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 email@example.com.