I’ve seen a thing or two over the last half century, done a fair bit of living in my short time here. Am I a bit jaded? Probably. I guess it is true that the more you do, the less there is left to do, if you follow my meaning. That said, you’ve got to stay open to new experiences. That is what life is all about, learning, growing and being ready to take the next plot twist in stride and just go with it. Sometimes, life gives you lemons, how you respond to that is up to you. Which is how I found myself, with lemon in hand ready to explore an old drink for the first time. So, with a nod to serendipity and a flair for ubiquitous idioms, won’t you join me now as we stand and make the Ward 8.
While some would argue the exact provenance of this pre-prohibition classic there is no question that it hails from the streets of Boston’s Eighth Ward. There is general agreement that it was created to celebrate the election of the Eighth’s “Ward Boss” Martin M. Lomasney to the state legislature in 1898. The accepted lore says it was created at the Locke-Ober Cafe by Thomas Hussion, though another source attributes it to Billy Kane at the same bar and yet another says it was created by Charlie Carter at Boss Lomasney’s Puritan Club , years later in 1903. Though there is little agreement on who actually made it, or where or when, there is no doubt that it was born in Ward 8. Whatever the story may be, this a pre-prohibition riff on a classic Whiskey Sour that has graced menus across the world ever since.
To make this one grab your tin’s, preferably Boston Shaker style, and toss in 2 ounces of Rye Whiskey, I went with 100 proof James E. Pepper 1776 Straight Rye with a nod to the city’s revolutionary history, 1/2 an ounce of fresh-squeezed “provided by providence” lemon juice, 1/2 an ounce of orange juice and 1/3 ounce of grenadine. Add some artisanal ice and give it a good shake to Augusta’s “Boston“. When your tins are well chilled, use a Hawthorne strainer, also invented on Boston, to strain into a modified sour glass. Garnish with a luxardo cherry on a pick with a fresh, if well traveled, lemon quarter.
That’ll do just fine. There is a reason this one has shown such staying power. That 100 proof rye was the right call to stand up to the sweet and acid from the juices and grenadine. It is slightly sweet and almost perfectly refreshing. While it is not terribly complex, it is well balanced and surprisingly nuanced for a drink from this time period. It’s a nice throwback drink and certainly worthy of consideration on any menu. Toss it in there, make up your own tale of how it came to be, carry the story further, as one does.
I don’t know why I had skipped this one for so long, but I was reminded of it this weekend on a quick trip to the city of its birth. As I walked the streets of Boston’s North End in the old Eight Ward with my not quite sister, Jenn, we came upon something that gave us pause. Right there in the middle of the North Street sidewalk we found a single, pristine lemon. Out of curiosity, I felt compelled to retrieve it. This perfectly lovely large lemon was still cool to the touch and unbruised. We looked up and down the street and saw no evidence of further citrus treasures or hidden cameras, which was perplexing. Life had given us a lemon and frankly we did not know what to do next. I know there was an obvious answer but we did not have water or sugar or implements of construction, so we were at a loss. Should I put it back? Throw it away? Ask to speak to life’s manager? Or go the Cave Johnson route? Not knowing how to proceed, I just decided to carry it along with us. For the next several hours our lemon friend joined us for long walks and conversation. It was our guest for dinner at Parla, it even escorted us for a drink at Phillip Rolfe’s amazing Farmacia, before returning to our room to rest in the refrigerator. When the time came for me to leave Boston, I invited the lemon to return with me to Tennessee. Knowing that our relationship had an expiration date I considered what was best for my new friend and determined that I would help it reach its potential by transforming it into a cocktail and this Boston classic seemed like the obvious choice.
You hear the phrase “when life gives you lemons…” so often, but it was not something I was prepared for. Obviously, lemonade was off the table, but I felt obligated to do something, even if I did not know yet what that would be. I’ll tell you something else, carrying a single lemon in your hand while wandering will make folks look at you funny. It will also spark conversations with servers, managers and bartenders, some of which will find it suspicious and mention that they have lemons just like that, as they obviously begin counting their own inventory. I will say that no one offered to share any water or sugar with us at any point to help us solve our problem in the most obvious way. So we did things my way, life gave us a lemon and we made a cocktail. After treating it to a lovely night out and flying it 1,000 miles, of course. After explaining why I had a lemon in my luggage, being a very practical boy, my son suggested, that when life gives you a lemon…off the street…you should wash it. Advice that I was happy to take.
I always assumed that the larger lesson of life’s random lemon assignments was that you should make the best of any situation and I feel like we pretty well nailed that one. Sure, we could have left the lemon on the ground, made it someone else’s problem but where is the fun in that? You’ve got to stay open and accept what life throws at you, even when that turns out to be a mysterious citrus that holds the key to a classic cocktail. May life continue to confound, perplex and entertain as you stay safe, stay sane, and stay hydrated, my friends.