On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy is joined by Iain Townsend Griffiths to explore the Whiskey Highball. In its simplest form, this drink can be something as basic as a splash of Scotch, some fizzy water, and a few ice cubes. Or, if you’re looking to take it up a notch, the Whiskey Highball can present a study in temperature, pouring skills, carbonation, and more. Tune in for more.
How to Make Iain Townsend Griffiths’ Whiskey Highball
- 2 ounces whiskey
- Club soda, such as Fever-Tree, to top
- Spear ice
- In a chilled glass, combine whiskey, then ice, and then carbonated Fever
- Garnish with a lemon twist.
Check Out the Conversation Here
Tim McKirdy: All right then, we will kick it off. And in the “Cocktail College” studio today in the VinePair offices, Iain Griffiths joining us. Thanks so much.
Iain Townsend Griffiths: Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be here today. Yeah.
T: Yeah, we’re super excited to have you. I guess I should, just, before we carry on, there is a guy right now outside, literally building a bar in the office here. So it’s inevitable, there’s going to be some banging. Where there’s no escaping it, but…
I: I mean, it just goes with the territory. Right?
I: And so, yeah.
T: So the work on that, I’m sure you’ll be seeing this on social media soon, but just wanted to kind of preview that one and probably my luck now we won’t hear a peep out of him at all. So there we go. We are here to talk about the Whiskey Highball, though.
I: Indeed. Excited.
T: Excited. Low-hanging fruit, you said earlier.
I: I mean, I’d obviously listened to some back episodes and all the rest of them, I was sitting there, I was like, “And I chose whiskey and water. Well done.”
T: Here’s what I do like about that, though. So I feel like a while ago I’d written about this cocktail for a column we used to have that was called best practices. It was basically like the written version of this podcast.
I: Right. Okay. Yeah.
T: And I think in that piece, I was just reading back over it for my notes or whatever. And in that piece, I thought, I noted that when something is so simple in the bartending world, it seems like that’s this inspiration to just geek out about it so much, because the simpler it is the more you can dial down into things.
I: I think what I love about it as well is the more we seem driven to completely and utterly f*ck it up so much as well, like where people do turn around, they’re like, “Yeah, it’s a highball,” and it’s like, “Then why did you ruin it with these four other ingredients?”
I: Obviously, I’m a big fan of innovation and creativity and all the rest of it, but even in running back and doing a little bit of research for this and thinking back through my own career, it is unquestionably also the drink that I’ve gotten wrong the most.
I: When we did like White Lyan and we were making everything ourselves and forced carbonation and no ice and all that. I still remember the drink that Ryan and I got wrong, the one drink that we never were able to perfect in a White Lyan style and put on the menu was a f*cking vodka soda.
T: It’s so crazy.
I: Everything we tried to do to it. And then again, I was really fortunate to just be in Copenhagen and I was sitting at the wonderful Ruby. And I sat down and I was reading through the menu and I was looking at it and everything. And I was like, “Oh wow, that drink sounds really good.” And then I paused for a second, and I remembered that the really incredibly talented Goran Aziz, who used to work for us at Dandelyan, is now running Ruby. And I looked at one of these drinks, I was like, “Wait, I’m pretty sure we had a drink like that on the menu at Dandelyan.” And so I ordered it anyway and I remembered the drink that we had done at Dandelyan being just really subpar, really one of those ones that it was like two days before we went to print and Ryan and I just phoned it in and we’re like, “Whiskey Highball, chocolate, go, no worries at all.” And it was one of those ones that haunted us for the whole 12 months where every time the staff had to serve us, they kind of stared at you and were like, “Oh, you asshole.” And then I’m sitting at Ruby and I have this drink, and it’s absolutely exceptional, and Goran had basically gone and perfected everything that Ryan and I had totally screwed up. And it was really wonderful, but it is one of those, because cocktails are always the sum of their parts, and you’re only starting with two, everything you do is derived from that. And then it’s a dice roll as to whether or not you’re going to be able to pull it off. Definitely.
T: Yeah. 100 percent. And I think, you compare this to something else, maybe you mentioned the Corpse Reviver there earlier, the more ingredients you’re adding, probably the less you want to do to start trying to tweak things, because if the balance is there, it’s good.
T: You can upset things. This is two ingredients, I’m actually going to say three ingredients here, one being ice, although given your own professional history there, you might push back on that one.
I: Definitely put ice in your highballs.
T: Let’s talk about it, though. From a cultural perspective first. This being like, I think there’s something interesting about the Whiskey Highball where a Whiskey Highball, or maybe translations of that, is a very accepted cocktail.
I: Yes. Yeah.
T: It also could easily be a Scotch and soda, which is the polar opposite.
I: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
T: That’s interesting about this drink.
I: I think that’s almost what I love about it, again, as well is just that it is one of those, you can do the most deft of touches to dress this up or dress this down. To your point, if I’m drinking a Scotch and soda, I have a certain type of incredibly sh*tty ice and a small water tumbler in my hand. And that’s what comes to mind.
T: That’s exactly what comes to my mind.
I: Yeah. Yeah. And then yet when I’m saying a highball, I’m seeing something long and sexy and slender and really fine bubbles and maybe a lemon twist and that kind of thing.
T: The glass is frosted.
The History of the Whiskey Highball
I: Yeah, exactly. All those wonderful little, truly deft touches that actually speak to the fact that a cocktail is not about whether it’s shaken or stirred or how many ingredients and all the rest of it. It really is about the care and the attention and the effort that goes into it. And then I think alongside that, the reason I definitely chose this today is that I love the highball just for the journey it’s had throughout life at so many different times. And before we even, I think it was the 1890s or something, where it was actually being mentioned as a highball, but we’ve got Horse’s Necks noticed all the way back in Jerry Thomas and that kind of thing. And then that drink evolved. And then we came to know the garnishes and it’s like, it’s just got this wonderful little dalliance throughout cocktail history of being omnipresent, but always evolving as well. Yeah.
T: Strong use of the word dalliance there.
I: Thank you.
T: It’s one of my top five words.
I: I can’t say it’s actually in my regular rotation, but I was weaving my hands there.
T: I saw it happening in real time.
I: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. The second part of this podcast will be interpretive dance, viciously boring for everyone except the three of us.
T: But you talk about that journey there. We don’t have to track all of it, but I’d love to hear some of the major moments in that journey, in your opinion.
I: Yeah. I mean, so it definitely, I mean, my discovery of it even starts with a Horse’s Neck and just coming in and just being that really young, early 20s bartender, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to get into it.” Still have never actually read a cocktail book in its entirety. Thank you to all my friends that always send me theirs, but they mostly just help me get a really great angle on my laptop when I’m on Zoom these days.
T: I tell you, I’m the same with cookbooks. So…
I: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, please keep sending them.
T: Yeah. But, so the Horse’s Neck?
I: Yeah, Horse’s Neck.
T: What’s that one?
I: So whiskey, soda, some of the recipes calling for bitters, but the real thing that makes it is the garnish, that is what we know it as now, which is basically getting your fruit peeler and going around the entire middle circumference of a lemon, or an orange, typically. And then, same as you’ll see in a lot of early Brandy Crusta recipes, it’s wrapped up in that big ribbon and sits almost like a collar in the top of the drink. And I just remember, I was definitely in Australia, I was probably in Melbourne at that point. And I just remember coming in being like, “Oh wow, this is a really cool drink.” And being the young bartender and having one of the old dogs at Black Pearl turn around and be like, “F*ck off, it’s a whiskey soda.” And being like, “Oh, okay. Cool. Fair enough then, I’ll just shut up and go polish glasses then, won’t I.”
T: I can vividly see that, though, seeing the garnish and being like, “Oh my, cocktails can be this. This profession can be that.”
I: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
T: Pretty cool.
I: Literally brought down a peg instantly kind of thing.
T: Well, it’s showing you the potential of the job and also some of the realities.
I: Exactly. Yeah. And then I guess, the small amount of research I did for this, where I was like, “I know where I first discovered the drink and I know where certain ways have brought it back into modern culture.” But specifically, the thing that I read was that we were looking at the 1890s when the word highball and Whiskey Highball were actually first being printed and utilized and everything like that. There’s a song and a movie script and then some articles that start to talk about it as well. There is apparently massive conjecture about where the name comes from as well. Literally there’s like, everybody has their own reason for it. Pretty much there’s cocktail books through the 1890s, up to the 1930s that all posit a different idea about why. One of them I read being that apparently whiskey drinks were called “balls” back in the day.
T: Well, I wanted to get into the etymology there of the highball as the name for the glass.
I: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
T: Is that because of, I don’t know, the base of the glass, how it would’ve been before? Or you were saying it’s the ingredients?
I: Yeah. Well, so one that I read that was like, “Oh, whiskey drinks were just called ‘balls.’” And I was like, “Oh, okay. Cool, fair enough then.”
I: Yeah. That’s a choice. But then another one that I saw was the fact that because ice was a premium product, right? And that’s really what makes this drink a cocktail long before. If someone created it today, everyone would just turn around and be like, that’s not a cocktail. And so ice being a premium and having the blocks or balls or shards of ice, it was the fact that you would have to have a number of them stacked to fill the glass. So it was higher. And I was like, “All right, that’s interesting.” It’s a little bit more believable through the modern lens.
T: Yeah, for sure.
I: But then yeah, I mean, we just weren’t around, and education was different and vernacular was different. So it’s like, as to why it really came about, I just love that one day it suddenly became a thing because it really is in great succession in that mid-1890s period, there’s just suddenly multiple written examples and never before was it written. And it’s just kind of like-
T: What happened?
I: Yeah. I was like, it’s not like they had the internet.
T: No. Exactly.
I: Was it like a carrier pigeon for cocktail nerds or something? And they’re like, “We’re calling it this now. Go, go. Be free.”
T: Oftentimes, it’s like a world fair or something. Right? Something goes on in early influencer events.
I: Right. I guess that’s it. We all actually used to all hang out together in the same space. So that’s weird.
T: No more. Who needs it? Here’s another one that I’m just thinking about as you’re mentioning ice being a premium industry back then, the evolution of things. I’ve never thought about this before, but who one day has a glass of water in front of them and goes, “You know what? This is good. But what it needs is bubbles?” I mean, I guess we probably already had some kind of sparkling wine by that point.
I: And we do have some forms of naturally occurring and that kind of thing.
T: Naturally occurring. Yeah. Yeah.
I: Yeah. But then Champagne was also sweet as f*ck back then too, so there was no non-dosage or anything like that. There wasn’t even brut at that point in time, it was diabetes in a glass. Yeah.
T: So I guess that’s answered that one. That’s a shame, but I do like the idea of someone, it’s not how it came around, but someone just saying, you know what this needs? Bubbles.
I: I mean, I’m actually, because of the dear Cooper Cheatham, I’ve actually been reading up on Perrier and getting ready for an event with them. And I know that they came about in the 1860s, so without knowing all the details and just throwing out wild conjecture on the internet, because why the f*ck not, maybe it was that late 18th century period that really brought about like, or yeah, 1860s onwards period, that brought about that use of carbonation and all the rest of it.
T: Coming together. Yeah. This dalliance of whiskey and sparkling water.
I: But that’s it as well is that it really is now a thing that we’re so firmly, it must be carbonated water kind of thing. And we now see it on every faux Japanese speakeasy menu and all the rest of it and that kind of thing. The Japanese do have Mizuwari, mizu being water and wari being divide, but original Mizuwari was always still water. And it was, it’s only in modern evolution that it’s come to always be sparkling or club soda or whatever it is. But the originals were also more likely with umeshu or something like that, and it was actually just a still water highball that they did there, kind of thing. So maybe there’s somebody out there that’s far more nerdy than me that wants to do a carbonation episode for you or something like that.
T: I think so. I think I know just the person for that. But what about that then? So I think the modern popularity of this cocktail does have a lot to do with the Japanese interpretation of this drink. And probably an association that we have, I don’t want to generalize, but an association that we have with certain aspects of Japanese culture when it comes to food and beverage is just perfecting things on a level that maybe the rest of the world doesn’t.
I: I was going to say, there’s simply an appreciation of elegance and simplicity there, in a manner that, I mean, it’s just something that literally has to be part of your culture, as we’ve seen with so many attempts across this fine country and many others to emulate that Japanese style of bar. There’s just so much deeper cultural inference to it than simply looking at a glass and being like, “Ooh, great. I can do that here” kind of thing. But I do think that modernity emergence, obviously the absolute love that so many have for Japanese culture beyond just cocktails. That second or third wave, depending on how you kind of look through history, hitting at a time when we were getting the “Mad Men” push and everything like that. Which I still, I often, when I bring that up, everyone’s always like, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that.” I was like, “You forgot about…” We went from no one drinking Old Fashioneds to everyone drinking Old Fashioneds. To f*cking Ryan Gosling pulling off a “Dirty Dancing” movie and making an Old Fashioned. We did that in three years or less.
T: It’s wild.
I: It really did shift it as well. And so I do think again, there is that just, we got lost in the molecular world for a few years.
T: Yeah we did; we took a little detour down there.
I: We all did some things that we’d rather forget, but the internet never does, sadly. And then we kind of got through that. And same, I do, frankly sitting here now in 2022, and we’ve chatted about this before as well, the cultural, if there was any kind of shift during the pandemic, there was a refocus back on the classics. And the firm ones that are dependable and just always going to be wonderful. Right? And that reemergence of classics, I think when we saw that in that post-molecular era, that’s when that highball really started to gain traction. Right? We had that, because it’s never one thing, very rarely that’s a catalyst of a social or a new popularity, a single item. And it really was that melting pot of whiskey and whiskey cocktails coming back in, in a huge way. Another era, essentially every decade, that decade’s era of love of Japanese culture being integrated into Western culture again, and then just a refocusing after being like, “Well, that was a bit silly with all our foams and balloons wasn’t it?” kind of thing.
T: Exactly. On the one hand you have two ingredients plus garnish and that’s it, and on the other… Yeah.
I: And on the other you’ve got, this is the air of moss.
T: All right. Okay. It’s time for my first gripe of the day here. Can I bring it up?
I: Oh, bring it. Please. Yeah. Yeah.
T: All right. Spherification. More the food world.
I: Okay. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
T: Specifically spherified tomato or olive.
I: Okay. Okay.
T: I’ve had these as garnishes. I believe the olive was famous at El Bulli.
I: Yeah, it was. Yeah.
T: All I want to say is nature gave us olives, and they’re f*cking round.
I: Yeah, they’re spheres.
T: You don’t need to spherify them. What were they thinking?
I: I really feel about breaking something down to its elements that was already round and then reforming it in a round shape again, really underscores the ridiculousness of molecular gastronomy in a single sentence, right there.
T: Here is an ingredient that is so simple and so delicious in its natural form, let’s add a massive labor cost to it.
I: Yeah. Yeah. I mean it’s like, I still occasionally use spherification to this day. And even as I say this, I’m like, “When’s the last time I did that?” And I was like, “Silver Lyan menu where we did a spherified cherry, also a round fruit.”
T: Oh sh*t, I’m sorry.
I: Oh no. Oh my God. No, no, no. If you can’t make fun of yourself and laugh at your own ridiculousness, you never get to do it for anyone else.
T: I’ll say this about the cherry. It has a stone, so…
I: Yeah, there you go. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
T: For that very reason. I wouldn’t like the cherries as a garnish or in its natural state.
I: And I have had, really fortunate once, one of the million Adria brother projects in Barcelona is their bodega kind of concept. And they still serve the spherified olive there. And I have had it, and I remember being like, “That was wonderful. I never need to have that again.” And not in a bad way or anything like that, but it is just like a box tick.
T: All right, done it. Yeah. Yeah. Tick that one off the list. I believe you can actually get it up in Mercado Little Spain here in New York up in Hudson Yards. So check it out. That’s where I had my first. And as you say, my last. It was-
I: Yeah, it was kind of one of those like, “Oh, that’s fun” kind of thing. Yeah. I do remember I was in Edinburgh at Bramble’s sister bar Last Word and the wonderful Robin Hunhold there was working on a drink and they were going to do a peach, and this is like 2011, 2012. And they were like, “Oh, let’s do a peach spherified into a glass of bubbles. And then we’ve got our own little Bellini,” and the Last Word played a fantastic rotation of rock music, and I was, like, looking at them as they dropped the tiny little peach pearls in there. And I was like, “Oh, you should call this a Zeppellini, that’d be great.” And I remember Robin turning around being like, “F*ck you.” And it was because the drink became so popular that they were just constantly making so many. I mean, just walk in and there’s just one poor person on setup with the syringe going drip, drip, drip, drip, drip. And it’s like the most tedious of work in the world.
T: Know your limits.
I: Yeah, exactly.
T: Know your limits.
I: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
T: Okay, here’s another little, a sidebar to the sidebar that we have going on here. How important is that? Because you do have a background and a lot of experience in experimental cocktails, groundbreaking techniques. When you’re putting things on the menu, is that top of mind?
T: What if this becomes our most popular cocktail?
I: It is now and that’s because it wasn’t, and I really f*cked over a lot of my bartenders over the years by doing that. Or like just turning around in those early young days and creating something, and some of the things we’re flagged as for being innovative is literally just using coffee scales to measure our drinks for greater accuracy. And that increases speed of service. But I think just as a general bartender, it is turning around and being like, “Oh, this drink’s banging.” But then turning around and being like, “Oh, it’s a full bottle pickup, even with a batching program. And it requires shaking and then it’s got to go to the pass to get a Champagne top. And then it’s got a three-touch garnish,” and it’s like, “Oh, we created a monster. This is the worst thing in the world.”
T: I created the worst Saturday night for the next 12 months or whatever.
I: Exactly. And then yeah, as well.
T: And the guests seem to know, they seem to know which one it is.
I: They all go for it. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. So no, that scalability, I would say, is something I’m viciously conscious of, now more than ever, but it took a lot of being like, “Oh, no.” And I guess throughout my career and with so many wonderful business partners I’ve been so lucky to have, I’ve definitely always been the one that’s a little too achingly pragmatic and being like, “No, let’s not do that. Let’s do this.” A really great example, White Lyan’s Beeswax Old Fashioned, and really bringing beeswax into the culinary world, in the drinks world, in a dominant way. The original idea for that was that Ryan wanted us to individually melt beeswax and mold it around balloons, burst the balloon, then decant a single Old Fashioned into the beeswax egg, and then crack the egg in front of the guest every time we serve that drink. So wonderful. Would’ve photographed brilliantly, all the rest of it, I was like, “Right. We’re not going to do that, because that’s f*cking ridiculous.” Also, I still have great memories of him turning around and being like, “Nah, it’s going to work.” And I was like, “All right, well I’m not doing it. So you go and do it.” And him trying to put a blown-up balloon into a pot of melting wax, and it obviously instantly exploding and going everywhere and wax and he’s just like, turned around he’s like, “Oh no.”
T: I mean, yeah. You’re employing just one person to do that if that drink goes on the menu.
I: Exactly. Yeah. So if anything, I’d say my pragmatism is, I’ve always been the person with a few, many hiccups along the way, that’s always been like, “Maybe we should find a way to streamline this so that everyone doesn’t hate us as we go.”
Ingredients Used in the Whiskey Highball
T: And I can bring this back to the Whiskey Highball here by talking about the fact that this is a drink that you will see on draft, and sometimes maybe even to better effects. I want to get your opinion on that first. But if we’re talking, of course, we are talking about the pinnacle of this drink today, right? How we get there, what that drink encompasses, like all the different factors. So if you can tell me, what are the most important aspects of a well-made Whiskey Sour? I guess from technique.
I: Whiskey Highball.
T: Yes. Sh*t. What are the most important aspects when it comes to a really well made Whiskey Highball, whether it’s temperature or all the different factors?
I: Right. There’s so many. I mean, if we are talking about it, the reality is in 2022, we are talking about a Japanese Whiskey Highball at the end of the day. It’s like, Scotch is still without a doubt my favorite spirit in the world and I will, my desert island drams are all Scotch, all the rest of it, and I really do love it so much, but there is a reality to the finesse of how the whiskey is made, right through to even the utilizing of block ice. And especially down to, and what I think really in this current landscape where we’re so fortunate to be able to go into so many bars and order a Whiskey Highball, is it actually does come down to the incredibly wonderful, tiny little bubbles you get in a really well-made soda. And that’s like where I’ve definitely been in the places and it’s like, “Okay, if you’re picking up great whiskey, that’s good. And if you’re not, you already know that you’re bringing your product down a step.” The prettiness of the glass is always wonderful, but how much that really adds to the final drink is definitely in the person who’s holding it and that kind of thing. I don’t need the fanciest glass in the world to be able to turn around and be like, “This is a great f*cking drink.” Ice is obviously super important as we chatted about, you’re not going to be doing pebble ice. You really don’t even want to be doing sh*tty hotel ice, you want to be on a minimum of a Scotsman, if not a KD, if not even better, like stepping up to block ice or something like that and having that nice clean spear. But it’s the bubbles for me, it really does come back to the water and making sure, and that’s where the Suntory Whiskey Highball machines, they’re just so awesome. Hella expensive, obviously as well. You’ve really got to be doing some Toki to justify it, but it is just one of those ones that it’s like, it’s so great to be able to turn around and when you get it, you’re just like, they’re tiny little delicious bubbles. You just can unfold it. And it’s like, yeah.
T: So the whole process is designed towards maintaining, or creating the smallest bubbles possible and creating the most pressure within the drink.
I: Definitely. I think, yeah. You can probably, I’m sure there’s an expert out there that could be like, “Well, you could actually go too tiny with the bubbles and the nucleation points, and blah, blah, blah,” and all the rest of it. It’s like, “Okay, that’s very fair.” But that is definitely where I don’t think a fully corny kegged made in house Whiskey Highball would ever be as good as simply pouring the whiskey over a great block of ice and cracking a commercially well-made soda kind of thing. I’ve definitely never been to a bar running a draft program that has had their carbonation dialed into the point where it’s like, this is a better whiskey soda than if you cracked a great bottle of sparkling.
I: Yeah. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love carbonated cocktails, all the rest of it. But I mean, we’re getting to the point of talking about mousse essentially, and the same as in the Champagne world, within our bubbles for our water. And I mean, if you’re out there and you’re like, “F*ck you, I do it that well.” I’m like, “I’m really happy about that. Congrats to you and all the rest of it.” But even bars have been through that, I have a hundred tap cocktails and all the rest of it and they’re f*cking great bars and all the rest of it. They’re still not playing with the level of quality that we’re talking about when you look into a centuries-old commercial manufacturer who has literal scientists focusing on these things. Like, we are bartenders, at the end of the day, we really should know our limits.
T: And it’s useful therefore for the show that we’re talking about that, that preparation, because then it’s kind of applicable to everyone who’s listening to, or it can be.
T: What are some of the factors we can control then? Let’s start with temperature. Normally, because I will say, normally we will do more of a focus, we’ll have more of a focus on ingredients and whatnot. We’ve explored here, the ingredients are very simple.
I: Right? Yeah.
T: So we can dial in more technique. So temperature, how cold are you wanting your whiskey and your water? And you said cracking a new soda there as well.
I: Yeah. Talking about a new soda, there’s just nothing worse than when you go to a bar and you get your drink and you know that you got the second half of a bottle that was open 10 minutes ago.
T: That’s true.
I: It’s why I really like Fever-Tree. Do the little airplane can size, the tiny little ones. And I’ve definitely had partners, owners, managers that turn around and go, “Yeah, but it’d be more efficient if we got the bottle or anything like that.” And it’s like, the can makes one drink and then you throw the can out. And aluminum, if you want to get into that kind of environmental sh*te, is more recyclable than glass. So it just makes more sense to have that fresh product, because I mean we obsess about freshness in so many other parts of it and fresh bubbles matter in a Whiskey Highball. That’s what you want. Yeah.
T: And are there any kind of, we’ll stick with water here for a second. Are there any examples that you’ve come across where the bubbles just are naturally finer? If I’m getting sparkling mineral water versus club soda, seltzer, in my mind, I’m thinking the bubbles are finer, but is that just because I’m paying more money?
I: Yeah. Yes. I mean, no, some of them definitely do have finer bubbles and all the rest of it. And there’s so many brands out there as well. Even more than Topo, I enjoy drinking Mineragua or whatever that one is called, but I don’t, like it’s pretty damn good in cocktails, but it’s still, it’s big bubbles. Right? It’s like, it’s what you look for there and that kind of thing. I remember, I went to an incredibly bougie bar and they were doing their highballs with Vichy Catalan. Have you ever had that before?
T: This thing is sucking on a block of salt. No?
I: I’m not sure it’s sucking on a block of salt.
T: In the water world.
I: Maybe you lick the block of salt and then drink the water.
T: This thing’s got a TDS scale off the scale.
I: It is delicious.
T: It is great.
I: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But I don’t think it belongs in a whiskey. Like, I love Vichy Catalan, but it’s like-
T: Gerolsteiner’s another one.
I: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. And those ones just, they do detract from it. Like, salt’s delicious, don’t get me wrong. But it doesn’t add to it in that kind of way. Yeah.
T: So you’re just erring away completely from the sparkling mineral water then for this?
I: Yeah. Definitely. Yeah. Because you do want an intensity as well as you want tiny bubbles, you want a lot of them. Right? So you do want a highly carbonated. You want a club soda more than just sparkling water. Definitely.
T: I mean, that’s what they say about Topo Chico as well though, right? I don’t know whether that’s a myth and it’s just like, this is the brand that has more carbonation than everyone else.
I: I mean, it’s just so f*cking expensive. Right?
T: It is.
I: More than anything, and I mean, you’ve got limits on how much you can buy and all the rest of it. So I mean…
T: Allocated water, that’s where we’re at in 2022.
I: I did actually, in the myriad of visa hell I went through during the pandemic, I actually wound up in Monterey, Mexico, where they make Topo Chico, like right down to the source there. Two or three really wonderful restaurants in otherwise a viciously boring city, it must be said, and really great restaurants. But yeah, drinking it at the source, so to speak, and just trying it and just being like, “Oh, that’s just tasty.” I was just like, at least there weren’t big signs saying the limit of two per person or something like that. That was about the only difference.
T: Oh Topo, but yeah, it’s a popular one. All right, so temperature, back to temperature for a second. Your whiskey, where’s that coming from? Are you taking it out the freezer or how far are you going there?
I: I don’t, there’s no hill I’m going to die on with regards to that. If for whatever reason you turn around and go, “I like my whiskey cold.” It’s like, “Okay, great. Cool. Fair enough, then.” I mean, it does make sense, you want everything as cold as possible going into the glass and that kind of thing, but obviously temperature also affects aroma and flavor and everything like that. And yeah, I guess if it makes you feel good to be pulling your whiskey out of the fridge or freezer as well to be like, “Look at us, we keep everything nice and cold.” It’s like, fill your boots. But if you’re just pulling it down off the back bar, then that’s perfectly fine as well.
T: Yeah. So that’s not a non-negotiable for you when it comes to this drink?
I: No, not at all, but icy-cold glass, preferably icy-cold ice, that’s always really helpful, and then, you want spicy bubbles. You want them as cold as possible coming, you obviously don’t want them frozen, but you do, again, you really want to make sure that you’re using a cold can of club soda. Yeah.
T: And you used a term earlier, nucleation points there.
I: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
T: So let’s talk about the ice here because you’ve spoken about spears of ice. And I mean, this is the crux of this cocktail, if we are dialing in. So talk to us, we’ve mentioned it on one or two shows before.
I: Oh, good.
T: So we have, some folks may be familiar, but bring the rest of us up to speed.
I: I mean my understanding of it, and that is to say I could be totally wrong, is that it is like, the small points where CO2 makes contact with solid matter and then reacts in that moment, kind of thing.
T: And becomes a bubble.
I: Exactly. And so that’s the reason if you’re doing a force carbonated cocktail, you want to super bag it before you force carbonate it, because you remove as much solid matter and as much nucleation points because you don’t want them to occur, ideally, until it’s reaching the glass. That’s the end game that you’re looking for there. And so again, that’s why the big spear of ice gives you that, like it reduces the amount of nucleation points and it allows the soda to open up over a slightly slower period, is my understanding. But also it’s just kind of, again, if you use whatever kind of the soda you choose, the size of the bubbles, the intensity of the carbonation. At the exact moment they pour the glass, they all come into play. And it literally is a split second where that all matters.
T: Yeah. There’s no way you’re making this in a vacuum and no bubbles being created.
I: And you’re not retrofitting it. There’s no way you’re coming back from that, either, as well. Yeah.
T: Are there any techniques, though, when it comes to pouring the water? Again, this may be going too far.
I: No, I mean, there’s the really wonderful Kaitlyn Stewart up in Vancouver blew up on TikTok demonstrating how to use the bar spoon to pour the soda into it, and well done Kaitlyn for that. And the amount of friends have been like, “Did you know about this?” I was like, “Yeah. I mean, I was taught it in a club in 2006, but I haven’t… It’s a really great hack, but I just hadn’t really thought about it in all that time.”
T: Is it commonly used, though? I don’t feel like I see it a lot.
I: I do. I mean, again, we all just thought bar spoons were great in nightclubs when we’re trying to layer our shots and ooh, look at me putting the soda water in the drink without it fizzing up. I mean really, just get it in the glass.
T: Just get it in the glass. Yeah.
I: I can’t pretend as well, and definitely anyone who’s seen me bartend before, I’m a little too focused on the efficiency of moving through the drinks as quickly as possible to waste time on being like, holding the bar spoon there and being like, “Woo.” Yeah.
T: Yeah. Yeah. I imagine with the twirly nature, though, of the bar spoon where, that’s nucleation points.
T: I don’t know.
I: That’s fair. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
T: Who knows? Who knows?
I: Yeah. But no, so no, I’m very much just get it in the glass. Again, no guest ever complains about getting their drink too quickly, but there’s probably a guest out there that is wondering why the f*ck that bartender’s playing with the bar spoon instead of serving them their drink right now.
T: I like it.
T: We touched upon whiskey and you said this is most commonly associated with Japanese whiskey for those reasons. Just wondering, are there any that, across the world of whiskey, are there any styles that you’re like, “You know what, actually, I feel like this is not a good candidate for this drink?” Or, “Here’s an alternative to Japanese whiskey for this drink.”
I: Right. Yeah. I mean, I think the reason Japanese whiskey works so well with its refinement and all the rest of it is that I think there’s an incredibly strong argument, and some of my dear friends have made it before across presentations and education sessions, that a blended whiskey, a really well made blended whiskey is often a better option than a single malt Scotch, obviously talking. Just that the grain element that you get, that does offer you up a slightly different aromatic, but also a different sweetness as well. Everything like that, that element of grain can actually be an incredibly positive thing to have involved in a great highball.
T: 100 percent. I think, sorry to jump in here and cut you off, but just before we move on from grain whiskey, I think, great summer whiskey.
I: Yeah. Oh, absolutely.
T: You get those grain notes, but I often get orchard fruit or whatnot. And I like that and I feel like that’s very apt for this cocktail.
I: Yeah. And I think as well, we’re talking about blended whiskey, so that then there’s a craft in that as well. And so then you have the option to really look towards it. I still frequently lean towards Johnny Walker Black so much, because there is that wonderful little lick of smoke in the background of it.
T: Yeah. Exactly.
I: And it’s just like, it’s really nice. It’s not peaty, as in it’s about to whack you over their head with a box of Band-Aids or anything like that.
T: No, no.
I: It’s just like, there’s something really delicate and lovely in the back there.
T: It’s there, yeah.
I: And then when you look towards something more like a Cutty Sark, you’ve got a pretty high grain content there, but then you’ve got this wonderful fruitiness that comes through and I’m always picking up on touches of stone fruit and orchard fruit coming through. And again, in that it’s blended, there is an art and a skill and a human behind this that pulled it together for a reason. And most blended whiskeys are crafted to be mixed, and that’s what we’re doing here. And then of course the enigmatic and fantastic educated Dave Broom and Ryan together did their whiskey heresy presentations before, and I believe someone walked out of the room once when they suggested the signature serve for Lagavulin should be with Coca-Cola. But in its essence, still technically a highball and unquestionably very delicious as well.
T: Very delicious. Yeah.
I: Yeah. Yeah. But I can’t say I would too frequently, moving from blended into single malt, I can’t say I’m drawn towards an Islay whisky too often or anything like that. Maybe like a Bunnahabhain and that kind of thing. And this is without getting douchey and going into vintages and stuff like that, which have been very fortunate to drink a lot of random and weird and really great rare whiskey over the years and that kind of thing. And so there’s certain eras of single malts that I think you could look towards and be like, “Oh, that’s really interesting.” The one that I do love, that I do always chat about a little bit, is whiskey goes out of popularity mostly because of vodka, late ’70s heading into the ’80s. Bowmore has so much excess grain, they fire their stills at an incredibly high level. That gives a very early reflux in the production. And so when you get late-’70s, early ’80s Bowmore, it has this, it’s a British sweet here, so I apologize, but it’s called Parma Violets. And it’s a disservice to describe them as crème de violette, because there’s so much more going on in there. But Bowmore, of that era, has this freaky deaky-like Parma Violet aromatic to it. And so that is really great in a highball, because the carbonation and all the rest of it pull out those aromas. You’ve still got a great single malt in there. But yeah, I can’t say there’s too often where I’m like, I think I should be, also particularly not in the U.S. because it’s just bananas expensive over here.
T: Well, I mean, that kind of leads us to Japanese whiskey as well in terms of, I think if you were to look at some of the versions of this cocktail being made maybe 10 years or 15 years ago, they’d be using bottles now that you can’t find.
I: Oh, we spent so much good Japanese whiskey back then. It’s just, though, it really is one of those things you look back and you’re like, “Well we just drank that like we were assholes.” Hey, and it’s because we were assholes and still are to be fair. That part hasn’t changed, but just I mean, the shortage was rapid. It came out of nowhere and it was all of a sudden, it was just like, “Oh, we have none left.” And it was like, I can’t remember, let’s call it somewhere 2014, 2015. Apparently it was the master distiller of Nikka, turned up to the Tokyo Bar Show and only had Nikka from the barrel to pour. And I still remember that being one of the first anecdotes where people were like, “Yeah, we’ve kind of f*cked it. It’s going to be 20 years before we have this on the regular again.”
T: And again, it comes back to that point we were mentioning at the beginning, which is like, we had this appreciation for Japanese whiskey too, and suddenly, and that felt like it came out of nowhere as well.
I: Definitely. Yeah.
T: You mentioned earlier the Toki highball machines there too, and I think that’s something that I’m actually even now seeing, moving into Scotch. Where we have these whiskeys that are designed pretty much specifically for bartending and it makes sense that they are blends as well.
I: Yeah, absolutely. Because yeah, that’s why they have such an integral role in this drink. Is it just like, it’s so rare to have a spirit that is produced, maybe gin is one of the few other spirits I could think of, that are produced and when the person’s making it they’re making it with one specific drink in mind. And so gins will turn around and be like, we make a Gin and Tonic gin. Right? And maybe someone might turn around and be like, we make a Daiquiri rum or that kind of thing, maybe, but that’s probably the marketing team just putting their claws into the product and f*cking it up. Yeah. But very, very often you will just get master blenders that do turn around and be like, “Oh this is made for highballs.” And it’s just, that’s it. It’s like, “Mix with it, sure. Do other things, knock yourself out with a Rob Roy or whatever else you’re going to feel good with, but this is made for highballs.” Yeah.
T: That really speaks to, again what we’re talking about at the top, just on the one hand, this looks like something that’s very simple.
I: Right. Yeah.
T: But actually there’s so much, but it’s like those idiots on LinkedIn with their icebergs.
I: So I’ve still never joined it quite proudly. Yeah. Yeah. But I’ve heard about this.
T: But they do the kind of popular motivational memes like “All the work is under the surface.”
I: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
T: Whatever. But it’s true in this case.
I: It is. Yeah. I still, on the LinkedIn thing, I saw someone share a meme from the other day and I was like, “Do people still use that?” And they’re like, “Yeah, it’s quite popular actually.” I was like, “Huh?”
T: Wasn’t the meme of the man crying, was it?
I: I think it probably was, actually. Yeah. But yeah, I didn’t know that platform was still going.
T: Yeah. No, they’re trying to turn into a proper social media network.
I: Can we just have five minutes of the day where we don’t have to work constantly? That’d be so fun now. Even the professional platforms have become… Yeah.
How to Make the Perfect Whiskey Highball
T: It’s so interesting though. One thing we normally do in this show and we do have to do for this, even though again, we’ve kind of covered it all really, but it is, to stick with tradition, can you talk us through the Whiskey Highball here as if you were making it.
T: Okay. In a fairly busy service, but also maybe the person at your door here, whoever’s accepting reservations has said, “This is a VIP customer here. So you want to dial it up just a little bit.”
I: Got you, just give it that little extra tweak, but it is so much like-
T: I think, and including, sorry, just rough quantities for this as well, kind steps.
I: Got you. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So right now, as part of my agency, Jelly Bone, I am creative beverage for Midnight Cafe over on West 33rd and 9th. So in my head, in that moment, if somebody came in and I did need to make them a really special, wonderful Whiskey Highball, I think the most beautiful thing you could do to show that you’re giving it the right amount of care and attention is, as opposed to usually building two or three drinks at once, it’s just taking that moment to manufacture it at on its own for a moment and serve it individually. It really is.
Because at the end of the day, you’re going to go glass, you’re going to go whiskey, you’re going to go ice, you’re going to go bubbles. Right? That order that you do that, if you go bubbles then ice, your drink’s going to look like a grade 3 volcano science experiment. So that order is pretty hard to mess with, you could go ice then whiskey, but that’s really about it. I’m sure the wonderful team at Cafe would turn around and prep ours on a coffee scale just to really impress me unnecessarily, and that’s great. But I actually do think that yeah, because we are just talking frozen glass, good quality whiskey, a great block of ice and then good quality club soda. And again, it’s the beautiful nature of it, it’s just taking that split moment for them to see that you’re giving it the right care and attention. Because like anything you try and do… Oh, and then I do really still enjoy when I call for a Whiskey Highball, I love a lemon twist.
T: So I was going to ask you about that.
I: Yeah. I really do enjoy that. I don’t need it rubbed around the rim of my glass.
I: Yeah. Or anything like that.
T: Just a little express and plop it in there.
I: Yeah. Definitely. Plop it in there or I do really love, and I enjoy ,when people just are resting the twist on the edge of the glass so that you can decide whether or not you want it in there for the duration.
T: I like that.
I: I like it as well because for myself, I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but sometimes I get a drink and I know because of whatever state I’m in at that point in time, it might last a matter of seconds. And so when I get that, when I grab my highball and it’s probably the first one of the night, I’m like, “This one’s not going to last long.” I couldn’t care less about the lemon twist going in there because it’s not going to last long enough to really impact the drink. But I do also know those moments where I might be sitting in a professional setting or I’m simply only having one or two drinks for the night and I want to make sure they matter and I take my time to enjoy them a little bit more. A plethora of different reasons that I know I’m probably going to sit on my drink and take my time with it. And I enjoy not having my lemon or any of my citrus garnishes forced into the drink because there does become a point where they over extract and they become bitter or funky or soggy and it just withdraws from the final appeal.
T: And then also just, they’re a solid there in the glass. They might be hitting you when you’re drinking as well, that kind of annoys me.
I: Yeah, definitely. And I think that’s where a good Horse’s Neck, to really tie this all, with a really good Horse’s Neck for me should be trimmed in modern context as well. Obviously they weren’t trimmed back in the day or anything like that, but trimming them because they do typically rise to the top of the wash line, they bob around like a water buoy, if you will, kind of thing. And that does mean that they hit you in the nose as you drink that drink. And so it’s another reason that’s like, it’s just a little touch that you can do to trim it so that when it sits flush with the edge of the glass there isn’t like the rough edges of the peeler, like poking you in the snout while you drink it. Yeah.
T: You also mentioned weighing out this with a coffee… If you were using ounces for our American listeners here, what would that be? And then what would it be by weight?
I: I don’t know, like 17, it’s the dumbest measurement system in the f*cking world.
T: What would it be in milliliters?
I: 60 milliliters.
T: 60 milliliters. Okay.
I: Yeah. 60 mil milliliters and then a top with soda. We’ve got the glassware and the ice and we use the small Fever-Tree cans makes exactly the perfect amount in there.
I: Yeah. That’s what we work with there.
T: And 60 ML would be?
I: Two ounces.
T: 60 grams or…
I: Yeah, it does actually.
T: Or does whiskey weigh a little bit more than water?
I: It’s negligible in the difference that it weighs kind of thing. We’ve looked into it a lot over the years and there is the odd one that we pick up on and there’s like particularly some of the sherry cask whiskeys that we’ve got, but even then we’re not using scales at that point. If we’re jiggering a single malt dram that’s sherry cask, oh sorry, if we’re pouring a single malt and it is a sherry cask, there’d be very little reason for us to be… We’d just use a jigger and do it classically. But yeah, 60 mils or 2 ounces.
T: Two ounces. Yeah. Interesting. There we go. I like that you called back to the top, though, there with the Horse’s Neck. Very pro move of you.
I: Yeah. Thank you so much. Yeah.
T: We are getting toward the end of the conversation here on the Whiskey Highball. So I’m going to ask you for any final thoughts, but first before that, have you ever had a very memorable, almost life changing, maybe life changing is too far, but have you ever had a really, really memorable version of this cocktail?
I: Yes. There is this really fantastic, I forget who recommended it to me, but it’s a wonderful Yakitori restaurant down in Ginza in Tokyo, and I’ve been fortunate to go twice to Japan and I’ve made a trip to go there both times. It’s just like, it’s really great, it’s using all parts of the animal as they do without trying to brand themselves into anything cool or interesting, it’s just because it’s f*cking common sense. So you can go and get chicken hearts, chicken liver, you’re able to get the little Yakitori sticks of the whole thing. And they just have their highballs there, and I really love this one, because what they do is they actually add a cheeky little splash of a really lovely yuzu cordial in there. And I’m a sucker for sugar. I constantly have the duality of what sweetness level I like my drinks to be at and what I know the consumer, depending on the city and country I’m in and the year that I’m making drinks, that always varies a lot as well. And so I really love it, because I think a cheeky touch of sugar in there is really nice. It feels like a bit of a treat, right? You’re like, “Ooh, this is nice.” Like, yeah. And so that one, I really remember so well, I would butcher the name of the restaurant, so I won’t even attempt that.
T: But that’s one that stands out?
I: Yeah. I have it saved in my map and even yesterday I had a friend that’s on a random tour and they were like, “I’ve got 24 hours in Tokyo. Where should I go?” And I sent them that one, they’re like, “I really thought you were going to tell me three or four cocktail bars.” I was like, “Oh yeah, sure. You should go to these ones as well.” And they’re like, “Why did you send me to a Yakitori restaurant?” And I was like, “Because I really love it.” It’s simple, and you’re just surrounded with businessmen. It’s just one of those little spots that I really love.
T: Efficient, all around just in terms of service and using it, using every part of the animal there, like you’re talking about in the cocktails. Yeah. I like that.
I: It’s just wonderful. And then you’re able to, they have the Suntory machine, and they just literally have, I think they also do a honeydew or something that you can spike it with, but I just remember the yuzu one always being one that I absolutely love.
T: So this does remind me of something we haven’t spoken about. Simple ways to modify this cocktail that don’t take it too far from the essence. How about bitters?
I: Bitters are great. I’ve definitely never got any problem with that. I mean, don’t really, like you do you, whatever you need to do to make this great as long as it remains great, at the end of the day. At the moment, we’re doing a really wonderful Madeira sherry kind of one. And just to build in a touch more depth and we wanted a lift of fruitiness to it. We take some pineapple that we’ve flambéed into a separate syrup and then we just soak it in the Madeira for a couple of days. And so we’ve got a really wonderful pineapple Madeira and then we spike it with some rye whiskey and we actually do give it a touch of cardamom bitters as well. And so we’re still not directly adding too much extra sugar in there or anything like that, but it comes out really nicely and it’s always… We had it last night. I was like, “Okay. Yeah, it’s still good.” It’s definitely an enjoyable drink and all the rest of it. But even then, the only other thing I really enjoy is, and this would obviously be a still drink, but I really enjoy using coconut water and just having whiskey, coconut water. Ryan and I drink and an obnoxious amount of those. It’s a ridiculous story, but we basically wound up with our hands on an entire case of 1970s Johnny Walker Red, which is just stupidly ridiculous whiskey. Because at that point in time, the single malts that were going in there were just wild. So anyway, we get this case. Very shortly after getting this case, we’re in the middle of opening White Lyan at this point, we realize we have no f*cking money and probably shouldn’t have bought that case of whiskey, but we’ve got it. And we shouldn’t buy any more booze than we need to for the bar, so through the period of opening our first bar together, we drink that entire case with coconut water every day.
T: No way.
I: So there is a memory specific to that, that I still really love where every now and again, still doing a highball, still grabbing ice. And particularly for this one, I usually use sh*tty ice because you need that extra dilution to cut through the, not thickness or richness, but I find coconut water a bit sticky in the mouth sometimes.
T: For sure. It can be a bit cloying.
I: The sh*tty ice actually helps with the dilution to break it out a bit more. But yeah, that’s the one for me that I’m always, that’s my warm little memory of a time where I was like, when we were just being assholes.
T: Learning experience.
I: Learning experience, but also just being like, “Oh, this is really great.” And then drinking, and we obviously finished the case, not quickly, over a period of time. But then just turning around and being like, “Yeah, we just drank a whole case of ’70s Johnny Walker Red.” Oh, my.
I: But just a really, I think the best drinks that we ever love and call back to are ones that we have a memory associated with.
T: A hundred percent.
I: So yeah, that’s the one I always lean towards where I can. Yeah.
T: Very nice. Well, any final thoughts now here on the Whiskey Highball? Anything that we haven’t covered before we move on into the second segment of the show here?
I: No. I think we did a pretty good job. We managed to not go too nerdy, that was my big thing. I was just like, “Just don’t get f*cking nerdy about this.” Like, it’s whiskey in a glass, at the end of the day, with some bubbles.
T: I think we got nerdy enough.
I: Yep. Yeah, exactly. Yeah, without getting completely carried away with it. Yeah.
T: Before we move on, actually, though, are there any kind of gripes that you want to air or any hot takes? This is the place to drop and we’ve been dropping a lot.
I: I did. I recently actually grabbed a whiskey soda. The reason I also mention this day is it’s like, it’s pretty much my default drink as well. And the most challenging thing about ordering it in this country is calling Dewar’s and them being like, “What?” And being like, “Sorry. Dewar’s.” And having to put on like a re-pronounce the D differently just to have the bartender understand what I’m calling for. But no, I had one served in a jam jar to me recently, and I just thought we were f*cking done with that.
T: I thought we were over those.
I: I was like, I wasn’t even paying attention and the barman says, “All right. Cheers.” And like went to pick up the glass to turn around and felt what my hand was holding. I was like, “Why are we still drinking out of Kilner jars and jam jars, and that kind of sh*te?”
T: It’s so bad.
I: It wasn’t like a house party at 7 in the morning. At that point, I’ll drink it out of a shoe, I’m not fussy. Sure. Yeah. But it was like, “Right, just paid over $20 for a jam jar.”
T: What’s going to be next as well is going to be the takeaway containers, the round one, the 25-cent ones, because everyone watched “The Bear” and everyone’s like, “’The Bear’s’ amazing, and you know why it’s amazing-”
I: Oh, like drinking from delis and quarts and the-
T: Yeah, the quart containers people are… I bet that’s coming next.
I: God, I hate people. We should probably remove that one.
T: Actively encouraged in the hospitality industry.
I: Yeah. I haven’t watched “The Bear” to be very honest with you for a multitude of reasons. Most of all, trying to establish better boundaries between work and personal life.
T: A hundred percent.
I: And literally not wanting to go home and spiral about my work in my personal time, more than I already do on a regular basis. And so I just haven’t brought myself to watch it because I mean, all everyone talks about is like, “Yeah, it’s pretty triggering. Yeah. It’s really intense.” I’m like, “So you went home after a shift and just carried on the mental gymnastics of the shift in your head?” I was like, “That sounds like hell.” Yeah, there’s not enough weed in the world that makes me want to sit down and watch that. So yeah.
T: Six years since I last worked in the industry in any form and that was as a chef and when I watched it, I was just like, “Yeah, I can take or leave this right now.”
I: I mean, it’s great. Congrats to them for nailing the accuracy, congrats to them for really showcasing a side of our industry. Again, having not watched it, I believe they have mostly done a fairly balanced job at telling it. But I mean, the memes we got out of it were great.
T: The memes were good.
I: I really enjoyed all of them. They were good.
T: There you go. Something for everyone.
I: Yeah, exactly.
T: Horses for courses as we like to say.
T: All right then let’s do it.
I: What are we doing?
Getting to Know Iain Townsend Griffiths
T: We’re doing the quick-hit questions.
I: Oh, we’re doing the quick-hit questions.
T: The desert island discs, as you were, as you will.
I: Yeah. Yeah.
T: All right then, you ready for it?
I: Yeah. Let’s go. Let’s go.
T: We’ll kick it off. Question No. 1: What style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar?
I: Ooh, totally depends on the concept. I f*cking hate large back bars anyway, and I’m every brand ambassador’s worst nightmare for that regard, because I just don’t like egregiously big back bars where they’re like, “We have 300 spirits.” I was like, “You still sell the same 25 every f*cking night.” Yeah. Except for Jack Rose D.C., shout-outs to them, for us.
I: I mean fantastic job at always selling so much great whiskey. Totally depends on the concept. I would say right now, weirdly enough, I’m like, it’s a whole range of uncategorized spirits or singulars in there, if you will. Everything from Empirical, that it’s no secret how closely I love and work with those wonderful individuals, but Saint Luna moonshine, which is a queer- and trans-owned and operated really fantastic spirit. Batavia Arrack, I’m putting in far too many cocktails right now. I actually had to have a word with myself the other day, like you’ve got three across two menus and it’s a completely random-ass spirit that the staff are sick of explaining to everybody. So yeah, I would actually say right now, and then as that wonderful statistic that came out last month, agave, because for the first time ever agave spirits outsold vodka in the U.S. last year.
T: I want to point out that I’m thinking that it was value rather than volume.
T: I would imagine.
I: Interesting. I’ll profess to having glanced at it and being like, “Woo,” and moving on with life.
T: No, no. But I definitely see that as, yeah. I would imagine, but yeah.
I: Like the dollar amount we spent on agave.
T: Versus the cases.
I: Right. Yeah.
T: But it’s still phenomenal.
I: I mean, yeah. I spent my winter here working at a very quote unquote “high-end nightclub.” We’re talking like $21 drinks and $600 bottles of Tito’s just to be able to get in and stuff like that. I mean, on one of my first shifts, one of the guys turned around, he’s like, “And the station you’ll mostly work at is you get a lot of one on ones down that end and not as much bottle service. And you’re basically in the agave mines, just slinging tequila soda all night.” And I laughed and I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s cool Fish. Great. No worries at all.” And then I got down there and I was looking at my recycle bin, and I was like, “How many bottles of tequila did I burn tonight?” It really is. And I’m stoked about that. I’m definitely not bitching at having come through the eras of having to fight about managers that wanted to have nine different vodkas on the back bar for whatever reason and all the rest of it. I’m thrilled to see that. But yeah, I’d say right now it’s actually, it’s a whole bunch of singular and different products that kind of make up that non-categorized section that I’m working with the most.
T: So like small in number, but very, very broad in styles.
I: Exactly, in style. And then singulars of products that are unquestionably their own style, but we can only get one here or there’s one that’s hyper unique that we want to work with.
T: Nice. Good answer. Question 2: Which ingredient or tool is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
I: I think I did an article for VinePair on this in 2018 actually. I went to give my answer. I was like, “I’ve answered this before.” And then I suddenly saw the article and I was like, “And that was for VinePair.”
T: Oh, very interesting.
I: Well, they were asking what was our most utilized tool on the road. And it was the coffee scale still, because for batching, prepping, everything like that, we didn’t use it for service during, in Trash tour stuff. But what’s the most underutilized bar tool? Probably in all honesty, a good knife. We really even were joking about it last night. Somebody went to cut a piece of fruit and it’s the wonderful Taylor Threadgill working at Midnight Cafe, and I had two industry friends at the bar and they were like saute cut just a grapefruit slice for a garnish. And they were like, “Oh, you can tell that she’s not a bartender trained.” And it’s not, Tay has almost a decade in kitchens experience before moving front of house. And it was, we then just started joking about how we just butcher our fruit with the sh*ttiest Victorinox knives and everything like that. And you don’t need to go wank and spend a whole bunch of money on something fancy and Japanese and all the rest of it. But for our elbows and our wrists as well, I don’t think we talk about that enough, where we do garnish prep for an hour before service every day. And that’s an hour where you’re working with a superiorly inferior tool, quite frequently, kind of thing. Yeah.
T: And also a blunt knife will do more damage to you than a sharp one will.
I: Oh, absolutely.
T: If you miss and you cut yourself?
I: Yeah. It’ll come for you. You’ll reach bone very quickly like that.
T: Whereas the sharp one, you notice quicker.
I: Yeah, it cuts like butter. So, yeah.
T: You can take off a nail. I’m just kind of shivering thinking about that, getting goosebumps here thinking about the amount of times I’ve done that and it’s not fun.
I: Yeah, it’s not. But no, so if there’s something that’s underutilized. But I also f*ck anything copper or brass plated. I do again, I’m rather utilitarian and pragmatic in life where it’s just having the good, effective, best, but cheapest version of what you need to do, because yeah.
T: Wonderful. Question No. 3: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
I: The most important piece of advice?
T: Or maybe the most memorable?
I: Damn. I mean, I will preface this by saying, I think what’s the best advice you get in life in any capacity whatsoever is often the advice you struggle to adhere to the most. And so in saying what I’m about to say, I’m going to turn around and be like, this is not a, “I am always perfect at practicing what I’m preaching,” or anything like that. But, I’ve been in this industry pretty much my entire life. My mother’s a caterer and I’m one of seven children, so I’ve been in kitchens since I was 8. Literally two days after I turned 18, I got a bartending job. And even then, my mother turned around and said, “You’re going to spend every weekend in a bar, so you may as well get paid for it.” It’s like, it’s been with me always. But long before I was even a bartender and the one thing I still do carry through the most is that was, and I love my mom and she’s been such a huge influence in my life still to this day, was that she turned around and said, “People will forget what you say, they’ll never forget how you make them feel.” And I say that because I’ve definitely dished out my fair share of sh*t customer service over the years and really made some people feel horrible at times. So I’m by no means a saint, but I will say it is that advice that constantly appears in my head the most because it doesn’t really matter how you shake your drink as long as you shake it with the right amount of gusto. And there’s so many other things that don’t matter. What people come back for is the person and they come back for the experience that person provides and all the rest of it. And it’s the reason that somebody as just dead set charming as Masa Urushido could just work in any bar under the sun and everyone would be like, “That bar’s f*cking awesome.” And the drinks could suck and the interior could be completely nonexistent. It could be in an alley on milk crates and Masa would still make it one of a kind experience.
T: He really would.
I: And it comes back to that, so I think for myself, other than just put your head up, which is the other, like yeah. It really is. It’s like what you say, all the rest of it, people aren’t going to latch onto that. But do you offer that customer service where instead of standing up while they’re sitting down, you just grab a seat next to them and chat to them because they’re human like you are. Or if you can see that they’re on a great date, you don’t interrupt them to give them the drop call and the, “We created this drink because…” You just shut the f*ck up and leave them alone.
T: Read the room.
I: The best experience you can give them is to just stay the hell away right now. So do that kind of thing. So yeah, for myself, I think that is, people will forget what you say, but they’ll never forget how you make them feel.
T: Love it. Love it. Great piece of advice there. Penultimate question: If you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?
I: My God, I need some terms here. Have I been there before?
T: You don’t have to have been.
I: Oh, nice. Great. But it must be in existence right now? We’re not time traveling?
I: Oh, we’re time traveling.
T: It can be any that has ever existed, whether in print or in real life.
I: Yeah. Yeah. We don’t need to go into the multiverse concept and consider if it exists somewhere else or anything like that.
T: Here’s another thing that no one ever asks, when it says, you can only visit one last one. There’s no time limit on how you’re there for either.
I: Oh nice.
T: This could be Purgatory.
I: See, that’s a fair point, because I still stand by the fact that corner pubs in England and across Britain really are the best place to hide out in a zombie apocalypse situation. Whenever anyone’s like, “Where would you go?” I’m always like “Shaun of the Dead,” brilliant.
T: They really got it, I was going to say.
I: God, such a great movie. But anyway, if there is a zombie apocalypse, I’m going to a corner pub in Britain, because they’ve got cellars and they’ve got the best defense and all the rest of it. But the last one that I could drink at, knowing that I don’t have to leave as well, that’s really great. I mean, for me, and this might be, whatever the bar is, I’m much more concerned with who else is in it for me. The last bar I ever go to, to have a drink, I just want to be able to pull up at the bar and sit next to my absolute nearest and dearest, and share one or 20 last ones, and something like that. If I had to choose what bar that we’re all going to meet at, it would probably be either The Pot Still in Glasgow or The Bow Bar in Edinburgh, that I consider to be two of the best boozers in the world that I’ve ever been to.
I: Delilahs in Chicago, definitely gets an incredibly strong, honorable mention. But yeah, I think for me it would be a whiskey bar, but much, much more importantly for me it would be knowing that I have my nearest and dearest to share a drink with while I do it. Yeah.
T: Nice use of the word boozer as well, by the way there. Don’t get a lot of that on this show. One of my favorite synonyms there for the pub, on down the boozer.
I: Yeah. Synonym for a pub, but also you have pubs and you have boozers.
T: They’re not quite the same.
I: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. There is like there’s something really specific about it that I’m always like… Yeah. And I don’t know what it is and I hope we never really define it versus just turning around and knowing.
T: It’s a feeling.
I: Yeah, exactly. When something’s a boozer and something’s a pub.
I: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
T: Look that one up if you’re not familiar.
I: Yeah. But don’t ruin it for us, please.
T: Last question here today: If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
I: Yeah. Absolutely. No question about it. It’s my favorite cocktail. It really is but you get the added benefit of an entire bottle of Champagne that’s just been opened that you get to drink as well.
T: That’s good. Smart.
I: Yeah. Yeah. This is now telling. Kelsey and I used to always, when we got invited to bartending events or whatever, we’d always put a Champagne drink on the menu. And then in the spec sheet, inflate the amount of Champagne that we put in the cocktail so that there was just extra Champagne to drink on shift.
T: Brilliant. Brilliant. These are the tricks of the trade here that the younger bartenders listening need to learn.
I: If you don’t get a rider, you just turn around and say that you’re putting 120 mils of Champagne in your drink when you’re only putting 90 and you have to make 200 serves. And then all of a sudden you’re sitting on three extra bottles of booze that you can spray on people or drink or put in your bag and take home. There’s so many things you can do with that.
T: The mental arithmetic there and the speed of it tells me this is something you have considerable experience in.
I: Yeah, indeed. Not the first, second, or third rodeo kind of situation.
T: Iain, it’s been a blessing.
I: Thanks, Tim. I really enjoyed this. This was great. Yeah.
T: It was a lot of fun. And I like to think that we have done justice to the Whiskey Highball in terms of how amazing it can be, but also don’t take it too seriously and enjoy how fun it can be as a drink.
I: Absolutely. Yeah. It’s alcohol in a glass at the end of the day, you’re meant to have fun with it.
T: All right then, let’s go down the boozer.
I: Nice. Cheers, Tim.
Okay, that was a lot of info, but here’s the good news. Every single episode of VinePair’s Cocktail College is also published on VinePair.com as a transcript. So you can check it out there all over again.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.