It’s time to take a break from walking around town, grabbing drinks at local establishments and pontificating. Instead, let’s talk cocktails and cocktail culture for a bit!
Tipplers of all types can enhance nights on the town by being savvy about what to expect from an establishment. How do you know what a bar does well? Well, there are certain tells, and with just a little knowledge, you can get the most out of your night, no matter where you go. Just like you would have more fun off-road with a Jeep than a Porsche, and the opposite on a racetrack, understanding what a bar does best is easy to discover once you learn what to look for.
First, look at the back bar (what we bartenders call the shelves behind the bar). There is no truer sign of what the bar director envisions for the bar program: How much room is given to flavored vodkas? How many labels are variations of the same brand? If the answer to either is more than a few, you are not in a craft-cocktail bar. You are in a bar that has probably been in business for a long time (there’s nothing wrong with that) that doesn’t want to challenge guests (which, again, makes business sense). The guest wants a “(blank) and soda,” and they get it. This bar is not trying to make the guest read a menu of Prohibition-era variations. Don’t see a bottle of Green Chartreuse? Then don’t order a Last Word at this bar. Don’t see little bottles of bitters on the bar—or at least that stalwart white-paper wrapper of Angostura? Then this place is probably not going to make a good old fashioned. I spent a lot of time over my long career working at places like this, and plenty of good bartenders still do. Maybe they make great money; maybe they have fun at work, a good relationship with ownership, or aren’t into cocktails. There’s no sense trying to embarrass him or her by ordering a Penicillin.
So … how do you make the most out of drinking here? Be specific: “A Manhattan, two parts to one rye whiskey to vermouth, with three dashes of bitters, stirred, with twist of orange.” If the bartender says they don’t have rye, gives you a blank stare, or says they don’t have bitters, perhaps you should just have a bourbon and soda. We are past the point where this should still be excusable, but it will happen. If this is a restaurant you really like otherwise, let the bartender or manager know that you would come in more often if they could make your drink. They may take the hint!
Also: The next time you have a great … let’s say a Manhattan, ask the bartender for the recipe. (Say: “This is great; what are your specs on this drink?” You’ll sound like a pro.) That way you can get it the way you want anywhere, theoretically.
Now, let’s say the back bar is super-varied, perhaps with brands you aren’t familiar with, and lacking some of the famous labels. It would seem you have found yourself a craft program! This is a truer sign than twisty mustaches and suspenders. Are the bottles mostly whiskey, gin, tequila or rum back there? Maybe they’re dominated by bitter-sweet bottles with Italian names, or mescal—that would tell you how the program is grounded. A whiskey bar should still be able to make a margarita, of course, but chances are the bartender is more proud of his or her classic sour. Looks can be deceiving, of course; we only have two mezcals at Seymour’s, for instance, but I am super-proud of my mezcal drinks. Nine times out of 10, though, the extent of a bar’s selection is a good sign of its strength.
So, how do you make the most out of your experience? Well, firstly, please don’t ask which drinks are “sweet.” A good craft program is going to have balanced drinks—sweet, tart and bitter, all in the right proportions. Save that question for the flavored-vodka bars!
Secondly, if you normally drink vodka, please give gin a chance. I have drinks that use gin and taste nothing like that plastic-bottle stuff you got sick drinking in 1988. Yes, I can substitute vodka, but I promise it won’t taste as good; vodka gets pushed around by strong flavors, trust me. Start with a Bee’s Knees or a Corpse Reviver No. 2, and you will be pleasantly surprised. If gin is still too scary, maybe try a fruit brandy. They are generally clear and like vodka in many ways, but retain some of the natural flavor of the fruit. I use Clear Creek pear brandy often; pisco (a South American brandy made with grapes) used to make a classic sour is another great choice for those who don’t like brown spirits.
Thirdly, please don’t rewrite a recipe you haven’t tried. We get people all the time asking for “no simple syrup” or “no egg white” or whatever. If you have dietary restrictions, just let us know, and we can tailor a drink just for you. Just want rum and lime juice? Cool; I think it would be better with a little sugar, but if you insist, I will be happy to make it. But, really, there’s no need to deconstruct a balanced, complicated drink to get something the bartender won’t be proud to serve. Besides, egg whites are delicious in cocktails, so give them a chance! Trust me—it’s a lot more work to put them into drinks, and I wouldn’t recommend them if I weren’t convinced they make a better product.
I know I sound preachy or fussy, but I promise you most of us are not stuck up divas. I drink a beer and a shot when I go out after work much of the time, and so do most of my bartender friends. We just are proud of what we make, and want you to enjoy our drinks. (That said, if you see the bartender up to his or her eyeballs in drink orders, ordering a vodka soda instead of a Ramos fizz is just fine!)
Wait … did I say I was going to take a break from pontificating? Well, sorry, I can’t help it, and here’s just a little more before I conclude: Not every place needs a craft program, but every place should make balanced drinks, and have pride in what they do. It’s nice to see that here in the Coachella Valley, there is an honest desire on the part of the service industry to raise the quality level of the local cocktail scene.
In the upcoming months, I will be exploring two different approaches by two of the bigger players in town: Workshop’s new endeavor at Truss and Twine, and the Taco Maria-designed program at the Ace Hotel and Swim Club. I will also be checking out smaller bar programs around the valley that are taking pride in what they do, and I am always happy to hear suggestions of places that might not be on my radar.
I was feeling a bit nostalgic. Perhaps it was due to a post-holiday malaise; maybe I was simply succumbing to the general trend in popular culture.
Whatever the cause, I began reminiscing on my first experiences drinking in public places: a smoky blues club, Chinese restaurant lounges, fancy dinners out with family, etc. While I was unable to locate a smoky blues club here in the Coachella Valley (send me suggestions!), I did visit two analogues of the other places to see how they matched up with my first memories of drinking.
I had never been to Melvyn’s before, but I felt like I had: So many people have told me about the place that I had a pretty good mental picture before walking in for the first time—and that picture was pretty spot-on. It was busy for a weekday (judging by the comments of the regulars surrounding me), but I managed to snag a prime barstool. I usually can; it’s kind of my superpower.
Surrounded by pictures of faces of celebrities living and deceased, I settled in and made friends with a couple of Canadian teetotalers next to me. They said they came here all the time, and were wondering if I was here to see it before the new ownership possibly changes things (which is apparently a big concern among regulars).
The bartender, Michael, was working the whole restaurant alone. I got anxiety just watching him, but he kept his cool. The maître d’ made the rounds and knew the guests by name. I asked the maître d’ what time the music started, and he pointed at the piano player: “At 7, or whenever the spirit moves him.” A minute or two later, the tinkling of ivory floated out from the corner. I guess the spirit was moving him—as it was beginning to move me.
I got a dry martini … what else am I going to put on a napkin featuring Frank Sinatra’s face? I ordered Bombay gin—craft gin’s not an option here. Shaken lightly, giant olives, hardly any vermouth … yeah, this is not the way you’d get it at my bar, but there are eras to cocktails, and they need to be acknowledged. For a place from this era, the tinkling of chip ice against the thin walls of a three-part shaker was a sound of success. I’m sure even Dale DeGroff was shaking plenty of gin martinis once upon a time. (That said, if you work at any place built in the last 20 years, and you shake my gin martini … well, let’s not go there.) Cold gin, a shrimp cocktail, piano music, Old Blue Eyes regarding me warmly from his paper prison … how much more old Palm Springs does it get?
The bartender suggested a Maker’s Mark Manhattan next, as though he were reading my mind; this drink was a mainstay of my early-to-mid-20s. Just like the ones I drank in my early-to-mid-20s, it was also shaken and light on vermouth, with nary a bitters bottle in sight. I didn’t come here for a Death and Co. Manhattan; I came for the kind my dad made at his bar—and I got it. (Again, bartenders: Don’t you dare do this if your clientele is younger than 75, on average.)
All and all, it was a lovely journey back to an era that we will never see again, since modern restaurant philosophy has changed so much—and so irreversibly.
So … there’s craft tiki; there’s tiki; and there is what I grew up drinking at the (long-gone) Aloha and other lounges that once peppered the Northeast: a sort of tiki/American-Chinese chimera with sour mix galore, and with loose interpretations of recipes by Trader Vic and Donn Beach (the creator of Don the Beachcomber), along with lots of greasy pork and noodles to sop up the ample booze. Oh, and ID checks were lenient, too. It was heaven. Luckily for me, some pockets of California held on to tiki in its more-or-less-original form. I’d heard that Tonga Hut, with a location in Palm Springs, was one of those places. I went to investigate.
First of all, it totally looks the part, aside from a balcony overlooking Palm Canyon Drive, but that’s a nice touch my Aloha could never have had. Everything was just as I imagined. I ordered a mai tai, which was made according to the Trader Vic recipe. (With all due respect to Donn Beach, I prefer the Trader Vic recipe, too—mostly because it’s way less complicated.) It was tasty and citrus-forward, with plenty of rum and a backbone of orange liqueur and almond—thankfully nothing like the pineapple-juice-and-rum versions of my youth! They had crab rangoons and beef teriyaki, and these dishes were actually much lighter-tasting and way less greasy than what I grew up eating (although I am not sure how I feel about that).
Next, I had bartender Josh make me a painkiller, one of those rarely seen tiki concoctions which was actually trademarked by Pusser’s Rum. It is a tasty mix of rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, coconut cream and a garnish of nutmeg. Because glassware is crucial to proper tiki, Josh even served it in a classic Pusser’s enameled metal mug. If you haven’t had one of these, give it a try: The ample nutmeg may seem a little odd at first, but once you get used to it, it really makes the drink feel festive. It has the DNA of a piña colada, but ends up tasting very different; the orange juice and nutmeg offer it a unique flavor.
Tonga Hut is definitely a good spot for those seeking a classic tiki fix, or for those, like me, who are just trying to scratch that itch for nostalgia.
Nostalgia cured, I went back to work.
I felt like I left the Bloody Mary debate a little unresolved last month, so I set about trying the drink at various places around town, despite my aversion to it in general. I felt it was my duty to know where the best one was; call it a sense of journalistic integrity, if you’d like.
I had been hearing over the last few months that Sparrows Lodge was a nice place to grab lunch, so when a friend called me up on a sunny afternoon, we decided to give it a go.
I had been to Sparrows once before, for an evening event, so I already knew the environment is unreal: You literally cannot take a bad picture here. I have tried. I ordered the Bloody Mary, knowing it could make or break my experience. It was wonderful, light and almost refreshing, with a sensible garnish of pickled okra. There seemed to be chili oil floating on top; I tasted mustard seeds and citrus. The vinegar was bright but not overpowering, with no congealed horseradish chunks in sight. While I would not have a second one in succession, because it’s still a Bloody Mary, I was impressed—so impressed that I am calling it the best one in town (at least that I have had so far).
So … goodbye nostalgia (and goodbye, Bloody Marys); time to move on and explore some new ground, even though it has been a fun trip down memory lane.
Welcome to the bar lull, the time when thirsty, hard-working citizens’ insidious New Year’s resolutions interfere with my ability to ply them with high-quality wares.
Is your humble bar correspondent succumbing to such self-deception? No, no false resolutions for me. Instead, I am using the New Year to explore some new-to-me places—perhaps making a questionable decision or two along the way.
My first stop of the evening was an early dinner at Rooster and the Pig (356 S. Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs). I would be lying if I said that I was going there for cocktails and not for the food, and this brings up an important issue: There are great restaurants all over the country without a full liquor license. I imagine that for every over-ambitious restaurant popping up with a confused menu and an unnecessarily overwrought craft-cocktail program, there are 10 places without a full liquor license making focused and passionate cuisine—and it is always interesting to see what bartenders can do with wine, sake, lillet, etc., when forced to compromise.
Bartender Trish mixed me a Green Lantern—a tasty mix of cilantro, cucumber, lime and what chef/owner Tai referred to as “gin-ish,” a 20-proof non-distilled gin. Boozy? Well, no, but it was oh-so refreshing. It went down smooth, like an agua fresca or a green smoothie, hold the kale. The freshness complemented the flavors of plate after plate of Vietnamese-American cuisine and accompanying sriracha. This seems like it could also be a great non-alcoholic drink—perhaps for you “resolution” people. If you are looking for boozy, they clued me in about some exciting plans for the near future, so stay tuned.
Belly full, I went to meet some friends at the Dråughtsman (1501 N. Palm Canyon Drive). I was anxiously waiting for this place to open—like everyone else, it seems. Unlike everyone else, it seems, I waited to check it out. (I hate waiting for bar seats, as you might know.) Despite my gluttony at Rooster and the Pig, Paul and Robbie behind the bar convinced me to try some “off the menu” pretzel bites with ale-cheese sauce—who could say no to that? Thinking I required Irish whiskey, because I often require Irish whiskey, I ordered the Delorean. This is a mixture of Powers whiskey, lemon, house Irish cream, Guinness syrup and sarsaparilla bitters. It came out with spices grated on top—looking quite like a dessert cocktail or eggnog. The looks were deceiving, however, because the flavor was bright, with citrus as the main note, whiskey coming through, and the cream just adding a little mouth-feel. It drinks like a whiskey sour with an Irish-American twist.
Knowing this was a Chad Austin menu (best known as the drink engineer of Bootlegger Tiki), I went for a rum drink next. The Tubular Dude is Banks 7 rum, Cynar 70, pineapple gomme syrup and tiki bitters served over a large ice cube. It’s part tiki old-fashioned, part stripped-down Jungle Bird—a 1970’s tiki classic from the Aviary Bar in Kuala Lumpur that features Campari and pineapple, also one of my favorites. If you are looking for a sweet and sour tiki drink, look elsewhere; this one is for an amaro fan, a Negroni lover. Don’t fret if you don’t like bitter; it looks like they have options on the menu for all kinds of palates, and a really nice back bar to boot!
I finished the evening at a nearby dive bar, not to be named by (possibly tongue-in-cheek) request. Some kind soul with a Prince Valiant haircut bought the bar a round, in between muttering to himself and watching TV. Two 21-year-olds celebrated their new legal tippling with Flaming Dr. Peppers and Incredible Hulks (Hennessy and Hpnotiq … yeah, I started my bartending career in a nightclub) amongst other drinks with which I am not so familiar.
Here’s a poorly kept secret: Craft bartenders don’t always drink craft. When I see a round of sugary, hangover-inducing booze-bombs appear and think about the year gone by, I often say: “To hell with it; give me one of those!” I ask the bartender what’s in it, he says: “Alcohol!” Fair enough!
I put a ’90s hip-hop song on the jukebox. One of the guys says, “You like this music? You must be my mom’s age!”
Cut to the next day. My head was in a proverbial vice, and I walked the rainy streets of Palm Springs in search of a remedy. I pulled up a table for one at Farm (6 La Plaza), where the rain, chansons d’amour and rustic ambience transported me away from downtown Palm Springs and last night’s follies. I ordered a Bloody Mary—advertised on the menu as the best in town, with jalapeño-infused vodka, house-made hot sauce and bacon.
An aside about the Bloody Mary: Nearly every time I order one, I wish I’d ordered something else. At best, I like the first one and order a second, and I generally regret the second one. Why? Well, most of them are horrid. The mix has sat too long, congealing the horseradish and tomato into an astringent gel, with the vodka drawing those offensive flavors out and delivering them straight to the palate. The tabasco sauce turns the whole thing to a vinegary mess, garnished with a pale stick of what was at one point celery, limply hanging over the side of the glass. I made my living for a period hawking Bloody Marys to hungover tourists, so I am a tough critic. Still, it is one of the most popular cocktails around, so I would be remiss to ignore it.
After all that, I must say … this was a darned tasty Bloody Mary! The jalapeño was subtle; the tomato juice was thin, not pasty. The horseradish, if there (the server wasn’t sure, but I thought I tasted a tiny bit), wasn’t overbearing, and the hot sauce wasn’t just vinegar. The drink tasted super fresh and light, rare for the species. Only complaint: Bacon should stay dry and never go into the drink. Nobody wants soggy bacon.
So … is it the best in town? Let’s go find out!
Just kidding … I know better than to push my luck. Instead, I am going to make myself my a Oaxacan Brunch, a great way to get rid of that leftover sage (and hangover) from the holidays.
• 2 ounces of mezcal
• 1 ounce of lime juice
• 1 ounce of simple syrup (1:1 sugar and water)
• 1 egg white
• Fresh sage
Muddle several leaves of sage into the simple syrup in the small tin of a metal shaker (the back of a spoon works nicely), and add the rest of the ingredients. Shake without ice, and then with ice. Pour on the rocks, and garnish with a sage leaf. Enjoy with an omelet … and Happy (Belated) New Year!
I know harried parents are going to roll their eyes at this statement, but here it is: I love going to the supermarket.
When life gets a little too hectic, when the world at large seems a little too hopeless, I have the joy of walking up and down aisle after aisle of options, just sitting there waiting for me. There’s need to till the soil or pluck a chicken—my privileged First World butt can just stroll around, putting things in my cart, to the smooth sounds of No Jacket Required-era Phil Collins. It’s a beautiful thing, a little adventure.
In many ways, it’s similar to residing in Palm Springs. I can just start walking around and have a unique experience without planning or getting behind the wheel: Just walk around, maybe a little farther than you normally would, and you’ll find something unexpected. (Phil Collins is strictly optional.) If you’re lucky, you might find rye-whiskey cocktails.
A disclaimer: There is nothing wrong with bourbon. America should be proud to have it as our most-famous spirit. We can hold our own with Scotland or any other place that wants to have an argument about spirit supremacy. But it’s been stealing the spotlight for too long: While $250-retail bottles of bourbon sell on the secondary market for thousands of dollars or get collected like so many Ted Williams rookie cards, most ryes have gone under the radar (with a few expensive and notable exceptions). Thanks to the noble efforts of craft bartenders all over the country, however, that is beginning to change.
I have been on a rye-whiskey kick for a little while (OK, for several years), and I love seeing it on menus. I love working with it, too. When a customer orders a Manhattan or an old fashioned, and I ask, “Bourbon or rye?” he or she often hesitates and looks like he or she is trying to figure out the correct answer. There is no correct answer, of course, but—dirty little secret here—when the answer is, “Uh, rye?” I offer a little half-smile and a nod of approval.
Rye has a lean and spicy profile that (especially the 100-proof stuff) makes a great foil for unctuous and herbal vermouths and barky bitters. As a bonus, it’s pretty good for keeping warm on chilly winter nights in the desert. With this in mind, I gathered a motley crew of merrymakers and set out on an impromptu adventure down Palm Canyon Drive.
The first stop was Dish Creative Cuisine, which wasn’t on my cocktail radar at the time; we were just going to meet some people there. As I took my seat at the semi-subterranean bar, I did my obnoxious size-up-the-bar-program thing. Some quality products are back there. Wait … are those homemade syrups? I ordered a rye concoction with housemade brown butter-infused Crater Lake rye, maple syrup and lemon juice, from bartender Morray. My first sip was good, and as the drink diluted a little bit, the flavors really started to express themselves. The nose is kettle corn, which increases on the palate. The maple syrup is subtle, and the lemon is just enough to balance the drink without intruding. The rye spice comes on the tail end. Whiskey sours include egg white partly to soften astringent flavors that lemon brings out of whiskey. The butter infusion (we call this process a “fat wash” in the business) does much of the same. I found out that chef Joane Garcia-Colson makes the infusions and syrups for the bar program. Nice!
A short walk got us to Trio, which even on a Tuesday was packed during happy hour. I resigned myself to exile at a high-top table. The downfall of traveling in a group is rarely finding enough bar seats, meaning I can’t bother the bartender with endless questions about ingredients and whatnot. The drink list was sizable, though, and I decided to keep the rye party going with a “Green Walnut Boulevardier”: Knob Creek rye, Campari, walnut liqueur, sweet vermouth, orange bitters and an orange peel. The addition of walnut to a classic boulevardier was a nice touch; walnut and rye are beautiful together. The drink starts sweet and spicy, with a hint of walnut in the middle, and it’s bitter and citrusy on the finish. Basically, it’s the classic drink with a subtle twist. The orange bitters and peel together with Campari could be a bit intense for some tipplers, but if you like a bittersweet flavor profile, give it a try in place of a Negroni or Manhattan.
Now that the whiskey train was running full-steam, it was time to visit the brown-liquor emporium which is Bar, just another short walk away. I grabbed an open bar seat, blatantly disregarding my cohorts, and said: “Make me something with rye!” Proprietor Donovan Funkey popped out of seemingly nowhere, gave the aforementioned half-smile and approving nod, and made me “The Chancellor”: a mix of Rittenhouse rye, Luxardo amaro and crème de cassis. It has black currant and baking spice on the nose, which is nice this time of year. On the palate, it’s slightly sweet and oaky up front, with a spicy and bitter finish. It’s on the menu as a bourbon drink, so make sure to ask for the rye version if you want to re-create the experience.
Several more rye whiskies were tasted in the name of research, and that was about it for the night’s adventure; I was fully warmed up and satisfied.
If you are looking for a little more of a rye-whiskey adventure, poke your head behind the heavy black velvet curtain at Mr. Lyons to check out Seymour’s, where we do a drink called the “Little Owl.” Since that’s a long walk from downtown, here’s the recipe, courtesy of Steen Bojsen-Moller:
• 2 ounces of Rittenhouse rye
• 1/4 ounce of Charbay black walnut liqueur
• 1/4 ounce of IPA syrup (boil down your favorite India pale ale, and add sugar to taste)
• a few dashes of Angostura amaro (not Angostura bitters; you can sub a different amaro)
Stir; serve on the rocks with a twist of orange.
The next time you stroll around downtown in Palm Springs, think about how nice it is to have so many options laid neatly, up and down in a row. Gather a crew of revelers, and set out on your own whiskey-fueled adventure. It’s just as convenient as a supermarket—but with better drinks and music.
Bartending competitions … are they a test of ability, or just a sideshow full of tricks and gimmicks?
This is a question I have debated for years—and now that I reside in California, I see bartending competitions everywhere. This isn't to say they don't exist back in my former home, Boston, but during my bar “upbringing,” the competition came every night behind the stick: We were earnest (mostly) tradespeople—just a little wilder, perhaps—and competitions seemed alien to us. We were drink-slingers, masters of ceremonies, psychologists and peacekeepers, and we had the final word on all debates. Then something happened all over the world: Bartenders started caring more about knowing obscure recipes, using showy techniques and developing complex cocktails. We rediscovered the craft, and—for better or worse—everything changed.
So this is 2016, and bartending is a sport—get used to it. It can be a pretty fun sport, too. I did my first bartending competition right here in Palm Springs. The first round included a mystery basket (basically like on the TV show Chopped), and I got knocked out early. To rub salt in the wound, it was on my home field, Seymour's, and I was the hyped “new guy in town.” That said, I had a great time and met some fantastic bartenders and enthusiasts, and I got to nerd out about drinks and techniques all night. Fast-forward to October, when I was invited to compete in a competition at Village Pub hosted by Templeton Rye Whiskey. This time, I did really well in the cocktail-creation round and moved on to the exhaustive final round against 11 other bartenders from all over the area. Five hours of events later, I finished fourth behind three of the best in the valley (David from Workshop; Chad from Bootlegger Tiki; and Patrick from Workshop). It was a blast hanging out with some great bartenders over (too many) shots of Jameson.
After all that, it was nice to just take it easy at the Coachella Valley Independent’s Craft Cocktail Championship on Thursday, Nov, 17. I was excited to meet some bartenders from outside of my usual circuit—and thrilled about visiting the Purple Palm at the Colony Palms, which had been on my list of places to visit for months. What a beautiful venue—exactly what I thought Palm Springs would be like before I ever came here. Sadly, the event and other obligations kept me from fully exploring the drink list (I will be back), but I managed to try the Palm Springs Craft Cocktail Week special: The very busy bartender, Jeff, made me the Bangkok Sling (created by bartender Brandon), and with a name like that, I looked forward to a combination of gin, liqueurs, citrus and soda. I was right about the gin (TRU Gin) and citrus (lemon), but the rest of the ingredients were guava purée, Thai basil, pink peppercorn and Fruitlab Hops Organic Liqueur. I tend to avoid drinks with purées, because they can easily overwhelm a cocktail, and I generally don't like the texture. However, this drink avoids that pitfall by bringing strong flavors to the party. The gin and hops hit first while the guava lingers, and the basil finishes strong. I am a pepper junkie, so I wish I’d gotten more of that, but all together, it was an unexpected and tasty cocktail.
The competition itself involved five local bartenders, each using a randomly assigned sponsor spirit. Fernando González (Cuistot) led off with his “Carolus’ Cobbler.” This was a blend of Nolet’s Silver Dry Gin, homemade peach purée, cinnamon and aromatic bitters. Two drinks with a purée in one night is a record for me, but this, too, was done well; Fernando put a lot of effort into the product and did his homework on the gin. Nolet’s has a fruitier and sweeter profile than a traditional London dry, with the addition of … guess what … peaches! I think a dash of something to temper the gin a bit (maraschino liqueur?) might have helped bring it all together, but he earned extra points for the homemade element, the research and the horse’s neck garnishes.
Kevin Helvie (Chill Bar and Scorpion Room) had the toughest spirit to work with, in my opinion. He mixed Crown Royal Vanilla, lemon, blueberry sour, tarragon and simple syrup into the “Royal Blue XL.” One of the judges put it best, saying it was “a good time in a glass.” It had the party-drink trinity of boozy, sweet and sour. It was also the favorite of many attendees. I was wondering the whole time what I would do with that spirit. Honey? Lemon? Ginger? Egg white? Heck, port? Luckily, I was just observing this time.
Michael Phillips (Fix a Dessert House) prepared a drink called “Citrus Rose” using Ketel One Oranj, fresh orange juice, local honey, homemade rose water, orange flower, rose sugar, a lime wedge and an edible flower. I wouldn't advise drinking it near a hive of killer bees, but I thought the floral focus was an intriguing and unique choice. It could have been overwhelming, but I found it to be nicely balanced and tasty. I also enjoyed hearing his story and about his passion for making drinks, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next time.
The audience favorite was Joey Tapia (New York Company) and his “Mellow Melon.” Joey is relatively new to bartending, and he smartly kept it simple, with Captain Morgan White Rum, cantaloupe, fresh lime, muddled mint and sugar. The drink was light and tasty. From an aesthetic point of view, I might have fine-strained the mint out, but the Mellow Melon is the kind of drink that pushes bar sales. Simple can be good, too.
The champion was Sherman Chan (Trio), who came ready to rumble. Her spirit was Bulleit Bourbon, which some would say was the luckiest pull because of the wealth of bourbon cocktails from which to draw inspiration. Luck only gets you so far, though, and she clearly knew her stuff. She made a chimera of a “Brown Derby” (bourbon, honey syrup and lemon) and a “Kentucky Mule” (bourbon, ginger, citrus), with Peychaud’s Bitters and rosemary “straight out of Trio’s parking lot!” Despite the potential for a spit-take from the judges after that remark, Sherman rolled with emcee Shann Carr’s increasingly “blue” commentary with confidence and humor. She also brought “dragon balls”—round ice balls with herbs frozen into them. Word to the wise: Behind the bar, “the show” is almost as important as what you make. The drink itself, “Bulleit Proof,” was not just smoke and mirrors, though; it was extremely tasty. It’s debatable whether the “dragon balls” would be feasible for a busy bar program, but the drink itself would sell for sure.
How much does a contest truly reflect one’s worth as an elite bartender? Winning can get you fame, money, magazine features, gigs shilling for spirit brands, Instagram followers, guest spots on reality shows and so on, so I understand why some people devote so much time and energy to competing. Frankly, it's pretty much the only way to get noticed in our new culture of “Rock-Star Bartending” (unless you happen to work at a world-famous establishment), but that shouldn't be what it's all about. I guess it all comes down to staying grounded and having fun—taking it seriously, but not tying one’s worth to winning or losing.
My advice to bartenders: Give it your best if competing, and cheer your hardest if attending. Realize it's not always fair, that it's subjective, and that no contest will determine accurately how good a bartender is in one’s natural environment. Winning a competition and actually tending bar are two different skill sets. As with any skill, you have to practice. I will be better the next time I compete, if and when I do, and so will all of these competitors.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I am off to practice flipping bottles and breathing fire.
Mezcal … we’ve had a complicated relationship haven’t we?
Remember our first time? I was 20, and you were so cruel. In those days, you needed a gimmick—you were the “poor man’s tequila” to us clueless gringos, its crazy backwoods cousin. We had heard the myth that eating the worm would make one hallucinate, just in case taking copious shots weren’t enough. We drank you in college when we couldn’t afford a more-polished spirit.
I know that many people still think of you that way. They don’t know you as you really are … a liquor whose time to shine has finally arrived.
Readers, if you haven’t been enjoying the renaissance of this misunderstood spirit, it’s probably not your fault. Despite nearly a decade of surging popularity, mezcal still won’t show up on your radar if you haven’t been to a bar that specializes in Mexican spirits or craft cocktails. However, if you feel like it’s time to get swept up by the charms of mezcal, and they are many, now is the perfect time to do so.
For one thing, it’s more available than ever (although the market has been somewhat flooded by non-descript brands looking to capitalize on the trendiness). For another, the tasting notes can range from vanilla and banana to truffles and leather. Aside from Scotch whisky, few spirits can boast such a dramatic variation in flavor. Like Scotch, mezcal is known for being smoky, but the level of smoke varies from product to product. Unlike Scotch, you can use it easily in a margarita variation during atypically hot Coachella Valley fall days.
To celebrate mezcal and its many amazing aspects, I decided to visit some local cocktail bars to see how they explore the versatility of the spirit. I was not disappointed.
My first stop was Arrive in Palm Springs, where Paul made me a Smoke and Berries. It’s on the drink menu, and is a nice way to explore the light and breezy side of mezcal. He muddled raspberries and blackberries directly into the liquor, and added some lime and simple syrup, as well as a dash of peach bitters, and voila! It was a perfect poolside sipper. It was light and breezy, with a hint of smoke, black pepper, vanilla and pineapple from the Primario mezcal.
Next, he made me a Sweet Surrender. You won’t find it on the menu, but it’s worth asking about. He bravely mixes Primario with white rum and mint, and then adds some creme de mure, lemon juice and Peychaud’s bitters. It’s a beguiling beverage. If I’d sipped it without knowing the ingredients, I would have been hard-pressed to guess them. My first impression was Fernet-Branca—the drink leads you almost there, with a strong medicinal hit—but the creme de mure brings you back before it becomes too much. There are also notes of cola, menthol and black pepper. As I left, I wondered about the rum: Would a funky Jamaican overproof make the cocktail better or worse? I think he played it smart with a quieter dance partner for the mezcal—but I might play around with the specs at some point, out of curiosity.
Next I went to see the tiki wizards at Bootlegger, right down the road—rather fortuitously. Chad had posted a picture of his new Aztec Warrior mezcal drink online, and although it’s not on the menu yet, Aisha was happy to make one for me. It starts with Ilegal Mezcal, and then my favorite ingredient of the last few years, Ancho Reyes, joins the party. (If you haven’t picked up a bottle of that yet, do yourself a favor.) The drink is finished with lime juice, coconut cream and NOLA coffee liqueur from St. George, with a grating of cinnamon. Tasting the drink, I got the impression of candy chased with a little New Orleans café au lait with chicory. I confess I have a bit of a sweet tooth with my coffee, so when I make it at home, I might add a touch of simple syrup or turbinado sugar.
I called it a night with a drink on the menu, For Luck’s Sake. La Niña mezcal, Cabeza tequila, yellow Chartreuse, honey and lime are mixed together and served on a big ice cube, with a basil leaf garnish. A bit of fire is added with a serrano pepper tincture, and the vegetal notes of the ingredients are accentuated by celery bitters. Yellow (not green!) Chartreuse is incredible with tequila, so I was not surprised that the drink came together so nicely. It’s a little spicy and a little sweet, with a good measure of herbs de Provence to boot.
Four drinks, four totally different looks. Mezcal is a powerhouse of a spirit, no matter how you use it. Whether you’re by the pool when it’s 95 degrees, or staying warm on a cool desert evening, mezcal just might be the spirit you need to add to your liquor cabinet. Even better, have your local bartender do the work for you.
If you need some more inspiration, here is one of my recipes.
- 1 1/2 ounces of mezcal of your choice (Vida works nicely with its baking spice notes)
- 3/4 ounce Ancho Reyes
- 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice (no cheating with the bottled stuff!)
- 1/2 ounce pineapple syrup (leave fresh, not canned, pineapple chunks in simple syrup for a couple of days; add gum arabic for extra credit)
Shake, serve up or on the rocks, and garnish with one of those pineapple chunks or a leaf from the pineapple. Waste not, want not.