CVIndependent

Sat11162019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Cocktails

21 Oct 2019
by  - 

I love this spooky time of year. Halloween, for me, starts sometime in late September and ends right before Thanksgiving. It’s a great time to get together with friends—or watch bad horror movies alone.

However, my days of making suspicious punch bowls with black and red dye, candy skulls and gummy worms are over. On a somewhat related note, I did take a little jaunt to Salem, Mass., recently.

Some of the shops are a little hokey and sell many of the same witch tchotchkes, but if you have an eye for “magic” ingredients, there are some places that are veritable medieval apothecaries. As a bar nerd, I, of course, recognized many of these herbs as being some of the very same plants that give my favorite spirits their flavor and character.

Sitting on my shelf is a book called The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart, which I dove back into after my trip so I could touch up on some ingredients both familiar and obscure. So … let’s “double double, toil and trouble” ourselves with some booze alchemy.

Angelica is a member of the same family as carrots, but also hemlock—so what better place to start? Its earthy-sweet flavor adds a bottom note to many gins, and also provides major flavor to medicinal-tasting bartender favorites such as fernet and chartreuse. It is long believed to have digestive properties—but don’t go hunting for it yourself in the woods, or you might end up with more than a tummy ache. Stewart suspects that the liqueur Strega (“witch” in Italian), known for its saffron content, has a good deal of angelica in it, and I would certainly agree.

Speaking of saffron, it has many strange properties. Likely a mutant that was never meant to thrive, it is sterile and cannot reproduce by seed … spooky! It can only reproduce with human help, but we have given it that help, because it has been valued by us for millennia for its flavor and color. It has three sets of eight chromosomes, unlike us—and almost everything else living on Earth, adding to the strangeness of this magical spice. It’s a key flavor in such things as Old Raj gin; there is a little hiding in Benedictine and many other monkish delights. It is a member of the iris family.

Myrrh, valued for centuries and referenced in such works as the Bible and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, is an ancient incense resin often used in certain church fumigations, as well as fernet and other intense liqueurs. It has been added to wine since Roman times, and there is a good chance it is also in your favorite bitters. Stewart says myrrh wine was offered by the Romans to people being crucified. Gee, thanks! 

Also referenced in The Life of Brian, now that I think of it, but consumed much more often than myrrh these days, is juniper. This member of the cypress family has been used since ancient days for stomach, liver and kidney ailments. It contains many terpenes and other aromatic molecules, such as a-pinene and myrcene. Some of you may be familiar with the latter in the flavor of your favorite beers and cannabis products. It’s the most important, and only absolutely necessary, flavoring in gin. Oh, also it may have been referred to as “eye of newt” in classic potions. So sorry to all the blind newts out there, I guess; it was a misunderstanding.

Speaking of bitters, the bottle on your home bar with the paper label gets most of its intensity from the alpine plant gentian, and not from the angostura bark; in fact, angostura may not even be an ingredient. Want a straight shot of gentian’s floral and earthy punch? Try the French favorite Suze, either on the rocks or with soda, and perhaps a slice of lemon. It’s also worth a try in a white negroni (although a traditional negroni has plenty of gentian in it, too):

1 1/4 ounces of your favorite gin

1 ounce of white vermouth (not dry vermouth, but its slightly sweeter sibling)

3/4 of an ounce of gentian liqueur, such as Suze

Stir; serve up with a twist of lemon.

As for all of you who hate the flavor of licorice: I don’t fault you for that, but what you really don’t like is a substance called anethole. This isn’t just found in licorice, but also in ancient holy herbs such as fennel and hyssop. The maenads, the fierce wild-women followers of Dionysus, carried a staff called a thyrsus, made of a giant stalk of fennel, as they reveled in the wild places. Feel free to make one for your next bacchanalia … or just enjoy a nice pastis on a sunny desert afternoon, and taste the complex flavors. Mix your absinthe or pastis with some cold water and a little sugar to create the cloudy louche, of course.

Speaking of absinthe, I think it’s only fair to end this tiny discussion of the botanical world with the notorious wormwood. Humans have been using this intense species of artemisia since the ancient Egyptians for its antimicrobial properties; it purportedly kills parasites, too. The Chinese were adding it to wine just as long ago—an early precursor to modern vermouth! By the way, that’s where we get the name for vermouth, another name for wormwood … it all comes full circle, no? It’s good for such spookily named cocktails as the Corpse Reviver No. 2 and Death in the Afternoon. As for Death in the Afternoon, I leave this one to your discretion:

1 ounce of absinthe

4 ounces of sparkling wine

Start with the absinthe in a cocktail glass; slowly add the wine; consume; pray. I can say from personal experience: This one is a bit like a deal with the devil …

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

20 Sep 2019
by  - 

Wine cocktails … is there anything more disappointing?

You finally got a reservation at the hot new restaurant in town; the server hands you the cocktail list, and … wine margaritas?! I get it; if you don’t have a full liquor license, you have to work with what you have—but nobody has ever confused sauvignon blanc with tequila.

But what if, instead of trying to replicate boozy cocktails with wine (the cocktail equivalent of kissing your sister), the staff made cocktails born out of wine that embraced the subtleties of the product—cocktails that the home bartender could make just as easily, that were perfect for the fading heat of late summer?

Sangría, the most-familiar wine cocktail, has as many variations as there are people who make it. I was once gifted a Puerto Rican family recipe on a receipt from a guest that included a bottle of Manischewitz wine and a can of lemon-lime soda, so pretty much anything goes … but you didn’t think I was going to give you a bunch of sangría recipes like this was Better Homes and Gardens, did you? No, we’re gonna get nerdy here: Let me introduce you to the Colonial American version of the drink, the sangaree.

There is no record I could find of a direct “missing link” between the two drinks, but the similarity of name and the fact that they are both red-wine drinks made with sweeteners are hard to dismiss. The sangaree, however, is far easier to construct and therefore less likely to be ruined by too many cinnamon sticks; soggy fruit or what have you. Here’s a recipe for port wine sangaree:

4 ounces of Port wine

1 teaspoon of sugar

Shake with ice and dump into a glass goblet; top with grated nutmeg.

This recipe is an adaptation from the great Jerry Thomas, who also recommends using things like sherry and porter (which he calls the “Porteree”); if you do so, adjust the sugar level accordingly. I like the flavor of orange and Port together, so I think a few thinly-sliced oranges around the glass make for a nice presentation. Crushed ice would also be lovely here, although not necessary. Don’t use your fancy Port; any decent ruby will suffice. I think I might grate a little dark chocolate on mine today instead of the nutmeg, because I’m worth it.

What if you want a red-wine cocktail on the go? Don’t worry; the Basque have you covered. Try a “Kalimotxo,” an easy mix of dry Spanish red wine and cola. Keep the bottles on ice in a cooler; mix them (equal parts) in a red plastic cup with ice and a squeeze of lemon. Of course, you can also make these at home in a Collins glass, and let your fancy friends try to scoff at something they can’t even pronounce (cal-ee-MO-cho).

Trigger warning: The next drink absolutely requires a drinking straw. In fact, it was the drink that made the drinking straw “a thing”—public enemy No. 1! I am referring to the sherry cobbler, a drink so ancient, it shows up as early as 1838. Despite its nefarious deed, the drink itself is heavenly. I once referred to it on a cocktail list as a “snow cone for grown-ups” due to the use of crushed ice piled up and over the rim of the glass.

3 ounces of Amontillado sherry (others will work, but start with this medium-dry one)

1 teaspoon of sugar (or 3/4 of an ounce of simple syrup)

1 wheel each of lemon and orange

Muddle the sugar and the fruit wheels; add sherry and crushed ice. Shake; dump into a Collins glass. Garnish with anything fresh—mint, berries, sliced fruit, etc. Use a straw, whichever type your conscience will allow—preferably an actual wheat straw!

The recipe I made at a previous gig in Western Massachusetts, where the clientele of professors enjoyed a dose of history with their tipple, substituted locally made preserves and lemon juice. It’s called the Bistro 63 cobbler.

1 1/2 ounces of dry sherry

1/2 ounce of Pedro Ximenez sherry

1/2 ounce of lemon juice

A fat barspoon of local, seasonally appropriate preserves

Dissolve the jam with the lemon juice using the barspoon in a mixing tin. Add crushed ice; shake; dump into a tumbler; mound extra ice on top. Garnish with basil and berries.

Want to go even easier? Try the Andalusian answer to the Kalimotxo, the Rebujito. It’s kind of like a mojito with sherry, but less complicated. Smack a big sprig of mint in your hand with authority; put it in a Collins glass with ice; and add equal parts fino sherry and a lemon-lime soda of your choice. You can also, as Talia Baiocchi recommends in her wonderful Sherry: A Modern Guide to the Wine World’s Best-Kept Secret, use 3/4 of an ounce of simple to muddle your mint; and substitute the soda pop with a 1/2 ounce each of lemon juice, lime juice and soda water. You could also use a nice tonic water.

So what about something a little more “uptown”? I have two that will get you respect at any cocktail bar, the bamboo and the Adonis. The bamboo cocktail (which doesn’t appear to have been invented in Japan, but was attributed by William Boothby to a German-born American bartender by the name of Louis Eppinger, who ran a hotel bar in Japan) was a product of the 1880s at the latest and served all over the States by 1893, according to David Wondrich. No matter the origin, it’s a classy aperitif. This is Boothby’s 1908 recipe:

1 1/2 ounces of dry vermouth (the best you can find)

1 1/2 ounces of fino sherry

2 dashes of orange bitters

2 drops of Angostura bitters (careful, not dashes!)

Stir; strain into a cocktail glass. (A Nick and Nora is perfect.) Express a lemon peel over the top; garnish with a pimento-stuffed olive.

Try its heftier cousin, the Adonis.

2 ounces of fino sherry

1 ounce of sweet vermouth

2 dashes of orange bitters

Prepare as above, but with an orange peel and no olive.

Perhaps you have a sweet tooth? Here’s the sherry flip:

2 ounces of Oloroso sherry

1/2 ounce of simple syrup

1 whole egg

Shake all ingredients without ice; then add ice, and shake the heck out of it. Strain into a small wine glass, coupe or Nick and Nora; grate nutmeg on top.

The next time you are at an establishment without a liquor license and staring at the possibility of a suspect sangría, ask your bartender for one of these gems. They’re all pretty low on alcohol, too.

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

16 Aug 2019
by  - 

If you want something done right, do it yourself.

Yes, there are things best left to professionals, like distilling grappa, dentistry and putting in a new electrical subpanel. However, when I think about all the years I was forced to use mixers that came in shiny bags or bottles—full of food additives and powdered egg whites and dyes—I cringe.

Also, I get it: For many people who give up bartending to become management, a goodly chunk of their pay is incentive bonuses. They have to make the ownership money. Luckily, in 2019, we have a fair share of beverage directors who stake their reputations on quality and owners who have come around to the idea of having such a bar manager. We certainly have several here in the Coachella Valley—but this isn’t about them, not this month.

Back to doing it yourself: Why is anyone buying simple syrup? I walk through the aisles of supermarkets and liquor stores and see bottles of simple syrup for almost $10 a bottle. It’s called “simple” for a reason, people! It costs 50 cents to make. Grab your food scale; weigh a pound (or half-kilogram) of sugar; put it in a tightly sealed container with an equal weight of ice-cold water. Now shake it like it insulted your momma. It will be cloudy, but the cloudiness will dissipate in time. Don’t have a food scale? No problem; just use equal parts by volume … only a total nerd would object. I like the cold-shake method over the heat method, because there is no evaporation: You get exactly what you put in. It does stay cloudy for some time, so don’t make it right when you’re going to need it.

Most bartenders make simple using the hot method: Use the same recipe; put it over a flame and stir, or add super-hot water to the sugar—carefully—and stir until dissolved.

OK … now that you have these methods down pat, why not take your syrup game to the next level?

The easiest way to wow your friends may be an Earl Grey-tea syrup. This has become such a standard in the industry that when I was in a recent drink competition, I used one for my entry … as did three other bartenders. (It wasn’t a great way to stand out, but we are bar geeks. Maybe next time I will use oolong.) Unless you’re in a competition, don’t worry; most people have never tasted the lovely flavor of tea and bergamot in a cocktail. Simply make a strong tea; pour it into the same amount of sugar, and stir. When it’s fully cooled, use it in an old fashioned with gin and a twist of lemon. This is a great alternative old fashioned for the hot weather we still have in the Coachella Valley, as it’s more refreshing than its whiskey cousin:

2 ounces of Plymouth gin (or other light bodied gin)

½ ounce of Earl Grey syrup

2 dashes of orange bitters

Stir over some ice cubes; serve with a twist of lemon.

Make a bee’s knees or gold rush with it, and your friends will be talking about for months. In fact, you can make it the way I did for the contest—as honey syrup—and tell me if I was robbed: Just use extra, extra strong tea, and stir into double the amount of honey. I added some lemon zest and lemongrass as well; it didn’t come through in the finished product enough to make it “mandatory,” but if you have it lying around, feel free. I used egg white, which isn’t the standard recipe but mighty delicious. Feel free to omit it if you don’t like good things … but otherwise:

Drop an egg white into a shaker

2 ounces of dry (or barrel-aged for extra credit) gin for the bee’s knees, or 2 ounces of bourbon for the gold rush

3/4 to 1 ounce of honey syrup

1 ounce of fresh lemon juice

Shake without ice for five to 10 seconds. Add ice, and shake another 10 seconds or until the shaker is nicely frosted. Strain through a fine strainer into a Nick and Nora or coupe glass, and grate a shortbread (or other tea-time-appropriate cookie) over the top with a microplane into a thick line. It’s a little extra, but it will make your guests say, “Oh, I have never seen that before”—and that’s the point, right?

Not a big fan of tea? No problem: If you have some rosemary, or lavender, or thyme, or any other shrubby herb, you can use that to make a great syrup, too! Just take your sugar and water to a simmer; add herbs; turn off the heat; and let it cool. Be sure to remove the herbs when you get the flavor level that you’re looking for, by the way; it can get too strong quickly. Oh, and if it does get too strong, don’t throw it out; just add some plain simple syrup to tame it. Once it’s cooled, you can make a refreshing non-alcoholic lemonade out of it:

2 ounces of herbed simple

2 ounces of fresh lemon juice

3 ounces of water

Shake with ice and dump into a tall glass. Of course, feel free to add vodka or gin if you could use a tipple.

One last twist on syrups: You can make what’s known as an oleo saccharum out of pretty much any citrus peel. Just peel the zest off of the fruit; cover it with sugar; and shake in a mason jar. Then give it the occasional shake until it’s a syrup. I will go into this more when I do an article on punches, but for now, here’s a little tip: You can use hot chilis with the same technique! I use a mix of serrano and Fresno chilis, and slice into fine rings. Ditch most of the seeds, but keep the membranes, and cover with lots of sugar. Shake in the jar … and I like to leave the sealed jar in the hot desert sun. This speeds the process along and adds some more ripeness and fruitiness to the finished syrup—but don’t leave it out there too long. Use a couple of teaspoons of this syrup, after straining, with an ounce of lime juice and two of tequila, and shake over ice next time you’re craving a spicy margarita. No, it’s not a margarita; it’s more of a gimlet. No need to tell anyone, though. Feel free to add some mezcal if you have trendy friends coming.

Oh, and you get candied chili peppers, too! Not only are they delicious; they make a great garnish. Drop a couple in the glass, or if you’re barbecuing chicken or pork, make an hors d'oeuvre with a chunk of meat and a candied chili ring on a toothpick. Talk about a pairing!

However you ride out the rest of the summer, now you can make it a little sweeter.

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

18 Jul 2019
by  - 

I’ll be honest: I’m not feeling very inspired this month.

My list of favorite cocktail places in the Coachella Valley hasn’t changed much this year. With the exception of the Del Rey (sorry for not covering you yet—it’s coming), it’s pretty much still the same seven or eight places. While there is no shortage of earnest people trying, I would like to be able to get a proper negroni or daiquiri before I can get something with beet juice and cachaça. You’ve got to crawl before you can walk, people.

We’re also in the middle of a ton of retrogrades and astrological horrors … and while I am not using that as an excuse, I think many of you can relate. So this month, you’re getting a thought piece on what it means to be a bartender—specifically, a bartender in the Coachella Valley.

I realized two insane truths recently: 1) Some guy named “Joe Pizzulo” sang “Never Gonna Let You Go” when I was certain it was James Ingram. 2) I can host an event, and people will show up. Seeing a crowd actually turn out for something as weird my “Tarot Workshop” at the fabulous Dead or Alive bar in Palm Springs was great … and exhausting.

This got me thinking about bartending, and the role of the bar and the bartender. I had a bar in front of me at Dead or Alive—as I always do at work. Could I have addressed a crowd without a bar in front of me?

What is the bar? Is it a stage? Is it a barrier? What is a bartender? What am I to you? When you look at me at the grocery store, like, “How do I know that guy?” it’s a little freaky. You don’t recognize me? Honestly, I talk to you three days a week for hours at a time. It must be like when I used to see a teacher out in public. She buys milk, too?!

The bar is like a sacred space, with the bartender as the shaman or priest. When one attends religious services, one (hopefully) leaves worldly problems at the door while walking into a sacred space. One does the same at a bar. The bar is a place of freedom and camaraderie, with the bartender being something like a friend—but a little removed, like a priest, or an actor, or something like that. I suppose this is why I wave at you, and you think, “How do I know that guy?”

It can be a lonely life, but luckily, we have other bartenders. Bartenders mostly hang out with bartenders, or other service-industry folk—maybe chefs here and there, or the server or host we’re dating … anyone who “gets it.” Is it any wonder that so few of us can make it long in this business … and if we do make it for a while, we never leave? It’s both a support system and a vicious circle. We spend a lot of time absorbing energy from everyone who walks in the door, and the rest of our time drinking over-proof rum and burdening other bartenders. We’re mostly introverted, and the question is: Were we introverted before we started? In my case, I can say “probably” … I was definitely the fat, nerdy kid, but I have always had a big mouth.

Of course, being a bartender in the Coachella Valley can be a little … different. Why does nearly every new-to-town entrepreneur seem to think you can bring in a consultant from San Francisco, an architect from Los Angeles and a manager from Brooklyn (who are all going to leave within six months) and succeed? Why not see what the local talent pool has to offer? There are many talented locals who would jump at the chance to take on a project. You want the good local people to work for you? Well, we take care of each other around here. No disrespect to the consultants—a lot of you are friends—but not everything that is a hit in the Meatpacking District will be a hit here.

The Coachella Valley could also use a more-robust nightlife scene. The number of questions I get every weekend in the range of, “So, what is, like … fun to do around here?” is in the dozens. Perhaps the tendency to drink by the pool all day or have bottomless mimosas is the real problem. That’s a pretty wicked combination. The fact that people occasionally bristle when I suggest a “gay bar” on a weekday (even if it’s a welcoming little spot like Retro Room—come on, people!) doesn’t help.

But there is hope. We have a new music venue, The Alibi, bringing cool and exciting acts to town (which you can read more about here), and an arcade and nostalgia bar called Glitch just getting rolling. (They’re both working on their cocktail programs as of writing, this so forgive my not talking about their drinks.) I am also aware there are new venues slated to open all over the place in the fall and winter … and that’s just in Palm Springs proper! In fact, the number of events and things to do has never been greater. FOMO is a real thing these days, and I hope to contribute to that in a small way.

So … get out there, people! If you’re a young bartender, it’s time to shine. Make your mark! The Coachella Valley needs you to step up—and I am just an email away if you’re in over your head.

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

18 Jun 2019
by  - 

Hot, isn’t it? Well, don’t fret; I am here to help. This month, I thought I would give you some basic tips and tricks to beat the heat—cocktail-wise, at least.

The most common question I ask guests at the bar is: “Shaken and citrusy, or stirred and boozy?” Why? Well, most people generally think of drinks as sweet or not sweet, which is understandable, based on the checkered history of cocktails in the last 70 years, but not really helpful when it comes to getting you into a cocktail you’ll love. If you went into a restaurant and told the server, “Nothing too salty,” without explaining you have hypertension or something, the server may think, “OK, these people think our chef isn’t good.” If you say to me, “Nothing too sweet,” I get it, but I also can’t help thinking that you think I suck at making drinks. My attitude on my better days is, to paraphrase one famous wine-maker, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

But I digress. Most of the guys (and some ladies) will answer, “Well, I want it boozy!” Of course you do, but you clearly didn’t grok what I meant. Most people, when it’s 105, actually want a citrusy and shaken cocktail—and don’t worry; it will be plenty boozy. That being said, a stirred drink can be wonderful on a hot day if prepared correctly. Let’s take the classic gin martini, for example. For the coldest and best martini, you need ice. That sounds trite, but most home bartenders (and some “pros”) don’t use enough ice when stirring a martini. Fill that baby up—like two-thirds of the stirring glass. Invest in something nice, or order a graduated Pyrex pitcher from your favorite internet monopoly; they look nerdy, and they’re cheap to boot.

Also, never make two martinis in the same pitcher; and have different ice on hand for different drinks. Here comes the science, people.

Ice, depending on how it’s cut, has different properties when used in cocktails. If you make a martini with crushed ice, due to the increased surface area of the ice, you’ll get a watered-down mess. Make a martini with one cube, and you’ll need to stir forever to achieve a properly chilled and diluted drink. What you want are evenly sized cubes, like from a classic ice tray, or in a pinch, the bags of ice from a convenience store. (If you’re looking for extra credit, get a block, and hammer it into 1- to 2-inch cubes.) Fill the glass past half after adding the desired ingredients, and use your senses to know when the drink is ready. A good guide is trusting your stir: When the ice and liquids start settling into their comfortable free states, the drink is ready. It’s as cold as it’s going to be.

Practicing your stir not only makes you look cool, but also helps you make a better drink. When your pitcher gets cold on the outside, and the stir becomes silky-smooth, you’re done. If you do want to use the fancy big cubes, stir your cocktail over smaller ice first to get it colder than a text breakup, and then strain over the big cube. Keep your stemware in the freezer while you prepare your martini as well; it looks great and helps the chill. Some people who come into the bar tell me they keep their gin in the freezer for martinis, which is fine if you want to just drink cold, undiluted gin—but that ain’t no martini, sir. Water is an ingredient. A good compromise is one I read in Japanese bar-hero Kazuo Uyeda’s book: Keep it in the fridge instead. That way, you still get some dilution, but a stiffer and colder drink. The vermouth should always be in the fridge, and you should be using it. These days, when it comes to gin or whiskey, “Skipping the vermouth is uncouth”—copyright me.

Oh, about those vodka martinis: Skip the vermouth; add olive brine; no judgement. If you stir, you’ll get a silkier drink; if you shake, you’ll get a colder, but more-watery finished product. It’s a matter of preference, and the fridge trick still applies.

Now, for the citrusy stuff. The first thing you’re going to need is what I call “basic sour.” Feel free to experiment a bit here. Start with a cup of fresh lemon or lime juice, and a cup of 1:1 simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water by volume or weight), depending on the desired drink. Let’s use lime, and say it’s a daiquiri. Using 2 ounces of rum, add an ounce of lime to the shaker and a half-ounce of the simple. Shake it really well, until the shaker frosts up, and pour. It might taste too tart, so make one with 3/4 of an ounce of simple. Try it with an ounce of simple as well, for comparison; I have seen recipes using that spec, mostly from liquor brands for some reason, but it’s a little sweet for my tastes. Play around with fine sugar, too! We use simple at bars for convenience, but a powdered sugar (not the kind you’d use for frosting with the corn starch, but the super-fine stuff) daiquiri is divine.

Once you have your proportions, you have a tool in your tool-set. Want a Collins? Use gin and lemon with your fancy new techniques, and put it in a tall glass with soda water. How about a mojito? Just add mint to the daiquiri recipe; give it a light shake with crushed ice (for Pete’s sake, don’t abuse the mint too much), and add soda in a tall glass. The list is nearly endless. Margaritas are an important exception: They use a “daisy” template, which is (and, again, play around with it) two parts spirit, one part orange liqueur of your preference, one part fresh lime, and a little sugar or simple. Find your preferred proportions, and have the best margarita on the block—but if you add orange juice, I’ll disown you.

About crushed ice … did you know you can get it at Sonic? Well, you can. Just don’t use it for everything. I know, it’s super fun, and everyone goes nuts when they see it, but it’s not fit for a gin-and-tonic or other highball-style drinks where the carbonation matters. That includes the Collins, but the mojito loves crushed ice. So do tiki drinks in general (and when I finally do a real tiki column, we’ll get into that).

I’ll finish with a shameless plug: I have uploaded videos on my Cryptic Cocktails blog showing you how to make a perfectly cold and balanced martini, as well as daiquiri, featuring two of the best bartenders in Palm Springs, as a companion piece to this column. There is also some stuff on there you might like that doesn’t fit the parameters of On Cocktails; do check it out if you can’t get enough cocktail nerdery!

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

18 May 2019
by  - 

My kitchen counter looks like a biology lab.

Milky water and floating produce sit in jars that burp when I loosen the cap a tiny bit. The smells of cabbage, garlic and onions waft through the air. The sauerkraut, in the largest jar, is diminishing steadily by the day—and the cauliflower giardiniera is being enjoyed as well. The slimy pickles have been a harder sell; they taste, as my chef put it, “Weird.” They’re definitely pickles, but kind of carbonated.

Microorganisms are a crapshoot … what can I say?

My expedition into natural fermentation got me thinking about the less-than-sexy process of making very-sexy booze. You see, I am what they call a “nerd.” Being a bartender hides that a bit, but the craft-cocktail scene is infested with us. Why else would we care about a cocktail from 1879 when vodka-and-soda pays the bills better? Because I am a nerd, I care—and wish others also cared—about how these amazing alcoholic products are made. Liquor companies throw around phrases like “single barrel” or “10 times distilled” or whatever the marketing term of the moment is, but how many actual consumers or bartenders really know how the sausage is made, so to speak?

I am reading Proof: The Science of Booze, by Adam Rogers, which covers everything about alcohol from yeast and sugar to hangovers. Without giving away his tales of the unsung people who contributed to the history of distilled liquor (and you should definitely pick up a copy for your bar library …. wait, you don’t have a bar library?), I thought I would share some of the basics about what goes into making your favorite spirit.

Let’s start with sugar. Most people have heard the terms “malt whiskey” or “malt beverage,” but what does that actually mean? Malting is a process by which grains, often barley, are turned from starch—a form of sugar that yeast can’t eat—into something that yeast can eat. I am going to skip most of the technical jargon here, but basically you trick the grain into “thinking” it should start breaking down its starchy body so it can grow.

Scotch-makers love to brag about their malting floors, where earnest men with shovels and boots turn grain in an old barn. Sure, some (tiny) distilleries actually do that for their entire output. Chances are, however, the Scotch you last enjoyed wasn’t really made that way. Yes, it was malted—at a large industrial operation controlled by one of the major beverage giants. When an American distillery attempted to skip the malting stage using a process created by Japanese scientist Jokichi Takamine, the facility suffered a massive fire, as well as a more-than-suspicious comedy of errors putting it out. As a result, malted grain is here to stay; after all, tradition reigns in the high-end spirits world.

Other spirits—rum, brandy, tequila/mezcal, etc.—that are not made from grain don’t have to worry about this step at all. Makers of cognac and tequila still emphasize the sources of their sugars—limited quantities of grapes and blue agave, respectively, both of which need to be grown in a small region as dictated by law. Some higher-end vodka-makers often market their source sugars, so only rum-makers tend to stay away from glamorizing the humble grass that makes their product … at the moment, at least.

Sugar is just sugar until the magic happens—and that magic comes from yeast. But where does the yeast come from? It’s often already just sitting in the environment ready to go. If you leave wine grapes in a bucket long enough, they will become wine (of a sort). According to various scientists interviewed in Proof, humans may have “domesticated” yeast, just as they domesticated the wine grapes. Perhaps the yeast “used” us too, because as we spread the v. vinifera, we spread the yeasts along with them. The funny thing is the ancients had no real concept of yeast—just that grapes became wine in the way that clouds become rain, or something like that.

Brewers both old and modern use closely guarded strains of yeast that contribute to the specific flavors of their beer—but they always have to worry about getting the right flavors and not letting unwanted yeasts ruin the finished product. These days, strains of yeast are so specific that someone can actually go into a tasting room and try products that are identical, aside from the yeast used. I’ve done this myself at a bourbon distillery, and I can tell you the differences range from subtle to striking. When you buy a “single barrel” bourbon, you’re buying a particular batch with a particular yeast blend, and not hedging your bets on the distiller blending different batches together. It’s a matter of trust that the distiller is choosing the whiskey where the yeast, among other factors, is giving you a flavor profile that justifies the higher price.

What other factors make alcohol taste differently from maker to maker? Many things, depending on the actual spirit. There is the “mash bill” for whiskey, the agave and elevation for mezcal, the barrels used for aged spirits, the actual method of distillation—and a maker is going to put whatever makes the product unique and marketable on the label. Since many get their sugars and yeasts from the same large facilities, the production methods are often what get marketed.

So … what do those pickles on my counter have to do with making all that sweet hooch? The bacteria and yeast in the air that are turning my chilis into beautiful hot sauce also affect the methods that lead to the creation of spirits. While you may not taste the byproducts in the finished spirit in the way that you might in a wine or beer, the fermentation process is still one of the beautiful mysteries of nature. It’s controlled chaos, where we as humanity stumbled for millennia without scientific precision, using our taste buds are our guide. Apparent mistakes can become beloved styles of food or drink as a culture embraces their particular microbes. Maybe my pickles will be next … that is, if I can get anyone to try them.

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

Page 1 of 7