The late, great Boston brasserie Eastern Standard Kitchen and Drinks was always open on Christmas Day, and Naomi Levy—who served as bar manager during the restaurant’s heyday—was always happy to work.
Levy, a 2019 Wine Enthusiast 40 Under 40 honoree and cocktail consultant, is Jewish and didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas. She nonetheless delighted in spending the holidays with people who did, even donning red-and-white, fur-trimmed hat behind Eastern Standard’s marble bar. “I would really get into it,” she recalls, even though Christmas “wasn’t something that I truly connected to.”
Spending the holidays in such a festive atmosphere did, however, conjure some bittersweet memories for the bartender—like when her school-age friends would go to the mall without her, to visit Santa. “You can’t help but feel the whole world is having a celebration that you’re not invited to,” Levy says of growing up culturally Jewish around Christmastime.
In 2018, while crafting the bar program for a new Boston hotel opening, Christmas-themed pop-ups like Miracle Bar were decking the halls around New York City and beyond. They gave Levy an idea: Why not create a Hanukkah-themed pop-up? She called it Maccabee Bar in honor of the historic group of Jewish rebels that feature prominently in the Hanukkah story. Without any traditions of its own, the hotel’s management was open to hosting the Maccabee Bar’s inaugural event, complete with blue and silver baubles.
After several successful iterations at bars around Boston, including a takeout version in 2020, the concept expands this year to include a new location in New York City. (Check out the locations here.)
For many American Jews, celebrating Hanukkah is a cultural event more than a religious one. “It’s all about gambling and fried foods, so it’s really perfect for a bar atmosphere,” Levy notes, with a laugh.
Among the original Maccabee Bar cocktails? The Latke Sour. The recipe’s simple syrup is made using grated potato—it works, trust us!—and egg whites, which lend a frothy richness. It’s finished with a few dashes of barrel-aged bitters, which contribute a whiff of smokiness.
“You can’t deep-fry a cocktail, so [the final addition of bitters] gives you that aromatic, cooked sensation,” Levy says. The bartender prefers Havana & Hide Bitters, but you can try any brand that has tobacco or leathery notes, or even a drop of liquid smoke cut with Angostura or orange bitters in an atomizer, she says.
Over the years, the Maccabee Bar menu has grown to encapsulate Jewish flavors more broadly (and it differs slightly at every location). The Hebrew Hammer, for example, is sufganiyot-inspired and spiked with active dry yeast. A rugelach-flavored flip is enhanced with cream cheese. A blended rum drink gets a hit of tahini. And new this year: Ocho Kandelikas, named for a festive song in the Sephardic Jewish dialect, is made using olive oil-infused gin, honey, apricot, almond and lemon.
Levy says that people who grew up with Hanukkah are thrilled by Maccabee Bar. “I don’t think I’d ever been called a ‘mensch’ for making a cocktail before,” Levy says.
For folks who didn’t grow up Jewish, the pop-up offers a different lens through which to view the holiday season. “The more that people see other cultures and have access to [them], the better off we’ll all be,” she says. “Hopefully, the less we ‘other’ people.”
Maccabee Bar Latke Sour
Recipe by Naomi Levy
Combine all ingredients in shaker and shake without ice until frothy. Add ice, then shake hard. Double strain the drink into a coupe glass and garnish with bitters and edible glitter.
*To make Potato Syrup
- 1 cup grated potato
- 2 cups water
Combine grated potato with water and bring to a boil. Keep on medium-high heat until the water has reduced by half. Reserving the liquid, strain out the potato as much as possible. Measure the resulting liquid (potato water) and add an equal amount of granulated sugar, stirring until fully dissolved.