For Naomi Levy, head of the beverage program at the newly opened speakeasy Better Sorts Social Club in downtown Boston, there are no holds barred (excuse the pun) in cocktail making. Levy has created a name for herself in the city’s cocktail scene, first at Eastern Standard and then in a series of competitions. Now she’s taking the kitchen behind the bar to bring bespoke culinary cocktail innovations to the Better Sorts menu.
The inaugural drink offerings include cocktails made with pasta water, zucchini, and collard greens. Levy’s even got a kale cocktail (which totally counts as healthy, right?). “The way I work with cocktails is very culinary focused. I take inspiration from the foods that I eat. I travel a lot as well, and every time I go somewhere and try something new, my first thought is, How can I translate that into a cocktail?” says Levy. Sustainability and local sourcing are also important to the mixologist.
A prime example is the El Chapo cocktail made with Del Maguey Vida mezcal, zucchini syrup, lime, and pineapple tepache, a liqueur native to Mexico and made using the parts of the pineapple that are left over after juicing. In that way, the ingredient illustrates both the exotic flavors and reduced waste that Levy favors.
The Cacio e Pepe martini with Ketel One, Gouda-infused Dolin Dry Vermouth, black pepper, and pasta water syrup operates similarly. Levy says, “I wanted a way to infuse more wheat flavor into a drink. Once again, using an ingredient that usually goes down the drain. Pasta water has a huge amount of flavor in it. So why not turn that into a simple syrup?”
If you come in and you don’t like one of my cocktails, I want to hear about it. I’m not offended. I just want to make the best thing I can make for you.
Levy has roots in the art world; she graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts with a special interest in sculpture and metalworking. Her bartending career started as a way to make money during college. Now her creative outlet uses a different media (liquors and simple syrups), but she implements a lot of the same principles. “If you come in and you don’t like one of my cocktails, I want to hear about it. I’m not offended. I just want to make the best thing I can make for you,” says Levy. “That definitely comes from the art background. Constantly seeking feedback and constructive criticism, I think, is one of the reasons I’ve made it to this point in my career.”
You can also see bits of Levy’s artistic background at Better Sorts Social Club, both in the creativity and the wording of the drink menu. The cocktails are split into three sections, Classic, Modern, and Contemporary, with current seasonal additions of Pear, Squash, and Greens categories.
Levy sources as many ingredients locally as possible. She often shops at the Boston Public Market, which has produce vendors year-round. Right now she’s experimenting with new winter flavors. “You’ll probably see some sort of potatoes happening this season, and we’ll get into some cellared apples as well. And you’ll start seeing some nice hot beverages as the weather cools down,” she adds.
I’ve been called every name in the book. I’ve been harassed. I’ve had unwanted advances, all sorts of things. I think women in any industry deal with that to a certain extent.
Though Levy is deeply passionate about her career, it hasn’t been without challenges. As a woman behind the bar, Levy has had to fight to be taken seriously. “I’ve been called every name in the book. I’ve been harassed. I’ve had unwanted advances, all sorts of things,” she says. “I think women in any industry deal with that to a certain extent. Just as bartenders we’re out there in the public while [customers are] getting intoxicated.”
Levy says the female bartenders she works with know twice as much as their male counterparts, because they have to. She recounts being repeatedly asked if she can make basic cocktails like a Manhattan, or if there’s a man nearby who can make it for her.
But Levy’s enthusiasm hasn’t been dampened by these experiences. She radiates excitement when talking about making cocktails and interacting with her guests, saying, “My job is to make people happy every day. How cool is that?”