David’s KPT may catch first-time visitors off guard, in a good way. One of chef David Turin’s group of Maine restaurants, it takes up almost the entire first floor of The Boathouse Hotel, which at high tide seems almost to float on the Kennebunk River. The decor is modern, chic and ever-so-slightly nautical, with cobalt blue banquettes, lots of polished wood and a curving wall of windows — a stunning setting for chef David Turin’s contemporary American food.
It’s a swanky place, no doubt, but the mood here is down-to-earth and 100 percent Maine — a welcome dichotomy personified by head bartender Joel Souza.
Souza, a native of Portsmouth, N.H., knows his craft and practices it expertly. Yet he’s approachable, friendly and fun, the sort of bartender who welcomes special requests and makes cocktail neophytes feel at home. We got to watch him in action — and learn a thing or two — at a recent Saturday afternoon cocktail class hosted by Table Maine, the educational arm of the Kennebunkport Resort Collection.
The class, “Negronis and Boulevardiers with Joel Souza,” was set up in the light-filled oyster bar at the far end of the dining room. Visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows, the river flowed by, the outgoing tide carrying the occasional chunk of ice to melt in the sea.
Souza began the class by giving us the history of the Negroni, which unlike that of some cocktails, is fairly well-established. The drink is named for Count Camillo Negroni, who in about 1920 asked the bartender at Bar Casoni in Florence, Italy, to stiffen up the popular Italian drink, the Americano, by replacing the soda water with gin.
A complex mix of bitter and sweet, with a boozy kick, the Negroni was out-of-fashion until fairly recently, following the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan back onto cocktail menus. It’s not a drink to be tossed back on a hot day, like a gin and tonic.
“These drinks are made to be sipped over a long period of time,” said Souza.
To get a sense of where it all began, Souza served us an Americano, traditionally made with Campari, sweet vermouth and club soda. It’s a light and refreshing, low-alcohol drink that makes an ideal aperitif.
For a Negroni, however, Souza switches out the Campari for Aperol, a sweeter spirit — also low alcohol — that he says works better with gin. He’s right. For the gin, he prefers something “neutral,” like Tanqueray. I asked about my favorite gin, Bombay Sapphire; in his opinion it’s “too floral” for this cocktail.
To mix and chill the drinks, Souza didn’t shake; he stirred, using a pint-sized cocktail glass and a long spoon made just for this purpose.
“I’m a huge advocate of the stirrer,” he said. “When you shake a drink, you can actually bruise the flavors. All you want to do is chill it and get a little water in there.”
That was news to me, as was this advice: “Never, ever shake a Manhattan.”
Souza offered a tutorial on essential cocktail equipment, including the two-sided jigger — “a powerful tool” — and the different kinds of shakers and strainers. Yes, each has a name: the common strainer with the loops of wire to hold it snugly against the top of a shaker is called a Hawthorne strainer; the two-part shaker commonly used by bartenders is a Boston shaker.
For the second cocktail — the White Negroni — Souza used a dry gin (Beefeater), Lillet Blanc (a vermouth made from Bordeaux grapes) and Chartreuse, a naturally green, bitter, herbal liqueur replacing the Aperol. Ted loved it, but since I find Chartreuse too bitter, this was the only cocktail of the day I didn’t swoon over.
I did, however, find a new favorite in the final drink, the Boulevardier. By swapping bourbon for the Negroni’s gin, Souza presented us with a cocktail that’s rich, smooth and complex, the suave, bespoke suit-wearing cousin to the playful, loafers-without-socks Negroni. No need to use a high-priced bourbon, said Souza. A middle-of-the-road brand such as Jim Beam works just fine with everything else that’s going on in this delicious cocktail.
And what does the master bartender drink himself?
“After work, I’m grabbing a beer,” said Souza. He’s also a tequila fan and shared his favorite cocktail: El Mayor Reposado, a splash of Cointreau and lime, on the rocks. Perhaps he’ll show us how at the next class.
Served straight up
1 1/2 ounces Tanqueray gin
1 ounce Aperol
1 ounce sweet vermouth
4 dashes bitters
Served on the rocks
1 1/2 ounces Beefeater (dry gin)
3/4 ounce Lillet Blanc
3/4 ounce Chartreuse
2 dashes orange bitters
Served straight up
1 1/2 ounce bourbon (Souza used Jim Beam)
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
3/4 ounce Campari
Note: We were compensated by the Kennebunkport Resort Collection for this post, but views and opinions are our own.