Take on: Whatever
Origin: State Park, Kendall Square
Writing about drinking is me in a nutshell. The State Park Cocktail—a curious mixture of hard rye, pungent amaro and cheap beer—is State Park, the bar, in a bottle of Miller High Life.
First, the drink. The rye is Rittenhouse, a 100-proof bartender’s favorite that makes for a killer Sazerac, or a round of shots that could potentially kill you. The State Park barstaff batches Rittenhouse with Braulio, an Italian amaro of the rich and herbaceous Alpine family. When someone orders the State Park Cocktail, a High Life is cracked, a splash of beer is poured out—approximately two ounces, for the homies—and the rye-amaro batch fills the bottle back up. To complete this strange, surprisingly refreshing beverage, a sliver of lemon peel is dropped in for a bright aromatic touch.
The State Park Cocktail—a high-concept tipple with a twist-off cap—is class in disguise, like George Clooney in a pair of work boots. This is exactly the concept behind State Park. It’s dressed up like an idyllic dive bar, with more time-worn Budweiser signs than a Milwaukee junkyard. There’s a sign on the pool table that prohibits players from resting their cigarette butts on the rails (ah, those were the days), and the jukebox plays actual CDs—that’s compact discs-–ranging from vintage country-western albums to a more East Village dive selection of punk classics and old-school rap.
The kitchen plays along, too, with bartop staples like pickled eggs and popcorn. Except the popcorn here is lightly coated in chicken fat and dusted with rotating house-made seasonings, from salt and vinegar to barrel-aged Tabasco mash. And that’s how it is: the closer you look, the more you’ll find State Park is not really a dive bar—it’s a restaurant as well crafted and meticulously detailed as anything you’ll find in the South End, or anywhere else in Cambridge, for that matter. The only difference is, it’s actually kind of fun.
Co-owner Evan Harrison puts it this way: “We have really world class European beer, but we also have a Surfer on Acid on our menu that’s made with Jaegermeister and coconut rum.”
When the place opened, Evan worked on the State Park Cocktail with co-owner Alon Munzer, who was fixated on serving a signature cocktail built in a High Life bottle. The Pegu Club had its Pegu Club, but what about a bar that loves cheap beer?
Beer cocktails were nothing new at the time—the French had been spiking their lagers with Picon, a bitter orange liquor unavailable in the States, for decades, Evan tells me—but most American bartenders were using beer as a modifier, not as the base of a drink. Evan says he got his inspiration, in true State Park Fashion, from a piss-drunk hillbilly.
“I had just watched this scene from a movie where this redneck gets out of his truck—wasted—and cracks a beer, takes a slug of it, pulls out a bottle of moonshine and pours it into the beer,” says Evan. “It was kind of funny to think of beer cocktails in that sense.”
From there, it just was deciding which beer to use, and what “hooch,” says Evan, his north Texas roots slowly surfacing.
“We tried to make French 75s in a bottle, and it tasted kind of like shit,” Evan says. “But that’s where the lemon peel came from. We really liked Braulio because it was a little bit orange-y like Picon, but more bitter and aromatic, and it stood up to all the sweetness of Miller High Life.”
For the hooch, the State Park team turned to Rittenhouse, which may not be pure moonshine, but at a spicy 100 proof, it’s close enough.
When the State Park batch is poured into the High Life, it floats at the neck of the bottle like some terrible Dark and Stormy variation (“White and Trashy,” perhaps). But when you take your first sip, the rye and amaro run their course through the bubbly liquid, turning the beer’s signature urine-gold sheen into something more complex, dark and unrecognizable—pretty, even. That’s as close as I can get to describing the taste, too.
One of the more adorable items on State Park’s drink list is a tall can of Hamm’s, another beer for the working man, to which you can add a “secret” shot of whiskey poured right into the can’s mouth. The idea is that, if you were an actual working man (in Kendall Square, work is done in expensive labs, not coal mines), the wife wouldn’t want to see you drinking your troubles and pennies away with whiskey, so a secret little shot from your sympathetic bartender lets you get plastered without getting slapped in front of your friends.
The State Park Cocktail, in some ways, serves a similar purpose, if your friends are the kind to drink cheap beer not out of necessity, but out of some ironic yet steadfast principle (guilty). Where a stem-glassed Manhattan would trigger jeers and, in the saddest cases, nicknames (“fancy boy,” “nancy boy,” “fancy nancy boy”) the State Park Cocktail lets you enjoy the finer things in life while still appearing to be the hearty, down-to-earth, blue collar chum that you truly, truly are not.
So, who’s up for a little diving?
. . .
The State Park Cocktail adapted from State Park
1 oz Rittenhouse Rye
1 oz Amaro Braulio
1 bottle of Miller High Life
Pour out two ounces of High Life (at State Park, it’s into the sink, but feel free to indulge). Pour the rye and amaro into the bottle, twist a lemon peel over the lip and drop it in. Don’t forget your work boots.