All aboard the booze train
The Amtrak Downeaster — it’s been getting more and more Portlanders to Boston and back every year since 2001. With over half a million passengers last year, and round trips at less than $50, it’s no wonder the train’s become the best way to catch an event at the Garden or just spend a day wandering around Bean Town. Beginning next month, it’ll go up to Brunswick, too.
I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the expansion of the line than a day trip and drinks. Drinking may not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering a train trip, but that shouldn’t be the case. The seats in coach are roomy, and each has an outlet for your gizmos and free Wi-Fi (to conserve bandwidth, video streaming is not allowed). What better way to relax on the ride than with a cold brew or a Rum & Coke while picturesque autumnal New England whips by?
I settled in, waiting for the conductor to take my ticket in that antiquated fashion. A few moments later the train started to move, and they announced passengers could make their way to the Cafe Car. A decent selection of snacks and breakfast items are available, all under $3.50, as well as a handful of lunch options, made fresh daily and delivered by Amato’s. Some hot items — burgers, dogs and the like — are available for a few bucks, but they’re of about the same quality as you’ll get at a 7-11. Beverages include coffee, juice, soda and milk, plus a small selection of canned beer (Budweiser products) for $4 and a rotating stock of bottles (Shipyard, Sam Adams, Geary’s) for $5.
Luckily, there’s liquor. Amtrak’s bar stocks Absolut, Bacardi, Baileys, Captain Morgan, Grand Marnier, Johnnie Walker Red, Kahlua, Maker’s Mark, Seagram’s 7 and Tangueray. They all cost $5.75 and are offered in nips, which, at just over an ounce and a half, approximate the average pour in bars around town. Mixers are included in the price, making Downeaster cocktails a pretty good deal — certainly cheaper than drinks at the first dozen bars you’ll find in Boston. Take advantage and pre-game.
Since you’re being handed a nip and a mixer, there’s no real mixology happening, but I found one decision interesting, and it’s something fellow bartenders and home cocktailians would be wise to note: ice size matters.
You see, a serious mixologist puts some thought into the size and shape of their ice. Your average-sized cube from the freezer tray or commercial machine is designed to cool a drink with an acceptable measure of water diluting the mix during consumption. This is perfect for the vast majority of soft drinks and mixers, but when a drink is primarily spirit-based (think Long Island Iced Tea or rum punch), shaved ice is preferred, as its quick melting makes the booze-heavy drink more palatable. Conversely, big chunks melt slowly, making them the ideal rocks for your scotch or whiskey, when you want only the slightest bit of water to open the bouquet of your libation.
The bartender poured my Bacardi into a 12-ounce plastic cup filled with big cubes destined to do little in the way of dillution. I topped it off with as much Coke as could fit, maybe four ounces. This made for one stiff tasting drink, like what a bartender serves a favored patron. It’s an easy (and sneaky) way to make riders feel special.
The Cafe Car has a half dozen four-person booths, but the fit can be a tight squeeze. The gap between seat and table is pretty slim, and I noticed more than one uncomfortable passenger. Plus, above the booths are low-set overhead racks that I managed to slam my head against three times while getting in and out.
Anyway, drink in hand, I headed back to my comfy coach seat for the remainder of the ride, looking forward to reading a good book. Unfortunately, all I had was Drinking in Maine, a new book by writer Michael Sanders and photographer Russell French.
As I flipped through the 128-page volume, I was disappointed by the shallow format. There’s little to distinguish Drinking in Maine from the piles of cocktail books that have flooded the market in the past decade. The standard page spread is a photograph of a drink opposite its name, a list of ingredients, a note on its preparation and, more often than not, not nearly enough background on the cocktail’s genesis or the bar where it can be imbibed.
French’s photographs are wonderful, but Sanders misses many opportunities to convey the unique cocktail culture of Maine. The drinks that wear their Maine influence on the rim (blueberries, maple syrup) seem like novelties made for tourists. There isn’t enough material about the other concoctions to satisfy your curiosity. The personalities of the mixologists and their establishments are lost to the reader, who is directed instead to Web sites for more information.
That said, the eight sections in which Sanders profiles artisinal producers are exceptional. It’s here that he gets inspired, providing interesting and informative material about distillers, vinters and other local producers. These days, when almost any cocktail recipe can be conjured on a cell phone in seconds, it’s segments like these that set a cocktail book apart.
— Carl Currie