The Martian Water

If you aren't living under a Red Planet rock, you've probably heard the news by now: NASA has officially confirmed the presence of water on Mars.

Not indications that there was water there millions of years ago, not water frozen into ice at the poles, but actual evidence of liquid water on Mars today.

It's no secret that I think space exploration is cool (or that it is, objectively). Taking a tip from the inventor of the Moonwalk, the Savoy Hotel's Joe Gilmore, who never let a historic moment pass without a cocktail to commemorate it, I've decided to come up with something for the occasion.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Martian Water:

Complete with a plant of the sort you'd find on Mars.

Complete with a plant of the sort you'd find on Mars.

The Martian Water
1 1/2 oz. Laird's 100-Proof Applejack
1/2 oz. Cocchi Americano
1/4 oz. Kirschwasser
1/4 oz. Campari
1 Dash Regan's Orange Bitters
Stir with ice and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a twist of orange. Sip while looking skyward.

Note that the orange twist is not depicted in the photos, because I didn't have any oranges at the time. Trust me when I say that it belongs. It's amazing what those oils can do.

Neat color, right? Above all, I wanted to evoke the rusty red-orange of the planet's surface, which gave me the Campari + aged spirit idea. I also took structural inspiration from the Aviation, created a hundred years ago to celebrate man's conquest of shallower skies, and also a color-driven cocktail. Its maraschino gave me the idea of adding kirschwasser; its visual and historical cousin, the Yale, suggested fortified wine. The quinquina also conveniently alludes to the Twentieth Century Cocktail, which, despite actually being named for a train, is thereby indirectly named for the period when human exploration of the heavens began.

I could claim that the orange elements were my answer to the Aviation's lemon juice, or another nod to the allegedly-Red Planet's actual color; but the truth is, they're in there for flavor alone. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

You know, like these ones.

Day 7: Trina's Starlite Lounge

Apologies for the lack of visual for this post - I have no idea what happened to the relevant photograph, but it's time to put this series to bed either way. The final bar on my Negroni Week list was Trina's Starlite Lounge in Inman Square. I went there Sunday evening for dinner and the completion of my quest.

Trina's is a homey place, cool and dark on the inside. They advertise "drinks and air conditioning" on a sign above the entrance.

Their service station looks like a house kitchen, with mid-century powder-blue cabinets and a squat white fridge of similar vintage, covered in magnets. The whole place is decorated with Americana, most especially advertising signage and old cocktail shakers. Dark wood paneling suggests a pub or tavern past.

It's clearly a regulars' bar; the bartender was bidding a patron farewell by name as I sidled up. On Mondays, they have an industry brunch, to cater to folks for whom Monday is the weekend. There's surprisingly little of this type for Boston's barkeeps and restauranteurs, and Trina's is well-known and respected for it.

As for the cocktail, it was the most classic, archetypical Negroni I'd had all week. It tasted like a bitter orange peel with a burst of sweetness. A good ruminating drink. It was the right way to finish the experiment.

This week forced me to give more consideration than I ever had to the Negroni, naturally, and to its role in the wider cocktail world. In the end, I come back around to the bold and bitter classic recipe as the proper standard version of the cocktail - although if many are to be consumed in a fairly short period, a lighter variation is definitely preferable.

I do come down more harshly on the game of ingredient substitution than I did before we started all this. The Negroni is a recipe, not a category heading. Not everything containing potable bitters qualifies. The formula, though standard, is not fixed. It can be tweaked, stretched, and twirled around a spoon, if you like, but the end result should bear some resemblance to what was started with, if you're going to use the name.

Well done on that front at Trina's. It's also worth noting that their food is delicious (I'm assuming my experience is representative). I had a baked haddock to follow my Negroni, on a bed of sauteed spinach and sweet potato bacon hash. Yes, it was as good as it sounds. I highly recommend it.

Money from my Negroni went to the Sean A. Collier Memorial Fund. I expect Boston-area readers will recognize that name; the Fund will provide annual scholarships in his name at both MIT and the Boston Police Academy, and maintain a permanent memorial to him in Cambridge. The Globe has more detailed coverage, for those who are interested, but you don't have to read the article in order to donate.

This was a fascinating undertaking, from both the mixological and the philanthropic sides. My compliments to Imbibe and Campari for making Negroni Week a major, annual event; and to the 1,325 (at last count) participating bars around the world.

And if you missed out on the fun, don't worry: with numbers like that, they'll be back in 2015.

Day 6: Barracuda

My thanks to the operator of the 43 bus, for driving right on by on night six of Negroni Week. It was supposed to be a trip to Wink and Nod, the South End's (relatively) new '20s-inspired bar, but sometimes plans change.

Rather than wait around for the next bus, I walked about a hundred steps from Park Street to local standby Barracuda. I ordered a beer.

Barracuda is the sort of place that feels like it's always been there, exactly as it is, even though you can tell that isn't true. It's a second-floor bar, which is a quirk on its own, and features like the Jack Daniels Honey dispenser and the cheery blue walls remind you that this is no old ward boss haunt. It's only been around for a few years.

The proprietor is a fellow named Luka, who spends a lot of time behind the bar personally. He, along with the people he hires, is unusually good at remembering names, faces, and details from visit to visit. Barracuda, unsurprisingly, has a lot of regulars.

It also has a little curiosity of Massachusetts law, namely a cordials license. I'd always assumed it was an old, outdated regulation, but apparently it only turns twenty this year. The good people at DrinkBoston tell me that it started with North End restaurants that wanted to serve digestifs, and then found wider application around the city.

Bars with this permit can serve liqueurs and cordials along with beer and wine, although the definition of a liqueur is generally left up to the people who make it. This is my long-winded way of telling you that they have Diep9 Genever on the menu at Barracuda.

Genever (juh NEE ver) is a spirit similar to gin, in many respects the parent of gin, and it remains very popular in Holland and Belgium. It was also very popular in the United States, back before the twentieth century came along. Many old cocktail recipes call specifically for "Hollands gin," by which they mean genever.

Genever is less piney and more malty than gin. Some varieties are aged; others are practically vodka. Serious Eats has a good run-down. In any event, the premise of a grain distillate flavored with juniper and spices is something both have in common.

And so, when it occurred to me that Barracuda had both sweet vermouth and Campari, and I asked Kaitlyn to make me her best approximation of a Negroni within the constraints of a cordials license, I ended up with a Genever Negroni.

The result? Not bad. Surprisingly Negronilike. But again, the base spirits are very similar - particularly given that the genever in question was jonge genever, which tilts more to the vodka than to the Scotch end of the genver spectrum. (Genever is often described as a cross between Scotch and gin. I know, it sounded weird to me, too.)

Barracuda was a nonparticipant in Negroni Week - I wouldn't be surprised if I was the first guy who ever asked them for one - but Wink and Nod's Campari drinks supported Community Boating, the oldest public sailing center in the country. If you like seeing sailboats on the Charles, and don't think that should be limited to people with the money to buy one, you like Community Boating, and you can give them a hand here.

Epilogue: I've since been to Wink and Nod, and have some very complimentary things to say. I expect I'll say them later. Perhaps on this very blog.

Day 5: Nebo

Day five and Negroni fatigue was setting in. Even the weird-spin versions were still high-sugar, big on syruppy cordials and fortified wine. I was flagging. I needed a drink that could remind me why I was doing this in the first place.

Kudos to Nebo's Jenna, who mixed my favorite variation all week. It came just in time.

It starts with a house-infused Carpano Antica vermouth, which sat three days with basil, orange peel, and lemon peel. (The basil was more of a subtle herbaliness than what you have in mind.)

Then they add the Campari - real, honest-to-God Campari, because after all they were the ones sponsoring Negroni Week. Jenna informed me that all Campari sales, Negroni or otherwise, counted for charitable purposes; and that, in her view, ditching the red bitters was cheating. She had a point.

Ingredient No. 3 is G'Vine's Floraison gin, which has grape-flower as its primary botanical - so primary that if there were any others, I couldn't tell you what they were. Very light, slightly sweet, and delicate. The success of this Negroni owes much to the success of this gin, and each is in its subtlety. Non-gin-drinkers might even appreciate G'Vine - it hasn't got the heavy evergreen taste that turns some people off.

They also add a bit of Bénédictine, and garnish the concoction with a double-skewered lemon peel and a maraschino cherry. Served down and on the rocks, as it ought to be.

So. Damn. Good.

This Negroni - I don't recall it having a kitschy name, which is fine since it was pretty clearly a Negroni - has a lower sugar content than most of the others. The folks at Nebo also deliberately eschew the bitter-on-bitter tactic - Campari was undoubtedly less than 33% of this drink.

But enough about what the cocktail isn't, let's talk about what it is.

Fresh, light, and invigorating, it hits your system like water, but crosses your tongue like all the reasons you ever liked a Negroni decided to visit you at once. The nose is precisely what it should be: gin-dryness, Campari's distinctive aroma, and the whole pervaded with the essence of citrus - in this case, of lemon. (I'm told the local Campari rep calls this the "Citrus Burst Negroni.")

The body of the sip is like chilled mineral water - all the work is in the details. A wave of Campari-bitterness covers the tongue on the swallow, tinged with the citrus infusion and the Christmas spices of the Bénédictine. Slowly, but noticeably, the aftertaste evolves - resolves, even - through a citrus crest to an appetite-whetting bitter finish. Each sip begets another. I could hardly put it down long enough for a photograph. 

Remember, a Negroni should be refreshing. It should put more back into you than it takes out. If it feels like work, you're doing it wrong. A+ work at the Nebo bar.

And apparently, my timing was doubly good - they had just recently set up the outdoor-dining tables, so the bar was practically deserted. That left me plenty of time to chat with the bar staff, sample the G'Vine gin straight, and swap blog information with Jenna, who maintains one of her own.

My Negroni, as well as all Campari sales during that week at Nebo, served to benefit the Italian Home for Children in Jamaica Plain. The Italian Home started as an orphanage after a 1918 flu epidemic left a lot of Boston's children parentless; today they specialize in programs for children with learning disabilities and behavioral or mental health issues.

If you missed out on Negroni Week, you can approximate the experience by giving them money at this link while having a drink at Nebo.

 

AccesSport Young Professionals' Event (Also, Day 3)

Here are some shots from the AccesSportAmerica young professionals' networking event! We had a great showing, and raised a bunch of money for an awesome organization.

It was a two-drink menu, consisting of the Negroni and the Frisco Sour - the theme was "herbal cocktails for the summer." We had 3-oz. paper cups instead of 1-oz. ones, so our pouring was...generous. We ended up needing six shakers' worth of each drink, but nobody was complaining.

These were the recipes we used:

Negroni
1 part Beefeater gin
1 part sweet vermouth
1 part Campari
Stir with ice. Strain into cups. Garnish with a tiny orange peel.

Frisco Sour
4 parts Michter's rye
1 part Bénédictine
1/2ish part lemon juice*
Shake with ice and strain into cups. Garnish with a tiny wedge of lemon.

The asterisk in the Frisco Sour indicates a deviation from my standard recipe of 4:1:1, because that preparation assumes fresh lemon juice. We had the more concentrated, bottled variety, which called for a (roughly) 50% reduction in volume. 

The Negroni got a fair bit of it's-just-not-for-me, which makes sense, because both Campari and gin are love-it-or-hate-it spirits for a lot of people. I found myself explaining that Campari is a "potable bitters" a lot that night. I also couldn't resist the (perhaps apocryphal) story that Campari was legal during Prohibition, because the regulators couldn't believe anyone would drink it who wasn't taking it medicinally. It's easy for cocktail enthusiasts to forget, given how much we all love the Negroni, but it really isn't for everyone.

The Frisco Sour, on the other hand, was almost comically popular. The nice thing about events like this is that it's really easy to judge your success - the Frisco Sour was the only thing going around in cocktail glasses, and there were a lot of those to be seen. I owe a debt of gratitude to Frank Bruni of the New York Times, for first introducing me to the drink in this article.

Thanks also to North 26, for donating the space and the liquor, and to everyone who came out for AccesSportAmerica - this is the second year in a row they've asked HCS to play this event, and I feel good about our odds of a third performance.

For more pictures, check out our facebook page. You should also feel free to like us, along with North 26 and AccesSportAmerica!

Day 2: Russell House Tavern

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I confess: I've been to Russell House before. Many times. Yes, we're two days into Negroni Week, and I've already broken my own rule.

Believe it or not, I planned for this. Russell House was my dedicated fallback bar (distinct from a fall backbar, where I assume one can get a pumpkin milk punch). If one thing led to another and I needed someplace convenient, of guaranteed quality, I had every intention of ending up at Russell House Tavern.

They're still billing themselves as a "New American Tavern" on their website, but the tavern is a fixture in Harvard Square. It was full but not packed when I was there last night, and last night was a Tuesday.

Mention Negroni Week at Russell House, and you'll get a Negroni Week Passport, with spaces to stamp for ten participating bars in each of ten cities. Suddenly, my own seven-bar project seems far less ambitious.

It was at this establishment that I first fell in love with the Jungle Bird, so I tend to trust Campari experiments conducted here. They're serving both classic Negronis and a special variant called the Palazzo this week. I opted to try the latter.

The Palazzo starts out with gin and Campari, like you'd expect. The Russell House twist is to finish it with a 50/50 mixture of Booker's bourbon and St. George raspberry liqueur, with the goal of hitting sweet vermouth's flavor notes without actually including any. It's garnished with a slice of orange peel, as usual, and served neat.

It's a pleasant drink, but it strikes me as quite different from a standard Negroni. Most of the sip is the bourbon-raspberry combination, until the Campari hits on the aftertaste. The result is that it's less complex than its parent cocktail, while at the same time being more subtle than you expect it to be. Probably not one for the Negroni purists, but I liked it well enough.

Sales of both the Palazzo and the classic Negroni benefit the Leary Firefighters' Foundation, founded in 2000 by actor and local son Denis Leary. In those fourteen years, the foundation has given out millions of dollars to fire departments around the country for equipment, training, and facilities - a good chunk of that in Boston and Worcester.

Two days down, five to go. And remember - tonight, we drink for AccesSportAmerica!

Negroni Week Day 1: backbar

I'm undertaking a little project for Negroni Week. For six out of these seven days, I'll be hitting a Boston-area bar that I haven't been to before, where I'll have a Negroni for a worthy cause. (The exception being Wednesday, when I'll be making Negronis for a worthy cause.) First stop: backbar.

backbar [lowercase lettering theirs] is Somerville's entry in two major bar categories: the Speakeasy and the I-Clearly-Should-Have-Come-Here-Sooner.

While it's well-hidden, it isn't the dark, secretive atmosphere that a lot of neo-speakeasies have. There's a massive skylight over the bar, for one thing, and the furnishings make it feel more like you're drinking in your artist friend's living room than worshipping at the Temple of High Mixology.

In short, there's a good reason this place has gotten noticed. But enough about that, on to the cocktails.

backbar has several Negroni specials on the menu this week, of which the Negroni Milk Punch is the one you see above. They have a rotating milk punch special on the menu, so for those who like milk punches, this is the place to come.

For those who don't know what a milk punch is, and have visions of some heavy dairy-Campari concoction, fear not. There are milk punches that consist of milk, liquor, ice, and grated nutmeg, available at some holdover bars in New Orleans, of all places, but backbar belongs to the other school of milk-punch-making.

In this school, the milk is deliberately curdled, usually by the addition of lemon or something similar, and the milk solids are strained out. This leaves just the liquids, with their suspended proteins and whatnot. The flavor of pure milk liquid is, like maraschino liqueur, Chartreuse, and a host of other lovely ingredients, basically impossible to describe to someone who's never tried it.

What it does for a cocktail is similar to an egg, in that it tends to mute other ingredients and quietly slip in its own flavor at the back. It is dissimilar in that it doesn't thicken the drink, being mostly water. In point of fact, backbar adds orange juice to this one for body.

For those keeping score, that means we have a standard Negroni (Campari, Punt e Mes, and Ford's gin), with milk liquid and a splash of orange juice added in. The bartender then took an orange peel to the rim of the glass for an aromatic finish.

The resulting palate was mostly milk-muted Campari, with little sweet, bitter, and herbal amendments by the other ingredients, and a big burst of orange oil on the nose. A great way to begin an evening, but you'll probably miss the subtleties if you're a few drinks in.

Finally, I'm sure you're all wondering where the money from backbar's Negronis goes this week. The answer? Wine to Water, an organization that rebuilds wells, provides sanitary filtration systems, and generally aims to increase access to potable water. According to their website, they've done so for a quarter of a million people since 2004. And their preferred fundraising technique is selling wine.

One day down, six to go. Check back in tomorrow - and don't forget to join us on Wednesday, when I'll be behind the bar, making Negronis to raise money for AccesSportAmerica!