Monday, February 22, 2010

Behind the bar with Bob

We'd already planned dinner at Harvest in Harvard Square, but still felt as though we wanted to do something extra-celebratory for our anniversary; something unusual, adventurous.

Fly to Paris? Not enough time. Ski lodge in the White Mountains? Ha! As if!

And then, on the website for the
Hotel Commonwealth, we found it: the Cocktails and Dreams package, which included a mixology lesson and a tasting menu paired with cocktails.

That's more like it!

We're big fans of the hotel's
Eastern Standard, where both bar and kitchen produce delicious creations that manage to be creative and comforting at the same time.

So on Sunday, we checked in, and at the appointed hour were shown to a room for our private cocktail lesson with Eastern Standard's principle bartender, Bob McCoy.

Once we were settled in with cheese, crackers and plenty of water, Bob began by taking us through a history of the mixed drink, from the invention of spirits to the creation of the cocktail.

And then he turned the focus to one particular theme: vermouth.

I'd always thought of vermouth as a largely C-level drink; it's what people drank in the '70s to appear sophisticated, and apart from its validity in martinis and manhattans, didn't rate much.

Yeah, so I was wrong.

Bob poured us tastes of three vermouths: a sweet Italian called Carpano Antica, a dry French (Noilly Prat), and Martini & Rossi's Bianco.

We tried the last one first. The nose was like roast chicken, full of fresh oregano and thyme. And each vermouth was amazingly complex, herbacious, aromatic, changing character from sweet to dry in the finish.

We compared notes, sharing discoveries. And then Bob said, "Okay, let's make some cocktails. What would work well with the Carpano?"

The Boy and I shared a glance. A test! We hadn't studied! What if we didn't know anything? Even though Bob was fantastically easy-going, I still felt a little pressure to perform, to impress.

We knocked some ideas around. The Carpano is sweet, spicy, with orange notes. So how about rum? And maybe something orangey? Bob suggested Bauchant, which he described as halfway between Grand Marnier and Cointreau.

And then to finish ... chocolate bitters?

"Sounds good," said Bob. "Let me go grab some." He went downstairs to the bar and reappeared a few minutes later, arms filled with bottles.

For our second cocktail, we started with Eastern Standard's housemade rose vermouth, which is made with strawberries (evident from the first sniff).

It seemed very English, so we went with Hendrick's gin, limoncello (for a citrus note and also to add sweetness), and to finish — champagne!

"Okay," he said. "Come over behind the bar and we'll put this together."

We know our way around a drinks cabinet. We've invented a few cocktails in our time. But it's still a little daunting to be fixing drinks while a trained professional is watching. Bob was great, though, and gave us tips on using jiggers, strainers, and spoons, including when to shake and when to stir.

The Boy looked born to it.

And Bob handled the finishing touches.

If you're thinking this whole thing must have taken a while, you're right: Bob generously gave us two and a half hours of his time, answering our questions, making suggestions, and being wonderfully gracious and patient. Oh, and he made a dinner reservation for us.

We came away with a bundle of recipes and two bottles of lovely housemade vermouth.

Not to mention a more formalized understanding of how to create a cocktail; where to find wormwood; and an appreciation of the passion that Eastern Standard's team has for the work they do.

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