Archive | November, 2012

Music Monday Mixtape: Turkey Drop Edition

26 Nov

“Take Care of Yourself” – a projection of a breakup email received by artist Sophie Calle

It’s been four months since I started graduate school and I’m still adjusting. Not only is the life of a grad student quite different from my several years in the 9-5 cubicle life (how I miss those paychecks!), but differences between an undergraduate education at a public behemoth like UCLA and the experience of a grad student at an Ivy League deserves a blog of its own.

One thing that hasn’t changed from my transition from undergrad on the West Coast to grad school on the East Coast is the Turkey Drop. If you’ve never experienced the time-honored tradition of the Turkey Drop, it is when someone in a relationship starts school, and after months of struggling with the distance, the relationship ends when the couple reunites for the first time around Thanksgiving. I remember being trained as a Resident Assistant at UCLA on how to deal with an influx of breakups among my residents.

Sadly, several of my beautiful and brilliant friends went home this past weekend fearing that they would fall victim to this phenomenon. Knowing that words can only do so much, I decided to make a mixtape. Before I joined the indie masses scouring Pitchfork for music news (and to a lesser extent Paste), I wasted countless hours of my youth on whose mantra is “Music Mends Broken Hearts.” With that universal truth in mind, here are 30 songs to help you on the road to recovery.

Download the mixtape here

The above image is by French artist Sophie Calle who received an unexpected breakup email from her lover. She didn’t know how to respond to the letter, so instead she gave the letter to 107 woman of different professions and asked them to interpret it in their own way. It resulted in a dancer interpreting the letter through dance, a teacher correcting the letter’s spelling, and a secret service analyst encoded the letter, etc…

In Sophie’s in words, “I received an email telling me it was over. I didn’t know how to respond. It was almost as if it hadn’t been meant for me. It ended with the words, ‘take care of yourself’. And so I did. I asked 107 women, chosen for their profession or skills, to interpret this letter. To analyze it, comment on it, dance it, sing it. Exhaust it. Understand it for me. Answer for me.  It was a way of taking the time to break up. A way of taking care of myself.”

To my friends near and far who are experiencing heartbreak, please take care of yourself and remember that I’m always there for a hug or a stiff drink.

Weekend Reading: Nov. 23, 2012

23 Nov

Damien Hurst Skull

For the Love of God by Damien Hurst: A real skull with 8,601 diamonds


Gold, Golden, Gilded Glittering: Representations of Value, or the Unexpected Double History of Banking and the Art World

This brilliant piece about high art and finance by Sarah Lawrence College Professor Rachel Cohen is lengthy, but the best thing I’ve read this week.

“Suddenly people began to see paintings as representations not only of age-old values but of future values. And once they began to look at them that way, it mattered less how much time they’d withstood the test of. What people became interested in was not what the pieces were worth a hundred years ago but what they might be worth tomorrow. All through the twentieth century, prices for contemporary artwork were rapidly catching up to prices for works by old masters. Now, the first time a Damien Hirst is sold, the price is at a level only the greatest works of the past have achieved after being sold and resold for a century or more.”

Diversify or Die: Why the Art World Needs to Keep Up With Our Changing Society by Ben Davis at Art Info

“Among those who frequented art museums, a stunning 92 percent identified as white, and only 16 percent identified as a minority… It would represent a huge failure of vision, however, if art were to remain confined to just the cultural group that originated it, and could never transcend this context… Culture at its best should be about the dialogue by which diverse strands of thought become relevant to diverse people, and that is a matter of actively connecting art to the realities of people’s diverse lives. Right now our cultural sector seems to be failing at that mission, to its own detriment.”

Bruno Munari on Design as a Bridge Between Art and Life by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings

“The designer of today re-establishes the long-lost contact between art and the public, between living people and art as a living thing. … There should be no such thing as art divorced from life, with beautiful things to look at and hideous things to use. If what we use every day is made with art, and not thrown together by chance or caprice, then we shall have nothing to hide.” Bonus: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Hollywood Bowl



9 Musicians Discuss Chronic Illness by Max Blau at Paste

Patrick Stickles, lead singer of one of my favorite bands Titus Andronicus, discusses his struggle with Selective Eating Disorder. There are 1,400 known cases of SED and the cause is unclear. He’s eaten the same 15-20 foods in his life and “I have never eaten a meal that was not a disgusting chore.” Is it a disease of the brain, a response to manic depression, or a result of his parents hiding Ritalin in his food when he was four years old?

“For example, Selective Eating Disorder is my disease, but the practicality of living with it has resulted in me having certain bulimic tendencies. How does that work? Well, you remember how I said my eating disorder makes eating, even eating my ‘favorite’ foods, a waking nightmare? Well, that leads me to put off doing it for as long as I can. The fact is, though, my body knows it needs food, so when I do finally open up the gullet, usually well after midnight, my body says, ‘At last!’ and next thing I know, I am at the tail-end of a full-blown binge, and physics being what they are, you can only binge for so long until you purge.”

Watch Titus Andronicus perform “Food Fight!” and “My Eating Disorder” in a Brooklyn Pizza shop

The Best Cocktails of 2012 by Tasting Table

Some great recipes in there, including the Fino Swizzle by Boston’s The Hawthorne.

Every Dollar Oyster in Boston by Eater Boston

This article sells itself. I see copious amounts of oysters in my future.
News and Policy

King David: Why Generals Shouldn’t Run the CIA by Stanford Professor Amy Zegart

“The American military prides itself on having a hierarchical, can-do culture. When the boss gives an order, subordinates are expected to follow it, no matter how great the odds of success or how dangerous the circumstance… The CIA has a different cherished value: speaking truth to power. Analysts and collectors are supposed to present information and assessments even if they know the boss won’t like it. No one salutes inside Langley…

It is also telling that Petraeus didn’t sleep with just any woman. He slept with his ‘biographer,’ someone he knew would be likely to write hagiography. Broadwell had no writing credentials but plenty of hero worship. That should have raised some red flags as well as eyebrows: A man who selects someone so unqualified to speak the truth of his own life might have difficulty speaking truth to power or rewarding others who do.”

Napster, Udacity, and the Academy by Clay Shirky

Napster disrupted the music industry, and the music industry never adapted. Will higher education adapt to cheap online education?

“Higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or MOOC), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup.

We have several advantages over the recording industry, of course. We are decentralized and mostly non-profit. We employ lots of smart people. We have previous examples to learn from, and our core competence is learning from the past. And armed with these advantages, we’re probably going to screw this up as badly as the music people did.”

No Laughing Matter: A Look at the European Debt Crisis Through Cartoons a video by PBS
“Lee Buchheit, a lawyer who helped mastermind Greece’s debt restructuring earlier this year, and investor Hans Humes explain the wrangling behind-the-scenes of Europe’s debt crises to economics correspondent Paul Solman, all with a little help from some cartoonists.”

States as Laboratories for Marijuana Policy by UCLA Professor Mark Kleiman at

“But those of us who try to study the issue scientifically find ourselves in a world of doubt. How much lower would legal prices be than current illegal prices? If there were heavy taxes, how much evasion would there be? Would buyers in a legal market favor possibly more dangerous high-potency varieties, or would lower-strength products dominate the marijuana market as beer dominates the alcohol market? Would legalization greatly increase problem marijuana use? Use among teenagers? (That might depend on the price.) Would there be an increase in auto accidents due to stoned driving? Would problem drinking decrease – or increase – as result?

All of those questions matter. None of them can be answered by abstract reasoning, or by studying small variations in marijuana policy such as decriminalization of possession for personal use. The only way to find out how legalization would work in practice is to actually try it.”

Can the 24/7 Sobriety Project Reduce Problem Drinking and Improve Public Health? by RAND’s Beau Kilmer

“Alcohol consumption can impose enormous health and safety costs on individuals and society. Problem drinkers account for a disproportionate share of these costs. Although millions of problem drinkers pass through the criminal justice system each year, reducing their alcohol consumption has proven difficult.

South Dakota’s innovative 24/7 Sobriety Project requires those arrested for or convicted of alcohol-involved offenses to take twice-a-day breathalyzer tests or wear a continuous alcohol monitoring bracelet. Those who fail or skip their tests are immediately subject to swift, certain but modest sanctions—typically a day or two in jail.”

Boston Bakes: Chile Olive Oil Charity Bake-off

11 Nov


(Clockwise l-r) Fig pudding cakes from Treats on Washington, brioche donut from Sofra, and citrus cupcake from Isabelle’s Curly Cakes

The Chilean Association of Growers and Producers of Olives and Olive Oil recently went on a three city tour to promote the country’s robust olive oil industry. Recognizing that hosting a simple olive oil tasting is probably a tough sell, they got creative and threw an excellent free event in Somerville. In addition to sampling Chilean olive oils,  attendees enjoyed free wine and FIVE desserts. The winner of the charity bake-off was honored with a $1,000 donation made in their name to Boston Bakes for Breast Cancer. The only guideline was that each baker needed to incorporate one of the Chilean olive oils into their dessert.

Jaime Davis No. 9 Park Pastry Chef

No. 9 Park Pastry Chef Jaime Davis

Boston Bakes for Breast Cancer founder Carol Sneider was in attendance, sharing the moving story of how she started the charity 14 years ago. When Carol was 16, she lost her mother to breast cancer. Her family’s history of breast cancer combined with having a daughter of her own, she felt compelled to do something. Thanks to her passion and dedication,  hundreds of Boston restaurants will once again offer diners an opportunity to support breast cancer research by enjoying a dessert from from May 6-12th.

Carol Sneider and Chilean Olive Oil met thanks to the magic of Twitter, but I wonder if the embattled Todd English was another connection. English is a friend of  Boston Bakes, a promoter of Chilean Olive Oil, and his sister lost a battle with breast cancer.


No 9. Park: Vanilla olive oil bavarian cake with grapes, almonds, and celery

My favorite dessert of the night was courtesy of No. 9 Park Pastry Chef Jaime Davis. Her vanilla Bavarian cake swapped in tahini and olive oil instead of butter. The naturally sweet and bold olive oil flavor complemented the candy almond and celery. The olive oil sweet jam was the winning touch. At excellent restaurants, sometimes people get carried away with apps, cocktails, and entrees, that they forget to save room for dessert. If this dish is any indication, that is not a mistake you want to make at No. 9 Park.


Treats on Washington: Fig pudding cake

Another great dessert was a fig pudding cake by Brighton bakery Treats on Washington. The bakery was started by long-time friends Dana Briley and Jessica Brown who met at the Culinary Institute of America in 2000. Their olive oil pudding cake with black mission figs and citrus glaze made for a beautiful and memorable treat.


Isabelle’s Curly Cakes: citrus cupcake

The biggest surprise of the night came from Isabelle’s Curly Cakes. I almost skipped the table altogether because I’m not a cupcake fan (I’m a muffin guy, what can I say?). However, out of fairness, I tried their citrus cupcake with spiced buttercream frosting. I’m so glad I did.


Isabelle’s Curly Cakes: Blood orange curd surprise!

Upon investigation, it was filled with a delicious blood orange curd! Curly Cakes got a close second place on my scorecard.

I wasn’t an official judge, however. That difficult task was left up to Bianca Garcia of Confessions of a Chocoholic, Karen from Fussy Eater, and Susan from Food Service East. They awarded first place to  freelance chef Jon Sargeant. His dessert had some truly great elements, but he suffered from a lack of editing. After his dessert was introduced, he corrected the announcer, saying that he had been inspired in the kitchen and started adding more and more ingredients. Ahh, it all made sense. The olive oil cake with
creme fraiche, cranberries steeped in olive oil, blueberries, orange, basil, rosemary – I wasn’t able to keep up with the long list of ingredients.

Also generously participating was Sofra in Cambridge. Sofra made the brioche donut with salted caramel glaze (in first picture). I’m not a big salted caramel or brioche fan, so it wasn’t my favorite – but that’s by no fault of their own. I absolutely can’t wait to go this week and see what else Sofra has to offer. It’s been recommended to me by several of my most trusted dessert advisers.

This wasn’t my first time nerding out about olive oil. In addition to attending my fair share of olive oil tastings and festivals, I was fortunately enough to learn about olive oil from Tom Mueller, the guy who literally wrote the book on it.

An excerpt from my review of his book launch at Fig & Olive:

“…Olive oil has played an important symbol throughout history: babies used to be slathered in olive oil during baptisms, and it was olive oil that would  in baths and gymnasiums.

“Olive oil has played a significant role in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.  ‘In Israel it is obvious that Hanukkah is connected with olive oil,’ said David Eitam, director of the Olive Oil Industry Museum in Haifa, Israel. ‘The famous miracle in 165 B.C., when Judah Maccabee and his brothers found a drop of oil to light the candelabra in the Temple in Jerusalem, was not soy or vegetable oil. It was olive oil, common in Israel from the time of Adam and Eve.’ In addition to lighting, olive oil was used for fuel, medicine, cooking, and ablutions on priests during the biblical period. In the Qu’ran, Prophet Mohammed also drenched himself in olive oil. Other uses of olive oil throughout history includes cosmetics, preservatives, weaving, aphrodisiacs, and contraceptives.

“Today of course, we are more familiar with olive oil in the kitchen. There are 200 active ingredients in olive oil, offering important health and nutrition benefits. There are also 700 different kinds of olives.”

Just as Chilean Olive Oil and Boston Bakes connected through Twitter, I heard about this event through the same magical tool. It was a unique and decadent event – just the type of surprising night that is making me fall in love with this chilly city.

Election Night 2012: Brick & Mortar Goes Red, White, and Blue

9 Nov


At least we can all agree that cookies deserve bi-partisan support

The excruciatingly long presidential campaign finally came to end this week, and it wasn’t a moment too soon. Not only was I tired of government officials and policy experts telling me that “this issue can’t get addressed until after the election,” those incessant Scott Brown YouTube ads kept interrupting my Kendrick Lamar music video marathons. I was ready to party.

The night began as many of my best Cambridge nights have: at Brick and Mortar in Cambridge’s Central Square.  This bar was on my radar long before I departed LA, so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that it was within walking distance of my new home. From the first time I eagerly hopped up the stairs and saw the arched copper bar shimmering in the dim, exposed brick cocktail sanctuary, I knew that I had found something special.


Brick & Mortar’s Drink the Vote: White

The vinyl’s always spinning, the bar food is simple and delicious, and you can count on the crowd to be lively but never out of control. The atmosphere alone would be enough to make it worth a visit if it was simply a neighborhood bar offering Miller High Life and a shot of whiskey. However, this is not one of those bars. This bar has Misty Kalkofen.

Misty is one of Boston’s greatest gems. She first found herself behind the stick while earning a Masters in Theologian Studies at Harvard. She’s since honed her craft at B-Side Lounge, Green Street, Lilli’s, West Side Lounge, Tremont 647, and Drink. When her friend Patrick Sullivan was ready to open the bartender’s bar Brick and Mortar last year, Misty left Drink to re-team with the B-Side Lounge founder.

Misty continues to be important force in raising the profile of Boston’s cocktail scene. In 2007, she founded the Boston chapter of Ladies United for the Preservation of the Endangered Cocktail (LUPEC), a cocktail society that raises money for local charities while “Dismantling the patriarchy…one drink at a time!” As a vocal admirer of strong, talented, no non-sense women behind the bar, it should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of LUPEC’s mission and efforts.


Brick & Mortar’s Drink the Vote: Red

A current cocktail trend is to use as many ingredients and techniques as possible. Why just add a tobacco tincture when you can add liquid smoke and carbonate it? Brick and Mortar takes a different approach, the same kind I try to adopt at home: serve creative and interesting cocktails using only a few ingredients. There’s no hiding here behind fancy tricks – it’s all about balancing flavors.

And if you’ve ever wanted to learn about mescal, find yourself a stool at the bar when Misty’s working (your best bets are Mon-Wed) and order a Slow Dance with Pedro Infante. Normally my first order at Brick and Mortar, it seems deceptively simple but this smoky, bitter mistress just steals my heart every time.

A Slow Dance with Pedro Infante

1.75 oz. Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal
3/4 oz. Gran Classico
1/2 oz. Averna

Stir with ice and pour into a chilled cocktail glass.


Misty Kalkofen shakes up some patriotic drinks

Election night is typically a slow night at bars, so Misty was thrilled when local beer brewing heroes Pretty Things expressed interest in throwing an election event. If you came election night wearing an “I Voted” sticker, you got a gorgeous Pretty Things pint glass, pin, and sticker.

More importantly, you got to order the election night beer cocktail specials. On the menu were three cocktails featuring Pretty Thing’s flagship brew Jack d’Or.

White: Gin, pastis, lemon, and Jack d’Or. 

Red: Scotch, Velvet Falernum, beet, lemon, and Jack d’Or.

Blue: Light rum, blue curacao, pineapple, lemon, Jack d’Or.


Last Word for Murray Stenson & Finishing the Hat Trick w/ Blue

Despite all being topped off with the same beer, each cocktail was remarkably different in flavor (as well as color, obviously). If you weren’t expecting good news on election night, the White was for you. You can blame the bitter taste in your mouth on the anise-flavored pastis liqueur instead of the election not going your way.

Blue was a bit more familiar: tropical and easy drinking for those having a great night.

My favorite of the night was Red, a scotch drink featuring beet juice that made you stand up and take notice. While I often resist asking such obvious questions, I just had to ask: what was the inspiration for featuring beets? I’m so glad I asked. I was rewarded with an envy-invoking tale of Misty’s trip to the Chartreuse Mountains. The French liqueur Chartreuse is made by Carthusian Monks and is a must-have in my homebar. Misty not only got to visit the distillery, but she got to meet the two monks that each know half of the heavily guarded secret recipe. One of the last cocktails she had on that visit featured beets, and she’s been toying with how to use the ingredient ever since.


Yes We Cake from Harvard Kennedy School party

After my friend and I finished the Red, White, and Blue beer cocktails, it was time for a little green. My last cocktail of the night was pre-determined: The Last Word featuring gin, chartreuse, lime and maraschino. In addition to being one of my favorite prohibition-era cocktails, Brick and Mortar was donating a portion of the proceeds of each Last Word to a fund for the ailing bartending legend Murray Stenson. You can also enjoy an excellent Last Word while helping Murray at the Hawthorne, as I did recently. If you really want to drink for a good cause, you should join me at JM Curley’s on Sunday night for “This One’s for Murray.”

It was time for me to make my exit, but as luck would have it, one more Jack d’Or was in my near future. Treasure Tip: sometimes it pays off to go up and say hi to someone you’ve only met virtually. After a couple of drinks, I decided to say hi to Todd Alstrom who I had only met on Twitter. In addition to being a co-founder of online beer rating bible Beer Advocate, he’s also a Central Sq local, friend of Pretty Things, and all around nice guy who I found out later bought beers for the first 20 people to find him.


Eagerly awaiting the election results, while our host enforces her rule that every guest wears a temporary red & blue stars tattoo

It was hard to say goodbye so early in the night, but I was ready to join my friends for a viewing party in The Forum at the Kennedy School of Government. There was more heated discussion about who had a crush on whom than the validity of Nate Silver’s forecast models, but I got my fill of nerding out. It was time to jump back on my bike and see what the Australians were up to.


How policy grad students watch the election: jambalaya, Funyuns, & lots of craft beer

As it turns out, the house full of Australian students were more excited about the election than anyone. After too many beers and a regrettable amount of Funyuns later, Obama finally gave his victory speech and I headed home around 1:30 am.


Love how the foreigners at the party were more excited and emotionally invested than us actual voters

Now that the election is behind us, maybe we can tackle pressing issues like the EU debt crisis, Syria, and Iran while avoiding falling off the fiscal cliff. If we don’t find a resolution to avoid the debilitating cuts that seems to worry Europeans more than us at home, you’ll be able to find me hunkered down in Brick and Mortar drinking away my woes.

Brick and Mortar
569 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02139

Election Season Gets Bloody: Exploring the Legacy of Andrew Jackson through Song at SpeakEasy Stage

6 Nov

A version of this article originally appeared in The Citizen newspaper

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson SpeakEasy Stage

Andrew Jackson (Gus Curry, far left) takes on the Washington Establishment (from left: Joshua Pemberton, Ben Rosenblatt, Tom Hamlett & Ryan Halsaver) Photo courtesy of Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

There may be no better political theatre than the creative storytelling and mythmaking broadcast live 24-hours a day during the current presidential election season, but SpeakEasy Stage’s production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson comes pretty close for those of us who just can’t get enough horse-racing and realpolitik. Instead of suffering through songs by Toby Keith, 3 Doors Down, and Taylor Hicks at Romney campaign rallies, audiences of this political pageantry get to enjoy a fist-pumping emo-rock score while exploring the legacy of our blood-letting seventh President.

On the surface, the musical attempts to answer the question posed by our wheelchair-bound, pink Crocs wearing narrator, “Was Jackson a great president, an American hero or a genocidal murderer?” The brawling, dueling, slave-owning Andrew Jackson became a national hero for his role in the War of 1812. Tired of an unresponsive bureaucracy controlled by northeastern elites who ignored the needs of Americans on the frontier, Old Hickory attempted to bring the presidency to the people. With a corrupt system mobilized against him and facing seemingly impossible challenges including the “Indian Problem,” the audience must accept the uncomfortable task of exploring the legacy of the founder of the Democratic Party.

At the show’s core, however, is an attempt to address the role of populism in our present day political system. When writer Alex Timbers and songwriter Michael Friedman first proposed an emo rock musical about King Andrew I and adolescent America in 2006, it was really meant to poke fun at President George W. Bush. When Jackson is denied the presidency in 1824 despite winning the most popular and electoral votes in 1824, it’s hard not to think of Bush v. Gore during “The Corrupt Bargain” musical number.

“John Calhoun says, ‘We need to find a scheme to keep the power in the hands of the chosen few.’

John Quincy Adams says, ‘If my dad was president, I should get to be president too.’

Henry Clay says, ‘I’ll make you president if you make me Secretary of State.’

Alexis de Tocqueville says something in French that none of us can translate.

All you educated people, you can talk of liberty. But do you really want the American people running their own country?… Let’s Dance!”

When I saw the musical’s world premiere in Jan. 2008 at the Kirk Douglas theatre in Los Angeles, it seemed like perfect commentary for the populist campaigns of Huckabee and Edwards. When the show made its journey from LA to Off-Broadway and then On-Broadway in 2010, it seemed like sharp commentary on the rise of Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers. With the Obama and Romney election coming down to the wire, there’s no better time to experience the play that explores what it means to be an American and the challenges of being a direct representative of a divided people.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson SpeakEasy Stage

Andrew Jackson negotiates with Indian tribes. From left: Evan Murphy, Joshua Pemberton, Gus Curry, and Tom Hamlett. Photo courtesy of Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

Don’t let me give you the wrong impression. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is not all talk of corruption, the spoils system, and the forcible relocation of Native Americans during the Trail of Tears. For every uncomfortable truth we are forced to confront about our bloody history, there’s a couple cheerleaders making out in the Oval Office and an irreverent couplet like, “Would you like to see my stimulus package? I’m gonna fill you with Popula-jizz-m.”

Normally relegated to the director’s chair, this project allowed writer Alex Timbers to embrace his inner history nerd (he studied at Yale, but we won’t hold that against him). With allusions to Reagan’s Morning in America ads, political activist Susan Sontag, and French philosopher Michael Foucault, there are plenty of Easter eggs for the political nerds among us. Songwriter Michael Friedman uses the rock and post-punk score to explore the politics of pop music as well as the role of pop music in politics. The Green Day musical American Idiot will surely come to mind when enjoying the loud, irreverent songs and nasal delivery throughout Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but this musical benefits from actually having something to say.

The Boston premiere of the most relevant show this political season features a comically gifted cast under the direction of Paul Melone and an electrifying set designed by Eric Levenson. Musical director Nicholas James Connell does a commendable job as bandleader, but his solos fall a bit flat in comparison to the laudable vocal performances by the rest of the cast. Gus Curry possesses the intensity, rock star presence, and vocal talent to pull off the challenging role of Andrew Jackson.

The Era of Jacksonian Democracy may be long gone, but the legacy of the deeply controversial and complicated veto-wielding President is still unsettled. The script continued to evolve as new scholarship emerged on this polarizing figure responsible for expanding our territories and preserving the union, as well as the deaths of countless Native Americans. Jackson may be on the $20 bill, but his role in shaping our current political system often goes unnoticed. It’s about time this important period in our nation’s history got the pop-culture treatment. As the show’s poster promises, “History just got all sexy pants.”

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs through Nov. 17 at the SpeakEasy Stage, Boston. Tickets are available at with student rush tickets available for $14 at the Box Office window an hour before curtain.

Boston Cocktail Summit: Do You Speak Amari?

1 Nov


14 Amari for breakfast? I think I died & went to my own booze-soaked heaven

My most-anticipated class at the inaugural Boston Cocktail Summit held in October was “Do You Speak Amari,” and it did not disappoint. Having the opportunity to try over a dozen different amaro in itself was enough to make it a worthwhile event, but it was presenter Franceso Lafranconi who made it my weekend highlight. The warm, knowledgeable, and charming Franceso started behind the bar in Northern Italy when he was 18. He now serves as National Director of Mixology & Spirits Educator at Southern Wine & Spirits of America and gave an informative and polished presentation.

So what is this amari I keep talking about? Literally meaning bitter in Italian, an amaro is an Italian bitter herbal  liquor. It is considered a digestive that is usually consumed at the end of a meal.

The process begins with selecting the herbs and spices  that will give the amaro flavor. Fernet Branca, for example, is a blend of over 40 herbs and spices. These herbs and spices are then ground and pressed in order to extract the active compounds. The next step is infusion and filtering or maceration. This mixture may then go through a partial distillation. A dark and bitter extract is then obtained, filtered, and mixed with sugar.


My good friend & fellow writer from LA “The Minty” checking out the bottles of amari we tried

While all amari share basic characteristics like bitter botanicals, a minimum ABV of 15%, and sugar content under 10%, certain dominant ingredients and flavors can be identified with a little attention. Cynar and Fernet Branca have long been must-haves in my home bar. Cynar was developed in 1952 and is made from an infusion of artichoke leaves. Cynar is a favorite among bartenders when adding a bitter element to a cocktail, and it’s inclusion in a drink typically makes it a must-order for me.

Created in 1845 by Bernadino Branca, Fernet Branca is the #1 selling digestive in the world. It’s ubiquity has lead to the common misconception that Fernet is a brand, but it is actually a category of amaro with several new Fernet liquors entering the market. We had the opportunity to try Fernet Luxardo, which was developed in the 1960’s and is higher in alcohol content and lower in sugar than Fernet Branca. Coming in at 90 proof, Luxardo is strong on licorice, cinnamon, saffron, and the flowering plant gentian (which is also featured in Angostura bitters and Aperol).


Amaro Averna is also one of the most widely available amari. Created by an herbalist friar in 1868 as a healing bitter elixir, it was either given by the monks to Salvatore Averna as payment for help, or the stolen recipe was bought by Averna from someone at the monastery. Either way, this lower proof and sweeter amaro now leads the amari market in Italy and remains in the Averna family. At 58 proof, this almond, orange, and liquorice-forward elixir is good anytime.

Another amaro you may have encountered at a well-stocked bar is Rabarbaro Zucca. Featuring steamed rhubarb and weighing in at only 32 proof, Zucca has been enjoyed as a before dinner spritzer since 1845. I can’t wait to experiment with it in cocktails after Francesco shared some good pairings: lemon, strawberry jam, and gin.


Also on our tasting menu were some less-commonly seen amari. Perhaps the most unique, and most bitter, was Amaro Sabilla. Founded in 1868 by Girolamo Varnelli, the company is still in the Varnelli family. 30 herbs and spices are heated in a wood fire to a boil with honey from the Sibillini Mountains, water, and alcohol. The micro batches are stored for six months in stainless steel tanks and yield a 68 proof honey and gentian-forward amaro. Just a few dashes of Sabilla in a cocktail will add a bitter & honey touch. I shared Francesco’s appreciation for the beautiful logo and bottle, and he was kind enough to arrange for the company to send me a poster. And yes, it was sent by a Varnelli.

Amaro Sibilla by Varnelli

I’m excited to get my hands on a bottle of Nonino Quintessentia. Once we were told it paired great with ginger beer and ale, as well as Prosecco cocktails, I knew a trip to a North End liquor store laid ahead. Made with grape distillate and stored in sherry oak barrels, it features orange and liquorice root notes.


We were among the first in the US to try this amaro

Francesco still had one surprise up his sleeve. We were among the first in the US to try the Braulio Amaro Alpino – definitely worth seeking out amari lovers.


The class was sponsored by market leader and king of cool Fernet Branca. A drawing for a Fernet bike captured the hearts of so many of us cocktail nerds.

I do not recommend recreating my first amaro experience. My friend accidentally bought Fernet Menta instead of the more common Fernet Branca. After a particularly heavy home-cooked meal, he was pushing shots in order to drain the bottle and provide justification for purchasing another bottle of Fernet. Fernet Branca is already pretty mint-forward, and Fernet Menta was a straight minty punch to the face for my uninitiated palate. Yet, after a big meal the next day, I was craving a sip of Fernet. It hasn’t been the same since – I’m currently sipping on Fernet Menta as I write this post.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a bus to the North End to catch so I can buy a few new amari favorites.