CVIndependent

Mon08202018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Kevin Carlow

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, grapefrui, 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..

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..

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..

Sometimes, when you feel like you may have run out of inspiration, you have to go back to the beginning.

Allow me to explain myself.

I sometimes wonder how much of a cocktail scene there is left to cover in the Coachella Valley. Most of my “research trips” land me in yet another Moscow mule or margarita joint—one after another. Don’t get me wrong; these can be fine drinks when properly executed. In fact, these are perfectly sane choices for many establishments, whose clientele or menus warrant keeping things simple and refreshing … but as far as I am concerned, I don’t think anyone wants to read the musings of a Moscow mule correspondent.

After more than a few of these outings this month, I was feeling a little uninspired. (By the way: Shoot me a line if there is a bartender/program you think I should spotlight, especially if it’s in the valley outside of Palm Springs.) Then I remembered that there was a glaring hole in my coverage.

I have never truly written about Seymour’s, located inside Mr. Lyons at 233 E. Palm Canyon Drive. Yeah, I mentioned that I worked there, and shared a recipe or two, but I never really wrote about it; some sort of journalistic integrity prevented me from self-promoting columns. It’s only now, after at least six months of being back in Palm Springs, that it dawned on me that I never gave one of the top cocktail bars in Palm Springs its due. Now that I work elsewhere, I can finally do so.

In case you have ever wondered how this vodka-bashing Boston curmudgeon began terrorizing your local bar scene … let’s just say I was here on vacation from the San Diego suburbs, and yadda yadda yadda, I got offered a job as the first bartender at Seymour’s (following co-owner Steen Bojsen-Möller). The rest is history. The two of us rocked it behind the stick for a few months, trying to get people to walk into a steakhouse and go through the heavy velvet curtain to find us. Then Zane Tessay joined the team, and the three of us put up with caravans of people walking through and rubbing their hands on everything, saying, ‘Ooh, great space!’ … and not buying a darn drink. Let me tell you: Building a bar clientele in a place without a sign or an address ain’t easy. But we did it. It took lots of pretzels.

The reality is that a bar is more than drinks, and Seymour’s is a perfect example. It has a great back bar, a two-way mirror that hides a TV (campy ’80s movies and commercials are regular features), a spectacular patio setup and a hip playlist; Seymour’s could serve only vodka-sodas, and I would show up. The drinks are really tasty, though, with a wide range of both classics and originals.

The Little Owl—Steen’s mix of rye whiskey, walnut liqueur, amaro and IPA syrup (take IPA and boil it down; then add sugar; and … actually, don’t do it; it’ll stink up your house)—is a bartender’s after-work favorite. “Zane’s Avocado Drink” (it will never have another name to me) is a creamy, spa-ready mix of gin, mint, lime and, yes, avocado. Avocado isn’t your thing? Try the Ocotillo Blossom, a mix of bourbon, bell pepper and egg white. Steen’s Desert Yardarm (vodka, yellow chartreuse, basil, lemon and soda) and Chamo Car (chamomile-infused brandy, lemon and black-pepper honey) are guest favorites as well.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “Gin N Jams,” the Wednesday night tradition with discounted gin drinks and rockin’ old vinyl on a classic turntable. Feel free to bring a record or three from your own collection.

Speaking of former co-workers and beautiful bars, there is now, finally, Paul. I had the pleasure of working with proprietor Paul O’Halloran at Mr. Lyons during my tenure at Seymour’s. On our nights behind the bar together, it was a rare combination of New York and Boston—one part Broadway, one part Fenway. I have known for some time that he and his husband (also named Paul) were opening a bar (with food!) of their own at the corner of Vista Chino and Gene Autry Trail—so it goes without saying that I have been waiting to see this place open.

I am thrilled with the results. This place has personality. The original back bar looks straight out of a movie; the fact that it was previously sitting unloved in an empty place is a sin. The walls are a tasteful dark hue, and there are subtle faux-Chinese touches appropriate to the address.

Despite Paul’s background, this ain’t no “craft cocktail” bar. Yes, the cocktails are certainly crafted, but don’t look for a list of drinks with clever names and occult ingredients. Come here for a properly made dry martini—like the one I had on my first visit, with the lavender-forward Dorothy Parker gin. This, of course, led to my quoting her famous quatrain regarding martinis … which after a little digging, I learned that she likely never wrote—but she did at least inspire it.

Drink anything you want here—as long as it’s a proper drink. Want a margarita to go with the guacamole and chips? De nada. A negroni with your homemade meatballs? Prego. Have a Manhattan with your steak frites, or Cosmopolitans to live out your Carrie Bradshaw moments. While I am sure a Last Word cocktail wouldn’t be a problem, please don’t ask for muddled lychee and cilantro.

When I asked Paul if he had anything he wanted to say, he thought for a second and said: “No more than two checks.” Bravo.

The sign outside just says “Bar/Food,” and the place is wedged between a carneceria and what appears to be some sort of cannabis operation. Paul may look like it’s closed. It’s not. Bring a photo of your pooch for the nascent “Wall of Dogs.” I realize this just sounded like something Stefon would tout on Saturday Night Live. Trust me, it’s a real place.

Forgive me if this whole piece seems like a cheap endorsement of my friends—but if you haven’t been to either of these places, you really should go check them out. I would gladly drink a Moscow mule in either bar. That’s high praise.

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..

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..

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..

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.

Sometimes, I go looking for innovative cocktails; sometimes, I go looking for good happy hours.

I’ve done a little of both recently.

After a long afternoon of exploring the East Valley, and my first trip to the Salton Sea, I needed a little food and drink to resuscitate my sun-worn state. I remembered hearing about the happy hour at The Nest, and made a beeline for Indian Wells. I caught them on a slow day, which was fine by me.

I started with a solid, old-school old fashioned, and a tall glass of water. (Hey, it was a long day out in the desert.) I chatted with the staff, and when the bartender found out I was a craft-bar guy, he busted my chops a bit, saying The Nest is too busy for any of that craft stuff. While one should always aim for a balanced drink no matter how busy you get, I agreed that going all the way into a full craft program isn’t always worth it. On the bartender’s recommendation, I filled up on some Adriatic sausages with house-made pita, which were very tasty (and only $8 during happy hour!).

Then I saw him pull out a bottle of slivovitz … and I thought: Here we go!

I love to work with all manners of fruit brandy, and apple brandy has been a particular favorite as of late. Well, this is nothing like those elegant spirits on our back bar: It’s a harsh kick to the palate, made all over Eastern Europe and the Balkans, usually from plums. If you’ve had grappa, you might get the idea; it generally tastes as much like a plum as grappa tastes like a grape (although some versions are fruitier). I often drink a Bulgarian cousin to this spirit, called rakia. These Balkan brandies are rough at first … and at second, and at third. But with some practice, they go great with a plate of sausage or stuffed grape leaves, or frankly, whatever, because you’re tipsy anyway by then. I showed a little restraint and stopped after one (OK, maybe two), and it was a nice little evening. I won’t be featuring any slivovitz cocktails anytime soon, however.

An evening of exploring El Paseo found me at Sullivan’s Steakhouse, and it was a Thursday, so I was happy to hear it was happy hour all night. I wasn’t even in a cocktail mood, but for $7, how could I resist?

I started with a barrel-aged Vieux Carre. A quick aside: I loathe barrel aging cocktails. They usually taste oxidized, flabby or muddy to me. Maybe people overdo the aging; maybe it’s a crime against nature, and the gods punish it accordingly. What made me give it a go this time was that there were no barrels, but small bottles with oak staves immersed inside instead. I figured this was a good way to keep an eye on the process, at least. My first sip was, “Uh oh, here we go again,” but then I realized the drink wasn’t fully diluted yet (a problem with using a large ice cube). After some patient stirring, I gave it a second sip, and it was pretty good. It had an unusual, almost-spicy flavor that wasn’t off-putting and actually kind of intriguing. I ordered oysters Rockefeller to complete the New Orleans pairing. I still prefer to see my drink made to order, but this time, the cocktail gods were clement.

Next I tried “The Ice and the Rye,” a mix of rye, Cointreau, mint, berry preserves and lemon. I was wondering how this was going to work out; having used preserves in drinks, I know how hard it is to get a consistent measurement for balance. Man … this was almost there. The flavor was nice, but the jam and Cointreau overpowered the lemon and rye a bit. As the large cube melted, it got better, and by the end, I was enjoying it. I definitely would like less sweetener next time, though.

I had a great time joking around with the staff and stuffing my face, and I really appreciated it more when I stopped into Mastro’s Steakhouse down the road … where the drinks were almost all $20 or more. While the drink I had, the Scotsman—a mix of Islay scotch, Aperol, basil and grapefruit juice—was much better than the last $20 drink I had in the valley, it was a shame I couldn’t afford to try another.

To end things, I violated my usual rule about avoiding a place when it first opens, and I stopped for some sushi at the much-anticipated Sandfish. (Sandwish has ties to El Paseo, as it has the same chef/owner as The Venue, so I am calling this a segue.) This is a Chad Austin (Bootlegger Tiki) cocktail program, so I had been hearing about the ambitious list for months through our Palm Springs Bartender Club meetings. (Just kidding … we don’t really have those, although it is a tightly knit scene.) Boy, is this menu ambitious—he has a milk punch on there, for gosh sakes!

If you haven’t had a milk punch, you’re not alone. A bar manager has to be a little crazy to put one on a list. They take days to make—three days for this one, specifically. I did a lightweight version once, and it sold so well, I kept running out. Basically, you take a spirit, spices, tea, fruit—or whatever else you want, really—and pour it into milk. There are recipes going back to colonial days; Ben Franklin had one, no kidding. The original purpose was to tame the harsh flavors left by ancient distilling methods … but today, they are just plain cool. This one is heavy-duty, with seven spirits, lots of fruit and some spices. After you have your ingredient mixture, you pour it into some scalded milk (although I’ve had great success with cold milk, too). Then, techniques vary, but I like to curdle the milk with citric acid. Most people use lemon juice. Then you rack it and let the curds settle. Filter it—and if those fickle gods are smiling, you will have a clear mixture with only about 10 percent loss to the curds.

But back to Sandfish’s milk punch: The first thing I noticed was the oily note of mezcal, and the herbal hit of chartreuse (yellow?), and maybe whiskey, too, with clove, anise and maybe pineapple. (I don’t want to give away any secrets accidentally, but feel pretty confident about those.) I like my milk punches shaken; it gives them a cool whey protein foam, and that didn’t happen here, but that didn’t affect the experience for me. Give it a try.

The banana, yuzu and matcha sour was tasty as well, although I might have preferred the Japanese whisky highball, also featured for only $10, to pair with my nigiri sushi. All and all, Sandfish is a nice addition to the cocktail scene.

So, whether you want cheap booze and eats or obscure cocktail techniques, get out, and get your fill. To heck with New Year’s resolutions …

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..

Last month, I admitted experimenting with vodka. Well, I think it’s time for a talk.

Due to the timing of my lease ending, rent going up by $100 a month (seriously?), looming air conditioning bills and summer break at Seymour’s approaching; I decided to spend some time back in the ancestral homeland known as Massachusetts.

How long will I be back here in the East? We shall see, but the desert has certainly grabbed a hold on me, and I can feel it tugging already. Before leaving, I spent quite a bit of time saying my temporary goodbye by consuming potables at my neighborhood bars and restaurants. Being that my neighborhood was the Arenas Road area of downtown Palm Springs, this meant a fair amount of vodka.

Of course, one does not need to drink vodka on Arenas; the bartenders at Chill reach for the Jameson bottle as soon as they see me walk in the door, and on the rare event I make it to Bongo Johnny’s before 2 a.m., they do the same—but vodka is the drink of choice for most people on Arenas, it seems.

I believe every alcoholic spirit has its time and place. When the temps breach 100 degrees, and you are marathon day-drinking with friends and strangers, vodka makes sense. Straight out of the bottle, ice-cold from the freezer with a pickle chaser? Yes, please! 

I was intrigued to see a new place serving both food and drink open on Arenas, after seeing it under construction for months. Blackbook didn’t even have a sign up when I first visited, but some friends who were sort of “unofficial consultants” on the project had informed me that it was, in fact, open. Not only was it open; it was rather busy—word gets around in a small town. I met up with my companions, who informed me that the owners had never done a restaurant before, which is usually not a good sign. The first thing I noticed was the giant wall of Hanson vodkas—different flavors in various hues. Normally, I would find that off-putting, like walking into a bar from a commercial, but I really grew to like the bold statement: “We’re a vodka bar; we’re not pretending to be something else.” The look of the uniform bottles in sharply different hues was rather striking, actually—a back-bar Andy Warhol, in a way.

My friends had informed me ahead of time that there would not yet be a cocktail menu. (Again, this was during the soft opening.) Being that I was a touch hung over that day, I had bartender (and neighbor—I had no idea he was working there!) Justin whip me up something that would be refreshing and light. He had been churning out tall glasses of a sort of cucumber vodka mojito, and suggested one. Sure, why not?

Remember when I said every spirit has a time and a place? Well, when the Devil’s Revenge fried-chicken sandwich came out in all its infernal glory, I was glad to have a cooling cucumber-and-mint drink to soothe the heat. I was told I was the first one to finish the sandwich, after a couple of weeks of selling them. Can’t take that away from me! As for the cocktail list, bartender Daved has some vodka and non-vodka concoctions on the way, including one with bourbon, honey and grapefruit named “Honey Booze-Booze.” He made one for my companion, and I tried it after my mouth stopped burning. Fitting for a party street, it was a tall drink of danger—sort of a whiskey punch and Brown Derby mixed together.

You might be asking: “Wait … did he just do a write up about a bar without a cocktail program? Who wrote this, and what did you do with that other guy?!” Yes, I did, and not just to brag about my tolerance for spicy sandwiches; I am trying to prove a point: Vodka is, by its own nature, an unpretentious spirit. It has no age designation and no geographic attribution, and it is made out of the humblest of raw materials. The cognac maker can boast about his grand cru, the Scotch distiller his merroir, and the bourbon baron his rickhouse; even the humble mezcalero has his own terroir and agave varietal over which to swoon. However, the vodka distiller has merely humble grain or another starch. Does “winter wheat” get your heart racing? How about “estate-grown potatoes”? Sexy, right? Six times distilled? Ten times? I hate to break it to you, folks, but that is basically all a bunch of marketing hogwash. Don’t believe me? Get a few drinks into someone who actually makes the stuff. I have—several times, in fact. They know it’s malarkey, and without getting into the nitty-gritty of how continuous stills work, they’re … well, continuous. Distillate goes round and round and gets separated off constantly, with no way to say how many times it has all been distilled. You could use a pot still, of course, but the point of a pot still is to leave more congeners (things that aren’t alcohol and water; they bring flavors and, sometimes, hangovers) in the mix instead of just making neutral grain spirits, so then you have to distill it more times to get it mostly flavorless.

When I worked (briefly) at a place that had more than 200 different vodkas on the menu, and I did my best to know a little something about each one. At that restaurant, I was probably one of the worst servers, but, dammit, I knew the vodka flavor profiles! There were the bread or biscuit ones, the vanilla and butterscotch ones, the spicy ones made with rye (sorry, Polish-vodka drinkers; it’s usually rye, not potato!), the soapy French and Swedish ones, and the sharp and racy Russian ones. That's just the tip of the iceberg … seriously. But the funny thing that happens when you make a cocktail, basically any cocktail, with vodka is that you lose most, if not all, of that flavor. That is why craft bartenders balk when you say, “I want a vodka cocktail, not too sweet!”

But if you still insist on ordering a vodka cocktail at a craft bar, here’s how to get something you actually want to drink:

1. Are you feeling something citrusy? Want something with berries, or herbs? Perhaps something more adventurous? Lead with that: “I’m looking for something with citrus and mint, or maybe basil?”

2. Are there any flavors you hate? Tell me: “I don't like grapefruit, though.”

3. Do you want it in a martini glass (“up”) or with soda (“long”)?

4. Puh-lease don’t say “not too sweet.” I know I am fighting a losing battle here, but saying that leads me to feel like you think I don't know how to balance a cocktail properly. I know that you don't mean it that way, but it is not a great way to start our relationship! If you think a bartender is going to serve you a sugary mess, don't order a custom drink from him or her.

5. If dietary restrictions prevent you from having any sugar at all, like even from juice or vermouth, let me know. That leaves you with maybe two drinkable cocktails … sorry! And, please, no Splenda or Equal; that is just awful.

Friends, stay cool during the summer months. I will still be involved in this column while I am away; you’ll see how next month.

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..

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