Cocktail batching horror stories


Batched & bottled Negronis from yesterday’s event at Grape & Grain.

This past weekend, I visited with the Jacksonville, FL chapter of the US Bartenders’ Guild (USBG). The game plan was to talk about Cocktails for a Crowd — but although much of the book is informed by advice from bartenders, I was worried:  what could I possibly tell these USBG pros that they didn’t already know?

So I prepped for the event by turning to other bartenders, asking them for their craziest stories about batching cocktails. Here’s what they told me (names removed to protect the innocent & lightly edited). In general, I learned three lessons in particular:


“We were batching cocktails for an event once for the Kentucky Derby in a hallway outside the main venue, and had about 35 gallons of cocktails picked up and locked in a closet by a janitor because he thought it was paint left out. We went for sandwiches before the event started. We came back and thought someone took them all. Had to come up with something on the fly. Found out a couple of days later what happened.” –Louisville, KY-based bartender.

“Spent a couple of days figuring out how to clarify lime juice for a pre-batched Moscow Mule.

Ended up making about a half gallon of clarified lime only for it to be thrown out because someone wanted the cambro to make ice-tea. [NOTE FROM KARA: A Cambro is a plastic storage container, aka. “restaurant size Tupperware.”] Two days work literally down the drain right before a busy weekend where the drink was supposed to be featured.

For awhile we would tape down the lids of the cambro with descriptions, dates, and death threats.”  – Oakland, CA-based bartender


“A former boss hired me to come to his 10-year college reunion & make drinks & give a talk. About 500 people where scheduled to be there. I got the specs, the menu, and prepared a talk related to historical drinks to the school.

I planned to make 60 gallons of cocktail. I got there at 1PM, the event started at 8PM. I showed up, and the prep kitchen is a porch. There’s one electrical outlet, and it’s as close to the floor as you can get. And the juicer is a $20 Black & Decker for grannies to make juice in the morning.

I made three to four gallons of citrus juice squatting down in a catcher’s stance, then standing up and emptying the container. By the end of the experience, the juicer was broken.

During the event, out of 500 people, maybe 12 had drinks. 98% of the drinks were thrown away. There were maybe 10 people listening to my talk. But one turned out to be one of my best regulars. So I’d say it was 100% worth it.” –NYC-based bartender


“I watched a large frozen spider fall into my punch (frozen inside a large chunk of ice). Out in Arizona when I worked at the Scottsdale Princess Hotel as a chef… Spiders would make their way in from the desert just outside because it was cool inside. they would eventually get into the ice block machine and end up quite frozen.” –MA-based author

About a decade ago I ran a Tequila bar. It was a busy joint so I used to make large batches of the many *flavored* house margaritas.

One day while I was doing the deed I had two batching containers on the floor with tops on them. I had a drink in my hand *quality control* when I decided to step over both buckets. My foot got caught on one of the lids which popped it open– my foot fell into the large vessel with a giant splash!

I reflexively threw my hands in the air from shock/surprise throwing my full drink into my face!

Thankfully there were only a few people at the bar to see one of my proudest moments. I proceeded to work the rest of that evening with a red stain up to my right knee.” — New Orleans, LA-based bartender

“I was helping prep for a major consumer event in Chicago and had to squeeze about three cases of limes. The hotel we were staying in was nice enough to let me use their professional juicer – otherwise it would have to be done by hand! – and I was set up in a corner of the kitchen with my cases. Even so it took a few hours, and ran into dinner service. As the kitchen was getting busier and busier, a chef walked by and accidentally bumped into the nozzle where the lime juice was being collected. A slow drip of lime juice started falling on the floor. Luckily we caught it after a few minutes, but still, sad.” –NYC-based PR rep

“Friend of mine dropped her new iPhone in a batch of Bloody Marys — wet and corrosive. Got her a case that is waterproof down to 7 feet, No problems so far anymore.”— New York state-based spirits blogger

For Burns Night: DIY Bottled Bobby Burns cocktails

Photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher, for Cocktails for a Crowd

Photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher, for Cocktails for a Crowd

Pre-batched, bottled cocktails are officially a thing.  Bars across the nation are mixing up batches of cocktails ahead of time.  (I’ve even received a couple of press releases for bars that are offering nothing but – are bartenders obsolete?) You can even buy pre-batched cocktails by the bottle at liquor stores.

Or you can go the DIY route, for a party or to keep in the fridge at home after a long day. Here’s my recipe for making Bobby Burns cocktails by the bottle. Whip up a batch for Burns Night this weekend.


Bottled Bobby Burns cocktails

From Cocktails for a Crowd, by Kara Newman

Serves 8

Looking for an excuse to chase away the late-January blahs? Celebrate Burns Night on January 25. This drink—perfect for Scotch lovers—is named for the famed Scottish poet Robert Burns, who wrote “Auld Lang Syne.”

12 ounces (1 1/2 cups)  Scotch
12 ounces (1 1/2 cups)  sweet vermouth (such as Carpano Antica)
5 ounces (1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons)  water
2 ounces (1/4 cup) Benedictine
8 lemon twists, for garnish

In a pitcher that holds at least 5 cups, combine the Scotch, vermouth, water, and Bénédictine and stir well. Using a funnel, decant into a 1-liter liquor bottle or two 750-ml liquor bottles. Cap tightly and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, until chilled.

To serve, set out a bowl or wine bucket filled with ice. Shake the bottle to ensure the cocktail is well mixed, then set it in the ice so it stays chilled. Pour into coupe or martini glasses and garnish each glass with a lemon peel.

Pictorial: throwing booze around

Who knew there were so many different ways to do this? As in, quite literally tossing it around, whether from bottle to cup, cup to cup or even from vessel directly to thirsty, open-mouthed consumer. Here’s exhibit A:


Dave Wondrich, demonstrating the “Blue Blazer” technique he has re-popularized. You can’t tell from this image, but he takes a flame to high-proof hooch, and pours the flaming liquid from one pewter mug to another, and back again, increasing the distance between the two until he has a thin blue flame streaming from one mug to the next.


This pitcher-like vessel, called a porron, is sometimes used to serve (and share) wines in Spain. Here, it’s used for pisco (this was at the StarChefs International Chefs Conference a couple of weeks ago). Bottoms up!


And finally, here is a pourer in action during cider week, at Tertulia.  Apparently, this is part of the culture of the Asturias region in Spain:  the cider typically is held up high above the pourer’s head….


…and poured in such an elongated stream that I couldn’t capture the action in a single shot. The more experienced pourers don’t even look down while they pour.

Halloween how-to: ice spheres with gummy worms, for creepy cocktails

20131013-175434.jpgIf you’re looking for a different way to serve a favorite dram (or a batched cocktail like a bottled Bobby Burns on the rocks) for Halloween, here’s an option: ice spheres with gummy worms. Here’s how to do it:

You’ll need:

1. An ice sphere mold – or multiple molds, for serving multiple guests. Buy them at Muji or specialty bar supply stores like KegWorks. Plan on making 2 ice spheres per guest, if you can.

2. Distilled water. (makes slightly clearer ice vs tap water)

3. Gummy worms. Alternatives: gummy spiders, eyeballs or other candy or trinkets. Just make sure whatever you’re freezing inside is non-toxic.

Open the mold and press the gummy worms into the mold. Loosely layer a couple of more worms on top of that, leaving enough room for water to expand when it freezes.

Pour water into the mold, close and allow to freeze sold – overnight is best.

When you’re ready to serve, release the spheres from the mold. If necessary, run the sphere briefly under running water to smooth off any rough edges – this will also bring some of the “worms” to the surface, a desirably creepy effect. Place in a glass and pour your favorite cocktail or whiskey.

Of course, you can experiment with other options too: a single worm curled within each pocket of a standard ice cube tray, for example. Or a new friend at Salt & Sundry suggested this idea: fill a rubber glove (the kind that comes without powder inside) with juice and gummy worms. Freeze and peel off the glove. Couldn’t you just imagine that one floating in the center of a punch bowl at your next Halloween party?

How much water should you add to a pre-batched cocktail?

Dave Arnold (image courtesy MOFAD)

Dave Arnold (image courtesy MOFAD)

This is a question I grappled with throughout the recipe-testing process for Cocktails for a Crowd.  It might seem like a trifling matter — but you’d be surprised how much it impacts a cocktail. The right amount of water makes a cocktail better — that’s one of the reasons we add ice to drinks.

Although I ultimately landed on adding about 25% to 30% water to simulate the effect of melting ice, as usual, Dave Arnold figured out a more precise way to figure out the right amount of water to add.

And he figured it out years before I did.

If you don’t already know Arnold, he’s the poster boy for better cooking (and drinking) through chemistry. He’s the mastermind behind Booker & Dax, a chemistry lab-turned-cocktail bar. He’s also one of the driving forces behind the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) — an enterprise I’m excited about– and hosts the longtime “Cooking Issues” podcast on Heritage Radio Network.

During a 2010 episode of Cooking Issues, Arnold tackled the topic of how much water to add to a pre-batched cocktail. Not only that, he compared how to handle drinks that are traditionally shaken vs. those that typically are stirred. “It’s hard to pre-batch a shaken cocktail,” he admits. “You really do need to shake it to get the texture right.”

Of course, his mad-scientist approach involves using liquid nitrogen to dilute the drink and still get the properly aerated texture that shaking provides. Most home bartenders, of course, aren’t about to start fiddling with liquid nitro. “If possible, choose a stirred drink to pre-batch,” Arnold concludes.  (I agree — but then again, I might be up for replicating shaken drinks for 20 people, where he would be replicating them for a “crowd” of 200 guests.) Here’s how Arnold determines how much water to add:

Make a single drink, using volume, the way you normally would, with jiggers. Weigh it on an accurate scale. Write the number down, that’s how much drink you’re starting with. Add your ice, stir it, then strain it. Now weigh how much the drink weighs now. That’s the weight of the total cocktail. Subtract the weight of the liquor you used from the total weight of the cocktail, and that’s the amount of water you should add. That’s the way to do it, instead of guessing in your head at 25%. If you just add water at room temp and taste it – When you chill it, the balance will be off.

It may seem tedious, but Arnold notes that you only need to do it once – if you get it right and write the recipe down, you don’t need to re-test it every time. And as Arnold says, “Your pre-batched drinks will thank you for it.

4 tips for bargain boozing

Last week, Financial Post reporter Melissa Leong interviewed me for an article, “Five things you can do to have a boozy time on a budget,” which ran over the weekend. (It’s part of a yearlong series on extreme personal finance, including amusing videos called “Save Your #@%* Money,” which I fervently hope becomes the title of the book she’s clearly meant to write).

Our conversation got me thinking about ways to drink more inexpensively — but still drink well.  Some of these tips appeared in the article, some did not.

1. It’s always less costly to drink at home vs. out at a bar. The mark-ups that go into cocktails can be staggering. Think about it:  two $14  rye Manhattans (plus tip) = a 750ml bottle of good rye + a 375ml bottle of vermouth. That yields far more than two cocktails.   (Or, yes, you can find less expensive drinks at another bar. The  alcohol mark-up still will be significant.)

2. Make your own ingredients. You can purchase a 750 ml bottle of Monin cane syrup for $6 or more.  Or you can buy a box of granulated sugar and make your own simple syrup. By the same token, you can also DIY grenadine and Maraschino cherries.  Raw ingredient costs are low; what you’re paying for in these products is labor, packaging, and distribution costs. When you go to a bar, you’re paying for labor again, plus real-estate and other expenses too.

3. Choose your booze wisely. Armagnac is often better value than similar Cognacs; yet both are grape brandies from France with similar flavor profiles. American-made whiskies are often better value than imported whiskies.  And for god’s sake, save the top shelf and longer-aged stuff for drinking straight, not for mixing into cocktails.

4. You don’t have to buy expensive glassware. Punchbowls and glassware in multiples have been on my mind ever since I started researching Cocktails for a Crowd. Sure, I’d love to drop a bundle at Crate & Barrel for pitchers and punchbowls and a few dozen new glasses every time I throw a party. But it’s not necessary:  you’d be surprised what can be used to showcase large-format drinks.  Vases. Fish bowls. Fondue pots. Mason jars. Not to mention all the gorgeous vintage glassware to be scooped up at flea markets and yard sales. A word of caution, though:  whatever vessels you use for serving drinks, make sure they are thoroughly clean.

I’d love to hear your tips for drinking/entertaining on the cheap. If enough ideas come in, I’ll publish a follow-up to this post.

Negroni Sbagliatos for a crowd

Image courtesy Manhattan Cocktail Classic

The Manhattan Cocktail Classic has officially drawn to a close. This is one of those epic events where bartenders serve hundreds — in some cases thousands — of cocktails at a go.  There were plenty of mediocre offerings, to be sure. But there were a great many memorable drinks too. And this was perhaps the most memorable drink of them all.

Likely, I was particularly attuned to this drink because of the Cocktails for a Crowd book. No doubt I was paying closer attention than ever before to how batched drinks were presented, ranging from the punch served in painted ceramic punchbowls at Dead Rabbit to colorful pink and orange Palomas decanted into swing-top glass flasks and arrayed on silver platters during a seminar.

But Campari topped them all, offering wee cans of Negroni Sbagliato cocktails. It’s a relatively simple classic cocktail:  Campari, sweet vermouth, and dry sparkling wine, like Prosecco. I first heard of it after Frank Bruni wrote about it a couple of years ago; it started popping up on drink menus shortly thereafter, though it’s still lesser-known vs the Negroni (Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin).  The cans were handed out at the splashy MCC gala, as well as at a party thrown by the brand a couple of nights later.

Apparently, the genesis of this canned cocktail began at last year’s gala, where Negronis were pre-batched, carbonated and bottled. At the event, bartenders merely popped off the bottle caps and inserted a straw. It was on-trend — arguably, ahead-of-trend— fun to drink and speedy to serve. The canned cocktails had been floated for the 2012 gala, a PR rep told me (as we sipped Sbagliatos, natch), but tabled until 2013.

Apparently, a great deal of effort went into those canned cocktails. They had to be specially made, the cocktail had to be made in large quantities, and they had to be shipped over. The red-and-white striped plastic straws (not paper, which disintegrate quickly), were sourced from Etsy.

Everyone noticed them. From a drinker’s perspective, it was a good cocktail — truly, the most important part of this equation — and it was fun to drink, so people actually walked around and drank from the cans. It wasn’t too big and it wasn’t too boozy, so it was one of the few cocktails I actually finished at the Gala. From a marketer’s perspective, it was clearly branded — no mistaking the distinctive Campari red, and it was labeled in big letters anyway, identifying the brand and the name of the drink. It was memorable and everyone asked where to get one. It was clever and not too ostentatious. Even the straws reinforced the branding, but in a tasteful way.

Now here’s where things fall apart. Despite this marketing coup, no one can buy this product. And I heard many people say they would gladly purchase a six-pack of Sbagliatos (I was one of them). You can buy a cans of Pimm’s at convenience stores in the UK, yet in the United States, the Ready-To-Drink category is limited to pouches of awful slushy Margaritas made with fake lime flavoring. If Campari brought the canned Sbagliato product to market, I would consider it to be an outright marketing success. If not, it was just a clever flash-in-the-pan that will need to be topped again next year.