POG Island


Take On: Rum Highball
Origin: Highball Lounge, Downtown

When you want to feel like a kid again, you ask the bartender for a Shirley Temple, giggling like an idiot. You don’t go ordering a twelve dollar cocktail.

The exception to this rule is at the Highball Lounge, a big, lavish funhouse of a bar on Tremont Street downtown. Here, you can drink a Manhattan—and a good Manhattanover a round of Hungry Hungry Hippos, or Chutes and Ladders, or whatever your sad, nostalgic little heart desires. Trust me, they have it. The bartenders at Highball don’t feel much like growing up, either.

“Have you ever played the game POGs?” asked head bartender Shaher Misif, whose business card, just so you know, is a pocket-sized rubber ducky with his name on it. I had just ordered Shaher’s highball off the drink list, which—just so you know—can be viewed using one of these. It’s a juicy, spiced rum drink called the POG Island. And to answer his question, yes, like anyone who was blessed with a 90s upbringing, I have played POGs. Just ask my sister—we traded those cheap, colorful little paper discs like they were gold, or bricks of cocaine.

It was a magical time.

“The first POG pieces were actually juice caps,” Shaher told me last Thursday. “It was this drink from Hawaii made with passion fruit, orange and guava, which is what POG stands for.”

For the POG Island, Shaher took that same fruit mixture and put it in a highball cocktail, using the bar’s own house-spiced rum as the base. Now, for the sake of clarity (which is important when you’re writing about drinking), a classic highball is any liquor topped with soda—a thing of pure destiny. From Jack-and-Cokes to Gin-and-Tonics, it may be the oldest, simplest, and most immortal kind of drink, a favorite among high schoolers and hard-drinking aunts alike. Even celebrated cocktail bars have made a special place for the layman’s highball, stocking tonic bottles from craft companies like Fever Tree and Fentimans. Lone Star Taco Bar of Allston and Cambridge can top your rum with Mexican coke, which, if you don’t already know, is made with actual sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup, and comes in a pretty glass bottle.

The highballs at Highball come in a glass bottle, too—they’re pre-carbonated in house for quick, easy pouring. It’s a neat gag, but it’s also strategic, as the bar can get more lively than a jungle gym, even on weekdays (apparently after a day at work in the Financial District, drinking just makes sense).

“We get everybody,” Shaher told me, just as a young couple, or perhaps two people freshly sprung from a J. Crew photoshoot, sipped delicately from their cocktail glasses next to a string of stocky finance men, all of whom had taken off their ties and were drinking from absurdly tall Budweiser cans.

“We get a lot of cocktail enthusiasts, and a lot of locals who just want to hang out. Not everyone is on their phones, either. It’s really interactive here,” said Shaher. “If you’re interested, we can tell you a lot about the drinks, or cocktail history in general. But we’re not in your face about it. If you want, you can play some board games and drink a great drink, and just enjoy your time.”

Speaking of great drinks, it’s time for a highball.

The POG Island is a cheesy tourist’s idea of a rum cocktail, and in the best possible way. It’s rich and tropical—it tastes, for lack of my own creativity, like an island. Usually when I drink alone, which these days is rather often (you know, for the blog…), I feel a little bit older with each sip, and not in that first-beer-with-the-Old-Man kind of way. When I drink a POG Island, and especially more than one—well, I can’t say I feel any younger. But I do think of a time when I was. I think of POGs.

“We want to be a nostalgic kind of bar,” said Shaher, “Not like a classic cocktail lounge. We want to take people back to a certain place.”

If they can do it with a twelve dollar cocktail, that’s magic for you.

. . .

POG Island
adapted from Highball Lounge

1 oz Highball Lounge spiced rum **
2 oz POG (pineapple, orange, guava juice) ***

At Highball, they force carbonate and bottle the whole drink, then serve it in a highball glass over ice with a mint garnish. You probably cannot do this. Instead, just build the drink in highball glass, fill with ice and top with soda water. Garnish with the toy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle of your choice.

** Unfortunately, the Highball bartenders closely guard their spiced rum recipe. Didn’t anyone ever tell them about “secrets, secrets”? Anyway, here’s a recipe from Imbibe. As an easier route, try Sailor Jerry’s or, if you’re feeling nostalgic about getting blitzed in your parents’ basement, Captain Morgan’s.

*** For this, you can either buy the juices and mix them at equal ratios, or even better, squeeze them yourself.

Follow Shaher Masif on On the Bar here! Or watch him blow your mind to smithereens, here!


Donga Punch

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Take On: Tonga Punch
Origin: Audubon, Fenway

You can’t order a craft cocktail at a Red Sox game, and for good reason.

Of course, New England sports fans don’t need any added help getting obliterated by the time “Sweet Caroline” detonates midway through the eighth inning. But when you’ve got two-hundred sweaty Sox fans waiting in line for a twenty dollar cup of alcohol, you can’t spend forever muddling, measuring, shaking, and straining each drink without getting a Papi-signed baseball thrown straight at your head.

For the bartenders at Audubon, a sleek, modern cocktail bar and kitchen on Beacon Street just blocks away from Fenway Park, not only is this a reality—it’s a challenge as regular as fruit flies.

“During baseball season, if you put something on the menu with a ton of ingredients, you can’t expect people to wait,” says Taylor Knight, who presided over Audubon’s stone, smoke-grey bartop last Wednesday. “There’s no shortage of spirits for us to play around with here, but you’ve got sixty people out there who don’t expect a drink to take twenty minutes.”

Sports bars everywhere have strong-armed this problem with sour mix, Jack-and-Cokes, scorpion bowls, and of course, buckets of Bud Light (cocktails are for chicks anyway, bro). Audubon’s bartenders can hustle plenty, but they’ve found ways to preserve a quality cocktail program while they’re at it. Their most innovative solution is to batch classic highball cocktails like the Paloma, a tequila-grapefruit drink that’s adored in Mexico, and carbonate and bottle them, thus removing the step of topping each drink with soda.

One day Taylor was looking to create a tiki-style drink for Audubon’s summer menu using the house-made grapefruit syrup they carbonate for the Paloma. He thought of Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the cocktail historian who helped revive the mid-century tiki craze that gifted us with the Zombie, the Mai Tai, the Jungle Bird, and other drinks best served in a pineapple. One of Berry’s greatest accomplishments was to decipher the closely guarded syrup recipes of Don the Beachcomber, the tiki guru whose 1930s Hollywood nightclub had stars like Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin buzzed on Daiquiris and Planters Punches.

In his book Potions of the Caribbean, Berry unearths “Don’s Mix” as a combination of fresh grapefruit juice, vanilla, allspice and cinnamon. Drawing inspiration from the two tiki legends, Taylor dreamed up a cocktail using the Paloma’s grapefruit syrup—which comes from both the juice and the peel—a house-made cinnamon syrup, lime juice, and a blend of rums.

“We never want to have eight Manhattan variations on the menu, even if they’re really good. We wanted something bigger and juicier,” says Taylor. “From there, it was just figuring out what rums to use.”

He ended up with two amber rums out of New England, Privateer and 8 Bells, and Old Monk, a darker rum from India that would bring out the vanilla notes included in Don’s Mix. The three rums are blended and put in a single bottle, which means you can order a serious, six-ingredient cocktail on game day without waiting six innings to have it made. Good thing—Taylor says it’s a pretty popular drink.

He named it the Donga Punch because, coincidentally, it ended up resembling a classic drink from another mid-century tiki master, Trader Vic. His was the Tonga Punch, and “Ton” rhymes with “Don,” or something like that. Truth be told, Taylor didn’t put much thought into it.

“When you name something quickly and it becomes popular, sometimes you really regret that name,” he says. “One day I realized Donga Punch kind of sounds like donkey punch.”

If you don’t already know what a donkey punch is, sorry—my research stops here.

. . .

Donga Punch
adapted from Audobon

1 1/2 oz rum blend (8 Bells, Privateer Amber, Old Monk)
1 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz grapefruit syrup **
1/2 oz cinnamon syrup ***

Add all ingredients to mixing glass, add ice and shake. Strain into lowball glass over fresh ice, and garnish with a little umbrella—it would make the beachbums proud.

** To make the grapefruit syrup, combine:

1500 gm sugar
600 gm fresh grapefruit juice
100 gm grapefruit peel
75 gm citric acid

Let it sit for a little less than a week, tasting occasionally. When it tastes ready, strain into a lidded container and refrigerate. It’s tiki time.

*** For the cinnamon syrup, combine:

25 gm cinnamon sticks
1 qt water
1 qt sugar (approx.)

Crack the cinnamon sticks and add to boiling water until they dissolve. Add sugar equal in amount to the final volume of the water and cinnamon, then stir until dissolved. Fall’s coming—why not put it in a cocktail?

Follow Taylor Knight on On the Bar! Click me.

Hojoko Piña Colada

Take On: Piña Colada
Origin: Hojoko, Fenway

You don’t have to be a teenage girl in Montego Bay to enjoy a frozen piña colada. You can have a cocktail blog, too.

Hojoko, a new, manically Japanese tavern attached to the Verb Hotel near Fenway Park, serves a frozen colada you can drink with your pinky lifted. The pineapple juice comes from a pineapple, not a metal Dole drum, and it’s mixed with sugar and Japanese rice wine vinegar to create a shrub. In the history of drinking, and not just booze, shrubs were a way to preserve fruit juice before anyone had ever heard the words General Electric. In cocktails today, such as in the Hojoko piña colada, bartenders use shrubs as a sweetener that’s not just sweet; the vinegar also brings out the tartness of fresh fruit.

“We wanted our piña colada to be something that would pair well with our food,” says Joe Cammarata, who co-manages the bar at Hojoko alongside Daren Swisher, formerly of Jm Curley downtown. “We go through tastings with the chefs. Rice wine vinegar goes well with sushi and other things on the menu.”

I’ve never been to Tokyo, but I think I got a taste of the weird neon jungle when I visited Hojoko last Thursday. It’s like being inside of a Hello Kitty bento box—every room is square and low-ceilinged, and the walls are decked with clusters of stylish, candy-colored Japanese toy dolls with grinning cartoon faces, all of which seem to converge onto the projection screen at the rear where they play a loop of dazzling Anime movies (last Thursday was Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke).

The bar at Hojoko is long and lime-green with pink and yellow straws poking out of their caddies, like a 1950s tiki dive in Palm Beach. Behind the bar, a row of “tanks” filled with florescent-colored batched cocktails and bobbing rubber dolphins promise a mean but delicious hangover, while a slushie machine, decorated after Hello Kitty herself, stands ready to ooze out my drink, the wonderful Hojoko piña colada.

On top of the homemade pineapple shrub, Hojoko’s colada is elevated by its blend of Carribean rums (Plantation 5 Year from Barbados, plus Wray and Nephew, a white overproof rum from Jamaica) and its house coconut mix, a blend of equal parts coconut milk and Fluff, a strange marshmallow cream with an even stranger cult following all across New England. The stuff was even invented right here in Union Square, Somerville, which hosts the annual Fluff Festival, a celebration featuring artists, musicians, games, and a Fluff-focused cooking contest.

Why in the hell am I talking about the Fluff Festival? Because that’s where Joe Cammarata first used Fluff in a cocktail. Before Hojoko, Joe worked at Backbar, the acclaimed Union Square speakeasy where, during the festival each year, the bartenders dream up drink specials that incorporate Fluff. Now Joe has brought that little experiment down to Fenway for the Hojoko colada.

“Real coconut milk is unsweetened, so the Fluff makes it sweet and adds this creamy texture,” Joe says. As a garnish, Joe torches a skewered marshmallow before your eyes, Hibachi-style, and perches it on the rim of your glass, which at Hojoko may range from a simple Irish coffee-style glass to a tiki mug carved into a giant, upside-down toucan (often reserved for another tiki classic on the menu, the Jungle Bird).

“I want everything to be thoughtful,” says Joe. “Tanks and levers make bartending easy, but it should also be something you actually want to taste.”

Who would have guessed that Boston’s most honorable cocktail was a slushie? Somewhere behind the bar at Hojoko, a little painted doll is bowing.

. . .

Hojoko Piña Colada
adapted from Hojoko

1 1/2 oz Plantation 5 Year rum
1/2 oz Wray and Nephew white overproof rum
1 oz pineapple shrub **
1/2 oz fresh pineapple juice
1 1/2 oz coconut-Fluff syrup
Pinch of salt

Blend all ingredients with 1/2 cup of ice and serve in the strangest glass you own. Garnish with torched marshmallow. Piece of cake.

** For the pineapple shrub, combine 5 parts shucked pineapple to 5 parts sugar and 4 parts rice wine vinegar, letting it sit for as long as you can stand.

Follow Joe Cammarata and Daren Swisher on On the Bar! Click here and here, respectively.