New Series of Posts

In an effort to both up my cocktail game, and increase my output on this blog, I’ve decided to take on a small challenge. It’s going to be difficult for me since it’s busy season at The Happy Camper, but now that I’m a bar owner, drinking is basically market research right?

The challenge: create one new production-ready cocktail every week. This is a cocktail I could serve in a bar or my camper. (The constraints of my camper are such that some cocktails don’t really work for high volume events, though some could work for low-volume.)

Sometimes I’m lucky and get one that’s ready to go on the first attempt, or as I usually exclaim when it happens, “First time prime baby!” Some cocktails go through literally dozens of iterations before they’re where I want them to be. For the latter, I’ll try to give at least some of the iterations and my notes on them here.

Where possible I’m going to get taste testers. I don’t have a lot of people turning down offers like that! But I’m going to have to maybe get some sort of formalized schedule.

Anyway, wish me luck. It’ll be an ongoing series here, so if you like it, feel free to subscribe.

Update

Long time, no post. It’s not because I don’t love you though. Thought I’d drop a little update.

Lately the Happy Camper Bar Car is taking up a lot of my time. We are doing the cocktails for the Cleveland Flea, Sunday Market, and a couple one-off street festivals.  As near as I can tell we sold at least 1,000 Mules last weekend at the Flea, and expect to do even more at a couple other events. We’ve also got a few weddings booked, and a couple events without the camper. It’s going to be a busy summer!

I’ve also got the Cocktail Calculator on its own site. After it went down (because Google shut down the service it was running on, Divshot) it was gone for a bit. I got a surprising number of Reddit messages asking where it went, so I brought it back. I’m preparing to pay a programmer to make it a lot better too with some new features. I intend to keep it free as well.

I’m working on a book on batching cocktails. It’s great because I’m writing it as I go along. I’ve already got a bit of experience doing high-volume events, and let me tell you, the price of any normal book is 1% of what it’ll save you in equipment costs, time, and anguish. Had I had the book I was writing and paid $1,000 for it, I’d have still had a good ROI. (And of course, it’ll be normal book prices.) I’ll be including a few of my best recipes.

I’m debating shopping around for a publisher. That’d give me a budget to do stunning photography, something I can’t do myself. While the book doesn’t require it, per se, it’d be helpful in some spots. Pictures of the parts of a corny keg are worth more than their thousands of words.

Lastly but not leastly, I’m also working on a store to sell some of the stuff I make for my own batched cocktails. My lemon and lime replacements, for instance. I can sell them relatively affordably and highly concentrated. I’ll probably size them for 5 gallon keg batches, though of course with a measuring cup you could use them for other batch sizes. If I succeed, the recipe for a whiskey sour will be something like add 1 bottle of fake lemon, x pounds of sugar, y gallons of water, z bottles of whiskey, shake and carbonate.

I’ve got a few other products I use on a regular basis to make good things by the gallon. Some are for batched cocktails specifically, some are just for whatever. All of them are going to go on sale. I’ll have more details soon.

 

So You Want To Get Into Kegging Cocktails

Let’s say you’re a bar or a really enthusiastic home drinker and want to serve cocktails on draft. You’re wondering what it takes, money-wise, to get into the whole kegging thing. If there’s one thing I’ve gotten a lot of experience with over the last few years it’s kegging cocktails, so I thought I’d share some tips.

I’m going to recommend you don’t go the cheap route. I had initially included cheap components in my barebones carbonating cocktails post. I regret it. Every time I’ve tried to save money by buying something less than I really wanted, I ended up replacing it later, sometimes because it broke, sometimes because it sucked and I needed something better. I’ve talked to several people who’ve said the same. So here’s what I think you should get.

Necessities

Tank: $50.

clip_image002Find your local gas supply store and pick up a used tank from them. They’re cheaper that way. I think I got a 10 lb. tank for $50 last time, whereas a new one is $90. If you buy from the supply store, they’ll often let you just swap tanks later for convenience, so you’ll not have to worry about getting them recertified (which you’d otherwise have to do every 5 years for about $30). You also won’t have to drop it off then come back a day or two later to pick it up, you just walk in and swap it like exchanging propane at the gas station.

They’ll be a lot cheaper to fill than at the local homebrew store (LHBS) too. Usually the LHBS is buying from the gas supplier and reselling at 2-3x the cost. (They’re also using a different method to fill the tank  that is faster but fills it less, so you end up paying for CO2 you aren’t even getting!) Google for dry ice in your area, the local dry ice seller probably does tank swaps. I hear welding shops do too but have never been to one.

I’d get at least a 10 lb. tank. They’re only slightly more than a 5 lb. tank, and of course hold twice as much. For home use these last me quite awhile, however for my commercial stuff I blow through 10 lbs. for a good-sized event so I use a bigger tank.

Regulator w/cage: $85

Primary Double Gauge - CO2Get a good dual gauge regulator. It’s like $10 or $20 more than a cheap one. If you get the cheap one, you’re going to replace it later. I promise. I got the crappy Kegco I recommended in my first post for $45 on Amazon and it was the first thing that bit the dust. (Should have known from its 3.5 star reviews.) A crappy one is also going to require a wrench to adjust, whereas a good one can be adjusted by hand.

I love the Micromatic 642, pictured here. (I’ve only used a few, but it’s the best so far.) I’ve also got a couple of the dual regulators for when I need to set two different pressures. For bar service you’re probably going to want at least two different pressures available.

Get a gauge cage (or two if you go with the dual regulator). You’re going to have your tank tip over sooner or later, I promise. This will save it from busting a gauge and pay for itself quickly. I’ve had to replace gauges, they are very fragile.

You can do a double regulator on a ten pound CO2 tank, but it’s precariously balanced when full and a serious tipping hazard. Make sure to strap the tank in place. With a 5 lb. it won’t even stand up by itself. A 20 lb. is no problem even for a dual regulator, but still can be tipped so get the cage.

Perlick Adjustable Tap/Shank ($80)

These puppies aren’t cheap but boy are they worth it. Without them you have to use line length calculators and match the length of the line to the PSI of what you want to serve. If you’re just doing beer it’s not as bad. A lot of home brewers say they just serve everything at 12 PSI. I don’t do this, even with my beer, because some beer tastes better with more carbonation than others. If you want to be able to change your pressure you either need a flow control faucet or to be constantly swapping out the line.

If you’re doing cocktails you’re doing high PSI, and they can vary a bit more widely. (1) You need to either get an adjustable faucet or be constantly changing lines. If you want to serve different drinks at different pressures, and you probably will, you’ll want these.

Gas Line

As far as I can tell, gas line is just gas line. I usually buy whatever’s cheapest and I’ve never had any problems with any of it. Just do some rough math as to how far you want to run the line, then add a few feet in for good measure and you’re done.

Beer Line

image Beer line lengths are a little trickier. Use a line length calculator to figure out proper pressure. Set your Specific Gravity to 1. Set your PSI to the lowest you’d carbonate anything at, which is probably around 30. If you followed my recommendation and got flow control faucets, then make the line a bit shorter than it says.

If the number that pops out is shorter than your run, you have to use line with a higher Internal Diameter (ID). The homebrew standard is 3/16” line.

You can see on the right, using some assumptions I made, I need 26 feet of line between each keg and the tap. Or, I could just get good flow control faucets and run very little. In my camper I’m serving at 40 psi on 12 feet of line and thanks to flow control I have no foaming.

Niceties

Manifolds.

I’m not counting the price on here, because they’re only necessary if you’re distributing gas. A manifold basically lets you distribute gas (at the same pressure) from one regulator to multiple kegs. This is quite useful if you are serving more than one thing at a given pressure, as it’s far cheaper than having a separate regulator for each. A homebrewer with a keezer might want a 2-way. A bar might go way more. If, like me, you’re doing several carbonated cocktails on draft, you can probably run them all off of one regulator with a big enough manifold. (I still have 3 of this 3-way manifold in the camper though because beer comes out at lower PSI and shaken drinks at higher, often with nitrogen. I can configure my 6 taps in very many different ways as a result.) I use 6-way manifolds when carbonating because I have to do a lot of kegs at once sometimes.

I recommend getting one with check valves. I made the mistake of not having them originally, and learned the hard way that that is a great way to get liquid to back up through the gas line. Then you have to clean everything out and dry it to avoid mildew, and you also might get product from one keg going through the gas tube and into another while shaking.(2)

Also, for safety, I highly recommend getting ones with pressure relief valves. Especially if you’re doing something with some particulate matter in it, like an unfiltered beer. I don’t think there’s really much chance of one exploding, and you’ve got relief valves on your kegs and regulators, but better safe than sorry.

Stainless Ball Lock Disconnects

If you’re kegging cocktails, you’re probably using homebrew Corny kegs. The standard homebrew disconnects are made from plastic. These break. Like all the time. The last thing you want is to be changing over a keg mid-service and have your disconnect break on you.

I love my stainless disconnects. They don’t break. I stepped on a plastic one once and it broke and lodged a chunk of plastic in my shoe sole. I accidentally ran a stainless one over with my Airstream and after I dug it out of the ground it still worked.

Another advantage, if you use the Liquid Bread Carbonater, it was redesigned to not allow the ball lock disconnect to stay on, which makes it a huge pain in the dick to use. (The old red ones were not like that, the new blue ones won’t allow it. If you don’t already own the liquid bread, I highly prefer the newer stainless ones as a result, but if you’re like me you’ve probably got a few of the old ones kicking around.) A stainless disconnect will clamp on to any of them.

Also, some of the stainless ones come with an MFL connector rather than a hose barb. That’s useful if you need to use line with a larger ID than 1/4”. (Which would be rare.)

If you have any questions about any of this, feel free to drop it in the comment section. In my next post I’ll give you a great couple recipes.

Notes

1. In Liquid Intelligence, Dave Arnold recommends the pre-mix soda valves by C.M. Becker. I called them when I was building the camper and had them make me four of them. I can’t say enough good things about that company’s customer service. The owner himself got on the phone with me and made me what I needed. That kind of thing doesn’t happen much these days.  

Unfortunately the quality of service is much better than the quality of the valves themselves. The shanks were a pain in the ass to install in my beer tower. They’re just a tiny amount larger than a normal beer shank, so getting them in without stripping the threads with a wrench was a bitch. The nut/hose barb at the end leaked like crazy and I had to use PTFE tape and plumber’s putty, something I’ve not experienced on the several beer shanks I’ve used. Even then it was a pain to get to seal properly.

And worse the product is unreliable. It’s made of a chintsy plastic, rather than stainless. Even if you don’t worry about plastic touching your high alcohol, high acid cocktails, they just look bad. But I’d deal with that if they worked ok.

Unfortunately they do not. They have a flow adjustment valve on the side, but it’s odd. It rotates all the way around (the Perlick only rotates maybe 180 degrees) so it’s hard to tell where you’re at, and it doesn’t seem to do much regardless. I constantly experience dripping. I can have three faucets hooked up to three kegs that have the same pressure and get a trickle out of one, a torrent out of another, and the middle one be just right.

The one that’s just right will be incredible though. You can pour a highly carbonated ginger beer out at 32 PSI and see no foam at all. When they work they do a better job of keeping the bubbles in than a Perlick, but they just aren’t reliable enough for service.

2. For instance I was once force-carbing a couple sodas. I had shut off the gas at the regulator, but left all the ports on the manifold open and vented all of the kegs. When I shook one keg, the higher pressure in it forced the soda through the gas line, through the manifold, and into another keg. Thankfully they were the same soda so the product wasn’t damaged, but it’s a bitch to disassemble your setup, disassemble the manifold, then force cleaner through the whole thing.

Also for my launch party I had left the gas on in the camper as we drove to the event. Big mistake! The shaking caused by bumps in the road flooded all of my gas lines with a mix of six different cocktails/mixers/beers. Gross! I didn’t realize what had happened until days later, and the manifold and gas lines were so gross I just threw them out.

Modern Sour Mix

When I say sour mix, what do you think of? Probably this stuff:

sourmix

If you’re a fan of real, “craft” cocktails, the very thought of it probably makes you throw up in your mouth a little. You probably remember way too many trashy margaritas from the ‘90s or whiskey sours made from it at a wedding.

Not only does it taste disgusting, it’s made of god-knows-what. Here’s the ingredients list for this brand: Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Lemon Juice from Concentrate, Citric Acid, Sodium Benzoate, Sodium Citrate, Sodium Metabisulfite, Sorbitan Monostearate, Ester Gum, Natural Flavors, Brominated Vegetable Oil, FD&C Yellow 5.

That’s pretty typical of these things, they’re a cocktail of chemicals with maybe a little oxidized lemon juice mixed in for good measure.

There are, however, reasons for their ubiquity in low-rent bars. These things wouldn’t have been in every bar for three decades if there wasn’t something useful about them right? So let’s break it down into a pro’s and cons list.

Pros:

  • Cheaper than fresh citrus.
  • Faster (no squeezing) and lower labor, and therefore even more cheaper.
  • Shelf-stable so no waste, and therefore even more cheaperer.
  • Shelf-stability lets you use it in batched drinks (think the frozen margaritas of the 90’s) so even lower labor and even more cheaperest! (See a pattern here, other than my bad grammar?)
  • There’s also quality control; whereas fresh citrus can taste very different from batch to batch, this stuff always tastes the same.

Cons:

  • tastes like your dog drank a bottle of Lemon Pledge and then vomited into your drink.
  • Is made of chemicals probably somewhere between smoking and asbestos on the carcinogen scale. 

Now I’m not really expressing anything controversial here when I say that I believe the first con alone is a deal breaker. (The second one also would be for me personally, but your mileage may vary on the artificial flavors/preservatives.) When craft cocktails came back into circulation nigh on a decade ago, the industry mantra became “fresh-squeezed juices” and for good reason. The alternative was garbage. It actually became a religion to the point where if you mention doing anything sour without fresh citrus, craft cocktail aficionados everywhere will tell you that you’re an asshole unworthy of even your own mother’s love.

But, if there’s one thing I’m known for, it’s a no-sacred-cows philosophy. I think we as bartenders and drink makers should do things because they’re the best way to serve our customers, not because they’re “the way it’s always been done”.

Let’s say someone invented shelf-stable lemon juice. Perhaps that someone built a machine that presses and packages lemons in a vacuum, and uses some mechanical process to make the juice such that it won’t degrade. There are no artificial flavors or preservatives. Just shelf-stable lemon juice that tastes indistinguishable from the stuff you’d squeeze. And because it’s processed by machine rather than by hand, and shipped without all the added weight of the peel, and quality control ensures consistency, and it can be pressed when lemons are in season and thus cheapest, its cost is below that of fresh citrus. Wouldn’t you use that?

I have not developed such a device, but I have developed a lemon juice replacement. I made a lime one too. Both are all natural and do not contain any sweetener. They’re made from mostly citrus byproducts. Oh and probably the biggest benefit: they don’t have any solids in them, so they’re already clarified and excellent for carbonated drinks. Have you ever tasted clarified fruit juice? It’s nowhere near as good as the real thing. Mine is actually closer. Here’s a picture of the Chartruth, from Booker and Dax (which I’ve had at that bar, by the way) using my fake lime.

chartruth

In cocktail use my fake juices routinely tie or even beat real citrus juice in blind taste tests. Seriously, I’ve done several. For those to whom “fresh-squeezed juice” isn’t dogma (i.e. 98% of Americans) they find it equally good. Remember, there are parts of real citrus that taste bad, and you get those when juicing too.

You probably don’t believe me. I don’t blame you. I went into this experiment thinking it might be impossible. I went down to Tales of the Cocktail and there were guys there doing a primitive version of what I’m doing, with a method I had thought of before but not tested, and decided they were onto something but still weren’t quite there. They inspired me to keep moving it forward, and keep testing, but even still I did so thinking “this will probably never work”.

And then I found myself reading old soda manuals from 100 years ago. And some new ones too. I found myself reading papers on citrus juice and preservation. There’s been a decent amount of study done on the topic. Gotta love science! And finally, after dozens of iterations, and tasting more Tom Collinses and Margaritas than I thought possible, I’ve come up with something I’m proud of.  

Mine is not nearly as economical as the old school sour mix. Nothing’s cheaper than corn syrup and chemicals. It is much cheaper than actual lemon juice though, but cost was the least of my motivations. I don’t often find myself worrying about my citrus budget. 

I developed it to make awesome batched drinks that can last long enough to make them economical. I wanted to be able to make a keg full of whiskey sour for service at a multi-day event or bar. I wanted to make a force-carbonated Tom Collins or Margarita on draft. I succeeded. I served a carbonated serrano margarita with the lime version of it at my launch party and it was the first cocktail to go.

I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do with it yet. There’s a very good chance I’ll make a product containing it. There’s a very good chance I’ll just share the recipe here. There’s some chance I’ll just sell it directly as a pre-packaged “sour mix” though I’d like to come up with a different term given the connotation that has.

If you have any suggestions, other than “you’re an asshole for trying to replace citrus and I hope you die in a fire!”, please comment them here.

Zooming In On Ingredients

Yesterday I was at the Diageo World Class seminar in Cleveland. A question popped up that really illuminated to me why the modern cocktail movement is basically playing in a different league than the old-school, classic cocktailers.

The question was something to the effect of “How many ingredients should be in a great cocktail.” The available answers were 3-4, 5-6, or as many as it takes. There was a handy-dandy live poll to see what people said and probably over 100 people in attendance.

From a classic perspective, the first two answers (which about 80% of people chose) would seem on the surface to make sense. A Manhattan is a fantastic cocktail, and its whiskey, bitters, and vermouth. Three ingredients right? A lot of people like to argue that if a cocktail has 7+ ingredients it’s a jumbled mess, and I think we’ve all had a bartender whose eagerness exceeds his skill level serve us a kitchen sink cocktail that was horrendous once or twice.

But let’s unpack that Manhattan for a second. First off, you have aromatic bitters. Let’s go with good old Angostura. What’s in Angostura? We don’t know exactly, but we know it’s a maceration of several different herbs in alcohol. This recipe from Serious Eats which attempts to replicate it contains 11 flavors (herbs, peels, raisin, sugar) in addition to whatever is in the alcohol. Ango is basically a blend of several different tinctures.

Then we have our sweet vermouth. Sweet vermouth is a lot like bitters. Several different herbs are added to wine, along with caramel for coloring and sweetness. Here’s a recipe from Serious Eats for those inclined to make their own. I count 12 separate ingredients, though perhaps we should ignore water as its already the predominate ingredient in every cocktail. And there are a couple overlapping with the bitters.

But you get my point. Before we’ve even added the rye, we’re probably close to 20 ingredients. And each ingredient itself is probably made of multiple different volatile organic compounds, not to mention all of the flavors in the rye that get through distilling or come from the wood after, but we’ll stay zoomed out a little bit for clarity here.

I’ve recently gotten into making tinctures a little bit. It’s a science I’d like to get down more. Unfortunately, in most states it’s hard to get really high proof neutral alcohol. Everclear has some bad flavors associated with it that make it unsuitable for really anything I think. I got a couple bottles of Technical Reserve, which is basically exactly what I am looking for but expensive and unavailable in most states, from New York to tide me over for a bit and I’ve been playing around with them. I’ll be delving more into it when I get a stable source of low cost, neutral, high proof spirits, which I think will be very soon.

 

Cider

I’ve recently gotten into fermenting cider. I’ve always loved cider, and always loved fermenting things. But for some reason I’ve always looked at hard cider as sort of a gimmicky drink for girls who don’t like beer. And then I tried a few good ones that changed my mind. We’ve got a great local cider maker (cidery?) called Griffin Ciderworks that does a few exceptional ones.

So I fermented about 12 gallons of the stuff, bought from a local orchard, in my homemade fermenter (i.e. a trashcan with an airlock). It didn’t end up airtight, even after copious amounts of shrink wrap, but the cider was pasteurized in advance (no preservatives) and I’d been careful about sanitation and pitched it with a solid amount of yeast so it all went well. It started at almost 16 brix and after a week it was at about 9% alcohol. I racked it from one container to the next and then used Pectinex Ultra-SPL to clarify it. From everything I’ve read about normal pectinase enzymes it’s supposed to take days or even a week or two to clarify, but with Pectinex all the solids had settled out in a day. I was able to rack it off with ease.

The favor of unaltered cider is interesting. There’s none of the sugar left, as the yeast consumes it all, so it’s tart. It’s not your normal apple flavor though, which is probably why they so often add malic acid to them.

While it’s drinkable straight, it’s not what I’d call delicious. It needs something. It needs a little sugar and maybe a little brightness.

As a result I’m playing around with different recipes. I’m toying with various acids (malic, lactic, etc.) and sugars. I’m toying with force carbonating. I also want to make a cocktail for my family party this weekend, probably a cranberry gin justino with fresh cranberry, cider, and brown sugar.

2015-12-06 21.15.46

So far after extensive testing I’ve come to the following conclusions.

  1. Some sort of sugar is useful. All of it was fermented out and the result, while palatable, needs a little bit of a bass note. Options I’ve tried so far are cane sugar, brown sugar, honey, and concentrated apple cider (the frozen stuff you get at the store) which I think is my preference so far.
  2. Some sort of acid is also quite delicious. I am guessing given the relatively high starting sugar content of the cider I purchased it had little acidity. This might not be true using different apples. So far I like malic, but once I get the level dialed in (and 1g/200ml is too high but better than none at all) I’ll play around with different options more.

Cocktail Projects

I’ve been up to very much cocktail related recently. A few highlights.

1. Aged Eggnog. Last year I made Ruhlman’s Aged Eggnog and it was amazing. Everyone got knock-down drunk because it doesn’t taste boozy but it’s freaking 25% alcohol.

So this year of course I had to go over the top. I made 12 fucking gallons of it. Not kidding. That’s 60 liquor bottles worth. No joke. Some of it is for sale to various people I know, but most of it’s just for me.

For most of it I split the whiskey between Old Grand-dad and Old Overholt. I love me some rye, and I feel like the spice goes well with the cream. Old Grand-dad is a rye heavy bourbon, so it comes out pretty tasty.

For a couple gallons of it a friend and I decided to go high class. We got the milk and eggs from local farms, Elijah Craig 12 and Rittenhouse for the whiskey, Plantation Grand Reserva for the rum, and a decent cognac whose name eludes me now.  (In my defense, I have been drinking.) I mostly wanted to see what the difference was, other than price, in the final product .

2. Batching app. I had made a batching app for my launch party. You can find it at: http://production.cocktailcalc.divshot.io/

Right now it’s a simple web app. It’ll calculate dilution for you if needed, using the formulas in Liquid Intelligence, and make it easy to scale up. I used that for all of the cocktails at the party and it saved me a shit ton of time.

I have lots of upgrades, and I think divshot will be gone soon so I’ll have to move it to another server. But feel free to use while it’s around.

3. Apple Hard Cider/Brandy. My friend and I decided to make a shit ton of hard cider, so I built a 32 gallon primary fermentor. Basically it’s a food-grade plastic trash can with an airlock  built in and shrink-wrapped to be air-tight.

I want to turn it into brandy when it’s done, and thankfully I know a guy who is actually licensed to do so. He has a micro-distillery and some awesome equipment. The goal is to do that, then barrel age it. I’ll probably toss a few gallons of it into a keg and carbonate to make some hard cider, and then get a beer gun and load up bottles because why the hell not?

I’ll probably buy some various barrel staves and barrels for aging the brandy. I have a theory that barrel staves can work just as well as actual bottles, for far less money, you just have to take the stave out and then let the liquor continue to age. I think that people try using them for speed and it never comes out quite right, because other things happen during aging than just extracting wood flavor. I’ll give my theory a test.

4. Something I can’t talk about yet. Let’s just say, it’s a project that requires government licensing and as such I’ll be lucky if I can talk about it in 6 months to a year. But happy.