by Remy Tumin
Whiskey makes me think of escape. It reminds me of leaving the Island in the off-season for a night in Boston and stealing away to a bar below street level. Or indulging in a Manhattan when I most certainly was not there.
I learned to drink whiskey on the Vineyard. But it didn’t come naturally. I stuck with the classics like Manhattans and sours before diving into the strength of sazeracs. A hot toddy, my friends and I told ourselves, could fix anything.
The combination of heat and bitters eventually clicked.
So when 20byNine opened in Oak Bluffs, my escape became a little easier. This doesn’t feel like the Vineyard. We could be anywhere.
That’s precisely what the team behind the craft beer and whiskey bar on Kennebec Avenue had in mind. The Celestial Restaurant Group, created by a group of friends—Adam Jaime, Steve Ansara, Dave Gaffey and Doug Abdelnour—opened 20byNine in 2014.
And this group of friends knows the Vineyard restaurant scene well. They also used to visit Adam in Washington, D.C. for an annual culinary trip. It was there that the idea of 20byNine, which refers to the dimensions of the Island, was born.
“We thought, man, we have to open something on the Vineyard that locals will love because they don’t have to go off-island to get something cool, and tourists will love because it will remind them of their respective cities, all while staying sufficiently Vineyardy,” Adam, a managing owner and the food and beverage director, said.
The group later opened the restaurant Down Island just across the street. Adam directs the cocktail menus for both.
For first time whiskey drinkers at 20byNine, Adam points customers towards an affordable and very smooth, traditional whiskey. Flights offer multiple tastings for newbies.
“It’s great for people who don’t have experience with whiskey and want to take a dive,” Adam said. “We let them try three traditional styles of bourbon, then we walk them through it.”
When it comes to cocktails, Adam suggests people start with more “approachable” drinks that feel familiar, but with a whisky twist, like the spritz or the pescadora, a riff on the traditionally tequila-based paloma cocktail.
“Everyday we get people who say they don’t drink whiskey, so we’ve built the menu with that in mind,” he said.
But this summer at 20byNine, Adam turned to tiki-style cocktails, with nods to Mexican cocktails and Italian aperitivos “to lighten it up and keep it refreshing.”
“Usually I make cocktail menus with the drinks that I really like, but realizing I have a funky palette, we wanted to balance it out with summery, approachable cocktails,” he said.
The familiar names add to the bar’s approachability. Take Quint’s Demise, for example. Named after the gruff fishing captain in Jaws who met a sharped-tooth death, this drink is herbal-centric with a light sweetness, balanced by bénédictine liquor. Or the Shorebird, which plays off of the Jungle Bird cocktail. The tiki drink traditionally uses rum, Campari and lime, but Adam has created an Island version with whiskey instead.
“We spun it up,” he said. The Shore Bird is made with rye whiskey, rum, campari, amaro, lime and cinnamon simple syrup, and a healthy wedge of pineapple.
He suggests pairing it with 20byNine’s lobster fritters, summer carrot salad or cheese and charcuterie board.
“We have some of the rarest whiskeys in the country, and people stay and have a cocktail or a whiskey and get some food, and then they come back,” Adam said. “We hook them with the whole picture.”
You don’t have to leave the Island to enjoy a proper tiki drink, or a rare whiskey, for that matter. But you can pretend for a few hours that you’re just about anywhere else. The best part? Your escape ends by walking out into the Vineyard night.