Monday, January 26, 2015

The Old Fashioned

First: there is no One True Recipe.  There are probably dozens claiming to have the One True Recipe, but they are wrong.  As with most folks who offer you the One True (anything), be skeptical of anyone promoting The One True Old Fashioned.

I’m going to give you a stripped down starting point, where you go with it is up to you.  More on that in the next post.

Ingredients needed:

Bourbon (or Rye) Whiskey

Whatever you have on hand that you like, don’t go with rotgut, nor with very high-end expensive stuff.  If you really want a suggestion, I find it hard to go wrong with Bulleit, bourbon or rye.


The ubiquitous Angostura bitters work great, I suggest starting with that- you can find them readily almost anywhere.


Plain white sugar works fine, but if you have a more rustic or raw sugar, try that for a more complex flavor.  Loose, or cubes.


Equipment needed:

A glass

If you have an old fashioned or “rocks” glass, use that, otherwise, anything in the 6-10 oz. range is OK.  Really. Lacking that, any vessel capable of holding more than 6-10 oz. is fine, just ignore how empty the glass looks.

A spoon

Oooh, high tech.

Nice to have but not needed equipment:

A muddler

A muddler is a stick you use to mash stuff.  Muddling is indispensible for making many drinks, but you don’t need a thing called a muddler to do it.  The back end of a wooden spoon or other kitchen utensil works fine.  (I used the back end of wood-handled grill tools for many years before blowing $4 on a proper muddler).

And now, the drink:

Put two teaspoons of sugar (or two cubes) in the glass.

Add a couple of dashes of bitters and a couple of drops of water to the sugar and muddle into slush (no alcohol yet, it doesn’t really help dissolve the sugar).

Measure two ounces (four tablespoons if you don’t have an ounce measure) of bourbon/rye.

Add a splash of the bourbon or rye to the glass, continue muddling until smoother.

Add the rest of the bourbon/rye and stir until most of the sugar is fully incorporated (it doesn’t have to be complete, just mostly dissolved).

Add ice, stir well until thoroughly chilled.  Then stir more until it really is thoroughly chilled.


How’s that taste?  Perfect? Cool.  Not quite perfect, don’t fret:

Too sweet? Add another dash or two of bitters.  Too sharp?  Add a little more sugar.

And that’s it.  In my next post we’ll start building on this foundation and see what we can do to make your old fashioned really yours, and then we’ll head off into the cocktail wilderness.



Friday, January 23, 2015

What is a cocktail anyway?

As with many things, the definition of “cocktail” depends on who you ask and how pedantic you want to get about it.
Classic definitions generally refer to a combination of four ingredients- liquor, bitters, sugar, and water.  I like to relax that a bit by considering those as four classes of ingredients- liquors, bitters or bittering agents, sweeteners, and water.  Liquor is self explanatory, but the others need a little elaboration.
Bitters provide balance, sharpness, and complexity to drinks.  The ingredients which fill this role generally come from a bottle with the word “bitters” on the label, but they don’t have to.  And there are a myriad of different types of bitters, from the ubiquitous and versatile Angostura bitters, to dozens of craft bitters, to all of those Italian bitters liquors, to the original “digestive” style bitters.  The herbs, spices, and other wonders which go into bitters can sometimes bypass the bottle and go right into your drink (although you’ll probably strain the big chunks out before serving).
Sugar certainly doesn’t just mean the refined white powder in the sugar bowl, there are a wide variety of sweeteners available, many bringing their own flavor complexities to your cocktails.  White sugar, or more rustic sugars like demerara, turbinado, and sucanat all have their place, and their flavors.  Sweeteners such as coconut sugar, maple sugar and syrup, honey, and others also expand the flavor horizons.
Don’t take “water” to mean you have to pour water in your glass.  The water that frees up flavors in many drinks comes from the ice alone- the shaking and stirring both chill drinks and add water, they aren’t just about mixing ingredients or aeration.  Of course any fruit juice, soda, wine or almost any liquid will add some water to the mix.
Keep in mind that many ingredients span more than one class of ingredient.  Fruit juices are sweeteners and add water, grapefruit juice goes further and covers bittering, sugars, and water.  Ginger ale adds sugar and water, ginger beer goes further and adds ginger’s bitter zing.
At this point you are probably thinking something like “great, but I want a drink”.  Fear not, in my next post we’ll start with the classic Old Fashioned, it includes the four traditional ingredients, encourages experimentation, and provides a framework for a wide variety of derivative drinks.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Boozliography , part two


If you are going to go out and purchase cocktail books I do have some recommendations.  I suggest starting with Brad Thomas Parson’s book “Bitters”.


Bitters are a key component in good cocktails, and this books has bitters and cocktail history, some bitters making guidance, and quite a few good drink recipes with a bit of context or a story to accompany them.  It is a well rounded and readable book, and it’s laid out so that you can easily skip over bitters history or other sections if you just want to dive into recipes.  But don’t skip over much, this is a good primer on cocktails as well as bitters.

On a recent trip to The Boston Shaker I picked up a couple of very different books, one pretty small, and one quite large.  I like them both and can recommend them both, for different reasons.

Home Bar Basics is the little one, and it is just what it claims to be.IMG_0682

This great little book is compact, spiral bound so it lays flat when you put it down to mix your drinks, and the entire book is resistant to damage from spills.  Home Bar Basics has bar layout, equipment, and glassware info, but isn’t pedantic about it.  The book contains twenty-five drink recipes, covering the standards and a bit more.  If you want a good basic home bartending book that fits in a pocket, this is it.

The big one is 901 Very Good Cocktails, it is great for great for lists, 68 of them in fact- followed by, you guessed it, 901 recipes.


Not much extraneous information here, this is a monster drink recipe book, with drinks indexed by a variety of factors, including ingredients, flavors, styles, seasons, geography, and even color.  901 Very Good Cocktails also has basic bar info, simple rules, and other advice.

I do need to mention a couple of great books I do not recommend for most beginners.  David Wondrich is a cocktail guru, some would say he is THE cocktail guru.  Wondrich has written several books, his “Imbibe” and “Punch” are fantastic… if you are interested in the history of alcoholic beverages, often in deep detail.


If you are making your living serving craft cocktails, or are just somewhat obsessed as I am, these books belong on your shelf.  If you just want some recipes, you may be frustrated with the detail and narration surrounding the recipes.  These are good books, just not for most beginning or casual bartenders.  Of the two, Imbibe is the more versatile, Punch is more of a specialty.  If interested, 12 Bottle Bar has good, if slightly gushing, reviews of both books.

And then there are the books from specialty bars, often high-end craft cocktail bars.  These vary as much as the bars themselves, and can be intimidating when you see how much effort goes into some of the drinks.  Reading through Liquid Vacation, the house drink book from Frankie’s Tiki Room, you’ll be amazed at the effort and craftsmanship that goes into their drinks- especially at a mere $9 a drink.


It is a fun book, but don’t be surprised if you decide to pass on making some of the more challenging drinks found in Liquid Vacation.

The book from PDT (Please Don’t Tell, a world-renowned Manhattan speakeasy),


The PDT Cocktail Book” is one I recommend for higher-end recipes.  You may want to just jump to page 40 where the recipes begin unless you want the details of setting up and equipping a world-class specialty bar.  As your skills and/or curiosity grow you’ll probably want go back and check out those first 39 pages.  I suggest sticking to the recipes as described, at least as a starting point, including the specific liquors and additives.  PDT has the reputation they do for a reason, trust them the aim you in the right direction.



Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Boozliography , part one

For the first real installment in this series on getting started with home (or wherever) bartending we’ll dive into books.  Not because you need any, or because they are critical, but because I think many can lead you astray, or even turn you off to playing with your drinks.

This “internet” thing can be pretty handy if you just want a few drink recipes without building your own library of dead trees.  Your search engine of choice should lead you to plenty of sites to help you on your quest.  I tend to gravitate towards Esquire’s Drinks Database when searching online, but with the whole Internet at your fingertips don’t limit yourself to my choices.  I do find that a reduced range can be helpful when you are beginning; faced with seven different Sazerac recipes you could be forgiven for giving up and just grabbing a beer.  A book or two can help here, plus you can make your own notes to add context and preferences as you explore your tastes.

Unfortunately, even some of the best recipe books can be overwhelming, leaving you feeling inadequate for not knowing what the hell a “Nick and Nora” glass is and why your life is incomplete without a set of them.  This is nonsense, your life may be incomplete, but it isn’t because you lack certain six-ounce martini glasses in your cupboards.  Too many books dive right into long lists of spirits, glassware, mixers, equipment, bitters, and more.  If you plan on serving discerning cocktail snobs, or plan on bartending for a living, you’ll eventually need to master some of that stuff, but for now just make some drinks with stuff you have on hand.  OK, maybe a quick trip to the liquor store and/or grocery store will be needed, but you do not need $500 worth of tools, $3000 worth of liquor, nor do you need $1000 worth of specialty glassware.  Some of the best drinks ever consumed were served in red plastic Solo® cups, and you know it.  Don’t get me wrong, a few “old fashioned-like” glasses, and some kind of generic “wine” glasses are a big improvement on the ubiquitous plastic, but start with what’s handy.  Very few books will be that candid with you.  You hereby have my permission to skip or ignore large sections of booze books until you want to up your game after deciding you are having fun with your cocktail experiments and want to advance your craft.

Now that we have that out of the way, some practical book suggestions.  First suggestion: whatever books you already have, just apply the above advice.  Even if you have one of those books designed to push one brand of liquor, you can substitute what you have, or what you think might work.

In my next post I’ll share some of my favorite books and make a few recommendations.



Sunday, January 4, 2015

Better living through chemistry

I’ve become a crusader for decent cocktails.  Don’t get me wrong, I still like good whiskeys and certainly still enjoy beer and ciders, but over the past several years I’ve become a fan of the well-made cocktail.

Sadly, most cocktails are terrifying concoctions of cheap booze and cheaper sugars.  And don’t get me started on the unholy flavors of vodka spewed into the market in recent years.  Even in the face of the various “cocktail revivals” through the years, it is easier to get a bad cocktail than it is to get a good one in most places.  To be fair, it usually isn’t hard to find decent cocktails, but it is harder than it should be.

I am also an advocate of making good cocktails yourself.  Towards that goal, I gave a talk at BSides Las Vegas in 2013, “An Introduction to Bitters and Classic Cocktails” and at BSides Atlanta 2013 I joined Kati Rodzon in presenting “Five Cocktails Every Hacker Should Know” (we cheated and did more than five).  There have also been impromptu bitters tastings at DerbyCon and BSides Las Vegas from my growing collection bitters, that essential component of so many great drinks.

And, I’ve recently become the resident bartender on the Security Weekly podcast, because every security podcast needs drinks poured from the in-studio tiki bar.

I’m not an expert by any means, it is a hobby and an amusement, but I’ve learned a few things that I wish I’d known when I started down this path.  I’ll share some of these tips and tricks in upcoming posts- quick takes on topics such as equipment, glassware, sweeteners, spirits, and books (spoiler alert: you don’t need much to get started, and you can do a lot with a little improvisation and creativity).