Cocktail batching horror stories

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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:

Lesson #1: CLEARLY LABEL AND, IF NECESSARY, LOCK UP YOUR STUFF.

“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

Lesson #2: IF YOU’RE OFF SITE – IF POSSIBLE, BATCH AHEAD & BRING IT TO THE EVENT

“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

Lesson #3: BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS

“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

4 Batching Secrets from the Cocktail Pros

Rounds of peel cut from oranges during prep for Manhattan Cocktail Classic

As of this week, Cocktails for a Crowd is officially out there in the wild!

As I’m gearing up for the Manhattan Cocktail Classic this coming weekend and many of my favorite bartenders are winging their way into town, I’m thinking about one of my favorite parts of working on the book:  gathering advice (and recipes) from bartenders.

By design, this book owes a lot to mixologists. Many of the recipes are bartender originals, of course. But I got a kick out of asking bartenders to spill their secrets about batching (creating large batches of drinks), which often happens behind the scenes at events, cocktail conferences (like MCC) and bars, too.

Here are some of my favorite tips — some of this info is in the book, some not.

You can never have too much ice. That’s not a secret, of course. But Portland bartender Kelley Swenson explained how to figure out how much ice is enough:  for each 750 milliliters (3 1/4 cups) of cocktail (the size of a standard bottle of liquor), allot 7 pounds of ice.   Another useful metric: allot 1 to 1.5 pounds of ice per person. Either way, get what you need and then get some more, because (say it with me!) you can never have too much ice.

Mise en place is your best friend. The French culinary term mise en place means “putting in place.” If you’re throwing a soiree, before your guests arrive, put everything you’re making drinks with in place.  EVERYTHING! Squeeze the citrus, set the glassware where you can reach it, make sure you have all the liquor you need (and all the ice too)! When you go to a bar early in the evening and they’re bustling about even though you’re the only guest at the bar, that’s what they’re up to back there — mise en place. You should do it too.

Control the dilution. Watery drinks suck. This is one reason bartenders consider their ice so carefully. If you can use a large block of ice to chill a punch or even a pitcher of drinks, that’s ideal. It melts more slowly than a handful of ice cube tray ice cubes, which seem to dissolve in record time while your guests are still shrugging off their coats.

Jason Asher, head mixologist at Young’s Market of Arizona, was one of the first to flag for me that for batching purposes, you can add the water yourself, and then chill a drink in the refrigerator or set it on ice. “My rule of thumb is 25% to 30% water comes from dilution” caused by shaking a cocktail, he explained. (I worked with 20% to 25% as my baseline for the drinks in the book.) “For a stirred cocktail, I like to add ice, then stir it, taste it, and when it hits the right amount, then strain the ice out.” You wouldn’t want to do this too far in advance — but a few hours ahead, and it works beautifully.

Learn how to make oleosaccharum. I swear it’s the difference between a good punch and a great punch. Try it and see.  In brief, you muddle citrus peel with sugar, and then the magic ingredient is time. Wine Enthusiast recently published an oleosaccharum primer if you’d like more how-to detail.

Thanks for the advice, barkeep!