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Photograph: Jakob N. Layman1886 Bar

I thought lockdown made me a better mixologist. Then I went back to a bar.

Wait, you can’t just add rum to something and call it a cocktail?

Michael Juliano
Written by
Michael Juliano

I've only ever thoroughly stocked my home liquor cabinet twice: once to tinker with recipes for my wedding cocktails, and the other as the entire world was shutting down.

I wouldn’t really consider myself a regular drinker, and in the before-times I would mostly leave the mixology to the pros: bartenders. For those occasional at-home moments, I’d turn to a bow-tied bottle or two from the holidays or the odd office castoff (working at Time Out for many years has meant being able to pilfer some mulberry gin or local whiskey among our otherwise awful-tasting unsolicited mail).

For the first bar-stocking occasion, my now-wife and I needed to settle on a pair of signature cocktails for our wedding, so we poured and shook and swizzled and sipped until we landed on a twist on a Dark ’n’ Stormy with muddled blackberries, and an effervescent mix of jasmine tea, gin, St-Germain, a splash of tonic water and a squeeze of lemon, topped with edible flowers.

The second, in mid-March 2020, was unquestionably less cheerful. I hauled a cardboard box back from the liquor store filled with bottles of gin, whiskey, bourbon and rum to complement the vodka and St-Germain that were already sitting in our cabinet of our Pasadena apartment (plus some Kahlua to griddle breakfast with the sophistication of a college sophomore).

Our wedding anniversary came within the first few months of lockdown, so we turned to a pared down version of our favorite of the two marital concoctions, essentially a Triple G with ginger ale instead of ginger beer for that last “g,” simply because that’s what we had in the fridge. It became the go-to for any at-home special occasion, enough so that carefully measured ingredients quickly gave way to increasingly confident “that looks about right” pours.

Sugarfish to-go dinner
Photograph: Michael JulianoAn early-lockdown birthday meal of Sugarfish with a much less impressive looking homemade cocktail.

That mixology mettle grew bolder as lockdown endured. Whenever I was left with an unbalanced remaining supply of spirits, every half-finished can and carton in the fridge prompted the question “I wonder if I could just add rum to this?,” with all the precision of a little kid playing alchemy with soaps and shampoos in the tub. This, of course, led to some truly disastrous outcomes: A mix of zero-calorie black cherry soda and rum was as regrettable as the free stream of Love Never Dies that it was supposed to make more palatable. But it also led to some happy accidents, like spiking the leftover almond milk with rum and a sprinkling of cinnamon to make a surprisingly satisfying at-home-brunch stand-in for a boozy horchata.

Had enough time elapsed, I might’ve even started to let people outside of just my wife and I sample my recipes. But before I could ever let that happen, I ordered a properly-made cocktail at a bar. Have you ever seen that fantastic Freaks and Geeks episode where Jason Segel discordantly bangs his drums to Rush but thinks he sounds like Neil Peart? Yeah, it turns out that had basically been me.

Aside from some local to-go cocktails (shout out to La Grande Orange’s white sangria and Magnolia House’s old-fashioned), my first honest-to-goodness in-person cocktail in months appropriately came at my absolute favorite bar, 1886 (though technically served at the Raymond, the alfresco restaurant it’s attached to). The Rabbit’s Fur Coat is a sublime Christmas-in-July kind of cocktail, with vodka, cinnamon syrup, honey, pineapple, lime and nutmeg. It’s also a clear-cut lesson that I merely know how to toss a medley of liquor into a glass; a top-notch bar knows how to meld its tipples with intention.

Sana, Sana Pain Killer at LA Cha Cha Chá
Photograph: Courtesy Adrian MartinSana, Sana Pain Killer at LA Cha Cha Chá.

Every drink out since then has only increased the gulf between my at-home mixing and bartenders’ proper mixology. Am I really going to know how to effectively use vineyard peach liqueur, spend the time to perfectly cleave ice cubes or procure a swirling frozen margarita machine? No, no and do freezer pops and some tequila count? Then no. There’s also a sense of place and service that simply can’t be recreated at home. Cooling off with the cachaça, rhum and mandarin Jarritos-based Sana, Sana Pain Killer at LA Cha Cha Chá’s frond-filled rooftop is a transportive moment, and as each successive order hits the other end of the bar, I think, “great choice, enjoy your sip of paradise.”

Back at home, I’m largely back to leaving it to the pros, but in an unexpectedly full circle kind of way: My fridge is now full of four-packs of locally-made ready-to-drink canned cocktails that I first discovered while out at a bar. LA Cha Cha Chá introduced me to Elenita’s sparkling mix of mescal, cucumber, lime and basil, an astoundingly refreshing complement to the swimming pool that I don’t have. At the Black Cat, just one sip of former Harvard & Stone bar manager Aaron Polsky’s pompously-titled Golden God and I was sold. Its delightful mix of rye whiskey and brandy with apricot, green tea and elderflower sort of echoes my own go-to cocktail recipe—and I’ll be the first to admit that Polsky’s creation is obviously superior to mine. But I’m not ready to give up making that one quite yet.

See how else we’re raising a glass to bars around the world.

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