While we take them for granted now, if you remember a bit of your history lessons, you know spices were a very hot commodity throughout much of the last millennium. In fact, our country might not exist as we know it if European merchants hadn't been looking for more direct trade routes to India to re-up on that good shit. So you can imagine how thrilled the British must have been when they came across the pimiento (or pimento) berry in Jamaica sometime around the early 17th century. The dried, unripe berries made for a spice that seemed to combine the flavors of clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper in one tiny package — hence the name "allspice." Its flavor may be most familiar to our palates from Caribbean cooking, but the Jamaicans, doing what any culture does when it's got an abundance of a crop, also made booze out of allspice by macerating it in rum, creating a liqueur that's well-suited to both the flavors we associate with the winter season and the tropical tiki drinks in which it's often been mixed.
Today the most readily available form of the stuff is the imported St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram. "Part of the reason why I'm so drawn to it is it adds unbelievable depth of flavor to anything you put it into," says Fanny Katz of Kendall Square's Belly Wine Bar. "It has this incredible drying effect from the pepper-forward notes, but it is also pretty sweet. It adds sweetness and a dry, almost tannic quality to cocktails." Katz employs it in her whiskey-sour riff the Cedric Street Sour, made with Bully Boy American whiskey, Amaro Montenegro, Noilly Prat dry vermouth, and Demerara syrup, a mix that changes the sour's character from a fresh summertime cocktail into a rich winter one.
Allspice, she says, for all its warm-weather connotations, actually evokes Christmastime to her. "It tastes like all the hard spices you get when you think of a wassail or a hard cider, [which are] other good things to use it in, like hot wine-based punches."
The cocktail it's most commonly used in — though "commonly" may be overstating it — is the 1930s classic the Lion's Tail, which also features bourbon, lime juice, and Angostura bitters. Josh Taylor made an intriguing version of it for me at the neighboring West Bridge.
"You can go a bunch of different ways with it," says Taylor. "The Lion's Tail is a great way for people who like bourbon but want something totally different to try it. I think as far as specific tiki cocktails, if you're a fan of the Zombie, for example, you can probably find yourself drinking allspice dram pretty soon after that."
Just be sparing with the stuff, he says. "It's so pungent that using any more than a little bit can take over a drink. But you can use it like a bitters almost, it's such a robust flavor, and add a few drops at the end. It has an aromatic quality like Angostura, and it's cool to bring depth to an otherwise monotone cocktail."