarian sent word down to the stacks for them to retrieve the boxes I wanted from the Joe Baum archive. I was looking for the original menu from Baum’s Latin restaurant, La Fonda Del Sol.

Joe Baum was the first president of Restaurant Associates, a company that operated many of New York’s classic restaurants, including The Four Seasons restaurant and Tavern on the Green. In his book The Craft of the Cocktail, Dale DeGroff—a protégé of Baum’s—claims that his boss “singlehandedly introduced tequila to New York at La Fonda Del Sol.” The restaurant opened in 1960 and supposedly featured a number of Cuban cocktails. It was Jackson Cannon who first suggested to me that the Periodista might have found a place on that menu.

Even if the Periodista was on the menu, seeing it wasn’t going to help me find the cocktail’s origin. On the other hand, it might provide a midpoint between the Periodista’s presence in the 1948 manual of the Club de Cantineros de Cuba and its appearance in Boston. Right now that was a void. Where had it gone? Why hadn’t the Periodista made it into the annals of cocktail history? Why wasn’t it in any of the great cocktail books (a fact that had perplexed so many historically-minded bartenders throughout Boston)?

As I waited, three librarians held counsel in hushed tones. Everything in there happened in hushed tones. The librarians threw an occasional glance in my direction, just to make sure I wasn’t making a sandwich on a first edition Robinson Crusoe. The other patrons eyed me suspiciously, most of them from behind horn-rimmed glasses. I felt like a first-timer in a bar full of regulars.

I sneezed. That didn’t help anything. The beefy librarian approached me.

“That was bound delivery,” he said, indicating some carts that had arrived behind the iron railing. “Do you want to just start with the first box?”

I did.

I was handed a narrow grey box. Inside I found a stack of folders, each containing photographs and menus from a different Joe Baum restaurant. There was the Four Seasons, the Newarker, the St. Regis. And La Fonda Del Sol in folder number four.

The menu was easy to find—it had a brightly-colored, ornate design. La Fonda Del Sol’s cocktail offerings would have been impressive even today. For 1960 they were unheard of. The first item was the “Pisco Sawer” for $1.30, described as a “Peruvian Brandy Sour.” There was a “Taxco Fizz” with mezcal, lime, sugar, and egg. The “Algarrobina Coctél” with pisco, Peruvian herbs, and lime. I could have been looking at the cocktail menu of a tapas restaurant circa 2010.

Among their selection of rum drinks—Bebidas con Ron—were all the Cuban classics: the Floridita, the Daiquiri, the Mojito.

But no Periodista.

One of the drinks on the “Bebidas—Mixtas—Típicas” menu did pique my interest. It was the “Coctél Alegría,” which contained pisco, Cointreau, and apricot brandy. Close, but no cigar. I’d struck out again.

I thought about Joe Baum. What had inspired him to create such a sophisticated cocktail program at La Fonda Del Sol? Who had he hired to create the program? Which future bartending luminaries had tasted their first Pisco Sour within those walls and thought, “This is how cocktails should be”? I left the Manuscripts Division, my questions still unanswered.

I walked out of the library, past the concrete lions, and into a cold rain. Who was I fooling? I was no Wondrich, no Beach Bum Berry or Wayne Curtis. I might aspire to leave a lasting impression on the cocktail world like they had, but I couldn’t stomach the paperwork. The only real hope for the Periodista story was for me to keep getting in the room with the right people. The right lead was out there—I could feel it.

There was one person I hadn’t managed to meet—a man who had left an indelible mark on the cocktail scene through his research and writing. He’d been a trial to find, but I’d finally gotten a call returned. He was my next stop, right there in New York City. The professor himself: Dr. Cocktail.

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.”

Periodista Tales: David Wondrich—The Historian

I was standing outside McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village waiting for David Wondrich. McSorley’s is not a cocktail bar. They serve one drink—ale—and have done since 1854. Manhattan’s East Village has probably the highest concentration of craft cocktail bars in the United States—PDT, Death + Company, all the biggies—but Wondrich wanted to meet at McSorley’s. Not five o’clock yet and it was bedlam in there, so I waited on the curb.

After a few minutes, Wondrich came ambling down the street with a beaten leather man-bag strapped across his chest. Last time I’d seen Wondrich, he’d spent two hours telling me and a roomful of people that it was practically impossible to find the true origin story of any cocktail. I shook his hand anyway.

He looked at the bar. “Crazy inside?”

I nodded.

“Worth a shot,” he said. “Sometimes you get lucky. It’s the oldest bar in New York—great place if it’s not too busy.”

We ended up at Vandaag, a new Dutch joint on the corner of Second Avenue and East Sixth. Wondrich ordered kopstootje for both of us, which turned out to be a shot of Bols Genever and a beer. The bartender poured the genever just short of overflowing.

“Perfect,” said Wondrich. “That’s so you have to take the first sip like this.”

He stood up, clasped his hands behind his back, and brought his face down to the tiny glass to sip. I did the same. The genever burned, but was gentler than its cousin gin. I drank some of my beer.

I’d spent four hours on a Greyhound bus trying to decide what I would say in that moment. David Wondrich has made a career out of doing the very thing that I’ve been trying to do for the Periodista. He’s dug up and told the stories of countless forgotten cocktails. But, more significantly, Wondrich is the person who has come closest to articulating what the cocktail renaissance is really about. His 2007 book, Imbibe!—half biography of Jerry Thomas, the world’s first celebrity bartender, half a collection of famous cocktail origins and recipes—has become the handbook of today’s barmen. It might also be to blame for the preponderance of vests, bowties, and handlebar mustaches behind so many craft cocktail bars.

I asked Wondrich how he felt about Imbibe!’s influence on the scene.

“Well, the mustache thing, for sure,” he said. “They weren’t doing the 19th-century look too much before Imbibe! But people had already been looking in that direction. I think what I’m probably most proud of is how the book has helped bartenders understand the history of their profession, and see some nobility in it. The story of Jerry Thomas illustrates that, yes, this is a respected profession with exacting standards, and bartenders were traditionally people who were looked up to. I think that’s been really chuffing, so to speak, for a lot of young bartenders.”

I asked what led him to start looking toward the 19th century.

“Well, I love researching,” he said. “I hate writing. Oh, god. I just loathe the process. It’s a very ugly process for me and just takes forever. I like having written. But I love the researching part. For me, that’s the most fun.”

Wondrich took a sip of his genever. He was outpacing me. But then, he was a professional.

“I’m not a very disciplined researcher,” he said. “I’ll go looking for one thing and then—‘Hey, shiny!’—and I’m off in another direction. I can be very tenacious if I have to be, but I’m also not one of those people who can spend twenty years researching the same thing, because you’ll never really get to the bottom of it, but eventually you have to put a book out. Like, I’ve probably learned more about Jerry Thomas since Imbibe! came out than I did before it was published.”

I asked how a man who hates writing got into writing about cocktails in the first place.

“I started out as a music writer,” he said. “I had been writing about music for the Village Voice and the Times. But to be a rock critic or a music critic, you had to write nice stuff about stuff that you thought was shit, because otherwise you just wouldn’t get any work. You know, you can’t be the guy who hates everything—there’s already one or two of those and that job is taken—”

“Hey, how are you?” A man interrupted us. It was Brendan Spiro, Vandaag’s owner. “Nice to see you! Welcome, welcome.” He chatted for a moment with Wondrich, who said gracious things. I worked on my beer.

“So,” Wondrich continued, “around ’99, 2000, I get an assignment from Esquire magazine. They had digitized Esquire’s 1949 Handbook for Hosts, and they wanted me to edit it into a form that would be usable on the internet. There was this big, fat wad of cocktail recipes. Some of the drinks had little essays with them, and I thought, ‘Well, all the main drinks should have one.’ So I wrote up some of my own and handed this thing in. ‘We like those little essays,’ they said. ‘Can you do more of those? Can you do one a week?’ I was like, ‘Okay.’ This was before there were such things as blogs, but that’s what they wanted, really—a weekly web column on cocktails.”

Wondrich had finished both parts of his kopstootje and ordered another beer.

“After I’d been doing it for about a year,” he said, “I went to see David Granger, Esquire’s truly excellent editor, and said, ‘Uh, this cocktail thing’s kind of popular. We should make a book out of this.’ And he said, ‘Okay.’ And that was Esquire Drinks, which is a very cheeky book, indeed.”

Wondrich’s latest book, Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl, delves even further back than Imbibe!, to a time when proto-cocktails were mixed in large bowls by historical figures—Charles Dickens and company. I wondered if Wondrich could possibly go any further back in the history of booze.

“In a perfect world,” he said, “my next step would be to write a history of how spirits became a recreational drink around the world. But that’s a really complicated tale from a time when the world was not unified. To do it right, to tell the actual story, you need ten languages. You need access to archives—the Spanish Colonial Archives, the East India Company, the Dutch East India Company. That would be a great project, but short of being a well-funded academic with graduate students and sabbaticals and summers off, I can’t see any way of doing it. I would have to be twenty years younger starting out.”

Another person stopped by our corner of the bar to shake Wondrich’s hand. It was Phillip Kirschen-Clark, Vandaag’s chef.

“You have room for a snack tonight?”

“Well, if you’re making bitterballen—”

“Sure.  I can bitterball you up.”

“That would be a very, very friendly gesture,” Wondrich said. “Thank you.”

The chef left and Wondrich looked thoughtful for a moment. He sipped his freshly-delivered beer.

“It’s interesting,” he said. “If you look at the world today, nobody gets anything made for them anymore. Everything comes in packages and is just given to you fully formed. Even if you go to restaurants, everything happens behind closed doors, you never see the cooks working. But in a bar, you see somebody making your drink. And you can say to yourself, ‘That’s my drink, right there. And that’s somebody making it. Somebody who’s going to talk to me about it, and make my drink as I like it.’ In today’s world, that kind of thing is really rare. And thank God for it.”

We raised our glasses. That was my moment. I asked Wondrich his advice on the Periodista—one cocktail detective to another.

“There’s no guarantee you’ll ever get to the bottom of it,” he said. “The main thing is, never give up. Keep looking. Every day they’re digitizing new newspapers. Somebody’s gotta digitize the Cuban papers eventually, right?”

Wondrich lifted his man-bag onto the bar and pulled out a thick envelope.

“I brought something to show you,” he said. “Some guy was selling these online. Not on Ebay, just on the internet. He wasn’t even a bookseller, just some guy.” He opened the envelope and a half-dozen small magazines slid onto the bar top.

I recognized them immediately. Back issues of Coctél, the trade magazine published by the Club de Cantineros de Cuba. I never imagined I’d see them in person.

“These are the few, rare issues I have,” Wondrich said. He started flipping through one. “It’s a union magazine, you know? It’s got stuff like, ‘English for Bar Men.’ Lots of advertisements. Mentions of local bars and characters. There’s only a little bit of cocktail stuff in there. Here’s ‘Cocktails of the Last Century,’ a recipe for Vermouth Cocktail Francaise.”

He looked me in the eye.

“I looked through all of these,” he said, “and none of them have the Periodista.”

I was a little disappointed, but not surprised.

“But these are only a few scattered issues. There’s tons more stuff like this out there.”

He picked up another issue. “Here,” he said. “Check this out—this is wild. You look through all these issues, and they’re all just regular bar magazines. Until you get to this one. This one is February 1960.”

Wondrich opened the magazine to reveal a full-page illustration of Fidel Castro.

“And that’s all you need to know. After this, you’re not going to find anything fun in there. It’s all Soviet culture, none of the international brands are advertised. It’s like, boom, right there—end of the Cuban cocktail scene.”

Periodista Tales: Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Tales of the Periodista

Wherein our hero encounters the Periodista for the first time, and his fate is sealed.

Chapter 2: Chez Henri—Point of Origin?

Wherein our hero returns to the scene of the crime, and Paul O’Connell explores the advertising potential of social media.

Chapter 3: Rendezvous—When Jung Met Freud

Wherein our hero first learns of the Jack Rose Society from the unsung hero of the Boston bar scene, Scott Holliday.

Chapter 4: Green Street—The Steward

Wherein our hero fails to make a key connection, and Dylan Black recounts the legend of the B-Side Lounge.

Chapter 5: Noir—A Mystery in Print

Wherein our hero seeks out the story behind a key recipe, and instead find a tip that will lead him further down the rabbit hole.

Chapter 6: Brother Cleve—The Godfather

Wherein our hero meets the infamous Brother Cleve, who spins the tale of the Cocktail Nation, Saturnalia, and the birth of the Boston cocktail scene.

Chapter 7: Eastern Standard—Lifting Hemingway’s Prints

Wherein our hero challenges Jackson Cannon on the authenticity of the Hemingway Legend.

Chapter 8: Highland Kitchen—McGuirk’s Vindication

Wherein our hero hears the true story of the Periodista from Joe McGuirk, and learns that his search has only just begun.

Chapter 9: New Orleans, Part 1—The Monteleone

Wherein our hero takes his quest to New Orleans and first learns of the Cuban bartender’s association, El Club De Cantineros de Cuba.

Chapter 10: New Orleans, Part 2—Clues at Cure

Wherein our hero meets the three wise men, Angus Winchester, Wayne Curtis, and Ed Hamilton, and finds he is none the wiser for meeting them.

Chapter 11: New Orleans, Part 3—The Mixoloseum

Wherein our hero pays a visit to the shadow world of Tales of the Cocktail, and learns that kindred spirits are not always good for the soul.

Chapter 12: New Orleans, Part 4—The Bar Room Brawl

Wherein our hero is swept up in the sound and fury of a competition among masters, and Boston’s Drink vies for the top spot.

Chapter 13: New Orleans, Part 5—Mixography with Dave and Jeff

Wherein our hero contemplates the meaning of the word “moderation,” and listens while David Wondrich and Jeff “Beach Bum” Berry contemplate it, too.

Chapter 14: New Orleans, Part 6—Brian Rea

Wherein our hero enjoys some Abbot & Costello-like banter between legendary barman Brian Rea and Beach Bum Berry.

Chapter 15: New Orleans, Part 7—The Bartender’s Breakfast

Wherein our hero uses a golden key to enter the Cocktail Party to end all Cocktail Parties.

Chapter 16: New Orleans, Part 8—King Cocktail

Wherein our hero encounters the legendary Dale DeGroff, who offers a tip that might just lead him to the Periodista.

Chapter 17: One City’s Homage, One Man’s Quest

Wherein our hero discovers he has become a legend in his own lifetime, and receives the message he has been looking for all along.

Chapter 18: Lauren Clark—The Critic

Wherein our hero shows off an original Cuban Periodista recipe to’s Lauren Clark.

Chapter 19: Drink—Taste of Place

Wherein our hero pays a much anticipated visit to Drink, and Misty Kalkofen and John Gertsen talk about sex, hair, and cocktailing.

Chapter 20: David Wondrich—The Historian

Wherein our hero travels to New York to seek the wisdom of David Wondrich, and they drink beer.

Chapter 21: Greg Boehm—The Collector

Wherein our hero pays a visit to the Cocktail Kingdom of Greg Boehm, experiences disappointment, rebounds, and learns of a new collaboration in the realm of Cuban cocktail history.

Chapter 22: The Joe Baum Papers

Wherein our hero takes an unexpected trip—to the library—and delves into archival cocktail menus.

Chapter 23: Ted Haigh—Birth of a Pseudonym

Wherein our hero learns of the cocktail community’s humble cyber-beginnings, gets hammered with Dr. Cocktail, and drunk dials his future.

Periodista Tales: Drink—Taste of Place

“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.

“Everybody kind of has their own take on it,” she said. “The way we used to make it back at the B-Side—with the Apry and the Rose’s lime juice—was, for me, terribly, terrible sweet.”

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.

Drink’s Periodista

1 ½ oz Myers’s dark rum
½ oz lime juice
¼ oz Combier triple sec
¼ oz Rothman & Winter Orchard apricot liqueur
¼ oz house-made lime peel simple syrup

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?

Periodista Tales: Lauren Clark—The Critic

It wasn’t with the rum drinks. No, that would have been too easy. It was in a catchall section called “Mezclas Multiples.” The recipes were in alphabetical order. I flipped pages, past the As with their Antilles and their Astoria, the Ds with their Delmonico and Douglas Fairbanks. But it wasn’t in the Ps between Pelayo and Perry. No, that would have been too easy. I flipped to the end. There it was, in the bottom right-hand corner of page 399, after the curiously-spelled Zazerac cocktail.  All by itself.  Like it didn’t want to be found.


Come. On. What?”

I was sitting in the Franklin Cafe with Lauren Clark on a Tuesday. Joy Richard was behind the bar. Joy works Tuesdays. That’s why we were there instead of the library.

“So, what does it say? Bacardi blanca, okay. Apricot, okay. Límon is actually lime, right?”

We were looking at the copy of El Arte Del Cantinero that I’d brought along for show-and-tell. I was seeing a girl who was tight with the Harvard librarians, and she’d found the book on WorldCat and put in an interlibrary loan request. Easy as that. The copy we’d gotten was from Yale. What Yale was doing with it I couldn’t figure. Probably not mixing Zazeracs.

“That’s amazing.  That is so—wow.  So at least 1948, then?”

Uh huh. El Arte proved it. The Periodista was Cuban, and it was at least as old as 1948, when the Club de Cantineros de la República de Cuba put out their bartender’s manual. The book is credited to Hilario Alonso Sanchez, apparently the Club’s secretary, and the full title is El Arte Del Cantinero, Los Vinos Y Los Licores.

The thing is an inch thick. 450 pages cover to cover, with 100 pages devoted to recipes. (I’d strapped myself to Google Translate and was holding on tight—not the first time I regretted taking French in school.) The first 350 pages cover everything a good barman should know: grape varietals, the therapeutic qualities of beer, “the truth about alcoholism,” five different theories on the origin of the word “cocktail,” how to stock a bar, how to dress, how to treat a good customer, how to deal with a bad one. It also includes the origin stories of a number of classic cocktails. Not the Periodista. My copy was bound in brown leatherette and had the word CINZANO stamped on the fore edge. No respect, those Yalies.

I took a sip of the drink Joy had made me. It was something she was working on for the cocktail menu of the Franklin family’s new joint, the Citizen. It was pink and tasted vaguely of dark chocolate. I liked it. Clark ordered the Cape Bjare Daiquiri. I’d beaten her there by a good half hour and was already on my second. Model of restraint.

Lauren Clark is the editor of—and sole contributor to—the blog In some ways, Clark’s work has defined the Boston bar scene. Sometimes a movement doesn’t realize it’s a movement until it has a critic to talk about it. Lauren Clark: Clement Greenberg of Boston cocktaildom. I’d met her a couple months back at Green Street and told her about the Periodista project. She’d said something vaguely encouraging. I’d started working on it the next day.

“Now,” said Clark, flipping the brown, crispy pages of El Arte, “are there a lot of recipes in here that call specifically for Bacardi?”

Clark didn’t have anything new for me on the Periodista, but sitting there with her and a 1948 recipe for the Periodista, I felt like I’d come full circle. I ignored her rum question and brought things back around to the Club de Cantineros de la República de Cuba. According to the irrepressible Havana Club website, the Club is still active today.

I observed to Clark that she also belongs to a cocktailing club of sorts. (A cheap segue is like a cheap drink: you may not like it, but it gets you there.)

“You mean LUPEC,” she said. “LUPEC Boston, I should say. The first chapter was founded in Pittsburgh in 2000. Ladies United for the Preservation of the Endangered Cocktail. That’s us.”

I asked how LUPEC Boston came together.

Misty was the one who got the whole ball rolling,” she said. “She had been working in town for a while and already had a reputation just as a hoofer, you know? Like she’d been on Broadway for a long time and had done a lot of shows, but she was finally starting to really get on stage and be in the spotlight. I think she wanted to figure out how the cocktail thing was going to move forward.”

Ladies United for the Preservation of the Endangered Cocktail. The name had the sooty air of the 19th century all over it. I thought about the Jack Rose Society. What was it about the cocktail renaissance that had people roleplaying the Victorian era? Too much time nose-deep in Jerry Thomas? I asked Clark her opinion.

“I think that’s probably a little more true of the Jack Rose Society,” she said. “I think in a lot of ways they were more practical. They always had an agenda, like, let’s figure out the best recipe for the Ward Eight. And you know Jackson and John—they would all bring their books and there would be a kind of nerdfest going on. LUPEC was less about that. For us it was more about just finding this thing to be enthusiastic about, and finding kindred spirits, and then spreading the love through this group of enthusiastic people.”

Down the bar, Joy eyed the ice cubes that were spinning in her mixing glass. As the crushed ice at the bottom of the glass blended with the spirits, the larger cubes on top began to sink. Like Clark, Joy Richard was a founding member of LUPEC Boston.

“It was also about bringing drink-making women out of the shadows,” said Clark. “Bartending is a very male-dominated passion, and there are certain preconceived notions when it comes to cocktails and women. We wanted to say loud and clear, like, ‘Hey, we’re making Rob Roys too. We’re not just drinking Cosmos. We’re the real deal.’ So that was a big part of it. But, you know, I haven’t really been actively involved with LUPEC in over a year.”

Typical of my investigative techniques.  Find someone who hasn’t touched your lead in twelve months and grill them. Swell. I asked her about something I knew she was still up on, her own blog.

“I started Drinkboston in 2005,” Clark said. “I’d just completed a major freelance assignment, this beer piece I wrote for the Times. And I was like, ‘Oh, wow. I got an article published in the New York Times and it was not fun for one second.’ So I started looking for a way to do my own thing with my writing. At the same time I was becoming more aware of the bar scene. Back then, like early 2000s, dirty martinis were still the big thing, and people were just discovering Cosmopolitans.”

She pointed to my cocktail glass. V-shaped with a stem. You know the one.

“People started drinking stuff out of this glass,” she said, “like they never had before. So bartenders started making more drinks for that glass.”

Joy brought over Clark’s daiquiri. It was in that glass.

“It all gelled while I was doing a brief freelance stint for the Herald,” Clark continued, “writing for their Sunday food section and alternating each week between beer columns and wine and spirit columns. Every time I sat down to start writing a column I would Google ‘best Boston bars,’ ‘best Boston bartenders,’ ‘Boston cocktails,’ things like that, trying to find background information. There was, like, nothing. After the tenth time doing that I kind of said, ‘Hey, this looks like something I might be able to do myself.’”

Of course, now when you Google any of those search terms, Clark’s blog comes up. First result. I thought about a time not too long ago when I’d been desperately Googling “periodista recipe” and coming up short. Try that search today. Not the only way I’d followed in Clark’s footsteps.

“I started interviewing bartenders,” she continued, “writing profiles, doing reviews. I wanted it to be a platform for my writing, but I also wanted it to be, you know, a loose narrative of what was happening in the Boston bar scene.”

Clark’s narrative covers the past five years. I arrived on the scene in 2007, started trailing the Periodista in 2010. But my questions went back at least to 1995, and not a single person I’ve wanted to get access to has left town. Clark had profiled almost all of them years before I showed up.

“The top people in Boston are definitely the ones who have been slogging it out for a long time,” Clark said. “Jackson, Misty, John—but there’s this funny thing happening now where a twenty-three-year-old will start working at a bar, and be kicking ass and doing great, but have the expectation that they’re going to be, like, brand ambassador and a celebrity bartender within five years.  Now, that has definitely happened in New York, and probably San Francisco. Not really here. But I think if there’s anyone in Boston working now who’s on that trajectory, it’s Misty.”

Of course. Kalkofen again. I felt as if she’d been the shadow protagonist of the Periodista story from day one. That was one reason I had for talking to her. But there was a better one. She knew David Wondrich and Dale DeGroff personally. DeGroff owed me a Cuban bartending school textbook, and Wondrich—well, I’d take what I could get. If anyone was going to be able to get me on their dance cards, it was Misty Kalkofen.

El Club de Cantineros de la República de Cuba Periodista (1948)

1 copa Bacardi Carta Blanca
¼ apricot brandy
¼ Curazao
½ limón pequeño
¼ cucharadita de azucar

Hielo.  Bátase, cuélese y sirvase con una guinda y una cáscara de limón.

Tasting notes: This is as close as we’ve gotten yet to what might be the original recipe for the Cuban Periodista. It’s made with white Cuban rum, in this case calling specifically for Bacardi’s signature rum. As many rum experts will tell you, the stuff currently under the Bacardi label is a pale mockery of the once great Cuban spirit, but I’m not sure what an appropriate substitution would be. El Arte Del Cantinero has a fairly lengthy sermon on the merits of Marie Brizard Apry, so I think we can assume that would be the apricot brandy of choice for los cantineros. Add curaçao, juice of half a lime, shake with ice and serve with, in this case, a cherry and a lime twist.

Periodista Tales: One City’s Homage, One Man’s Quest

I was back in Boston drinking a Periodista at Eastern Standard. A coworker of mine was crowding the next bar seat and drinking a 19th Century. That’s what Jackson Cannon calls the Old Fashioned on his menu. Saves the bartenders the trouble of having the “new” Old Fashioned, “old” Old Fashioned conversation every time. Cannon would never begrudge a guest his muddled cherry, so he renamed the original. Whatever you call it, it’s a lot of whiskey and not many distractions. Not my style. I need the distraction.

The bar was quiet. It was early and the Sox were away. Bob McCoy was making drinks. A hurricane threat had trapped him at Louis Armstrong International the night I’d been swilling Alicantes at the Bar Room Brawl. He looked the better for it.

I sipped my Periodista and thought about Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway drank daiquiris. Maybe he drank Periodistas. I still didn’t know. Either way, he drank a lot rum when he lived in Cuba. Mostly at a place called El Floridita, an old watering hole just a quick stagger from his apartment on Bishop Street. El Floridita was run by a man named Constantino Ribalaigua Vert. El Grand Constante to Papa and the other regulars. Constante also made the drinks. I’m told he was a whiz at it. Poets sang his praises. Drunks did too.

My iPhone buzzed. I had a message from Greg Boehm. Boehm runs and Mud Puddle Books. He reissues a lot of bar books long out of print. He also has one of the most extensive cocktail book collections in New York City. I’d emailed him about the Periodista back before Tales of the Cocktail.

His email was brief:

What is the earliest Periodista recipe that you know of?

Sure, Boehm, rub it in.

I’d gotten some leads down in New Orleans, but they were obscure enough that I hadn’t been able to track any of them down.

Angus Winchester had mentioned the Bartender’s Sixth Sense. El Sexto Sentido Del Barman might as well be mythological as far as Google is concerned. I had a hell of a time just dredging up the author. Turns out it was Héctor Zumbado, a well-known Cuban journalist. El Sexto Sentido was published in the early ‘80s. Zumbado was born in the ‘30s. Old enough to be a young man when Constante was frapping daiquiris. If Cannon and Wayne Curtis’s Sandanista theory was right and the Periodista didn’t emerge until the mid-‘80s, Zumbado might even be the Cuban periodista it was named for. I’d emailed Michael Menegos about it and hadn’t heard back.

Then there was Dale DeGroff’s mysterious textbook from the bartending school at the Hotel Sevilla. The Sevilla has a storied history. It was one of Havana’s first luxury hotels, built way back in 1908. In its prime it had 162 rooms and no vacancies. Josephine Baker and Al Capone stayed there. Separate rooms. Biltmore Hotels bought it in the ‘40s and a hospitality school opened up there in the ‘60s. Probably the era the textbook came from. I’d emailed DeGroff about it and hadn’t heard back.

Anistatia Miller had give me the title El Arte Del Cantinero. Google had given me the rest. El Arte was a bartender’s manual put out by the Club de Cantineros de Cuba. The Club was founded in 1924 to standardize bartending practices in the country and elevate the collective quality of Cuba’s drinks. Constante was an early member. El Arte was written by Hilario Alonso Sanchez and published in 1948. It was my oldest lead. I’d emailed Miller about it and hadn’t heard back.

I was so busy not hearing back from people I had my iPhone fetching inbox data every fifteen minutes. Batteries be damned.

I finger-typed back to Boehm that my oldest recipe was still Schumann’s, circa 1986.

At the other end of the bar, Naomi was elbow deep in a vat of simple syrup. Michael Bublé was crooning on the sound system. I thought about taking it up with the management.

I took another sip of my drink.

While I was mainlining Google I’d come across another name. If you spend a lot of time typing “Hemingway” and “Periodista” next to each other in search boxes, you’ll probably hit on the name Fernando G. Campoamor. Campoamor was a buddy of Hemingway’s. They drank together. They played pranks together. When Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Campoamor was the MC at the party. He also held the medal so Papa could drink with both hands. They were close. Campoamor even wrote a book about the guy. He also wrote a book on the history of rum in Cuba. He wrote a lot of things. He was a journalist.

“Hey, did you see this?”

My colleague had dispatched his 19th Century and was looking over the menu. He pointed at the Periodista.

Cannon had changed the description. Instead of the Hemingway blurb, now it read:

rum for the intrepid reporter
one city’s homage
one man’s quest

My jaw swung back and forth for a minute. I jammed my cocktail in there to stop it.

Cannon cutting the Hemingway line from the menu made me a little sad. End of an era, and who’s fault? Hell, if I didn’t find out the real story on the Periodista I’d be staring at my own failed quest every time I ordered a drink. As it stood I couldn’t even prove the thing was Cuban.

My pocket buzzed.

I pulled out my iPhone. Boehm again.

I was able to trace the Periodista back to an odd book from 1974 published in Florida. That took me to a book from 1948 where the 1974 author took most of his info from. I rarely open this book since it is moldy and it makes my eyes burn and my nose close up. El Arte del Cantinero. The recipe is in there.

I’ll be damned.

Periodista Tales: New Orleans, Part 8 — King Cocktail

Continued from Part 7…

It was my last night in New Orleans. I was sitting at the Carousel bar in the Hotel Monteleone, rotating slowly and nursing an absinthe. I always nurse absinthe. Can’t stand the stuff. But it was my last night in New Orleans, so I’d ordered one.

I’d been at Tales of the Cocktail for three days and I felt like last year’s Mardi Gras beads—sun-cracked and still dangling from that iron railing. I don’t know how people last the full week.

I looked at my absinthe. It looked like an antiseptic. I drank to my health.

Since I’d started investigating the origins of the Periodista I’d dug deep into Boston’s craft cocktail world. I’d met the people, pried into their relationships, teased out the story.  And in telling how the Periodista found a home in Boston, I’d also told the story of how a community was born out of a shared passion.

In its way, it was the story of how the cocktail renaissance of the early 21st century had taken shape. Similar stories could probably be found in all the great cocktailing cities of America.

But mine was Boston.

All that time I’d kept my distance. I was an observer. Always leaning in from the far side of the bar. It wasn’t until this trip to New Orleans that I finally felt like a member of the Boston cocktail community.

I’d also realized that that wasn’t my place.

I was an outsider investigating the affairs of a family, not a member of the family. To be an agent of truth I had to maintain a semblance of neutrality. Journalistic objectivity.

But I’d gotten so wrapped up in the question of my own place that I’d lost sight of my real purpose. I still sought the Periodista, and for one week there had been more cocktail knowledge gathered in New Orleans than any other place in the world.

I’d given myself three days. What did I have to show for it? Okay, a few leads. Good ones. But I’d walked out on who knew how many. I’d gotten too wrapped up in the spectacle, the internal politics of the cocktail world, and my own self-doubt.

I drank some more absinthe.

The bar had closed an hour ago, but it was still full. A man walked into the room. I recognized him immediately. So did everyone else. It was Dale DeGroff. King Cocktail himself.

DeGroff meandered slowly around the rotating carousel. No one spoke to him, but every head turned. He knew it. DeGroff is silver-haired and olive-skinned. He’s what executive types call a room-changer. As long as that room is a bar.

I got up out of my seat. This was my last shot. I thought about John Gertsen and Jackson Cannon the night of the Brawl. The stories are better than the drinks themselves. I owed them the real story. And I owed it to myself to find it.

I walked up to DeGroff and held out my hand. As we shook, I asked him if, in all his years of bartending, he’d ever made a Periodista.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “The Periodista guy. I heard about you.”

I didn’t say anything. Not for lack of trying.

“Someone emailed me about it,” he said. “All of Boston is worked up about the Periodista.”

I opened my mouth. Seemed like a good place to start.

“I know it’s in Schumann’s book,” DeGroff said. “I think Charles found it during his research for the book in Cuba. Obviously Cuba’s been sort of out of touch with the world for a while. Their history and their drink culture can be hard to dig up.”

DeGroff looked thoughtful.

“You know,” he said. “I have an old textbook. Around the time Prohibition ended, the best school for bartenders in the world was at the Hotel Sevilla in Havana. At that time, Cuban bartenders were considered the best in the world, because they had seen so much action over the past ten years. So this school became very famous.”

This was it. Why I was here. Who else but Dale DeGroff would have a textbook from a mid-century bartending school based out of a Havana hotel?

“The textbook I have is from the ‘60s,” he said. “At that time, all the older bartenders were still around. They were the ones who taught the new generation, and they all contributed to the textbook as well. The Periodista might be in there.”

I thanked him. He nodded.

“It’s gotta be Cuban,” he said. “This is your card you just gave me, right?”

I seemed to have given him my card. It had become habit over the past 72 hours.

“I’ll take a look in that textbook,” DeGroff said, “and if I see it I’ll send it to you.”

He left. After paying for my absinthe, so did I.

New Orleans was as hot that night as the day I’d arrived. I walked down Royal Street toward Canal, wondering if the streetcar was still running. At the intersection I turned back and looked up at the Monteleone marquee, glowing five stories high.

New Orleans remained a ghost to me. A fleeting backdrop of light, color, and sound. I waited at the streetcar stop for a minute, then decided to walk.

All of Boston is worked up about the Periodista.

I’d gotten my lead, but it was that line that had me grinning all the way back to India House. At that moment, I knew exactly where I fit into the Boston cocktail world. I would never be their brother, but I could be the guardian of their stories. It was a responsibility I’d chosen. It was a promise I would keep. I said my final goodbye to journalistic objectivity.

Because, after all, I’m not a journalist.

I’m a Periodista.

Periodista Tales: New Orleans, Part 7 — The Bartender’s Breakfast

Continued from Part 6…

That night was the Bartender’s Breakfast, a big party for all the bartenders who had gathered in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail. It was invitation only. You couldn’t buy a ticket to this thing. You just had to know.

I hadn’t scrounged a dimestore lead that day and I was sore about it. I needed to make it up to myself. All the key players would be at the Breakfast: Dale DeGroff and Ted Haigh, David Wondrich and Audrey Saunders. It was my last shot to get in their faces about the Periodista.

I kidded myself that that’s why I was going. I knew better. I was nobody—but I had a golden key. And when someone gives you a golden key, you use it.

There were two lines of people trailing out of the brick corridor that lead into the party. At the end of the tunnel was music and light, noise and laughter. I got in the shorter line. The one that was moving. A beautiful woman held a clipboard.

“Key, please,” she said.

I showed her the key. For a moment I was sure it was all a practical joke. She drew an X on the key with a sharpie and let me in. Out of some arcane instinct I licked my thumb and rubbed out the X before it could dry. You never know.

The Bartender’s Breakfast was the typical frenzy. There were stations set up around three long rooms. Celebrity bartenders were taking short shifts at various stations. Some less famous bartenders were taking longer shifts. Jackson Cannon was stationed next to Jim Meehan. They each had shakers in both hands and were shaking in step with one another. I exchanged a nod with Cannon, then moved on.

Audrey Saunders—owner and operator of NYC’s Pegu Club—was mixing drinks in a corner station. I wanted to talk to her, but she was three deep, so I went to the next room.

Beyond a crowd of vests and fedoras a live band was playing a mix of funk and hip hop. I saw Misty Kalkofen bussing tables. Misty was probably the most famous bartender in Boston. She had personally won more competitions at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail than anyone else I knew. Her team had been voted Best Bar in America at the Bar Room Brawl the night before. And she was bussing. Like a pro.

I wandered from station to station, bore witness to feats of spectacular mixing talent and mass cocktail production. Guests held whole pineapples filled with Corpse Reviver No. 2, delicate coupes green with Chartreuse and gin, tall glasses pink with Campari. In the back room, yet more beautiful women were operating vending machines that dispensed premixed cocktails in commemorative hip flasks, gummy cocktails, water bottles, t-shirts. Whatever you wanted.

As I drifted through the party I saw familiar and unfamiliar faces. Butler and Bunnewith were there, Ben Sandrof, the Eastern Standard team, the LUPEC ladies. Boston was well represented at this year’s Tales.

I thought about the previous night, when Drink had taken the prize at the Bar Room Brawl.

Then I thought about where I’d been just before the Breakfast. My mind had been stuck there since.

I’d found myself at dinner with some people from Boston. A few brand representatives, some industry types, a young socialite there to make the scene. I knew their names then, but wouldn’t an hour later.

Conversation got around to Drink’s victory the night before. That moment of sheer joy and celebration had carried me through the frustrations of my Periodista hunt. Never a sports fan, I’d felt suddenly what it meant to love a team. I was ready to say as much, when—

“Fuck Drink.”

I turned to see who was talking. One of the the brand reps. He was drunk on his own product.

“The crew from Drink won’t hang out with the crews from any of the other cities,” he said. “They’re just hanging with their little Boston clique. They think they’re better than everyone here.”

He paused. Made sure he had the room. Took a drink.

“They think they’re the cool kids,” he said.  “Shit, my boys on Lansdowne street are twice the bartenders of anyone at Drink. You think the Drink crew would give any of them the time of day? Hell, no.”

There was some murmuring around the table. Nothing audible.

I wanted to argue. I wanted to say that the Periodista had given me a glimpse into the heart of the Boston cocktail world. These people were never the in-crowd. They weren’t the cool kids, those whispered of in hushed tones as they walked the halls. They weren’t the beautiful people who gathered together on schoolyards to flex their adolescent muscles and vilify the awkward and brainy. These people were the awkward and brainy.

They were the history geeks, the science nerds. They were the kids sitting behind the portables at lunch running lines for the school play. They’d grown up, and under the tutelage of the ultimate outsider, Brother Cleve, they’d found a calling to rally around. The cocktail renaissance had provided it all: history, rule books, arcane wisdom—historical costumes. Only a mistake of happenstance and culture had turned the nerdy kids’ new obsession into the latest A-list trend.  Ultimately, this was a band of outsiders who had found a place to come inside after all those years.

I wanted to argue, but I didn’t.

Who was I to say that once outsiders come in from the cold, they don’t lock the door behind them?

Who was I to say anything when, gripping the golden key in my pocket, I finally felt like I was on the inside with them?

I walked the rooms of the Bartender’s Breakfast, watching smiles passed as handily as drinks and devoured just as quickly. Mine all tasted bitter. I left the party without talking to anyone. Without uttering the word “Periodista.” I walked out into the hot New Orleans night just as a warm rain began to fall.

To be continued…

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