Boston's positively stirring cocktail scene

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BOSTON -- It was just before 6 p.m. on a recent Tuesday when the bartender aimed the blowtorch at the fruit lying on a tiny hibachi grill and pulled the trigger. An orange slice and a cherry took on a glistening sheen as they burned. Then the bartender muddled the fruit into the Burnt Sugar Old Fashioned, a rough-and-tumble twist on the dignified classic.

Staff members were scurrying through Clio, James Beard award-winning chef Ken Oringer's flagship restaurant in Boston. Couples and small confederacies of businessmen settled in at tables in the dining room, whose neutral tones and unflashy decor lend it a coziness not usually expected from a restaurant that serves foie gras ravioli and black licorice roasted Muscovy duck and confit.

The unpretentiousness is also unmistakable at the bar, where paintbrushes, blackened Middle Eastern limes and blowtorches are just a few of the objects not commonly found beside shakers and strainers. Todd Maul, the bar manager, explained my next drink.

"We take Mayflower Porter and stick-blend it in an immersion blender with yellow beets and pink peppercorns, then spin it out in a centrifuge to give it the feel of an amaro. You just get the coffee and hoppy and chocolate notes of the porter," he explained as offhandedly as if he were giving directions to the restrooms. "Then it's cut with Carpano vermouth. I didn't want it to be too heavy, so I used Canadian whiskey to lighten it up. Instead of using beer as the forward part of it, I wanted the beer notes."

The burgundy-colored drink was baffling in the way that string theory or the Sistine Chapel are baffling. All I could do was marvel at this manmade thing of beauty. That was when Maul told me that chemistry students from MIT, a stone's throw away across the Charles River, have told him that they're impressed with his centrifuge, a device more commonly found in medical labs.

When it comes to drinking in Boston, it has become much easier to find bartenders who can wax esoteric about their drinks.

The serene, sublime No. 9 Park, which overlooks Boston Common and opened in 1998, was James Beard award-winning chef Barbara Lynch's first endeavor. It features a lounge that's as much a destination for hipster cocktail nerds as the dining room is for the legions who come to celebrate graduations, anniversaries and done deals. On a recent Saturday evening, the two young, engaging bartenders greeted us with tavern-caliber casualness and nonchalantly explained such drinks as the Swamp Water Fix.

"A couple on a hot day asked if we'd ever heard of a Swamp Water. They said they used to drink them at the Rat in the '70s," explained bar director Ted Kilpatrick, referring to the Rathskeller, a Boston club that existed from 1974 to 1997. "It was Chartreuse and pineapple juice over crushed ice in a Mason jar and based on an ad campaign that touted Chartreuse as higher proof than the rest."

On the spot where the long-shuttered Rat once stood is Eastern Standard, in the Hotel Commonwealth. Garrett Harker, Ms. Lynch's former business partner, opened this gorgeous brasserie, where bartenders crank out exquisite cocktails with top-rate craft spirits, in 2005.

Mr. Harker opened Island Creek Oyster Bar at the other end of the sprawling Commonwealth in 2010. As a friend and I sat there at the bar watching oyster shuckers at work, a bartender asked us what spirit we were in the mood for. In keeping with our warm weather longings, "tequila" was my nearly reflexive response. He reappeared minutes later with a thrilling off-menu concoction. He strained it into my glass and explained the piquant mix: tequila, muddled cucumber, agave syrup, cinnamon syrup, fresh lime and grapefruit juice. A trace of Sriracha curbs the sweetness. The finale? A few quick twists of a pepper mill. The margarita-like underpinning was familiar and comforting; all the embellishments made it an imaginative thrill, and a delightful aperitif before a plate of lustrous oysters arrived.

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