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Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

A funny thing about the Coachella Valley: Opinions on the “slowest month” in the bar industry vary greatly depending on whom you ask. After what was a surprisingly OK summer, it seems that as of this mid-September writing, we are smack-dab in my nominee for the slowest bar month.

Now, it would be selfish of me to concoct some reason to get you into the bars and restaurants and away from whatever adventures are currently occupying your day—and selfish is not my style. So … if you are taking advantage of the somewhat cooler days to get outside and be active, or maybe just taking a break from the bars, let me throw a couple of concoctions your way to make those parched hikes, thirsty loops around the golf course and pool days a little more pleasant.

I am talking about … and don’t freak out now … vinegar-based beverages!

For those of you who are still reading and haven’t skipped to the beer or wine column, rest assured: These concoctions can certainly be improved with the alcohol of your choice. I will even suggest some pairings.

I have held off writing about shrub until now for a few reasons, not the least of which is the shrub fad in cocktails is long past. The other reason is that people just don’t seem to like them. Perhaps the modern American palate rejects vinegar as a flavor in beverages, or maybe it was the heavy-handed way in which bar folk tended to incorporate them into drinks (myself included).

The first time I tried one, maybe 10 years ago, an eager bartender at my favorite spot let me try her lovingly homemade rosemary and thyme version. I was equally intrigued and displeased as I worked the drink down my gullet. A few years later, I experimented with some myself, and sample bottles started piling up inside the reach-in fridges at the bar. Then, poof, it was over. RIP, shrub fad—and good riddance.

But what exactly is a shrub, and why should you care?

A shrub, I have read in several places, is a corruption of the Persian word “sharâb” (or “wine”), and shares the same etymology as “syrup.” A shrub is, in most cases, a type of syrup … that has taken a left turn into vinegar country. Traditionally, it was a method of preserving fruit in the days before refrigeration. Techniques vary, but if you have some fruit that’s about to spoil, grab a pound, and let’s get colonial:

  • 1 pound or so of the fruit of your choice (but avoid citrus because of the acidity)
  • 3/4 cup to a cup of sugar
  • 3/4 cup to a cup of vinegar (red wine, white wine or apple cider work well; I have high hopes for rice vinegar, too)

Dice the fruit; add the sugar; cover, refrigerate and leave overnight or longer to draw out the liquid. Remove the fruit and strain. Add the vinegar … and you’re done. Boil for a few seconds to make it last longer if you want, but it’s good to go.

You can use the spent fruit; it won’t taste amazing, but it will work on an English muffin or ice cream or something. Usually I use fruit that’s a bit mealy or past its prime, like the red plums in my latest batch … so I don’t bother with the spent fruit. Herbs can be added; too; I usually just toss them in with the fruit and sugar in the first step. Try unconventional things like jalepeños or cucumbers; there are lots of fun options here!

What do you do with this stuff? You force it on friends and family! I like to use about an ounce with soda water and ice, topped with mint, cilantro and even basil. I find it delicious and refreshing as a teetotaler tipple … think kombucha. You could also use it in a cocktail. Try making something margarita- or daiquiri-like and putting a little in there. It adds a unique flavor.

Pineapple shrub is the king for cocktails, in my opinion; cut back on the vinegar for cocktail use, maybe to half, as there usually will be lime or lemon juice as well in the drink. Perhaps make a sauce with it. Experiment!

Now onto the main event: Switchel!

Switchel, yankee punch or swizzle was a colonial “sports drink” popular in New England and the Caribbean. I am assuming from the name that it was probably mixed with a thin branch, or switch, as the modern cocktails in the swizzle family are. The earliest recipe I have seen, I found on the excellent “Jas. Townsend and Sons” colonial cooking YouTube channel (yes, this is what I do with my spare time), and it comes from The Skilled Housewife, an 18th century cookbook.

  • 1/2 gallon of water
  • 1/2 cup unsulfured molasses
  • 1/4 cup of vinegar (apple cider)
  • 1 tablespoon of powdered ginger

Mix, serve chilled.

You didn’t think I was going to just leave it alone, now, did you? I did two versions—one with Vermont maple syrup, and the other with California wildflower honey instead of the molasses. I used a thumb of smashed fresh ginger in both, since I am not going for historical accuracy here. I also reduced the recipe by half. To the maple syrup version, I added:

  • One small Gala apple, diced
  • One stick of cinnamon
  • A pinch of green caraway seeds
  • Several star anise pods

Leave it overnight in the refrigerator, and transfer to a thermos after straining; place another cinnamon stick into the thermos. Go on a hike, preferably somewhere at cooler elevations. When the climb, altitude and exhaustion start to hit, take a good swig in the shade. I did just that in Idyllwild, and my hiking companion and I felt totally rejuvenated. I also think it would be amazing with apple brandy or a nice Barbados rum, even bourbon. Garnish it with some apples or lemons, thinly sliced, and serve it with a block of ice on a hot day. Yankee punch indeed.

What about the honey version? It was so tasty that it may end up on a cocktail menu or in a bottle at some point, so I have to keep some secrets!

Yeah, maybe I am a little selfish after all, but it’s slow this time of year …

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Cocktails

One of the most common questions I get behind the bar—after, “What’s your favorite thing to make?” (answer: money, duh)—is, ‘What is your favorite cocktail?” This seems like an innocuous-enough question, but to answer it honestly and frankly is difficult.

What defines someone’s favorite cocktail? Is it the cocktail one drinks the most often? Is ice-cold vodka with cheese-stuffed olives really anyone’s favorite cocktail, or just a “go-to” to help someone unwind after a long day? By that logic, my favorite cocktail is a boilermaker. A beer and a shot is hardly a cocktail in any modern sense of the word, however, unless you do it the way we occasionally do after work—that is, taking a slim shot-glass of bourbon, and dropping it into half a glass of pilsner. It’s a powerful way to end a shift.

That’s not what anyone wants to hear, though. I generally respond immediately by saying it’s the daiquiri, since it’s the cocktail I drink the most frequently, and certainly one of my all-time favorites.

Depending on my audience, I sometimes hear their respect for me and my bartending abilities crash to the floor like a tray of drinks. One of the customers (a lady, usually) will emphasize what they’re all thinking: “A daiquiri? Really?!”

Yes, really.

To some people, a daiquiri is something consumed from a foam cup or tacky plastic “yard” on Bourbon Street, the Vegas Strip or anywhere else it is socially acceptable to consume frozen, sweetened stock-car fuel. Others will know better, and for the rest of you … well, it’s time to enjoy one of life’s true pleasures.

Dale DeGroff resurrected the term “mixologist” to separate what he was doing from the beer-and-highball jockey down the street (but please don’t ever call me a mixologist; even DeGroff now regrets bringing the term into modern parlance). Similarly, I wish I had a simple way of letting people know that the daiquiri I consume is a far different animal than what they expect. Classic daiquiri, real daiquiri, fresh lime and sugar daiquiri—none of these seem to quite do the trick. So usually, I just use my old “Try it; if you don’t like it, I’ll drink it” routine. I rarely get to drink it.

This is a drink with a long and storied history. The conventional story—the one Bacardí rum promotes—has to do with a mining venture in Southeastern Cuba at the turn of the 20th century. A mine engineer named Jennings Cox was entertaining friends when he ran out of gin. Believing, incorrectly, that alcohol and citrus prevented malaria (and perhaps other tropical diseases), he substituted Cuban rum. Another engineer, named Pagliuchi, claimed to have come up with the name by referencing the local place name. The story continues that Admiral Lucius W. Johnson brought the drink to the Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C., and it spread throughout the nation from there. The same club even has a room named after the drink. (There is another drink named after the club, but that is for another time.)

Other sources differ slightly on the naming, including Basil Woon’s When it’s Cocktail Time in Cuba, which I first learned about in an article on the Difford’s Guide website. To paraphrase, Woon states that the mine’s engineers were enjoying the new cocktail at the bar at Santiago’s Venus Hotel when Cox himself named it. Difford also references a drink called the “canchanchara,” a sort of rum punch with lemon and honey, as a possible predecessor of the daiquiri.

It seems unlikely to me that this mining engineer was the first one to combine rum, lime, sugar and ice. Aside from the “canchanchara,” a drink about which I must admit my previous ignorance, I was certainly aware of “grog.” Not to be confused with Trader Vic’s better-known Navy Grog (a heady mixture of three rums, including an over-proof rum, lime, grapefruit and allspice), grog was a mixture of diluted rum, water and lime consumed by British sailors. Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon, in the mid-18th century, gave strict orders that all rum rations should be mixed with water. He did allow for sugar and lime to be added, if the sailor had the funds for such purchases. Sounds like a daiquiri, no? In fairness, some sailors were drinking rum and water, and it was still “grog” … and it’s probably fair to assume nobody had ice. It became a staple of the British Navy.

Back to the daiquiri: Cox certainly had plenty of documentation, including both witnesses and the handwritten recipe in his journal (from Bacardí by way of The Alcohol Professor website:)

  • 6 lemons
  • 6 teaspoons of sugar
  • 6 cups of Bacardí rum
  • 2 cups of mineral water
  • crushed ice

Well, it sure sounds like a party, but it doesn’t really sound like a daiquiri. Picking up on the drink where David Wondrich does in Imbibe!—at the Army and Navy Club, and then onto Hugo Ensslin, who has the drink as “The Cuban Cocktail” in his Recipes for Mixed Drinks from 1917—we get this recipe:.

  • 1 jigger of Bacardí rum
  • 2 dashes of gum syrup
  • Juice of half a lime

OK, now this sounds like a daiquiri! It’s a bit on the dry and boozy side, and the gum is unnecessary … but we’re nearly there. I also agree with Wondrich that the Bacardí rum we know in the U.S. is not best for a daiquiri; it doesn’t have enough body or funk. I am fond of saying that the only way to get two bartenders to agree on the best rum for a daiquiri is to shoot one; I, in the absence of true Cuban rum, prefer Wray and Nephew, a Jamaican over-proof white rum with lots of funk. One of those babies is sure to get your night going. Rums from Panama and Nicaragua are great daiquiri rums, too, and many swear by the rich demerara rums of South America or the agricoles of former French Colonies, or … well you get the idea.

As far as the recipe goes, the most common one is certainly:

  • 2 ounces of the rum of your choice
  • 1 ounce of fresh lime juice
  • 3/4 ounce of simple syrup (1:1)
  • Shake, up in a coupe

I actually prefer a half-ounce of simple syrup, and I am not alone. At home, I use a teaspoon of superfine sugar, and it’s divine—a much racier drink without the polymerized simple mouth feel. This is one drink that can be made beautifully at home by nearly anyone; in fact, it may be better to make at home: Squeezing limes à la minute is much better for the finished product. Most bars can’t juice on the spot, for logistical reasons, and the super-fresh lime offers a noticeable flavor difference.

As my bar manager said when it was 115 outside with humidity creeping up into the 30s: “It’s daiquiri weather.” Sure enough.

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Cocktails

I recently went to check out a new bar—let’s just say it’s in a Coachella Valley town east of Palm Springs—after a guest told me he got an old fashioned there that was “OK, actually, after the big ice cube melted a bit.”

Since most bartenders still don’t seem to realize that water is an essential ingredient in a cocktail, and just hand the thing to you the second the iceberg plops into the (hopefully) sweetened and bittered whiskey, I considered this to be a pretty minor sin. The place got a nice write-up or two in other publications, so I figured I would take a chance.

I made the jaunt east on a hot and humid post-monsoon day, and needed something refreshing. The bar itself—which I am not going to name, because the problems I am about to relate could apply to so many bars in the Coachella Valley—was nice enough inside. It seemed a little clubby but had a decent-looking back bar, with nothing too obscure, but not 20 flavored vodkas, either. The World Cocktail Championships were on the TV, so I figured there was a cocktail nerd somewhere in the building. I saw a Southside on the menu and thought … perfect!

After ordering it, I looked at the reach-in behind the bar … and saw jugs of lime and lemon juice with the Sysco brand proudly facing the guests.

OK, let me stop here for a second. Lots of bars use juice from Sysco or Perricone Farms. (I’m not sure if there is a difference, but at least the latter has “farm” in the name.) This doesn’t automatically mean the drink is going to be bad, but it does mean the drink is probably not going to be great. Proper balancing can make up for a lot—but the thing is, if you’re going to charge $14 for a Southside (it’s $10 where I work, shameless plug), I expect fresh juice.

The bartender handed me the cocktail, and I thought, “Here we go again.” First, the ice: They use those little chips that most new cocktail bars eschew. OK … that’s not the end of the world. There was one anemic sprig of mint on top, dangling listlessly off the edge. I am glad it was there, because there was no discernible mint in the actual drink. All I could taste was Sysco lemon and lime juice with gin, and wondered where the sugar was. Then I found it—at the bottom of the drink, in the last saccharine mouthful. The bartender never bothered to shake it, perhaps? Also, why was there lemon and lime? Did they get the recipe from Ensslin’s Recipes for Mixed Drinks from around World War I, or just see a bunch of recipes calling for one or the other and say, “The hell with it; let’s use both!”

To be fair, I have worked for places over the years with totally different versions of the Southside. The one at my current bar, some would call a “Southside Fizz,” and it is served with gin, lime, sugar, mint and soda water over crushed ice. We top it with a healthy bouquet of fresh mint, too. Think a gin mojito, and you’re basically there. When I was at my previous bar, the Southside was more like a gin daiquiri with a mint garnish. Both are acceptable and delicious, as is the use of lemon juice and soda and basically making it a minty Collins. Experiment for yourself at home; it’s an easy one to play with. Just pick one of the dozens of recipes online with a quick search. (Side rant: Why so few bar managers seem to know about the internet in 2018 is beyond me. Sure, there are bad recipes out there, but try them out, and find a good one.) Maybe the heat is making me cranky, and I don’t mean to ride a place so hard for one poorly put-together drink, but it seems like this happens in place after place, and I can’t figure out why.

My afternoon was saved, however, because not too far away was The Pink Cabana at The Sands. Located conveniently behind The Nest in Indian Wells, this recently remodeled boutique hotel hides a beautiful bar and restaurant. Pink and mirrors are everywhere, and there is a nice femininity to it, without it being overwrought. The bartenders were enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and the back bar was well stocked with favorites of mine.

I started with a fino sherry (On tap! What would Frasier Crane think?) that was a perfect bridge to a better cocktail experience. On the bartender’s suggestion, I started with Pushing Buttons, a mix of vodka (yes, I will drink a drink with vodka on occasion), pamplemousse, Amaro Montenegro and lime that is garnished with a “buzz” or “Szechuan” button. Be careful with that button! The flower in the drink tastes like pure electricity in your mouth and makes you want something tart to ease the sensation. This was a fun one!

A ordered a little pork terrine and my next drink, a Cabana Colada. Sure, this doesn’t sound like the best pairing for pâté, but the mix of gin, lime, coconut cream and soda was a treat. I love nothing better than a four-ingredient drink with balance. Keep it simple, people.

The cocktail list was a sensible eight drinks, and I wanted to try most of them, but I had to head back to Palm Springs. The food menu has a section at the top with aperitifs, which is a clever way to steer folks through the experience; I thought that was neat as well. Heck, just give me a balanced drink and a small plate or two, and I am a happy camper.

I hope the East Valley gets more of this … and less wilted mint. I’m feeling less grumpy already.

If the heat has you feeling grumpy, cool off with a Southside of your own:

• 2 ounces of gin

• 1 ounce of fresh lime juice (or lemon instead; it’s your world)

• 3/4 ounce of simple syrup, made with equal parts sugar and water

Shake with ice; pour into Collins glass or coupe. Use crushed ice or not, soda or not. Mint is great as a garnish and even better in the drink; just don’t muddle it to death unless you like really like chlorophyll.

There are lots of ways to cool off with this one, although many bartenders will tell you how wrong your version is. Just don’t pick a fight over it in the summer; it gets hot behind the bar, and there’s nothing meaner than an overheated bartender.

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Cocktails

Find what you love and let it kill you.

This quote is often attributed to Charles Bukowski, but there’s no record of him ever saying or writing it; Kinky Friedman seems to be the actual source. I am now suspicious of every popular quote these days after being burned enough times.

Actually, I like this quote a lot better with “like” rather than “love”—find what you like and let it kill you. It rings more true; how many of us really do what we like, much less what we love?

I didn’t start as a cocktail dork. I got into the food-and-drink industry for all the wrong reasons—fast money, booze, parties, sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll … the same reasons all of the best bands were started. As a bartender, I was a “volume guy” for a long time: Think a holding-four-bottles-at-once, pouring-a-Long-Island-iced-tea type. However, I always wanted to make better drinks, but this was the early ’00s, and the “cocktail revolution” was in its nascent days. We didn’t know any better.

Flash forward a few years to an unremarkable bar in Boston where a guy made me my first proper Sazerac. It was a revelation. That was more than 10 years ago, and today, I have no idea if it was even that great. Nevertheless, I dragged every one of my friends there for one. That bar’s not there anymore.

Six months later, I left my job in the city to do a craft-cocktail program with the help of a couple of books. It was a failure—so I went back to the volume racket. I never lost the drive to make a better drink, though, and I haunted the local craft bars.

I paid well for my education. I asked questions like a curious toddler. Young, arrogant guys with twisty mustaches and badass ladies with sleeves of tattoos—those were the stereotypes, and they weren’t unfair. These bartenders started making drinks because they actually cared about what your drink tasted like. This was, to me, like a used-car salesman who actually wanted to get you the right car at the right price—he’s either a unicorn or a liar. Also, these bartenders didn’t seem as strung out, and as jaded, as those in the bar scene I was a part of at the time. Eventually, I jumped ship to give craft cocktails another shot and was soon neck-deep in egg whites.

The change may have saved my life. The tourism and nightclub grinds are not healthy: Working a busy season, making money hand over fist and having nothing to show for it. Feasting in the summer and fasting in the winter (kind of the opposite of here). Forgetting I liked the beach because I hadn’t been to it in years, my skin pale from nocturnal living. Jostling a co-worker because we have another double-shift in four hours, and he needs to call it a night. Having a friend slap me lovingly in the face for the same reason. There were many nights when there was no one to do that, and I found myself pulling a shot of vodka out of a bottle from the freezer before I headed to the train so I didn’t run out of steam. I remember one particularly tough stretch; I still have friendships that haven’t totally mended over the consequences.

This is not a mea culpa, although maybe it should be; I want to emphasize how normal it all seemed at the time. When you see your co-worker arrive as bleary-eyed as you, Gatorade in hand, a cigarette hanging off his chapped lips, you feel better about yourself. God forbid he’s chipper. There was always another co-worker we would talk about who was “needing to slow it down” as we found the nearby bar that was open for 10 a.m. screwdrivers. We had a 14-hour shift to get right, after all.

When you get out of work at 3 a.m. (or later), it’s easy to lose all track of human life. If you have service-industry friends still awake then, you gather in the kitchen of someone’s apartment and pass the bottle of Jameson. For some reason, it’s almost always Jameson—not just in Boston, and I’ve worked all over. When the first birds chirp before dawn, you can almost hear them saying “looo-ser.” We call them the “loser birds.” They love to remind us that the sun is about to rise, and healthy people will be soon putting on running shoes for a morning jog. Everyone is in bed except for bartenders and drug addicts—and those are certainly not mutually exclusive. I have known people who used cocaine like coffee and cigarettes, never really high and never really sober. Weed, Valium, Xanax, Adderall, Ritalin, caffeine, cocaine, obviously alcohol—these were and are tools in the coping tool box for many in the business. That goes from the back of the house right up to the host.

Then there were the opioids. During season, it was common to lose a couple of staff members to rehab. Sometimes, you saw it coming; sometimes, you didn’t.

In some ways, the craft life is better … but it’s not like it is a health retreat or anything. So why would anyone put himself or herself through this lifestyle? The service industry is where your demons are always just at arm’s reach. I have tried over the years to justify it to my loved ones, as well as myself, and end up running in circles. Would it help if I said that some of my best friends in the world, people who would do anything for me, I met behind the bar? Would Stan or Janice in the cubicle next to me help me move? Maybe the idea of a 9-to-5 life is terrifying. Maybe I love the stage. Put a bar in front of me, and I’ll comfortably tell a joke to the pope, but when I go out into the real world, I have a hat pulled low and earbuds in to avoid small talk. Maybe it’s that I enjoy being surrounded by other lunatics, howling, ever so quietly, at the moon on a Monday, while the rest of the world sleeps. I guess the answer is I like it, even when it tries to kill me. Thankfully, my routine is much healthier than it was all those years ago. That’s not to say I never still stay up for the “loser birds” on occasion.

All of this is on my mind because of the loss Anthony Bourdain, a service-industry champion who truly seemed to love—not like—what he did. I have had so many emotional moments with chefs, servers, bartenders and guests since his suicide that I just couldn’t do the article on Negronis I had planned.

Chef: From one restaurant lifer to another, thank you for everything. To everyone else reading this: If things are getting dark, don’t let us lose you, too.

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Cocktails

It’s been high season around the Coachella Valley, so the last few months have left me with little energy to explore cocktail programs in the area. I did manage to squeeze in a brief trip to San Diego, where I checked in at an old favorite and a new one: Polite Provisions in North Park, and the Sycamore Den in Normal Heights, respectively. Be sure to add those to your San Diego list.

Since I don’t have a lot of local imbibing to discuss, I’ll tackle one of the most frequent topics people ask me about—the setup of home cocktail bars. I know from experience how daunting and expensive it can be to try to replicate the cocktail-bar experience at home, so I put some serious thought into how to make drinks like a pro at home … without breaking the bank.

My wheelhouse is classic and modern-classic cocktails, so while I might down the road give advice on setting up, say, a tiki bar, I will call in some experts for that one. That being said, even if you are a tiki enthusiast, I recommend starting with a classic cocktail setup first. If you can’t balance a drink with four ingredients, I have little hope you can do so with seven or more!

Also … forgive me for not covering tequila and mezcal this time around; that is another can of worms (no pun intended) I will save for another time.

The first purchase I suggest might be surprising to some, but hear me out: Invest in some nice glassware. I am not saying you need to run around to estate sales and thrift stores or anything, but what you put your drinks into is nearly as important as what you put into your drinks. This isn’t just Instagram culture talking here; if you don’t appreciate proper glassware, you need to ask yourself whether you’re a cocktail lover, or simply a drunk. (No judgment here, though.)

There is a proper glass for every drink—sometimes more than one: Nice, double old-fashioned buckets, Collins glasses for highballs and such, classic stemmed coupes for daisies and sours, the “martini glass” (everyone’s favorite), and some Nick and Nora glasses for extra credit would be an excellent start. If you decide to hit thrift shops and don’t care about matching sets, you can do this on the cheap. Some smaller liquor stores will sell branded glasses that came in unsold gift packs rather cheaply. I’m unsure of the ethicality of this, but some of that stuff is pretty nice, and you can walk away with them at a couple of bucks each.

Next, you’ll need some equipment—and if you don’t have a well-stocked shop nearby, you might need to go online. While this isn’t a paid endorsement (I wish!), I generally use Cocktail Kingdom (cocktailkingdom.com) for my stuff. You’ll want a couple of sets of shaker tins—Japanese-made tins are used by most craft people I know. Thinking about purchasing some very mid-century-modern-looking three-piece jobs? Those aren’t very functional. If you want to procure some and have the cash to burn, go ahead; just leave them as decoration.

You will want to get a couple of nice jiggers, though. I recommend 2-ounce and 3/4-ounce Japanese-style (tall conical) ones, although Leopolds look cool and generally have all the quarter-ounce steps on the 2-ounce jigger if you don’t want to buy two. I find the Japanese ones more precise in my experience, though. Remember, 2 ounces is all the way to the edge—no cheating! Be sure to invest in quality Hawthorne strainers and a nice weighted spoon for stirring; you’ll thank me later. Feel free to skip the julep strainers; I never use them, to be honest. A fine strainer for sours and other shaken cocktails is a must-have for cocktail-bar-quality drinks.

Lastly, equipment-wise, you can use Pyrex lab beakers as cocktail pitchers. They are cheap online and look nerdy-chic. This also prevents lost friendships that result from the breaking or theft of faceted crystal pitchers; trust me, at least one of those two things will happen at some point. If you have that kind of scratch, though, they look incredible.

Consider one more set of tools, depending on your level of commitment: An ice pick lets you raise your ice game by chiseling block ice into glorious, clear, glassy magic. A Lewis bag and mallet will let you smash ice into powder, but that’s really a personal choice, as crushed ice is fun, but rarely called for in classics.

I nearly forgot the juicer! Unless you want to use store-bought juice—and you don’t—get yourself a hinged hand juicer for lemons and limes, and something no-frills for grapefruits and oranges. This will open up a world of delicious daiquiris, sours and other citrusy delights. You can squeeze to order at home—and that’s a luxury we don’t have at a busy bar. You likely already have a usable peeler.

So … why all of this before discussing spirits? Aren’t great spirits the key to great cocktails? Well … not really. Good spirits help, but there is rarely a reason to go over $30 on a base spirit (London dry gin, bourbon, cognac, rye, etc.). Pick up one each of those, and if you must, vodka. That will get the ball rolling. Save money in the budget for good “sweet” and “dry” vermouth, and for Pete’s sake, refrigerate when not using. Triple sec, curaçao and bitters are next in importance; get good ones (Combier/Cointreau, Grand Marnier/Pierre Ferrand, Campari/Gran Classico are respective examples of quality ones). You’ll need Angostura bitters as well, and might want orange and Peychaud’s too.

Now we can make some serious drinks—negronis and all the variations; old fashioneds; martinis and manhattans; sidecars; daisies; and sours, just to name a few.

Soon, though, you or your friends will start wanting Last Words, or Paper Planes, maybe Corpse Revivers or even Mezcal Corpse Revivers (perish the thought), and you will need to start stocking the various amari, cordials and fortified wines. One by one, you can add Aperol, Averna, Fernet, the Chartreuse green and yellow, Lillet and Suze, and …

Wait. This was supposed to be “how to set up a home bar on the cheap.” While you can make a ton of cocktails quite well at home after a basic investment in equipment and supplies, chances are you will catch the bug and end up dropping a ton of money on this project as you go—which is not the worst way to spend disposable income if you have the passion.

Of course, if this seems daunting, you can always come and see me. A $12 cocktail sounds a little more reasonable now, no?

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Cocktails

It was during a steady shift at the bar not long ago when a guest and I engaged in cocktail talk. She gushed over the Vesper. I compared it to the sitcom The Big Bang Theory—as in it’s super-popular but I personally think it sucks. Nothing against Lillet, but why on Earth would you adulterate perfectly good gin with that boring monster known as vodka? Just order a martini.

Her response was so hilarious I almost dropped my shaker: “Well, you know that you have the French 75 on the menu wrong. It’s a cognac drink!”

Now, the bar team who put the menu together and I know a thing or two about cocktail history, but I restrained myself. As perhaps the last crusader for putting cognac in a Sazerac, I told her this would be a great chance for me to challenge my preconceived notions and do actual research.

As with all crises of the soul, when I first feel my confidence rattled, I turn to God … and when it comes to cocktail history, that would be David Wondrich. Paraphrasing from his article for Liquor.com, the French 75 was basically a name given to a combination of Champagne, lemon, sugar and either gin or cognac that has been popular ever since there’s been Champagne, lemon, sugar and either gin or cognac. But he also states specifically that Charles Dickens enjoyed a combination of Old Tom gin, champagne, lemon and sugar—in my beloved Boston, of all places. This makes gin the frontrunner, in my opinion, as this was well before the Great War and the artillery gun.

Next, I turned to the venerable Savoy Cocktail Book, which I have on my phone, thank you very much, where it is listed as a gin cocktail. Further research: An article for Mental Floss by Clair McLafferty revealed that the drink was first mentioned in 1919 in Harry MacElhone’s Harry’s ABCs of Mixing Cocktails, where the cocktail was listed as the result of a substitution of champagne for soda in a Tom Collins. Using Occam’s razor, and being a lazy “Mr. Potato Head-ing” bartender, I knew this to be the correct answer.

In other words, my friend at the bar was wrong, in that both versions of the drink have some evidence on their side; therefore, to say gin is “incorrect” is, well, incorrect.

Try the drink for yourself. It’s OK with cognac. But with gin, my gosh, it’s good. It should ideally be enjoyed as a hangover remedy or as an aperitif. (That’s just my opinion, but it’s right.)

I implore you: Don’t use the Google recipe of 2 ounces of champagne, 1 ounce of gin, 1/2 ounce of lemon juice and two dashes of simple syrup—unless you want to feel like you got hit by that actual gun. Try this instead:

1 1/2 ounces of gin

1/2 ounce of lemon juice

1/2 ounce of simple syrup

Shake, pour into a coupe, and top with dry sparkling wine.

I actually prefer this drink on the rocks, but I figured someone would come for my head if I put that in the recipe. You could also roll like Charles Dickens and try it as a punch bowl—using Old Tom gin.

Since we’re on the topic … what the heck is Old Tom gin? If you are a cocktail geek, you probably think it’s an artisanal gin aged in barrels to a nice golden brown. Well that is the “fault” of Dave Wondrich. He partnered up with the distillery Ransom in the mid-00s to try to bring the style back. As near as I can tell, Old Tom is simply a Victorian style of gin that was forgotten after Prohibition and replaced by London Dry. In fact, British companies like Tanqueray and Hayman’s have started to make them again from old recipes—and they’re unaged.

According to legend, when gin, aka “Mother’s Ruin,” was an epidemic in England, you could look for a bar with a tomcat on the sign to get your fix. Also, according to legend, you could put your pence into a sort of “vending machine” built into a wall. Once the money was dropped, a bartender on the other side would pour the stuff right into your mouth through the cat’s paw, or, ahem, other anatomy.

Anyway, it’s a softer, lighter and sweeter gin. Have a Collins with it, and again, thank me later. For Pete’s sake, though, don’t use one of those barrel-aged jobs in a Collins or a gin and tonic. Use them in a Martinez or Bee’s Knees, but never in a drink with bubbles, or a dry martini.

Regardless, you should be drinking Old Tom. If it was good enough for Jerry Thomas, it’s good enough for me. Go make your bartender smile.

And Now, a Little Housekeeping

• Jerry Thomas, aka “The Professor,” was the O.G. rock-star bartender who wrote The Bon-Vivant’s Companion and wore diamonds behind the bar like a boss.

• David Wondrich wrote for Esquire about cocktail history before that was a “thing.” If you read my stuff and don’t own a copy of Imbibe, please remedy that immediately.

• The Vesper was invented by Ian Fleming’s character James Bond in the book Casino Royale. Yes, 007 is awesome, but the drink is no martini.

• A Tom Collins is what you should be drinking by the pool if you don’t want a daiquiri:

1 1/2 ounces of gin (unaged Old Tom or London dry)

1 ounce of fresh lemon juice

3/4 ounce of 1:1 simple syrup

Soda and ice; tall glass, please!

• Use the aged Old Tom in a Bee’s Knees instead:

2 ounces of aged Old Tom; Ransom is a good one

1 ounce of fresh lemon juice

3/4 ounce of honey syrup

• Honey syrup is either equal parts honey and water, or two parts honey to one part water, depending on whom you ask. Oh, and 1:1 simple syrup is equal parts sugar and water (usually by volume).

• A “Mr. Potato Head drink” is, in common parlance, when you substitute an ingredient or two in a popular drink, while keeping the proportions the same. So, for example, if you take off the cowboy hat (bourbon) and put on a sombrero (tequila), it’s a brand new thing. Excuse the prosaic analogy. The margarita is a Mr. Potato Head, as are many other nice cocktails, so it’s not a derogatory term. Lately, mezcal has been the King Potato, but if you order a mezcal Negroni, I will give you a dirty look—but the Boulevardier, another Mr. Potato Head Negroni variation with rye or bourbon, is delicious.

So there you go. See what happens when you challenge me on cocktails? You get a rambling rant in return. I’m mostly kidding; feel free to come and throw a gauntlet down anytime. It will keep me honest. Now, go enjoy some fizzy gin drinks, everyone.

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Cocktails

Bailiff: All rise, for the Honorable Lance Mojito.

Judge: The People vs. Vermouth: Ms. Vermouth, you have been accused of ruining martinis in the state of California, as well as all over the world. What say you?

Defense attorney: Your honor, the defendant pleads “not guilty.”

Gasps from the crowd.

Judge: Very well. You may begin your opening statements.

Prosecutor: Your honor, and ladies and gentlemen of the jury: The defendant looks innocent enough in her pretty green bottle. She even has a fancy European name, and a noble pedigree. Why, then, has she spent so many years destroying perfectly good martinis?! Here in the United States, we know that her place is to be merely pointed at the glass, and perhaps waved over the noble clear spirits within. So I ask all of you: Will you allow this corrupted wine to continue to worm its way into the vodka and gin of decent Americans?!

Judge: The defense may counter, but I will warn you: We won’t tolerate a media circus like the one we had during The People vs. Orange Juice.

Defense attorney: Understood, your honor. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, what you see before you is not a monster. In fact, I would argue that she’s delicate wine, and needs to be treated delicately. Sure, you could argue she’s been fortified with brandy, but that’s no reason to think of her as a hardened criminal! I intend to show that vermouth is merely a victim of mistreatment and slander.

Murmuring in the crowd.

Judge: Order, order in the court! Would the prosecution like to call a witness to the stand at this time?

Prosecutor: I would, your honor. I call Mr. Tito Goose to the stand.

Bailiff: Do you swear, yadda yadda yadda?

Tito Goose: I do.

Prosecutor: You claim to be the victim of shoddily made martinis, costing you lost money and ruined experiences, do you not?

Tito Goose: Yeah. Half of the time, when I order a martini, it comes out tasting funny. That’s when I start to suspect vermouth was involved, and sure enough, every time.

Prosecutor: Do you see the culprit in the courtroom?

Tito Goose: Yes, it’s that green bottle with the screw top and the white label.

Prosecutor: Let the record show the witness pointed at the defendant. No further questions, your honor.

Judge: Does the defense wish to cross-examine?

Defense attorney: I do, your honor. Mr. Goose, how do you order your martinis?

Tito Goose: (Brand name vodka) martini, dry, blue cheese olives, generally.

Defense attorney: So you will put moldy cheese into your vodka, but you have a problem with vermouth?!

Prosecutor: Objection, your honor!

Judge: Sustained. The witness’s personal tastes are not on trial here.

Defense attorney: OK, well, sir, are you aware that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a martini as “a cocktail made of gin and dry vermouth?”

Prosecutor: Objection! The vodka martini has been long established and far outsells the gin martini! Also, the dictionary isn’t known for its cocktail information.

Defense attorney: Your honor, I am merely trying to establish the semantic confusion that leads to my client’s mistreatment.

Judge: I’ll allow it, but tread carefully.

Defense attorney: Were you aware that the “dry martini” is a specific cocktail containing 1/2 an ounce of vermouth, to 2 1/2 ounces of gin?

Tito Goose: That can’t be right. That doesn’t sound dry at all.

Defense attorney: Well, it’s certainly dry compared to the original martini, which contained a full ounce of vermouth.

Shouting from crowd.

Judge: Order! Order in the court! Where does the defense get its proof of that?

Defense attorney holds up a copy of Imbibe! by David Wondrich.

Defense attorney: Right here, your honor, and in many other tomes of bartending lore, which if the witness had bothered to peruse …

Prosecutor: Objection! The witness is not an industry professional and cannot be expected to read nerdy manuals on drink history!

Judge: Sustained.

Defense attorney: No further questions, your honor. The defense calls to the stand Mr. Will Shaker. Mr. Shaker, what is your profession?

Will Shaker: I tend bar.

Defense attorney: How long have you tended bar?

Will Shaker: For several years now.

Defense attorney: So you’re a pretty good bartender by now, I would imagine.

Will Shaker: Yes, sir, I like to think so.

Defense attorney: Well, then, where do you store the defendant at your establishment?

Will Shaker: We keep our vermouth in the well for easy access, like most bars. Some keep it on a shelf.

Defense attorney: On a hot, dusty shelf, with the common spirits?! Or in a well?! Tell me you at least put the vermouth in the reach-in cooler at the end of service.

Will Shaker: I’m supposed to refrigerate vermouth? My bar manager never told me that.

Defense attorney: Vermouth is a wine—fortified with alcohol, yes, but still a wine. It will spoil and oxidize over time. When was the last time you tasted your vermouth for freshness?

Will Shaker: I never thought to taste it, honestly.

Defense attorney: There you have it, ladies and gentlemen—gross mistreatment of the defendant!

Will Shaker: Well, I didn’t know!

Defense attorney: It’s not your fault alone; my client is mistreated in nearly every bar in the country, it seems. How do you make a dry martini?

Will Shaker: Well, I pour a little vermouth in the shaker, then a lot of vodka, and then I shake and strain it. I add olives or a twist of lemon, or an onion for a Gibson.

Defense attorney: Are you aware that shaking a drink adds air, making it effervescent? The ingredients in vermouth, which often include citrus peel, coriander, marjoram and many other herbs and spices, then taste more bitter and astringent—and just, well, off. Really one shouldn’t shake vermouth at all.

Will Shaker: But my guests like their drinks “extra cold,” and the only way to get them that way is shaking them!

Defense attorney: Yes, well, have you ever thought of asking the guest if they even want vermouth in their vodka? Asking specific questions can avoid situations like the ones that have left my client in her current predicament.

Will Shaker: They sometimes say “just a little,” so I rinse the shaker with it and dump it.

Defense attorney: Well, next time, try rinsing the serving glass, to avoid aeration. Might I also advise recommending to guests who don’t care for vermouth to simply order “vodka, up, olives,” but only if they can do so respectfully and not like a jerk? No further questions, your honor.

Prosecutor: The prosecution calls Mr. Spike Easy to the stand. Mr. Easy, you refrigerate your vermouth, no?

Spike Easy: We refrigerate our whole selection of craft vermouths, the defendant and all of her cousins.

Prosecutor: How do you make a martini?

Spike Easy twists his mustache and grins.

Spike Easy: With two parts gin to one part vermouth, and a dash of orange bitters. Lately, I have been using equal amounts of gin and vermouth, with some housemade decanter bitters.

Prosecutor: Well, how do you make a vodka martini?

Spike Easy: Vodka martinis weren’t popular until the James Bond movies and their sponsorship with Smirnoff. We would never serve vodka in our bar.

Defense attorney: Objection! This is defamation of my client by association with hipsters!

Judge: Sustained.

Defense attorney: Your honor, I request a recess to bring experts to the stand to give vermouth a better name.

Judge: Recess granted.

Until court reconvenes, please try a few of these recipes to find out whether your favorite martini is really your favorite martini.


“ORIGINAL RECIPE” MARTINI

2 ounces of London dry gin

1 ounce of dry (French) vermouth

Dash of orange bitters

Stir, serve up; lemon twist, pickled hazelnut optional


DRY MARTINI

2 1/2 ounces of London dry gin

1/2 ounce of dry vermouth

Stir, up, with olive or twist; add a cocktail onion for a “Gibson”


50/50 MARTINI

1 1/2 ounces each of dry vermouth and gin

Dash of orange bitters (optional)

(Feel free to switch dry vermouth for Lillet or Kina or Italian vermouth—or any other fortified wine)

Stir, up, twist

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The author confesses to being like Will Shaker for many years, and tries hard to not be too much like Spike Easy.

Published in Cocktails

After an off-season back East, I’m back in the Coachella Valley, with a new bar gig and more-reliable transportation—meaning I am ready to search once more for the tastiest drinks in the area!

Sadly, most of the places I visited this month were a bit … disappointing. In particular, there were two cocktails I tried at a “high-end” establishment that were actually tough to finish (and $20 each!).

Fortunately, I had much better luck at Window Bar at the brand-spankin’ new Kimpton Rowan Hotel Palm Springs. Not only is the design of the place pretty breathtaking; this diminutive bar in the lobby also makes a mean drink. After looking over the menu for a bit (there are some interesting ingredients on there, including local dates), I went with the Dealer’s Choice. Bartender Bryan Bruce was in a classical mood and made me an excellent martinez cocktail with a nice chinato, an aromatized Barolo wine with a pleasant bitterness that makes beautiful cocktails. If you’re wondering what a martinez is … well, it’s basically gin and Italian vermouth with bitters and a spoon full of sweetener (usually Boker’s and Maraschino respectively). Some folks think it’s the martini’s absentee dad, but I respectfully disagree—and Maury Povich doesn’t have the paternity results yet.

For my friend who was on a vodka-soda kick (I know, I know), Bryan indeed made a vodka soda—but it was a pretty cool vodka soda: The soda water was infused with local juniper branches and lemon zest, and carbonated à la minùte in a plastic soda bottle. (You have to see this glass contraption they use to infuse things; it’s straight out of Harry Potter.) The drink itself occupied a nice middle ground between a gin-and-tonic and a vodka soda. There are two more bars on the property, but I saved those for my next visit.

I also checked out the new offerings at Moxie, where they’ve created a pretty extensive list of cocktails these days. Bar-manager Blake gave us a sneak peak at his “poptails,” which combine a cocktail with a popsicle on a skewer, which serves as a garnish and/or snack. We tried the Pretty in Pink Pop Drop first. This is not intended for whiskey-swilling bearded dudes like me. It certainly was pretty, and pink, and will definitely appeal to less-hardcore drinkers, thanks to its flavors of vanilla and the super-fragrant Combier Liqueur de Rose, replete with sugared rim and strawberry basil lychee pop.

Next, the Desert Sun was reminiscent of an Oaxacan old fashioned, with mezcal, tequila and sweeteners, but served up. The mango-serrano popsicle, when it was mostly dissolved, added some needed brightness. Blake responded: “It’s a drink that rewards patience.” In any case, it’s nice to see someone having some fun designing their cocktails.

While we’re on the subject, let’s discuss that deceptively simple drink, which is perfect for winter get-togethers—the old fashioned.

First of all, what the heck is an old fashioned, anyway? The old fashioned is a callback to the early days of cocktail—booze, bitters and sugar. The cocktail, without getting too bogged down in historical details, was consumed in the morning as a hangover cure. Later, cocktails moved in a more-elegant direction, but certain drinkers still wanted that old standby.

Notice that I have mentioned nothing about a cherry or an orange slice—or muddling, or even ice. That doesn’t make those additions “wrong,” per se (certainly not the ice!), but they’re not necessary. So we’re going to strip things down here and go back to basics.

Here’s what you need:

• Rye whiskey, or bourbon

• Sugar (white or raw—no brown sugar)

• Bitters (Angostura, in the brown bottle with the white label)

• Ice (cubed—large cube for extra credit, but certainly not necessary)

Take the sugar, and mix it equal parts with water. You can heat it to mix, and then cool the mixture; or you can shake it in a bottle and let it sit. That’s the only “hard” part here. (I won’t get into the sugar-versus-syrup debate here, because this is the 101 class; we can get nerdy some other time.)

Take a short, wide glass, and lash in a couple of good slugs of those bitters. (Don’t be shy.) Then put that sugar syrup in there; until you know just how sweetened you like it, start with one teaspoon. Then add 2 ounces of the whiskey—just pour it right in. Add plenty of ice, and stir until seasoned. You’re done.

Of course, you can make it look and taste better with a little citrus oil. Do you have a lemon, an orange or even a grapefruit? Take off a nice swath of zest with a peeler or a knife, and squeeze the oils over the drink; then rub it on the outside glass. Toss it in … or don’t. (Just be careful with that peeler; I don’t need any lawsuits. You can peel a bunch ahead of time, and keep them in a damp paper towel to prevent Ramsay Bolton-ing yourself after a few drinks.) As for the cherry, either get good ones (like Luxardo brand), or don’t bother. Stick the cherry on a skewer so you can enjoy it; it does little good smashed under the ice.

There you go—it’s the perfect get-together drink for Dad, Grandma or your buddies. But when you see a bartender “making it wrong,” keep it to yourself; that’s between us.

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Cocktails

I think the martini, sadly, has lost its way.

Sure, three or four ounces of shaken vodka will probably get you nice and drunk, but it lacks the … shall we say, elegance of the drink’s original recipe.

A purist will tell you a martini has two components—gin and dry vermouth—and it should always be stirred. This purest agrees.

Some amateur comedians ordering a martini with vodka come up with clever catch phrases like, “Shake it until your arms get tired,” or, “I want to skate on the top of it,” or, “Just wave an unopened bottle of vermouth over it.” These people, in my opinion, are missing out on what was once a beautiful, sexy, delicious cocktail. My hope is they’ll give the original a try.

For those who enjoy the history of things, the origin of the martini is muddled. No, I don’t mean muddled with cucumber or blackberries or avocado—it’s just a figure of speech. What I mean is many different stories abound about who created the first martini, why, and where it came from. Some believe the martini was named after Martini and Rossi vermouth, which was created in the mid-1800s. Another theory—my favorite—asserts the martini originated in New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel in 1912 by bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia, made for John D. Rockefeller.

The Knickerbocker’s “Original 1912 Martini” blends two parts gin and one part dry vermouth with orange bitters; it is then stirred and zested with a lemon peel, and garnished with an olive.

Sure, there are those who say Rockefeller didn’t drink, and that the real martini predates 1912. However, this doesn’t really matter: The Original 12 Martini is one of the best drinks I’ve ever had, and one everyone should try.

Another theory, which makes some sense, is that the martini is a derivative of the martinez—a classic gin and vermouth cocktail which was first made in the 1860s and documented in Jerry Thomas’ 1887 edition of his Bar-Tender's Guide; How to Mix All Kinds of Plain and Fancy Drinks. The martinez came about during a vermouth craze in the latter half of the 1800s and was likely a variation of the Manhattan: Someone, at some point, got the idea to mix gin instead whiskey with sweet vermouth, a couple of dashes of bitters, and a little maraschino liquor. Voila, you have a martinez. It’s obvious how the evolution to the first martini wouldn’t be much of a leap.

One thing is clear, however: A martini should be stirred, not shaken. Though I adore James Bond, we can blame him and author Ian Fleming for the shaken martini.

There are reasons we shake some drinks and stir others—and they’re based on science. In general, cocktails containing citrus—like margaritas, daiquiris and sours—should be shaken, while cocktails which are all spirits with no citrus—like Manhattans, negronis and martinis—should always be stirred. The reason of this is thermodynamics, but I’m not going to bore anyone by getting too far into that. Basically, the idea behind both techniques is to cool, mix and dilute the cocktail—and both do so. However, shaking dilutes the cocktail faster than stirring. Shaking also creates tiny air bubbles which brighten a citrusy drink, but ruin the silky texture of a straight spirit. So if you want a bubbly, slushy martini, go ahead, and order it shaken. It’s a free country. But it’s your loss.

Many imbibers also miss out on the beauty of a martini by forsaking gin in lieu of vodka, and/or by skipping the vermouth. The herbs and botanicals of the gin, and the lighter, floral notes of the vermouth balance each other out and create magic in a glass. Vodka, on the other hand, is pretty basic and doesn’t have much flavor or depth—especially when you don’t mix in some flavorful vermouth.

Vodka became so popular, in part, because of advertising in the Mad Men era of the “martini lunch.” A fledgling vodka company marketed its product by saying it would “leave you breathless”—meaning your boss, client or co-workers wouldn’t smell the booze on you. The campaign worked: Vodka first outsold gin in the U.S. in 1967, then whiskey in 1976. Personally, when I’m out tippling, I’m not trying to hide anything.

Speaking of going out tippling, I took a spin around the desert trying martinis. What I found was, basically, what I thought I would find. Every bar I went to had some sort of “classic martini” on the menu, and each one I tried was basically the same: shaken vodka in some sort of martini glass with an olive, or maybe an olive stuffed with blue cheese, and/or a twisted lemon peel. Now, that’s not the worst thing to drink; it’s just not what I was looking for. Like I said, I believe there’s a better way.

During a recent stop at Mr. Lyons in Palm Springs, I found the martini on the menu—“The Honest Martini”—was made with either gin or vodka and vermouth, and stirred, unless otherwise specified. I ordered mine with The Botanist gin from Scotland, and it was just what I wanted alongside my steak tartare. The bartender said the martini was the most-ordered cocktail at Mr. Lyons, and it was 50-50 between patrons who ordered vodka, and those who ordered gin.

At my bars—Workshop Kitchen + Bar, and Truss and Twine—we don’t have a standard martini on the menu, but every bartender on staff knows how to make the Original 1912 Martini. So, next time you’re in, I’ll more than happily stir one up for you.

Patrick Johnson is a journalist and head bartender at Truss and Twine. He can be emailed at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Cocktails

I’m behind the bar at Truss and Twine. There’s a nice lady at the bar, pointing to the cute little antique-looking dasher bottles lined up in a row on the bar top.

Lady: What are these? Balsamic vinegar and olive oil?

Me: No. They’re bitters.

Lady: Oh. What kind?

Me: Angostura, orange, Peychaud’s and celery.

Lady: So, do they make your drink bitter?

Me: Well, no, that’s not it, exactly …

Though they’re one of the oldest, most important and most versatile ingredients in cocktails, aromatic cocktail bitters—often referred to as the salt and pepper for adult beverages—are often misunderstood, overlooked and underappreciated.

Bitters have been produced, often for medicinal purposes, since at least the 1600s (and likely before). The human body is wired to reject the flavor of bitter, because it equates bitter with poison, so the body automatically gets the digestive juices flowing to combat the toxic element.

Bitters were first put into drinks in the 1700s and went through a boom in the United States back in the 1850s. Bitters were nearly extinct just after Prohibition, but have thankfully enjoyed a renaissance alongside the craft-cocktail wave we’re all currently riding. Fact: No old fashioned, Manhattan, Martinez, Vieux Carre or Sazerac is complete without the right bitters.

In a conversation about bitters, a co-worker at Workshop Kitchen + Bar, Jeff Cleveland, described bitters beautifully. Jeff worked for Bittercube—a company out of Milwaukee—that creates cocktail bitters and does bar consulting and training around the country.

“Bitters are to cocktails what salt, pepper, herbs and spices are to cooking,” he said. “It’s a way to affect the flavor of a cocktail without adding much liquid volume to the cocktail. Just like you’d salt a piece of meat or add herbs to a vegetable dish, adding bitters to a cocktail is often the thing that can bring the other ingredients in the cocktail together.”

Bitters are basically flavoring agents made from a high-proof, neutral-grain-based spirit infused with herbs, spices, botanicals, barks and roots, etc. Yes, most bitters contain alcohol. Angostura, for example, is 90 proof!

Bitters were originally presented by snake-oil salesmen as an elixir to cure anything from a cough or cold to constipation and malaria, and were likely first added to cocktails in London in the early 1700s, according to cocktail historian David Wondrich, when bitters were being mixed with Canary wine or brandy. In 1750, he says, bitters were being mixed with brandy, which was lit on fire, along with melted sugar—essentially creating one of the world’s first cocktails.

Actually, bitters were part of the first known written definition of the word “cocktail,” in the May 13, 1806, edition of the Hudson, N.Y., newspaper The Balance, and Columbian Repository. The “cock-tail” was described by the writer as “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.”

While there were hundreds of different bitters-makers in the 1800s, the world was down to just three after Prohibition suffocated and nearly choked out the world of mixology—Angostura, Peychaud’s and Fee Brothers—until the modern cocktail craze brought everything back full circle near the turn of the current century. While you could have probably found a bottle of Angostura hiding somewhere behind a bar in the 1980s and ’90s, at a trendy craft cocktail bar now, aromatic bitters and other tinctures are as prevalent as Civil War-era beards, handlebar mustaches and sleeve tattoos.

Dave Castillo, the bar manager at Workshop Kitchen + Bar and Truss and Twine (where I am employed), loves his bitters. At Truss and Twine, nearly half of the drinks on the menu call for aromatic bitters, while others contain bitter liqueurs.

“They’re absolutely important, and people are discovering that more and more,” he said. “When I first started bartending, everyone had the one bottle of Angostura behind their bar, and it was probably 3 years old, dusty and you never touched it. When I started doing craft cocktails, there were maybe four or five on the market. Now you couldn’t count them all if you tried to.”

Dave likes to keep it fairly simple. At Truss and Twine, we have Angostura, Peychaud’s, Angostura orange and Bitter Truth Celery Bitters. Workshop has Ango, Peychaud’s, Ango orange and Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters (nonalcoholic!) for their rad mocktail, the Wiki Tiki.

“For all the crazy flavors out there, I still think Angostura, Peychaud’s and orange bitters are the big ones,” Castillo said. “I’ve worked in places where we’d have 15 different kinds on the bar, and the funny thing is you typically just grab the same three multiple times, every single day, and there’s a reason for that.”

Steen Bojsen-Moller, owner/partner of Palm Springs’ acclaimed cocktail bar Seymour’s and the beverage director for F10 Creative—the owners of Mr. Lyons, Cheeky’s, Birba, and the Alcazar hotel—leans toward the normal players as well, with roughly seven or eight types of bitters behind the bar at Seymour’s. They mainly use Angostura, Regans’ Orange No. 6, and Bitter Truth chocolate, celery, peach, lemon and tonic bitters.

At Bootlegger Tiki in Palm Springs, beverage director Chad Austin said they currently have 16 bitters/tinctures in stock and are actively using seven on their current menu. He said he’s a big fan of the Bittermens line, and Bootlegger uses Bittermens’ Boston Bittahs, Hellfire, Orchard Street Celery and Xocolatl Mole flavors, along with the classic Angostura, Peychaud’s and orange bitters.

Jeff Cleveland’s favorites to use at home include Bittercube’s Jamaican No. 1 and Jamaican No. 2 in his tiki-style cocktails, and I’ve used Bittercube’s Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters in my old fashioneds, as well as my whiskey and pisco sours.

Aromatic bitters can be more than a mere flavoring agent, too. One amazing drink, the bold and delicious Trinidad sour, uses Angostura bitters as its base, giving it a high level of confectionary notes, particularly clove; the bitters are usually paired with a little rye, orgeat and lemon juice, and served up. Bootlegger has an awesome tiki riff on the concoction on its current menu called the Trinidadi Issues, pictured below, which is Ango, aged rum, orgeat, cinnamon, lime and pineapple, served over crushed ice.

Though not for everyone, a straight shot of Angostura bitters is also one of my jams. I mean, why not? Castillo first introduced me to the idea, which I’ve come to learn is his modus operandi.

“After being a bartender in craft bars a while, and after we shot enough Fernet and all different kinds of amari, the next logical step to me was taking shots of Angostura,” he said. “I thought someone must have done it before, but nobody who I knew was. Everyone thought it was crazy, but I loved to start initiating people at my bar to it, and then going out to the neighborhood bars and doing it there, too.”

Patrick Johnson is a journalist and head bartender at Truss and Twine. He can be emailed at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Cocktails

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