If you pay attention to such things, you know that the Baldwin Bar in Woburn, Massachusetts is a semifinalist for a 2017 James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program.
You might recognize owner Ran Duan as the award-winning bartender who graced the cover of GQ as well as one of the figures at the center of a highly publicized debate over $4 of Chinese takeout. The controversy involved food from the Sichuan Garden II restaurant, owned by Duan’s parents.
It can be a little confusing at first to navigate the different establishments sharing the historic Baldwin House building. Sichuan Garden II is situated downstairs along with the Baldwin Bar, and the elegant Baldwin and Sons Trading Co. is upstairs in a separate room. This results in the somewhat incongruous combination of regular families out for some Chinese dinner, cocktail enthusiasts looking for the tiki kitsch of the downstairs bar, and snappily dressed enthusiasts heading upstairs for a true experience.
It’s a bit of a trek from downtown Boston, but it’s right off the highway and pretty convenient to navigate to (and certainly a worthy destination). If you’re visiting Boston and have time and the Uber budget to make it out to Woburn, definitely add this place to your list.
Baldwin & Sons Trading Co.
A month or so ago we made reservations to dine and drink upstairs at the library-themed Baldwin & Sons Trading Co. After walking past the downstairs bar and climbing the stairs, you’re greeted by Duan himself, who is busy throughout the evening serving dishes, suggesting cocktail pairings and engaging patrons. It’s a small room outfitted with dark wood, books and leather couches, with dim light emitting from a row of pineapple sconces that are somehow more classy than kitsch.
Before you even order anything, the service sets the stage for an excellent evening. After settling in at your table to look through the menu (an actual bound book), your server presents you with a glass of sparkling wine to sip while you decide.
On our visit, we tried two cocktails each along with dinner.
My favorite cocktail of the evening, and one of my favorite cocktails ever, was the Encyclopedia Brown #2. It pushed all the right buttons for me: novel presentation (wink wink), and superb, spirit-forward balance.
The Encyclopedia Brown is a rotating spirit-forward drink based on the whim of the bar. The common theme is presentation. The server brings you what appears to be a leather-bound book, with a rocks glass perched on top. Lifting the cover reveals the ruse: The book is a secret compartment, and nestled inside, in a chilled flask, is your cocktail. You pour this concoction over the ice.
This version of the drink was the Good Luck Grin, with Angel’s Share bourbon, Sherry, Bigallet China-China Amer, Maraschino and Corazon bitters. Phenomenal, well-balanced, and wonderfully nutty.
The drink recipe is printed on the library card tucked into the inside cover of the book, and you’re encouraged to take it with you. Coming away with a “souvenir” gives a bit of permanence to the ephemeral experience of enjoying a cocktail.
Encyclopedia Brown #2: Good luck grin
From the Baldwin and Sons Trading Co.
1.5 oz bourbon (B&ST Co. uses Angel’s Share)
1 oz East India Sherry
1/2 oz Gigallet China-China Amer
1/4 oz. Maraschino
Stir until chilled. You can skip the whole book/flask situation and just strain it over a rocks glass with ice and garnish with a twist.
I’d have been remiss to not order Ran’s award-winning drink, Father’s Advice, made with rum, Cardamaro (an artichoke amaro), Punt e Mes, Amontillado sherry and banana cordial. It’s served in an elegant coupe, with the rest in a tiny carafe staying chilled in its own rocks glass. You can get the recipe here.
I didn’t order this myself, but couldn’t resist a sip. Mister Bones is served in a tiki skull mug filled with a tasty combination of Del Maguey Chichicapa, Punt e Mes, strawberry and lime, topped with a sombrero filled with lime zest and pink peppercorns.
Another favorite of our group was the Treaty of Paris (Knob Creek bourbon, Pierre Ferrand cognac, Licor 43, East India Sherry and Angostura).
Baldwin & Sons Trading Co. is open Thursday through Sunday, and you’ll have to make a reservation in advance. There are two seatings: one at 6:00 and a second at 8:00. We went at 6:00, but on our next visit we’ll plan to choose the latter since the second shift enters and sips cocktails on the couches while they wait for the first round of diners to wrap up their meals. While we were by no means rushed, having the extra time to linger would have been preferable.
If you can’t get a reservation upstairs at the Baldwin & Sons Trading Co. or prefer a more casual vibe, the downstairs Baldwin Bar is well worth a visit. When we went it was during the week, and didn’t need a reservation, although I would recommend making one if you want to visit on the weekend.