Almost anybody with more than a six pack of Bud in the fridge has acquired the oddball cocktail ingredient, used for one mixed drink but otherwise lies inert on the shelf, mocking them. If you’ve got a bottle of Kahlua, you can make a White Russian, and….. hmm… what else? The same goes for nonalcoholic drink components like syrups – Some article has a drink recipe calling for cinnamon-blueberry-bacon syrup which sounds yummy, and look, a recipe! So you make the syrup, it taste great, but after showing it off in a few rounds of the cocktail for friends, you’ve still got a half liter of the cinnamon-blueberry-bacon syrup left over. Now what?
My bar counter top and refrigerator is overrun with experiments with leftovers. Pineapple Gomme syrup? Check. Banana Infused Jameson Whiskey? Yup. Apple-cinnamon shrub? Indeed. Black-tea infused Smith and Cross – Bingo. Many of the brain cells I devote to improvising cocktails is spent trying to match up my bar of misfit ingredients with new ways to use them.
The experiment so far that’s given me the biggest challenge is the Porter Reduction Syrup I used in a previous blog post, Reverse engineering a cocktail: The Cup Of Awesome. While I deeply enjoy the Cup of Awesome, I can’t make it too often or I’ll grow tired of it. And unlike a fruit based syrup that’s relatively easy to imagine replacing an existing ingredient in a favorite cocktail, a heavy, beer based syrup stands out in the field by itself. It’s not similar to a whole lot else, thus the challenge.
The other challenge with the Porter syrup is it’s intense flavor. Your choice is to either let it dominate the flavor profile of the drink (like in the Cup of Awesome), or pair it up with something that also has a powerful flavor and adjust the ratios so that neither flavor wins out. As you may have seen in prior posts, I’m big on categorizing things, and one of the classifications I frequently fall back on is robust, full-bodied flavors – flavors that you’ll always pick out regardless of what else is going on. Some of my go-to base spirits in this category are:
Smokey Scotch (Islay)
Overproof Jamaican Rum
And as accent ingredients:
Tonight I went through my lists, mentally pairing the Porter Syrup taste with the base spirit taste:
Porter and Smoky Scotch? Maybe…
Porter and Mezcal? Doubtful
Porter and Smith and Cross Jamaican rum? Not sure.
Porter and Blackstrap Rum? Hmm… This sounds interesting.
So Porter and Blackstrap rum it was. Blackstrap rum is a crazy uncle in the rum world. It’s made from blackstrap molasses, which is the lowest grade of molasses – what’s left after nearly all the sugar has been removed from sugar cane juice after multiple boilings. The crystallized sucrose becomes table sugar and other products. The molasses is what remains. The only generally available Blackstrap rum available here in the U.S. is from Cruzan. It’s very dark with a strongly molasses flavor and cheap. Not at all a sipping rum unless you’re a pirate. It’s usually used to add color to Tiki cocktails as the rum float. However, given that we’re trying to find a mate for our intensely strong and dark syrup made from reduced Porter beer, it doesn’t seem so crazy.
Now, how much of each ingredient? Since the Porter syrup is very sweet I don’t want to use too much, so my first stab is a 3:1 blackstrap/syrup ratio. With just those two ingredients you have something roughly akin to an Old Fashioned (whiskey, sugar, bitters), but from very much the wrong side of the tracks. The drink could work with just that. However, the egg white in the Cup of Awesome adds a nice texture to it, and works here as well, in addition toning down some of the sweetness from the Porter Syrup. While you could go 4:1 rum/syrup, the Porter flavor would fall too far into the background for my taste.
1.5 oz Blackstrap Rum
.5 oz Porter Reduction Syrup
.5 oz egg white
In a mixing glass, whip the egg white with a small hand frother/mixer until it’s very foamy. Add the rum and syrup. Stir for 30 seconds, strain into a chilled coupe. Normally cocktails with egg-white call for extreme shaking rather than stirring. However, shaking dilutes this drink too much. Regarding the frother, get a decent solid blade like BonJour makes rather than the cheap $5 spiral whisk versions. It makes a big difference in how frothy your egg-whites get.
The “Big Picture” message here is that cocktail recipe creation isn’t necessarily some divinely inspired zen wisdom.It’s often just a matter of iterating over flavors and ingredients on hand, mentally mashing together in your head, then trying out the ones that don’t instantly seem like a bad idea. Kahlua and St. Germain anyone?
A well-established maxim in mixology circles is that bartenders should keep a notebook of recipes they’ve made, experiments in progress, and so on. Usually this is the form of a small spiral notebook or index cards. I completely agree that if you’re passionate about mixology, a good repository for your experiences and ideas is essential. What I disagree with is the archaic method of writing down by hand every worthwhile recipe or scrap of information. Notebooks can easily be misplaced, spilled on or any number of other calamities. Plus hunting for that one recipe with that one ingredient is tedious at best.
Being a technology focused guy, and having worked for Microsoft, I immediately saw the benefit of using OneNote. Before you think “Ugh…. too much work”, or “Ugh…. Microsoft…” and stop reading, consider this:
It’s a free on the web, and runs in your browser – All you need is a free live.com account.
It has free mobile apps for IOS, Android and Windows Phone.
Any addition or change you make in one location seamlessly appears everywhere else.
Searching for anything (cocktail names, ingredients, etc..) is trivial.
The desktop version of OneNote rocks and is included in the Office suite – You may already have it.
Although I’ve never used EverNote, I believe it has similar functionality so you can probably substitute Evernote for what follows.
My main use of OneNote is recording each new cocktail recipe the first time I make it. It’s then really easy to look up later, perhaps when a friend is over and I want to show off the drink. Each cocktail typically gets its own page. The exception is when I’m working on a recipe and have multiple iterations.
Here’s what a typical page in my OneNote notebook looks like:
Entering recipes is really simple. If it’s my own recipe I just type in the ingredients. If it’s a recipe on the web, a simple copy/paste does the trick, and as a bonus I get the original page URL automatically. I usually include my impressions, and suggestions for what I might do differently next time.
It might seem like a lot of work to enter recipes, but you’d be doing more work writing by hand in a notebook. If you just enter one recipe at a time, you’ll probably spend 30 seconds total. Just get in the groove of doing it and not making a big deal out of it. Thanks to the magic of the cloud you now have your notebook backed up – You can’t lose it like a physical notebook. And once you’ve built up your collection, here’s a few ways that having your notebook online is awesome:
I have X. What can I do with it? Recently we had fresh grapefruits that needed to be used soon. What had I made with grapefruit previously? A quick search turned up every recipe I’ve made that uses grapefruit. The same goes for ingredients. Maybe you just got a new Old Tom gin, for instance. What can you do with it?
Suddenly you’re the bartender! At gatherings, people sometimes recall that I’m pretty good with a shaker and I’m now facing a random collection of spirits and mixers and expected to produce magic. What can I make? With OneNote on my iPhone I have a fighting change of finding a trusted recipe using the ingredients at hand.
The right device in the right place. Adding text on a phone is slow and error prone. I usually add recipes on my laptop upstairs, or sometimes on the iPad. But when I need the recipe I’m usually at my bar downstairs. Rather than running back and forth to the computer or trying to find space for my iPad on my bar, I just grab my iPhone knowing that the recipe is synced to it.
Even the simple page-per-recipe usage is worlds better than a handwritten notebook. But I go a step further, using sub-pages to loosely categorize drinks, e.g Tiki, Negroni Variations, and so on. I also make separate sections for things like:
“Best spirits” lists
Recipes for shrubs
Bars I want to visit while travelling
Long story short, a notebook is an incredibly useful tool, but even though you enjoy pre-prohibition era cocktails doesn’t mean you have to suffer with pre-prohibition era tools. A little effort here pays big dividends.
I love all my spirit friends – There are multiple fine specimens of Whiskey, Bourbon, Tequila, Gin, and Brandy in my home bar, but the spirit I’m truly wonky for is Rum.Rum continues to have a bad reputation among many with only a glancing familiarity of the spirit. A common refrain I hear is “It’s too sweet”, which confounds me because I find commonly used rums to be no more or less sweet than other base spirits. While rum is made from sugar or molasses, the distillation process removes nearly all of the sugar content. No, I believe people think rum is sweet because ofcrappy drinks made with too much day-glow syrup.
Something that surprises people is just how diverse a category rum is. The difference between Bacardi Silver (unfortunately many people’s only reference point) and a sipper like Ron Zacapa 23, or the extremely funky Smith And Cross is many times greater than the diversity found in Gins or Bourbons. Once you’re past the idea that rum means Captain Morgan and “Rum and Coke”, you’re ready to assemble a stable of rums that span the wide gamut of cocktail styles. Nearly every non-rum cocktail you can think of can have its base spirit substituted with a rum that makes the resulting drink equal to or better than the original – Think rum Negronis, Rum Old-fashioneds , and rum Manhattans, just for example.
There’s a ton of good resources on the web that break down rum into different styles, and in great detail, and I won’t attempt to replicate them here. The worst categorization I see is along the lines of
Lumping dark rums together is like lumping Fiats and Ferraris together because they’re both from Italy. When a drink recipe calls for a “dark rum”, I know to keep it as a safe distance.A slightly better categorization, but one that still is confusing unless you’re a serious rum-wonk is regional. Examples of this include:
The problem here is that there’s still a enormous difference between rums in the same geographical category. The agricole designation encompasses both relatively young versions that you’d mix with and aged sippers like Clement Grande Reserve. Likewise with Jamaican rums – Appleton V/X is a fine rum, but enormously different than my beloved Wray and Nephew overproof, full of funk and fire. The upshot is that imposing any sort of coherent taxonomy on rums is difficult at best – The ingredients, distillation and aging processes are far more important than regional designations.
That said, here’s how I mentally organize my rum collection, including actual brands and labels. The categories are roughly ordered by how important I consider them in assembling a collection that covers the bases for making a broad set of cocktails. That is, I’d start with the “switch hitter” style before diving into the “White Agricole” style.
Switch hitters – Solid, middle of the road rums that don’t veer too far into any eccentricity. Good enough to sip straight, but not so expensive that you will cringe when using two ounces in a cocktail. They’re equally at home in a Palmetto (a rum Manhattan) as they’d be in a tiki fantasy.
Plantation Original Dark (80 proof)
El Dorado 12
Silver – These are rums you’d use in daiquiris, mojitos and drinks where a silver tequila or vodka is used.
The one I use consistently is Cana Brava. It’s flavor profile is night and day different than Bacardi Silver. Although I don’t have either at the moment, I like everything I’ve had from both Plantation and El Dorado, so you might consider the “3 Stars” and “3 year” respectively.
Funky – These are primarily useful for tiki or “island style” drinks. The “funk” comes from a relatively high amount of esters which are organic compounds with a fruity essence. Generally these rums are from Jamaica.When I think of swashbuckling pirates and rum, these funky rums are what I’m dreaming of.Much like people have strong aversions tosmoky scotch or mezcal, you tend to either love or hate rum funk.
Smith and Cross is my benchmark funky rum. I’m seriously in love with its fruity essence, and at114 proof so a little goes a long way. A Negroni made with Smith and Cross transports me to a higher plane of happiness. Wray and Nephew is even higher octane at 126 proof and the esters are quite different than Smith and Cross, and I find they complement each other. I think of Coruba as the little brother of Smith and Cross, despite being from the Wray and Nephew portfolio. A little less Jamaican funk, but at about half the price of Smith and Cross I mix Coruba freely in my tiki drinks.
Smith and Cross
Wrap and Nephew White Overproof
Luxury Sipping – I primarily sip these neat rather than mixing. Put ‘em in a snifter like a good whisky or brandy.These rums are aged for longer time periods, typically 10+ years either in a single barrel or using the Solera method. They’re sweeter, and some people call them “dessert rums.” There’s been a lot of discussion lately about how much of the sugar comes from barrel aging versus sugar added by the distiller, which the distillers frequently deny.
This category represents a good part of my collection. Here are just a few in my bar that anybody could be confident making as their first or second purchase in this category:
Santa Theresa 1796
Dos Maderas P.X. 5+5
The Zaya is a steal at around $25. It’s a good “gateway” rum to get people used to the idea of sipping rum neat rather than pouring it in a glass with Coke.
Dark Rums – Despite my protestation earlier about using the color of a rum as a category, there are a few rums useful both for their color and the heavy body they give to tropical drinks.
Lemon Hart (80 and 151)
Gosling’s Black Seal
The Cruzan Blackstrap has a particularly strong molasses flavor. A little goes a long way.
White Agricole Style– While most rums are made from a molasses base, agricole rums are made from cane sugar juice, which is a predecessor to molasses. The taste is described as “grassy” or “vegetal”. These rums are easily used in place of rums in the Silver category above to give cocktails a different flavor element.
Although there’s a fancy official government definition for what can be called “RhumAgricole“, including being made in Martinique, the style is made elsewhere, including Haiti and Oregon. Brazilian cachaca is very similar to an agricole style rum, the primary difference being the alcohol content it’s distilled to.
La Favorite Rhum Blanc
Bull Run Distillery Pacific Rum
Spiced Rums –This is a fairly wide category, as the amount and types of spices used varies widely. I don’t use spiced rums much, as I’d rather do my own infusions. However, if you must have something in this category, I’ve had good experiences with these rums:
Chairman’s Reserve Spiced Rum
Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum
Disclaimer – There are plenty of rums that I’d solidly recommend but aren’t included above because they don’t fit well into my broad categories. Also, the list is filtered by the rums that are reasonably available to me in the United States. Much as I love my Doorly’s 12 and St. Nicholas Abbey 15 rums, it took a trip to Barbados to acquire them, and at $150/bottle for the St. Nicholas Abbey, it’s not a starter rum.
Before leaving for Buenos Aires I combed the internet for hours putting together a list of bars to try out. As usual on these trips, there were more bars on my list than we actually got to, and some stomach problems at the end of the trip took out two evenings, but we still did well in hitting the essential places. With a few exceptions, most of the noteworthy cocktail bars on my list were in the Palermo and Recoleta/Retiro neighborhoods. If bars and nightlife are your thing, Palermo is an ideal place to consider calling home.
I don’t speak Spanish and my two years of high school Italian are quite rusty so it took me a while to piece together the basic everyday words I needed to know. At restaurants I depended on Carrie for much of the menu interpretation – it helps that she has a food background. But cocktail menus in Spanish – that was a challenge I looked forward to! I’m a pretty obsessive menu parser so I wasn’t about to throw in the towel that quickly. It helped that many of the ingredients included brand names. However, the names of juices, syrups, bitters and such tested me at first. I was particularly proud the first time I came across “Clara de Huevos”. Knowing “Huevos” was eggs and with my background in drink patterns and what I might expect in a drink, I quickly figured out it was egg whites.
The perception I formed was that the best bars in town made some great cocktails, but the truly cutting edge stuff was about five years behind what I find in the US. For instance some bars are doing infusions but they were infrequent and rudimentary – Bacardi with cinnamon was popular. Bitters were in use but I didn’t notice large collections of exotic bitters and I don’t recall seeing much in the way of house made bitters. I only observed one barrel aged cocktail the entire time. In short, it felt like the bars had mastered the basics of classic cocktails and were making interesting variations with local ingredients, but relatively few mixology showcase drinks like you’d find at Seattle’s Liberty or Trick Dog in San Francisco.
Being from Seattle, I don’t blink at a $12 US cocktail, so even though cocktails are considered expensive in Argentina, from my perspective it was always happy hour with half-price drinks. Drinks were regularly in the 55-70 peso range, so about $7 US.
Here’s where we made it to in order of visitation.
Tucked away a wee-bit off the main nightlife corridors, Verne Club has a dark, classic vibe of 1930’s art deco – Very Jules Verne futuristic. Dramatic lighting under the backbar gives the liquor bottles a dramatic feel, and interesting glass-covered gear contraption inlays in the bar look like they’ll start moving at any moment. Verne club is worth a visit for the ambience alone. The cocktails were a solid 7 out of 10, with many being house originals. One I remember in particular was dramatically smoke infused.
The food menu was decently sized for a bar and everything we ordered was well executed including the gourmet hot dog, one of their specialties. It was a Sunday night so there were few customers, giving us the opportunity to get to know the bartender. His English was good enough that I could convey my enthusiasm and we ended up talking for a while about various spirits and other bars we should visit. We liked Verne club enough that we attempted a second visit on a busier night, but the bar was full and the music was thumping so we took a pass.
Bar counter at Verne Club
Smoked cocktail prep at Verne Club
Basa Basement Bar
Basa was a late addition to my list as an “As time permits” entry. On our second night in town, after trekking across the city in a massive downpour, we found ourselves soaking wet in front of a closed Floreria Atlantico (below.) It seems that it was random national holiday (there are many), and there was no notification on Floreria Atlantico’s Web or Facebook page that they were closed. Luckily I had plotted out all the bars on a map and Basa was close by and more importantly, open.
We arrived at Basa around 8 PM, i.e. incredibly early in Argentine culture. The upside is that we had prime seats at the bar and the staff had enough time to work with our broken Spanish. Basa wouldn’t be out of place in Hollywood or Miami Beach – Mirrors, stage lighting, lush décor, etc. I got the impression it’s a “See and be seen” kind of place.
Not knowing what to expect, and seeing the “glitz” worried me initially because I thought the drinks would be soulless vodka-tinis typically found in “nightlife” restaurants. Scanning the drink menu I found more than a few drinks that intrigued me. I cautiously ordered the first one – it arrived in a veritable cornucopia of ice and was quite delicious. My second and third drinks were all quite different and equally flavorful. Carrie had fewer drinks and switched to wine, but my extensive sampling of her cocktails found them equally winning. As much as it would have surprised me when I first walked in, I’d rate Basa’s cocktails an 8.5 out of ten. We ate dinner there, splitting an enormous rib eye steak, appetizers and dessert. All total we spent around $100 US. Le Bargain!
Delicious punch at Basa
Scotch Egg at Basa
Great Ice and color at Basa
Backbar at Basa
As we chatted with bartenders throughout the city, the question they all asked was “Have you been to Floreria Atlantico?”, so it had a lot to live up to. The day after our rain-soaked first attempt to make it there brought much better weather and after retracing the prior night’s steps, found ourselves in a flower/wine shop. The clerk correctly assumed our intentions and guided us towards a walk-in refrigerator door. Down a set of steps into a dark subterranean cavern we went as our eyes adjusted to the dim light. Finally we had arrived at one of the top 50 bars in the world, and only one in South America.
Floreria Atlantico is a long, narrow space that curves along the outer edge of the building above. It has big posts that split the bar into sections so it’s hard to take it all in at once. The painted, rough cement walls and exposed ceiling gave it very rustic feel, perhaps the world coolest basement. The backbar occupies one wall, and tables/booths for diners were long the opposite wall. Running in-between them was the long polished wood bar counter where we sat.
The cocktail menu is organized by countries, with five or six countries and each country consisting of four drinks, for a total of about 24 cocktail options. The drinks are a mixture of classics and house originals. I give them a solid 7.5/10. My favorite discovery was a metal Mate straws tipped with a tight spring that was used in some drinks. Up to that point in our trip we hadn’t noticed anybody drinking Mate, so at Floreria Atlantico we were baffled but bemused by them. Later in the trip we found some at a craft market and scooped up a set to bring home.
While I was there for the cocktails, Carrie was there for the food which is highly regarded in its own right. We sat at the bar, sharing several appetizers and steak while working our way through the cocktail menu. I’d highly recommend it if you’re looking for good cocktail/food options in one spot.
English style drinks at Floreria Atlantico
Floreria Atlantico Tapas menu
Cocktail with mate straw at Floreria Atlantico
Sky Bar, Hotel Pulitzer
This bar had been written up as one of the best rooftop bars in Bueno Aires. It’s a relatively small space, although we had the entire bar to ourselves that evening. The cocktails were pretty basic standards and nothing I’d consider “mixology”. I went off-menu and ordered a Negroni, my go-to safe-bet drink in these situations. Cocktails were a 4/10. At 12 stories above the street, the view at night was OK but not particularly sweeping – nothing to write home about. Part of this is that BA just doesn’t have a particularly amazing skyline in my opinion.
Sky Bar Pulitzer Hotel
Grand Bar Danzon
The Grand Bar Danzon has a lot of positive reviews so I had high hopes but left feeling underwhelmed. It felt more about glitzy nightlife crowd rather than innovative, original mixology creations. The bar counter has tiny LEDs embedded throughout for a starry effect and the bottles on the back bar were lit from below, as you do. We had nearly the whole place to ourselves but I wasn’t able to engage the bartender in a spirits discussion.
The cocktail menu was large and there were many special lists on boards on the wall, but was mostly just variations of the basics, or uninteresting vodka-tinis. In my book, a rum-based Old Fashioned is not particularly innovative despite my deep love for rum, so I had to search for a while to find something that piqued my interest. Your mileage may vary, however. Rating: 6/10
Like Floreria Atlantico, Bar 878 is regarded to be in the top tier of Buenos Aires craft cocktail bars. Our opportunity to visit was at midnight on a Wednesday. My hope was that being a school night, we might reasonably expect to grab a seat at the bar and strike up a conversation with the bartender. No such luck; the place was packed and I couldn’t get anywhere near the bar, much less find a seat. Determined to make the best of it, we secured a small table near the bar. From that vantage we could easily observe amorous activity at other nearby tables.
Bar 878 is in a large brick space with high ceilings, very dimly lit. Between a candle and my iPhone I was generated enough light to scan the extensive cocktail menu. Despite the size, it took me a while to find something that qualified as an interesting house-original cocktail, although in fairness the drink menu’s ambition is a step or two up from Grand Bar Danzon. After sampling four drinks, my rating is 7/10. I believe that if we’d gone at a better time I might right it higher.
Bar 878 backbar
Small snippet of the menu at Bar 878
Cocktails by candlelight at Bar 878
Bernata was a little gem we discovered near our hotel, and the only bar we visited twice. It’s a Spanish Tapas restaurant and the bar itself is tiny – A total of six seats which we had all ourselves both times. Our first visit was a quick stop for drinks before heading to a nearby Parrilla for dinner. The drink menu is entirely Gin & Tonic based – I counted 16 different variations. The bartender spoke a passable, halting English, but once he understood we wanted amazing original drinks with local flair, he was a joy to talk to as he painstakingly created each G&T. We scanned the tapas menu and decided it was worth coming back for a second visit.
On our second visit the same friendly bartender was there and a very fun couple of hours passed by as we ate and drank our way through both the cocktail and tapas menus. Ranking just the Gin & Tonics I give a 7/10, but everything about the place is so cute that the overall experience is even higher.
Micro backbar at Bernata
Dining room at Bernata
Pony Line Lounge
With our remaining time in BA rapidly dwindling, Pony Line became the best option to squeeze one more bar in and I’m glad we did. I knew it was in the Four Seasons hotel but assumed it was tucked away somewhere in the bowels of the hotel or on the top floor. Instead, it’s at ground level, just to the right of the Four Seasons main entrance. Step out of your cab and your inside in seconds. The space is an over the top funky Rodeo Drive / Western décor with lots of leather, polished chrome and horse stall inspired booths. We rightly chose to sit at the bar and met the very friendly bartender who was happy to talk about mixology in BA.
The drink menu was moderately sized, but nearly everything looked intriguing enough to order. I eventually chose a well-executed “Brazillian Mai Tai”, and Carrie’s drink was also a winner. Sadly, my stomach trouble a prior few days prevented a round two for me. Although the Pony Line is fundamentally a hotel bar, the quirky ambience combined with better-than-average cocktails make it a place I’d recommend. Rating: 7.5/10.
Pony Line Lounge backbar
Pony Line Lounge cocktail menu
Pony Line Lounge cocktail menu
Pony Line Lounge
The ones that got away
Although we covered a lot of bar territory during our too-brief tour of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, time ran out and we didn’t make it to either Frank’s Bar or Doppelgänger. If you’re a cocktail wonk and find yourselves in Buenos Aires, consider checking them out for me.
In my final post on Buenos Aires I’ll talk about the bounty of spirits I brought back!