Craft barman Jackson Cannon recently returned from a trip to Holland. He wasn’t there admiring windmills or tulips. He was on a mission to learn about and find the world’s best genever.
Soon a specially selected batch of this distinctive Dutch malt wine — produced by Amsterdam’s storied Bols Distilleries — will arrive at The Hawthorne, the ritzy Kenmore Square cocktail lounge co-owned by Cannon. Exclusively bottled for The Hawthorne, the genever will be of the “highest standard,” Cannon says.
Cannon has been traveling the world, in fact, looking for the very best spirits to fill his bar, which is located in Boston’s Hotel Commonwealth. He’s gone to Mexico searching for tequila and to France to find cognac.
“I like to see things at the source,” says Cannon, who also heads the bar programs at sister establishments Island Creek Oyster Bar and Eastern Standard.
“I can provide context for the staff and our guests that’s a lot deeper for having been there.”
While other craft cocktail bars are promoting spirits from the newest, hottest local micro-distilleries, Cannon is taking a wholly different approach.
He won’t necessarily procure, say, whiskey from the closest supplier. After all, “I can get the best whiskey in the world,” he says.
“At the risk of sounding gauche, why wouldn’t I buy the best money can buy?”
And that’s the philosophy behind this buzzing 5-month-old hot spot. Serve the world’s finest products, and guests will follow. And they have — in droves.
Although all this may sound a bit pretentious, Cannon is actually working against the snobbery that has become inextricably linked with craft cocktail making, he says.
So while others are obsessively fashioning house-made syrups, tonics and tinctures, Cannon often uses — heaven forbid — purchased ingredients.
“We’re trying not to be caricatures of ourselves. We’re moving away from that,” says Cannon, who — for a good laugh — recommends the viral mixology parody “S*#t Bartenders Say.” (See below.)
“Why should I make my own bitters?” he asks, noting that he has 16 fine varieties at his disposal.
“I’m not going to work six weeks to replicate something just to say I made it.”
Cannon also wanted to distinguish The Hawthorne from the ubiquitous and expected “small speakeasy craft cocktail bars.” Thus the decision to open a “fine, luxury hotel bar” in the building’s lower level with business partner Garrett Harker.
Cannon, who remembers the thrill of lunching at New York’s Algonquin Hotel as a teen, knows the draw of a hotel cocktail lounge.
“For Americans, it’s an accessible [form] of grandeur, wealth and sophistication,” says Cannon, whose bar was designed to look like a luxury penthouse apartment.
There was one thing the barman wanted to change about the hotel cocktailing experience, however.
“You rarely get a great cocktail in a hotel bar,” says Cannon, who was inspired to develop a thick book of world-class spirits and expertly prepared drinks. Guests also receive a “bookmark” of featured specials.
Cannon’s cocktails are highly spirit driven and are “very simple, classic and traditional.” Although some feature fresh fruit juice and other ingredients, most focus on the base liquors. That’s because his preferred spirits “are filled with flavor.”
“They all exist in a way that they can be appreciated on their own,” he says.
Upfront in his book are a range of vermouths, sherries and amaros, libations about which Cannon is particularly enthusiastic. He offers them straight or mixed into classic drinks such as the Bronx (Cinzano Rosso vermouth, gin and fresh-squeezed orange juice – $11) or the Tuxedo (amontillado sherry, Noilly Prat dry vermouth, orange bitters, Angostura bitters, lemon twist – $13).
Frequently-changing bookmark drinks feature original creations, “nouveau classics” and nods to other noted mixologists.
The Phil Collins ($11), which I sampled during my visit, is the brainchild of Boston barman Scott Marshall. The “easy lover” — get the joke — is a tangy, unexpectedly gin-y blend of organic cucumber-infused vodka, chartreuse, lime and [store-bought] bitters.
Although Cannon and his staff are mixing up some fairly esoteric offerings, guests — from cocktail aficionados to newbies — “all feel part of the party,” he says.
Adds Harker, who also disdains cocktail snobbism: “From the person who is into the cocktail craze to someone who wants a vanilla vodka and soda, we will work with them.”
500A Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, Massachusetts 02215