CVIndependent

Wed12132017

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Cocktails

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..

20 Oct 2017
by  - 

I think the martini, sadly, has lost its way.

Sure, three or four ounces of shaken vodka will probably get you nice and drunk, but it lacks the … shall we say, elegance of the drink’s original recipe.

A purist will tell you a martini has two components—gin and dry vermouth—and it should always be stirred. This purest agrees.

Some amateur comedians ordering a martini with vodka come up with clever catch phrases like, “Shake it until your arms get tired,” or, “I want to skate on the top of it,” or, “Just wave an unopened bottle of vermouth over it.” These people, in my opinion, are missing out on what was once a beautiful, sexy, delicious cocktail. My hope is they’ll give the original a try.

For those who enjoy the history of things, the origin of the martini is muddled. No, I don’t mean muddled with cucumber or blackberries or avocado—it’s just a figure of speech. What I mean is many different stories abound about who created the first martini, why, and where it came from. Some believe the martini was named after Martini and Rossi vermouth, which was created in the mid-1800s. Another theory—my favorite—asserts the martini originated in New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel in 1912 by bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia, made for John D. Rockefeller.

The Knickerbocker’s “Original 1912 Martini” blends two parts gin and one part dry vermouth with orange bitters; it is then stirred and zested with a lemon peel, and garnished with an olive.

Sure, there are those who say Rockefeller didn’t drink, and that the real martini predates 1912. However, this doesn’t really matter: The Original 12 Martini is one of the best drinks I’ve ever had, and one everyone should try.

Another theory, which makes some sense, is that the martini is a derivative of the martinez—a classic gin and vermouth cocktail which was first made in the 1860s and documented in Jerry Thomas’ 1887 edition of his Bar-Tender's Guide; How to Mix All Kinds of Plain and Fancy Drinks. The martinez came about during a vermouth craze in the latter half of the 1800s and was likely a variation of the Manhattan: Someone, at some point, got the idea to mix gin instead whiskey with sweet vermouth, a couple of dashes of bitters, and a little maraschino liquor. Voila, you have a martinez. It’s obvious how the evolution to the first martini wouldn’t be much of a leap.

One thing is clear, however: A martini should be stirred, not shaken. Though I adore James Bond, we can blame him and author Ian Fleming for the shaken martini.

There are reasons we shake some drinks and stir others—and they’re based on science. In general, cocktails containing citrus—like margaritas, daiquiris and sours—should be shaken, while cocktails which are all spirits with no citrus—like Manhattans, negronis and martinis—should always be stirred. The reason of this is thermodynamics, but I’m not going to bore anyone by getting too far into that. Basically, the idea behind both techniques is to cool, mix and dilute the cocktail—and both do so. However, shaking dilutes the cocktail faster than stirring. Shaking also creates tiny air bubbles which brighten a citrusy drink, but ruin the silky texture of a straight spirit. So if you want a bubbly, slushy martini, go ahead, and order it shaken. It’s a free country. But it’s your loss.

Many imbibers also miss out on the beauty of a martini by forsaking gin in lieu of vodka, and/or by skipping the vermouth. The herbs and botanicals of the gin, and the lighter, floral notes of the vermouth balance each other out and create magic in a glass. Vodka, on the other hand, is pretty basic and doesn’t have much flavor or depth—especially when you don’t mix in some flavorful vermouth.

Vodka became so popular, in part, because of advertising in the Mad Men era of the “martini lunch.” A fledgling vodka company marketed its product by saying it would “leave you breathless”—meaning your boss, client or co-workers wouldn’t smell the booze on you. The campaign worked: Vodka first outsold gin in the U.S. in 1967, then whiskey in 1976. Personally, when I’m out tippling, I’m not trying to hide anything.

Speaking of going out tippling, I took a spin around the desert trying martinis. What I found was, basically, what I thought I would find. Every bar I went to had some sort of “classic martini” on the menu, and each one I tried was basically the same: shaken vodka in some sort of martini glass with an olive, or maybe an olive stuffed with blue cheese, and/or a twisted lemon peel. Now, that’s not the worst thing to drink; it’s just not what I was looking for. Like I said, I believe there’s a better way.

During a recent stop at Mr. Lyons in Palm Springs, I found the martini on the menu—“The Honest Martini”—was made with either gin or vodka and vermouth, and stirred, unless otherwise specified. I ordered mine with The Botanist gin from Scotland, and it was just what I wanted alongside my steak tartare. The bartender said the martini was the most-ordered cocktail at Mr. Lyons, and it was 50-50 between patrons who ordered vodka, and those who ordered gin.

At my bars—Workshop Kitchen + Bar, and Truss and Twine—we don’t have a standard martini on the menu, but every bartender on staff knows how to make the Original 1912 Martini. So, next time you’re in, I’ll more than happily stir one up for you.

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..

22 Sep 2017
by  - 

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
by  - 

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
by  - 

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
by  - 

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..

Page 1 of 3