Boston's premier cocktail event is thriving in its third year.
Making an Old Fashioned is easy. Screwing it up is even easier.
The Old Fashioned is one of the oldest and simplest cocktails in the book. It is the very definition of a cocktail – spirit, citrus, bitters, and sweetener. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, if you’ve ever ordered an Old Fashioned and been handed a glass of whiskey served over a graveyard of mutilated fruit and topped with soda water, then you know exactly what can go wrong.
For the record, the Old Fashioned is typically made by dropping a couple dashes of Angostura bitters in a quarter ounce of simple syrup in a rocks glass, muddling an orange peel in the mixture, adding two ounces of whiskey, stirring, and then plopping one or two large ice cubes into the mix. That’s not a definitive recipe, and there are plenty of wonderful variations. Some people use lemon instead of orange, or use the peel as a garnish instead of muddling it. A sugar cube is a classy alternative to syrup. Some drinkers prefer bourbon; others, rye. Even whole slices of muddled fruit are OK, within reason.
And yet this drink has a way of going off the rails. I’m not opposed to having a little fruit in there, but I’ve seen Old Fashioneds served with a mash of orange, lemon, maraschino cherries, even pineapple – sometimes all in the same glass. Then there’s the soda water, which for some reason I find particularly galling.
I’ve read that the trouble began during Prohibition. An Old Fashioned made with whiskey distilled in some guy’s garage was probably vile, so disguising the astringent flavor with fruit and soda was probably wasn’t a half-bad idea. Unfortunately, the practice survived the so-called Noble Experiment and persisted until fairly recently. This glorious craft cocktail renaissance has elevated our standards, and many bartenders have sought to restore the Old Fashioned to its purer, more traditional form.
And yet, even without the extraneous ingredients, a truly exceptional Old Fashioned is hard to come by. Dave Willis, co-owner of Bully Boy Distillers, thinks the most common misstep is not adding enough bitters.
And he blames the bottle. “When you use a bottle of Angostura bitters, it’s really, really difficult to determine how much bitters you’re adding and how much bitters you should add, because it has that odd sort of drip/pouring mechanism,” he explained to me when I visited the Bully Boy distillery back in August. “So I use a lot of bitters.”
Why should you care about how much Angostura Dave uses in an Old Fashioned? Because he’s something of an authority on the matter – as he’ll tell you. “Not to toot my own horn, but I make an unbelievable Old Fashioned,” he humbly declared when we met this summer.
If you don’t believe him, you can try his version for yourself. Last month, Bully Boy released a bottled Old Fashioned made in accordance with Dave and his brother Will’s recipe for this classic cocktail. It’s a limited release product that will be available through the winter months.
While bottled cocktails are becoming more common and improving in quality, there’s still a tendency to be leery of any prepared version of a craft drink. But there’s nothing in Bully Boy’s bottle that doesn’t belong – just whiskey, muddled raw sugar, and Angostura bitters. As for Dave’s comment about using “a lot of bitters,” that’s a phrase that takes on a different meaning when you consider that he and Will acquired a 50-gallon drum of the stuff while they were batching the cocktail. Dave explained that working with such large quantities enabled them to better control the proportions, as opposed to the guesswork that accompanies the drips and dashes from the usual bottle of Angostura.
The base spirit is Bully Boy’s aged American Straight whiskey, made from corn, rye, and malted barley. With flavor notes common to both bourbon and rye whiskey, it’s well suited to an Old Fashioned.
As a lover of Old Fashioneds (and as someone who takes pride in making a respectable one), I can say I’m genuinely impressed with the final product. True to Dave’s good-natured boast, it’s an outstanding interpretation. The ingredients are beautifully balanced – just the right amount of sugar and bitters, and the whiskey is notable for its unique blend of sweet and spicy notes.
The Willis brothers suggest muddling an orange wheel and a maraschino cherry. That’s more fruit than I’d ordinarily use, but the combination does work pretty well. Still, I prefer just an orange peel. With a little less fruitiness, the spicy notes of the whiskey stand out and the flavor of the bitters is more prominent.
Bully Boy hasn’t just idiot-proofed the Old Fashioned; they’ve elevated it. Their bottled product is convenient for anyone who struggles to perfect this classic drink but is good enough to satisfy skeptical connoisseurs.
Will and Dave recommend pouring “two fingers” of the cocktail, a generous and utterly satisfying measure of it, over a large ice cube.
Nowhere do they recommend using soda water.
I received a complimentary bottle of the Old Fashioned from someone associated with Bully Boy. I was neither asked nor expected to write a review of it. The opinions expressed here are, as always, my own.
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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.
Eating, drinking, and dancing, all while raising money for a great cause. Not a bad way to spend a weeknight. This past Tuesday, the House of Blues served as the setting for HubNob 2015, an annual fundraising event for the Boston Centers for Youth & Families (BCYF) and its nonprofit partner, the Foundation for the BCYF. The BCYF is the city’s largest human services agency, operating a network of community centers and fostering positive opportunities for Boston’s youth and families. HubNob, now in its fifth year, is the foundation’s signature event.
It’s inspiring to see a community coalesce around such a meaningful cause. In addition to a capacity crowd that paid between $60 and $100 to attend, many local organizations donated time, services, products, and money to the event, and a number of local luminaries were on hand to lend their support.
The festivities began with a VIP reception in the upstairs Foundation Room that featured music by the heavily inked singer Lisa Bello; food by Devlin’s Bistro, in Brighton, and Pikalo, a Jamaica Plain establishment that makes some killer empanadas; and plenty of Harpoon IPA.
Jenny Johnson, host of NESN’s Dining Playbook, served as the reception’s emcee and auctioneer. She talked about the foundation, introduced key guests such as BYCF interim executive director Christopher Byner and Mayor Marty Walsh, and auctioned off unique prizes such as a Boston Celtics package that included courtside seats and access to the pre-game warmup.
Mayor Walsh spoke at length about the important work that the BCYF does and offered some heartfelt personal tributes to several of the key individuals who have devoted so much of their time and energy to making the organization successful.
The main event took place downstairs, and a packed house enjoyed food from a dozen Boston restaurants, including Pastoral, Brahmin, Chicken & Rice Guys, and Crave.
On emcee duty was José Massó, host of ¡Con Salsa!, a long-running radio show on WBUR.
The evening’s soundtrack came courtesy of Soul City, an energetic 10-piece band that got everyone’s feet moving with a stellar R&B set list.
Guests could bid in a silent auction with nearly two dozen unique prizes, including an autographed (and fully inflated) Tom Brady football, Bruins tickets, and a pair of round-trip tickets anywhere that JetBlue flies.
And there were cupcakes.
Lots and lots of cupcakes.
All told, this was a spectacular evening with a lot of energy and a lively crowd. I don’t know what the final fundraising tally was, but given the turnout at both the VIP reception and the main event, it’s clear that a great many people care about the BCYF and are eager to support it.
Proceeds of the evening will be used to help the foundation develop new professional and social opportunities for Boston teens. It’s work that never stops, but an event like HubNob is a chance to celebrate BCYF’s success while ensuring that its efforts can continue.
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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.
I recently had the good fortune to travel to Colorado, my first-ever trip to the Centennial State. I spent some time in Estes Park, a resort-like town about 70 miles northwest of Denver that serves as the base camp for Rocky Mountain National Park. If you’ve never been, take it from me – the scenery there is absolutely breathtaking.
Wherever you are, and whichever way you turn, the majestic peaks of the Rockies are on your immediate horizon. And when you’re exploring the mountains themselves, either by car or on foot, the experience is truly fulfilling. My very soul felt somehow renewed by gazing at the stunning vistas and breathing that crisp Rocky Mountain air.
It would far exceed my writing or photography skills to faithfully convey the essence of that experience, so I’ll stick with what I’m reasonably good at. After a few days in Estes Park, I traveled to Denver. Now, Colorado is a beer state, widely known and renowned for its concentration of breweries. But its capital city also boasts a pretty impressive cocktail scene. A growing number of Denver bars have won national acclaim for their innovative approaches to mixology. One, Williams & Graham, was even named Best American Cocktail Bar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans.
With so many choices and so little time, I relied on a friend’s advice and opted to check out Green Russell, a subterranean, speakeasy-style bar in the heart of historic Larimer Square. As with many modern speakeasies, finding Green Russell means knowing where to look. At first, the bar appears to be clearly marked, with a sign above a flight of stairs leading below ground level. You walk in, see a pretty conventional-looking bar to your right, and think, “Well that wasn’t so hard to find.” But not so fast! That’s the bar of Russell’s Smokehouse, a barbecue restaurant.
So, if you’re like me and aren’t familiar with the place, you’ll awkwardly amble over to the hostess and say, “Yeah, I’m looking for the bar? Uh, not that bar, but I guess there’s another, uh...bar…” at which point she’ll mercifully put an end to your blather and ask you for your name and the number of people in your party. After a few minutes (10 minutes in my case, since the bar hadn’t opened yet, which only added to the awkwardness; and I’ll tell you, nothing makes you feel more like an alcoholic than standing outside a bar by yourself, waiting for it to open), someone leads you beyond a pair of service doors that give you the impression of sneaking into the kitchen of a bakery. Past the doors is no bakery, though, but a dark room that looks like a partially finished basement with a fancy bar set up in it. In other words, like a speakeasy.
But unlike so many bars that try to capture the look and feel of a 20s-era illicit watering hole, Green Russell’s speakeasy character has genuine historical roots – the space actually did serve as a speakeasy during Prohibition. It certainly looks the part, with its rough-hewn stone walls, wooden posts, dim lighting, and vintage fixtures.
But as the bartender explained to me, Green Russell calls itself a pre-Prohibition bar, focusing on classic drinks and techniques that were in vogue before the so-called Noble Experiment. Think fresh, house-made ingredients and hand-chipped ice.
Further, the emphasis here is less on secrecy and more about fostering a comfortable drinking experience, with the cocktail appropriately at the center. The small space can be busy, but not jam-packed – you’re admitted to the bar only when your whole party can be seated. Enjoy talking on your phone while you’re at a bar? There’s a phone booth for that. And if you truly don’t know how to comport yourself in a modern cocktail lounge, there’s a sign at the door offering a few helpful suggestions.
Overall, Green Russell is built around the experience of enjoying a well-crafted cocktail, and my own experience was outstanding. Maybe it’s because I was there early on a weeknight, or because I was alone, but I got such individualized attention that my bartender, Heather, seemed more like a guide – offering suggestions, answering questions, and making conversation.
At the heart of this “chef-driven cocktail joint” is a dynamic, highly contemporary beverage program that features a dozen seasonal offerings, several barrel-aged cocktails, and a “bartender’s choice” option, if you’re willing to put your faith in your bartender. (Note: The drinks in this story were part of Green Russell’s summer menu; I assume the fall offerings are what you’ll find now.)
At Heather’s suggestion, I began with the Castle Black, inspired by the ancient, beleaguered center of defense against supernatural predators in the Game of Thrones series. This vibrant drink combined two brands of 10-year-old scotch – Glen Grant and Laphroaig – along with Amaro Lucano, black pepper, and citrus bitters. The pepper served to intensify the smokiness of the scotch, and despite the gloomy name, the citrus gave the drink an overall sense of brightness.
Normally at this point I’d explore the menu a little further, but since Heather’s first recommendation was so good, I opted for the bartender’s choice. I expressed a preference for bourbon, and she responded with a creative variation on a Manhattan. Combining Evan Williams Single Barrel bourbon, Amaro CioCiaro, maraschino liqueur, and angostura bitters, the drink had a bold, deep sweetness with distinct orange notes from the amaro. The maraschino liqueur added a little dryness and bitterness.
Since I’m a sucker for good gin and bad puns, my next choice was the Mousse with the Fir, a mix of St. George’s excellent Terroir gin, Pampelmousse grapefruit liqueur, black pepper, lemon, and mint. This sour, invigorating cocktail had a complex but well-balanced blend of herbs and botanicals, with just a hint of sweetness. (I appreciated the clever name but was unhappily stuck with that “boots with the fur” song in my head for the remainder of the weekend.)
Green Russell’s food program largely comprises bar snacks that are equal parts inventive, upscale, and playful, such as candied spiced nuts, brisket sliders, and pigs in a blanket. The emphasis is on shareable dishes, but most are substantial enough to serve as full serving. I went with the delicious charred octopus, served with hush puppies, smoked aioli, and a spicy chorizo salsa verde.
For my final drink of the evening, I again deferred to Heather’s judgment. Deciding that I needed a rum drink to complete the equation, Heather consulted some of her personal notes before whipping up a doozy. Made with Appleton dark rum, silver rum, maraschino liqueur, and Cocchi Americano vermouth, this potent cocktail balanced strong sweet and herbal notes, ending with a surprisingly smooth finish that lingered on the palate. It was a thoughtful combination of ingredients and a satisfying (if boozy) conclusion to the evening.
It’s easy to get carried away with the speakeasy theme, and some bars allow novelty to trump substance. The ones that get it right, like Green Russell, use the motif as a means to elevate the cocktail experience. The focus here is on creative drinks and a talented, attentive bar staff – not passwords and gimmickry. And if that means standing outside those nondescript kitchen doors for a little while, chances are your patience will be rewarded.
Address: 1422 Larimer Street, Denver, Colorado
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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.
Gaining a foothold in the spirits industry is challenging under any circumstances. But when you make Irish whiskey and operate in the shadow of a market-dominating behemoth like Jameson, even getting people to know your brand name can be a tall order.
That’s one reason why it’s easy to root for Glendalough Distillery. Founded in 2011 by five friends from Dublin and Wicklow, the microdistillery opened its doors right around the time that the last independent distillery in Ireland was sold to a multinational corporation.
That makes Glendalough the first modern craft distillery in the Emerald Isle – a fairly remarkable claim in a country with a centuries-long history of distillation.
I first became familiar with Glendalough’s spirits earlier this year, when I met co-owner and brand manager Donal O’Gallachoir. And that’s probably how a lot of people got introduced to Glendalough. You’re unlikely to see a big, glitzy Glendalough ad campaign anytime soon, but you do stand a fair chance of running into the U.S.-based O’Gallachoir somewhere around town.
Donal’s a charismatic chap with an inexhaustible supply of entertaining stories, a passion for Irish whiskey, and great pride in his distillery’s spirits. His enthusiasm is infectious and has likely played no small part in Glendalough’s growing popularity. You can now find it in 14 states and countless Boston-area bars.
Last week I had a chance to get further acquainted with Glendalough’s spirits during a whiskey dinner at Brass Union in Somerville.
Pairing the distillery’s three whiskey offerings with specially prepared dishes, the event served to showcase not only the spirits but also the cocktail and culinary acumen of Brass Union beverage director Paulo Pereira and chef Jonathan Kopacz, respectively.
We’ll take it one course at a time.
“We’re trying to bring fun back to the spirit of distillation,” Donal said at one point during the evening. While he was talking about the booze production process, it’s a sentiment that could have applied to the dinner itself. And nowhere was that more evident than in the “amuse” course.
The proceedings began with Glendalough Double Barrel Punch, made with Glendalough’s signature whiskey, a mix of orange, lemon, and pineapple juices, and sparkling water. Refreshing and effervescent, with a pleasant aroma from a mint leaf, it was well suited to the unusually warm fall evening.
Paired with the punch was whiskey caramel corn, a sweet, crunchy treat that incorporated Glendalough’s whiskey into the gooey coating.
I’d say this was a pretty clever way to start the evening. A whiskey and food pairing might seem like a serious affair, the sort of thing attended by whiskey snobs and highbrow foodies. But opening with popcorn and punch established a playful tone, encouraging guests to focus as much on enjoying themselves and sharing the experience as on appreciating the complexity and flavor interactions of the food and spirits.
The first course was a dish of roasted peaches served with goat cheese and a savory honey. Combining sweet, savory, and tangy flavors on one plate, it was light and beautifully presented.
Accompanying the peaches was one of the evening’s first surprises – the premiere of a cocktail that Paulo’s been aging in a rum barrel that was later used for a Jack’s Abby porter. The cocktail, called Lane’s Burrow, was a variation on the classic Irish Tipperary and made with Glendalough’s Double Barrel whiskey, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, yellow chartreuse, and Bittermens Boston Bittahs (their spelling, not mine).
It was an unusual cocktail – complex and bitter, with notes of licorice in the middle, but smooth as silk and a smart complement to the peach dish.
You may be seeing more of that cocktail, and not just at Brass Union. Paulo bought the barrel from Donal, but since it was much larger than what he’d ordinarily use for aging a cocktail, he invited several other bars in the same restaurant group to go in on the purchase. The Lane’s Burrow will be aged a little longer, but should be available later this fall.
Having never had quail (aside from their eggs), I was excited about the second course. Served with radicchio and cherry mostarda, this grilled bird was delicate but rich, with a crispy skin.
Paired with it was Glendalough’s 7-year, single-malt Irish whiskey. This is a big, rich whiskey with notes of chocolate, butterscotch, cinnamon, and pepper, and those sweet and spicy flavors elevated the flavors on the plate.
Now what would a proper whiskey tasting be without gin? OK, it’s an unconventional move. But then, the surprise guest of the “intermezzo” course, Glendalough’s Wild Autumn Botanical gin, is an unconventional gin.
Incorporating upwards of 20 wild Irish botanicals and made in collaboration with a local botanist, it has a completely foreign aroma and a complex flavor profile unlike any gin I’ve tasted. Paolo used it in a straightforward cocktail that allowed the botanical blend to shine, mixing it with simple syrup and charred grapefruit (along with a cryptic flavor orb, which I’m at odds to describe).
I love the idea of a seasonal gin, and given New Englanders’ fondness for autumn, this one should win its share of local fans. Unfortunately, it was just a tease; Glendalough’s gins aren’t yet available in the U.S. and won’t reach our shores until next year.
It was back to whiskey for the third course. In every respect, Glendalough’s 13-year, single-malt Irish whiskey is the most distinguished of the distillery’s offerings. It took home two awards from this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition – Best Single-Malt Irish Whiskey and Best Irish Whiskey. I’d say that puts it in some pretty elite company.
And it’s easy to see why the judges in San Francisco favored it – with notes of vanilla, citrus, spices, and oak, this smooth whiskey is similar to a fine cognac, with a robust mouthfeel and a complex bouquet of flavors.
Served alongside it was braised lamb served with chickpeas, cucumber, mint, shallot, and lemon. Twenty-four hours of braising resulted in meat that was melt-in-your-mouth tender. The soft texture and bold flavor made it the perfect companion to the exceptional whiskey.
Wrapping things up was a flourless chocolate torte with chocolate cherry mousse. Rich, dense, and decadent, its liquid accompaniment is probably no surprise.
The modern Irish coffee may be most famously associated with San Francisco’s Buena Vista Café, but Ireland is still its ancestral home. For this event, Paulo created a traditional Irish coffee with a Portuguese twist – Glendalough Double Barrel, topped with an Irish whiskey cream and a pinch of spice, and Brandymel, a honey brandy from Portugal, in place of the sugar. The brandy added a more complex dimension than sugar would have, and along with the torte, made for a sweet conclusion to the evening.
One of the things I personally found most interesting about this whole shebang is the ways in which whiskey can interact with food. I usually don’t pair whiskey with anything other than the occasional cigar, and I was impressed with the way in which chef Kopacz matched the nuanced flavors of the whiskey with some pretty creative food choices.
I was also impressed with the versatility of Glendalough’s whiskies, both in the food pairings and in cocktails. Glendalough might not move 5 million cases a year like the aforementioned green-bottled whiskey, but with a few international awards to their credit and a growing product line, it’s a pleasure to watch this small Irish distillery continue to make a name for itself.
And look for a story on Brass Union sometime within the next month or two. I’ve been there twice, but each time has been for a specific event. I can’t wait to sit at the bar sometime and see what else Paulo’s got up his sleeve.
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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.
Running along one wall of the Bully Boy distillery is a shelf that holds a collection of dusty, empty liquor bottles.
The labels – faded, smudged, and grimy – advertise dubious contents such as “Very Old Cow Whiskey” and “Pale Brandy.” A “Fine Old Medford Rum” looks anything but fine, though it’s definitely old. Even familiar brands like “Bacardi Rum” are a little suspicious when their names are typed onto ordinary household labels.
A closer examination of those labels – particularly the dates, which stretch back to the 1920s and 1930s – reveals why the names are so unusual and the contents so questionable. This was bootleg liquor. In an era when Prohibition is endlessly glamorized and so many bars try to recreate the experience of drinking in a speakeasy, these bottles are the real thing – a tangible, authentic connection to a period of American history that mystifies and fascinates us to this day.
But to brothers Will and Dave Willis, owners of Bully Boy Distillers, the bottles are more than just artifacts. You might say they’re family heirlooms. The bottles once belonged to the Willises’ great-grandfather, who locked them away in a vault on the family’s farm in Sherborn, Massachusetts.
Will and Dave discovered the vault in the basement of their farmhouse when they were kids, but it would be some time before they appreciated the significance of their find. And while there’s no evidence that their great-grandfather had any role in making the hooch, there’s little question that his farm was the place to be back when booze was banned.
“On a lot of the bottles, our great-grandfather would write all the names of people who were at the drinking session,” Dave tells me during a tour of his Roxbury distillery. “It’s incredible, all these old signatures on the label from the 1920s and earlier. It’s a nice tie-in with where we came from and what we’re doing here.”
What they’re doing is making a line of small-batch spirits that have fed consumers’ demand for artisanal liquor and given bartenders a slew of unique options for creating innovative cocktails. Bully Boy Distillers opened their doors in 2011, the first legal craft distillery to set up shop in Boston in decades.
Four years later, Bully Boy is one of the most recognizable liquor brands in the city. Their spirits have become go-to options at a host of local establishments and are integral to any number of signature cocktails.
And while their distribution is presently limited to Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, their growing product line has garnered recognition and praise from across the country – at the front of the distillery is a shelf full of bottles adorned with gold, silver, and bronze medals won in numerous national spirit competitions.
Those award-winning spirits are situated just a few yards from the old bootleg bottles, and while they’re oceans apart in terms of quality, it’s not difficult to discern a connection. Growing up on that same Sherborn farm, the Willis brothers experimented with making hard cider before learning the finer points of distillation – using a five-gallon stovetop still.
And despite the success they’ve enjoyed in their first four years as professional distillers, the Bully Boy operation remains small in scale, with Will and Dave toiling under fairly harsh conditions.
Their utilitarian distillery is in a nondescript warehouse that you won’t find without a reliable GPS unit. Inside are the tools of the trade, and little more – a 150-gallon still, fermenters, storage containers, empty bottles waiting to be filled, and a room with rows and rows of oak barrels. In the summer months, temperatures in the distillery can soar to 120 degrees.
“It is so hot in here, which is brutal,” Dave wearily acknowledges. “Obviously you sweat all day long. It’s a really tough environment to work in, but it’s awesome for aging, because the barrels swell.”
Pointing to the barrels, he notes that small quantities of spirit and sap can be seen oozing out of the seams, and he explains the benefits of that presumably sticky process.
“The wood really expands when it heats up,” he says. “And then the spirit inside the barrel also expands and pushes up through the wood. It extracts all sorts of wonderful flavors and aromas from the barrel, and in the winter the barrel contracts when it gets colder.”
Bully Boy uses each of its barrels twice – first for their American Straight Whiskey, then for their Boston Rum. And while the aging process may seem fairly straightforward, Dave explains that there’s more to it than most people know.
“Barrel aging is one of these really mysterious things that treatises are written on,” he claims. “And the wonderful thing about it is, there’s a lot about barrel aging that no one has an answer to. So it’s kind of this cool, mythical part of the whiskey making and rum production process.”
After a short lesson on barrels, Dave walks us through the distillation process, from mash tun to fermenter to still, and ultimately, to barrel or bottle. I won’t even try to explain the process in the detail that Dave can, but the tour is entertaining and informative.
After that, it’s time to sample the goods. Bully Boy currently offers six products, each made with locally sourced ingredients whenever possible, including Boston water.
The tasting begins with their vodka. Using red wheat as a base, the vodka is clean and bracing, with a hint of sweetness, but no burn whatsoever.
Made with blackstrap molasses, Bully Boy White Rum is less sweet and more robust than typical white rums, with a distinct fruitiness. Dave explains that white rums have historically gotten a bad rap because of a certain large rum distillery that dominates the global market with a product that’s largely flavor-neutral.
“We tried to create a white rum that has more to it,” he says. “There’s no point in coming out with another neutral, molasses-based white rum. If you’re going to do a white rum, or any spirit, you want to do something that’s got some uniqueness to it.”
And on that note, Bully Boy’s white whiskey may be their most notable contribution to the world of spirits. Unaged whiskies had been steadily growing in number and popularity around the time Bully Boy started selling theirs, but most distillers seemed more interested in efficiency than quality. Not having to age the whiskey means saving money and time, and while some producers made quality white whiskies, others just ratcheted up the novelty factor (think corn whiskey and “moonshine” sold in mason jars).
Dave explains that the key to making a good white whiskey is treating the spirit differently than one intended for aging.
“The mistake that a lot of people make with unaged whiskey is they simply take the stuff that they would put in a barrel and they stick it in a bottle,” he says. “If you’re not going to get the benefit of the barrel, you’ve got to create the cleanliness through the distillation process and the choice of grain.”
Bully Boy uses wheat for its white whiskey, which is fruitier and more subtle than the typical corn base, and distills the spirit at a higher proof. The result is a clean flavor that pulls from several spirit types, like tequila, gin, and grappa, but still has the graininess of whiskey.
While it can be enjoyed neat or on the rocks, Dave thinks of the unaged product as a cocktail whiskey. “There are cocktails you can make with unaged whiskey that you cannot make with any other spirit, so again it’s really adding something to the world of spirits,” he says.
American Straight Whiskey
Bully Boy’s American Straight Whiskey, on the other hand, is made with sipping in mind. Aged in American oak barrels, the whiskey’s blend of grains – corn, rye, and malted barley – give it a balanced flavor, with a bourbon-like sweetness up front and spicy rye notes in the back.
Bully Boy’s other aged product, Boston Rum, hearkens back to Boston’s pre-Prohibition glory days as a center of rum distillation. Made with blackstrap molasses, it’s lighter and fruitier than typical dark rums, which often have caramel coloring and sugar added to them. The barrel aging contributes some complexity but doesn’t overwhelm the flavor.
Finally, the Willis brothers again demonstrate their appreciation for history with one of their more unusual products. Hub Punch is inspired by a recipe that was popular in Boston in the 19th century but slipped into obscurity during Prohibition.
Mimicking the lost formula, Bully Boy infuses their Boston Rum with fruits and botanicals for an herbal, fruity spirit, with understated notes of tea and licorice. Dave says it’s best in cocktails, which is how our local forebears apparently consumed it. Mixed with ginger ale, soda water, and lemon, the Hub Punch cocktail is a portal back to Boston drinking culture in the years leading up to Prohibition.
The Hub Punch is only the most recent instance of regional history informing Bully Boy’s otherwise modern craft. Even the company name ties back to the family farm. Will and Dave’s great-grandfather named his favorite workhorse “Bully Boy” after a phrase coined by his college roommate – future U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt.
And then, of course, there’s that vault of timeworn bootleg liquor. I can’t resist asking Dave my most burning question – has he ever sampled his great-grandfather’s stash? He replies in the negative, explaining that the bottles are in even worse condition than they appear. Most of the corks have degraded and, if you look closely, you can see a layer of sludge at the bottom of the bottles.
But by the tone of his voice, I can tell he’s considered it. The contents would certainly be disgusting, and possibly even toxic. And yet, just one sip would be like going back in time. How many people alive today have tried that stuff?
“I’ve been tempted,” he concedes. “But….I have two kids now, and uhh…”
Fair enough. And despite Will and Dave’s ties to the past, their future is much more pressing. Next spring they’ll release their first gin, and a wheated bourbon is a few years away.
They’re also moving on up – later this year, they’ll be leaving their current distillery for a new, larger facility with more advanced equipment and a tasting room that will overlook the production floor. Dave becomes particularly animated when talking about Bully Boy’s future home, promising it will be a major upgrade from the current environment.
And a very long way from a stovetop in their family farmhouse.
Address: 35 Cedric Street, Boston
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I'm sorry to say that Papa Razzi Metro closed in October 2016.
If you’re a regular visitor to this space, you’ve probably noticed that I avoid writing about chain restaurants. That’s not to say that I never go to a chain restaurant, or that I always have a subpar experience when I do. But very rarely do I have an excellent experience at one. And that’s no surprise, because most chains aren’t striving for excellence – their goal is predictability. The corporate muckety-mucks of chain restaurants want to ensure that your favorite meal or beverage is available every time you come in, that it’s just as you remember it, and that if you’re ever visiting another restaurant in the chain, you can count on finding it there, as well. All of that would be well and good if it didn’t so frequently translate into mediocrity. But that’s inevitable when you’re offering a menu with the broadest possible appeal and trying to ensure an identical dining experience in dozens or even hundreds of restaurants. There’s little room for spontaneity or improvisation. Market data is privileged over innovation or fresh ideas, and individual creativity takes a back seat to heavily vetted research.
Applying those same principles to a beverage program seems incredibly dull – particularly in an age when cocktails have enjoyed such a spectacular renaissance. And what I find even more satisfying than a well-crafted drink is the experience that goes along with it. I love it when a bartender introduces me to a new spirit or brand, something they’re personally excited about. I appreciate the opportunity to learn why a particular cocktail tastes the way it does. I especially enjoy feeling like a bartender is genuinely invested in what they’re doing – knowledgeable of their craft, enthusiastic about their drinks, and interested in making sure I am, too.
That’s simply not a level of engagement I expect to find at the bar of a chain restaurant. And thus it was with an open mind but a hearty sense of skepticism that I agreed to write about Papa Razzi Metro.
Papa Razzi is a familiar name to many New Englanders. The regional chain has been offering decent Italian fare since 1989 in an atmosphere that’s upscale but affordable. But when the Rhode Island-based Newport Restaurant Group took over a few years ago, they decided it was time to refresh the Papa Razzi brand – a new food menu and beverage program, a whole new look, and the addition of “Metro” to the name.
Burlington’s Papa Razzi Metro is the first of the chain to undergo a complete renovation. The appearance is more modern and sleek, with a long, curvy marble bar and red leather sofas, but also aims for a traditional look with its hardwood floor and old-school lamps along the bar.
But what might be more jarring to longtime Papa Razzi diners is the revamped menu. Heavy dishes in red sauce are scaled back in favor of small plates designed for sharing. Certified Neapolitan pizzas are made in an oven shipped over from Italy that reaches a temperature of 900 degrees and cooks the pizza in a mere 90 seconds.
Traditional favorites like calamari are jazzed up with Maine shrimp misto, flash-fried zucchini, and a spicy peppadew aioli.
Fall-apart tender and bursting with flavor, beef and sausage meatballs are elegantly presented with slices of grilled bread.
A selection of salumi boards is available, like this one featuring speck, gorgonzola, apricot jam, and almonds.
Vestiges of the previous menu remain, but Papa Razzi’s objective seems clear – appeal to a younger generation of diners, particularly those moving from the city to the suburbs, and push longtime customers out of their comfort zone without completely alienating them.
And that brings us to the beverage program, which, along with the menu and the space, got a makeover of its own. While wine may be the traditional accompaniment to an Italian meal, Papa Razzi Metro now offers a menu of craft cocktails. On the surface, that might look like a typical chain move – chasing a trend, long after it’s become one, and adapting it for a suburban audience. But a conversation with beverage director Shawn Westhoven convinced me otherwise.
“I want nothing to do with being the beverage director of a chain,” he says, which may seem like a curious remark coming from someone who is exactly that. But as Shawn explains how a chain beverage program is run, and how Papa Razzi runs theirs, it becomes clear that Newport Restaurant Group wisely gave him latitude to create a bar with an independent spirit that doesn’t slavishly adhere to the conventional best practices of a chain restaurant.
“We go the opposite way from a chain,” he says of Papa Razzi’s evolving beverage program. “The way that a chain has to make decisions, they look at data, and they see what’s trending; and then that’s what they do, because they’re trying to appeal to what guests are asking for. They have to try to line up what’s in their inventory with what the most number of people are going to want. And I want to have the stuff that I want to have.”
What Shawn wants most of all is for customers to have an experience at Papa Razzi bar that they won’t have at another chain restaurant. Indeed, many of the trappings of a chain cocktail menu are absent. In place of cheap, processed mixers are fresh juices and house-made syrups. Where you’d ordinarily see 15 bottles of artificially flavored vodka, you’ll find small-batch spirits from local producers like GrandTen, Bully Boy, and Privateer. And instead of faux martinis and sweet, colorful drinks, the cocktail list is populated with classics and originals, many featuring herbal liqeurs like amaros and vermouths.
The Negroni, made with GrandTen Wireworks gin, Campari, and Carpono Antico vermouth, is a true standout.
“We dial back the Campari, which is the bitter, quite a bit, and ratchet it up with the vermouth, which is the sweet,” Shawn explains. “A classic Negroni is much more bitter. But the gin is so good, we can’t have too much Campari in there.” The result is an approachable Negroni for someone who’s new to the drink, which can be an acquired taste.
The Negroni’s predecessor, the Americano, is crisp and bitter, combining Contratto Americano vermouth, Campari, and soda.
For those who aren’t ready for a bitter cocktail, the Italian Greyhound is made with Bully Boy vodka and freshly squeezed grapefruit. I’ve always found the Greyhound to be a fairly boring drink, but the fresh grapefruit elevates Papa Razzi’s version.
So how do customers in a suburban market respond cocktails like that? “With hesitation,” Shawn admits. “Until you get it in their hands.”
The best way to get an unfamiliar drink into a customer’s hands is to have bartenders who are talented, engaged, and willing to encourage their guests to branch out a bit. At Papa Razzi, that starts with inviting bartenders to contribute to the cocktail program. Half of the drink list is devoted to rotating cocktails that are devised by bartenders throughout the chain. Several times a year, Shawn sends out an email that gives the bar staff some general parameters to follow – seasonal ingredients to consider, trends to follow or avoid, spirits he wants customers to start drinking – and gets back a hundred or so recipes that he narrows down.
“I don’t have a team of hotshot bartenders like an independent place from Cambridge would have,” he acknowledges. “But we have people who have an interest in this, and they’re willing to work at it; I want to foster that.”
By encouraging staff to contribute drink ideas, the bartenders get acquainted with different products and styles, gain a better understanding of how to create a balanced drink, and have a personal stake in the menu.
The Goliardico, made with Hendrick’s gin, elderflower liqueur, and fresh grapefruit juice, is one contribution. The floral elderflower is a natural companion to Hendrick’s, with its notes of cucumber and rose petals, and the fresh grapefruit adds a vibrant, sour punch.
The Tempo Triplo is another. Combining three vermouths and orange bitters, it demonstrates Shawn’s desire to get his staff familiar with a particular spirit and then introduce it to customers. “The reason for this cocktail is to get our guests to taste and enjoy vermouth,” he says. “Most people want to leave vermouth out of the drink; they have this idea that it’s a bad thing. But they’re delicious. You can have a cocktail made just with vermouths and it’s awesome.”
It may take patience and persistence, but it’s an approach that’s bearing fruit. One of Shawn’s additions to the beverage program is a selection of four Italian craft beers, each of which sells for about $9. That’s a lot to pay for a beer, even in the city; but remarkably, the four beers (together) are now outselling Bud Light.
As our conversation winds down, we turn to the after-dinner drinks, where one of Italy’s most popular liqueurs awaits. In principle, limoncello is fairly simple – lemon zest is steeped in a neutral spirit that draws out the oils, and the resulting liquid is mixed with simple syrup. But it’s notoriously difficult to perfect, and Shawn’s insistence on offering a house-made version led him to months of experimentation, with discouraging results. Finally he asked whether anyone at Papa Razzi knew of a good recipe, and a general manager from the Burlington restaurant had one from about 8 years prior. It worked like a charm. Made with organic lemons, this vibrant house limoncello practically leaps from the glass, like someone squeezing a lemon right in front of you.
Also available is an unusual variation – “figcello” follows a similar formula but uses figs instead of lemons. It wasn’t available the night I was there, so I asked Shawn to recommend a different dessert cocktail. His suggestion caught me off-guard: the Café Mocha Menta Panna is hot chocolate with Fernet Branca and mint cream. I was wary; I’m not a big fan of Fernet, nor do I ordinarily drink hot chocolate on a broiling July night.
But I trusted my host and was glad I did. Neither too bitter nor too sweet, this satisfying drink tasted like a cup of minty dark chocolate. And Shawn seemed genuinely pleased to note that he’d managed to push me out of my comfort zone – which he tries to do with so many customers.
“No one’s ever going to walk in here and ask for an amaro,” Shawn acknowledges. “But I say, let’s put some amaros on the menu and introduce them to the guests.”
Just letting people know they’re available – and if necessary, explaining what they are – is a start.
“We’re always trying to find ways to say, 'your life is pretty great: you came into Papa Razzi and you know you’re going to have great Italian food, but I’m going to give you one thing tonight that’s going to be special. It’s going to be this craft beer, this vermouth cocktail, whatever'; and people love that. And I love it,” he says.
“And that’s how I try to keep us separated from the idea of a chain restaurant.”
Address: 2 Wall Street, Burlington
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