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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

This town turns on a dime. Last month, I was writing about the slowest time of the year and sipping switchel. This month, I need an ice pack for my right elbow and a brace for my knee as I look for new gray hairs in the mirror.

If I were more of a traditional beverage writer, I would offer a list of spooky cocktails for your Halloween soirée. Maybe next year. Instead, we need to talk about garnishes.

I don’t know if anything confuses my guests more than garnishes: Watching what people do with the things hanging off the side of and/or stuck in their drinks is a never-ending source of curiosity to me.

Drink garnishes were a bit of an afterthought in early cocktail history. In early American cooking and drinking, the answer to most things was nutmeg. Nutmeg was such a common touch to early punches and slings that one ancient recipe book even recommended grating your muddling stick if you ran out! One had to keep up appearances, I guess. We don’t see nutmeg often as a garnish these days, but in the craft scene, we have a soft spot for it, and you can find it behind the bar in a little cup somewhere awaiting the odd Brandy Alexander or whatnot. When it comes to drinks with nutmeg or other spices grated on top, they are there for aromatics: Their purpose is to float on top of the glass and provide a pleasant odor to the overall experience. Trust me: If I thought your drink needed a half-teaspoon of nutmeg incorporated into it, it would be in there—so please don’t stir in the grated coffee bean, nutmeg, cacao nibs or other gritty aromatics! You don’t want that texture … trust me.

Speaking of nutmeg … forgive the aside, but there is a special cocktail that deserves a little more love: the Army and Navy. I had been doing a little research on this little oddity of old-fashioned flavors, and found myself in muddy waters. I checked in with bar manager at Truss and Twine, fellow cocktail writer Dave Castillo, for an assist. He relates that it first appeared in David A. Embury’s Fine Art of Mixing Drinks circa 1948, but was “Embury’s reformulation of an earlier cocktail which called for a larger portion of gin and was described by him as ‘horrible.’”

I can tell you this reformulated mix of gin, lemon, angostura bitters and orgeat is anything but horrible. It just might be the perfect drink for a warm day or even a cool fall night in the desert, when there is just the slightest hint of autumn in the air.

Continues Castillo, “Embury’s recipe called for a lemon twist as a garnish, but we prefer a grate of nutmeg, as it plays off of the confectionary flavors of the bitters.” Having tried it both ways, I can certainly vouch for that. As with most drinks calling for something sweet and sour and boozy and bitter, these are just recommended specs:

  • 2 ounces of London dry gin
  • 1 ounce of lemon juice
  • 1/2 to 3/4 of an ounce of orgeat
  • (Aside within the aside: There are many mediocre orgeats on the market, and sweetness and complexity will vary greatly. I suggest that if you can’t make your own, then Liquid Alchemist is a nice homemade-like choice. Dave’s not parting with his recipe, but there are plenty of them online!)
  • One or two dashes of Angostura bitters
  • Shake with ice; double strain up into a coupe! Top with a grate of good ol’ nutmeg with the microplaner positioned directly across the rim of the serving glass.

If there is a garnish more revered than nutmeg, it’s mint. Unlike exotic citrus fruits and seasonal berries, which were certainly used when available, mint grew from coast to coast for months out of the year. Mint is both a garnish and an ingredient, and in a drink like the mint julep (a topic for another time)—basically a sweetened bourbon over ice—the aromatic garnish becomes an ingredient by sheer force of intensity.

Let’s be honest, though: When you hear “mint,” you are probably thinking “mojito.” Well, few drinks are as often botched as the mojito. In my early days behind the bar, I certainly was no exception. Using the back of a bar spoon to punish some wilted mint into submission, adding some granular sugar packets into the mixing glass, squeezing yesterday’s lime wedges while hoping for some brownish liquid to precipitate … the horror. The mojito deserves an article of its own; for now, refer to the Southside article from a couple of months ago (available for free at CVIndependent.com!), and substitute a nice, light-bodied Cuban style rum for the gin.

The lesson I learned from my early days of making what I now call “mint soup” is that leafy herbs are best treated lightly and with generosity. The key to a good mojito, or eastside fizz, or Planter’s punch isn’t mint incorporated into the drink; it’s the bounty of fresh, lively, green mint flooding your nose with terpenes and other aromatic molecules! In other words: Please don’t shove the mint garnish into the glass. If the drink needed more soggy mint, we would have added it! It doesn’t do any good in there, and just makes it look like you’re drinking swamp water. Obviously, this advice also goes for basil, rosemary, or anything else with a stem.

Now that the two main types of aromatic garnishes (hard spices and fresh herbs) are out of the way, let’s discuss the rest. As for the ubiquitous lime or lemon slice on the top of your glass, try the drink first. If it’s a bar that cares about your drink, the slice will be fresh and vibrant. If it’s not, maybe switch to a bottle of beer. Do not drop a nasty piece of citrus into your drink … citrus garnishes can cause foodborne illnesses! If the slice looks good, try the drink before just squeezing it in. We put it there for you to adjust the tartness to your taste, so if it calls for it, by all means, use it.

As for other garnishes, like your classic “flag” of cherry and pineapple or orange, the same warnings apply. If they look like something you might eat at home on a plate, eat them. If they look suspect, take them out and put them on a beverage napkin. The same goes for the leafy stuff if it’s overpowering or annoying—just take it out, and let us clear it away. Easy!

When it comes to garnishes, a little can go a long way, and a lot can go a long way—but at the end of the day, remember that sketchy garnishes are often the sign of a sketchy drink program. Good garnishes are a sign that the bar cares about the details. In this month of scary things, make sure to avoid the ones on your glass.

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, perhaps foolishly, put off buying a car after moving to the Coachella Valley—and, therefore, have been depriving myself of all that the Coachella Valley has to offer outside of Palm Springs proper.

However, I recently was able to get a taste of what I’ve been missing. It happened after an abortive trip to help my friend get locals’ Coachella tickets at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden; we decided to make the most of the trip and have an early lunch—and perhaps an adult beverage or two. We decided to try Eureka! in Indian Wells, a place that several people had suggested to me over the last few months.

The bartender, Kris, was super-attentive, guiding me through the cocktail menu as my companion desperately searched Craigslist for tickets (against my advice!). I settled on The Industry and Holy Smokes! to start.

The Industry is an easy-going mix of tequila, pineapple, ginger, orange and cilantro. Should you find yourself looking for a cocktail to mollify a disappointing morning, I highly suggest it. It is a tasty concoction (it’s hard not to be tasty with pineapple and orange; they go together like peanut butter and jelly) and went down smoothly on an empty stomach. Breakfast!

I waited until my (very tasty) burger showed up to get the Holy Smokes!, a riff on an Old Fashioned. It comes with no shortage of flash; they use a smoker with hickory chips to fumigate the Mason jar in which it is served. After waiting the recommended 45 seconds, I took the lid off and got my first taste of the smoke, bourbon, maple syrup and chocolate bitters. It tasted like childhood—minus the bourbon, of course, like summer by the lake in New England toasting s’mores over a campfire. Interestingly, it took a couple of sips to get that memory right. At first, I thought of campfires, then hard chocolate candy, then marshmallow; finally, I put it all together. I would prefer a tad less maple—the sweetness became a bit much as I sipped—but I would definitely order it again, because it is a really nice cocktail. (For heaven’s sake, though, never order a drink “less sweet” if you haven’t tried it before. Trust your bartender!)

Kris then walked me through the most impressive part of the place: the back bar. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I always judge a place by its back bar. The selection of whiskey was unique, to say the least. Not to toot my own horn, but it is rare for me to not know even one bottle on a back bar, and they had at least 10 with which I was not familiar. Since I wasn’t driving, and had already planned on a nap, I treated myself to a pour of their house label (!) single malt, Cask 311. It was served in a snifter, and the first thing that hit me was the alcohol—whoa, was it hot. After adding a few drops of water (trust and try, folks), I got maple and honey on the nose, changing to pecans and hazelnuts on the palate. It was a nice American take on a Highland Scotch.

Back in Palm Springs … speaking of back bars, I got a chance to see one of the best around at Truss and Twine. Actually, I got to see it twice—once before the bar’s opening, and once a few weeks into operation.

I always like to give a place a little time to find its rhythm before I show up with my obnoxious criticism. Full disclosure: Several of the guys who work here are buddies of mine … and that means I really want to bust their chops. That being said, there isn’t too much to bust here. The menu is unlike any in the Coachella Valley (that I have seen or heard about, at least), having been broken into cocktail eras. They cover it all (ambitious!), even the “Dark Ages” of the Surfer on Acid and the White Russian. Never mind that I began my bartending journey in the “Dark Ages”; we have come a long way in just a couple of decades, and reinventing these drinks has been a minor trend in the big cities for a couple of years. It’s novel to see it here in Palm Springs, as I do enjoy a quality White Russian now and then.

The first time I showed up—hilariously and accidentally in a blue denim shirt, which happens to be the Truss and Twine uniform—I got a sneak peak at bar manager Dave Castillo’s Game Changer, a marriage of the Eastside and the Oceanside cocktail with the mint replaced with … wait for it … onion brine! Kudos to him for using an actual original ingredient. (My experiments with muddled pretzels are not going as well as planned.) The onion brine brings a funky dimension to the drink. It’s not for everyone, but give it try if you’re feeling frisky.

For those feeling less-adventurous, I suggest the Queen’s Park Swizzle, a drink with Caribbean roots dating back to the 1920s. At its heart, it’s Demerara rum, lime, mint and Angostura bitters (or “ango” in the business parlance). The drink comes out looking like a traffic light, with the red ango on top, green mint on the bottom, and yellow in the middle—an inviting presentation. It goes down easy.

Sadly, I was not really in a cocktail mood, as I’d been dosing myself with tiki drinks before arriving, so I mostly accompanied the (excellent) steak tartare with a couple of glasses of nice rye whiskey. The whiskey options are great, and the DJ spinning throwback jams added a nice touch. The cocktails run between $10 and $16, but there are several nice happy-hour options for us thrifty locals looking to unwind in the afternoon.

And afternoon drinking is a basic right in the desert, yes?

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Seymour’s/Mr. Lyons 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