Sleight of Hand

Pull these bottles out of your hat at your next cocktail party


By Tony Cross

In your lifetime, I’m sure you’ve heard someone say, “Oh, no. I don’t drink (insert tequila, gin or other spirit here) anymore; it makes me mean!” I’ve heard this among peers, and I’ve been instructed while bartending for guests on what not to use as a base spirit when someone has asked, “Will you just surprise me with whatever you want to make? Just don’t use whiskey, gin or tequila.” If this is speaking to you, then keep reading. A certain spirit has never made me mean; it’s quite the opposite — not having a spirit to sip on at the end of a long day, but that’s another story . . .

Here are a few drinks that you should try if you’re the least bit interested in adding those “mean spirits” to your repertoire. And, just for the record, it was probably the ton of drinks you consumed before that shot of tequila that made you make terrible life decisions while you time-traveled.

Aside from Aftershock, and Goldschläger, it seems like gin is a shoo-in for third place as the drink that most folks won’t return to after college. For many of you who dislike gin, it’s the London Dry style of gin that is a turnoff. Tons of juniper. You dislike juniper. Nowadays there are myriad distilleries that are turning out delicious (and not juniper-forward) gins. I used to play a trick on guests who wanted something “that tastes good with vodka.” I’d usually whip up a citrus-heavy concoction with Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin. Distilled in Bend, Oregon, and bottled in California, this lemon bomb of a gin has converted the most vehement anti-gin drinkers. Here’s a drink that I created when my little sis turned of age. She bugged me for two years to name a drink after her, so it was only fair that I obliged.

Heidi Lynne

1 1/2 ounces Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin

3/4 ounce Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur (sub Cointreau if you have to)

3/4 ounce lemon juice

1/2 ounce homemade grenadine*

Combine all ingredients into a cocktail shaker, add ice, and shake vigorously for 10 seconds. Double strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Add a very thin lemon wheel for garnish.

*Take 8 ounces of POM pomegranate juice and 12 ounces demerara sugar. Combine in pot over medium heat and stir until sugar is dissolved. Bottle, and place in refrigerator when cooled. Will last a few weeks.


I’m a little biased when it comes to rum. I can’t understand how someone can take a sip from a great rum cocktail and not feel happiness on the inside. In the past I just thought that these people have no soul. And while in certain cases, that statement carries some weight, the others are probably just misinformed, e.g., Bacardi and Coke. I always start with the daiquiri when introducing someone to rum. As I’ve written before, it’s the perfect example of balanced ingredients in a cocktail. Most folks know three kinds of rum: Bacardi, Captain Morgan and Malibu. That’s kind of like saying, “I’ve had a cheeseburger before, but only from McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s.” Then you go to a Five Guys, and your head explodes. Caña Brava is a white rum from Panama that’s aged three years. The 86 Company released this rum alongside a gin, tequila and vodka that are premium spirits with moderate pricing. Some of the biggest names in bartending created this company, and it shows. One of the indie liquor distributor’s former members, Dushan Zaric, had this to say of their rum: “Caña Brava rum is a very clean and fresh blanco with notes of sugar cane and citrus supported by flavors from oak. A balanced note of fresh cut green grass with honey, coconut and molasses. On the palate, it is smooth and clean with plenty of citrus and slight oak notes offering a touch of vanilla, cacao butter and dark chocolate.” Zaric’s recipes for old classics got me into the spirits game, so I believe anything he says. Now, let’s drink.


2 ounces Caña Brava Rum (or sub Flor de Caña seco)

3/4 ounce lime juice

1/2 ounce rich cane sugar syrup

Add all ingredients into a cocktail shaker, and shake like hell for 10 seconds. Strain into a chilled coupe glass. No garnish, or at least I don’t use one. If you’d like to put a spin on this, muddle a few blackberries in your shaker before adding liquid ingredients. Be sure to double strain when pouring into the coupe.


I’ll admit that whisk(e)y is one spirit I understand folks passing on. When I was 18, Jack Daniels was not my friend. Even worse, I thought that all whiskey tasted like Jack. These days, Jack and I are cool. I learned that there are (just like with all spirits) different ingredients, different distillation methods, and so on, that result in different flavor profiles. On paper, introducing someone to a bourbon whiskey sour would be a great start in converting a non-believer, but I’d like to suggest the Old Fashioned. I’ve had countless guests declare that they never thought they would enjoy an Old Fashioned but, once again, the balance of spirit, sugar, water and bitters round out this beautiful hooch. The recipe below is a slight tweak from Zaric (formerly 86 Co. and co-owner of New York City’s famed bar Employees Only). Employing a little bit of chocolate in this Old Fashioned adds depth with the bourbon and orange bitters.

Old Fashioned #7

2 ounces Smooth Ambler Old Scout Single Barrel Bourbon

1/4 ounce cacao nib-infused rich demerara syrup*

3 dashes Angostura

2 dashes orange bitters

Combine all ingredients in a chilled cocktail shaker. Add ice, and stir until you believe you’ve reached proper dilution. Strain into a rocks glass over ice. Garnish with a swath of lemon and orange peel.

*Cacao nib-infused rich demerara syrup: In a pot, combine 1/2 cup water and 8 ounces (by weight) of demerara sugar. Stir over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Place syrup in blender and add 1/4 cup of cacao nibs. Blend on low for 10 seconds. Put into a container and let sit for 4 hours. Strain through cheesecloth, bottle and refrigerate.  OH

Tony Cross is a bartender who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.

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