Switch Hitters

We were reminded at a recent seminar that switching one base liquor for another is one of the oldest bartender tricks in existence. There is often some other tweaking involved besides just making a substitution.

For example, let’s start with a basic Daiquiri: rum + lime + sugar.

Take that recipe and switch brandy for the rum and lemon for the lime. Optionally, add triple sec for extra citrus and sweetness. Also optionally, add sugar to the rim of the glass. Now you have a Sidecar.

Switch out tequila for the brandy and switch the sugar rim for a salt rim. You can use lemon or lime or a combination. Now you have your basic Margarita.

You may not know that several drinks we associate with whiskey today, notably the Sazerac and the Mint Julep, were originally made with brandy or cognac. The switch was made during a period of grape blight when cognac became much harder to get (and subsequently more expensive). Over the past week, we have been enjoying both of those cocktails with brandy as the base liquor, and the result is delicious. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that brandy/cognac is sweeter than bourbon or rye, so you can get away with using a little less sugar.

We like to use Christian Brothers XO brandy or Hennessy VSOP cognac. You might try substituting other fine brandies or eaux de vie in yours and see what you come up with.

julepBrandy Mint Julep

  • Muddle a few leaves of mint with 1/2 ounce of simple syrup in a rocks glass (or make a batch of mint syrup, if you prefer)
  • Add two ounces of brandy/cognac
  • Fill glass with crushed ice.
  • Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.

In the Wikipedia article on the Manhattan cocktail, there are numerous variations that do little more than switch out the base liquor. Some also switch to a different type of vermouth. For example, if you make a Cuban Manhattan, which subs light rum for the whiskey, you might want to use a dry vermouth instead of sweet. The dry vermouth will help counter the sweetness of the rum, and if you are using a white rum, you will still have a crystal clear cocktail (as long as you stir it; don’t shake!)

Or you could try our variation, which uses Punt e Mes, a sweet vermouth with a kind of bitter edge to it. We also prefer an aged rum like Flor de Cana 4-year. If you are feeling really fancy, use the 12-year.

Cuban Manhattan

  • 2 ounces aged rum
  • 1/2 ounce Punt e Mes
  • Dash of Angostura bitters
  • stir in a mixing glass full of ice to desired level of dilution
  • strain into a coupe glass
  • garnish with lemon peel

The ancestor of the Sidecar and the Margarita–the granddaddy of all “fancy” cocktails–is the Crusta. Though it was originally made with brandy, there was a time around the Civil War era when it was popular with gin. The style of gin you would most likely have found at that time was Old Tom. We recommend buying Ransom’s brand of Old Tom if you can find it. Otherwise, make your own.

CrustaOld Tom Crusta

  • Carve a long spiral of lemon peel, about an inch wide.
  • Cut the lemon in half and rub the rim of a coupe glass with the lemon
  • Rim the glass with sugar (rub the lemon on the glass first, so the sugar will stick)
  • Place the lemon spiral in the middle of the glass.
  • Add the following to a shaker full of ice:
    • 2 ounces of Old Tom gin
    • 1/2 ounce lemon juice (protip: use the same lemon you peeled earlier)
    • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
    • 1/4 ounce Luxardo maraschino liqueur
  • Shake and strain mixture into the glass.






Ginger Bitters Part 2: The Cocktails

Last time, we were telling you about the amazing ginger bitters and bitter ginger liqueur we made. Now it’s time to put these ingredients to work in some interesting cocktails. First of all, the ginger bitters work great in simple drinks like an old fashioned or champagne cocktail. But we made time to try some more complex ideas and came up with a few winners.

Ginger is associated with the Caribbean, and we just knew our bitters would be great in virtually any rum drink. Most rum drinks involve citrus (usually lime juice), and many are sugar bombs. We wanted to get away from those patterns and create something in a little more of a classic, pre-prohibition style.

Ginger Pirate 1The Ginger Pirate

  • 2 ounces of a good aged rum (we used Flor de Caña 12-year. We recommend you use something aged at least 8 years)
  • 1/2 ounce Luxardo maraschino liqueur
  • 1/2 teaspoon absinthe
  • 5-6 strong dashes of the ginger bitters

Add ingredients to a mixing glass filled 3/4 with ice. Stir and then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime twist, because rum and lime really are inseparable.

We also just knew these bitters would go well with bourbon. We chose Maker’s Mark because its sweet, wheat-heavy flavor would counter the ginger spice better than a bourbon that uses rye, which is already spicy itself. We used Sandeman tawny port with this, which is pretty good stuff. We can’t guarantee the same results with a cheaper port like Warre’s, but there’s only a small amount, and it really serves to bind the other flavors together. Just make sure it’s a tawny port and not ruby.

Spring Step 2The Spring in Your Step

  • 2 ounces of Maker’s Mark bourbon
  • 1/4 ounce St. Germain elderflower liqueur
  • 1/4 ounce tawny port
  • 3-4 strong dashes of ginger bitters

Add ingredients to a mixing glass filled 3/4 with ice. Stir and then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Just to shake things up a little bit (that’s some bartender humor for you there), here’s a variation on the classic martini that uses my bitter ginger liqueur.

The Ginger Avenger

  • 2 ounces London dry gin – we used regular Bombay
  • 1/2 ounce bitter ginger liqueur
  • 1/2 ounce Cocchi Americano
  • splash lemon juice

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a sliver of ginger root.


Hornbuckle’s Ginger Bitters

It may be out there, but we have not personally seen a commercially available ginger bitters, so we had to make one ourselves. Ginger is one of our favorite flavors, and we think it’s extremely versatile. Plus, after we’d made all of the recipes in Brad Thomas Parson’s Bitters book, we also thought it was high time that we had a signature bitters that we could call our very own. We’ve tried some other original recipes. Some were interesting (I’m looking  at you, dill bitters), and others flat out failed.

The ginger bitters are a creation of which we are extremely proud.

In our first batch, we used Everclear (pure grain alcohol) for our base, but we are starting a new batch this weekend that uses 151 rum. We’ll let you know how that goes. You might also experiment with using a different sweetener instead of regular sugar. We suspect molasses or demarara syrup would work really nicely with this.

Ginger Bitters 1Ingredients you’ll need:

  • Three 32-ounce mason jars
  • 24 ounces of Everclear or 151 rum
  • 2 thumbs ginger root – sliced
  • 1 teaspoon dried orange peel
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorn
  • 1 teaspoon cassia chips
  • ½ teaspoon devil’s club root
  • 4 cardamom pods
  • 3 stars anise
  • ¼ cup sugar

Step One:

  • Combine all ingredients (except sugar) in the first mason jar
  • Let this sit for 2 weeks in a cool, dark place
Step Two:
  • Strain out solids with cheesecloth or mesh strainer
  • Conserve the alcohol solution in one of the other mason jars and set aside
  • Put solids in a small saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil
  • Remove from heat
  • When cool, add contents of saucepan to one of your empty jars
  • Let this sit for 1 week

Step Three:

  • Strain out solids from the water mixture with cheesecloth or mesh strainer
  • Mix the two liquids together
  • Strain it one more time for good measure and then let this sit for another three days

Step Four:

  • Make a simple syrup with the sugar (1:1 water and sugar)
  • Add to mixture in mason jar and shake
  • Funnel into dropper bottles

Bonus Bitter Ginger Liqueur

The first time we made this recipe, we  added too much Everclear in step one and filled up the entire mason jar. This, of course, would have left us no room to add the water solution or simple syrup in the following steps.
So, what to do?
We separated those extra eight ounces of gingery liquor and added an equal amount (8 ounces) of simple syrup. Tada! Bitter Ginger Liqueur!
Join us soon for part two where we post some original cocktail recipes using the ginger bitters and the bitter ginger liqueur.

Back to Basics

Since we are teaching a bitters class this week, we thought we would go back to basics and revisit the original cocktail recipe – base liquor plus sugar, water, and bitters.

The Whiskey Cocktail is the original Old Fashioned, before Don Draper ever thought of ordering the drink that now goes by that name. This cocktail is as simple as it sounds. Start with whiskey, add sugar (we prefer simple syrup because it dissolves better), add bitters, and stir with ice (the water in the equation).

In the late 1800s, it became fashionable to fill cocktail glasses with a variety of fruits, but true believers would go into a bar and ask for “one the old fashioned way,” meaning NO FRUIT, just a basic cocktail. Over time, this understanding became muddled like the hunks of cherry and orange you see at the bottom of an Old Fashioned today.

Whiskey Cocktail 3Whiskey Cocktail

  • 2 ounces of good whiskey (bourbon, rye, Irish, whatever you prefer – but not Scotch)
  • 1/2 ounce of simple syrup
  • 2 dashes of bitters – if you can find them, use Jerry Thomas bitters or Boker’s. Angostura will do in a pinch. Peychaud’s is good for variety.

Stir in a mixing glass full of ice until about 25% of the ice melts, then strain into a small rocks glass. Garnish with a piece of fresh lemon peel.

Another drink that is beautiful in its simplicity is the Champagne Cocktail, which is just about as old as the cocktail itself, but it became more popular than ever during the roaring ’20s.

Champagne Cocktail 2Champagne Cocktail

  • Put a sugar cube in a champagne flute or coupe glass
  • Soak the sugar cube with bitters – again Angostura will do fine, but be adventurous
  • Fill the glass with champagne, preferable a very dry one, but it needn’t be expensive

We do like to use an actual sugar cube  for this one because of the visual effect. As the bitters-soaked sugar cube slowly dissolves, the bittersweet combination begins to cascade up from the bottom of the glass. It’s not a crime to stir a little bit to help it along though.

The Negroni and Its Cousins

IMG_20140130_175123The Negroni is a classic cocktail that has its origins in Italy after World War I, and it features two classic Italian ingredients: amaro and sweet vermouth. It has come to be one of the all-stars of the classic cocktail revival movement.

Amaro is the Italian word for bitter, and amari are bitter liqueurs produced in Italy (or sometimes in France, though the French have different names for them). The Italians were also the earliest purveyors of fine sweet (red) vermouth, while the French were better known early on for dry (white) vermouth. Nowadays, you can find good brands from all over making both sweet and dry vermouth, but the most interesting sweet vermouth still comes from Italy.

The classic Negroni has equal parts gin, Campari amaro, and sweet vermouth–one ounce of each. Campari is distinguished by its bright red color, which originally came from the use of crushed insects. You will no doubt be pleased to learn that Campari stopped using the insect dye (aka carmine dye) in 2006. It has a strong bitter herbal flavor with notes of citrus.

Classic Negroni

  • 1 oz dry gin
  • 1 oz Campari
  • 1 oz sweet vermouth

Stir and strain into a coupe or small rocks glass. Garnish with flaming orange peel (we’ll talk about that trick another day. If you can’t pull it off, just use a regular orange peel).

The Negroni can have endless variations, depending on the type of gin (or other base liquor), type of amaro, and type of vermouth you use.

A word on vermouth:

The two most common brands of vermouth you will see in stores are Gallo and Martini Rossi. I NEVER EVER USE EITHER OF THESE BRANDS for any drink. In Birmingham, you can get a decent selection of vermouth at Whole Foods, the Western in Mountain Brook, V. Richards, or Highland Package store. Keep your vermouth in the fridge after opening, and it will last a good while.

The first Negronis I ever had used Carpano Antica Formula for the vermouth, but a lot of mixologists say that Carpano is too sweet, and the vanilla notes overwhelm the drink. Similarly, Punt e Mes can be used to add an almost chocolaty herbal flavor to the Negroni, but it may be overpowering for many palates. The failsafe is to use a decent but mild sweet vermouth like Cochi Torino.

As for the gin, I would go with any call-brand London dry gin–Beefeater, Tanqueray, or Bombay are all fine options. I’ve heard of people using Genever in Negronis, which sounds interesting, but I have yet to try it out. I’ve also made some really interesting Negronis using Hendricks.

The Cousins

If you start switching out the base liquor or the amaro, the drink will go by another name. As I said earlier, the possibilities are nearly infinite once you start experimenting.

A close cousin of the classic Negroni is a drink called the Raultini, which substitutes the milder Aperol for Campari. A second cousin once-removed is the Boulevardier, which starts with a Raultini and substitutes rye for the gin. Jack Wyrick, a bartender at Octane and all-around cool person, told me about a nifty variation called the Negroni Bianco, which uses Salers amaro and dry vermouth, along with gin.

All of these variations use equal parts base liquor, amaro, and vermouth. Some mixologists also play around with doing these drinks Manhattan style with 2 oz of base liquor and a half ounce each of the bitter and vermouth. This is a very successful method if you want to get drunk faster, but it loses the essential character that makes it a Negroni, in our humble opinion.

Jägermeister and Fernet: Country Mouse and City Mouse

From Wikipedia: Vanilla Ice serving Jager to a fan whilst performing his one hit song.

Jägermeister often gets a bad rap. Whether consumed in shots or the abomination known as the “Jäger bomb,” it is often associated with idiot frat boys who get into bar fights. At 70 proof, Jäger’s reputation for being a “manly man” drink is undeserved, but their own advertising perpetuates this image, which is sad. Very sad. When you try it with an open mind next to Italian amari and French apertifs, Jägermeister is not all that different. It has a sweet, herbal flavor with hints of menthol that can be used to enhance craft cocktails.


From Wikipedia. Seems more civilized already, doesn’t it?

Fernet Branca is a very bitter Italian amaro, which some bartenders have characterized as “Jägermeister’s older, more sophisticated brother.” It is very popular among people who work in the service industry, which is why it is also known as the “bartender’s handshake.” Fernet is great for digestion and has many curative properties. Some people will have a shot of Fernet at the end of a long night of drinking to help ward off a hangover the next day.

The purpose of this post is two-fold:

  1. We would hate to see Fernet abused in the same way that Jägermeister often is today. We have seen the beginnings of such a trend already, and it is disturbing to see this happen to such a fine product.
  2. We would love to see more bartenders use Jägermeister to its potential in craft cocktails.

Here are some cocktails we’ve made at home using Jägermeister. We love to add a splash of just about any amaro or herbal liquor to a Manhattan to help round it out, so our first offering uses Jägermeister to a similar effect. The other two take advantage of the distinctive menthol flavor in the Jägermeister, first complementing it with sweetness and then with smoke.

The Martin Heidegger

  • 2 oz gin
  • 1/2 oz sweet vermouth
  • 1/2 oz Jägermeister

Stir and strain into a coupe glass.

Birmingham on Ice

  • 2 oz tequila
  • 1/2 oz Jägermeister
  • 1/4 oz Luxardo maraschino liqueur
  • 1/4 oz St. Germain

Stir and strain into a rocks glass filled with ice

The Newport

  • 1.5 oz bourbon
  • 1/2 oz Jägermeister
  • 1/2 oz mezcal
  • 1/2 oz ruby port

Stir and strain into a chilled coupe glass

Although we enjoy a shot of Fernet on its own as much as anyone else, it can be used to good effect in cocktails as well. The Toronto is a simple but elegant classic that adds a quarter ounce of Fernet and an equal amount of simple syrup to two ounces of rye. The Beatnik is a Manhattan variation that uses two ounces of rye, an ounce of tawny port, and a quarter ounce of Fernet. You’ll notice most recipes that use Fernet include only a quarter ounce or a dash. A little bit goes a long way.

If you really want to emphasize the bitters (and possibly tear a hole in the time/space continuum), try this one invented at Chicago’s famous Violet Hour:

Eeyore’s Requiem

  • 1 1/2 oz Campari
  • 1/2 oz dry gin
  • 1/4 oz Cynar
  • 1/4 oz Fernet Branca
  • 1 oz Dolin Bianco Vermouth
  • 15 drops orange bitters
  • 3 orange twists

Stir and strain all liquids into a cocktail glass. Express the oil from the orange peels into the drink and then discard.


Rosemary Cocktails

We made some rosemary syrup for some experiment that we neglected to document. The syrup itself is simple enough to make. Add a few sprigs of fresh rosemary to the pot while making regular simple syrup (1 part sugar to 1 part water) and then strain the rosemary out before jarring. Any sort of herbal syrup, like mint syrup for juleps, would be made the same way and can add a spring to the step of an otherwise ordinary cocktail.

Anyway, it’s been in the fridge for a couple of weeks, and since we don’t know how long it will last, we decided to try and use some of it tonight on a few new experiments. For the first one, we tried a sweet spin on the classic Complement Cocktail, which normally uses akvavit, a Scandinavian liquor that is similar to gin but uses fennel for flavoring instead of juniper. Since you can’t get akvavit in Alabama, we made a a fennel tincture by letting some fennel sit in a jar of vodka for a couple of weeks. We keep the tincture in a dropper  bottle because a little goes a long way.

Rosemary ClooneyThe Rosemary Clooney

  • 2 oz London dry gin
  • 1/2 oz rosemary syrup
  • 1/2 oz St. Germain
  • juice of half a lemon
  • 6 drops of fennel tincture

For our second drink of the night, we chose to use tequila and Armagnac, two ingredients that don’t usually get a lot of love in cocktails. We added a splash of Campari to brighten things up.

The Song of the Forest People

  • 2 oz reposado tequila
  • 1/2 oz rosemary syrup
  • 1/2 oz vsop Armagnac
  • splash of Campari
  • 2 dashes orange bitters

Finally, we decided to try the rosemary syrup with a bourbon cocktail. We happened to have a jar of bourbon infused with mustard seed, which we were inspired to make after having a cocktail with mustard seed apple brandy at Food Bar one night. It seemed like it would go well with the rosemary. The dry sherry and Luxardo helped to round it out.

The Spring Chicken

  • 2 0z mustard seed-infused bourbon
  • 1/2 oz rosemary syrup
  • 1/2 oz dry sherry
  • 1/2 oz Luxardo marischino liqueur