The ultimate New England city and a key city in our country’s earliest days, Boston is famed for its higher education, 17th- and 18-century architecture, waterside setting and die-hard sports fans. While compared to pioneering cities like New York and San Francisco, it came a bit later to the cocktail renaissance. Boston ushered in the renaissance with bars like No. 9 Park and Eastern Standard but really began to blossom after 2008 when Drink arrived (more on all three bars in our 10 Boston Bars). Now, its bar scene is vibrant and ever-growing.
Naturally, pubs and sports bars have long been integral to a town that has strong British roots, an Irish population and die-hard sports fans. But spirits and cocktail lovers will find plenty to satiate, from Somerville to Cambridge. While some of my friends and industry colleagues commented on the lack of hospitality in their past Boston bar/restaurant experiences—and I’ve experienced that myself, years ago—during this visit I noticed a friendly camaraderie between industry folk as they recommended each other’s places and a strong hospitality at most restaurants and bars I visited across the region. The places covered here are showing a friendlier side of Boston, one committed to craft and to guest comfort.
Local craft distillers run the gamut from the acclaimed Privateer Rum (privateerrum.com) distilling (of course) rum, to Ryan & Wood (ryanandwood.com) in Gloucester distilling gin, rum, whiskey and vodka. Bully Boy Distillers (bullyboydistillers.com) produces rum, vodka and whiskey, while GrandTen Distilling (grandten.com) goes the vodka and gin route with the addition of almond or Massachusetts cranberry liqueurs. About an hour or so outside Boston in the town of Bolton, Richard Pelletier of Nashoba Valley Winery (nashobawinery.com/spirits) also distills a wide range of spirits from eaux de vie/brandies to single malt whiskey.
The city leans heavily towards spirituous, booze-forward cocktails and the classics, in keeping with the Northeast’s chilly to freezing weather much of the year, leading to more limitations in year-round produce. At many popular cocktail havens—like Alden & Harlow (aldenharlow.com)—cocktails look the part but can veer too sweet or a bit out of balance.
But there are numerous greats and outside-the-norm options, like the more experimental, James Beard-nominated bar program from Todd Maul at Café ArtScience (cafeartscience.com). There are creative Asian cocktails at fusion-forward restaurants like Tiger Mama (tigermamaboston.com), where I loved the Indo-Fizz combining rum and coconut milk with turmeric, whole egg and honey syrup in classic flip form. Cambridge’s Brick & Mortar (brickmortarltd.com) is the rowdy, noisy but friendly industry hangout, packed every night. Also in Cambridge, Craigie on Main (craigieonmain.com) is an award-winning, neighborhood restaurant that offers a warm glow and welcome at its intimate bar where friendly, knowledgeable bar staff pour cocktails that run from lovely to a bit too sweet. Committee (committeeboston.com) feels like a bar plucked from Europe with Mediterranean/Greek food and Greek and Lebanese spirits heavy on ouzo, anisettes and rare spirits from Greece and Lebanon and beverage director Peter Szigeti’s elegant cocktails. Wink & Nod (winkandnod.com) is a cocktail bar with rotating chefs/restaurant concepts every six months, serving inspired menus like modern Greek cuisine paired with house cocktails. Here are 10 of Boston’s most notable bars for cocktails and spirits, some strong on atmosphere, historical influence or hospitality/service—and some shining in all those categories.
Yvonne’s (yvonnesboston.com) is one of the most stunning dining rooms and bars anywhere. It’s a “wow” moment entering the large, multiroom space upstairs in a downtown Boston alley. From a long, vintage wood bar to opulent chandeliers to Old World-style paintings of Bill Murray and Christopher Walken, Yvonne’s feels like a true night on the town. Thankfully, friendly service, international dishes (like rangoon crispy eggplant in pineapple duck sauce) and gorgeous cocktails keep the dramatic space fun and approachable.
What to Drink: A low-proof beauty is the Italian-inspired Uffizi, a blend of Bonal Gentiane Quina, Zucca Rabarbaro (rhubarb) Amaro, white grapefruit and seashell salt. Sip local spirits like Privateer Rum in drinks like the Crack Krakatuk mixed with Calvados, smoked cinnamon, lemon and Champagne.
Though Barbara Lynch’s No. 9 Park (http://no9park.com) first ushered in the cocktail renaissance in Boston, “the scene” didn’t really kick into gear until 2008 when Lynch’s restaurant group opened Drink (drinkfortpoint.com). Half underground and with a dramatic bar that evolves into varying sections allowing for plenty of bartender face time, which is crucial since you won’t see any bottles behind the bar nor a cocktail menu (there are bites like flatbread, steak tartare and deviled eggs). There are many bars that do the menu-less, customizable thing but it’s rare to not see bottles behind the bar. This eliminates brands and the usual “safe” choices from your drink choice, encouraging a conversation with (knowledgeable) bartenders and the opportunity to experience something new but in keeping with preferences or mood.
What to Drink: That being said, you won’t find esoteric experimentation here so much as tweaks on classic cocktails or modern drinks with classic ethos. Plan to have a chat with your bartender about which direction you are leaning and let the pro customize a cocktail with impeccable ice and technique.
One of Boston’s consummate bars, The Hawthorne (thehawthornebar.com), inside the ideal home base of Hotel Commonwealth (hotelcommonwealth.com), is the kind of place it’s easy to linger for hours, thanks to friendly, professional bar staff, refined cocktails and a mellow-but-classy vibe. As is the trend generally across Boston, cocktails here lean toward classics or variations on classics.
What to Drink: Look for drinks like the Sundowner Swizzle, combining rum, Galliano, lemon, orange and orgeat or off-menu, customized drinks showing off mezcal with cinnamon and Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters.
No. 9 Park
The bar that started at all: Situated on the corner of the Boston Commons, No. 9 Park (http://no9park.com) is an upscale restaurant from restaurateur Barbara Lynch with an intimate front bar that initiated the cocktail renaissance in Boston years ago. It’s worth listing for its influence on the bar scene in this city as a whole, having launched many a great bar manager—and the bar Drink—over the years.
What to Drink: Though No. 9 Park veers toward classics and a short cocktail list—and the setting is decidedly old school and formal—bartenders know their spirits and can craft a fine cocktail. Note: Surprising ingredients (like seaweed) pop up in a cocktail or two.
Hojoko (http://hojokoboston.com) is one of the most fun izakayas and cocktail bars in the country, opened in 2015 by owners of sushi temple and worthwhile splurge, O Ya (http://o-ya.restaurant). The long green bar abuts a vintage Pac-Man game while the low-ceilinged space is punctuated by bright splashes of color and slushie machines.
What to Drink: Bar managers Daren Swisher and Joe Cammarata highlight rum and tiki-esque drinks, infusing shiitake mushrooms in absinthe, torching marshmallow fluff on a piña colada or playing with sesame, shiso and even foie gras in drinks. Their “bombs” define “good times”: think a shot of coconut-washed Campari dropped into and drunk with Mexican Fanta (pictured with a toy Godzilla to help dunk/bomb the shot).
Open for years behind acclaimed Journeyman restaurant (journeymanrestaurant.com) in Somerville, Sam Treadway put Backbar (backbarunion.com) on the map with smoked ice cubes, olive oil infusions and weekly changing milk punches. Pair cocktails with addictive house hot dogs or a carrot miso dog and settle into the intimate, chill space that appeals to cocktail and spirits geeks… without attitude.
What to Drink: Besides the weekly milk punch, look for rotating goodness in the form of house eggnog or cheeky twists on classics like a Ricky Bobby Burns, a bracing mix of Scotch, Cynar, Campari and Benedictine, aromatic with
Eastern Standard (easternstandardboston.com) is a modern-day Boston institution, open just over a decade. The spacious, all-day brasserie serves quality food (a raw bar, Moules Provençale, house spaghetti and more) with outdoor patio and red lamps illuminating warm woods, conveniently attached to Hotel Commonwealth, which also houses the excellent Island Creek Oyster Bar and aforementioned The Hawthorne.
What to Drink: Classics and variations on classics accompany house cocktails with local and small-batch spirits also on offer. With changing cocktails, try the likes of Carmen’s Letter (tequila, honey, lime, bitters, ruby port, cayenne) or Brahmin (Death’s Door Gin, curry, mango chutney, cilantro, lime).
First and foremost a modern izakaya and sushi den, Uni (uni-boston.com) was expanded and revamped in February 2015 with new bar manager Jason Kilgore’s (formerly of The Hawthorne) elegant cocktails. He knows his wines and has some thoughtful wine geek choices in the mix (like orange wines), but when it comes to cocktails incorporates Asian elements like black tea or Japanese plum.
What to Drink: Black Briar #1 is a vivid, blackberry-infused gin mixed with rum, lemon and bitters, while the Shulz & Brown shows off rye whiskey and shochu with peanut, lime and bitters.
Sarma (sarmarestaurant.com) is a restaurant from the James Beard-winning chef Ana Sortun of the restaurant Oleana (http://oleanarestaurant.com), an acclaimed Boston spot since 2001. As with Oleana, Sarma serves some of the best Mediterranean food in the USA, turning out meze (small plates) and daily-changing special dishes. What flies under the radar are subtle but exciting cocktails that pull from the Turkish and Mediterranean ingredients and flavor profiles.
What to Drink: Drinks change regularly but think Tahini in Tahiti, a lush mix of rum, brandy, sesame orgeat, lime and Tiki bitters; or an Anointed Sour, featuring gin, bright with lemon, layered with Manzanilla sherry and silky with olive oil syrup.
At Straight Law at Taberna de Haro (tabernaboston.com/straightlawbar.htm), a Spanish restaurant with authentic bites and feel, cocktails—elegantly served in delicate glassware—can veer a bit too sweet. But the sherry collection is fantastic, ideal for sherry education or a destination for sherry lovers. And the vibe and look, heavy on the reds, feels like an evening’s escape to Spain.
What to Drink: Owner-chef-sommelier Deborah Hansen has assembled an impressive sherry collection with thoughtful menu notes describing each sherry, available in 2-oz. pours or flights of 4 for $25.