Double Strained in an antique glass? Yes, please! (Credit: Derek Kouyoumjian)
When it comes to most Boston “lounges” you can usually feel a palpable sense of bro-fumes engulfing you the moment you open the door. I expected as much from Highball Lounge, the reincarnation of KO Prime at the Nine Zero Hotel, but was, thankfully, proven wrong.
Granted, the space reads like a high-end vodka commercial setting at first blush — the type of impeccably designed rom-com loft you'd expect Jennifer Anniston to be breaking up with an architect in — down to the DJ booth and the well-appointed, young professional crowd, but much to my confounded delight, it's both a comforting hang, and a vastly more interesting cocktail program than I could've hoped for.
The sleek presentation is contrasted by playful touches — clean modern design meets reclaimed-wood retro aesthetic. There's a wall of shelves stocked with vinyl, a board game room with an old tabletop video game and vintage View-Master toys with the menus printed inside.
“We wanted to do a good cocktail bar but not have it be too stuffy or a pretentious environment,” explains bar manager Shaher Misif, a recent San Francisco transplant.
“We wanted to have group activities, things that you would do that are really nostalgic... things you used to do when you were a kid.”
One thing we did not do when we were kids is drink cocktails like these. The focus of the menu is on the titular highballs. “A highball, in its simplest form, is spirit and mixer,” Misif said, although here they're serving what he calls “tricked-out” versions. Those include recipes made with rye, absinthe, raw sugar, bitters and soda; or mezcal, pineapple-serrano gum syrup, lemon, bitters and ginger beer. Unlike most bars, the highballs here are served in shorter, mismatched antique glasses.
The cocktail list is well balanced between whiskeys, tequilas, gins and rums, including a variety of flips, fizzes, swizzles and juleps. A Manhattan riff, the Ode to Kinshi, pairs a Japanese single malt with Cocchi Rose, mole bitters and the house amaro blend. Misif wouldn't reveal his secret, but it's a mix of seven or eight different amaros that he's regularly tinkering with to find the right proportion. “Fernet can be off-putting, and Averna can be a little too sweet,” he said. He's looking for a more easy-drinking amaro that plays down the middle. He's also encouraging guests to “spin the wheel” to explore options they might not normally drink.
A recipe of mezcal, manzanilla sherry, chartreuse and amaro was a dry, sharp, understated bitter sip, while a flamed absinthe, mint, pineapple, citrus and agave cocktail was glorious.
“Most places people walk in and know what they're drinking. Here we're finding a lot of people going for the cocktails, ingredients they have to ask about. A lot of people like to say, 'You guys make us something, tell me what I like.'” l like pretty much everything here so far.