Taste of Marblehead: Making magic at Maddie’s

Maddie’s Sail Loft bartender and Marblehead Native Gina Panarello prepares her favorite drink, a Rum Punch. Photo by Libby O'Neill

Familiar notes filled my ears as I took a seat at the bar of Maddie’s Sail Loft on a recent Monday.

Could it really be I wondered? And, indeed, the warm sound of Steely Dan’s “Negative Girl” from the band’s 2000 comeback album “Two Against Nature” was playing on the loudspeaker. As an avid fan of “the Dan” it was a pleasant surprise, particularly considering the obscurity of the particular song. “Negative Girl” was a welcome introduction to a place I would wind up spending more than an hour of Monday night, as I became intoxicated (figuratively, not literally) by the experience of being in the bar.

On this particular Monday night, Gina Panarello was working behind the bar. A 17-year veteran of libation pouring, Panarello said she has bounced around since she began bartending here at the age of 19, but always found a home at Maddie’s.

She made me not one but two drinks to sample for the purposes of this story — her personal favorite, a Rum Punch, and the iconic Maddie’s drink of yesteryear — the Thunderdome.

“You can’t come to Maddie’s and not have a Thunderdome,” said Panarello.

The Rum Punch sure did pack a punch, containing four different rums — Malibu, Bacardi, Captain Morgan, and a floater of Myers Dark Rum — alongside pineapple juice, orange juice, and grenadine.

Despite the heavy alcohol content, and the sheer volume of rum stored in the pint glass my cocktail was served in, the drink wasn’t unbearably strong, with the pineapple flavor taking the lead, and the sweetness of the grenadine combining to almost completely drown out the sharp, alcoholic taste.

Panarello also recommends squeezing the accompanying lime over the top of the drink to help cut through some of the sweetness, a suggestion I did not take up but would surely add a bit more complexity to the cocktail.

The Thunderdome was unlike any other drink I have ever had — this concoction, purportedly invented by Three Cod Tavern Owner Chip Percy during his time working behind the bar at Maddie’s — is comprised of vodka, champagne, orange juice, cranberry juice, and topped with razzmatazz, a raspberry liquer.

Taking a sip of the Thunderdome was a fascinating experience as the flavors mingled together, essentially combining to make a fruitier, stronger champagne.

Though she doesn’t drink anymore, Panarello said Rum Punch is her favorite drink in part because of its ability to “put you on your ass.”

“I just found a good concoction,” she said, noting that other variations on the drink contain cranberry juice. “The sweetness of it is just amazing and it’s cold outside but you’re gonna feel like you’re on an island when you’re drinking.”

Panarello recalled a time where she put back four Thunderdomes on one occasion — the last time she did so — and said that drink, despite its fruitiness, will also, “put you on your ass big time.”

All the while during our conversation, Panarello was fielding drink orders from the small, but growing crowd seated at the bar, often seeming to tell regulars what they were having to drink before the words could even come out of their mouth. She said she believes the history — and the strong drinks — are what keep people coming back to Maddie’s, night in and night out.

“This bar is a thing,” she said.

Over the course of her nearly two-decade career, Panarello has had somewhat of a love/hate relationship with bartending, she said. Shifts are long and draining, and require constant energy behind the bar. But, at the same time, the ability and opportunity to form connections is irreplaceable in any other line of work.

“I’m just a really personable person and I meet really cool people,” she explained, adding that working at Maddie’s, particularly in the bar’s downstairs, has really rejuvenated her love of the job. “I have an impact on people’s lives. When they come in here and I take that seriously, if someone comes in and they’re having a bad day, I will give them my energy.”

“It’s just more or less being able to make people smile,” she continued.