California Rum Fest 2015 and Rational Spirits Santeria Pre-Launch

It’s 10 PM on Saturday night and I’m standing in the dark by the side of Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Bryan Davis, master distiller of Lost Spirits holds his iPhone aloft, flashlight lit, to help our friend Anders snap a rum bottle photo. A few feet away, a twelve-person party bus sits motionless with its doors open, exposing a veritable dance club’s worth of lighting. An epic Tiki party is awaiting us less than five miles away, if only we could get there. How is this my life? Let’s take it from the beginning – a photo tour of my crazy, rum-packed weekend.

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A Wonky New Orleans Cocktail Bar Roundup

If there’s one thing New Orleans is not short on, it’s bars. In the touristy part of town (the French Quarter) you can’t go more than a block without seeing people spilling out of a bar, clutching frozen Daiquiris in a to-go cup – practically the official mascot of New Orleans. All of Bourbon Street seems to be one continuous bar, the highlight being the ill-advised “Hand Grenade”: gin, rum, vodka, grain alcohol, Midori, with a float of regret. Sure, you can head over to Pat O’Brien’s for an authentic “Hurricane” – don’t forget to pick up some powdered Hurricane Mix as you leave.

Yes, there’s much for a craft cocktail connoisseur to shake their head at in New Orleans. There are plenty of world-class bars in NOLA though– a cocktail wonk just needs to be more diligent in seeking out bars worthy of time and attention. What follows is in no way a complete list of every worthy bar in NOLA – that would take months. But as an obsessive bar hound who’s always looking for the next great “score,” what follows are a few you should put on your A-list.

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Rumtastic Happenings at Tales of the Cocktail 2015

It’s 8:45 AM on the second full day of Tales of the Cocktail 2015, and I’m in bed, dreading the imminent alarm clock. Only a few hours earlier I’d been drinking 140 proof Jamaican Rum and cask-strength rye at an impromptu hotel room get-together, followed by a nightcap at the Monteleone’s Carousel bar, before finally falling into bed at 2:30 AM. What I really need is more sleep, but I’m scheduled to drink more rum in an hour. Ordinarily I’d miss the rum and opt for more shut-eye but this is no ordinary tasting. No sir! Plantation Rums had reached deep into their rum reserves, picked of their best casks from all over the Caribbean, and bottled just enough for two dozen people to enjoy at Tales. At 10 AM. The things I do for rum….

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The Cocktail Wonk Guide to Great Cocktail Bar Photos with Your Camera Phone

Canon, Seattle
Being any sort of respectable spirits blogger these days requires you to have a social media presence beyond just your blog, be it Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc… I devote most of my efforts into documenting my wonk lifestyle on Instagram (@cocktailwonk), which means plenty of drink photos from dimly lit cocktail bars. Along the way I’ve picked up a respectable level of Instagram followers and have a pretty good sense how to create photos that resonate with people.

What follows are my tips for creating great looking bar-based cocktail photos, often in low light, and with just a smartphone. I use an iPhone 6, but have every reason to believe the camera-based tips would work similarly on Android phones. In special circumstances, such as a special event or seeking out a bar while we’re traveling, I’ll use a dedicated camera, but these tips are for the enthusiast drinker who has a smartphone handy and wants a good shot.

So many people have no idea that you can tell your phone’s camera where to focus. An iPhone in a dark bar does a lousy job of figuring out where the center of attention should be. So tell it: A quick tap on the screen points to where you want the image to be most sharp; the yellow square that appears confirms the focus location.


Even fewer people know the camera also adjusts its exposure for the focus location. Thus, with a dark drink in a dark bar, tapping on the screen image of the drink (rather than something in the background) prior to taking the picture sets the exposure for the drink and not the much brighter lights behind the bar. Pro tip: If you’ve got a new enough iPhone you can adjust the exposure before taking the photo by sliding the “sun” up or down.


Perhaps the drink is visually amazing – it’s on fire, or has a fantastic garnish, or is in a great glass– or maybe all three! In which case, get up close. Fill the frame with what’s cool. On the other hand, if the drink is more pedestrian, zoom out a bit and capture why you think this drink is worth commemorating. In a really snazzy looking room? Capture a bit of the bar background in your photo. Hot bartender?  Immortalize them alongside their work. Every photo should showcase the reason you took it. If it’s just an up-close image of brown liquid in an ungarnished coupe, no one cares.
In close to capture the garnish details, Tacoma Cabana
Including bar elements as backdrop, Beretta, San Francisco
Any time Murray Stenson makes me a drink, it’s photo-worthy. Elysian Bar, Seattle.
No. Seriously.  Do. Not. Use. It. Flash photos look washed-out and crappy, and you annoy the folks around you. I mock my friends to their faces when they use flash in a bar. And don’t think you’re being clever by snapping a photo while your friend floodlights the scene with their own phone’s LED light. It still doesn’t look good, and now everyone else is annoyed with both of you.
Don’t do this. Ever.
While flash is a no-no, don’t hesitate to acquire and use more subtle light sources. Candles are the most obvious choice, if available. With the right drink and glass, a candle hidden behind the glass can provide a nice glow effect. A candle off to the side, just out of frame, often works wonders. And sometimes an artfully placed candle in the frame makes a great shot. Recently I ordered a drink at Seattle’s Rumba and GM Kate Perry delivered a candle with the drink without my asking. At times I’ve collected several candles together near a reflective surface to create a crude “studio light,” but then again, I can be a bit obsessive.
Candle lit from the side, Hemingway Bar, Prague
Built in LED underlights at Bugsy’s, Prague
If the bar offers fun visual elements that can be worked in to your photo, use them! At Seattle’s Canon, the legendary pork buns arrive with a small metal toy cannon. At Rumba, there are a few 10-inch brass palm trees that always liven up a shot. At Rob Roy (again, in Seattle) the infamous hoof lamp (as in the cattle variety) that often pops up in photos. If there are visually fun ingredients in your cocktail–perhaps a house-made tincture or some exotic bottle of spirits– including it in the photo can add to its relevance. Just try not to annoy the bartenders with oddball requests. If you ask nicely on a slow night, many are happy to help you stage your shot.
Rumba, Seattle.
Why is this drink special? Because it has Stiggins’s Fancy rum in it! Tacoma Cabana.
Bar logos
The bar menu itself is often a good prop–for instance, Callooh Callay’s London Tube map, or the paint fans at Trick Dog in San Francisco. Drop it casually next to the drink; it’s not necessary to get the whole menu in, but ideally the logo or bar name is visible. Even better are the one-off menus that bars create for special events. A bit of that in your photo gives you a more unique photo and, of course, bragging rights.
The artfully placed menu, Tretter’s new York Bar, Prague
The standard 45-degree overhead shot often isn’t the most interesting perspective. Try shooting from below the glass. This works best with coupes, especially if the liquid within is translucent, and you can often pick up backlighting from sources elsewhere in the room, such as the backbar. If there are multiple drinks, lining them up and then shooting from the side captures a unique perspective.
Shooting from below – Loló, San Francisco


A non-traditional angle – Trailer Happiness, London
When to shoot
As soon as possible. A photo of a half empty glass just isn’t visually appealing. Bartenders frequently take care to create a great presentation for your drink before serving it — use that to your advantage. In the past, I’ve annoyed Mrs. Wonk by taking longer than I should to photograph our newly arrived drinks with multiple shots (and even multiple cameras) from different angles, making her wait to imbibe. With practice, I’ve vastly improved how quickly I can get a keeper shot.

Depth of field

If doing a wide-field shot (rather than a close up), use depth of field to your advantage. Slightly blurred backgrounds with shelves of bottles, mixing tins, tinctures and bitters, and even the bartenders themselves give a nice ambience to bar photos. The trick again is focus. Tell the camera to focus on the bottle, and things significantly behind it will be blurred, creatively known as bokeh.
Serious bokeh at Rob Roy, Seattle
Post processing
Professional photographers manipulate their images for best results. So should you. It’s really quite easy and fast once you’re familiar with the in-phone tools.I’m not a big fan of filters; I rarely use them, much preferring the more basic controls readily available in either the basic iPhone photo editor or in Instagram. Sure, you can go all Adobe Photoshop on your images if you have the time and inclination, but I can edit an image to my liking in 15 seconds or less.
Before straightening and enhancing
After straightening and enhancing – Much better!
Every photo I post goes through most, if not all of these steps, in this order:

1) Straighten and crop. I have a particularly bad habit of taking photos that are just slightly not level. I fix this first, and then zoom and crop the image to fill as much of the frame as possible with what’s interesting.

2) Adjust exposure. If the whole image is dark, I adjust the overall brightness to a better level, but not so much that it gets grainy. In the default iOS photo editor, this is done via Light/Exposure slider. If the overall brightness is okay but certain details are lost in the shadows, use the Light/Shadows slider to brighten just those parts. The Instagram equivalents are under the “wrench” tool: Brightness and Shadows.

3) Enhance colors and contrast. Sometimes simply adjusting the contrast to make details stand out is sufficient. When the image feels flat, bumping up the saturation (in moderation) is all that’s needed. In the Instagram app, the “Lux” slider is frequently one-stop-shopping, doing everything I need to make the photo pop.

Adjusting exposure with the iOS photo editor
Most useful Instagram conrols
If you’re looking for good examples of bar photography, here are a few Instagram accounts that I follow who consistently post great bar photos: @wayofthewong, @tikicommando, @carolineoncrack, @denizenrum, @livethelushlife, and @mezcalelsilencio. And although primarily staged shots rather than in the field, @beautifulbooze posts consistently great drink photography no matter what environment she’s in.


Bar Notes: Tretter’s (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 7.5/10
Tretter’s styles itself as a classic New York bar from the early 1930s and it succeeds at evoking that vibe: Mosaic tile bar counter, vintage cash registers, and an antique mirror running the entire length of the backbar. Bartenders wear white smocks, accenting the fact that Tretter’s also runs a bartending academy of which all bartenders must graduate.

Taking our seats at the long bar, we dove into the cocktail menu: a small bound book, extensive with more than 100 drinks, and featuring classic cocktails as well as Tretter’s originals. My first drink was a Crescit Sour (Genever, Chartreuse, lime, honey water, lemon bitters, egg white), which Mrs. Wonk and I both agreed was delicious. Mrs. Wonk enjoyed her Aperol Cherry Julep (Aperol, lemon, black cherry, elderflower tonic, mint leaves).

Along the bar counter, within easy reach (yes, I did restrain myself) is a large collection of various dry ingredients. Lots of dried fruits and leaves, as well as more unusual ingredients like marzipan and caraway seeds. Scanning through the cocktail menu I could tell these ingredients weren’t just for show. For round two, I had a Provocateur (inexplicably I didn’t record the ingredients, other than the aforementioned marzipan), while Mrs. Wonk had an expertly executed Green Park (gin, lemon, basil leaves, egg white, simple syrup, celery bitters).

Mrs. Wonk, with her great eye for detail, noted a few things in the space needed attention, such as mosaic tiles missing from the bar counter and some threadbare carpet on the stairs leading down to the rest rooms.  Rather than evoke a vintage feel, the space leaned more toward shopworn and in need of some updating, however superficial. Bar staff was mostly warm and welcoming, as were all of those we spoke to in Prague, but not the most effusive of our visit.

Both Tretter’s and nearby Bugsy’s strive to emulate a New York bar experience from the early 20th century, albeit decades apart. Both put out excellently crafted cocktails, but I give the nod to Bugsy’s for their overall execution of the theme as well as focus on the little details.

Bar Notes: BONVIVANT’S Cocktail Tapas Café (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 6/10
This bar was recommended to us by a bartender in Prague, and we visited on a walk around the city on a bitter cold winter day.  As darkness fell and cold descended, the warm space was a nice respite from the outside weather. BONVIVANT’S is a relatively small establishment, with only room for five or six customers to sit at the bar counter. An adjoining, slightly elevated room provides booth and table seating. There’s a surprising amount of open floor space, sans tables – perhaps it’s packed with people standing in the evenings. The shiny tin ceiling seems out of place with the black/white checkerboard floors. Like elsewhere in Prague, the bartender wears a uniform, in this case a white lab coat.

The cocktail menu is divided into classics and original sections. Classics include a Hurricane, Brandy Crusta, Martinez, Cosmopolitan, and Last Word. The originals on offer were three or four ingredient affairs, sticking for the most part to standard ingredients rather than house made.
I started with the “classic” whiskey-based Penicillin. The ingredients were listed in Czech, so I have to assume the rest of the ingredients were as expected. Mrs. Wonk had the Provence (G-Vine gin, green Chartreuse, lavender syrup, with a flaming lavender garnish presented tableside). My second drink was the house Old Fashioned variation (Grand Marnier, calvados, Boker’s Bitters). All were competently executed but not enough to give a higher rating.

Disclaimer: We visited during the day and some folks were camped out at the tiny bar, so we took seats at the nearest table which was still fairly far away, and we weren’t able to interact with the bartender. That said, we made single-serving friends for the afternoon with a lovely couple traveling from Los Angeles—we commiserated about travel woes, bitter cold, and the positive attributes of bar tourism. They seemed to very much enjoy their several rounds of Last Words, before heading off to Vienna. Reviews I’ve read say that the food is good, so if you’re nearby and looking for a decent cocktail and reasonable food, I’d give BONVIVANT’s a try. However, I wouldn’t make a special trip across town just for this bar.