By Stephanie Schorow
In the pantheon of famous cocktails, New York can boast of its classic Manhattan; New Orleans lays claim to inspiring the Sazerac; and San Francisco is forever associated with the Pisco Sour.
As for Boston, we have the Ward Eight.
A sweet and rosy concoction of whiskey, lemon juice, orange juice, and grenadine created here more than 100 years ago, the Ward Eight has an addition that no good drink should be without: a great story.
If you order a Ward Eight at a place like Silvertone Bar & Grill, and ask how the drink came to be associated with Boston, owner Josh Childs or one of his bartenders might tell you something like this:
On Election Eve 1898, members of a political club founded by a famous Boston Irish politician named Martin Lomasney—the Democratic boss of Ward Eight in the West End—were gathered at the venerable Locke-Ober restaurant. The club was celebrating Lomasney’s all-but-certain victory to the Massachusetts Senate. One patron called upon the bartender to create a drink to honor the man who would later be called the “Boston Mahatma” for his generosity in steering jobs to his constituents. The bartender mixed a whiskey sour and added orange juice and grenadine, which gave the goblets a pleasing rosy glow. The club drank up and clamored for more. “What should we call this drink?” a man called out. “We’ll call it the ‘Ward Eight,’ me boys,” another shouted and the legend was born.
Ah, but there’s a twist, as tart as any lemon peel. Lomasney was a Prohibitionist and he never drank. Thus, the inspiration of Boston’s most famous drink likely never tasted it.
That’s the story, repeated in bars for decades and spread by the Internet today. Like so many legends, the story has more holes than a cocktail strainer. Lomasney was, indeed, a teetotaler, but he opposed Prohibition. Grenadine, a French syrup made from pomegranates, only became popular in the early 1900s. There was nothing special about Lomasney’s 1898 election; he would serve as an alderman, a state senator, and state representative. He was known as a behind-the-scenes fixer, famous for supposedly saying, “Never write if you can speak, never speak if you can nod, never nod if you can wink.”
Even the “original” Ward Eight recipe is a bit of a mystery; some old drink mixing guides call for bourbon, some for rye. Some say the drink should be topped with soda water or a cherry or an orange slice, or have mint or orange bitters.
Whatever the original ingredients, the drink definitely was popular in Boston and beyond before Prohibition. In 1934, Esquire magazine judged it among the top 10 cocktails of the year. Through the 1930s and 1940s, it appeared on cocktail menus of Boston nightclubs such as the Latin Quarter and the Cocoanut Grove. A 1950 magazine said it was known as “the drink that will make a girl forget her mother’s advice.”
“You could image people knocking them back,” Childs says. “It was the Cosmo of its day.”
However, as tastes shifted to less sweet concoctions, the Ward Eight lost popularity. Locke-Ober continued to serve it, but few other bars did. Bartenders still knew it as a classic, but most Bostonians would likely scratch their heads and say “Sam Adams” if asked for Boston’s contribution to libation history. And then in 2012, Locke-Ober closed.
But the Ward Eight is experiencing a revival. Craft cocktail havens like Drink came up with modernized versions, more palatable to today’s tastes. In November 2013, Nicholas Frattaroli, whose family operates a number of North End restaurants, opened the Ward 8 Restaurant and Bar at 90 North Washington Street, the edge of the old West End. The name honors both the drink and the geography, Frattaroli explains, “I love history.” Bar manager Mike Wyatt, an Eastern Standard veteran, helped create Ward 8’s Ward Eight. Made with Four Roses bourbon, fresh-squeezed lemon and orange juice, and house-made grenadine, it is the color of a blush, more tangy than sweet. The bartenders are also primed to tell the Ward Eight story as well as stories about other classic drinks.
Because it doesn’t really matter that the Ward Eight story may be one part truth to two parts myth. A good cocktail always has a story, fanciful or not. “I don’t know of another class of food or drink that has so many creation stories,” says Boston-based food historian Joseph Carlin, author of Cocktails: A Global History. “The Manhattan has at least two stories, the Margarita at least four, and I have seen at least 12 origin stories for the word cocktail itself.”
Take the Screwdriver—often said to be created by Russian oil rig workers who added vodka to orange juice and stirred it with a screwdriver. “That’s not true at all,” Childs says. “But it’s a great story. And who tells you the great story? Chances are it’s a bartender. That’s how history becomes reality.”
In the case of the Ward Eight, history is a tale told in a bar.
A classic Ward Eight has whiskey, lemon juice, grenadine, and orange juice, but the proportions vary. If you prefer a less-sweet libation, use just a drop or two of grenadine and eliminate simple syrup.
Stephanie Schorow is the author of Drinking Boston: A History of the City and Its Spirits.