Sodatender or Barjerk: Lost Secrets Revealed?

[NOTE: This is the first of several preview posts I’ll be writing to highlight upcoming seminars at the 2011 Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, taking place July 20-24. This is a crosspost from the original post at]

Last year I had the best Ramos Gin Fizz I’d ever had in my life.

As a New Orleanian I’ve had a lot of ’em, good and bad. (The nadir was the one at an unnamed restaurant which should have known better; it had so much orange flower water in it that it tasted like hand soap.) I’m thrilled to see the drink being made very well around the country thanks to the craft cocktail renaissance, but my favorite place to get them is in New Orleans. It’s part of what makes the city feel like home.

This particularly stunning Fizz was made at Bar UnCommon in the Père Marquette Hotel, and was made by Chris McMillian, unsurprisingly. Chris is a consummate bartender — methodical and deliberate, making perfect drinks, and entertaining you with tales and history as he does it. This one, though, this one …

Chris had been trying some new things out on me, and we’d had some classics, and even though it was late at night and I do tend to enjoy this particular drink earlier in the day, I was just in the mood. “Could you make me a Ramos?” I asked.

“Coming right up!”

I continued chatting with my friends, not really watching what the bartender was doing, oddly enough, as bartender-watching is something I frequently do. I noticed that he wasn’t shaking the egg white for nearly as long as I’ve seen other bartenders do it, though, and I began to try to pay more attention. The conversation also demanded my attention, so I wasn’t able to closely follow what Chris was doing, but I recall there being a bit of soda already in the glass as he strained the drink, agitating it gently with a barspoon as the glass filled.

He placed the drink in front of me, and I took a sip of what was the most spectacular Ramos Gin Fizz I had ever tasted.

It was perfect. Not only the balance of flavor, but the texture … holy hell, the texture was magnificent. Silky and smooth and completely emulsified, almost like very soft peak meringue, but not just on top. This emulsified texture remained consistent all the way to the bottom of the drink, with no separation at all, until I slurped the very last drops of it through the straw. Even the best Ramos Fizzes I’ve had separated after a bit. Not this one.

I had to gush. “Chris, this is amazing! I caught a few glimpses of you making it — how’d you get it like this?”

Chris replied that after all these years making them in the usual way, he had recently completely changed his technique after reading Darcy O’Neil‘s book, Fix the Pumps. “Read it if you haven’t,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “and you’ll see how I did it.”

Intrigued yet?

Darcy is a bartender and trained chemist from Ontario, Canada whose aforementioned self-published book is a history of the American soda fountain, its rise and fall, and the myriad secrets of the sodajerk — many of which were nearly lost to history (when’s the last time you saw a full-fledged, old-fashioned soda fountain?) and nearly all of which are incredibly useful to the modern bartender.

Along with the esteemed David Wondrich Darcy will be presenting a seminar called “Sodatender or Barjerk?” in which they’ll review this history, techniques of the sodajerk that the bartender can use (see above), and how the techniques of the bartender — many of whom were out of work 90 years ago due to Prohibition — came into play at the soda fountain.

Want to learn some fascinating history and some great techniques to make your drinks even more amazing? If so, this seminar is not to be missed!


Martinique, meet Italy

So the other night—it was in point of fact Wednesday evening—it was my turn to mix. (We take turns at our house, as do civilized gentlemen everywhere.) I had a vague feeling that I wanted something Manhattan-esque, but Chuck had made superlative Manhattans just the previous evening, so that was right out. I felt that something original was called for, and this meant first thought, and then experimentation. “Brown, bitter and stirred” is always well received, so I decided to go in that general direction. In the end, what I came up with was not very brown, but it was nicely bitter, and I stirred it, so hey.

If there’s anything I like almost as much as rye, it’s rum. And if there’s anything I like more than a good amaro, it’s…actually, I don’t know what that is. This gave me the foundational idea I needed to get started. I’d like to say that next I went through some astonishing testing gyrations, or chemical flavor component analysis, or dug deeply into the Flavor Bible. Alas, I can make no such claims. What I did was, I pawed through the liquor stash in the rum and amaro sections and found one of each that (a) weren’t nearly empty and (2) seemed, very subjectively and unscientifically, i.e. all in my mind, like they would play well together.

I see a great deal of sense and logic in Gary Regan’s theory of cocktail and mixed-drink families, as outlined in his essential, eminently readable resource, The Joy of Mixology. Is there a “family name” for drinks following the formula rum + amaro modifier, or even base spirit + amaro modifier? Is it sufficiently original to warrant its own surname? Chuck helpfully pointed out that Cora, like most although not all amari, is not a fortified wine.  So, technically at least, this drink is something other than a Manhattan variation (and therefore not a member of Gary’s French-Italian cocktail family), even though that was certainly my inspiration. In the end, I decided that it didn’t really matter, and if someone decides that it does, they can work out the family tree with my blessing.

But what, oh what were the two bottles I selected? I can hear you wondering from here. I’ll just cut right to the chase. Without further ado:

Golden Dahlia cocktail

Golden Dahlia
created by Wesly Moore

2 ounces Rhum Neisson Agricole Élevé Sous Bois
1 ounces Amaro Cora
3-4 dashes Bittermen’s Xocolatl Mole Bitters
Large lemon twist

Stir over ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and squeeze a lemon twist to express its oils over the surface of the drink. You may choose to commit the delicious sacrilege of dropping the twist into the drink, or not, as you prefer.

[Note: Amaro Cora is hard to find, but you can mail order it without a problem. If you enjoy amari, you need this in your collection. Find it here via Mount Carmel Wines & Spirits in the Bronx, New York City, only $10 per bottle.]

As I mentioned, this cocktail is not terribly, or really even at all, brown—this Neisson is aged for but 18 months in French oak barrels, so the resulting pour is light in color, and Amaro Cora is far from the darkest of the amari I tend to prefer and enjoy. In the glass, the cocktail has a lovely blonde color, and who doesn’t admire a lovely blonde? (I myself thought of Veronica Lake—hence the name I’ve given the drink—although Scarlett Johansson will certainly do in a pinch.) But the flavor experience is somehow browner than that, delightfully complex and pleasantly but not overwhelmingly bitter. Neisson is an agricole rum from Martinique. I love how distinct, uniquely local flavors stand out in agricoles; here the drink has an underlying earthy/grassiness that is just beautiful. I have on occasion overheard Amaro Cora dismissed a bit more readily than I think is warranted, typically for being “not all that bitter”. It’s true: Cora is not as bitter as Cynar or Fernet Branca, but its flavor profile is just gorgeous—lovely notes of orange peel and cinnamon. Here it does play very well together indeed—the bitterness it provides is understated and mellow, but clear and clean. I’m a huge fan of the Bittermens line of bitters (in spite of their disappointing caps, which always seem to crack and split long before the bottle is anywhere near empty), and their Xocolatl Mole is one of my favorites. It’s such a distinctive flavor combination that of course it isn’t suitable for just any cocktail, but here it adds a spicy richness with notes of not-at-all-sweet chocolate that’s just right. I did play a bit with proportions before settling quite happily on the classic and successful 2:1.

And now the world opens up before us, a world of rums, amari and bitters, all with the potential to be combined in luxurious and near-infinite variation, no doubt with varying degrees of success, but all to the pleasure of our palates. Go forth and conquer. Please do post your own suggestions as a comment.


Jim & Rocky’s Barback Pro-Am, Part 6: Marquee Cocktail

As the barback demolition derby continues, the next novice into the frying pan is … um, me.

(Oh, crap.)

I was a little nervous about this whole being-on-camera thing to begin with, and after hearing from Tatsu about how he ran the gauntlet the night before, I had a minor panic attack. (Not a real panic attack, but more along the line of all the chickens in “Chicken Run” — “We mustn’t panic!” … *sounds of chickens panicking*)

I wasn’t panicking about doing the work — I was really excited about doing the work, in fact. Other than at home and friends’ houses, and bartending some parties, this would be my first time behind a working bar. I was a bit more concerned about the idea of having shots poured into me all night. Alas, I had to be a party pooper and put my foot down — no 12 shots over the course of the night, as not only did I have to be at work at 7:30 the next morning but I also had to drive myself home. Sigh, what the day job will do to us …

I showed up bright and early to help prep, which was apparently a good sign. Points scored already! Before starting the video I’d like to describe one thing it didn’t portray — in fact, none of the videos did — what Jim called “the pre-shift ritual.” This wasn’t any kind of barback hazing, this was a participatory ritual in which Jim and Rocky would join me. Sure, sounded great, but I wasn’t getting any explanations until we got to the site of the ritual.

The site, in everyone’s case, was the nearest dive bar to the venue where Jim would be guest-bartending. The ritual was for the three of us to consume … a Jäger Bomb.

Would you believe, though, that in my entire life, and after all the spirits and liqueurs I’ve quaffed or merely tasted in my life (I’ve lost count), I have never once tasted Jägermeister, much less some college kid drink made from it.

You’d think it’d be right up my alley, if you look at it for its original purpose — a herbal* liqueur meant as an after-dinner digestivo. Somehow over the years it became some kind of frat-boy shooter, and that whole reputation that developed around it just put me off. Actually though, if the ritual had just been shots of Jäger, I would have been fine with that. I mean, I’ve done shots of Malört, fer chrissakes — very little could be less palatable than that (and I actually kind of like Malört). I started thinking about it and figured a Jäger Bomb would likely be something like a shot of Jäger dropped into a beer, which I imagine would have been palatable enough. Sure, I’d be fine with that.

Nope. You probably already knew this, but that night I learned that a Jäger Bomb is a shot of Jägermeister dropped into a large glass of Red Bull. *groan*

I hate Red Bull. Sickly sweet, tasting like bad cotton candy and with an absurd amount of caffeine … blecch. In fact, I despise all those so-called “energy drinks,” primarily for the fact that they all — every single one of them — unequivocally tastes like shit. I mean, spit-take bad. And Red Bull is probably the best of them.

The bartender at the little dive down the street delivered unwelcome news, though. “We’re out of Red Bull,” he said. “All we’ve got is Rockstar.” Rockstar not even out of the can — Rockstar squirted out of the soda gun, in fact.

Here’s what Wikipedia says about Rockstar:

“As with all energy drinks, Rockstar can cause jitteriness, anxiety, and high blood sugar levels. If mixed with alcohol it may also mask the level of alcohol intoxication. Because of the diuretic effect of caffeine, Rockstar can exacerbate dehydration. […] Rockstar Original was named Worst Energy Drink by Men’s Health magazine for having 280 calories due to 62 grams of sugar.” Rockstar also has about four times as much caffeine as Coca-Cola. Then there’s that whole tasting-like-shit thing. That, plus I mislike that company for other reasons as well. I found myself wishing they had had Red Bull.

Sigh. Stop whining and just drink it. Yep, it was about as bad as I thought it’d be, entirely due to the Rockstar. I’d gladly have done a few Jäger shots instead.

But enough grousing about the pre-shift ritual (which, other than the Rockstar, was fun). Let’s get down to work!

I was very happy to get a good grade! I was even happier that compared to some other videos, I was pretty boring. (Being earnest at your job is not terribly entertaining.) I’d rather be boring than be “good TV” though, I guess. I’m really glad Rocky and Jim asked me to participate, and I had a ton of fun. Despite what the video’s web page says I learned a lot working with Jim — a hell of a lot more than “Never run unless someone’s chasing you with something pointy,” which I actually already knew.

Jim’s featured drink this time is way better than a Jäger Bomb. I love the combination of gin and Aperol, and the lovely savory note from the sage really makes this drink.

by Jim Romdall, Vessel, Seattle

1-1/2 ounces Martin Miller’s Gin
3/4 ounce Aperol
3/4 ounce lemon juice
1/4 ounce simple syrup
2 sage leaves
Pinch of salt

Shake all ingredients with cracked ice until very cold, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a sage leaf.


* — “You say ‘erbs’ and I say ‘herbs,’ because … there’s a fucking ‘H’ in it.” — Eddie Izzard.


Jim & Rocky’s Barback Pro-Am, Part 5: Neener Neener

Jim and Rocky’s next victim — my friend Tatsu Oiye, professional drinker and fellow member of the board of the Los Angeles Cocktail Community (we help organize monthly social, networking and educational gatherings for local bartenders). Tatsu’s shift was at 320 Main, easily the best bar in Orange County and one of my very favorite bars in all of southern California. Tatsu had it somewhat harder than the rest of us — 320 was closed to the public that night, and the entire restaurant was filled with bartenders, cocktail enthusiasts and friends. Really, who will abuse you more heinously than all your closest friends and fellow drinkers? Hats off to Tatsu for remaining alive and standing under fire. 🙂

by Jim Romdall, Vessel, Seattle

1-1/2 ounce Dos Maderas PX Rum
3/4 ounce Ramazzotti Amaro
1 egg
dash simple syrup
dash Angostura Bitters
float Green Chartreuse

Combine the first five ingredients in a shaker and dry shake WITHOUT ICE for at least 20 seconds. Add ice and shake to chill. Double strain into a Irish coffee glass and float with green Chartereuse.


Jim & Rocky’s Barback Pro-Am, Part 4: Dragon’s Blood

My buddy Ron Dollete of stands next in the firing line. He did a fine job behind the bar, although was accused of being “cocky,” and bore his annoying tasks manfully without resorting to rolling his eyeballs at Jim and Rocky or saying, “Oh, you bastards…” Good shaker face, too.

While Jim’s Martini featured a dash of his beloved Ardbeg in the mixing glass along with everything else, this one features his trademark Ardbeg float. While not exactly red, given its name this drink could be a contender for the house cocktail of House Targaryen. Dracarys!

by Jim Romdall, Vessel, Seattle

1 ounce Martin Miller’s Gin
3/4 ounce Green Chartreuse
1/3 ounce Dry Sack Sherry
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
1 dash absinthe
Ardbeg scotch whisky float
Lime twist

Combine the first 5 ingredients with ice in a mixing glass, stir for 30 seconds and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Drizzle a barspoon or so of Ardbeg on top of the drink as a float, garnish with a lime twist and serve.