As the people behind any newly opened restaurant can tell you, the ins and outs of the liquor licensing system in this city are a byzantine conflation of both contemporary bureaucracy and outdated Puritanism at work.
With artificial caps set on the number of licenses available, it can drive the price of purchasing an existing one up to between $300,000 and $450,000. This particular bit of red tape made things a bit difficult for his concept, says Adam Rutstein, owner of Centre Street Sanctuary, which launched this spring in Jamaica Plain.
“Liquor licenses are priced way out of a restaurant like mine’s range. It’s something the city needs to look into,” he says. “The Seaport district has gobbled up all the licenses.” His is a common refrain among new bar and restaurant owners.
Instead, for his American bistro situated in an an old rectory in the bustling center of JP (the design repurposes pews, lecterns and stained glass windows from area churches, and the bar itself is an old church door) Rutstein bought a wine and beer license, which the neighborhood and city upgraded to a cordials/liqueur license.
What that means is that, in order for his bar to serve a spirit, it has to contain 2.5% sugar — regardless of the proof. You’ll find plenty of boozy liqueurs here, like Green Chartreuse or absinthes. Even flavored vodkas and spiced rums are allowed. It literally makes no sense.
Nonetheless, a creative bar will work with what they have. In fact, it wasn’t until my second cocktail on a recent visit to Centre Street Sanctuary that I realized it wasn’t a full bar. Coincidentally, many of the liqueurs that are allowed under such a license happen to be exactly the type featured at your standard cocktail bars – Cynar and other bitter digestifs.
“A lot of people don’t even recognize we only have a cordials license,” Rutstein says.
Instead, here the focus is on cocktails with bases of port, Angelica, amaretto or pisco, as in the Bittersweet Farewell, which also takes Cynar, Triple Sec, lemon juice, simple syrup and orange bitters.
It’s the type of bittersweet cocktail I’d order anywhere, although in this case it did land a bit too heavily on the sweet side, like a few of the other cocktails here. With so many amaros available, it’s a shame to let them go to waste.
Sailor Jerry’s rum features elsewhere, in both the citrusy Mug O’grog — with lemon and lime, St. Germaine, peach bitters, orange and grapefruit juice, and soda — and the Ward 10 Manhattan — with Punt e Mes, simple, chocolate mole bitters and cherry bitters.
Rounding out the list is a spectrum of sangrias and a fine beer selection of local and craft drafts, bombers, bottles and more than 10 cans. It’s not quite enough to make you drop to your knees and praise the lord (although the soda bread is close to heavenly), but for beer lovers and cocktail drinkers looking to shake some bad habits, it’s a good place to do your penance.