It may sound like journalistic hyperbole, but from what I know, it’s true: bartender Misty Kalkofen — now of Drink, formerly of Green Street, the B-Side and the Lizard Lounge — has been there at pretty much every major moment of the resurgence of classic cocktail-making in Boston. She began at the beginning, first tending bar at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge while studying theology at Harvard Divinity School. She was the lead bartender for Saturnalia, a now legendary lounge music night run by the musician, deejay and cocktail aficionado extraordinaire, Brother Cleve, who sparked her interest in classic cocktails.
“Every Saturday night, he’d come and spin Esquivel, and all the hipster kids would get dressed up in their fancy dresses and suits and come down and drink Martinis and Manhattans,” she recalls. “Cleve had a different ‘cocktail of the week,’ which he would drink all night long, so by the end of each night, I’d have that recipe solidified. We did that for two years. He called me his protégé, bought me a bottle of rye whiskey, and we’d sit on my porch and drink Manhattans afterwards,” she says with a laugh. “I never looked back after that!”
Since that storied start, Misty worked slinging well-crafted drinks at two early Cambridge havens for traditional cocktails, the B-Side Lounge and then Green Street, before eventually ending up at Drink. But the move across the river was not her plan. On the contrary. “When I first heard about Drink, I thought, ‘I’m not going to work there. I’m just going to go to drink there,’” she says with a smile. “Then I came in the first time and saw the set-up and all the right tools and the ice and I thought, ‘Dammit!’” And, sure enough, she was soon behind the bar at Drink.
Of course, the finest tools and ingredients aren’t what makes a great bartender or great drink. A really good bartender needs to be able to roll with what’s available. “As a bartender, you have to be equally adept at making great drinks with the wrong ingredients and the wrong tools as making great drinks with all the right tools,” she says. “Because especially now with the opportunity to travel and work in different situations, you never know what the situation is going to be when you get there. Are they going to have a cold draft machine or not? Maybe they’ll have funky little half-moons that melt really fast. And you have to be able to work with that.”
Luckily, there is a decided lack of little half-moons when she tends bar here in town. And the positive side of her travels — and she travels a lot — is that she’s gotten to taste a lot of great spirits. Her current favorite? “Tequila and mezcal are my favorites,” she says without a pause. “Mezcal is such an amazing category [of spirit], where you have those bright agave flavors combined with the smokiness you would find in a scotch, sometimes some earthiness and, depending on where it’s from, sometimes tropical fruit as well. It’s just so complex and such an amazing category that is really misunderstood. It’s been my personal charge to turn that around.”
Being a good bartender is more than simply being a fine mixologist with a solid knowledge of spirits. It’s also about reading customers well. “There’s something really thoughtful and meaningful about tending a bar,” Misty says. “It’s not just about making the drinks, but taking care of the whole guest. It’s an opportunity to make people feel better every single day, from the moment they walk in to the moment that they leave and there’s not a lot of professions where you feel like you can do that.”
When asked to name a favorite drink, as most with most of the bartenders I interview, there is a long pause before the answer. But it’s an emphatic one. “I’ve always loved drinks that have some history and ritual to them,” she says, “so I’ve always loved the Old Fashioned, which is simple in terms of ingredients, but if you don’t take the time to do it right, it’s really not that good. If you take the time to do it right, it’s really complex. Obviously, the history behind it is amazing. And it’s a drink that you can take and diversify by changing the spirit involved. Lately, I’ve been making a bunch of Oaxacan Old Fashioneds with tequila, mezcal, agave nectar and different cocktail bitters. That’s been my cocktail of choice lately.”
3 oz. rye whiskey
1 cube Demarara sugar
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes orange bitters
Place sugar cube into a double old fashioned glass.
Saturate the sugar cube with 2 dashes of Angostura bitters and 2 dashes of orange bitters.
Muddle the sugar cube.
Add 1/4 oz water.
Continue to muddle until the sugar is dissolved.
Add 3 ounces of rye whiskey and ice.
Stir to encourage dilution to taste.
Garnish with lemon oil.
Check out more recipes from Misty, as well as other local bartenders in our 8 Drinks for New Years and Beyond.