CVIndependent

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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

May was a strange month for me—a time of pushing the limits of good sense, as the end-of-season fatigue began to show.

What drinks am I working on? Well, you might get an ancho La Louisiane (delicious) or … well, I was only half-kidding last month about the muddled pretzels.

In my personal drinking, I have experimented with vodka. I swear, I don’t know how some of you do that to yourself.

I also made a shocking discovery: Some people seem to like it when I prattle on about bar geekery. I figured, for some reason, people would prefer to hear about my shoving cocktails and burgers down my gullet over lessons on the minutiae of back bars and obscure liquor suggestions. But lately, I’ve had my assumptions tested. I even had a friend at another publication ask me for my deepest musings on fernet. Well, there is a lot of meat on that bone! However, as far as the home bartender and craft enthusiast is concerned, fernet is a bit of an auxiliary—albeit a worthy one.

The real hero is fernet’s larger family group: amaro!

This is a big topic … where to begin? Well, it’s hard to start this discussion without mentioning the most important member of the family: Averna. I remember many years ago watching a middle-age man walk into one of the more cutting-edge cocktail bars in Boston, and start ripping shots of the stuff. After he walked out, I asked the bartender: “What kind of person drinks Averna like that?” He answered simply: “A (expletive deleted) legend.”

Amaro is a type of bitter liquor; that simple description could really cover a lot of ground, but amaro varieties are (generally) dark, (often) semi-sweet and (most often) from Italy. The recipes are closely guarded secrets, with common ingredients being saffron, cassia bark, cinchona bark, citrus peel, thistle, rhubarb, myrrh and on and on. No Italian restaurant is complete without a few different flavors of amaro, up on a shelf over the service bar, collecting dust. Some of you might even have a bottle sitting in your liquor cabinet. Well, dust that baby off, ’cuz we’re making some cocktails!

Arguably, the first amaro cocktail you should be making (or having your bartender make for you) is the Black Manhattan. Want a nice, balanced Manhattan, but hate vermouth? This is the drink for you. This little gem comes from what I refer to as the “rye-revolution” of the early 21st century, a time when Manhattan variations were popping up all over Brooklyn like moistened mogwai. It even has an easy-to-remember recipe based on that famous Manhattan area code, 212:

2 ounces of rye whiskey

1 ounce of amaro Averna

2 dashes each of Angostura and orange bitters

Do you have a friend who hates Campari? No worries! Just substitute Averna, and they, too, can join you for Negroni week!

Want to see how versatile this black, sticky stuff is? Try my new baby, the Strangelove:

1 ounce of gin

3/4 ounce of Averna

3/4 ounce of lime juice

1/2 ounce of creme de pêche

A dash of simple syrup to taste

I consider this drink a nod to Depeche Mode fans. (Get it? Creme de pêche? Sorry.) You can also be just like that unnamed legend and shoot three or four shots of Averna in a row, but I don’t advise it.

Amaro Nonino certainly deserves a shout-out here, as it is featured in a modern classic known as the Paper Plane (despite a beloved guest who insists it’s called a Sweet and Sour). This beauty is equal parts Nonino, bourbon, Aperol and lemon juice, shaken and served up. Amaro Nonino is lighter in body than Averna, but if you want to use Averna in this one, it works.

Don’t think I would forget about Cynar, Sicily’s artichoke-laced contribution to the amaro world. Cynar is one of the ultimate utility infielders of the back bar; I can’t count how many times I have had a young bartender, smiling like he invented yoga pants, tell me how he likes to substitute a little Cynar in his Manhattan for vermouth, or in his Negroni for Campari, etc.; it never gets old. Also, don’t worry about the artichoke thing; it doesn’t actually taste like artichokes at all. In fact, the day someone tries Cynar completely ignorant of the label and says, “Oooh, tastes like artichokes!” is the day I hang up my Hawthorne strainers for good.


Enough learning for one day; I think it’s time for a road trip.

Due to the fact that I have no car, I’ve barely left Palm Springs for nine months … so where should I go for a day trip? San Diego? Los Angeles?

Nah, Indio. Someone told me Neil’s Lounge might be a good remedy for months of tiki, martinis and electro Cher. I really had no idea what to expect, to be honest. I walked in to the sounds of contemporary country music, and moved past the pool table into the main lounge. It was late afternoon; a few regulars were hanging around, sipping beer and highballs. If there was a cocktail list, I didn’t see one, and I didn’t ask to see one.

I ordered a burger and a whiskey, and tried to not look too out of place. I didn’t ask about amaro.

I actually built a bar once that looked more than a little like this place. I mean built, too—my body still bears some scars from the construction. It was in Northern Arizona, and we called it The Lodge. I had no idea what I was doing. They said I was the best bartender in town, aside from the cute girl at the place down the road, and the other one who gave the place away. That’s where the bartending bug started—I was a recent college kid slinging Crown-and-cokes for the cowboys and country girls. It was perfect.

After a couple of years of that, I headed back East to see what would happen next. I am feeling back in a happy place right now.

The best drinks and memories are both bittersweet. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have next on the pool table.

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

I was feeling a bit nostalgic. Perhaps it was due to a post-holiday malaise; maybe I was simply succumbing to the general trend in popular culture.

Whatever the cause, I began reminiscing on my first experiences drinking in public places: a smoky blues club, Chinese restaurant lounges, fancy dinners out with family, etc. While I was unable to locate a smoky blues club here in the Coachella Valley (send me suggestions!), I did visit two analogues of the other places to see how they matched up with my first memories of drinking.

I had never been to Melvyn’s before, but I felt like I had: So many people have told me about the place that I had a pretty good mental picture before walking in for the first time—and that picture was pretty spot-on. It was busy for a weekday (judging by the comments of the regulars surrounding me), but I managed to snag a prime barstool. I usually can; it’s kind of my superpower.

Surrounded by pictures of faces of celebrities living and deceased, I settled in and made friends with a couple of Canadian teetotalers next to me. They said they came here all the time, and were wondering if I was here to see it before the new ownership possibly changes things (which is apparently a big concern among regulars).

The bartender, Michael, was working the whole restaurant alone. I got anxiety just watching him, but he kept his cool. The maître d’ made the rounds and knew the guests by name. I asked the maître d’ what time the music started, and he pointed at the piano player: “At 7, or whenever the spirit moves him.” A minute or two later, the tinkling of ivory floated out from the corner. I guess the spirit was moving him—as it was beginning to move me.

I got a dry martini … what else am I going to put on a napkin featuring Frank Sinatra’s face? I ordered Bombay gin—craft gin’s not an option here. Shaken lightly, giant olives, hardly any vermouth … yeah, this is not the way you’d get it at my bar, but there are eras to cocktails, and they need to be acknowledged. For a place from this era, the tinkling of chip ice against the thin walls of a three-part shaker was a sound of success. I’m sure even Dale DeGroff was shaking plenty of gin martinis once upon a time. (That said, if you work at any place built in the last 20 years, and you shake my gin martini … well, let’s not go there.) Cold gin, a shrimp cocktail, piano music, Old Blue Eyes regarding me warmly from his paper prison … how much more old Palm Springs does it get?

The bartender suggested a Maker’s Mark Manhattan next, as though he were reading my mind; this drink was a mainstay of my early-to-mid-20s. Just like the ones I drank in my early-to-mid-20s, it was also shaken and light on vermouth, with nary a bitters bottle in sight. I didn’t come here for a Death and Co. Manhattan; I came for the kind my dad made at his bar—and I got it. (Again, bartenders: Don’t you dare do this if your clientele is younger than 75, on average.)

All and all, it was a lovely journey back to an era that we will never see again, since modern restaurant philosophy has changed so much—and so irreversibly.


So … there’s craft tiki; there’s tiki; and there is what I grew up drinking at the (long-gone) Aloha and other lounges that once peppered the Northeast: a sort of tiki/American-Chinese chimera with sour mix galore, and with loose interpretations of recipes by Trader Vic and Donn Beach (the creator of Don the Beachcomber), along with lots of greasy pork and noodles to sop up the ample booze. Oh, and ID checks were lenient, too. It was heaven. Luckily for me, some pockets of California held on to tiki in its more-or-less-original form. I’d heard that Tonga Hut, with a location in Palm Springs, was one of those places. I went to investigate.

First of all, it totally looks the part, aside from a balcony overlooking Palm Canyon Drive, but that’s a nice touch my Aloha could never have had. Everything was just as I imagined. I ordered a mai tai, which was made according to the Trader Vic recipe. (With all due respect to Donn Beach, I prefer the Trader Vic recipe, too—mostly because it’s way less complicated.) It was tasty and citrus-forward, with plenty of rum and a backbone of orange liqueur and almond—thankfully nothing like the pineapple-juice-and-rum versions of my youth! They had crab rangoons and beef teriyaki, and these dishes were actually much lighter-tasting and way less greasy than what I grew up eating (although I am not sure how I feel about that).

Next, I had bartender Josh make me a painkiller, one of those rarely seen tiki concoctions which was actually trademarked by Pusser’s Rum. It is a tasty mix of rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, coconut cream and a garnish of nutmeg. Because glassware is crucial to proper tiki, Josh even served it in a classic Pusser’s enameled metal mug. If you haven’t had one of these, give it a try: The ample nutmeg may seem a little odd at first, but once you get used to it, it really makes the drink feel festive. It has the DNA of a piña colada, but ends up tasting very different; the orange juice and nutmeg offer it a unique flavor.

Tonga Hut is definitely a good spot for those seeking a classic tiki fix, or for those, like me, who are just trying to scratch that itch for nostalgia.


Nostalgia cured, I went back to work.

I felt like I left the Bloody Mary debate a little unresolved last month, so I set about trying the drink at various places around town, despite my aversion to it in general. I felt it was my duty to know where the best one was; call it a sense of journalistic integrity, if you’d like.

I had been hearing over the last few months that Sparrows Lodge was a nice place to grab lunch, so when a friend called me up on a sunny afternoon, we decided to give it a go.

I had been to Sparrows once before, for an evening event, so I already knew the environment is unreal: You literally cannot take a bad picture here. I have tried. I ordered the Bloody Mary, knowing it could make or break my experience. It was wonderful, light and almost refreshing, with a sensible garnish of pickled okra. There seemed to be chili oil floating on top; I tasted mustard seeds and citrus. The vinegar was bright but not overpowering, with no congealed horseradish chunks in sight. While I would not have a second one in succession, because it’s still a Bloody Mary, I was impressed—so impressed that I am calling it the best one in town (at least that I have had so far).

So … goodbye nostalgia (and goodbye, Bloody Marys); time to move on and explore some new ground, even though it has been a fun trip down memory lane.

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

What: The Black Cherry Manhattan

Where: Jake’s Palm Springs, 664 N. Palm Canyon Drive

How much: $14

Contact info: 327-4400; www.jakespalmsprings.com

Why: It’s really freaking yummy.

Let’s start off with the negative stuff: The Black Cherry Manhattan is overpriced. There’s no good reason for a drink to cost $14 when one can get a 750-milliliter bottle of the starring liquor for less than $20. Period.

OK, maybe there’s one reason: The Black Cherry Manhattan is delicious.

The aforementioned starring liquor is Jim Beam Red Stag, a black-cherry flavored bourbon. Now, before all you bourbon purists out there start freaking out and taking umbrage with the idea of flavored freaking bourbon, please chill. I am with you. I am not recommending you rush out and buy a bottle of Red Stag for sipping. (Though if you do, and you like it, that’s fine with me. I am not judgmental like those folks who are taking umbrage.)

However, when this liquor is presented as a Manhattan, and garnished with tasty black cherries, this stuff is good. If you are a Manhattan purist, or you like your Manhattan not-so-sweet and woody, this drink is not for you. But if you may like a sweeter, lighter Manhattan, give this drink a shot. You’ll like it—and while it’s lighter, it’s still got a Manhattan-style punch.

So, splurge a little. Enjoy the $19 delicious meatloaf, and have a Black Cherry Manhattan. It’s almost worth the price.

Published in The Indy Endorsement