CVIndependent

Mon11192018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Cocktails

27 Apr 2018
by  - 

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..

23 Mar 2018
by  - 

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..

16 Feb 2018
by  - 

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.

30 Jan 2018
by  - 

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 …

25 Dec 2017
by  - 

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..

19 Nov 2017
by  - 

I’m in a cave underneath the blue agave fields of the Tequila Fortaleza distillery in the town of Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico. The man talking to me is Guillermo Sauza, a lovable but gruff cowboy type whose family has produced tequila in the appellation for more than 140 years, and who is now the head jefe of Fortaleza—in my opinion, one of the world’s most beautiful spirits.

In the candlelit cave—decorated with skulls and skeletons, marigold garlands and multi-colored picado paper banners for the upcoming Dia de los Muertos celebration—Guillermo is giving his sermon on his family’s history and how he ended up holding Fortaleza’s reins. Meanwhile, the tequila I’ve been tasting the better part of the day is getting to my head.

According to Guillermo, his great-great-grandfather Don Cenobio founded his first distillery—La Perseverancia—in 1873 and was the first person to export tequila to the United States. Guillermo’s granddad, Francisco Javier, later made his family’s tequila one of the most well-known brands in the world and helped establish the Denomination of Origin for tequila.

Don Javier, Guillermo's grandfather, also bought a piece of land in Tequila and built a grand hacienda on the highest point of town overlooking a small distillery, named La Fortaleza. Don Javier produced tequila at La Fortaleza until 1968 before turning it into a museum, and then sold the entire family business in 1976. However, in 1999, Guillermo began the process of turning the museum back into a functional distillery and, after years of hard work, he got Destileria La Fortaleza up and running again, making tequila in the same way it was made more than 100 years ago—with a small brick oven to cook the agave; a tahona (a large stone wheel) to squeeze the juices out of the agave; wooden tanks for fermentation; and the two original small copper pots for distillation.

That’s where I am right now. And the reason I’m here is because I’m a bartender. Twice a year, Fortaleza brings in more than a few lucky barkeeps to learn about tequila firsthand, from a handful of small-brand leaders, in the only place in the world where the spirit can be produced.

On the three-day voyage, I’ll visit the towns of Tlaquepaque, Tequila and Guadalajara; will tour the former Sauza family estate, which is now a museum dedicated to tequila and the family’s history; tour three distilleries—Tequila Fortaleza, Tequila Arette and Tequila Don Fulano; attend a costume party inside the high white and red walls of Fortaleza; visit the glassmaker in Tonala where a large portion of Fortaleza’s bottles are hand blown; taste single-batch tequilas at the home of the proprietor of Tequila Calle 23; catch a lucha libre wrestling match; and drink a ton of tequila (perhaps at times too much).

I could bore you to death with the details of my trip, but who wants that? What this article is about is tequila. However, I must mention that spending time in Jalisco made me appreciate the history of tequila, the labor and love that goes into it, and the essence and nuance that comes out of it. My hope is that you will as well.

The facts: Tequila is a mescal—a distilled alcoholic beverage made from any type of agave plant native to Mexico. However, tequila, specifically, must be made from the blue agave plant and, like champagne or Cognac, it can only be produced in a certain region—the state of Jalisco, and limited areas in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas, where the soil is ideal for agave growth.

Agave, a succulent with more than 400 species, takes between eight and 12 years to reach maturity before it can be harvested. When ready, the agave hearts, or piñas (which can weigh more than 100 pounds), are peeled and then steamed in pressure cookers called autoclaves, or baked in ovens, and then crushed. The sweet agave juice is extracted, fermented and distilled, usually twice. The best tequilas come from baked agave, fermented with proprietary yeasts and distilled in copper-pot stills. Good tequila is made from 100 percent pure agave, but cheaper tequila, called mixto, is made of agave and other sugars. There are four main tequila categories: Blanco (silver) is aged for no more than two months and is clear; reposado (rested) is aged between two and 12 months in oak and is golden-colored; añejo (aged) is aged between one and three years in oak and is a whisky-like brown; and, a new category as of 2006, extra-añejo (extra-aged) is aged more than three years in oak. Typically, tequila is aged in used bourbon barrels.

Like any aged spirit, the longer it rests in oak, the softer and smoother it will likely be. Blancos tend to be a little hotter, while añejos and extra-añejos will be less harsh, and often contain flavors from the barrel’s wood. Blancos and reposados are good for citrusy cocktails like the margarita, while reposado, añejo and extra-añejo tequilas can and should be sipped like fine whiskies, or used to create nice, stirred, spirit-forward cocktails.

There are two unofficial styles of tequila—highland and lowland. Highland style tequila is generally brighter and more acidic with more olive and pepper flavor. Lowland style is usually fruitier and more tropical.

In Mexico, the most traditional way to drink tequila is neat, without lime and salt. (Sorry, spring-breakers.) It is also popular in some regions to drink fine tequila with a side of sangrita—a sweet, sour and spicy drink typically made using tomato juice, citrus and spices.

Tequila gained popularity in the United States during Prohibition, and the margarita helped the tequila boom in America. Margarita is the Spanish word for “daisy.” The “tequila daisy”—a drink made of tequila, citrus, sweetener and/or orange liqueur—was popular in Tijuana and other parts of Mexico in the 1920s and 30s. Another popular tequila cocktail is the paloma, a drink made with tequila and grapefruit soda; variations with fresh grapefruit juice are also delicious.

Other popular classic tequila drinks you can look to enjoy include the Mexican firing squad, made with tequila, grenadine, bitters and lime; the el diablo, featuring crème de cassis, lime and ginger beer; and a riff on the old fashioned called the Oaxaca old fashioned, created by Phil Ward at New York’s Death and Co., containing tequila, mescal, bitters and agave nectar.

Locally, two of the restaurants with the finest tequila selections are the uber-popular Las Casuelas Terraza in the heart of downtown Palm Springs, and El Jefe, the stylish taqueria inside the Saguaro Palm Springs.

To buy your own tequila, look to Total Wine and Spirits in Palm Desert. The store has roughly 40 shelves full of tequila. If you can’t find what you’re looking for there, I don’t know what to tell you. In the western end of the valley, your best options are BevMo and the family-owned Desert Wine and Spirits inside the Go Deli Market, both on the south end of downtown Palm Springs.

Like any spirit, what goes into tequila is what comes out of it. Appreciate it with every sip.

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

Page 2 of 5