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Cocktails

22 Sep 2017
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There’s a mermaid doing somersaults on a TV screen in a lamp-lit room. Exotica spills from unseen speakers. Carved wooden faces hang on a wall, alongside a signed photo of Don Ho. Floral-festooned patrons sip cocktails out of ceramic mugs. The bartender is lighting drinks on fire.

But, no, this is not a tiki bar. Definitely not. I guess?

According to owner Rory Snyder, The Reef—which opened Feb. 4 inside the tiki-style Caliente Tropics Resort in Palm Springs—is a “tropical libation sanctuary.”

Snyder says those who take their tiki very seriously—dubbed tikiphiles by some—would likely object to The Reef calling itself a tiki bar, because it doesn’t completely adhere to all of the criteria of a true tiki bar.

Um, OK.

“In a lot of ways, it is a tiki bar, but I don’t want to be restrained and confined by the parameters of, supposedly, what tiki is,” said Snyder, who is also a self-admitted tikiphile. “I don’t want to be defined just by tiki.”

Let’s talk about tiki for just a second. For all intents and purposes, there are four, let’s say, “tiki-style” bars in the valley: The Reef, Bootlegger Tiki, Tonga Hut Restaurant and Bar, and Toucans Tiki Lounge; all are in Palm Springs, and all bring a little something different to the table.

We have a section of tiki drinks on the menu at Truss and Twine, where I work, and I’m often asked: “What is tiki?” The word “tiki” comes from New Zealand and the Marquesas Islands. In Maori mythology, Tiki was the first man created.

What most Americans see as “tiki” and its surrounding culture is the creation of one man—Ernest Gantt, and his Hollywood bar and restaurant Don the Beachcomber. Gantt started Don’s Beachcomber Cafe just off of Hollywood Boulevard in 1933 at the age of 26 after traveling the Caribbean and south Pacific following his high school graduation. Gantt returned from his adventures with a unique collection of exotic, Polynesian ephemera and a taste for exotic, Polynesian drinks.

At Don’s Beachcomber Cafe, he put it all together. The mix of the bar’s ambiance (puffer-fish lamps, nets, traps, shells, driftwood, etc.), Gantt’s exotic drinks and presentation (served in a coconut, with fun names like The Zombie, etc.), and his personal showmanship (wearing cutoff pants and weathered clothing) was something truly new and unique. In 1937, Gantt moved his joint to a bigger space across the street, named it Don the Beachcomber, and officially changed his own name to Donn Beach.

Following Beach’s lead, a number of others opened extremely popular “tiki” restaurants, and the “tiki craze” spread throughout the United States. That lasted until the end of the 1960s, when “tiki” all but died. On life support, tiki culture was kept alive by a handful of enthusiasts throughout the ’80s and ’90s, almost as a form of counterculture. In the late 1990s and 2000s, alongside the craft-cocktail movement, tiki culture went through a revitalization, which has led to where we are today. In other words, tiki is cool again.

“(Like) the advent of being allowed in your 40s and 50s to like comic books and Star Wars, tiki was always kind of that thing that was the redheaded stepchild and mockable,” Snyder said. “But now we embrace our geek and can be proud tikiphiles.”

The Reef and, more significantly, the Caliente Tropics hotel own a substantial slice of tiki-culture history. The A-framed Caliente Tropics, originally just called The Tropics, opened in 1964, the heyday of tiki, as part of Ken Kimes’ 40-motel empire, five of which were Polynesian in theme. According to Snyder, all the tiki statues on the grounds are original and are from the famed Oceanic Arts in Whittier, made by noteworthy tiki-carver Ed Crissman. Tiki Oasis, the largest tiki event in the country, which is now held annually in San Diego, started at Caliente Tropics in 2001 as a fundraiser for the then-struggling hotel.

In its salad days of the ’60s, The Tropics housed the Congo Room steakhouse and underground Cellar Bar, which was popular with a number of celebrities who vacationed in Palm Springs, including Elvis Presley and members of the Rat Pack. The Reef now occupies the space where the Congo Room once was. (An adjoining restaurant space will soon be home to Evzin Mediterranean Cuisine.) Additionally, Snyder has brought more tiki events back to Palm Springs with his Tiki Caliente parties, which he’s thrown since 2008 at Caliente Tropics.

“I love this hotel,” Snyder said. “This is my dream home. I’ve always loved this place. I love the history here. The greatest gig in the world is being an owner of this bar in this historic tiki hotel. I get to sit in the tiki mecca of Palm Springs, which is the Caliente Tropics Hotel.”

OK, enough history lessons. Let’s drink.

It’s Saturday around 7 p.m. The bar is really filling up fast. It’s an eclectic mix of folks. Bar manager Brandon Glass shakes me up some cocktails while the guy next to me is telling me how he lives “right behind” the Jelly Belly factory.

I start with the Hot Hula Hibiscus, which is basically a spicy margarita variation with tequila, jalepeño and hibiscus syrup, giving the drink a slight floral note. It’s light, refreshing and well-balanced, with the right amount of heat—and it’s served in a kitschy-cool cactus glass.

Next, I try the Hemingway Daiquiri, a classic which The Reef honors nicely. The popular daiquiri variation, with grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur, was supposedly created at the La Floridita bar in Cuba, for famed writer and imbiber Ernest Hemingway. This one is legit.

I finish with a frozen piña colada out of a slushy machine. Cocktail snobs would surely raise their noses in disdain at such a sight … but, damn, it’s delicious. I add a float of dark rum to the top, because, why not?

The Reef’s cocktail menu contains many tiki classics like the Mai Tai, Singapore Sling and Painkiller. However, The Reef doesn’t stock the high-end spirits that some cocktail bars in town do, and the bartenders don’t jigger-measure the drinks.

“Truly, it’s not about eyedroppers and super-accuracy as much as free-flowing fun and keeping it loose,” Snyder said. “I like to think of the bar as part of the show.

“The one part of tiki I don’t get these days is that somehow, tiki and mixology crossed. The pretentiousness of mixology, to me, in a lot of ways doesn’t mix with the ohana of tiki.”

History, fun, good drinks, great ambience and customer service … is The Reef a tiki bar or not? And does it even matter? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

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.. Below: The Reef opened Feb. 4 inside the tiki-style Caliente Tropics Resort in Palm Springs. Photo by Patrick Johnson.

22 Aug 2017
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I’m behind the bar at Truss and Twine. There’s a nice lady at the bar, pointing to the cute little antique-looking dasher bottles lined up in a row on the bar top.

Lady: What are these? Balsamic vinegar and olive oil?

Me: No. They’re bitters.

Lady: Oh. What kind?

Me: Angostura, orange, Peychaud’s and celery.

Lady: So, do they make your drink bitter?

Me: Well, no, that’s not it, exactly …

Though they’re one of the oldest, most important and most versatile ingredients in cocktails, aromatic cocktail bitters—often referred to as the salt and pepper for adult beverages—are often misunderstood, overlooked and underappreciated.

Bitters have been produced, often for medicinal purposes, since at least the 1600s (and likely before). The human body is wired to reject the flavor of bitter, because it equates bitter with poison, so the body automatically gets the digestive juices flowing to combat the toxic element.

Bitters were first put into drinks in the 1700s and went through a boom in the United States back in the 1850s. Bitters were nearly extinct just after Prohibition, but have thankfully enjoyed a renaissance alongside the craft-cocktail wave we’re all currently riding. Fact: No old fashioned, Manhattan, Martinez, Vieux Carre or Sazerac is complete without the right bitters.

In a conversation about bitters, a co-worker at Workshop Kitchen + Bar, Jeff Cleveland, described bitters beautifully. Jeff worked for Bittercube—a company out of Milwaukee—that creates cocktail bitters and does bar consulting and training around the country.

“Bitters are to cocktails what salt, pepper, herbs and spices are to cooking,” he said. “It’s a way to affect the flavor of a cocktail without adding much liquid volume to the cocktail. Just like you’d salt a piece of meat or add herbs to a vegetable dish, adding bitters to a cocktail is often the thing that can bring the other ingredients in the cocktail together.”

Bitters are basically flavoring agents made from a high-proof, neutral-grain-based spirit infused with herbs, spices, botanicals, barks and roots, etc. Yes, most bitters contain alcohol. Angostura, for example, is 90 proof!

Bitters were originally presented by snake-oil salesmen as an elixir to cure anything from a cough or cold to constipation and malaria, and were likely first added to cocktails in London in the early 1700s, according to cocktail historian David Wondrich, when bitters were being mixed with Canary wine or brandy. In 1750, he says, bitters were being mixed with brandy, which was lit on fire, along with melted sugar—essentially creating one of the world’s first cocktails.

Actually, bitters were part of the first known written definition of the word “cocktail,” in the May 13, 1806, edition of the Hudson, N.Y., newspaper The Balance, and Columbian Repository. The “cock-tail” was described by the writer as “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.”

While there were hundreds of different bitters-makers in the 1800s, the world was down to just three after Prohibition suffocated and nearly choked out the world of mixology—Angostura, Peychaud’s and Fee Brothers—until the modern cocktail craze brought everything back full circle near the turn of the current century. While you could have probably found a bottle of Angostura hiding somewhere behind a bar in the 1980s and ’90s, at a trendy craft cocktail bar now, aromatic bitters and other tinctures are as prevalent as Civil War-era beards, handlebar mustaches and sleeve tattoos.

Dave Castillo, the bar manager at Workshop Kitchen + Bar and Truss and Twine (where I am employed), loves his bitters. At Truss and Twine, nearly half of the drinks on the menu call for aromatic bitters, while others contain bitter liqueurs.

“They’re absolutely important, and people are discovering that more and more,” he said. “When I first started bartending, everyone had the one bottle of Angostura behind their bar, and it was probably 3 years old, dusty and you never touched it. When I started doing craft cocktails, there were maybe four or five on the market. Now you couldn’t count them all if you tried to.”

Dave likes to keep it fairly simple. At Truss and Twine, we have Angostura, Peychaud’s, Angostura orange and Bitter Truth Celery Bitters. Workshop has Ango, Peychaud’s, Ango orange and Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters (nonalcoholic!) for their rad mocktail, the Wiki Tiki.

“For all the crazy flavors out there, I still think Angostura, Peychaud’s and orange bitters are the big ones,” Castillo said. “I’ve worked in places where we’d have 15 different kinds on the bar, and the funny thing is you typically just grab the same three multiple times, every single day, and there’s a reason for that.”

Steen Bojsen-Moller, owner/partner of Palm Springs’ acclaimed cocktail bar Seymour’s and the beverage director for F10 Creative—the owners of Mr. Lyons, Cheeky’s, Birba, and the Alcazar hotel—leans toward the normal players as well, with roughly seven or eight types of bitters behind the bar at Seymour’s. They mainly use Angostura, Regans’ Orange No. 6, and Bitter Truth chocolate, celery, peach, lemon and tonic bitters.

At Bootlegger Tiki in Palm Springs, beverage director Chad Austin said they currently have 16 bitters/tinctures in stock and are actively using seven on their current menu. He said he’s a big fan of the Bittermens line, and Bootlegger uses Bittermens’ Boston Bittahs, Hellfire, Orchard Street Celery and Xocolatl Mole flavors, along with the classic Angostura, Peychaud’s and orange bitters.

Jeff Cleveland’s favorites to use at home include Bittercube’s Jamaican No. 1 and Jamaican No. 2 in his tiki-style cocktails, and I’ve used Bittercube’s Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters in my old fashioneds, as well as my whiskey and pisco sours.

Aromatic bitters can be more than a mere flavoring agent, too. One amazing drink, the bold and delicious Trinidad sour, uses Angostura bitters as its base, giving it a high level of confectionary notes, particularly clove; the bitters are usually paired with a little rye, orgeat and lemon juice, and served up. Bootlegger has an awesome tiki riff on the concoction on its current menu called the Trinidadi Issues, pictured below, which is Ango, aged rum, orgeat, cinnamon, lime and pineapple, served over crushed ice.

Though not for everyone, a straight shot of Angostura bitters is also one of my jams. I mean, why not? Castillo first introduced me to the idea, which I’ve come to learn is his modus operandi.

“After being a bartender in craft bars a while, and after we shot enough Fernet and all different kinds of amari, the next logical step to me was taking shots of Angostura,” he said. “I thought someone must have done it before, but nobody who I knew was. Everyone thought it was crazy, but I loved to start initiating people at my bar to it, and then going out to the neighborhood bars and doing it there, too.”

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..

17 Jul 2017
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It’s Saturday night, and Workshop Kitchen + Bar, in downtown Palm Springs, is buzzing. The bar is full—and the drink tickets are piling up.

A party of 12 walks in the door. A complicated cocktail order could put the bartenders in the weeds, or sink the ship entirely. (Full disclosure: I work at Workshop and its sister bar/restaurant, Truss and Twine—so trust me, I know.) Instead, Workshop bar manager Michelle Bearden deftly pours a pre-batched drink into a large antique punch bowl, tosses in a block of ice, sprinkles some micro edible flowers over the top, and—voila! The group’s first round is ready.

Punch, America’s first cocktail, is a win-win for the bartender and the guest, and is a perfect option for a party at home.

Bearden first realized the magic of the punch bowl when attending Orange County Bartenders Cabinet meetings, where roughly 50 groggy bartenders might show up at once, looking for a little hair of the dog. The punch bowls allowed attendees to get a drink in their hands before they started introducing themselves and mingling.

Bearden calls punch “a social lubrication.”

“For special events at the restaurant, or if you’re hosting something at your house, I love the idea of punch bowls, because it’s the water cooler of the party,” Bearden said. “It’s such a great way to break the ice, and it’s interactive: You go back to fill up your cup, or someone else’s. It’s very social and can get a dialogue going.”

Bearden said that on a busy Saturday night, Workshop might make six to 10 punch bowls, at least. The 5-year-old Uptown Design District staple offers one punch on the menu—the venerable Pisco Punch, Workshop’s take on the classic concoction containing Peruvian brandy, the house-made pineapple shrub, lemon juice, clove and sparkling wine—but will spin any drinks on the cocktail list into a bowl on request. The Pisco Punch at Workshop is perfectly balanced, refreshing, easy to drink and delicious.

Punch bowls are usually kept on the lighter side, as far as the alcohol by volume is concerned.

“They’re meant to be made so you can have two or three or four, and not get knocked on your ass,” Bearden said. “I love that about them.”

Bearden said she’s made punch bowls for groups in size from four up to 80 (!), and large groups can pre-order a punch bowl so the first round is ready the moment the party walks in the door.

“You walk up to your table, and there’s the vintage punch bowl all set with these cute little vintage tea cups. That just puts a good taste in everyone’s mouth,” Bearden said. “It’s exciting and takes the experience to the next level.”

Punch’s roots run deep, perhaps as early as 17th-century India. Punch has five important elements, which are basically the building blocks of the modern craft cocktail: liquor, sugar, citrus, tea (or spice) and water. It’s believed “punch” may have been derived from the Farsi and Hindi word for “five,” which is pronounced “panch.”

English sailors brought the concept of punch and its necessary spices home with them, and by the end of the 17th century, a bowl of punch was all the rage throughout England and its colonies. Back then, punch was usually served hot, but it was sometimes made with ice or cool water for the upper class.

James Ashley, known as the world’s first celebrity bartender, had a famous tavern—The Sign of the Two Punch Bowls, where punch was the obvious staple—on Ludgate Hill in London from 1731 until his death in 1776. Punch has always been community-oriented, and has crossed class boundaries from lowly sailors to British Lords. It’s odd but true: In the 18th century, men used to carry little silver nutmeg graters around with them for their punch.

A punch and its five elements can easily be thought of as the cornerstone of tiki cocktails as well, and any tiki bar worth its salt should offer punch bowls. The two main tiki bars in town—Bootlegger Tiki and Tonga Hut—fill the bill.

Bootlegger’s signature punch for the summer is called Knee Deep, named after the classic George Clinton song. It includes Cuban-style rum, Blanc Rhum, aquavit, pear brandy, pineapple, lime, pineapple gomme, blue curaçao and soda. Like all the drinks on the list at Bootlegger, the Knee Deep is perfectly balanced and rich with flavor.

“I think it’s important to remember the idea behind punch is to have something light that can be enjoyed for an hour to a whole afternoon, depending on the event,” said Chad Austin, beverage director at the 3-year old Bootlegger, located in the Uptown Design District and attached to Ernest Coffee. “You aren’t trying to get everyone tanked, just loosened up after a few cups.”

Tonga Hut, in the heart of downtown Palm Springs, lists two punch bowls on its menu: the classic Scorpion Bowl and the Tonga Hut Treasure—but offers any of its drinks as a bowl for two or more people. The Tonga Hut Treasure is an original recipe containing rum, orange liqueur, cream, honey, orgeat and grapefruit. The Scorpion Bowl has rum, brandy and almond. The punches are served in classic volcano bowls—lit on fire and sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg, tableside, for a spark.

Legend has it the Scorpion Bowl was born in the 1930s at a bar in Honolulu called The Hut as a single-serve concoction, but came to prominence when “Trader Vic” Bergeron scooped up the recipe roughly a dozen years later. He then tweaked it, multiplied it and served it up at his famous Oakland bar.

No matter the setting, from fine dining to tiki to a pool party, a bowl of punch is a great kickoff.

“It gets the energy going,” Bearden said. “No one is looking at each other and asking, ‘Are you going to have a drink, or are you going to have an ice tea?’ It sets the stage and gets things moving in the right direction.”

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..

20 Jun 2017
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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..

30 May 2017
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May was a strange month for me—a time of pushing the limits of good sense, as the end-of-season fatigue began to show.

What drinks am I working on? Well, you might get an ancho La Louisiane (delicious) or … well, I was only half-kidding last month about the muddled pretzels.

In my personal drinking, I have experimented with vodka. I swear, I don’t know how some of you do that to yourself.

I also made a shocking discovery: Some people seem to like it when I prattle on about bar geekery. I figured, for some reason, people would prefer to hear about my shoving cocktails and burgers down my gullet over lessons on the minutiae of back bars and obscure liquor suggestions. But lately, I’ve had my assumptions tested. I even had a friend at another publication ask me for my deepest musings on fernet. Well, there is a lot of meat on that bone! However, as far as the home bartender and craft enthusiast is concerned, fernet is a bit of an auxiliary—albeit a worthy one.

The real hero is fernet’s larger family group: amaro!

This is a big topic … where to begin? Well, it’s hard to start this discussion without mentioning the most important member of the family: Averna. I remember many years ago watching a middle-age man walk into one of the more cutting-edge cocktail bars in Boston, and start ripping shots of the stuff. After he walked out, I asked the bartender: “What kind of person drinks Averna like that?” He answered simply: “A (expletive deleted) legend.”

Amaro is a type of bitter liquor; that simple description could really cover a lot of ground, but amaro varieties are (generally) dark, (often) semi-sweet and (most often) from Italy. The recipes are closely guarded secrets, with common ingredients being saffron, cassia bark, cinchona bark, citrus peel, thistle, rhubarb, myrrh and on and on. No Italian restaurant is complete without a few different flavors of amaro, up on a shelf over the service bar, collecting dust. Some of you might even have a bottle sitting in your liquor cabinet. Well, dust that baby off, ’cuz we’re making some cocktails!

Arguably, the first amaro cocktail you should be making (or having your bartender make for you) is the Black Manhattan. Want a nice, balanced Manhattan, but hate vermouth? This is the drink for you. This little gem comes from what I refer to as the “rye-revolution” of the early 21st century, a time when Manhattan variations were popping up all over Brooklyn like moistened mogwai. It even has an easy-to-remember recipe based on that famous Manhattan area code, 212:

2 ounces of rye whiskey

1 ounce of amaro Averna

2 dashes each of Angostura and orange bitters

Do you have a friend who hates Campari? No worries! Just substitute Averna, and they, too, can join you for Negroni week!

Want to see how versatile this black, sticky stuff is? Try my new baby, the Strangelove:

1 ounce of gin

3/4 ounce of Averna

3/4 ounce of lime juice

1/2 ounce of creme de pêche

A dash of simple syrup to taste

I consider this drink a nod to Depeche Mode fans. (Get it? Creme de pêche? Sorry.) You can also be just like that unnamed legend and shoot three or four shots of Averna in a row, but I don’t advise it.

Amaro Nonino certainly deserves a shout-out here, as it is featured in a modern classic known as the Paper Plane (despite a beloved guest who insists it’s called a Sweet and Sour). This beauty is equal parts Nonino, bourbon, Aperol and lemon juice, shaken and served up. Amaro Nonino is lighter in body than Averna, but if you want to use Averna in this one, it works.

Don’t think I would forget about Cynar, Sicily’s artichoke-laced contribution to the amaro world. Cynar is one of the ultimate utility infielders of the back bar; I can’t count how many times I have had a young bartender, smiling like he invented yoga pants, tell me how he likes to substitute a little Cynar in his Manhattan for vermouth, or in his Negroni for Campari, etc.; it never gets old. Also, don’t worry about the artichoke thing; it doesn’t actually taste like artichokes at all. In fact, the day someone tries Cynar completely ignorant of the label and says, “Oooh, tastes like artichokes!” is the day I hang up my Hawthorne strainers for good.


Enough learning for one day; I think it’s time for a road trip.

Due to the fact that I have no car, I’ve barely left Palm Springs for nine months … so where should I go for a day trip? San Diego? Los Angeles?

Nah, Indio. Someone told me Neil’s Lounge might be a good remedy for months of tiki, martinis and electro Cher. I really had no idea what to expect, to be honest. I walked in to the sounds of contemporary country music, and moved past the pool table into the main lounge. It was late afternoon; a few regulars were hanging around, sipping beer and highballs. If there was a cocktail list, I didn’t see one, and I didn’t ask to see one.

I ordered a burger and a whiskey, and tried to not look too out of place. I didn’t ask about amaro.

I actually built a bar once that looked more than a little like this place. I mean built, too—my body still bears some scars from the construction. It was in Northern Arizona, and we called it The Lodge. I had no idea what I was doing. They said I was the best bartender in town, aside from the cute girl at the place down the road, and the other one who gave the place away. That’s where the bartending bug started—I was a recent college kid slinging Crown-and-cokes for the cowboys and country girls. It was perfect.

After a couple of years of that, I headed back East to see what would happen next. I am feeling back in a happy place right now.

The best drinks and memories are both bittersweet. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have next on the pool table.

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..

18 Apr 2017
by  - 

I, perhaps foolishly, put off buying a car after moving to the Coachella Valley—and, therefore, have been depriving myself of all that the Coachella Valley has to offer outside of Palm Springs proper.

However, I recently was able to get a taste of what I’ve been missing. It happened after an abortive trip to help my friend get locals’ Coachella tickets at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden; we decided to make the most of the trip and have an early lunch—and perhaps an adult beverage or two. We decided to try Eureka! in Indian Wells, a place that several people had suggested to me over the last few months.

The bartender, Kris, was super-attentive, guiding me through the cocktail menu as my companion desperately searched Craigslist for tickets (against my advice!). I settled on The Industry and Holy Smokes! to start.

The Industry is an easy-going mix of tequila, pineapple, ginger, orange and cilantro. Should you find yourself looking for a cocktail to mollify a disappointing morning, I highly suggest it. It is a tasty concoction (it’s hard not to be tasty with pineapple and orange; they go together like peanut butter and jelly) and went down smoothly on an empty stomach. Breakfast!

I waited until my (very tasty) burger showed up to get the Holy Smokes!, a riff on an Old Fashioned. It comes with no shortage of flash; they use a smoker with hickory chips to fumigate the Mason jar in which it is served. After waiting the recommended 45 seconds, I took the lid off and got my first taste of the smoke, bourbon, maple syrup and chocolate bitters. It tasted like childhood—minus the bourbon, of course, like summer by the lake in New England toasting s’mores over a campfire. Interestingly, it took a couple of sips to get that memory right. At first, I thought of campfires, then hard chocolate candy, then marshmallow; finally, I put it all together. I would prefer a tad less maple—the sweetness became a bit much as I sipped—but I would definitely order it again, because it is a really nice cocktail. (For heaven’s sake, though, never order a drink “less sweet” if you haven’t tried it before. Trust your bartender!)

Kris then walked me through the most impressive part of the place: the back bar. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I always judge a place by its back bar. The selection of whiskey was unique, to say the least. Not to toot my own horn, but it is rare for me to not know even one bottle on a back bar, and they had at least 10 with which I was not familiar. Since I wasn’t driving, and had already planned on a nap, I treated myself to a pour of their house label (!) single malt, Cask 311. It was served in a snifter, and the first thing that hit me was the alcohol—whoa, was it hot. After adding a few drops of water (trust and try, folks), I got maple and honey on the nose, changing to pecans and hazelnuts on the palate. It was a nice American take on a Highland Scotch.

Back in Palm Springs … speaking of back bars, I got a chance to see one of the best around at Truss and Twine. Actually, I got to see it twice—once before the bar’s opening, and once a few weeks into operation.

I always like to give a place a little time to find its rhythm before I show up with my obnoxious criticism. Full disclosure: Several of the guys who work here are buddies of mine … and that means I really want to bust their chops. That being said, there isn’t too much to bust here. The menu is unlike any in the Coachella Valley (that I have seen or heard about, at least), having been broken into cocktail eras. They cover it all (ambitious!), even the “Dark Ages” of the Surfer on Acid and the White Russian. Never mind that I began my bartending journey in the “Dark Ages”; we have come a long way in just a couple of decades, and reinventing these drinks has been a minor trend in the big cities for a couple of years. It’s novel to see it here in Palm Springs, as I do enjoy a quality White Russian now and then.

The first time I showed up—hilariously and accidentally in a blue denim shirt, which happens to be the Truss and Twine uniform—I got a sneak peak at bar manager Dave Castillo’s Game Changer, a marriage of the Eastside and the Oceanside cocktail with the mint replaced with … wait for it … onion brine! Kudos to him for using an actual original ingredient. (My experiments with muddled pretzels are not going as well as planned.) The onion brine brings a funky dimension to the drink. It’s not for everyone, but give it try if you’re feeling frisky.

For those feeling less-adventurous, I suggest the Queen’s Park Swizzle, a drink with Caribbean roots dating back to the 1920s. At its heart, it’s Demerara rum, lime, mint and Angostura bitters (or “ango” in the business parlance). The drink comes out looking like a traffic light, with the red ango on top, green mint on the bottom, and yellow in the middle—an inviting presentation. It goes down easy.

Sadly, I was not really in a cocktail mood, as I’d been dosing myself with tiki drinks before arriving, so I mostly accompanied the (excellent) steak tartare with a couple of glasses of nice rye whiskey. The whiskey options are great, and the DJ spinning throwback jams added a nice touch. The cocktails run between $10 and $16, but there are several nice happy-hour options for us thrifty locals looking to unwind in the afternoon.

And afternoon drinking is a basic right in the desert, yes?

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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