After the 1981 Ramen Bar and Warp and Weft, I should have known that The Keep (our final stop on the Lowell tour) was also going to be packed – dang, how many hipster drinkers are there in this town that can keep so many bars full on a Thursday night in the summer when most of the students are away? No coveted seats at the bar for us here, but it turns out that that didn’t matter here.

It just took one line in the bourbon menu to validate Danna & Tom’s decision to bring us here:

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I DOUBLE DARE you to order Jack from this place.

After recovering from a fit of whiskey snob laughter, I did pathetically attempt to defend Jack as “not great, but it really doesn’t SUCK”, but Lorri and Danna’s first degree Arched Eyebrows of Disgust shamed me into silence.

The Keep is one of those places where the cocktails AND the whiskey selection are really good, so there’s a lot of information that you have to absorb quickly so you can quickly develop your drinking strategy before the server or bartender asks you what you’re having (first).

The Keep’s cocktail menu reminded me that while a well-balanced cocktail is a wonderful thing, a well balanced cocktail MENU is a GORGEOUS thing. LOOK at this list – it’s a thing of beauty. 10 drinks covering 9 base spirits, a mix of classics, spins on classics and total originals, up & down & crushed ice.  Aside from “Life Alive”  (vodka and cucumber and elderflower are three of the my very few no-me-gustas ), I would happily drink ANY of these:

 

Their bourbon list was lengthy with a couple of standouts, but their Scotch list had winner after winner.

My strategy was clear now :  Grab a cocktail and then finish off with an array of Scotches.

 

I settled on the the Stardust cocktail – Gin, guava, orgeat, all-spice … a gin based tiki drink? The only other tiki of this type that I’ve had is the Saturn and I super-dug it, so I was all ready to go for it … until TOM ordered it first, the second time in two bars where we wanted the same thing.  However much Tom and I don’t share in the Brotherhood of Mayo, we totally make up for in the Brotherhood of Cocktail Ordering.

I quickly changed my strategy from “Stardust and Scotches” to “Steal Some of Tom’s Stardust, Order Another Cocktail, and Then Finish With Scotches” … which would have been brilliant had I actually remembered to steal some of Tom’s Stardust AND not panicked when it became my turn to order.

Well, I’m sure the Stardust was lovely – it certainly wins in the garnish department.  I was happy to recognize the “Twist a bunch of mint into a spiral so it unfolds slowly when you present the drink” trick that I’d read about earlier in the week.

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The Stardust: HAPPINESS is someone ordering the drink you were gonna order so you can steal a sip from them AND order the OTHER drink you wanted. SADNESS is forgetting to steal that sip.

 

Instead, I just ordered the Bowmore Darkest – Bowmore is one of the very few major Scotches that we don’t have a bottle of in our 250+ bottle collection at home – a bad peaty Bowmore experience when I was a Scotch n00b put me off of it for many years but I’m slowly warming back up to it and the Darkest was an excellent selection. When it comes to peaty Scotches I’ve learned that I can dig the grassier peat of Bruichladdich/Octomore in much higher ppm’s than the medicinal, tarry peat of Laphroaig, Arbeg and Bowmore. However, I DO like even those kinds of peat if it’s tempered with sherry and/or 15+ years of barrel aging.

Bowmore Darkest is 12 years old and finished in oloroso sherry which is nuttier, more complex and not as sticky sweet as Pedro Ximenez (aka “PX”). Overall, it turned out to be my favorite Bowmore with the exception of tough-to-find independent bottlings from Black Adder (their “Raw Cask” series has charred barrel fragments still in the bottle, which I swear adds an extra dimension to the Scotch).

I suggested the Gordon and Macphail Blair Athol (Blair Athol being one of our all time favorites, and G&M being the greatest independent bottler of all time) to Danna … but they were out of it.

I then suggested the 17 year Old Pulteney (which is better than both the 12 year and the 21 year) … and they were out of it too. BOOO!

Danna then went for a Japanese whisky (IIRC) .., and suddenly two free parfait-ish desserts showed up – not a bad end result.

Lorri asked about the other Japanese whiskies that were not on the list and ended up going for a pair of Kurayoshis, a brand that’s fairly new to America and a much needed quality addition in a time where the classic Japanese options are getting rarer and more overpriced by the month.

After sampling all of these I was getting to the point where my tastebuds were getting numb and I remembered a trick that Tom mentioned earlier in the night. Jackson Cannon (the cocktail legend in charge of  the beverage program at several Boston establishments, including Danna and Tom’s Island Creek Oyster Bar) recommends sniffing your sleeve (or something that smells like YOU) to reset your palate. Yes, that sounds like a pretty tame maneuver but I was surprised at how well it worked.

Aromas are a surprisingly  huge component of our perceptions of taste – our tongues can only sense 5 discrete flavors (sour, sweet, salty, bitter and maybe umami if you’re a hipster) in various combinations but our noses can detect thousands of discrete aromas, adding countless dimensions to our final perception of taste.

So there you go, sniffing yourself is a pretty good reset (no, don’t go LICKING yourself unless you do that on a regular basis and even then that’s a socially questionable maneuver). You sometimes see small containers of coffee beans on perfume counters, the familiar smell of coffee beans providing a similar reset (and if you’re a guy/person not into perfume, you can simply chew on them to keep yourself awake while your partner goes on a futile search for the perfect perfume).

After my sleeve sniffing reset, I found myself completely out of drink decision making power and put myself at the mercy of the bartender, asking for “something fun and tiki”, resulting in this cutie:

Food Side Note: DANG, the food here was fine!  I’m STILL thinking about the clams almost a month later.

And so concluded our first tour of Lowell’s food and drink scene! We were REALLY impressed with the cocktail mastery, the creative food, really reasonable prices and the overall loose and fun vibe of all of the places we went to … and is there anything better than getting to share that kind of experience with knowledgeable and hilarious friends?

Thanks for a perfect night, Danna & Tom!

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