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Tales of the Cocktail: Setting up your in-house soda program

[This is cross-posted from the original post at Talesblog.com.]

“The entire soda market is dominated by one or two huge corporations,” said Darcy O’Neil during today’s soda program seminar. “I think it would be great if we could get more sodas created by bartenders in our bars,” said his co-presenter Andrew Nicholls.

Absolutely right.

Don’t buy little bottles, don’t use the hose guns … control what you do and keep the quality high by making your own soda and using soda chargers. This is handy for your home use as well as instituting a professional soda program in a bar or restaurant, which was the focus of Andrew and Darcy’s fascinating seminar today — we learned a lot, including a pile of chemistry.

The two main things to remember when making soda — CHILL YOUR WATER and BOIL YOUR WATER. Sounds a bit contradictory, doesn’t it? There are solid reasons for it though, right out of chemistry. Warm or room-temperature doesn’t carbonate well at all, you may have noticed; if you put tepid water in your soda siphon and charge it, all that carbon dioxide will just whoosh right out, leaving your water rather flat. The solubility of CO2 in water increases dramatically the lower the water temperature is — the closest to freezing point the better.

But boiling it? Why would we do that? Because dissolved air in water takes up four times the room that carbon dioxide would — make more room in the water and more CO2 will have room to remain behind and create sparkle. Bring your water to a boil, fill your soda siphon (preferably a metal one), let it cool and stick it in the fridge for at least 24 hours, preferably 48. Your water will sparkle beautifully and retain that sparkle.

Don’t over-pressurize your water, but using two chargers in a standard one-quart or one-liter siphon would create the ideal pressure for more robust carbonation. That tingle on your tongue works physiologically on multiple levels, bringing aroma up the back of your throat and into your olfactory system, plus that tingle on your tongue can get quite addictive, not unlike how folks get addicted to very spicy food. Endorphins being released in your brain is a very good thing.

The growing trend is for bars to ditch their horrid soda guns and start making their own soda, tonic waters etc. in-house, but it can go far beyond that. For instance, in old cocktail books we see fizzy drinks calling for Apollinaris water, a particular mineral water which added a lot of character to the drink as well as fizz. Who knew that you can make your own Apollonaris water by adding 23g sodium bicarbonate, 11.5g sodium sulphate, 8.8g sodium chloride, 7.6g magnesium carbonate and 1g calcium carbonate to 5 gallons of water and carbonating it?

We were reminded in the seminar that mineral salts found in mineral waters enhance flavor, which is why mineral waters work so well with food, and carbonated ones even more so, as the carbon dioxide enhances flavor as well, as do the bubbles which bring the aroma up to your nose, both outside and up the back of your throat. This is why people have enjoyed soda for so many years, and why flat soda is singularly unappealing.

Our cocktail example was delicious and instructive on multiple levels, with a house-made syrup added to cream, egg and fizzy mineral water to create an amazing, multi-layered flavor.

(featured in Fix the Pumps, by Darcy O’Neil)

2 ounces zozia syrup
1/2 ounce heavy cream
1 whole egg
Soda water

Prepare as a standard egg fizz — vigorously shake first three ingredients, strain into a tall ice-filled glass and top with soda water.

Zozia Syrup
3/4 tsp lemon essence
1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
15 drops Angostura bitters
15 drops absinthe essence (Herbsaint was added to taste in this version)
3/4 tsp citric acid solution
1 qt simple syrup (or gum syrup, preferably)
Caramel coloring (sufficient)

The chemistry was fascinating here, as the vanilla worked well with the abisnthe flavors, and the lemon essence provided wonderful aroma but very little flavor until the acid was added in the form of citric acid (or acid phosphate in similar syrup and cocktail formulae), and then the flavor just popped right out.

Andrew went on to discuss working with taste, texture, flavor and aroma in conjunction with mineral salts in soda water to create unique flavors, and this could have gone on all weekend. Tying in with Darcy’s excellent book on the history of the soda fountain, Fix the Pumps, and his forthcoming seminar with David Wondrich on the oft-crossed line between bartender and soda jerk, all this shows us what wide-ranging opportunities we have to improve the drinking experience in our bars by taking control of soda and integrating it thoroughly into cocktail programs.


Cocktail of the Day: Dirt ‘n Diesel

A couple of things have prompted this post, beginning with our trip to Seattle a couple of months ago. We’re very lucky to have great friends up there, several of whom are bartenders, so when in Seattle we drink really well. This trip was no exception, as our livers were given a vigorous workout and we FINALLY got to sit across the bar from Murray Stenson — a terrific guy, and a bartender’s bartender.

One of the places we hadn’t been to yet was Tavern Law, and as I’d heard and read so much about it I wanted to make it up at the top of the list along with Zig Zag. They have a spectacular cocktail menu and seriously talented bartenders, one of whom, Cale Green, took care of us that night. My memory-jogging notes from that evening are sadly somewhat liquor-sodden, so I don’t have names or proportions, but that evening Cale made us cocktails consisting of:

1) Rye whiskey, Amaro Montenegro, Punt E Mes, Angostura bitters
2) Bourbon whiskey, Amaro Ramazzotti, dry vermouth, Peychaud’s bitters
3) Laird’s bonded apple brandy, Swedish punsch, sweet vermouth, lime juice

These are EXACTLY the kinds of drinks I love, and Cale’s the kind of bartender who, after chatting with you for a bit about what you like, can come up with amazing drinks.

We had been hoping to get to the speakeasy-style bar above Tavern Law, a place called Needle and Thread, a hidden room which one enters by passing through a bank vault (gotta love existing architectural details in your building!). Cale also works up there, but alas, they were closed that evening. No worries, though — we’ll hit them next time, and that evening we had a wonderful time, had world-class drinks and made a new friend.

The other bit prompting this post was GQ magazine’s publication of its list of the The 25 Best Cocktail Bars in America (as they see it). Number One on that list is, unsurprisingly, The Zig Zag Café, where Murray works alongside Ben and Erik and Kacey the whole gang there who make it such a wonderful place. I was happy to see some of our local L.A. bars (Tiki-Ti and Cole’s Red Car Bar, plus a mention of The Varnish in the back of Cole’s), one of our New Orleans watering holes (Arnaud’s French 75 Bar, although I’d have thrown Cure and Bar UnCommon into that list, at least whenever Chris McMillian is behind the stick at the latter) plus one I frequent in Houston whenever I’m there visiting family (the wonderful Anvil).

And right there at Number 25 was not Tavern Law (although I think it deserves high mention in such a list) but Needle and Thread upstairs. GQ said:

“I spend all day on a tractor. Make me a drink that reminds me of the farm. You know, of dirt and diesel.” This is how an organic farmer from Portland ordered his drink here, because that is how they encourage drinks to be ordered. Get poetic about it; you’ll wind up with something like the Dirt ‘n Diesel.

I found out from Cale later on that the aforementioned bartender was himself, and the Dirt ‘n Diesel was his creation. It’s a cousin to the Corn ‘n Oil, with inky black Black Strap rum as its molasses-heavy base, with additional bitterness from the Cynar and plenty of dirt from Fernet. This is a terrific drink, and makes up for the fact that we never get out to the farm. Stop in at either of the two aforementioned bars where Cale works, and see what he’ll come up with for you.

(by Cale Green, Tavern Law and Needle & Thread, Seattle)

2 ounces Cruzan Black Strap Rum
1/2 ounce Fernet-Branca
1/2 ounce Demerara sugar syrup
1/4 ounce Cynar
1/4 ounce lime juice

Combine ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker and shake for 10-12 seconds. Strain over ice into a rocks glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.


She blinded me with (cocktail) science!

Yes, I still live and breathe. I’ve been talking to Stella about how to get my groove back, and she’s got a handle on it.

This is a linky-goodness post, as there have been some fascinating articles of late on the subject of mixing cocktails — to wit, on sweetness, balance, dilution and temperature.

First off, Chicago bartender Todd Appel puts forward a good case for why we should stop using 1:1 simple syrup.

I never have been a fan of 1:1 simple; it’s always seemed watery and not sweet enough, and simple math makes one wonder how a teaspoon of granulated or “powdered” sugar, called for in so many classic recipes, can be justifiably substituted with a teaspoon of something that’s got so much water in it. I’m not a fan of overly sweet cocktails either, but you have to have balance — sweet with the sour or bitter or strong, and plain ol’ sugar water doesn’t cut it. Todd starts off his article with the same observations:

For years I have wondered why my taste buds seemed to be at odds with many of the classic and new cocktails being offered around the country in our modern cocktail world.

I realized something important many years ago

Syrup in cocktails should be sugar heavy, period.

The problem here is twofold. 1-1 syrup offers more water and less sugar. This leads to more dilution and/or overly acidic drinks.

This is a recognized issue, hence the discussion of what many call “rich” simple syrup, made 2:1 with double the amount of sugar as water. This helps a great deal, but is it enough?

He reminds us of David Embury as well — we may have thought some of his ratios a bit wonky, but it’s easy to gloss over the ratio of syrup to water in the simple syrup he made, which was basically liquid sugar. Embury, plus at least one book by William Terrington from 1870, call for a 3:1 syrup!

I’m at the point now where I only use 2:1 simple syrup, for the simple reason that 1:1 simple syrup is by no means a substitute for the same volume of granulated sugar. I’m going to try a small batch of the more concentrated syrup and see where that gets me … mmm, cocktail experimentation.

Moving on!

It killed me to have to miss the 2010 edition Tales of the Cocktail, especially because the quality of the seminars truly shone this year. One of the more talked-about sessions (and one of the ones I was most annoyed to have missed) was The Science of Stirring, taught by Dave Arnold (Director of Culinary Technology at the French Culinary Institute in New York), bartender/beverage director Eben Klemm and Death & Co. bartender Thomas Waugh.

Dave has written another pair of epic posts about the seminar and the cocktail-making science explored within. Part 1 deals with shaking, stirring, temperature and dilution, and Part 2 with temperature and dilution, texture, notes on batching drinks and an epilogue from Waugh about how all this science stuff affects a real live bartender. Here’s the brief introduction:

Cocktail shaking is a violent activity. If you shake for around 12-15 seconds (though shaking longer won’t hurt), and if you aren’t too lethargic, neither the type of ice you use nor your shaking style will appreciably affect the temperature or dilution of your drink. Shaking completely chills, dilutes and aerates a drink in around 15 seconds, after which the drink stops changing radically and reaches relative equilibrium. Shaking is basically insensitive to bartender-induced variables. See my post on The Science of Shaking. [Definitely read this if you haven't already. -- CT]

Stirring is different. Think of stirring as inefficient shaking. It can take over 2 minutes of constant stirring to do what shaking can accomplish in 15 seconds. No one stirs a drink for 2 minutes, so the drink never reaches an equilibrium point. All the bartender-induced variables – size of ice, speed of stirring, duration of stirring, etc. — make a difference in stirred cocktails, so bartender skill is very important in a stirred cocktail.

Because stirring doesn’t reach equilibrium, stirred drinks are warmer and less diluted than shaken cocktails. Stirred drinks, unlike shaken ones, are not aerated. Stirring does not alter the texture of a drink –it merely chills and dilutes. A properly diluted cocktail stored at -5 degrees Celsius in a freezer is indistinguishable from a properly stirred one.

There’s a lot of reading here, and it does get quite scientific (for those of you who might be scared away by such things, don’t — it’s really fascinating and worth the effort). If the science is too much you can always skip down to Waugh’s final list of things for the everyday bartender to remember, the first of which you can begin implementing right away (if you haven’t already copied it from seeing better bartenders do it when you go out):

1. Chill your mixing (stirring) glass — ice works, as does a fridge or freezer.

This is all fascinating stuff, and a must-read for everyone interested in executing a properly stirred cocktail.


Lá Fhéile Pádraig shona dhaoibh!

And in case you’re not an Irish speaker, a very happy St. Patrick’s Day to you all!

The flag of the Four Provinces of Ireland

The flag of the Four Provinces of Ireland

I don’t suppose I could have gotten away with not making a post today, although I wasn’t particularly planning one. I did get a big of a nudge while talking to an Irish cow-orker this morning (and when another cow-orker passed us, he said, “You two shouldn’t even be allowed to talk to each other today … critical mass!”), while we chatted about “Father Ted” and shouted “FECK!” and “ARSE!” and “DRINK!” to each other, as is our wont.

Those of you who’ve seen my previous years’ St. Patrick’s Day posts will remember my own rules for the day:

1. NO GREEN BEER. I really shouldn’t even have to explain that.

I remember back in gradual school my mentor and favorite teacher Ian Conner, a native Glaswegian, overheard one of my fellow students on St. Patrick’s Day say that he was planning to spend the evening going to a local bar to drink green beer. “Is that what St. Patrick’s Day means to you?” asked Ian. “That’s not what St. Patrick’s Day means to me. What St. Patrick’s Day means to be is starting at noon at the closet Irish pub to where you live, having some whiskey, then moving on to the next one, having another whiskey, and continuing thusly throughout the day!” One of many thousands of anecdotes which add up to a truly great teacher.

2. Wear the green, but keep it subtle. I find that Irish people don’t particularly wear a lot of green anyway — one fun game I’ve played in Dublin with my Irish friends is “Spot the Yank,” terribly easy when there are so many Americans festooned in bright fluorescent kelly green, especially green mesh-back baseball caps with a shamrock and the word “IRELAND” on the front, plus the Bermuda shorts of course. Today my socks are a light forest green, and that’s perfectly nice.

Of course, given the Irish flag has green, white and orange (representing the nationalist tradition, the Orange Protestant tradition and the hope for peace between them), you could wear a bit of each. Then again, Ian continued his story … “On St. Patrick’s Day, my grandfather — a fierce adherent to the Church of Scotland — used to pin orange ribbons to his clothing and go through the Catholic sections of town, shouting anti-Papist slogans.” No need to go quite that far.

A clever, amusing t-shirt will do fine too. I have a few from a shop in Spiddal, Co. Galway called An Spáilpín Fánach featuring clever or witty sayings in Irish (I like the one I have that says, “Ná cuir céist orm — níl fhois agam!” or, “Don’t ask me, I don’t know!”) and some not-so-clever (such as the ubiquitous “Póg mo thóin”). I’ve seen a few other good ones around — “I ♥ Irish boys” is an old favorite, “Craic dealer” made me laugh, and perhaps the best one ever is the one that said, in a rather recognizeable typeface and layout …

f       c       e       k
the irish connection


3. Stay out of Irish pubs/bars. Seriously. Find a great Irish bar and go any other day of the year. On St. Patrick’s Day it’s strictly amateur hour, and unless you like being packed like sardines in green beer, drunk collge students, the Dropkick feckin’ Murphys and lots of police sobriety checkpoints there and back, stay home. Well, unless you’re actually in Ireland, where avoiding an Irish pub might be a bit more difficult.

4. Drink Irish whiskey. It is good. It is very good. And the whole “Catholic whiskey / Protestant whiskey” thing is bullshit — don’t buy into it. Nobody in Ireland would. If you like Bushmills (and I do, especially their single malts and aged expressions like the 16- and 21-year), then do so! Black Bush is lovely stuff and quite affordable.

My own preference goes toward the 12-year expressions of John Powers and Jameson’s, plus Tullamore Dew, all good for sipping or mixing. I also adore Redbreast, the only pure pot still Irish whiskey we’re getting over here now, and I’ve recently fallen in love with Tyrconnell Single Malt, one of the many wonderful products of the Cooley Distillery in Co. Louth, the only truly independent Irish whiskey distillery (Midleton in Cork is owned by Pernod-Ricard, and Bushmills by Diageo). The Tyrconnell line also includes whiskies finished in sherry, madeira and port barrels — I’ve only had one of them so far, but it was wonderful, a great balance between maltiness and strawberry-fruit sweetness.

I’m also a fan of Kilbeggan, another Cooley product. Wesly and I visited the Old Kilbeggan distillery about six years ago and enjoyed seeing the place. In ’07 the folks at Cooley actually got working pot stills going at Kilbeggan again, with the plan to actually have them produce whiskey again after 54 years. Kilbeggan’s lovely, with notes of raisins and vanilla. Interesting tidbit — from 1843 until its closure in 1954 the distillery was called Locke’s, after the man who purchased it and whose family ran it for over a century. His name will be familiar to those of us who are “Lost” fans … John Locke. (As far as I know, that John Locke’s body is not currently inhabited by a smoke monster.) Locke’s 8-year single malt is still produced by Cooley — it’s a blended single malt, which does include a bit of peated whiskey, so actually Locke’s has a touch of the smoke monster after all.

5. Drink Irish whiskey cocktails. We’ll be doing numbers 4 and 5 tonight, at home.

Here are the 10 Irish whiskey-based cocktails currently in my list; doubtless you can find more. I’m favoring the Tipperary tonight, I think; Gaz Regan wrote about it again today in the San Francisco Chronicle.

A few Irish whiskey cocktails to peruse

Bushmills in the Afternoon
Irish (Channel) Coffee
Irish Whiskey Toddy
James Joyce Cocktail
St. Dominic’s Preview
The Swell Season

6. Listen to Irish music. You’re always good with The Pogues (even though most of them aren’t from Ireland), but your best bet are the modern classics of Planxty and The Bothy Band. Go on iTunes or eMusic and get some now if you haven’t already. You’ll thank me later.

And have a happy and safe, snake-free St. Patrick’s Day!


Merry Christmas, y’all

Peace, y'all

We’re gonna take a li’l Christmas break for a coupla days, and I hope you do too. Well, of course, after you look at the gifts we’ve got for y’all in this post!

For me, it wouldn’t be the holidays without Benny Grunch and the Bunch doing “The 12 Yats of Christmas” …

And while this is still a New Orleans Christmas classic, the sad truth is that you have to be of a certain age to get most of those references now, in post-Federal Flood days … ’cause most o’ dem places ain’t dere no more …

And, of course, the greatest Christmas song ever.

If you love this song as much as I do, you might want to watch an excellent one-hour documentary on its making, in six parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.

So Happy Christmas, I love ya baby, I can see a better time when all our dreams come true …


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