AMC’s 1960s-era drama series “Mad Men” (2007-2014) catapulted a return to classic cocktails, effectively ending the era of vodka-dominated drinks flavored with fruit. Ironically, it was another TV series that popularized the sweetish vodka cocktails to begin with, when HBO’s sassy “Sex in the City” (1998-2004) immortalized the Cosmopolitan, a girly pink drink of vodka and cranberry juice served in a grown-up martini glass. The year “Mad Men” launched, The Modern Hotel and Bar hired Michael Bowers, a self-proclaimed cocktail nerd who had never worked in a bar or restaurant before, to tend bar. Today, Bowers, who has been recognized in national media including The New York Times, is one of a handful of trendsetters in the Boise cocktail scene.
Throw a rock in downtown Boise and you’ll likely hit a hip cocktail bar. Anyone looking to imbibe the latest trends in cocktailing has more choices than ever. Here’s a look at four downtown bars that are making Boise the “Cocktail Capital” of Idaho. Each one—whether a stand-alone lounge or integrated into a restaurant—has a unique personality. The one thing they all have in common is a fun-yet-serious approach to delivering classic cocktails garnished with modern sensibilities.
THE MODERN HOTEL AND BAR
Tucked off the lobby of the Modern Hotel, this bright, airy, midcenturymodern bar hums from opening until close. Snag a seat at the bar for a chance to interact with Bowers and his team of knowledgeable bartenders, eager to whip up any one of 10 featured cocktails. Feeling adventurous? Ask to go off-menu and you might land the “Lucky Frieda” (page 79), a twist on a classic sour, made with gin, lime, bitters, a whisper of absinthe and frothed with an egg white. Love bitter cocktails? “The Final Say,” a riff on the classic “The Last Word,” a Prohibition cocktail, delivers with a good dose of Fernet Branca, an herbal liqueur with its own cult following—and an acquired taste for some.
THE MODE LOUNGE
Located in the historic 1985 building that once housed the Mode Ltd., a high-end department store, The Mode Lounge effortlessly blends old and new in ambience and in libations. At night, take a front-row seat and soak in the bustling scene in this vintage, art-deco lounge, surrounded on two sides by floor-to-ceiling windows. The Mode prides itself on housemade bitters, syrups, tinctures, sodas, and vermouth—everything but the spirit itself. “The Bitter End” is a boozy blend of Beefeater 24, artichokebased Cynar, Antica (vermouth) and grapefruit bitters. The result is an amber-colored mouthful of pleasant bitterness, less severe and more balanced than Negroni. “Smoke and Oak” (page 78) capitalizes on the latest spirit trend—smoky mezcal—blending it with bourbon, lemon and lime juices for an updated twist on a whiskey sour. The chile-spiked sweet salty rim adds an exclamation point.
PRESS & PONY
Pass through thick, baroque fringed curtains and step into a cool, dark saloon with a copper bar sporting a mere eight stools. It’s a cozy caricature, for sure. Walk to the end of the bar and you’ll find yourself in the Boise Fry Co., which happens to own the year-old speakeasy (yes, you can order fries and eat them in the bar). The cocktail menu is small but tight, with only nine drinks, but manager Jordan Krema is happy to veer off-menu and customize a special cocktail. He whipped up a no-name mezcal cocktail on the fly with Aperol, lime, and pineapple, and balanced the smoky, bitter, and sweet components with a savory house-made celery shrub. “Pimm’s Pony Express”—a jam on a classic Pimm’s Cup—is as refreshing as it is tall, a balance of sweet and tart with Pimm’s No. 1 liqueur, Aviation Gin, ginger syrup, lemon juice and garnished with a fistful of mint, apple and cucumber slices.
Rustic chic décor—think exposed brick stamped with “Vote Against Prohibition”— dominates this “kitchen and cocktails” haunt in ground zero of downtown’s entertainment district. Ask other bartenders in the area, and all will point to Juniper as a cool place to score a solid cocktail. As the name implies, Juniper is known for gin cocktails— gin is a botanical spirit based on juniper berries. Half of the dozen cocktails are gin-based, including the flirty light spritzer dubbed “Juni & The Jets.” Composed of gin, Street-Germain elderflower, grapefruit, juniper simple syrup and topped with sparkling wine, it is refreshingly floral and easy drinking. The “Juniper Gin & Tonic” is old school with a twist—house-made tonic syrup. Other spirits—whiskey, rum and tequila—clock in with one drink each, including “Old Pal,” a rye whiskey based drink similar to the classic Boulevardier, except dry vermouth replaces sweet vermouth.