Among colleagues and regulars, it is simply called The Joe Show. That is, the point in a busy night at The Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro when Joe McHale, performing solo behind the intimate eight-seat stage of its bar, begins to hold forth and entertain not only the bar but the two four-tops flanking it, a couple standing between the seats, a small group at the nearby fireplace, three servers putting together coffee orders in the side station, the manager trying to concentrate on a phone call at the desk, and a few stray hotel guests waiting for a cab. All while mixing cocktails and pouring wine for a couple dozen bar guests and a 52-seat dining room. It is without question a virtuoso performance. A wholly improvised combination of comedy, salesmanship, verbal repartee, physical dexterity, rock star stage presence (and hair), deftly-timed storytelling and, more than anything else, energy.
And the reason I know this is because over the course of several hundred nights I had the pleasure of witnessing The Joe Show, very much live, from the front desk only a few feet away.
Yes, he and I worked together. Yes, we are still very close friends. Yes, if you must know we regularly take long walks together through Harvard Square and discuss art and life and football (though not always in that order). Which is why I asked Joe—who generally takes the lead in creating and naming the Bistro's rotating cocktail list—if he would be willing to talk shop in honor of Cocktail Week.
First question: how is it that you've never named a drink after Tom Brady?
You know he's the reason I started working at the Bistro, right? A friend that worked there wrote on Myspace that Brady and Giselle had come in. I had just moved back from San Francisco and was sitting in bed at like one in the morning, and because I still loved Brady I asked if they were hiring.
Myspace? That means you started, what—?
Seven years ago.
Were they asking you to create cocktail lists back then?
[Laughs] No. Nobody wanted me to do anything seven years ago. Mostly they yelled at me for not stocking the bar the way they wanted it.
We can be a bit cheeky if we want; we don't have to be austere about it, which is great for everyone.
But eventually they did ask you to come up with cocktails [and in fairness eventually Joe became known for an exceptionally stocked, even at times even over-stocked bar]. At least they let you along with your fellow bartenders. How much of the cocktail creating and naming process is a collaborative effort?
A lot. Prat [-ima Bangera, former bartender and current senior manager] has an innate ability to know what's going to work on the cocktail list. Usually I'll run everything through Francie [Doyle, fellow bartender and more or less a Thursday night institution on Beacon Hill] first, and then I'll run it through Prat. And then Francie will yell at me and tell me it's too sweet. But of course she is herself sweet enough to tell me when she knows it will work.
The idea though is that as a staff we get a lot of freedom to come up with drinks, and then to come up with names that will work at our bar and engage our guests. We can be a bit cheeky if we want; we don't have to be austere about it, which is great for everyone.
So which comes first, the cocktail or the name?
In most cases it's the drink itself. You try and get inspiration from the drink and then try to craft the name around that. There's only one instance where I think I had the name first, which is the Tequila Mockingbird. But I had someone tell me I stole that?
Care to set the record straight?
I mean, if someone can come back and say they had that three, four years ago that's fine. But ultimately what matters is that it was funny. In a lot of ways, that was a good example of just asking how can I impress you, how can I impress our guests?
You were lead singer of a band. Any correlation between naming cocktails and naming songs?
Not really. With cocktails you want to find a way to introduce them to a new ingredient or new combination of ingredients they've never tried, so you want the name to catch their attention and kind of ease them into that. And with the songs, it's the antithesis of that. You want to seem as deep as you can. And also maybe seem kind of strange and weird.
I know you get a lot of freedom in naming drinks. Ever push it a bit too far?
There was a drink we had years ago; we had some lavender liquor we were using, and [former manager] Killian was there, so originally we called it Purple Haze. Killian thought it was funny and actually approved it, but we ended up changing it to Purple Rain. And then for like two months we had girls and guys in the dining room singing Purple Rain before they ordered the drink.
But yeah, as you know, we generally we get a lot of leeway. The Smoke Show is a great example.
Take something like The Mistletoe. I'm convinced people order that because it makes them think about making out with someone.
Can you tell when people are drawn more to a really good name than to the actual ingredients?
Absolutely. Take something like The Mistletoe. I'm convinced people order that because it makes them think about making out with someone. It's great because we were trying to get people to drink Chartreuse, but also everyone makes the jokes about kissing and then about how once you've had a couple of them, you'd be inclined to make out with pretty much whoever is sitting next to you.
You have two lovely little girls now. How has fatherhood changed your approach to cocktail creation and/or naming?
I think the closest parallel is that the fun thing is still to encourage someone towards trying something they haven't tried before. And you know that wasn't always the goal with a cocktail list. Before, the idea was — and this is going back ages ago — that the name was just a list of the ingredients (Limoncello Martini and all that). Now we have more ingredients to work with, and the challenge is how to introduce those and still kind of make it clever and try to make it fun.
And really, try to make it fun for someone ordering it. The Cleanse was like that. Which is literally lemon juice, maple syrup, pepper, vodka, Talisker scotch. So it is literally a cleanse. And because of where we're located in the city, most people coming into our bar know what a cleanse is. Most people have done a cleanse. I mean I've done a cleanse; you've done a cleanse [not true]; we all know what it is. So it gets people's attention. And it's fun to order. But we throw in a little bit of scotch and suddenly they're feeling pretty healthy. It becomes a conversation piece, and right away we get to bring out people's sense of humor even as they're ordering in this really small and crowded bar.
As opposed to just calling it like The Vodka Vodka Chocolate Vodka Drink.
But then you can't really name it The Rip-Face, Blood-Letting, You're Probably Going to Hate This.
At the same time we don't want the drink names to be to discouraging, in terms of not really letting you know what you're getting. The Mistletoe sounds fun, but sometimes, especially in the dining room, you have to let people know about Chartreuse or risk getting it sent back. [pauses] But then you can't really name it The Rip-Face, Blood-Letting, You're Probably Going to Hate This.
Naturally. Now, I'm going to put you on the spot a bit. Because I want you to come up with a cocktail name here, now, just to see the creative process in action. Alright?
Okay. If this year's Patriots team were a cocktail—
Oh come on!
—what would you name it?
[Groans, drinks, shakes head.]
I'm trying to think of—what's a word for executing to literally the base of your ability? The Mediocre? The Median? The Just-? That's what it would be—I mean, I can't, really—The Future Disappointment? Call it that.
Call it: The Why Do You Want To Hurt Me?