By Adam Centamore.
Palmer Matthews absentmindedly dips a finger into his cocktail and slowly stirs the huge ice cube keeping his own variation of a classic Manhattan cold. His mind isn’t idle, however. Far from it. He’s simultaneously scanning the room to make sure everyone is taken care of, and pondering my question–what makes a great bartender?
For the bar manager of The Townshend in Quincy, the answer is simple—focus on a customer’s experience. “A great bartender creates connections,” he says. “They tell stories, they interact.” With a smile he adds, “They help people feel comfortable in their space.”
That comfort comes from more than just enjoying lively banter with the barkeep. Equally important is the quality of what they’re sipping. It goes beyond just having a drink and hearing a joke. “At the end of the day, you’re talking about craft cocktails, which can be the easiest things in the world to make,” Matthews says. “What makes it ‘craft’ is the hand of the maker.”
Skill is paramount. “Unless you have that hands-on experience, you really can’t make it happen,” he notes. His time spent working his way up from barback to bar manager at Barbara Lynch’s Drink has served him well. His knowledge of cocktails is astounding.
Matthews excuses himself for a moment to attend to business. Turning, he smiles and waves over a patron. After a brief conversation, I hear him say, “Forget the drink menu. Tell me what you like!” A few adjectives from the customer and Matthews serves up a Vieux Carré– a New Orleans take on the Manhattan involving cognac.
Equally critical to The Townshend’s success is the use of top-shelf spirits and ingredients, many of which Matthews makes himself. Fruit syrups, coconut cream, orgeat (a gorgeously sweet almond syrup), and other ingredients are made weekly. While happy to hand-make most of the mixers used, Matthews isn’t above utilizing an existing product. “We have standards. If someone makes a good ingredient, we’ll use it!” he says. For the moment, he’ll keep making what is needed. “We just haven’t found all the right answers yet,” he admits. “I mean, how many people are making great falernum these days?”
Even the ice is held to an impressively high standard. Matthews uses sculpture-grade ice from Eastern Ice Company in Brockton. To his knowledge, he is the only non-sculpting customer they have. Why all the fuss? It’s simple. Better ice means a better cocktail. With no air trapped inside, it cuts more smoothly and accurately, and the drink stays colder longer.
Matthews insists on hand-cutting his bar’s ice. Fifty-pound chunks are taken from a gigantic three-hundred-pound block kept in a chest freezer and sawed into the shapes and sizes needed. He enjoys the task, seeing it as a welcome moment of zen. “It’s the perfect intersection of mindless and thoughtful,” he says.
The Townshend is in its third year, and Matthews has managed the bar since day one. What began as a dream for partner Devin Adams has flourished on the ground floor of President’s Place, located directly across the street from the Quincy Center red line T stop. Matthews, 31, is a Quincy native. He’s happy to see the craft cocktail scene come to his hometown, and is proud to help elevate expectations for the City of Presidents.
On the rare occasion Matthews is on the customer side of a bar, he splits his sips between classics like Old Fashioneds and Negronis and experimenting with new ingredients and combinations to expand The Townshend’s drink program, not always successfully. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” he laughs.
With such a command of cocktail culture, is there a dealbreaker for Matthews when he’s out for a drink himself? “The bartender’s attitude,” he reveals. “I’ll take a beer from a great bartender over the best Martini from a bad bartender any day of the week.”
He explains his answer. “Part of why people go out in the first place is to enjoy the energy and interaction.” For example? “Watch a bartender mix a drink,” he points out. “The great ones add flourish and excitement.” As if on cue a bartender begins mixing a cocktail, agitating the shaker from his waist to above his head over and over again. The ice inside creates a sonic rhythm, adding a calypso beat to the captivating presentation.
Is there anything that can make a top-notch bartender sweat? Without hesitation, Matthews responds. “Non-alcoholic drinks,” he says. “It’s like the emperor has no clothes. You can’t just hide behind the alcohol.” What might be a minefield for lesser bars is actually a strength for Matthews’ team. Their focus on high-quality ingredients and house-made mixers serving mocktails as nuanced and layered with flavor as their full-octane counterparts.
With the Townshend’s success, growth is in the plans. A second restaurant, Belfry Hall, is slated to open right around the corner soon. Beyond that, Matthews shudders to even consider the future. “I try not to think about it. I’ve never been much of a planner. Rather than think about what I want, I tend to simply avoid what I don’t want.”
He knows he doesn’t want to follow the usual career trajectory most in his role pursue. “For a lot of people in my position, the path is brand manager or whatever,” he says. Matthews wants to stay behind the bar, a lesson learned long ago during a brief stint at a desk job. “It was terrible,” he says. “I realized I had to be working with my hands.”
As we wrap up our conversation Matthews makes me a Mai Tai using a recipe that is around seventy years old. Sublime layers of rum, orgeat, and citrus make me smile. It’s one of my favorites and he knows it, of course. He’s in the business of making people happy, and one of the best in Quincy at it.
As I leave, I see Matthews return to his cocktail.
He resumes stirring.
1250 Hancock Street
Quincy, MA 02169
Adam Centamore is a food & drink educator and writer living on the South Shore. When he’s not teaching or writing he can usually be found trolling the area’s local establishments, searching for the perfect Mai Tai and the best bartender jokes.