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.

Happy Camper Launch Party

Two weeks ago I did the launch party for the Happy Camper Bar Car. My new business, the Happy Camper is basically a food truck for booze built into a 1972 Airstream.

101115_edit_happycamper_095

Backstory

Two years ago, growing dissatisfied with my day job, I was considering starting a food truck with my brother.  My real dream was to open a bar, but it seemed so mysterious and expensive at the time. I’d never worked at one. They needed all sorts of fancy equipment. My brother has been a chef for a long time so I wasn’t worried about the cost or knowledge involved in doing a food truck, but a bar? No way.

We never ended up doing it though because my brother was going to drop out of school to work on it, and I didn’t want that. I ended up taking a weeknight job at a bar, for just long enough that I felt comfortable owning one. Not that it’s rocket surgery, but just working at one for let’s say 25 to 50 shifts will save you a lot of headache. You’ll make a lot fewer mistakes than you would if you went cowboy and did it yourself, and someone will pay you for the education. It’s a no-brainer and I’m glad I did it.

I felt ready to start a bar. So I started looking at real estate. I found a spot I loved. It was owned by the county and they wanted the building do prop up the convention center next door. The door to my bar would be directly across from the door of the convention center, which meant a hundred thousand people a year would stumble out of a miserable work event looking for a drink and mine would be the only one in sight.

It was stripped down to brick and concrete. It had these beautiful cathedral ceilings because the building is built on a hill and it was at the bottom, with a gorgeous window above the high door. The perfect speakeasy. All it needed was a bar and some Edison bulbs hanging from a pipe.

The one small wrinkle was that they wanted to sell the building to make a hotel. They’ve been trying to make a deal for that for years and failing, but they didn’t want to do a lease longer than a year just in case. Which made it hard for me to justify putting much money into it, even though I think that hotel is about as likely to occur as a zombie outbreak.

But mysteriously, they were also getting a renovation budget from the county to turn it into usable space. They seemed like they might be amenable to letting me using said budget to build my bar instead of putting in generic carpet and white drop panel ceilings like the old UPS store next to it.

I was feeling optimistic. And that’s when they found asbestos. The cost for them to remove it would have been more than I paid in rent for six years, so understandably they decided to just wait for the zombie apocalypse. So the one spot I wanted was gone.

I could have looked for another. My city’s downtown has plenty of vacancy. But that’s when I saw a couple people online doing food trucks for booze.

Sure, I’d joked about that several times. But the inability to get a liquor license seemed like a deal breaker. Except, of course, if you do private events. Then you don’t even need one. What a great loophole.

It goes really well with what I love doing. I really like batching cocktails. There are so many advantages to them over made to order ones. You have more control over dilution and chilling when you can divorce the two. You can ensure a level of consistency far beyond even the best bartenders. You can make things bubbly. You can serve people the highest quality cocktails at beer speed. And most importantly, you can do it without ever washing dishes. The weight of the water it would require to be stirring and shaking on the Airstream wouldn’t fit on the axle.

So when I found the loophole that made it possible, I was talking to my good friend Heather and she wanted to jump into it with me. We went for it. We went from talking about it to owning a stripped-bare Airstream in under a month, and having a party three months later. Do that with a bar!

The Launch Party

Fast forward to four months later. The trials and tribulations involved in getting the Airstream ready would make a blog post, or maybe a book but we were past it and it was time for the launch party. The girl doing the interior woodwork was coming down to the wire. The party was on Sunday and I got a bar top installed Saturday afternoon. Ever built out a tap system in a couple hours? It ain’t easy! I knew I’d have to run to the homebrew store for something, and they were only open until 5, so I got started ASAP.

101115_edit_happycamper_002

Thankfully I’d done everything I could beforehand. I’d cut all of the beverage tubing and drilled holes in the side of the fridge to run it through. I’d made sure I could fit six kegs and two gas tanks (one CO2, one nitro) in the left-hand side of the fridge. I’d installed the shanks and valves, including four custom post-mix soda valves on beer-tower sized soda shanks made for me by CM Becker. All we had to do was screw the towers into place, run the lines, and connect the liquid disconnects.

It went off without too much trouble. I turned out to be one tap handle shy because we never had time to make our custom ones (next time) but that was all I really needed from the homebrew store. I built the system and ran each drink through its line.

On the far left was beer on draft. I’d simply gone to a growler fill and filled my 3 gallon Corny Keg and recarbonated. The next drink was one I made up featuring Rittenhouse Rye, lemon, apple cider, Aperol, and mulled simple syrup.

We had my homemade ginger beer on draft for mule variants, including my brown butter dark and stormy. We had Jack Rudy tonic force-carbonated in another keg.

The last two were cocktails. One is Chartreuse and root beer. It was an idea I’d gotten from Chris at A Bar Above (I think) and have been playing with for a long time. For this version, which is by far the best, by the way, I used:

1.5 oz. Chartreuse

1 oz. Monin Rootbeer Syrup

5 oz. Water

1 dash orange bitters

I scaled that up to a few gallons using my handy dandy cocktail calculator then force carbonated at 32 PSI at about 28F. Do yourself a favor and let this one rest a day. I made some to test and tried it day of, and it tasted like it needed more orange bitters and Chartreuse. Then I tossed the rest back in my fridge and forgot about it until Heather came over a couple days later. I tasted it again then and it was magically the greatest drink of all time.

The last tap was my carbonated serrano margarita. Maybe I’ll explain the recipe for that one some time in the future. It’s a blog post in and of itself.

Here’s the full menu:

LaunchParty_2

Lessons:

#1. Detach gas lines from kegs before driving down the road. Turns out liquid can back up into the gas lines, and from there up into your distributors and regulator from the sloshing. I spent the first half-hour trying to unjam the kegs as a result. One of them got halfway empty and never flowed again.

#2. Keep your tap lines accessible. Ours are hidden behind the bar and wrapped in insulation. It’s a bitch to get to them and if something jams, I’m screwed. (I don’t think I need glycol, the stuff never sits around enough to get cold, but if it starts foaming due to temp I might build an air-cooled system. I don’t anticipate having to do so though, insulation should be good enough.)

#3. Move the CO2 tanks outside of the refrigerator. I had not accounted for the fact that I’d have extra kegs that needed to stay cold, so room in there was at a premium. I’m going to drill holes in the right for two lines, and set up quick disconnects in the fridge so I can easily swap out distributors. That’ll make the whole thing much more organized and easy to troubleshoot if something goes wrong.

#4. Test the Airstream with a non-contact tester before every event. This didn’t happen at the party but later at my house, thankfully. My house is really old and my garage has a GFCI in it into which I plug the camper. You’d think that’d make it safe, and it probably would if whatever idiot wired it decades ago hadn’t had current coming out of the grounding wire. An Airstream isn’t grounded because it sits on big rubber tires. And the shell is highly conductive. So it zapped me. You just never know what you’re going to be plugging into, and if an electrical source is wired wrong a customer could get seriously injured!

#5. People really love home-made ginger beer. It was like half the drinks that walked out. I’ll account for that at future events. I was a little worried that my menu was a little too hardcore for casual cocktail fans. Not so. I think I sold one drink with tonic in it the whole time. I’ll probably repurpose the remaining case of Jack Rudy for a special drink, like an Elderflower G&T on draft, and use one more cocktail and one fewer mixer generally.

#6. I should have spent more time calculating the PSI needed before I ordered the parts. The lines were 12’ long, plus there’s a 2 foot rise, and that’s too much resistance for 3/16” ID line. I had to pump it out at about 35-40 PSI. Good thing I never had to use my personal remanufactured ball lock keg, it vents around there. (Note to self, fix that.) Our new ones don’t even seem to vent at 55, which is the highest I’ve taken them, but still. I couldn’t figure out why the beer wasn’t flowing well when the event started, turns out I was just way off on that.

The shaken drink on draft relies on a lot of pressure forcing it through the stout faucet. At home on my personal equipment, 30 PSI gets a great drink. That’s about 22 PSI more than I’d serve a carbonated drink at. I couldn’t even get the Fireside up near that, so it ended up with a texture I wasn’t 100% happy with. Still tasted good but wasn’t perfect. So I’m switching to 1/4” ID line. That’ll let me drop the pressure way down to about 8.

Anyway, I would say overall the party was a success. The drinks were really good. When the taps jammed I spent a half hour fixing them, but we got through it. I then spent two hours wanting to go behind a shed and cry! But I muscled through that too. And then it was over.

I’m pretty optimistic about our venture. We’ve now cleared most of the major hurdles that were worrying me. I’ve got another venture I’m working on to go right alongside it too. And I’m going to greatly improve the batching app. And I’m even working on a book about batching drinks too. So stay tuned.

Cocktail Competition

Saturday I entered my first cocktail competition. It was for the USBG Bartender’s Battle at Crop Bistro. It was part of Cleveland Cocktail Week.

I found out about it in early August when I joined the USBG. The rules required you to use a product from one of seven Ohio distilleries. It was supposed to be a brunch cocktail and couldn’t be a Bloody Mary, which would be too obvious anyway. It’s fall, and my favorite thing about Ohio this time of year is the stone fruit. Our peaches, plums and apples are second to none, and for some reason a lot of Ohioans don’t even know they grow here! I was told I’d have to make 120 samples for attendees (2 ounces each) plus four full eight ounce drinks for the judges, so 272 ounces in total.

I also knew I wanted to go bubbly. When I think brunch cocktails my first thought is a mimosa. My second thought is a Bellini. There’s just something so refreshing about bubbly drinks in the afternoon that I had to try it.

I also knew I wanted to batch the drink. I mean, I pretty much always want to batch the drink. Now that I have the technology to do shaken drinks in a keg and figured out how to replace fresh citrus (more on those later) batching is just better almost 100% of the time. And I thought my competitors might be hassled trying to shake and strain what amounted to 34 drinks in a short period of time if we got an early rush.

So I worked out a recipe using clarified plum juice, Dave Arnold’s coriander soda (modified to use Asian chilis), plum vinegar, and OYO White Rye. It was probably the best cocktail I’d ever come up with. Coriander soda (recipe in Liquid Intelligence) has a taste not too dissimilar to ginger beer. It was sort of an Asian/Midwestern fusion and it was fucking fantastic, and I’ll probably serve a version of it at my launch party.

The rules said you’d get the liquor the morning of the event. I wasn’t sure which way to go with that for a carbonated drink. Option #1 was to try to get the liquor a day or more early. I could batch out and carbonate the rest of the drink at my leisure, get the liquor, add it, and then re-carbonate.

Option #2 was to do some dry ice magic at the event venue. I could batch everything but the liquor in a keg, and take some dry ice up with me. When I showed up to the event, I could toss the liquor into a bowl, use dry ice to chill it rapidly (which would also lightly carbonate) then finish force carbonating in the keg. Of course I’d have to bring the keg, the tank and regulator, etc.

Option #3 was to just serve it the way people normally serve Moscow Mules. I’d batch up the soda, then still chill and lightly carbonate the liquor with dry ice to as cold as I could. Add the liquor to the serving glass and top with soda. 

At the last moment I saw you could submit a second recipe. So I decided to go with another fall staple, peaches. I made up a recipe off the top of my head and balanced it with my cocktail calculus spreadsheet. It was basically a Moscow Mule, but fall style. I was using Tom Foolery’s bourbon with a modified ginger beer, force carbonated. I hadn’t even tried it and just hoped they’d pick the coriander plum drink.

I submitted the cocktails on 8/31. I was supposed to hear back from them on 9/6. I really needed the two weeks between the announcement and the event because either way I was clarifying a lot of stone fruit. (Turns out a bushel gets you about 5 liters.) I had to buy an entire bushel, remove the stones, juice, treat with pectin, set with agar, then allow to thaw. Not to mention the end of peach season was rapidly approaching, so if that drink got picked I wasn’t totally sure there’d be any left at the orchard.

It came and went with nothing. I gave it a few days to account for bartender time, and when I didn’t hear anything just assumed I hadn’t been chosen. Finally on the 11th I got the notice that I’d been accepted, though the bad news was it was the peach cocktail that had only ever existed in spreadsheet form!

So I scrambled the next day to the orchard and bought what turned out to be the last bushel of peaches they had. Had I gotten the notice one day later, I might have had to use grocery store peaches (gross). But I was immediately in a scramble to get a gallon of clarified peach juice.

For the submission I had taken my standard ginger beer recipe (stolen from Jeffrey Morgenthaler) and modified it to use brown sugar simple instead of plain, clarified peach juice instead of water, and plum vinegar instead of lemon. I had to adjust all of the levels to account for the fact that clarified peach juice has some acid (about .6%, according to my titration test) and a lot of sugar. When I put it in the refractometer, the peach juice turned out to be 21.6% sugar! No wonder those things are so damn tasty.

In fact, clarified peach juice oddly is half of the final acidity and about 100% of the sugar you get from the lemon and simple in the normal recipe. So you could really just add half of the lemon and your ginger and be good to go. But I ended up adjusting the acidity a little up with the plum vinegar and a little citric acid so I could use some simple because I wanted to get that brown sugar taste in. I felt like it would go really well with the other flavors.

Anyway, thanks to my handy dandy refractometer, acid titration test kit, and a spreadsheet that uses Dave Arnold’s Cocktail Calculus section in Liquid Intelligence, plus lots of taste testing, I was able to get the drink exactly where I wanted it. It ended up being pretty much what I had submitted, with the one modification that I didn’t like using just plum vinegar. There was just too much acetic acid flavor.

So the process was as follows:

Saturday: Run to the orchard and buy the last of the peaches.

Sunday: Have my friends help me cut juice them. Pre-treat with Pectinex Ultra-SPL. (See the clarification section of Liquid Intelligence if you want the details). Set some of it with agar to test out freeze-thaw.

Monday: Thaw the batch set with agar. It works beautifully. Carbonates with very low foam. Promptly gel and freeze the rest of the juice in a giant hotel pan.

Tuesday: Thaw the rest of the peaches. Buy the ginger. Make a few liters brown sugar simple syrup. And a liter of 6% citric acid solution.

Wednesday: Enjoy one day of relaxing/housecleaning/actually getting shit done for my day job.

Thursday: Juice ginger. Why haven’t I bought a masticating juicer yet? Centrifugal gets the job done but it’s low yield and sucks to do. Prep everything. Sanitize and clean kegs and a bunch of 5 gallon buckets. Buy lots of canned peaches, cut them up, and put them in a keg to carbonate for garnish.

Friday: Put the whole thing together in a 5 gallon bucket. Find out only afterward that I bought the wrong vinegar and it’s extremely salty. It said it was ume vinegar but was actually umeboshi vinegar. Ume is a Japanese plum. Umeboshi is a salted, preserved ume. Batch is ruined. Fuuuuuuck.

I’ve used most of the clarified peach juice, and there won’t be enough left to get the flavor I want, so now I have to go buy more liquor, rapid-infuse it with lots of thawed frozen peaches (the orchard is done selling those now) in an ISI whip, 400ml at a time, and spend the next 12 hours doing that. Oh, have to go buy and juice 7 more lbs of ginger, make more brown sugar simple and citric acid solution, etc.

Also am hosting an event in the evening that I can’t skip, so I take a 3 hour detour in the middle of the mess. My house looks like a terrorist attacked a peach cannery.

Come back and try kegging the drink with the hope of serving with a pigtail. Nope, way too foamy. Thought that might happen. I’ll just pour the drinks. Switch to 2L bottles and the carbonater. I have four of them but can only find three, and I need to do 6 bottles. 

Saturday: Head up to the event. Door isn’t open for like a half hour past when it was supposed to be. The good news is, all I have to do at the venue is put the peaches on a stick and smile. I would have even prepped the garnish but I thought the peaches might fall off the toothpicks when I tried to get them out of the keg. Steal some basic supplies from the restaurant’s kitchen and get ‘er done. Throw a few peaches in the ISI with a hit of CO2 so they’re extra fizzy for the judges.

The setup turns out to be we each get a table. I pull my cooler up between mine and the neighbor’s. I grab a bunch of ice from the ice maker, start filling up sample cups, pouring, and topping. I quickly realize the brunch isn’t as crowded as I thought (no 120 people) so they’re going to sit there and get diluted and go flat. I stop pouring, chalk them up as display models, and just pour individual samples whenever someone comes by. Carbonated drinks cannot be left to sit on ice for long.

I find out that the first round is judged by the attendees. I was kind of banking on that. Had it been the four judges, I’d have had to work an amaro in or something.

They gave us some larger cups for if people want more than a sample. I start noticing people coming back to my line over and over. I look around and that doesn’t seem to be happening to anyone else. Some people request extra carbonated peaches because, well, they’re delightful. Everyone’s telling me how great my drink is, except one of the four judges who doesn’t like that I used canned peaches. That’s fucking crazy. (I even heard about it later from another judge.) Canned peaches are the most delicious thing in the universe, and fresh peaches often don’t have enough sweetness to balance out the acidic taste of carbonation. They’re not as bad as a strawberry (which just tastes rancid) but they’re not as good fizzy as canned.

The girl running the show is going around asking with a notepad and I see lots of people pointing to me. My drink, it turns out, is an overwhelming favorite. Me and a girl from one of the better bars in Cleveland go on to round 2, the Iron Chef-style competition.

For round two the judges give us $20 and 20 minutes to go shopping at West Side Market. I had brought my ISI whip in case I had gotten to round two, figuring I’d either do a rapid infusion with it, or a carbonated drink, or just a really cool foam garnish. I look at the supplies available before I head to the market. I have to use a wheat whiskey I’d never tasted, but it’s wheat whiskey and the local distillery that made it makes good products, so I feel confident. I see some very fall-ish looking items for use. Cinnamon and various other spices, some apple cider, etc. I decide to try to find some medjool dates to rapid infuse the whiskey with. One girl mentions they have a tea shop over there, and I think of some oolong.

The market is soooo crowded but 20 minutes is way more than enough time. I run to the produce section. Nobody there has dates so I pick up some figs as a fallback. That also sounds good right? I grab an apple for garnish too. Then I run to the main part of the market and find the tea store. Their tea is $30 an ounce, and they can’t go lower than 1/2 on their scale. I don’t have $15 to spare so I explain the competition and ask if they can help a brother out. They can and I get a little tea for $1.

I find a spice shop that also has dried fruit and score, they have medjool dates! I get $5 worth. Between the the dates, figs, apple, and tea I’ve got $8 left, and I’m feeling like more tea. I run back to the girl and ask her if I can get a little more for $8. She hooks me up. I get out of the market with a few minutes to spare but neither my opponent nor the judge are anywhere to be found. Was I supposed to meet back at the restaurant? Shit. I cross the road, then see them back at the market. Oh well. 

So then we get back and I’ve got 15 minutes to make the cocktail. I get a saucepan from the kitchen and use it to smash some cinnamon. I chop the dates and toss them with the cinnamon and oolong into the ISI, fill it full of whiskey, and start the rapid infusion. I prep the glasses and the apple wedge garnish, dig up the cider for acid, prep my stirring tin, grab some simple to get that at the ready. I’m good to go.

Toward the end of the time I start wondering if my drink is going to have enough sourness. There’s a little acid in the cider, thanks to the cranberry, but not much. I see a lemon but nothing with which to squeeze it and no open containers to squeeze it into. I’m seriously debating hand squeezing it into some sample cups, one ounce at a time, but I notice my opponent has no acid either and I’m already pressed for time. I’m not sure one ounce of lemon (and good luck wringing more than that out of a small lemon with your hands) is going to help much.

When the timer gets to 4 minutes, I end the rapid infusion. I only got about 8 minutes in but that’s picked up some flavor, especially from the oolong. I pour all the whiskey into the tin (we had to make some samples for the judges as well) and taste. It’s good. I add a little cider. Still not enough acid. I add a bunch more. Better. Still wish I had juiced the lemon, but hey, it’s something.

I serve it on the rocks with an apple wedge and a cinnamon stick. I think it’s good, and with some acid could have been really good. One of the judges tells me the same thing a day later. I taste the opponent’s. I like it though I have no idea what’s in it. It’s a bit too hot and needs acid, but mine does too so I don’t feel as confident as I’d like to.

The judging comes. We hold hands while they read the verdict. They do their best Iron Chef judge impressions, and say it was a coin toss. Turns out I won. A little lemon juice and I might have expected that but my cocktail was imperfect too. I can see why it might have been a hard decision.

Later that night I go to the bar where my competitor works. Coincidentally, not to rub it in, though of course I plan to ask her how Cleveland’s second best bartender is doing. She isn’t there but I still get a couple shots of Fernet on the house. I like these USBG people.

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.