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Luke O'Neil on Boston's Cocktail Past, Present And Future

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Photo: Rachel Leah Blumenthal

Here we are, a killer cocktail city. But it wasn't always this way, and what will tomorrow bring? From his perch as a journalist covering the Boston drink scene and as a former and sometimes bartender, Luke O'Neil is well informed about the state of the cocktail in Boston. And so, as Cocktail Week 2012 draws to a close, Eater turned to him to tell us a little bit about how Boston stacks up against other cocktail hotspots, where we've been, and where we're headed next.

What first drew you to cocktails? I didn't even really like drinking through most of my early twenties - I was never much of a drinker, but I just found out that I wasn't drinking the right stuff. I was like "this is weird, this vodka cranberry is gross, I don't like the taste of it, I guess I don't like drinking." People talk about their gateway cocktail or their epiphany. I don't remember where it was, I just remember having a Manhattan, a really well made Manhattan, and it just blew my mind. I was like wait a minute, this is something that is much different than what I've been drinking my whole life as a young idiot. It immediately turned me on and I was just kind of hooked from there.

Is mezcal still your go to these days? Yeah, that's pretty much all I really want to drink. Or whiskey, whether it's bourbon or rye or Scotch Whisky. I don't even like cocktails any more, I guess.

Huh. All the old classics that you drink, obviously they're great, but I would never order them any more when I'm just drinking for my own personal life. I just want to have a mezcal, maybe with a couple dashes of Peychaud's Bitters in it. Or a little scotch. Just something you can really taste. That's the next step from cocktails I think, really digging into spirits and the difference between the different countries and cultures. I'm more appreciative of the nuances of those different spirits now and I don't really need to have lemon juice or sugar in there to make me enjoy the taste of it.

A lot of people don't like the taste of alcohol, which is why cocktails exist in the first place, especially a lot of the Prohibition ones, because the gin and the whiskey they were using at the time was so horrible that they had to make it more palatable with all these ingredients. Now we've got such finely produced spirits, like these small craft spirits, that just taste perfect to me on their own. You don't need to do anything to them. I don't really see the need for a cocktail anymore. I'm not making a blanket statement about the cocktail, but if I was going to drink on my own time, I wouldn't really make a cocktail.

If you were to head out for a cocktail, where do you find yourself going these days? Well I always go to the West Side Lounge or Chez Henri in my personal time. I think those are two underrated bars. I go to the Hotel Commonwealth spots, The Hawthorne I find myself in. Obviously they're one of the best. I like Backbar obviously, though it's a little hard to get into these days if it's busy. I think The Independent is underrated, I go there for some nice drinks. Those are my main spots.

Where do you think Boston fits in terms of its stature as a cocktail city? It's not London or New Orleans, but if you go to any of these other cities and go into their best cocktail bars, they'll have heard of Eastern Standard and Drink. Amongst people who really pay attention to the national stuff, I think Boston has gotten a hugely improved reputation. New York has obviously done more of the top notch cocktail bars than we have in Boston, but they also have about a thousand shittier ones. I'd put our top five bars against almost anyone else's top five bars. Once you get to a certain level there's only so much differentiation between the bars. Aside from super experimental sciencey cocktail bullshit stuff, once you master the art of the trade, it's just a matter of doing it consistently and doing it well.

What do you think is the past, present and future of the Boston cocktail scene? They're obviously all intertwined. All the guys who laid the foundation are still around and they're doing great things. Obviously Cleve is still around and Patrick Sullivan and everyone from the B-Side, they've got their bars and is sort of branching off, and Jackson and the Eastern Standard people are branching off into other new bars. It's just a matter of these guys all training people up, and that's happening, and they're going on to helm their own programs at different bars. It's not something that can happen overnight.

It's just a matter of getting more people to care about it. When I go into some new bar that opens up and I'm doing a review for the Metro, it absolutely blows my mind that you can put all this money into opening a new restaurant and not be aware that this is the type of thing that you at least have to pay attention to. I have no idea how you can open a place and just put out a cocktail list of snozzberry vodka and fucking SkinnyTinis, and people still do that all the time.

In your personal taste, you've had an arc going beyond the cocktail into spirits - do you think we'll see that trend on a larger scale? I don't know. People have always just drank spirits. Will people just start drinking more craft spirits? I think so. As you see more places listing their spirits on their menu, that's a good step. There's no reason for you to open a cocktail list with Grey Goose or whatever, called out. Why not use something else? Why not use one of the local spirits like Wire Works or Bully Boy or Berkshire Mountain Distillers or Triple Eight, Privateer Rum or Old Ipswich?

Any advice for Boston cocktail drinkers? Every time you go out, try something that you've never tried before, even if it doesn't sound like you're going to like it. It's only like ten dollars, it's not the end of the world. Get outside your comfort zone and you might find something that blows your mind.

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The Hawthorne

500A Commonwealth Avenue, , MA 02215 (617) 532-9150 Visit Website

Eastern Standard

528 Commonwealth Avenue, , MA 02215 (617) 532-9100 Visit Website


348 Congress Street, , MA 02210 (617) 695-1806 Visit Website