Scotland, Kentucky, Cognac, the Caribbean and Jalisco, Mexico are just a few of the planet's spiritually rich regions I've visited in the name of research. Every time I return home to Boston, however, I'm faced with a niggling decision: which local bar should I visit to assuage my jetlag? (Full disclosure: this conundrum arises even when jetlag is not a factor.) Despite being a small city compared to New York, Chicago or London, Boston is an embarrassment of riches for a whisky hound. Yes, New England's boozy heritage dates back to when the early colonists turned out rum by the boatload. But you could easily make the argument that colonial history lessons are best soaked up over a dram or a mind-blowing cocktail.
Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar
1310 Boylston StreetTel:
On a busy thoroughfare behind Fenway Park, Boston’s legendary baseball stadium, shabby petrol stations and new apartment and office buildings side by side. At street level of one of the gleaming, boxy buildings hangs the sign: “Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar.” It’s easy to walk past, dismissing Citizen as another just another new bar with a disingenuous name. Don’t.
The cozy, dark space has a patchwork of Persian rugs, a dark wood horseshoe bar, and a blackboard covered with whiskey lists organised by country of origin. A chef in an apron shucks oysters behind the bar; a bartender is often ladling fresh punch from a heavy vintage crystal bowl set on the bar. These vintage touches might remind you of a colonial tavern—the kind that once proliferate this historic city. You can order your old faithful from more than 75 whiskeys listed on the board. Or try a cocktail. Or three. The list is divided by drink style: Light & Refreshing, Swizzles & Smashes, Highballs & “Up” Drinks, “Down” Drinks, Shots and Combos. There are familiar formulas and imaginative riffs.
348 Congress StreetTel:
Consider, for a moment, your most memorable bar experience. Was it a visit to a legendary watering hole, Harry’s New York Bar in Paris or Keens Steakhouse in Manhattan? A session in a Shangri-la, like the Ben Nevis or Brandy Library? Your first drink at your local pub? After visiting Drink, you may revise your response going forward. The space, a 19th century wool factory’s basement, was retrofitted into an stark, organically stylish room, complete with exposed brick, raw ceiling beams and a white oak bar that meanders around hulking cement columns. It could be your standard retro-minded American bar, but it isn’t.
There is no back bar, with its regiment of familiar bottles lined up like soldiers ready for action. Nor are there televisions, which are as fundamental as water in Boston’s bars. There’s no formal cocktail menu, either. There are, however, bartenders who greet you with a glass of water and engage you in a conversation. Their intent: to collect enough information so they can provide a drink that perfectly suits your tastes—and mood.
Tell your cordial barkeep: “Dark and stirred, surprise me,” and you could end up with an unconventional riff on a Manhattan, punctuated with a brand-soaked cherry; tell her “bright, refreshing, traditional” and you might be served a Mint Julep, the ice freshly pounded to bits with a mallet in a canvas bag. Or just say: “a beer.” You will leave with renewed faith in the edict: Trust your bartender.
The Last Hurrah
Omni Parker House: 60 School StreetTel:
American history is a cornerstone of Boston’s tourism industry. But like many urban dwellers, I’ve never partaken in tourist activities in my own city. But I have seen countless crowds of Revolutionary War buffs paying attention to their period-dressed guide as they’re led down the Freedom Trail, a path through the city’s core showcasing sites where America’s nationhood took root. The window affords a fine view of the procession. Named for the 1956 novel about Irish politicians in a thinly disguised Boston, the wood panelled barroom blends elements of a well-worn vintage British pub with quintessential hotel bar class. The bar is only 11 years old, but given how long the hotel has stood (Charles Dickens read here on his first trip to America), the history is palpable.
Bar manager Frank Weber is one of Boston’s foremost whiskey authorities, and he keeps the bar stocked with the talked-about limited edition releases. In fact, his selection of malts and bourbons is so notable, this very magazine has recognised it as one of America’s best whisky bars. But take note: while you’re enjoying your spirit, spirits of another sort linger. The hotel is rumoured to play host to Victorian souls.
The Whiskey Priest
150 Northern AvenueTel:
All too many whisky bars are hushed, buttoned-up enclaves, or raucous shrines to rock’n’roll, Few are the establishments like Whiskey Priest. There are more than 100 whiskies to sample, but there’s a better reason to linger: the breathtaking panoramic vista. The far wall of this otherwise dark Irish-accented outpost that juts out over the Boston Harbour is made up of floor-to-ceiling windows. To the left: the historic Anthony’s Pier 4, an antique-looking restaurant, sits in the shadows of the new, sleek Institute of Contemporary Art. To the right: the majestic World Trade Center. Straight ahead: the Atlantic. Needless to say, a glass of Talisker and the ocean air wafting through the windows is enough to make you cancel your morning meeting and hop the next flight to Islay.
Illuminated crosses gild the ceiling, a winking tribute to the restaurant’s name, and a live music lends the place a festive air. Go hungry for dinner. There are classic Irish offerings, like Guinness Beef Stew and fish and chips, and all-American staples, like Reubens, burgers, salads galore. But if it’s a true Boston experience you’re after, it’d be sacrilege to miss the clam chowder.
117 East Berkeley StreetTel:
Far from the city’s well-trampled tourist trails on a once gritty (now gentrified) street by the highway is a bar that delivers a more authentic Boston experience than a visit to the Boston Tea Party site. JJ Foley’s is, according to legend (and, as far as I can tell, the record books, too), the oldest family-operated Irish pub in the nation. It’s in its 101st year, and Jerry Foley, a descendant of the eponymous Irish immigrant, Jeremiah J. Foley, can usually found behind the weathered mahogany bar. (If he’s not pulling pints, one of his sons is.)
As trends come and go and songs rise up the charts then vanish from the airwaves, Foley’s stands, unmovable as a citadel.
The pressed tin ceiling never loses its gleam, the local sports team is forever trying its best on the television, the Clash and Johnny Cash always sounds fresh on the jukebox, and there’s an endless supply of Jameson, Guinness and conversation. Indeed, this is not a traditional whisky bar, but it is an American tradition with a rich legacy.
The legendary 1919 Boston police strike was organized here. OK, I admit: I’m biased. I’ve lived in Boston for more than a decade and for as long as I can remember (rather – since I turned old enough to drink,) I’ve loved this bar.
And so do the local politicians, blue collar labourers, cops, and upstart ad execs who stand elbow to elbow at the long mahogany bar. In the original room, there are stools at the high-topped tables.
A second room with a kitchen was added a few years ago.
477 Cambridge StreetTel:
The staff at this retro-chic bar has an inside joke: the owners of the space decades ago knew how to build a bar, but not how to run one. The venue has changed hands over the years, but the dark bar and polished, carved back bar have remained. Exposed brick and handsome original furniture lend the room a stylish vintage appearance. Classic soul and retro-minded indie tunes on shuffle and snacks like deviled eggs enhance the old school charm. So do the many variations of the Manhattan on the menu. Together they compose a rough timeline, with each recipe suggesting different decade’s style. Or just order a bourbon on the rocks, and try to imagine life in the year that spirit rolled off the still.
Federal Wine & Spirits
29 State StreetTel:
If you buy whiskey, you know it’s most enjoyable to buy it from someone knowledgeable and enthusiastic about it. Conversation, along with a comprehensive selection, is found at this small, modest shop. There is no attitude in the narrow, cluttered store. You might be tempted to call it ‘scrappy,’ but one glimpse at the giant selection and it’s clear: Federal is a shimmering 18 karat diamond in the rough. Perhaps it’s the unpretentiousness that makes it appealing. Manager Joe Howell is rather evangelical about whisky. What better way to spread the message than to offer customers samples from his collection. “If people buy a bottle, it should be something they sit and enjoy, not just drink it because they paid for it,” Howell maintains.