Friday, January 22, 2016


Howdy, folks!

Just to let you know, I've put on my big boy pants and created a website/blog on a privately hosted domain.  It contains all of the content of this Blogger VTB blog, and will be stuffed full of new content going forward.

My new website is located HERE.

Come pay a visit, won't ya?

- Sal -



You’ll find a copy of Mr. Boston Official Bartending Guide behind nearly every bar in the US. This Holy Bible of imbibing has more than 1,400 cocktail recipes. 1,400! That’s more than the number of hairs on the average middle-aged American male’s head.

It wasn’t always this way. In bygone years, one would simply order “strong drinks for men who wanna get drunk fast.” Today, however, it seems that most cocktails have 78 or 79 ingredients and are garnished with a sous vide-simmered Birch tree twig imported from the northernmost province of Finland.

It’s confusing. It’s intimidating. It’s enough to make a person just crack open a Heineken.

But is it really? Is mastering the art of the cocktail as complex as it’s now perceived?

The answer, in fact, is “No.” Like most unnecessarily complex things in life, cocktails can be broken into little pieces and re-assembled into a simplified, understandable system. And that’s what this post is all about.

In the paragraphs below, I’ll give you a template for creating both a solid foundation of classic cocktails and your own improvised riffs on those classics.


At its most basic level, cocktails are simply a mixture of whiskey, sugar, and bitters. Sure, many cocktails employ other elements. But whiskey, sugar, and bitters form the skeleton upon which the creature is built.

And when all is said and done, creating a cocktail—whether via a recipe or improvisation—is a matter of balancing three flavors: sweet, sour, and bitter. We’ll call these flavors the “Holy Trinity.”

As you’re adding an ingredient into the shaker, think about whether that ingredient will lend a sweet, sour, or bitter flavor to the cocktail. Then, think about how that flavor will be balanced against the others.

Maybe you want a balanced drink, in which all components of the Holy Trinity are in perfect harmony. Or maybe you want a cocktail that leans toward the sweet side. Or the bitter side. Keeping the Holy Trinity firmly in mind (and believe me, not everybody does) will raise the quality bar on whatever cocktail you’re building. By the way…this technique also works when cooking.

So…by now you’re thinking, “Yeah, I guess that all makes sense...conceptually. But I still don’t know how to make a damn cocktail!”

No. No you don’t. So, let me give you a template.


A great home bartender needs a strong foundation upon which to create his liquid masterpieces. You will have that foundation if you master the four “Mother Cocktails.” They are the (a) Old Fashioned, (b) Whiskey Sour, (c) Negroni, and (d) Vodka Martini.

Master these Mother Cocktails, and you’ll have the power to create a whole slew of “Child Cocktails” by simply tweaking an ingredient here, swapping an ingredient there, and/or adding a little of this, that, or the other.


The Old Fashioned is one of the oldest, simplest, and most elegant of cocktails. It’s also one of the most abused—often looking like a fruit cocktail dumped into an ice-filled glass of brown sludge. Order one in Wisconsin, and they’ll further ruin it with Sprite and Sour Mix.

Stop the insanity! A proper Old Fashioned is (surprise, surprise) nothing more than a beautiful balance of whiskey, sugar, and bitters.
OLD FASHIONED (i.e, the Sweet Mother)
4-8 parts Rye or Bourbon Whiskey
1 part Simple Syrup
2-4 dashes Angostura or Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Bitters
Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail or rocks glass, and garnish with lemon peel

There you go! The classic Old Fashioned! Now, you can spread your wings and create some sweet (in both senses of the word) “Child Cocktails.” Here’s how:

  • Replace the Rye/Bourbon with Brandy, and you’ve got yourself a Brandy Old Fashioned!

  • Use Peychaud's Bitters (rather than Angostura or Fee Brothers) and strain into an Absinthe- or Pernod-coated glass. You’ve just made a Sazerac…the official cocktail of New Orleans!

  • Replace the Simple Syrup with Sweet Vermouth and swap the lemon peel for a Maraschino cherry. You hold in your hand a Manhattan!

  • Add 1 part Fernet Branca to the mix, and you’ll have a pleasingly bitter Toronto cocktail to keep you warm on a cold Winter night!

  • Feeling a bit like a lumberjack? Well, then…replace that Simple Syrup with maple syrup and add a few dashes of Black Walnut Bitters. You’re Canadian friends will weep with joy…politely, of course.

  • Feeling really cocky? Good! Go into your liquor cabinet. Way in the back, where those dusty, untapped bottles of strange stuff have been banished. What do you have there? Some funky Italian Amaro? A bottle of Nocino, Frangelico, or Amaretto? Some crazy German liquor that you can neither read nor pronounce? A collection of unconventionally-flavored Bitters, like Aztec Chocolate, Rhubarb, or Cherry? Pull them out, take a sniff, have a taste…and think. Would a spoonful of one or a dash of the other lift Mother to an even higher plateau? If you think so, then give it go.


    Whiskey Sour is that cocktail that your grandfather let you sip on the sly during some family function in 1975. You were only eight years old, but you liked it.

    When made correctly, a Whiskey Sour tastes great on a hot day and—as with the Old Fashioned—is the Mother Cocktail from whose loins a number of sour Children may spring.
    WHISKEY SOUR (i.e, the Sour Mother)
    4-8 parts Rye or Bourbon Whiskey
    2 parts freshly squeezed lemon juice
    1 part Simple Syrup
    Shake with ice, strain into a cocktail or rocks glass.

    That’s the Mother. Here are her Children:

    • Vigorously dry shake 1 egg white before adding the other ingredients, and you’ll have a thicker, creamier, frothy Whiskey Sour.

    • Replace the Rye/Bourbon with Brandy, replace the Simple Syrup with Cointreau or Triple Sec, serve in a sugar-rimmed glass, and garnish with lemon peel. You’ve just made a Sidecar!

    • Replace the Whiskey with Tequila, the lemon juice with lime juice, and serve in a salt-rimmed glass. Guess what? Tu tienes una Margarita!

    • Replace the Whiskey with White Rum and the lemon with lime juice. You be drinkin’ a Daquiri, mahn! No blender required…or welcomed!

    • Do you see how easy this is? Let’s continue!


      I was sitting in a bar in southern Italy around noontime in 2003, and noticed that most of the men were sipping a very pretty, intensely red drink. I asked the bartender what it was. He proudly informed, “Il Negroni!”

      Negroni is a bracingly bitter cocktail that’s often drunk as an aperitif. It’s not always love at first sip. Acquiring the taste may take a few tries. But once you’ve acquired it, you’ll be in love forever.

      And man-oh-man, is it easy to make!
      NEGRONI (i.e, the Bitter Mother)
      1 part Campari
      1 part Sweet Vermouth
      1 part Gin
      Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail or rocks glass, and garnish with orange peel.

      Mother, meet your Children:

      • Replace Campari with Aperol, and you’ll have a lighter, more citrusy, less bitter riff on the Negroni.

      • Replace the Gin with Rye Whiskey or Bourbon, and you’ll have a Boulevardier—Negroni’s tastier, more rugged offspring.

      • Replace the Gin with Spiced Rum, and you’ll be sipping a Kingston.


        And then there are those times—or those guests—that are just not up for adventure. You’re feeling bland….non-committal…neutral. And you want a cocktail that will taste great, but won’t challenge you. Who you gonna call?

        “Martini. Vodka Martini.”
        VODKA MARTINI (i.e, the Neutral Mother)
        2-4 parts Vodka
        1 part Dry Vermouth
        Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with three green olives.

        Even the plain Jane Martini bears some Children:

        • For a Dry Martini, change the Vodka to Vermouth ratio to 6:1. Or, in more extreme cases, simply coat your glass with Vermouth and fill it with ice cold Vodka. Worst case scenario: Just pour a friggin’ glass of cold Vodka.

        • Prefer a brighter, less pungent Martini? Skip the olives and instead garnish with lemon peel.

        • Feeling grown-up? Replace Vodka with Gin for a more complex, herbacious Martini.

        • Swap the olives for cocktail onions, and your Martini will become a Gibson. A couple dashes of Celery Bitters will make it better still.

        • Swap green olives for black olives, and your Martini is now called a Buckeye.

        • Change the proportions to 6 parts Gin, 2 parts Vodka, 1 part Lillet Blanc, and then garnish with lemon peel. You’ve just made a Vesper.


          You now have the tools to be a fisherman, rather than a fish eater. Congratulations.

          But your newly acquired, mad mixology skills cannot be kept quiet. They must be shared with—and shown off to—friends and family. At least, to those friends and family that agree to use Uber.

          So, throw a party. Host a get-together. And when an indecisive guest hems and haws over what to order, try the following line of questioning:
          Q1: Do you want something sweet, sour, bitter, or neutral?

          Q2: Do you tend to prefer brown liquors or white liquors?

          Q3: Do you like drinks with simple flavors, or complex?

          Q4: Which type of complexity do you like most? Citrusy? Fruity? Winey? Herbacious? Nutty? Spicy? Salty? Smoky?

          If (for example) the guest answers, “I want a neutral, white cocktail with simple, citrusy flavors,” then you’ll want to make a Vodka Martini with a twist of lemon peel.

          If she answers, “I want a bitter, brown cocktail with complex, spicy flavors,” then she’d probably appreciate a well-made Kingston.

          If he answers, “Gimme a sweet, brown cocktail that’s complex and winey,” then that dude needs a Manhattan.

          If she gushes, “I’d love a sour, white cocktail that’s salty and smokey,” then duuuuuh! Hola, Margarita!


          In the end, the precise recipe for a cocktail isn’t the most important thing. It’s the care that you use when making the cocktail itself. Listed below are some nuggets of wisdom that I’ve amassed during years of research, self-destruction, and tinkering at my kitchen island:

          • The simpler the cocktail, the more important the quality of your base liquor. An expensive Rye Whiskey works wonders in an Old Fashioned, but would be wasted in a Boulevardier.

          • Fill your cocktail or rocks glass with ice water before you start mixing the cocktail. That glass will be good and cold by the time you are ready to pour.

          • A cocktail has two mortal enemies: (a) warmth, and (b) water. So, add your ingredients to the shaker first. Add the ice last. Once you are done shaking or stirring, don’t let it sit on the counter while the ice continues to melt. Immediately strain that drink into your chilled cocktail or rocks glass.

          • If your cocktail contains fruit juice, then it should be shaken. If it doesn’t, then it should be stirred. Sorry, 007…but you’ve been doing all wrong. Stirring assures a crystal clear, ice shard-free cocktail. The only exception is the Bloody Mary (which should be “rolled”), but that’s a topic for another day.

          • Wisconsin, take note! Fruit juices should be freshly squeezed to order. Never use bottled juices or (god forbid) “Sour Mix.”

          • Don’t ever buy Simple Syrup! It’s a waste of money. You can make it yourself for mere pennies in five minutes. Just bring one cup of water to a boil, dissolve one cup of sugar into it, let it cool, and you’ve got Simple Syrup.

          • I prefer cocktails served up, rather than on the rocks. But if you take a cocktail on the rocks, then you want just one, very large ice cube or sphere—not a glass full of small ice cubes that will start melting before your first sip.

          • When garnishing with lemon, lime, or orange peel, express the oils over the surface of the cocktail, rub the peel two revolutions around the rim of the glass, then drop it into the drink. That peel should have no pith or pulp on the underside.

          • Not all cherries are created equal. Avoid those nuclear red sugar bombs found on supermarket shelves, and shell out the cash for a jar of Luxardo Maraschino or Griottines Morello cherries (i.e., the real thing!). The difference will be both mind-blowing and life-changing.

          • Rather than dealing with jiggers and ponies, buy an OXO Good Grips Mini Angled Measuring Cup. Measuring out liquors is faster, easier, and more precise with one of these. And they’re cheap!

          • A great source of quality, reasonably price bar ware is Cocktail Kingdom.

          • I recommend the following four books for your home cocktail library: Mr. Boston; The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique by Jeffrey Morgenthaler; The PDT Cocktail Book by Jim Meehan; and Bitters by Brad Thomas Parsons.

          • To stay on the cutting edge of cocktail culture, a subscription to Imbibe Magazine is a must.

          • The recipes above that I give for Mother Cocktails are written in proportions. Converting these to ounces or milliliters is easy, even for a math-phobe like me. The formula is as follows:

          • (# of parts liquor at issue/Total # of parts all liquors) * Total size of the cocktail (in either ounces or milliliters) = Amount of the liquor at issue (in ounces or milliliters) that you’ll need to add

            If a Whiskey Sour is 4:2:1 parts Whiskey to Lemon Juice to Simple Syrup and you want to make a 4 ounce drink, then you would add:
            (4/(4+2+1) = .57*4oz = 2.28 oz Whiskey
            (2/(4+2+1) = .29*4oz = 1.16 oz Lemon Juice
            (1/(4+2+1) = .14*4oz + .56 oz Simple Syrup
            Feel free to round up or down. Even the OXO Measuring Cup isn’t that precise.

            • There are bars and restaurants that pride themselves on serving cocktails as big as a human head. This is unconscionable…and it hurts. A cocktail should not exceed 4 ounces in total. Or, as the kids say, #NoMoreThan4! Your cocktail will remain chilled to the last sip, you’ll have a realistic possibility of having a second one, and most importantly…you’ll thank me in the morning.

            • In the end, cocktailing isn’t rocket science. Hell, it isn’t even science. It’s art. No cocktail recipe—regardless of how long-standing or generally accepted—is gospel. If you have a cocktail recipe that you like, keep tweaking it until it becomes one that you love.

              Then, share the love. You now have the skills to do it, and do it well.

              Friday, April 10, 2015


              Let’s take a little survey.

              ·      If Todd has ever fixed your car when he didn’t have to, raise your hand.

              ·      If he rewired your basement when he didn’t have to, raise your hand.

              ·      Or tiled your bathroom.

              ·      Or had you over for BBQ and Yuenglings.

              ·      Or took your phone call at 10pm on a Monday, explained why your car won’t start in the Walmart parking…and then walked you through how to get it started, raise your hand.

              If haven’t raised your hand to any of these questions, then you are clearly checking Facebook on your iPhone.  Busted!

              The point I’m trying to make is…that Todd cared.  But he more than cared.  He backed up his care with actions.  With deeds.

              Todd was a big, gregarious, endlessly energetic guy who loved helping practically anybody with practically anything…any time, anywhere.  He had the skills of McGyver, the personality of Norm from Cheers, and the heart of Mother Teresa.

              He would help you even if he didn’t like you.  But that’s a moot point, because Todd liked pretty much everybody.  Except, perhaps, whichever team was playing the Chicago Blackhawks on a given day.  Those idiots can change their own transmissions.

              Todd cared about his wife, children and grandchildren. 

              He was the gold-standard of househusbands.  He was a stepfather without the “step.”  He logged more hours at soccer games than Pele.  He coached his boys’ soccer teams, even though he never played the game in his life.  He, along with Terri, raised three kids so strong, polite and well-grounded that during the past week…THEY have been comforting US.  Todd showed through actions and deeds that no father or grandfather can be too engaged.

              Todd cared about his parents and siblings.  On this one, I don’t even know where to begin. 

              Well…for starters, he called us.  Constantly. 
              Ring, ring. 

              [Right hand telephone in ear] “Hello?” 

              [Left hand] “Waddyadoin’?!!!”

              [Right hand] “Not much. What are YOU doing?”

              [Left hand] “Nuthin’.  Just calling to see what’s up?” 


              He almost never missed a birthday, holiday or other family function.  And believe me, we have a lot of family functions.

              He did so much work on my house, my parent’s house and my brother’s house…that each one should have a sign hanging on the front door that says “The Todd Mahal.” 

              Seriously…you cannot walk five steps in any of our houses without encountering Todd’s handiwork.  And god forbid that any of us should have the gall…the reckless audacity…to even think about hiring some other handyman to do “Todd’s work.” 

              And every Winter…on the day of the first snowfall…Todd would receive a phone call from his brother asking the same question:  “Tell me again…how do I start this snow blower?”

              And every year, Todd would give the same answer:  “Do you see that rubber handle attached to a cord, College Boy?  Why don’t you try pulling twice and see what happens!”

              Todd cared about his employers.

              After graduating from Wyoming Technical Institute in 1990, he spent a year doing his dream job:  Working in the pit crew of the Dale Coyne Indy Race Team.  Randy Lewis was the driver.  During that year, he travelled to and worked at Indy races in Portland, Oregon…Toronto, Canada…Surfer’s Paradise, Australia (he hated the flight to that one)…and, of course, the Indy 500.

              With that out of his system, Todd started work as an Auto Technician with Max Madsen Mitubishi in Downers Grove—and stayed there for 24 years.  At Max Madsen, Todd was not just one of most skilled and well-respected technicians—he sold, I’ll betcha, more Mitsubishis over the years than Max’s top salesman.

              Todd cared about his friends.  And having fun with his friends.

              And man-oh-man!…he had a ton of friends.  My family and I simply can’t believe the sheer quantity of tributes that have been pouring in on Facebook during this past week.  Then again, we can.

              Todd cared. 

              But if he were standing at this podium today, what words of advice would he leave us with?  Well…there are a few.

              First…trade in that Volvo for a Mitsubishi!

              Second…take care of yourself.  See your doctor when you’re supposed to.  Check your blood pressure regularly.  Get that prostate exam.  Get that mammogram.  It may not make a difference.  Then again, it may.

              Third…always buy a high-quality Shop Vac.  Not some cheap piece of junk that sprays drywall dust all over your brother’s master bedroom.

              Fourth…give the gift of organ donation.  So that others may enjoy a Pittsburgh Steelers game that you can’t.

              Fifth…if you are a man…and you own a bathing suit that you bought in Europe…never, ever, EVER wear it in pubic in front of your family.  Because you WILL be made fun of today, tomorrow and every week for the next ten years.

              And finally…remember this…life is uncertain, so eat dessert first.

              I think we call can agree that Todd’s life was a 45 year-long dessert course.

              Thank you.

              Friday, March 21, 2014

              LIVE IT!

              "Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."

              Ralph Waldo Emerson

              Wednesday, January 22, 2014


              One must never eat at:

              1. Any restaurant that claims to be “Pan-Asian.”
              2. Any “Bistro” that’s not French.
              3. Any “Tapas” restaurant that’s not Spanish.
              4. Any “Grill” that’s not a steakhouse.
              5. Any restaurant that has a human first name and a gimmicky surname. (If you’ve ever eaten at Johnny Rockets, you’ll understand)
              6. Any restaurant whose menu tells the “story” of the restaurant.
              7. Any restaurant whose wait staff claims that “everything is good.”
              8. Any restaurant whose wait staff says the word “enjoy-“ in every sentence.
              9. Any restaurant whose wait staff says the word “whimsy” in any sentence.
              10. Any restaurant whose TV commercial features a voice over with an Italian accent. Or, for that matter…
              11. Any restaurant that advertises on TV or radio at all.
              12. Any Mexican restaurant that offers lettuce as an option.
              13. Any Thai restaurant whose menu crows, “We don’t use fish sauce!” (Really…I can’t make this shit up)
              14. Any Chinese restaurant…
              15. …except for the ONE Chinese restaurant in each major metropolitan area that’s actually pretty good.

              Unless you’re drunk, of course. Then, pretty much anything will taste good…except that fucking Thai restaurant.

              Tuesday, December 31, 2013

              MISSION I’M POSSIBLE.

              To make people laugh and learn through clear, concise writing that is entertaining, engaging, intelligent and informative.

              Given that this Virtual Tapas Bar (“VTB”) blog—neglected as it has been over the past five years—is my life’s second most proud creation, it seemed prudent that I should post something before the end of 2013.

              Prudent for two reasons.  First, to convince myself that I can still string together a series of coherent sentences after months of embarrassing, literary sloth.  And second, to prevent Blogger from deeming my account “abandoned” and sending in the Dalek’s to EX-TER-MIN-ATE the VTB before the twelfth chime of New Year’s Eve.

              So today I’ve decided to write a wee bit about…self-discovery.

              My own journey into self-discovery has been brewing for years.  Or, more accurately…my initial preliminary thoughts about possibly someday considering making a good-faith effort to motivate myself to perhaps take the first step toward exerting some of the time and energy required for starting the process of a journey of self-discovery.

              Prior to last month, I’d gotten no further than “preliminary thoughts.”

              But in 2013, things changed for two reasons.  First, I realized that the grey chest hair in my bathroom mirror was attached to a body that had just turned 46.  And second, Acme Low Carb Tongue Depressors, Inc.—the company for which I’ve worked the past seventeen years as a successful yet somewhat uninspired transactional attorney—was acquired by a private equity firm.

              Now, in the interest of full disclosure, (a) I’m in pretty good shape for an old dude, and (b) I’m not 100% certain that my job is in jeopardy.  But I’ve never been one to waste a good opportunity for hysterics.  So I logged onto and bought a Kindle copy of “What Color is Your Parachute” in order to figure out how I might make the second half of my life a bit more satisfying than the first.

              “Parachute” (as we in the mid-life crisis business like to call it) is a self-help classic that has sold millions of copies and helped generations of confused, career wanderers figure their shit out.  Its original copyright dates back to 12 B.C., and it is well-documented in my imagination that the book was instrumental in convincing the Apostle Paul to ditch his career as a tax attorney for a higher calling as VIP wine taster. 

              I was given a copy of Parachute when I first graduated college in 1989, and proudly displayed it on my bookshelf for years thereafter.  The problem, however, is that I never actually read it.  I mean…it’s a really thick book.

              But when I downloaded my new Kindle version of Parachute from the cloud last month, I plowed through it without hesitation.  That was easy, because you can’t tell how thick a book is when it’s downloaded into a Kindle.

              The heart, soul and genius of Parachute’s methodology is a series of seven, precisely-structured exercises designed to make the reader think—really think!—about who he is and what he wants out of life and career.  These are not simple exercises that you’d start and finish while watching an episode of Duck Dynasty.  No…some of them involve multiple steps and require page after page of list-making and brain-dumping. 

              Each of the seven exercises focuses on one important aspect of self-discovery:  1) your fields of interest; 2) the kinds of people you prefer to work with; 3) your favorite transferrable skills; 4) your favorite working conditions; 5) your required salary range; 6) your preferred place to live; and 7) your mission in life.

              I limited myself to just one exercise per day, in order to keep the mind sharp and boredom at bay.  And although each exercise was bloody hard work, each—without fail—yielded a golden nugget of self-discovery that was self-evident yet surprising at the same time. 

              But it was the seventh and final exercise—the “mission in life” exercise—that made me sit-up straight and say, “Fucking hell.  There it is!”

              So…what is my mission in life?

              To make people laugh and learn through clear, concise writing that is entertaining, engaging, intelligent and informative.

              And that, my friends, is the roadmap for the second half of my life.  A roadmap that I wouldn’t have in hand without the assistance of What Color is Your Parachute?

              Where’s your roadmap?

              Tuesday, March 19, 2013

              FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER, TOO!

              After years of resisting, the allure of 140 character workweek finally proved too seductive.

              As such, you can now following me (actually,'s a tag-team effort with my wife) on Twitter: