There I am, sipping a Super Massive Black Hole on a chilly winter evening in Salem and finding the experience surprisingly warm and calming. The blended scotch and clove honey are almost sending me to a glowy place, despite the cocktail’s name, which hints at more of an existential angst. Naming cocktails is just one aspect of running a good bar program, and it stresses out even the best mixologists. I recently spent time with the lucky people who get to manage four of the top bars right here on the North Shore. Each is passionate about cocktail ingredients, no matter what you call the final result. Each of these talented folks has also shared four cocktail recipes for you to try at home.
Opus – Salem
Sean Powers is 30 years old and a five-year veteran of Opus in Salem. “It’s been a wild trip,” he says of working his way up from barback to bar manager. As a Salem native, he’s proud of both the eclectic bar crowd at the 50-seat underlit circular bar and the electric drink names, such as the Jagged Edge (recipe below). Learning the ins and outs of gin, bourbon, and whiskey fueled this young mixologist’s curiosity to know more. He mentions other legendary bartenders at Opus, who have since moved behind bars in New York City and Seattle. Former Opus mixologist Ramona Shaw, celebrated in this magazine as top bartender on the North Shore, has published Straight Up, a book about the bartending life.
My Super Massive Black Hole was created by Powers, using what he feels is the secret to good drinks: the shrub, which is an old New England way of preserving fruits and other ingredients. This cocktail takes fresh blueberries from the Salem Farmers’ Market and mixes them with sugar to break them down. The mixture is then infused with thyme and white and balsamic vinegars and is left to rest for about three weeks, since it takes time for the ingredients to get to know each other.
As for the eclectic crowd, Powers says, “That’s the most fun of living in Salem. We get all different age groups and walks of life. One night it’s all college kids trying to get in High Lifes before going out dancing. Or a nice couple who want to geek out about cocktails, and then late-night folks from the industry from Ledger and Adriatic.”
For a young guy, Powers is surprisingly comfortable with the subtle lingo of Salem life and of the Opus Underground, the cozy bar and entertainment space downstairs from Opus. He boasts that the LGBTQ nights include a “slightly witchy” drag show every second Thursday, and that the Sunday night burlesque shows are “very body positive.” When he finishes for the evening, Powers likes to go to the Lobster Shanty. “I’m a very seasonal drinker and I’m a very moody drinker,” he says. “Sometimes it’s gin for a straight week, and then I’ll go off to rum. Every once in a while, I’ll make something wicked crazy at home.”
2 oz. Hine cognac
1 oz. Braulio amaro
1/4 oz. Overproof rum
1/4 oz. Acha tino sweet vermouth (or other high- quality vermouth)
Stir all ingredients in a shaker and then strain into a coupe glass. No garnish needed.
2 oz. Habanero tequila (Add about 6 habaneros, diced, per liter of blanco tequila. Let sit 3 days or to taste.)
3/4 oz. Fresh lime juice
1/2 oz. Orgeat
1/2 oz. Aperol
Shake all ingredients together and strain into a rocks glass over crushed ice. Top with 4 dashes of Angostura bitters.
Short & Main – Gloucester
At Gloucester’s Short & Main, I sip the season in a glass—a delicate, curvy vintage glass at that. This is a frothy, tasty, copper-colored concoction made with rye, maraschino liqueur, lemon, ginger, and sage. The name for this award-winning drink? The New Rider. Bar manager Christa Manalo says with a laugh, “I hate naming cocktails. It’s a major shortcoming.”
But Manalo doesn’t seem to come up short on anything else. She is part of the California crew who have descended on Gloucester in the last decade from Chez Panisse in Berkeley to open both The Market at Lobster Cove in Annisquam and Short & Main in downtown Gloucester. Manalo has been managing the bar at Short & Main since 2013. Since her start at “a loud bar on the Jersey Shore,” her career as a serious mixologist has taken her to a jazz bar in Philly, a cocktail bar in the Mission in San Francisco, and a brief stint in Brooklyn before coming to Gloucester.
Today, through her other job on a flower farm in Essex, she is the one behind the stunning 6-foot-tall flower arrangements at both The Market and Short & Main. When she can’t find what she wants for the bar in official ways, she forages. For the exceptional glassware at Short & Main, she goes to thrift stores and pays about a dollar per glass.
“We’re not ordering something from a restaurant supplier who is going to send us something in bubble wrap,” explains Manalo, who is dedicated to keeping her sustainability values. “There’s a like-mindedness to all of us who decided to work here or live here,” she says of the staff at the two restaurants. “It’s being really interested in what you’re serving, the farm it comes from, the seasonality of it. Whether it’s important to health and lifestyle. It goes beyond this or that farm-to-table trend. It’s the way we live. We all go to the farmers’ market and we know the farms.”
As we’re talking, a woman runs up to greet Manalo, and says that upon first tasting her margarita, she knew a real cocktail bar had come to Gloucester. (The message being that margarita mix is truly evil.) The atmosphere here is relaxed at the handmade oyster shellbar with dollar oysters and a 900-degree pizza oven. On Monday evenings, customers can bring their own vinyl for the bartender to play. There’s a creative spin on Sunday brunch, with avocado toast and baked eggs coming out of the hot pizza oven.
But cocktails are never far from her mind, says Manalo, adding that they begin with a syrup, a fruit, or an in-season herb. Short & Main has several bottles of amero, an Italian liqueur flavored with things like artichoke or rhubarb, with a distinct herbal, bark-like flavor.
“I have that one ingredient and know that would go well with this or that,” she says. “It’s all about the layering of the flavors and bringing that into balance.
The New Rider
3-4 Sage leaves
4 dashes Angostura bitters
2 oz. Rye whiskey
1 oz. Fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz. Fresh ginger syrup
1/2 oz. Luxardo maraschino liqueur
1/4 oz. Raw cane simple syrup
Combine all ingredients in a mixing tin, shake, and fine-strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a sage leaf.
1 full Stem rosemary
2 oz. Rye whiskey
1 oz. Lemon juice
1 oz. Honey solution (1:1 honey + water)
3/4 oz. Plymouth sloe gin
4 dashes Absinthe
Strip 2/3 of the rosemary stem and drop the leaves into a mixing tin; reserve the remaining sprig. Combine all other ingredients in the tin, shake, and fine-strain over 3-4 ice cubes in a Collins glass. Garnish with the rosemary sprig.
Brine – Newburyport
Like her counterpart at Short & Main, Shelley Goff started her bartending career at a much more dive-y place than where she is now. She worked at Daisy Buchanan’s on Newbury Street at the age of 17. They didn’t ask her age; this was old-school. In between there and here, she worked at different bars in Brooklyn. Also like Manalo, Goff went to school for journalism, and believes it must be that these writers turned mixologists are like-minded: They’re independent and good at talking to people, and they don’t like to be told what to do.
At Brine in Newburyport, where Goff has been manager for 18 months, she makes everything in-house, including infusions like the shrub. At Brine, bartenders don’t mess with cocktail names, partly because they got too racy. “I personally love not having to name cocktails,” says Goff. “The references can be too obscure, or, worse, no one is going to get the joke.”
At the white marble bar under cool industrial light fixtures, I sample the No. 35, a boozy drink made with Daron Calvados, which is a French apple brandy, bourbon, pomegranate, raw local honey, and apple-sage bitters. The No. 47 is the perfect December drink, and goes down too easy; it’s made with a spiced orange shrub that includes apple cider vinegar, Deacon Giles spiced rum from Salem, maple syrup, and ginger beer.
For Goff, the key to a good cocktail is balance. The restaurant’s focus on oysters, crudo, and chops keeps the place honest and intimate when you belly up to the small bar for a drink. “If it’s going with oysters, nothing can be too heavy or sweet, or too strong or cloying,” says Goff. “It cannot overpower delicate fish or caviar.”
The bar world is increasingly reflecting the restaurant world, says Goff, by thinking more about sustainability and being more locally focused. “People have realized that you can make your own infusions. Most markets have their own local liquor now. It went from a gin and tonic and now you see things on Instagram that make you think: ‘What, how long did it take you to make that one drink?’”
Her advice to someone who wants to bartend? “Don’t go to bartending school. Get a job in a restaurant, whatever job they’ll give to you. They’ll never hire bartenders who have no experience. Start barbacking. Some bartenders get their jobs because they are the only front-of-house person who showed up.”
The N. 35
1 oz. Bourbon
1 oz. Calvados
1/2 oz. Local honey
1/2 oz. Unsweetened
1/4 oz. Fresh lemon juice
Shake all ingredients together, serve up with an orange twist.
Island Creek Oyster Bar – Burlington
While these other bartenders have decades of experience put together, Vannaluck Hongthong is relatively new to mixology. A native of Long Island, Hongthong and his wife would visit high-end NYC cocktail bars because of her passion for fine cocktails. But when she sought juleps at Kentucky Derby time, he ordered a beer. In his mid-30s, things changed. Hongthong, then a contractor foreman by day and restaurant server by night, went with his wife to the Baldwin Bar in Woburn to celebrate their July birthdays. One thing led to another, and soon he was hired and on the other side of that bar, a testament to his warm personality and charm.
“I now have great friends I would not have made had I not made them a good drink first,” says Hongthong.
Now bar manager at Island Creek Oyster Bar in Burlington, he pours me a beautiful and oh-so-drinkable cocktail made with Ransom Old Tom gin, sage-infused honey syrup, and lemon to balance out the sweetness. The syrup on its own tastes like the stuffing from a Thankgiving turkey. The drink, called Give Thanks, was created by one of his six bartenders, Zoe Killion.
Hongthong likes to challenge his staff, and focus them, by giving them one ingredient to build a drink from. Danna Warmann wowed him with her response to the prompt to make something carrot based for the fall menu. Her carrot shrub, mixed with orange juice and Amaro Montenegro is still unnamed—as it turns out, nobody likes naming drinks—but is unmistakably delicate, earthy, and soft.
“I speak in vague generalities and they come up with something really great,” Hongthong says. “It’s such a great creative outlet, and the results are pretty instantaneous.”
Sometimes the impulse to jam more ingredients in isn’t the way to go, he says, which is why the classic three-ingredient cocktail of base spirit, sugar, and citrus is such a beautiful thing. Not everything is harmonious in a glass together. Sometimes adding sugar doesn’t make a drink sweet, but brings it more into balance, says Hongthong. It’s more about understanding how everything works as a whole, he says.
Asked what makes a good bar, Hongthong says his goal is to be hospitable, while making good drinks with no pretension. “People seem to care more about what’s in the glass than who is in front of them, but you can do both,” he says. “You can make a really great connection. Some bartenders have lost their way. People come for the connection. They come for the interaction. Sometimes you forget that the first bartenders were there listening to how much their customers hate their job. These bartenders knew how to fix people’s problems. You went to your bartender for everything. You trusted your bartender.”
1 1/2 oz. Rittenhouse Rye
3/4 oz. Lemon Juice
1/2 oz. Averna
1/2 oz. Maple Syrup
2 dash Angostura bitters
Shake, double strain.
Pour into a coupe glass.
Lemon Twist for garnish.
1 1/2 oz. Old Monk Rum
3/4 oz. Galliano Ristretto
3/4 oz. Maple Syrup
2 dash Xocolatl molé bitters
1 pinch Salt
1 whole Egg
Add all ingredients and whole egg and dry shake (shake without ice.) Add ice and shake well. Double strain into a rocks glass. Grated nutmeg as a garnish.