a not-so-dry history of boston

[by john]

mike and i were treated last night to a history lesson like no other by lauren of drinkboston and adam of the boston shaker. the topic: drinking in boston through the ages. surprisingly, the lecture couldn't be summed up into 'the puritans frowned upon it and that dour streak continues to this day.' rather, lauren was able to spin a winding tale of intrigue, ups and down, colorful characters and...what's the word...hooch.

no offense to any of my past history teachers, but i have never been so absorbed with dates and dead people than with a drink in my hand. yes indeed, while lauren was serving up her narrative, adam was shaking ward eights and maharaja's revenges for all of the students. an apropos pair, too - the ward eight is boston's most famous cocktail invention, and the maharaja's revenge represents the new wave of cocktails (and uses rum, hearkening back on boston's huge rum trade).

here's the gossip column rundown of four centuries:

the early-bird puritans hit the scene, starting a church in 1632, the first tavern in '35 and some silly school in '36. priorities, people! taverns multiply like drunk rabbits, and function as inn-cum-courthouse-cum-post-office-cum-banks. the red lion is founded in the north end. george monk of the anchor embodies to the hospitable, community pillar image. women are seen behind the stick but not tippling, except for prostitutes! people drank ~6 gallons of pure alcohol per year, compared to modern day's measly ~3. applejack is the new it! just skim the ice off your cider... no wait, madeira is the new it! it ages well under harsh conditions... no no, rum is the new darling, yes rum has the title! boston gets the rum bug big because of the great shipping center. proto-cocktails form...punches and flips, but no ice yet.

we're just getting started - on to the 18th century! halfway through, there are 25 rum distilleries in the area, with medford's being best by far (what a little quality control does, folks). drink it and be seen with paul revere, that rabble-rouser. speaking of which, the beginnings of revolution get goin' when the brits want to tax the sugar we're using for allllll that rum. rebel! all the colonies meet for a photo-op saying they hate the brits, together. some little tea party (you didn't hear about it? very exclusive.) goes down with help from tavern owners. the first masons lodge is founded at the bunch of grapes. the royal exchange sees bostons first sword duel, and then the boston massacre on its steps. talk about bad press!

the 19th century hits boston hard, with growing pains, immigration, and (egad!) statewide prohibition. yes, prohibition swept massachusetts like a 23 year fad starting in 1852, with a little two year break where people could drink beer. underground drinking (in private club$ for the rich, and tenement jug rooms for the po' folk) drove crime and social ills underground with it. afterward (phew) taverns have windows, so you can see the debauchery. much better, ahh. the concept of a 'free lunch' with a drink starts up, but has nothing to do with the anti-happy hour laws today. liquor license numbers are limited, and still so today. doyle's starts up in jp. the new england society for the suppression of vice (new blog name coming!), aka the watch & ward society starts in 1884. basically beer 'n' burlesque hatin' busybodies. oh burlesque! boston had lots. believe it. fancy grand hotels like the parker house and the (now merged) locke ober open doors. the ward eight gets itself invented there. a hot ice craze hits, and ice begins export from new england ponds to britain, martinique, wherever! proper cocktails get invented in new england, joy!

the 1900's see the great molasses flood (not an onion headline - a humongous tank broke and killed 21 people), national prohibition (old hat by now, right, boston?), bohemia in beacon hill, creative bootlegging, and the rise of women visiting bars. finally. tragedy strikes again with the conflagration of the glitzy coconut grove. modern fire codes ensue. tiki was huge in boston in the 50's, fine dining catches on in the 80's, then wine, then craft beer, then cocktails at last when the b-side opens in 1998. and observational gastrophysics was founded in 2009.

whew, you would think i took notes! the audience, i should mention, was also rather knowledgeable with medford rum and speakeasy trivia.

i have a tad more respect for this town, now. not bad, boston. just fix the t schedule already.

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