The Gratitude Cocktail

We were sitting here thinking what would be involved in the ideal Thanksgiving cocktail. Naturally, it would have to include Wild Turkey. We wanted something that would invoke the herbs, spices, and sweetness of a properly satiating Thanksgiving meal. It also made sense to add Applejack, one of our favorite add-ins for Autumn cocktails in general, and cardamom bitters would give us the spiciness we were looking for. We also remembered that we had some blackberry thyme shrub in the fridge still, and that would be the veritable cranberry sauce on the Wild Turkey.

As it happened, we had made a cocktail earlier in the evening using some fresh rosemary from the yard as a garnish, and we decided to leave the rosemary in the glass, more out of laziness than creativity. However, the nose of the rosemary, along with the thyme in the shrub, turned out to be the perfect herbal component for this Thanksgiving potion. A little Cynar, an artichoke-based apertivo, added some additional herbal bitterness we needed, and a splash of sweet vermouth tied it all together.

IMG_20131127_195030_305The Gratitude Cocktail

  • 1 ounce Wild Turkey 101
  • 1 ounce Applejack
  • 1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 1/2 ounce Cynar
  • 1 teaspoon blackberry/thyme shrub

Stir and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary.

This was honestly right up there with the best cocktails we’ve ever concocted. A great deal of labor went into the creation of each ingredient. We are grateful we had ready access to such rich, decadent fare. We are grateful for the cocktail education that led us to keeping each of those ingredients in our stock. We are grateful for the bounty of this drink. It has truly lived up to its name.

Fall Cocktails

Fall Harvest

In response to Joey Schmidt’s recent post about Pumpkin Spice tiki drinks (and the general pumpkin spice craze that seems to hit everywhere around this time of year), we are re-posting this story from last fall that includes our Pumpkin Spice Sour.


While seeking inspiration for the Fall Cocktails seminar we taught last week, we thought of three things we definitely wanted to use: Applejack, homemade Old Tom gin, and pumpkin.

We’ve said before that we really enjoy using Applejack in our cocktails in the fall. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Applejack is technically a brandy made from apples, though it drinks more like a whiskey than a brandy. Before prohibition, Applejack and strong cider were the the primary products for which apples were grown. Applejack has been making a gradual comeback in recent years.

The Laird’s company of New Jersey is the oldest and most prominent distiller of this product. Their 80-proof blended Applejack is the only variety available in here in Alabama. Out of state, you can get several others including our favorite, the Laird’s Bottled-in-Bond Straight Apple Brandy. There are also a few other companies that make similar products. In France, they make an apple brandy called Calvados, which is quite different in character from Applejack, but it is interesting to switch them out in recipes to see how they play with others.

We paired the Applejack with an equal amount of our Old Tom, which you can find the recipe for here. We’ll spare you the “History of Gin” lecture here since you’ll get most of it if you follow that link. Our Old Tom is heavy with baking spices, especially cardamom and clove, with a hint of orange peel, making it an exquisite partner for the Applejack. We added Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, a little cranberry juice, and bitters to round out the drink, which we decided to call Autumn Spice.

Autumn Spice

  • 1 ounce Old Tom Gin
  • 1 ounce Applejack
  • ½ ounce Domaine de Canton
  • ½ ounce cranberry juice
  • 3 dashes aromatic bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass filled ¾ with ice. Stir to desired dilution. Strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon peel.

We knew we wanted to make a pumpkin spice syrup. Everybody’s crazy about pumpkin spice these days, it seems. But unlike whatever is in your corporate cappuccino, we wanted to use actual pumpkin. We used a sugar pie pumpkin, baked the meat, and then pureed it in the blender. You can also use canned pumpkin puree, but where’s the fun in that?

Pumpkin SourPumpkin Spice Syrup (adapted from

  • ¾ cups water
  • ½ cup granular sugar
  • ¼ cup light brown sugar
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon ground clove
  • ¼ tsp ground ginger
  • 1/8 cup pumpkin puree

Add water and sugar to a small saucepan. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally until the sugar has dissolved. Add pumpkin puree and spices. Whisk to combine. Reduce heat to medium low for five minutes, whisking frequently. Remove from heat and let sit to cool. Pour the mixture through a fine mesh strainer or cheese cloth. Bottle and store in the refrigerator.

We tried this syrup in a variety of drinks, but our favorite was a variation on a classic whiskey sour.

Pumpkin Whiskey Sour

  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • 1 ounce pumpkin syrup
  • ½ ounce lemon juice
  • ½ ounce egg white

Pour all ingredients into a shaker. Shake without ice until you feel pressure building in the shaker. Add ice and shake again. Strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice.

For more Fall cocktails, see here, here, and here.

The Library of Babel

I made this cocktail for the “speakeasy” theme at Birmingham Museum of Art’s monthly “Art After Five” event.

I had been looking through some old cocktail books and found references to a no-longer-available product called Hercules. Being a curious type of person, I started doing research and found that I wasn’t the first people to go looking for this product. To make a long story short, it was an aperitif wine that was flavored with yerba mate.

Now, I first heard of yerba mate when I was in college and read 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the first time. Characters in South American novels drink mate all the time, and I wanted to know more. Back then, it wasn’t an easy product to get, but I did find some at the local health food store, along with the hollow gourd and metal straw traditionally used to drink the tea after it is brewed. Now, you can find yerba mate at almost any grocery store.

I thought at first that I might infuse the yerba mate in an aperitif wine, but I thought it would be safer to make a syrup from it. Then, if it didn’t turn out well, I hadn’t ruined a good bottle of anything–just wasted some sugar. The syrup was so delicious that you could almost drink it by itself. In fact, since I have some left over from the event at the museum, I’ve been using it to make rum and tequila old-fashioneds at home.

To make the syrup, just do a simple syrup with equal parts sugar and water. When it comes to a boil, stir briefly and then let it cool off. While it is still hot, for each cup of water, add a tea bag of yerba mate and let it steep for ten minutes. Remove the tea bags, let cool, and bottle.

For the aperitif, I went with Bonal. Because of its pungent, earthy qualities, I thought it would blend well with the yerba mate. It was easy to imagine that the original Hercules product might have been similar to Bonal with yerba mate added in.

One of the yerba mate products you can buy now in many stores is a soda that includes grapefruit and ginger. I had one of these recently and thought it was a good flavor combination to try with my cocktail. My early experiments using ginger in this cocktail, however, didn’t turn out quite like I wanted them to, so I abandoned that and just went with fresh grapefruit juice.

Since the event had a speakeasy theme, I used gin as the base. When I think of the 1920s, I think of gin first. I used Bombay Sapphire because of the high proof and because the particular botanicals used in that product a great for herbal cocktails.

I named the drink after a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, another nod to the South American roots of yerba mate.

I’ll be making this again at the monthly Nitty Gritty Magic City reading series at Desert Island Supply Company next Thursday (4/12).

Library of Babel

  • 2 oz Bombay Sapphire gin
  • 1/2 ounce yerba mate syrup
  • 1/2 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
  • 1/2 ounce Bonal

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a slice of grapefruit peel.

The Road to Nowhere

We’ll be giving out samples of the “Road to Nowhere” at the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Art After Five event on Friday, June 2. The theme for this month’s event is “Road Trip.”

When we think of vacations, we think of rum. To be fair, we think about rum pretty much all the time these days, and especially in summer. The exotic combination of grapefruit, mint, and ginger stirred the old imagination. The tartness of lemon juice tamps down the sweetness. Just get in the car, turn on the radio, and see where it takes us. It doesn’t matter where we are going, and we could just as well be going nowhere.

This cocktail comes with apologies to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. We couldn’t decide which of the “Road” movies to name it after, so we went with the Talking Heads song instead.

The Road to Nowhere:

Espolon Cock(tail) Fights

AudienceWhat do you get when you combine the bravado of professional wrestling, a rivalry between two cities, a dozen creative bartenders, and a whole lot of tequila? The answer is something like the Espolon Tequila Cock(tail) Fights. Espolon Tequila has sponsored these events in numerous cities. This past Monday, they held their third annual bout between Birmingham and Atlanta, and we were asked to go along for the ride and to help judge the contest, which pitted six bartenders from each city against each other. Birmingham took the belt last year, but our champion Will Hamrick wasn’t able to attend this time around. The event was held at Atlanta’s Terminal West, and the home team came prepared to win back the title.

The Birmingham contingent chartered a bus to Atlanta and brought along a sizeable cheering squad of about twenty fellow bartenders. You can imagine that when you put 25-30 bartenders on a bus, things might get a little raucous.

At the event itself, audience members were allowed to purchase fake money and place bets. They could then cash in their winnings for Espolon swag. Each bartender was asked to adopt a stage personality, which you can see on the betting board below. In the first round, the participants competed head to head, with one Atlanta bartender facing off against one Birmingham bartender. Each made the Espolon cocktail recipe they had submitted to the contest.

Betting Board

Betting Board

I got in on the festivities

I got in on the festivities

Our hosts

Our hosts, Justin Noel and Michael Finn

Team Captains

Team Captains

Georgios "El Boracho Mentioso"

Georgos “El Boracho Mentioso” Ogourousis

Joey "The Undertiki" Schmidt

Joey “The Undertiki” Schmidt

Steve "The Ringmaster" Bradford

Steve “The Ringmaster” Bradford

David "the Donald" Dixon

David “the Donald” Dixon

Charles "Midnight Rooster" Freeland

Charles “Midnight Rooster” Freeland


Larry Mudd “Houston Navidad” Townley

Ryan "The Stone" Stone

Ryan “The Stone” Stone

The rest is a bit of a blur

The rest is a bit of a blur

In the second round, the six winners from round one had to make 10 cocktails and a shot in four minutes. They were judged on consistency, accuracy, speed, and technique.

The two best scores from round two faced each other in round three. This ended up being two Atlanta bartenders, David “the Donald” Dixon and Paige “Spitfire” Lane. And the winner was Atlanta’s David “the Donald” Dixon (who used to be a bartender in Birmingham).
So Atlanta ended up taking home the glory this year, but a good time was had by all. We’ll get them next year.

Keep It Simple

20151231_131428Hopefully, everyone out there had a wonderful time ringing in the New Year. We are recovering from our annual NYE cocktail party here at the Whiskey Thief. We have a few resolutions, of course, one of which is to make sure we post here more often (pretty sure that was on our list last year as well). To start off the year, let’s turn to some frequently asked questions.

We got an email the other day asking about how we make, handle, and store simple syrup. A good number of the recipes we post involve simple syrup or flavored syrup, so we thought it would be a good idea to recap our process here for posterity.

Our go-to method is to combine equal parts sugar and water. Unless I’m bartending for an event or throwing a party, I’ll usually use a cup of organic sugar and a cup of filtered water. This yields a little more than a cup of finished syrup, which is just the right amount to fill the bottle that I use. It will last in the fridge for about six weeks, but I tend to use it up much faster than that.

Although we advocate for the 1:1 proportion of sugar to water, a number of bartenders we know prefer different proportions based on amount of sweetness versus amount of dilution added. For some, the proportion has a lot to do with the texture or “mouth-feel” of the cocktail. For more dilution, use more water. For more texture, use more sugar. We’ve had good success with 3:2, but mainly (as the headline says), we like to keep it simple.

Of course, there are different types of sugar out there, and they each have unique qualities. For some tiki drinks and pre-prohibition cocktails, we’ll make a rich syrup using demerara  sugar, which is a deep amber, large-grained sugar with a strong toffee flavor. A rich syrup doubles the amount of sugar you use in the recipe (2:1 instead of 1:1). Other recipes might call for turbinado or other types of sugar. You can also use other sweeteners. Honey mix (equal parts honey and water) is an essential for some classics like the Bee’s Knees and the Gold Rush. Maple syrup and agave syrup can also be diluted for use in cocktails.

For general use in your average home bar, equal parts of tap water and regular white sugar will serve you just fine. To make it:

  • Combine sugar and water in a sauce pan
  • Heat slowly on medium, stirring intermittently
  • Let it come to a boil and stir to make sure all the sugar is dissolved
  • After it boils for 30 seconds to a minute, take it off the heat.
  • After it cools, funnel it into a glass bottle and refrigerate

When I’m experimenting with syrup in a new cocktail, I start with a half-ounce of the syrup and adjust to taste.

Adding herbs, spices, fruits, and other flavors to syrups can add another dimension to your cocktails. I make most of these by adding the extra ingredients in with the sugar and water and then filtering them out after the syrup cools. For our New Year’s Eve party, I made a batch of regular syrup and three special syrups:

  • Rosemary and black pepper – I added two sprigs of rosemary and a tablespoon of black peppercorns. This is great for a variation of the Bengal Tiger, one of my most popular original recipes.
  • Cinnamon and clove – Great for the holidays, I put two cinnamon sticks and four whole cloves into the mix.
  • Hot pepper – I had some dry hot peppers of various sorts that I reconstituted, and then I used the water to make a syrup that is wonderful in margaritas and in my original cocktail the Yetaxa.

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 16

Read from the beginning

IMG_20151215_110009Within microseconds of entering Gustie’s apartment, Coldwater asked her what she had to drink around there. He had already drained his flask on the way over.

“You know where everything is.”

Coldwater opened the door of the pantry where Gustie kept her liquor. A respectable showing of a dozen or so bottles, including your big four base liquors: whiskey, gin, rum, and tequila—plus a selection of liqueurs. She had a big bottle of vodka, which she used for making tinctures, the only real use he had for vodka himself. There was an ancient bottle of pisco that she had picked up on a trip to South America back in the sixties and never actually opened, to her credit. Coldwater had never met a pisco he liked, or a cachaca for that matter. If he was ever going to drink moonshine, it would have to be the American variation. A few mason jars of her homemade bitters and other herbal concoctions sat in the back corner, protected from harmful sunlight.

Coldwater made himself a rocks Manhattan because he didn’t feel like looking around for a mixing glass and spoon. He added an extra helping of Angostura because her vermouth was an inferior brand and hadn’t been refrigerated.

“Damn, Gustie. How many times do I have to tell you to keep your vermouth in the fridge?”

“I go through it so fast, what’s the point?” she yelled back from her perch by the window where she was chain smoking again. There was no way her nurse didn’t know about this habit of hers. He sat down next to her with his glass. “What’s got you drinking before noon?”

“Funeral for the professor who got murdered. Just got back from there.”

“It must be an epidemic. Mrs. Manley upstairs has a son who was just found murdered.”

“Manley?” He drank the Manhattan in one big gulp and stood to make himself another.

“Don’t tell me this was another friend of yours,” she said. “You do know him, don’t you? Just what are you mixed up in, son?”

Genuine concern cast a gray shadow on her face, making her look even older and more frail than she actually was. Her mouth turned down, causing tiny lines to fracture and fragment into a river map that spread across her forehead. He took her icy cold trembling hands into his own.

“Don’t worry, Gustie. I know what I’m doing. And if what you’re telling me checks out like I think it will, it’s almost over.”

He pointed to the glass to communicate that he would explain when properly lubricated. If the authorities know about Manley now, he thought, it would be safe enough to follow up on his hunch about it with Detective Gatlinburg. Or maybe he could just take the widow’s money and make up a story that would protect her. He couldn’t believe he was considering it, but then he couldn’t shake off the way she had held onto his hands at the funeral. It was like she was hypnotizing him.

“I only met young Manley once,” he finally said, after taking his time in the pantry with an Old Fashioned. He added a little allspice dram to it for no particular reason. “But that one time was very informative. He is suspected of killing the professor, but he didn’t do it.”

“Who did?”

“I’m still working on that, but I have at least two viable ideas. Have the cops been here to talk to Mrs. Manley?”

“Yes—a detective was here early this morning.”

“Did you see him? Short, squat fellow that smells like a honey-baked ham and constantly sucks on an unlit cigar like it’s a pacifier?”

“Perfectly describes the man I saw.”

“Well, a’ight then,” Coldwater said, satisfied.

Probably why Gatlinburg wasn’t at the funeral, he thought. Gatlinburg was here following up on Manley. He leaned back on the sofa, satisfied that he’d wrap this thing up neatly, maybe even this afternoon, and deliver it to the cops on a silver platter. Unless they’ve already wrapped it up themselves, but that didn’t seem likely. There were still one or two stubborn little puzzle pieces that didn’t quite fit in the picture.

Gustie seemed to relax then too. She pulled a pint glass down from the cabinet and stirred herself a martini. She’d been the one who taught him how to make it properly, even though it had been her generation that had bastardized it in the first place, first by adding olives and secondly by using vodka instead of gin.

“What else is new around here, Gustie?” He took a sip of his own drink, decided it needed a touch more bourbon, fixed it, and sat down again.

“Oh, you know how it is at my age. I have a new pain in my back every day, but other than that, nothing changes. When are you gonna get yourself laid, young man?”

“When are you?”

She laughed. “Boy, you’ve got no idea what kinds of fun your old grandma gets into in this monkeyhouse. You’d be scandalized.”

“Alright, alright. I probably don’t want to know. Oh, by the way, I was going to give you your keys back, but I think I need your car for another day or two.”

“Ah,” she said, waving at him. “Just make yourself a set.”

He didn’t mention that he already had.

Read Part 17