Meet Your Bartender: Drink’s John Gertsen

John Gertsen of Drink (All photos: Susanna Bolle)

John Gertsen is one of Boston’s most respected and talented bartenders. For six years, he manned the bar at No. 9 Park, developing a reputation not only as a supremely inventive mixologist, but also as an expert on the history of cocktails, particularly drinks from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, two years ago, with chef Barbara Lynch, Gertsen helped found Drink in Fort Point. The bar quickly established itself as one of the finest and most original in the city, if not the country. It’s a testament to the high regard in which he’s held in the local cocktail community that each of the bartenders profiled thus far in PRK’s Meet Your Bartender series has expressed admiration for his work behind the bar.

John Gertsen at work

It’s not just his technical skills–as formidable as they are–that impress. Gertsen is as attuned to the social elements of tending bar as he is to the finer points of mixing. “I think barwork is one of the few jobs where you get immediate gratification,” he says as we talk over the bar at Drink on a recent Monday afternoon. “You get an immediate sense of whether you’ve nailed it or maybe if you’ve missed the mark. For a long time, I considered working in a chemistry lab, but that kind of work never really gave me the same sort of gratification. If you were lucky, maybe four years down the road, you’d get  a little bit of gratification, if perhaps your drug sold.”

Drink is known for having bartenders with serious mixological chops. It’s also known for its top-flight ingredients, vintage glassware and custom ice cubes. But, in equal measure, it’s an experiment in rejiggering barroom sociability. Famously, there’s no cocktail list at Drink, no shiny array of bottles behind the bar. It’s just you and your bartender. The concept is that your order will emerge out of conversation with your bartender about your likes and dislikes, mood, etc. “People sometimes are hung up on the concept, but it’s really about simplification,” Gertsen says. “Occasionally, people get nervous and say ‘I don’t know what to drink — there’s no cocktail list! But it’s right here.” He points to the invisible thread connecting customer and bartender. “Let’s talk. Let me find something for you.”

John Gertsen pours a Sazerac

With its high concept and sleek, modern decor, Drink is very 21st-century, yet still steeped in traditional cocktail culture. This is not just a result of Gertsen’s historical bent (he is known for his almost encyclopedic knowledge of classic drinks). It’s also true of the drinking scene in Boston and the Northeast as a whole. “In the summer, we have all sorts of different fresh fruits: now we’re getting New York State sour cherries and a month ago it was native strawberries. But we’re not exactly San Francisco with Alice Waters and her amazing everything-is-local-and-regional-and-wonderful. We’re Boston. We know what our limits are as far as produce is concerned, so we find strength in older drinks; drinks from the 19th century; drinks from the 20th century.”

It’s only fitting that Gertsen picks the Sazerac, a classic cocktail from New Orleans, as his favorite drink. “Every time I have one it puts a smile on my face. Everyone here at Drink can tell you what my favorite drink is. On the surface it looks great. It’s this bright red color and it looks wonderful in a nice glass. I think it’s a drink that almost anyone can love. We sell a lot of them. If I had a desert-island drink, this would be it.”
In his version of the Sazerac, Gertsen uses a muddled sugar cube, rather than simple syrup, which cuts down on the sweetness; Herbsaint, rather than absinthe; and only Peychaud’s bitters, rather than a mix of Peychaud’s and Angostura. The result is a subtle, delicately balanced drink with a beautiful, rusty-red hue. Gertsen describes it as “like that nice, quiet voice that you want to get closer to.”

Sazerac

Don’t be put off by his detailed instructions. The drink is really quite simple. With a Sazerac, the heaven is in the details.

Sazerac

1 sugar cube, muddled in .25 oz. water
7 dashes Peychaud’s
3 oz. Old Overholt Rye Whiskey
Herbsaint rinse

  • store one 10 oz. double old fashioned glass in the freezer
  • place one medium sized (5-7 grams) sugar cube into a mixing pitcher/glass
  • add 7 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
  • muddle cube with bitters
  • add .25 oz water
  • muddle again
  • measure 3 oz. Old Overholt Rye
  • “wash” muddler with approximately .5 oz rye
  • stir the rye, bitters, sugar, water solution to incorporate
  • add ice to mixing pitcher/glass (Gertsen recommends using various sized ice cubes)
  • stir
  • pour .25 oz. Herbsaint into chilled glass and swirl to coat
  • drain the excess
  • strain the chilled rye, water, sugar, bitters mixture into rinsed glass
  • squeeze a strip of lemon peel (yellow side facing glass) over glass
  • take a deep breath
  • take a sip
  • repeat as necessary

7 thoughts on “Meet Your Bartender: Drink’s John Gertsen

  1. Carrie S.

    The Sazerac is one of my favorite drinks as well (and served as my gateway to the wonderful world of whiskey). I love the idea of Herbsaint in place of absinthe…guess I know what to order next time I’m at Drink!

  2. MC Slim JB

    Nice profile! John is indeed a great bartender and cocktail historian, and also deserves recognition for the training and hospitality culture he created behind the bar at No. 9 and continues at Drink. It’s not just about technical chops, but making customers feel welcome, cared for, loved. We’re lucky to have him and the team he has put together here.

  3. David Ayer

    I want to second MC Slim JB’s comment about making customers feel welcome. Aside from being an outstanding mixologist, John is a consummate host. One is made to feel like a guest in his home. Between the atmosphere John has created, his wonderful staff, and the amazing creations, Drink is hands-down my favorite spot anywhere.

  4. Pingback: Drink Bartender Featured by Public Radio Kitchen | FP3 Boston Condos

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