Bartenders of the ‘Ville: Joe McGuirk

by Katie Mauck on March 23, 2011

Joe McGuirk of Highland Kitchen

Joe McGuirk has been bartending for 20 years. He can be found at Highland Kitchen these days, but he seems to have worked with just about everyone, everywhere. He talked with me about what it’s like to bring serious cocktails to Spring Hill while still being able to keep it real, and shared the recipe for a spring-inspired Highland Kitchen cocktail that is sure to bring sunshine into your life — no matter how long spring takes to arrive in Somerville.

How’d you get into bartending, what was your first gig?

Well, in college I was a cook. I cooked my way through school and when I got out of school, I had a day job as a textbook buyer at the MIT Coop. There was an opening at Brown for a textbook buyer, so I went in and interviewed. The job paid considerably more, so I went back to my boss and said, “I want a raise, and if I don’t, I have this opportunity — the other guys at the other job I have are gonna train me to be a bartender and I’ll quit for the summer and tend bar.” So it was really just that I was cooking in a place that offered me a position — a place close by, Christopher’s in Porter Square — and I did it as a threat, I took the bartending job as a game of one-upmanship with my day job since they didn’t give me the raise. So I said I’m going and I took the gig. That was twenty years ago.

What’s your personal favorite drink on the menu here at Highland Kitchen?

Uh, a Budweiser is pretty delicious — but cocktails, there’s a few that we’re really proud of, for different reasons. There are serious drinks on our list … Cocktails, that’s one of the big things that’s changed from when I was tending bar until now; everybody has to have a cocktail list. We didn’t even have cocktail glasses at my first bar job. Now, not only do you have to have glasses, but you have to have a list, and it has to be inventive, it has to be good. But it also, in my opinion, shouldn’t be mystifying and intimidating. So we have a drink called the Dorchester, it’s a really simple vodka based drink. As far as crowd pleasers, for not taking cocktails too seriously, I love that one. But for a serious drink, we have one called the Seelbach and I think we make it very well.

Ah, a great classic.

Yeah, it’s a classic cocktail, but I like it when you see a dude come in and have a drink that’s in a champagne flute and it’s pink but it’s a real drink. You know, people call things girly drinks, right? But nobody says girly sandwiches, you know. Food doesn’t have a gender. I don’t know why drinks should. Like, if you enjoy the taste of something … The burliest dudes I see come in who like Stoli Ras. So I’m not gonna judge; I love candy.

Do you do any special twist on the Seelbach, or keep it pretty classic?

We do it pretty classic, but one of the things that we probably do differently is we shake it rather than stir. And I think that one of the things that makes us different is that we’re doing it in Spring Hill, in a little gastropub. We’re serving a cocktail that perhaps hasn’t been seen around these parts in awhile, if ever.

Speaking of which, do you feel like there’s any resistance in the neighborhood to a gastropub serving craft cocktails and the like?

I think that on first glance some of the people who’ve been here for a long time may think of this place as being fancy or upscale, but when they come in and realize that we serve Budweiser and have great cheeseburgers at a great price and they give us a shot… I mean, some of our most loyal followers were people who’ve been here forever. They realize we’re just another neighborhood place.

Where’s your favorite place to drink that’s not Highland Kitchen?

I go to Trina’s Starlite Lounge a lot. I love Trina’s, but also, I mean, I walk into pretty much any bar and someone I’ve worked with is there.

If Somerville were a cocktail, what would it be?

A beer and a shot? OK, no, a Whiskey Collins.

Why?

Collinses are great drinks, but they’re not considered very serious drinks, they aren’t as well known as some drinks. They’re not as heralded, maybe. Plus, this isn’t a gin town, it’s a whiskey town — probably Irish whiskey, which I believe they call a Michael Collins. And if not that … then it’s a Budweiser and a shot of Sambuca, chilled.

Great. Would you share with us a recipe for a great spring cocktail?

Sure. We’re doing this series of drinks named after hotels in the Boston area. This one is named after the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Harvard Square — the reason why we call it that is because that was one of the few places you could go drinking late in Cambridge a long time ago. It was open ’til 2, whereas a lot of other bars closed early. We all feel like it was ‘80s-ish. It’s not really a serious drink but it’s selling so well! We make it with Triple 8 Blueberry vodka, which comes from Nantucket. You know, it’s great to try to use local products — it’s what we do in the kitchen — and now there’s options in the bars too.

SHERATON COMMANDER

1 ½ oz. Triple 8 blueberry vodka

¾ oz. Meyer lemon juice

Ginger ale

Combine in highball glass and top off with ginger ale. Garnish with wedge of lemon.

Interview has been edited for length.

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