The Happy Camper

For years I’ve wanted to start a bar. My readers (all three of you) know that I even spent a good 8 months working at one just to get my feet wet. (Side note, the look on people’s faces when I told them my day job is owning a software company while washing their pint glasses was funny.)

So I started looking around for a bar space and funds. I didn’t feel comfortable spending 100% of the amount it would take to both build a bar and staff it, and weather the first year of trying to build a clientele. I also wasn’t sure the market I’m in could bear what I really wanted to do, but I was able to come up with a concept I thought could work. Basically, I was going to do well-crafted classic cocktails at a relatively affordable price by having a limited back bar selection and defaulting to good, cost-effective liquors like Old Overholt, Olmecca Altos, etc. Pretty much what I make at home most of the time. I was going to use batching to make service super efficient and fast, serving pre-bottled Manhattans, kegged carbonated drinks, etc.

I found an awesome spot. It was in a building from 1903. An old Masonic Temple. They had an unfinished basement space with cathedral ceilings and these beautiful high windows above the door. It was stripped down to bare cement floors, brick walls, exposed HVAC. Perfect.

Except it was owned by the city. The city wanted to sell the building so they didn’t want to do long-term leases. What they wanted to do was get a budget from the convention center (also owned by the city and across the road) to renovate it and get a few decent businesses in that would help promote downtown. What better than a wonderful cocktail bar, right? I couldn’t commit much in the way of renovations with only one year guaranteed of a lease, but if I could get their budget and fix it up, it might be worth it.

So I I started figuring out who to talk to to get them to give me that budget. They were just going to waste it on a nondescript, white drop-panel ceiling and some standard office carpeting anyway. They’d probably drywall over all that beautiful brick. Ugh. Instead I’d just take the budget, put in a beautiful reclaimed wood floor and paint all the HVAC black. I’d run some copper pipes along the ceiling, drop them down and put Edison bulbs in the end. (Yes I know Edison bulbs are played out, but literally nobody around here has them.)

Then the city found out what it’d cost to remove the asbestos they hadn’t mentioned to me. Let’s just say it’s about what I would have paid in rent over the first 6 years. They decided to just let whoever buys the building deal with it and I was a free agent again.

A few friends told me about people doing mobile bars they’d seen online. While not cheap, it was less onerous than starting one in a fixed location. There’s no real estate to worry about. There are no liquor licenses to acquire. The process is streamlined in every way but one: building a bar in an Airstream ain’t easy. There are lots of people who will turn your retail space into a bar, very few who will do so for a trailer and even fewer an Airstream.

But we found a place near Toledo called P&S Trailer Services that does Airstream refurbishing. They sell some to commercial operations, like food trucks. There are very few places in the country capable of that, so it seemed like a stroke of good fortune. We talked to the owner online and then drove a couple hours out to meet him and it seemed like he was a good guy. He told us he could do pretty much whatever we wanted with the Airstream in terms of buildout.

Turns out, not so much. Maybe he could do it. But he had a multiple month backlog of orders. So when we wanted a little bit of work done, despite repeated insistence that he could do whatever we wanted, he stopped responding. When I finally got a hold of him on the phone, same story. “Just tell me what you want and I’ll make it happen.” Again we wanted some minimal work done and again, no response. Finally he told my partner something about selling it to someone who just wanted it as-is.

I think in the end, he had more orders than he could fulfill, and instead of just explaining that to us became a little disingenuous. It’s unfortunate, and what should have been a pleasant transaction became a huge pain in the ass.  We ended up taking it stripped down and in less-than-perfect condition (in fact over time we came to see just how less-than-perfect it was) and decided to find another RV/Camper service department to do the work for us. After all of the trouble with Steve we were just happy to get the bad boy home.

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Home it is though, so we’re now in the process of turning it into a bar. We found a guy in Cleveland who does food trucks who did what we need in terms of plumbing and electrical. That was another headache, because while the guy actually did great work, he wasn’t a great businessman/communicator. But he did do good work at a reasonable price. I’ve spent spare time over the last two weeks diving into the world of restaurant auctions and picked up some baller bar equipment.

Being in an Airstream, we’re under a few limitations. For one, running water isn’t easy to pull off. Loading this bad boy with enough water to wash dishes all night is basically impossible. You also couldn’t put that kind of weight on an axle. Even if we could, propane-powered water tanks won’t give us the volume of hot water needed. So basically cocktails have to be either built or pre-batched because I can’t count on being able to wash shakers.

That’s not a big deal. I’m quite good at both batching (i.e.kegging, bottling, and punches) and building drinks. Some of my favorite drinks are built. Old fashioned, mojito, Dark and Stormy (or a mule if you must), caiprinha, Paloma, etc. Any stirred drink can easily be translated into a bottle. Shaken drinks can be kegged on nitrous and blasted out under pressure. An egg white drink will come out ridiculously foamy.

Which takes me to the killer feature that will set me above the rest of what you’d find in the wedding bartending game: a big tap system. I’m planning on building a homebrew system with 6 taps and using Corny kegs. I can do awesome carbonate cocktails like a Tom Collins or mojito on draft.

I will make my own ginger beer. I did a blind taste test and everyone agreed it was far better than Fever Tree and Fentimans, my two previous favorites. I’ll probably buy Jack Rudy Tonic and force carbonate that by the keg, since acquiring my own quinine seems to be a huge pain in the ass and the Jack Rudy stuff is pretty great anyway. When you buy it wholesale and carbonate it in keg volume it’s easy to make and about the same price as grocery store tonic but considerably better-tasting.

If they want cola, I can do the same thing with Monin cola syrup, which is far, far better than Coke. Same with root beer. I also make a few mean homemade sodas, like grapefruit, strawberry, and cucumber mint that could be used for cocktails or just for those who aren’t drinking.

I’m also going to get all the local breweries to fill kegs of beer so customers can have a couple craft brews on tap. Since I can control carbonation levels, I can simply fill up my kegs with any beer that’s available by the growler and fix the CO2 levels if needed, so if a customer has a favorite beer I should be able to have it on draft.

So I’m excited. We’re aiming for a mid-October launch party to get our service down. We’ve already got interest from a couple places for events, and I’m excited that after nailing down a few from bridal expos and the like, we can expand. I feel like in two years I’ll be booked solid.

But mostly what I’m excited for is making the cocktails. I love making batched drinks. It’s the perfect mix of art and science for me.  I learned a lot at Tales of the Cocktail, and figured out some great stuff on my own about it, and I’m excited to put it all together and keep pushing the limits of what cocktails can do. You’ll see a lot from me about this in the coming year. Stay tuned.

Tales of the Cocktail Recap

I was going to recap Tales of the Cocktail day by day. I don’t think I fully understood what I was getting into. The sheer volume of alcohol consumed was just astounding. I slept maybe 5 or 6 hours a night, and was pretty much drinking the entire time in between. So I’ll just give you the highlights.

Anyone who knows me knows I have a hetero-man-crush on Dave Arnold. I’ve been listening to his podcast (where he answers my cooking and cocktailing questions regularly) for a couple years. I got to meet him and talk to him a bit. He gave me the lowdown on the centrifuge he’s mentioned several times recently. I won’t spill the beans but he’s said publicly that it will cost less than $1,000 and be announced in August (so very soon) but suffice it to say I think is going to be a game changer in the culinary/bar world if it works as he described.

I think the best seminar I saw was the first one, about citrates. I’m very interested in batching cocktails and modernist techniques like kegging/carbonating, which you’ll continue to read a lot about here as I take Happy Camper from a dream to reality. (More on that in a bit.)

The seminar talked about a lot of things I’ve done individually (oleo saccharum, using acids like citric and malic, bottling and kegging, carbonating, etc.) but hadn’t put all together. I’d been wondering recently whether I could use either oleo saccharum or lemon hydrosol in combination with citric acid to come close enough to fresh citrus but with added durability. Turns out the answer is yes. In fact as I’ll detail soon, I think I’ve conquered the tyranny of the citrus.

The Bittercube guys had a kegged whiskey sour that was actually pretty good. I’m not going to say it was indistinguishable from a fresh one. It was different. But it was good, in the same way that lime cordial (a good one, not the corn syrup Rose’s crap) won’t be mistaken for fresh lime but has it’s own distinct quality.

When doing batched cocktails in any significant volume, citrus is hard to use. It’s especially painful to use in a carbonated drink. You could clarify the juice then blast chill then force carbonate a keg and shake the bejeesus out of it, all within a few hours of serving time. That’s just more prep at crunch time though.

So I’m going to experiment a lot in the near future with batching cocktails without fresh citrus. I’m going instead to try to use other acids, and citrus products like lime cordial.

I attended a handful of other seminars that were mostly disappointing. They were really just advertisements for liquor companies. Too bad. One exception though was Dale Degroff’s on Manhattans. You got five perfect Manhattans pre-made, all identical but without the bitters, and five little sample cups of different bitters. It was neat to taste the bitters individually, then mix in and taste with the Manhattan. Dale Degroff was hilarious and educational at the same time.

I also met pretty much everyone I’ve ever heard of in the bar world. They’re bartenders, so even if they’re sort of celebrities in that situation, in the real world most of them just serve drinks all day or at least used to, so they’re approachable by nature. Some friends I made saw Dave Wondrich and told them he was their hero. I asked him if he ever expected to hear that when he started bartending and he laughed and said no.

I met up with a few /r/cocktails users too while I was there. I love that subreddit because it’s like a bar. There aren’t many trolls or arguments. For the most part it’s just a bunch of casual drinkers looking to trade info and it makes us all better. The one exception, as u/everydaydrinkers pointed out, is when someone comes on and asks something like “I just got a bottle of DeKuyper Apple Pucker, what cocktails can I make with it?” and gets suggested various forms of enema. To be fair, that’s like going into a chef’s subreddit and asking “what can I do with this Velveeta” but I can see how they’d be misled by the subreddit’s title.

I do have a handful of tips for future attendees, beyond the obvious ones like drinking lots of water.

1. Seriously consider whether you want to stay in the heart of it all at the Sonesta or Monteleone. I stayed at Monteleone. It’s a nice hotel, and the upside to it is I could wake up and shower and get to my morning seminar in 20 minutes. The downside is getting back to the room meant waiting 20 minutes for an elevator. I found a pair that were getting much less use after the first day, but still it was at time brutal. The hotel is simply overtaxed. There’s also a lot of street noise when you’re on or near Bourbon so if you’re a light sleeper (like me) those hotels can be tough. Next time I’ll get a group of friends and stay in an AirBnB.

2. There are all sorts of invite-only after parties. Those are the best events. Try to get your way in. Just make friends with reps from the big companies and you should be ok. I was by myself and unprepared for this but still managed to get into most of them, but it’ll be a lot easier next year with some planning.

3. Book early, and book the dinners.

4. Go easy on the seminars. Like I said, a lot of them just seem to be ads, and you’d be better off at a tasting room.

5. If you don’t like a cocktail, pitch it. I know, we Americans have a huge aversion to pouring alcohol down the drain. It’s a mindset that I think comes from a time when it was much less bountiful than it is now, and you’ve never seen bounty like Tales of the Cocktail. If you try to drink it all you won’t make it.

And surprisingly, many (maybe most) of the cocktails there suck. Some of them are great. But I had so much cloying junk handed to me that I was surprised. A lot of the less good liquor brands are there, and try as you might you can’t make a decent drink with Mig Fuel.

Flor de Cana was passing out rums that were decades old. Save your drinking for that. Pitch the bad mezcal margaritas.

The Pink Hornet

A month or so ago, inspired by a trip to the farmer’s market, I wanted to make some strawberry rhubarb gin. I decided to do a poor man’s justino. Since my dad didn’t love me enough to be an Arab sheik and create me a billion dollar trust fund with which to buy centrifuges, I have to do it on the countertop. I’ve mentioned it here before but I’m lazy and have been drinking so the basic process is as follows:

1. Blend together your liquor, fruit, and Pectinex enzyme, just like you would any justino.

2. Because your parents didn’t love you enough to bequeath you centrifuge money, leave the result sitting on your countertop until they separate.

3. Pour through coffee filters, all the while cursing your dad. It’ll take you a few as they clog quickly. It helps if you carefully first pour through the clear top stuff. It’ll go right through. When you get to the cloudy part, strain through a cheesecloth-lined fine mesh strainer. That’ll save you a little time, but not as much as if your dad started an oil company instead of working for the post office.

In this case, I used strawberry and rhubarb with Beefeater gin. (I used 200g of each fruit to 750ml of Beefeater). I first sous vide cooked the rhubarb at 61C/142F for an hour. Then I blended them all together. I forgot about the mix for a couple weeks, but it’s high enough alcohol that it doesn’t matter.

After tasting I decided to add in some Boy Drinks World Serrano Cocktail Spice I had picked up at Tales of the Cocktail. Man I love a good bitters. Or in this case maybe a tincture? Whatever it is, it’s fucking fantastic.

Final recipe:

The Pink Hornet*

2 oz. strawberry rhubarb gin

1 oz. lemon juice

1 oz. simple syrup (1:1, by weight)

1.5 droppers (about 3 dashes) of Boy Drinks World Serrano Cocktail Spice

Shake and strain, my friend. Shake and strain. Or get your dad to do it for you. It’s the least he can do.

Strawberry Rhubarb Gin Poor Man’s Justino

200g hulled strawberries (so maybe 225g before)

200g rhubarb

750ml Beefeater Gin

3g Pectinex Ultra-SPL

Cut the rhubarb into 1/2” chunks and arrange into a single layer in Ziploc or vacuum bag. Cook in immersion circulator at 61C/142F for an hour until tender. (If you don’t have a circulator, you could probably just use a simmering pot of water over low heat.)

Blend everything together and set in a round jar to separate. You’ll see the mixture separate a little more every day for a few days, then it will remain pretty static. Once it stops coming apart you’re good to go.

Carefully pour the clear liquid off the top through a Chemex filter. For the rest (the bulk of it) strain through a fine mesh strainer, then through a cheesecloth-lined fine mesh strainer, then finally through Chemex filters.

(If you don’t want to do a justino, you could probably do either a rapid infusion with an ISI, or an old-school infusion by just soaking the fruit in the booze, but you won’t get the flavor intensity and sparkling clarity of a justino.)

*As I was making it, my friend got stung by a hornet so big it could be Godzilla’s enemy in the next movie. Hence the name.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015 Recap: Tuesday

A few months back I decided that the industry’s big annual conference, Tales of the Cocktail, was a perfect excuse to take a trip to New Orleans. (It doesn’t take much to visit that city.) So on Tuesday I packed up my bags and hopped on down to the big easy.

Not much went on Tuesday at Tales. I registered, checked out some good stuff in the tasting room, including a tequila (Riazul Anejo) I’d never heard of before but quite enjoyed. I grabbed dinner in the lobby and then was in bed by 9 p.m. because I’d gotten up at 6, after 4 hours of sleep, to catch my plane and figured sleep would be difficult to come by at best for the next few days. I did, of course, have to have one Vieux Carré with dinner, because if you come to New Orleans and don’t drink at least one Vieux Carré you’re an asshole. And I didn’t want to start my trip by being an asshole.

12 hours of sleep and a quick “gym” session (quotes because of lack of free weights) and I was ready to go for Wednesday….

The Future

Long time, no blog. Life has been busy. I was working a couple nights at a bar by my house to get used to bartending, since I want to own a bar one day. I’m glad for the experience. I feel like it’ll save me from a lot of potential mistakes when I go to open my own. It’ll make it easier for me to both hire and train bartenders. There are a lot of little concerns I hadn’t thought of, things as silly as which distributors sell what, that I now know.

But I’m ready to move on. Between my day job and that, it was getting to be too much. It’s not that I couldn’t fit it into my schedule. But after a few months, I felt like I wasn’t learning anymore, and at that point I was just doing it for money. At the end of the day, I don’t want to be a bartender. I want to be a bar owner. It better suits my skills. There are some soft skills that good bartenders excel at that I probably never would. I’ve been called the Human Grumpy Cat on several occasions, but that’s really just how I am when I’m working for someone else.

Todd, the owner of the bar I worked at, is about the best someone else you could work for. Really he’s a great guy. And intelligent. He’s a math teacher by day, which makes him fucking Einstein for a bar owner. I’m not surprised he’s succeeding.

My main contribution to the operation was the cocktail list. I taught a couple of the other bartenders how to properly make some drinks. I added a bunch of classics to the menu. I’d get people who used to drink vodka-soda switched over to a Tom Collins or a French 75, which adds a few bucks a drink to the top line. I got beer drinkers to try cocktails. I had customers raving that it was the only bar in town where they’d order a whiskey sour. I got them infusing liquor, and we made some good strawberry margaritas and blackberry daquiris.

Like all good things, though, it came to an end. I’m leaving after June and starting my own thing.

My good friend, Heather, and I found a guy a couple hours away who refurbishes Airstreams for a living. We went and saw his lot. He had 30 or 40 of them laying around. His dad started the business almost 50 years ago. He worked with his dad, until pop retired, and now works with his son.

We’re planning to buy one and make a mobile bar out of it to cater wedding receptions, etc. I’ll have lots of pics and videos as we move along. Hopefully we’ll be signing on it this week.

Right now I’m working on our competitive advantage. One thing I want to do, that you can’t find anywhere else, is have a great tap system. I plan to make homemade ginger beer on draft for Moscow Mules/Dark and Stormies, etc. I want to do tonic on tap, either our own or Jack Rudy or something. I also want to partner with a few local breweries to have good beer on draft as well.

We’ll do awesome batched cocktails. We’ll have a couple punches. Maybe Manhattans on draft if I can get a nitro system going, which seems easy. Maybe even a rapid barrel aged cocktail served from a barrel for aesthetics.

Strawberry Caipirinha

It’s been awhile, I know, but I promise dear cocktail fans I haven’t forgotten. I’ve been hard at work on a cocktail-related venture I’ll have news of later.

In the meantime, here’s a spin on a classic cocktail for you. It’s a strawberry caipirinha. I got the idea for strawberry cachaca from the PDT Cocktail Book. Meehan uses it in the delicious Morango Fizz, basically an egg-white sour with the strawchaca (see what I did there?) and a little soda floated on top. I have what I think is an even better version, but I’ll save that for a modernist post later.

The caipirinha is one of my favorite cocktails, in fact, it’s one of the few that helped launch my obsession. In the summer it’s up there with mojitos and Tom Collinses when it comes to patio drinking. This twist arguably makes it even more yummy when the berries start popping up at your local farmer’s market. I used Dave Arnold’s justino technique, from Liquid Intelligence, to make the strawberry cachaca. If you don’t have Pectinex handy, never fear. You can just do it the old-school way.

Step 1: Make strawberry cachaca.

1a: Classic technique:

Buy a quart of strawberries at your local farmer’s market. Eat some because, well, because you can. Hull and halve them until you have 400g worth and put them in a big glass jar. Cover with a 750ml bottle of cachaca. Wait until the strawberries turn almost white and the liquor turns red and has a strong strawberry taste. Strawberries infuse quickly so start checking after a few days, but plan for about a week. Strain out the strawberries, then run the liquor through a coffee filter to get out the particles.


1b: Modernist technique:

Buy a quart of strawberries at your local farmer’s market. Eat some because, well, because you can. Hull strawberries until you have about 400g worth and put in a blender along with a 750ml bottle of cachaca and 2 grams Pectinex Ultra-SPL. If you have a centrifuge you’re a lucky bastard and you probably already know what to do next. If you don’t, do what I do. Let it sit for a few days to separate, then strain through a series of strainers and finally through a chemex filter.

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Step 2: Make the Strawberry Caipirinha


2 oz. strawberry cachaca

1/2 oz. simple syrup (bonus points for demerara)

1/2 lime


1. Take a lime and cut it in half, then cut one of the halves into 4 pieces. (So you’ll have 4 eighths of a lime.) (This is the rare drink where you will find me using a unit of measure as imprecise as “half a lime” but it’s a peasant drink that I have heard translates roughly to “country bumpkin” so you’ll just have to accept some variation on this one.)

2. Place the pieces in a rocks glass with 1/2 oz. simple syrup. Muddle them well. You want to express the oils from the peels into the simple.

3. Fill the glass with ice and add the cachaca.

4. Traditionally this drink is then stirred, though in the last couple days I’ve started shaking with a Boston shaker since someone recommended it on /r/cocktails. If you do the latter, don’t strain. Just shake with the rocks glass, pull the tin off, and serve.

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When I first started carbonating, it was with an ISI Whip. That did the job but ultimately I desired something that gave me more control over the level of carbonation (your options with an ISI are pretty much one canister or two) and at lower cost.

My next step was the home-built system. I already brewed beer so having a full kegging setup was appealing anyway.

I at first attempted to follow the instructions I’d heard from Cooking Issues. Purge the air from the bottle, lock the valve into place, and shake until I stopped hearing the CO2 hiss. The only problem I had was the valve never locked. I had to apply a pretty large amount of force (using two hands) to get the valve on at all, and if I let go it popped right off. So I would charge, shake, charge, shake, etc. Doing this about ten times was a pain in the ass but it did get the job done.

Because it was so much slower though, I tried to fix it. I bought a couple other Liquid Bread Carbonaters in case mine was broken. It wasn’t. I bought another ball lock gas disconnect in case that was broken. It wasn’t.

When Liquid Intelligence came out I noticed in one of the pictures that Dave was using the red carbonator. Mine were blue. I had known the different colors existed, but assumed that was the only difference. A lot of digging into product reviews made me realize it wasn’t.

The older red Carbonaters were better-designed. They allowed the valve to lock on, and the spring wasn’t as forceful so you could reasonably push the poppet valve down to let gas escape. The new ones are, some reason, got rid of both of those major advantages.

So I looked around on Amazon and found this. It’s a stainless steel version that does what the old Carbonater used to do. You can lock the disconnect on it just fine. It also has a hose barb at the end sized for standard beverage tubing (like you’d buy at the homebrew store) so you can inject the CO2 into the liquid, rather than the headspace above it, like you do in a SodaStream.

So I thought I’d just share this here. It ships from China so expect to get it a couple weeks after you order it. But it does seem to be very well-made and is much more pleasant to use than the unfortunately-redesigned Carbonater.

Modernist Rosemary Collins

A couple months ago I posted my recipe for a Rosemary Collins. It was basically a Tom Collins that used a rosemary simple syrup instead of the usual plain one. I mentioned in the post that it’d probably make a great modernist drink, and this weekend I decided to test it out.

First I had to clarify the lemon juice. I wasn’t in a hurry (I had a few hours) but I had a lot of things to do and didn’t have the time to devote to agar clarification so I decided to try Pectinex, Kieselsol/Chitosan, and racking/filtering. I’d done that before with lime juice. It does work, it’s just low-yield and requires you to burn through a lot of Chemex filters.

The process is pretty simple really.

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1. Juice your lemons. I juiced 8 and came up with about 600ml of juice.

2. Stir in 2 grams per liter of both Pectinex and Kieselsol. (So in this case, about 1.2 grams of each.) Wait 15 minutes.

3. Stir in 2 grams per liter of Chitosan. Wait 15 minutes. You can see some separation is already occurring.

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4. Stir in more Kieselsol, still at 2g/l. At this point I went and did some lawn work and came back maybe a half hour later. It had separated pretty well.

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This is the point at which you wish you had a centrifuge. I could see how you’d get a massive yield out of it. But I don’t so I filter through a Chemex.

5. Wet your Chemex filter. Pour about 200ml through. You’ll see a slow, steady stream at first, followed by some dripping, followed by almost complete blockage. At that point you can pick the filter up and massage it a little. It will speed back up. Eventually it will get so blocked that even this no longer helps, just pour what’s left back into the beaker and start again with a new filter.

At the end it looks like:

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(Clarified on left, obviously, some of the unclarified on right. You can’t really see the Chemex filtering still more in the background.)

My 600ml of lemon juice came out to about 400ml of clarified. I only needed about 250ml for the cocktail I was working on, so I guess I got a little extra.

Then I put the cocktail together. It was:

250ml clarified lemon

250ml rosemary simple syrup

500ml vodka (it was for a party and I didn’t know if they’d be gin people)

500ml filtered water

This gives us a final ABV of about 13%.

I put it all in a 2 liter bottle and carbonated to 40 PSI. Usually I’d have done this with gin, and served over the rocks in a Collins glass with a sprig for garnish. But this was for a party and we were drinking out of red Solo cups straight. (Sorry, no pics of the final drink as a result.)

It was quite awesome. Everyone seemed to love it. I’d done basically the same cocktail a couple years ago, when I knew how to carbonate things but not how to clarify, and it tasted good but foamed out and ended up flat. It’s much better for the extra bubbliness you get from clarifying and is a great example of why you shouldn’t try to carbonate unclarified juices.

Gum (Gomme) Syrup the Easy Way

While developing a cocktail recently, I decided I wanted to try gum (or gomme, if you prefer the old-fashioned style) syrup. Even in our nation’s best cocktail bars, it’s still a rarity to find this once-common ingredient. I’ve read many praises of the mouthfeel it imparts to cocktails and wanted to give it a shot myself.

Everyone on the internet describes gum syrup as difficult to make, and blames that for its disappearance, but after a little digging it didn’t seem hard at all for someone who has used hydrocolloids a little. You’ll read a lot about people having clumping problems on the internet, which seems to be because they don’t know how to properly disperse it. I had that problem when I first started working with hydrocolloids too. Had anyone bothered to ask a modernist chef they’d probably have found it was much easier to make than they thought. Luckily I’m a modern cuisine hobbyist, and even though I’m far from a professional I was up to this task.

Gum syrup is really just rich simple syrup with gum arabic mixed in. Gum arabic is a hydrocolloid, which is basically a substance that forms a matrix when dissolved in water. You’re probably familiar with a few other hydrocolloids. Gelatin, pectin, and xanthan gum are all common ones. You’ve probably unknowingly eaten locust bean gum in commercial ice creams, and agar-agar in vegetarian desserts or Asian cuisine.

The first step in using a hydrocolloid is to hydrate it. This means getting it to do it’s magic in water. With some hydrocolloids (like gelatin) this takes heat. According to the Cooking Issues Hydrocolloids Primer, gum arabic hydrates under shear, meaning force is required. This actually makes it easier to work with, as hydrocolloids that require heat can often run into problems like premature gelling. When it comes to shear, your blender becomes your best friend.

So I started looking into recipes. My first thought was to turn to Jerry Thomas’s Bartender’s Guide, but the recipe there is really just 2:1 simple. Maybe gum syrup was largely gone by that point already. In David Wondrich’s Imbibe, (a fantastic book by the way, I just got the newly-revised edition linked here and love it) he quotes the Gentleman’s Table Guide as such:

Dissolve 1 lb. of the best white gum Arabic in 1 ½ pints water, nearly boiling; 3 lb. of white sugar or candy; melt and clarify it with half pint cold water, add the gum solution, and boil all together for two minutes.

The technique here is bad, but the ratio is what I wanted. Unfortunately this uses imperial measurements and switches from weight to volumetric and back and forth again, so I thought I’d modernize it. Luckily for us, a pint of water weighs a pound, so it’s easy. I’ll decrease the recipe, changing a pound (or a pint) to 100 grams and convert to metric and we have:

100 grams gum Arabic

150 grams water, nearly boiling

300 grams sugar

50 grams water

Essentially this is a 3:2 simple syrup with gum Arabic equal to 1/3 of the weight of the sugar. Most of the modern stuff I’ve seen uses a little more sugar (more like 2:1 than 3:2) and a little less gum.

In Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s Bar Book, he instead recommends a 2:1 simple with gum Arabic equal to 1/6th the weight of the sugar. He leaves the gum to soak in water for a couple days to hydrate, but according to the primer it’s shear that hydrates it so I’m not sure why this even works but I’ll take his word for it that it does. Maybe Brownian motion provides enough shear force over two days. He does this because with a blender alone he got the familiar clumping one will experience when adding a hydrocolloid to water, but modernist chefs long ago discovered a cheap, quick and easy way to help mitigate that.

So I came up with my own method for making gum syrup. This makes about 2 cups by volume. You probably don’t want to go below this as I’m not sure you’d get enough of a vortex in your blender to disperse the gum, but you could probably double or triple this with no problems.


200g water

100g gum arabic

400g sugar

I decided on a 4:1 scaling of sugar to gum arabic, figuring I’d lose some to the sides of the blender or floating off into my kitchen. It probably comes out a little gummier than Morgenthaler’s.


1. Hydrate the gum Arabic. Pour the water into the blender and run as fast as you can without it flying out of the top. In my Vitamix that’s about level 3.

Disperse the gum Arabic through a sugar/flour shaker into it. Gum arabic hydrates via shear, so most people who have problems are probably trying to whisk by hand, or are just pouring it in. You want each individual grain of the gum to be as far apart as possible from other grains to prevent clumping, and the shaker does this well. Just hold the shaker upside-down above the running blender and tap on it repeatedly until it all comes out. You can do this pretty quickly. Run the blender on high (now that it’s gummy it won’t splash much) for a couple minutes. You’ll see a thick syrup that looks like this:

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(I believe you could skip this step entirely by using a pre-hydrated gum Arabic and just dump it into the next step. )

2. Put your sugar in a heavy-bottomed 1 qt. sauce pan. (Use a bigger one if you’re scaling up or you’re going to napalm yourself and burn your house down.) Heat over high heat, stirring and scraping the bottom, until it boils and foams rapidly and looks like this:

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(Mine is brown because I used demerara sugar here.)

3. Stir the foam down and then pour into a container to cool.

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(These will also be great “before” pictures after I remodel my kitchen.)

4. At the end a layer of scum will form over top. Skim it off, and you’re left with a beautiful gum syrup.

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You can tell pretty quickly that this isn’t just simple syrup. For comparison, I made a little 2:1 demerara simple. Here’s a gif  showing their viscosities (gum on the left):


As you can see, the gum syrup is cloudier and significantly more viscous than a 2:1 simple.

So there you have it. Fast and easy gum syrup. No waiting two days, no clumping, and no straining.

New Cocktail: Prune Justino

A bar in my area is having a cocktail contest so I just had to throw my hat into the ring. I wanted to do something a little modernist, but they want to feature the cocktail on their menu when it’s over, so I didn’t want to do anything too far out there. I’m going to assume they don’t have or want to buy any special equipment, so all the fun carbonated drinks are out, and that they don’t want to do anything laborious like agar clarification.

When I first started getting into modernist cocktails, one of the first things I experimented with was rapid infusions. I had an ISI Whip as a holdover from my modernist cooking experiments. It was fall a few years ago, and in Ohio unless there’s a late frost we get a really great stone fruit crop. That year had been cool and cloudy, which meant a horrible tomato crop that nearly bankrupted some of the farmers I spoke to, but a banner year for peaches and plums.

So my first order of business: rapid infusing stonefruits. Thus the Plumhattan was born. It’s exactly what it sounds like, you rapid infuse some whiskey with plums, strain, and then mix with vermouth and Angostura. Ango just goes so well with tree fruits and that drink was such a hit I couldn’t keep plums at home. Every time friends came over I went through a half-dozen. I even planted a plum tree in my yard in hopes I could keep up in the future.

I wanted to take it a step further this year. I love the combination of plum and whiskey. (I made some delicious desserts with the whiskey-soaked plums leftover from the infusions) but want something a little more exciting than just plum in a Manhattan.

So I broke out my trusty Flavor Bible to try to get a feel for a flavor profile. There were a few things you expect. Various spices like anise, cardamom, and cinnamon, that add up to a flavor profile very similar to Angostura. And then some I hadn’t thought off immediately but had tried before, like Cognac and Armagnac. I once made a dessert from the Bouchon Bistro cookbook that was prunes poached in red wine with anise, cinnamon, and honey. Serve that with some homemade vanilla ice cream to a girl you’re dating (or would like to be) and you’re getting lucky, I promise.

So I have a few ideas, but they all start with the prune whiskey. Rather than rapid infuse, because it requires no special equipment and results in a clear product I decided to go with a justino. Anyone with a blender could spend $15 on some Pectinex Ultra-SPL and pull this off, so it seems doable for a small-volume cocktail bar. (I do think for comparison I might buy some plums and rapid infuse, just to see which is better.)

So to start, I took a bottle of 4 Roses Yellow and blended it with some prunes. In Liquid Intelligence, Dave Arnold recommends using dried fruit so you get more fruit flavor with less water. Plums aren’t in season yet, and prune plums are tastier than the rest anyway.  

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So I mixed 500 grams 4 Roses Yellow with 125 grams plums and of course 2 grams Pectinex Ultra-SPL. I blended the ever-living shit out of it, because plums are pretty meaty. I had to stop at one point because the Vitamix was blending it so much that it was getting warm and I didn’t want the alcohol to start evaporating. It separated so fast I’m not sure you even need the Pectinex, but if it contributes even a little to clarity it’s worth it. So unlike most Justinos where those of us without a centrifuge have to cross our fingers and hope it separates, I could have been done an hour later. But I wanted maximum flavor infusions so I let it sit for a week and then strained through a coffee filter.

The straining was rough. Some of the solids had gone to the top and some to the bottom, so I wasn’t able to rack the liquid off of them very well. They clogged even just  fine mesh strainer. I strained them through fine mesh, then through multiple changes of cheesecloth, then through coffee filters. The process took a really long time, though not much active work. Next time I’ll take a spoon and try to scoop the puck of solids off the top.

And here we are, plum whiskey. I’ll talk in future posts about what I end up doing with it. My ideas right now are:

1. A variant on a New York Sour. Plums pair well with both lemon and red wine. I’m thinking maybe the plum whiskey, lemon juice, demerara simple, and a big bold California cabernet.

2. Something paired with brandy. I’m not entirely sure where this line of thought is going to take me. But I like Cognac and the good book says they pair well together. I have this notion in my head that the combo is going to taste good with Nonino, and I can’t even tell you why. I could be way off base.

3. Something with absinthe. Anise + plum = yummy. That’s like basic food math. I feel like there’s something to be found loosely based on a corpse reviver #2 or a sazerac here.

Ideas would be greatly appreciated as well. I really don’t know where exactly to go with this one yet.