Meet Your Bartender: Highland Kitchen’s Joe McGuirk

Joe McGuirk of Highland Kitchen (Photo: Susanna Bolle)

Susanna Bolle

When I mentioned to a friend, who is a veteran Boston barhound, that I was meeting with Joe McGuirk, the bartender at Highland Kitchen, my friend beamed and said, “Wow, I first knew Joe back when he was at the B-Side! He’s great. I swear he’s worked at every bar in the city. He’s like Boston’s bartender!”

McGuirk may not have tended bar at every bar in Boston, but he certainly has worked at more than his fair share over the years. By his estimate, the total currently stands at an impressive 20, ranging from tony spots like Chez Henri and the Beehive to sports bars like Game On and the Bleacher Bar. At the much beloved B-Side Lounge, he was there for the beginning of the classic cocktail renaissance in Boston, and has seen it through virtually every step of the way since.

And it’s come a long way since he started serving drinks at Christopher’s in the early nineties. “The cocktails that we make today, you couldn’t have even made in 1992,” he says. “The first bar I worked at didn’t even have a martini glass.” Now, fueled by a more sophisticated clientele, an ever widening array of spirits (it’s hard to imagine, but good rye whiskey, was almost impossible to find just a few years ago), and bartender ingenuity, the mixing side of the bartending equation has gotten more complex.

“Manhattans and martinis were what you made when I started. You had to know how to make margaritas and Cosmos, but the serious cocktail drinkers wanted martinis and Manhattans,” he says. “If you don’t know how to make a martini or a Manhattan today, you’re not a bartender. You’re not even in the restaurant business, really.” What was at the top tier is now strictly bottom rung.

Of course, some of the fundamentals of working behind the bar remain the same. Being a great bartender is more than simply mixing great drinks. McGuirk speaks to this when asked to name his favorite cocktail. He gives two answers. For the first, there is no recipe.

“My favorite drink to make is whatever drink makes you happy and brings you back to my bar,” he says. “What I want to do is create a relationship with you so the next time you come in, you can say,’Hey, Joe, I want something with rye, what should I get?’ I can say, ‘You know, last week, you had a Sazerac. There’s a drink called the Seelbach, which is actually made with bourbon. Why don’t we try that?’ I want you to remember my face and come back and spend money at my bar.”

But there are a few drinks that he admits he loves to turn people on to. One standout is the Periodista. The Periodista is a cocktail with a somewhat mysterious pedigree and strong ties to Boston. This heightens its appeal, but that all would be for nought, if it weren’t a gorgeous drink. Made with dark rum, apricot brandy, orange liqueur, and lime, it was on McGuirk’s first cocktail list at Chez Henri. It was so popular, he says, that it rivaled the mojito in popularity there, which was no mean feat, since he estimates they’d routinely make over a hundred mojitos a night at Chez Henri.

One of the things that distinguishes McGuirk’s version of the Periodista is his use of the apricot brandy, Leroux. It’s not exactly top shelf stuff. In fact, it’s downright cheap. So why does he use it?

“When the B-Side opened up, we kind of all learned together,” he says. And he names some of the key figures in the Boston cocktail scene–Brother Cleve, Dylan Black, and B-Side’s owner, Patrick Sullivan. “Pat was the leader, but we would all scour old cocktail books and come up with things. But the truth is, we often had to use the crappiest ingredients to make cocktails, because, for instance, there was no good apry. Apricot liquor was from Leroux, a mass producer. The truth is, when I make a Periodista, I use Leroux, because I want to make it so it tastes the way it did when I first made it. I like to think that the crappy apricot brandy that I use is what makes the Periodista so good,” he says with a laugh. “I’m sticking to that!”

The Periodista (Photo: Susanna Bolle)

The Periodista

1 ½ oz Gosling’s dark rum
¾ oz Cointreau
¾ oz Leroux apricot brandy
½ oz fresh lime juice

Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Serve with a wedge of lime.

To learn more about this enigmatic drink (and McGuirk’s role in its history), while getting a crash course in the history of and personalities behind Boston’s cocktail scene, check out Devin Hahn’s fascinating Tales of the Periodista.