Improv Notebook – The Seattle Summer in May cocktail

The weather here in Seattle today was outstanding – May 1st and 80+ degrees. It seems like everybody’s out soaking up the weather we don’t normally get till July.

I haven’t been doing a whole lot of original riffing on cocktails lately – mostly sticking to tried and true recipes so I’ve started to get the itch to be creative again. Normally on a beautiful day, tiki or tropical drinks (rum, lime, etc…) are my go-tos. However I’ve had a lot of tiki lately and I do tiki year-round, and I feel a need to break out a bit from my rum-rut. My other fallback for this sort of weather is tequila drinks, e.g. margaritas with a twist, but something in that vein didn’t feel very ambitious. However, I’ve not had much tequila recently so I had a strong preference for using tequila as a base spirit.

As I often do in situations like this, I start mentally scanning my bar ingredients looking for flavor combinations that might pair well. Tequila, like rum, has a natural affinity for lime, but how not to fall into the margarita trap? What about cherry? Cherry and lime go well together, and I have several cherry liqueurs including Cherry Heering in my bar. Thinking through my options, Cherry Marnier seemed more summery to me than the Heering or the exotic liqueur we muled back from a trip to Turkey a few years back.

At this point I had a solid start but felt like it was still a bit too simple. I was also thinking about amaro drinks like the Americano. Cherry and lime are strong flavors, so I need something that could stand up to them, like say… Fernet Branca! In reasonable doses Fernet Branca t gives a nice minty aspect to drinks. I’ve even seen it work well in tiki drinks, thanks to my friend Connor O’Brien during his tenure at Rumba.

Seattle Summer in May

  • 2 oz blanco tequila (I used Cabeza)
  • 1 oz fresh squeeze lime juice
  • 1 oz Cherry Marnier or other cherry liqueur
  • .25 oz Fernet Branca
  • .25 oz simple syrup

Combine all ingredients in a Collins style glass. mix well and fill with crushed ice. For garnish I used a lime slice and some mint springs.

The Incomplete Sentence – A new spin on the Last Word



The “Last Word” cocktail has a certain cachet among the cocktail cognoscenti. Originally a pre-prohibition era cocktail, it came back into mainstream awareness thanks to Murray Stenson during his time at Zig Zag in Seattle. The Last Word is one of those rare cocktails, along with the Negroni and Blood and Sand, that use equal amounts of all ingredients, making it easier to mix, especially in batches. Speaking of batches, a friend went to Burning Man last year and made up single serving batches of Last Words in sealed pouches that he kept chilled till ready to serve. But that’s a story for another time.


Anyhow, the classic Last Word goes like this: 
  • 1 part Green Chartreuse
  • 1 part dry gin 
  • 1 part lime juice 
  • 1 part Maraschino 

Now, I’m a big fan of a classic Last Word. However, to a generation raised on Cosmos and other “non-challenging” cocktails, the Chartreuse can be bracing. A few years ago, Murray was on the Today Show with Kathy Lee and Hoda, and he prepared Last Words for them. On the air they fawned over it, however when I asked Murray about it later, he indicated that it was a very different story once the cameras weren’t rolling.

At some point I had the idea to tone the Last Word down a bit, but without losing the essential character. I dubbed it the “Incomplete Sentence” as a play on the Last Word theme. 

The Incomplete Sentence
  • 1 part Yellow Chartreuse
  • 1 part Old Tom-style gin 
  • 1 part Meyer Lemon juice (use lime juice if not available)
  • 1 part Maraschino
  • Shake with ice, strain into a chilled coupe
In addition to its strong taste, at 55% ABV the Chartreuse adds an extra element of alcohol to a drink that already has two other spirits, so toning that down is a good place to start. A lot of folks don’t realize that there’s both green and yellow version of Chartreuse. The yellow version is a bit milder and sweeter in flavor, specifically to make it more accessible. At 40% ABV it reduces the overall kick of the drink 

The other changes beside the Chartreuse are switching to Meyer Lemon, which is a bit lighter, and using an Old Tom style gin. Old Tom gins are typically sweeter than a London Dry style gin, thus helping the bringing the overall flavor profile into a happier state. As is often the case with improvisational cocktails, knowing patterns and good alternatives is key to creating something amazing that you can call your own and amaze your friends with.

The importance of storytelling – Lost Spirits Navy Style Rum


I frequently make new and unusual cocktails for guests at my house. Something I’ve come to enjoy is telling a story about every drink I make. Maybe it’s the unusual spirit I’ve just acquired, perhaps an unusual combination of ingredients, or a tale of how a particular bottle came to reside in my bar. My wife and I occasionally do cocktail-themed dinner parties – friends know them as “Rumpocalypse”, and every drink gets a few minutes about its background and why I chose it. Telling people about what they’ve got in front of them creates a personal connection and often emboldens them to share their thoughts about the drink, which is helpful for me in knowing how to craft an even better experience for them.

Likewise, I use slow times at bars to connect with the bartenders, asking “Is there anything interesting you’re working on?” This often yields something off-menu and that the bartender is eager to talk about. When the drink arrives I ask them to tell me a story about it. Done at the right time, e.g not during a slammed Saturday night, you’ll often have an experience you otherwise might miss.

Recently, a story that grabbed me and which I enjoy sharing, is rum from Lost Spirits Distillery. Currently there are two iterations, both “Navy style”, at 55% and 68% ABV. The story of these rums is great for several reasons. First, they have a strong, dark, forceful flavor, very much in the Jamaican style with a ton of “esters”, which are a chemical compound that provides all sorts of flavors. In the case of Jamaican style rums, I find these esters to have a pleasant, fruit-like flavor like plum, raisin or banana.  The Lost Spirits rums are a dark red hue. You can easily imagine a pirate drinking it in the 1700s.

Next, although the flavor of these rums screams Jamaican or someplace else deep in the Caribbean, they’re actually made in Monterey, California, not far from where I grew up and went to college. I frequently drove through the farm fields in the region, and never once saw sugar cane, so the thought of a rum distillery there seems a bit alien, but very cool. These days many distilleries don’t grow their own sugar cane, and instead import molasses from elsewhere. What gives Lost Spirits an edge here is that they use baking grade molasses, which has more sugars than molasses that’s been refined more times to extract as much sucrose as possible.

Finally, and most importantly, the Lost Spirits story appeals to me because of science! While rum aficionados have come to expect that a deep flavorful rum needs to spend many years in the barrel, Lost Spirits uses deep knowledge of the chemical processes in play during fermentation, distillation and aging to focus and concentrate the flavor producing process.

A couple of examples:  During the fermentation process, distiller Bryan Davis deprives the yeast of nitrogen, thereby weakening the cell walls and stressing the yeast. Quoting him: “…properly managed the yeast can produce as many short chained esters as the first few years in a cask.” As for barrel aging, Bryan optimizes his cask preparation to get the goodness of long barrel aging in a shorter period of time. Again quoting: “We use a controlled charring process incorporating heat, flame, and even special frequencies of light to break the compounds we want out fast.” The full description of all the science (highly entertaining for a wonk like me) can be found here.

To my taste and sensibilities, the most natural comparison to the 55% ABV version is Smith & Cross. They have similar alcohol contents (55% vs 57%). The Lost Spirits is darker, with less fruit on the nose and palate than the Smith & Cross. In place of the fruit, I taste more of the molasses. The best simple description I have for the Lost Spirits taste is somewhere between Smith & Cross and Lemon Hart 151. There are several well-written reviews out there with more tasting notes, including here and here.

Although I can ease into sipping the Lost Spirits with its high alcoholic content, I prefer to use it in relatively simple drinks where its unique flavor elements stand out, rather than a multi-rum tiki concoction.  It certainly works well in tiki, but for something this special and relatively rare, I make sure to enjoy every drop to the fullest.

I’ve read that Lost Spirits Distillery has another style of rum on the way, this one being Polynesian inspired. Given my experience with the Navy Style, I’m grabbing as much of the Polynesian expression as I can as soon as it’s available!

My go-to recipe using Lost Spirits Navy Style rum is a variation of the Scarr Power from Rumba in Seattle. Rumba’s Scarr Power uses Smith & Cross and I simply swap in the Lost Spirits 55%. Much as I enjoy the Smith&Cross-based original, the Lost Spirits version is just fantastic.

  • 1.5 oz Lost Spirits Navy Style rum, 55% ABV 
  • .75 oz fresh squeezed lime juice 
  • .5 oz 2:1 Nutmeg syrup 

Add all ingredients to a small glass. Add a large ice cube or two, stir gently. Garnish with orange peel if desired.

I deliberately don’t shake this drink, so as to keep the dilution to a minimum. I also use a small old-fashion glass, ~ 5 oz, so that a single large ice cube is nearly submerged and providing just enough chilling and dilution as the drink is slowly consumed.

The curse of the oddball ingredient – A cocktail improvisation example

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)
  • Mezcal
  • Overproof Jamaican Rum
  • Blackstrap Rum

And as accent ingredients:

  • Fernet Branca
  • Campari
  • Chartreuse
  • Allspice Dram

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 bartender’s notebook for the 21st century

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
  • Party planning
  • 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.

Mixology via Pattern – Applejack, Falernum and Lemon

Just a quick post to capture tonight’s experimentation. Lately I’ve been intrigued by Applejack and finally acquired the Laird’s Bottled in Bond 100 proof variation. Apple is one of those flavors that pairs well with spice flavors. When thinking about cocktail recipes, known and loved flavor combinations are frequently an excellent starting point. For the apple flavor, the first flavor pairing that came to mind were flavors like clove and ginger, which happen to be two flavors found in falernum. Applejack & falernum? Sounds like the start of something great! I first hit the Google and see what other folks had come up with. To my surprise, it didn’t see to be a well trodden combination. Time to got it alone and experiment!

Applejack is first and foremost a base spirit and falernum is sweet and spicy. Sounds like a perfect occasion to apply the sour pattern. Since apple is a subtle flavor that’s easily overwhelmed, I dialed back the sweet and sour amounts to just a third of the base spirit. There’s also the question of lemon or lime as the sour component. My first instinct was lime, as lime and falernum are commonly found together in tiki drinks. However falernum contains lime so I used lemon to keep the flavors in better balance. My first attempt came out quite pleasing – you get the apple, the spice, a nice sweet/sour balance, and my wife’s seal of approval.

Apple In Tropical Paradise

  • 1.5 oz Laird’s Applejack (Bottled in Bond 100 proof version)
  • .5 oz lemon juice
  • .5 oz John D. Taylor Velvet Falernum

    Shake with ice and strain into a chilled coupe. A paper thin slice of 1/2 and apple would be a fine garnish.

    Beyond the basic sour pattern recipe, a dash of bitters, perhaps Old Fashioned, could add another level to an already nice combination. The drink above is just the first of several experiments with Applejack that I have planned.. I have a fresh bottle of homemade cinnamon syrup and who doesn’t love apples and cinnamon? Likewise, apple and maple is another great flavor combination I’ll be replicating in one of my near future drinks.