Since opening in March, Loyal Nine — already earning recognition on a national scale — is serving up what it describes as "East Coast Revival" cuisine in East Cambridge. It's colonial cuisine for the modern diner: delicate preparations of underutilized New England seafood; old-timey vocabulary like pease pudding, samp, and sallet; whole roasted ducks and whole fried mackerels. Along those lines, bar manager Fred Yarm — a cocktail blogger turned author turned bartender whom you may have previously seen behind the bar at Russell House Tavern — is well-versed in thematically appropriate spirits, from Old World apple brandies to Madeira, a fortified Portuguese wine.
Madeira became popular in the colonies thanks to a bit of a trade loophole, says Yarm. In the 17th century, colonists weren't permitted to import European goods using their own ships; they needed to use British ships, which meant paying British taxes. But Madeira — a Portuguese island off the northwest coast of Africa — didn't count as "Europe" under the language of the act, so colonial ships could stock up while on trade routes that passed by the island, skipping out on British taxation.
"There are four noble varieties of Madeira," says Yarm, noting that there used to be more. They range from "very dry" to "very sweet" — Sercial is the driest, followed by Verdelho, Bual, and Malvasia (also known as Malmsey). Loyal Nine stocks Madeiras on either end of the spectrum to mix into cocktails. A Sercial Madeira, for example, appears in one of Loyal Nine's "low octane" cocktails, the Undercover Angel, which also has Benedictine and absinthe. It's a play on the classic Chrysanthemum cocktail, which features vermouth, not Madeira.
Yarm had a mild interest in Madeira before coming to Loyal Nine. "I definitely had one or two at home," he says, recalling a semi-dry Verdelho. "I remember going to Kappy's Liquors and asking about the Madeiras they had, and the man was like, 'Son, I could have told you about these 20 years ago. No one touches these things.'" So Yarm looked up information on his phone, found that a Verdelho would be "slightly smoky," and figured that'd be perfect.
"There have only been a few bars that have tinkered with Madeira," Yarm says. "I remember having a single drink at Eastern Standard when the historic Madeiras were coming out. And I had a drink by Matt Schrage at Brick & Mortar. Madeira has been more second tier to sherry. Sherry and port have always been in the cocktail recipes since the 19th century, although port has its limitations — sweet or very sweet."
As for Madeira, Yarm finds that it hasn't been too challenging to work with. "It has this ability to work with citrus," he says. "There's an orange-ness in there. It has an ability to work with grapefruit, maraschino, pair with a variety of spirits." It has also been easy to get people to drink it, he adds.
While Yarm features some of those Old World spirits at Loyal Nine, the main goal is really to produce a somewhat food-friendly cocktail list that complements the restaurant's unique menu. "Not overly bitter," he says, tending to avoid heavy use of things like Amaro and bitters. He opts instead for flavors like tamarind and "funky Jamaican rums." While it could be intriguing to work from directly from colonial recipes, that wouldn't be the best idea. "We don't necessarily try to mimic what people were drinking in the 1700s," he says. "It's pretty rough. We've discussed it, but I don't think we need to go back that far. Even my books from the early 1800s aren't very approachable."
"It's like when people talk about the romantic attachment to Prohibition-era drinks," Yarm continues. "There's nothing to romanticize. There are a couple of good drinks, like the Last Word, but most of them are pretty wretched."
While paying a bit of homage to the olden days in an accessible way, Yarm's cocktail list doesn't get too many confused looks from guests, although the "sauerkraut goodness" in the dirty martini description raises some eyebrows. "If you think about hot dogs, you're going to go astray," he says. It's more about a non-olive brininess.
He's happy to go in "stranger" directions if someone comes to the bar and wants to go that route — he loves "really bitter, really difficult drinks" himself — but for the cocktail list, he avoids going "too bitter, too tart, or too sweet." You want people to know what they're getting — and, ideally, not to send anything back.
"It's tough; negroni is a great drink, but there's a quote that says everyone hates their first three negronis. I don't want to be serving those first two," he says, noting that there's been a trend — analogous to the ever-growing hoppiness of beer — to see how extreme and bitter and weird cocktails can be. While pushing limits is fun, especially for someone who is sitting at the bar and drinking, there's the restaurant to consider. "If you blow out [a guest's palate with something] too bitter or too sweet, then their food's going to taste like garbage," he says. "This isn't a bar; this is chef Marc's establishment, and we're trying to offer beer, wine, cocktails, and sodas that will complement the food program."
After a drink or two, though, that's when you may be able to start taking a drinker in more bizarre directions, says Yarm. It's about knowing where a person is in his or her "cocktail adventure." You have to "know where they are in the night and know when a vodka soda, splash of cran, is absolutely the best thing you could serve them" — or when it's time to get a little weird.
"People are coming to the bar for a lot of reasons," says Yarm, "and I want them to leave happy."