A Janitor’s advice to a craft beer drinker

Dear Mister Janitor,

I’m generally a (craft) beer drinker, but sometimes I find myself somewhere with a crap beer selection, or just in the mood for something different. When I check out a bar’s cocktail list, however, I rarely see anything that’s not sticky sweet. Besides an olive martini, Bloody Mary, or the occasional spicy martini (Comedy Works downtown has a wondrous one) what are my choices? Bonus points if it sticks with ingredients that any bar will have on hand.

Sincerely,

Sick of the Sweet.

Dear S.O.S.

Thanks for sending out the S.O.S. (Oh dammit now The Police is stuck in my head…..). Your conundrum is one shared by many. STD’s (Sweet, and Shitty, Terrible Drinks) have dominated ‘cocktail menus’ in the past, and truth be told, if you avoid naval gazing into the ‘craft cocktail’ movement, they still dominate today. Adding sugar was a trick learned in the 18th century to make firewater palatable, it’s a crutch that we haven’t really given up. In most drinks a little sugar goes a long way, it’s there to take the edge off of fresh lemon or lime juice, to lend balance to a bittering agent, or to give texture to a cocktail. Even the most ardent hop-head will tell you that hops are useless you have a healthy dose of malt to prop them up, to give them a base-line, and to give the beer both a song AND dance.

As is the vogue thing right now, many bars are offering to let their startenders, cocktologists, and mixologists hand-craft bespoke cocktails tailored to your taste.  While these jewel box libations are delicious and exciting, not everyone can subsist on a diet of black truffles and profiteroles, and you may need a day-to-day go-to cocktail.  I’ll share two of mine, both of which even the shadiest dive bar should be able to conjure up.

1. THE old-fashioned old-fashioned.

Get this janitor rhapsodizing poetic about old-fashioned and I’ll quickly spill the guts that there isn’t a real recipe for an old-fashioned: it’s a state of mind. The oldest definition of what is and isn’t a cocktail, the permutation on the vulgar “bitterer sling.” In it’s most simple state we have the basic spec.

Title: Old-Fashioned Old-Fashioned

Glass: Depending on how bad your day was it could be a rocks glass, or a pint glass.

Ingredients:

  • Bitters
  • Sugar to balance the bitters
  • A slug of liquor.

Method: Combine the sugar and bitters in the bottom of the glass, give it a quick second and let the sugar soak up the bitters.  Choose your liquor. Add your liquor to the sugar and bitters. Add ice. Get fancy and maybe garnish with a straw.

Now the only hiccup I have run into for this recipe is that a bar won’t have bitters (le sigh). If a bar doesn’t have a crusty bottle of Angostura with its awkward paper jacket, perhaps they have a bottle of Jagermeister, Campari, Zwack, Fernet Branca or something back there that’s herbaceous and bitter.  Have the barkeep throw a splash of that in your drink, keep in mind that you may need to adjust how much sugar you are going to have to add. If you’re at a restaurant bar, the bartender may have simple syrup back there, because you have no idea how sweet it is and how careful they are when wrestling that fire-hose of STD Creation, so I stick with a sugar packet, or a sugar cube because you know how sweet it’s going to be. If the place is slammed, order your whiskey, or rye, on the rocks with a healthy dash of bitters and a sugar packet on the side. If the bar is slow, you can chat up the tender to get them to do it for you, but there’s no shame in asking for a packet on the side, so you can dose it yourself.

2. The Americano

As legend and lore has it, a man in Milan was sipping on his Apertivo and he asked the barkeep to make him a cocktail, in the American-style.  As the Yankees that day were playing with Vermouths, and spilling them in every conceivable drink possible. The swarthy man behind the stick topped off his Campari and Seltzer with some of their home-town vermouth. The Americano was born.

Title: The Americano.

Glass: Rocks Glass or Old-Fashioned

Ingredients:

  • Campari
  • As much Sweet (Italian) Vermouth as Campari
  • A splash of Soda Water

Method: Combine the Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and a splash of soda water over ice.  Possibly get fancy and throw an orange slice in the drink as a garnish.

Now the Americano is for the IPA, Double IPA drinker, it has the bitter edge that one seeks in more assertive pale ales, and the Grapefruit profile akin to Cascade Hops. The Sweet Vermouth here provides the necessary sweetness to tame the bitter edge of Campari and to bring the drink into balance. Even the crustiest of dive-bars will have a bottle of Campari back there, and there’s a good chance that their Sweet Vermouth is going to be just as crusty, luckily Sweet Vermouth is at least palatable in a sherried and oxidized state unlike it’s more delicate, dry cousin.  If I spy the bottle of Campari on the back bar I will order a shot of Campari, with a shot of sweet vermouth, and a splash of soda. Easy enough, and this cocktail saved my ass in New Orleans this past summer when I was in desperate search of an IPA, even in a beer bar, the hoppiest beer they could come up with was Sam Adams (true story). This is my go-to airport drink, pre-dinner drink, Don’s Mixed Drinks Drink, hell, even the Lancer Lounge could possibly make one, by the pitcher only.

[Have a drink question? Leave a comment and the Janitor will get back to you after the beep.]

About Kevin Burke


Kevin is an occasional barman and fulltime practitioner of the Janitorial Arts at Colt & Gray.

  • Saved from the Sweet

    That was quick and painless. Thanks, Janitor!

  • Kyle

    Finally got around to trying the Americano tonight at Campagna. Too sweet, but with the addition of a bit of gin it was great. Thanks again, Kevin.