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Some ways to shake up the holidays

I don’t remember when or even where I had my first craft cocktail. But it must have made an impression, because I started exploring making cocktails at home and even putting together my own creations about a decade ago. 

There are two bars in my dining room and another area for Richard’s scotch collection. Ironically, other than for several weeks at the beginning of the pandemic when we were all shut in, most of the bottles have collected dust. After starting a cocktail program at Lark, I’ve pretty much let the professionals do their thing. There are still a few cocktails on the menu, like the Daisy Jane and Fig Leaf, that were my creations, but Lark’s Lia Pennacchi is in a league of her own. I’m a rank amateur.

But being an amateur mixologist can be a lot of fun. The risk is ending up with a dining room like mine — one impulse bottle after another inspired by making an intriguing cocktail. It also meant that Richard and I hosted some rocking parties, though, and that was definitely a benefit.

Starting your own home cocktail program

Since many of us are rightfully nervous about sitting at a bar this winter, learning how to make a few favorite cocktails is an entertaining way to slake your thirst and try something new. Unfortunately, Wisconsin law doesn’t allow us to sell cocktails to go, but if you prioritize your favorites to keep your ingredient list limited, you can create many of them at home.

There are a bunch of cocktail books out there. Some of them are coffee-table cocktail porn, like The Aviary’s book, which is way beyond my skill set. Others are sort of in-between, like Death & Company’s compendium of recipes that is more advanced but not too out-there. And then there are books aimed squarely at the average home bartender. Of those, my favorite is Three Ingredient Cocktails by Robert Simonson, a well-regarded writer about cocktails and a Milwaukee native. He’s written an entire book just about the Old Fashioned, including the Wisconsin variety. I like his Three Ingredient book because the recipes are simple but varied and really tasty. We carry the book at the Market. I’ve given it to several people as presents and they love it.

Lia Pennachi shakes it up with BarFly tools at Lark's bar.

The home mixologist needs some equipment. In particular, a Boston shaker, jigger, Hawthorne strainer, and bar spoon. A muddler is also a good purchase, particularly if you like making Wisconsin Old Fashioneds, but a wooden spoon works, too. We offer an affordable, professional-quality basic bar tool kit from BarFly. You can find cheaper kits at the big box stores, but they tend to be flimsy. Spend a bit more and you’ll have tools that last for years.

As for glassware, I’m a big believer in vintage. Cheaper, new glasses tend to break easily. Really good ones are expensive. Scouting out the aisles at Carousel Consignments or Modern Charm in downtown Janesville will likely yield some excellent finds that are inexpensive and of good quality. A lot of our glasses at Lark have come from Carousel. 

 Vintage Nick & Nora style glass from Carousel Consignments.

Everything is better with bitters

An easy way to take cocktails up a notch is by adding bitters. Just a couple drops can add a lot of depth and complexity to a basic cocktail. And playing around with bitters can be fun. We carry a selection of bitters including Peychaud’s, a classic New Orleans concoction of gentian root, anise and mint. It’s the secret ingredient in a Sazerac or Vieux Carre. We also carry Angostura, the most commonly available bitters and a must-have for a Wisconsin Old Fashioned. Angostura shares the gentian-root base of Peychaud’s, but without the anise and mint flavors.

As cocktails have become more popular, a wide variety of small, artisan bitters companies have started up making everything from leather and tobacco-inspired bitters to chocolate mole bitters and every flavor combo in between. We carry a selection of bitters from Bittercube, a company founded by a couple of rather obsessive Milwaukee-based bartenders. After going to one of their presentations a few years ago, I came to the conclusion that even coke dealers are less obsessed with measuring grams than these guys. We have two bitters sets available for the holidays from Bittercube. Having an assortment of bitters is much like having a good spice rack for cooking — it opens up lots of opportunity for experimentation and discovery.

Mixers and garnishes

At Lark’s bar, Lia makes a lot of flavored syrups that go into some of our most popular cocktails. We offer several of them at Lark Market, along with recipe cards to give you ideas on how to use them. We also regularly stock Fig Leaf mix, so you can enjoy one of our signature drinks at home. 

For the holidays, we offer our Tom & Jerry batter, which tends to fly out of our freezer once December is here. Our Hot Chocolate Concentrate is another winner. It comes in three flavors and is made with rich Valrhona chocolate. Swiss Miss it’s not.

In addition, we carry Bushel & Peck’s popular Bloody Mary Mix, along with their Dilly Beans for a sour, crunchy garnish. 

Quince & Apple, a Madison-based company best known for their preserves, also makes cocktail mixers. We carry their versatile Tart Cherry Grenadine (it’s usually made with pomegranate) and Lime Cordial, which beats the pants off of Rose’s Lime. 

And finally, you haven’t had a cocktail cherry until you’ve had a Luxardo maraschino cherry. Made in Italy, these candied cherries are soaked in cherry syrup (which also makes for a tasty addition to cocktails). These are dense, dark little flavor bombs of cherry delight. No Red Dye #3 in these bad boys! 

Starting shaking it up

We also carry a selection of spirits that you will see on Lark’s back bar. We try to use the best quality, small-batch distillers, so you might not recognize a lot of the brands we carry. Discovering new spirits is another big part of the fun of home mixology. We can also work with you to special order that funky liqueur or whiskey you can’t seem to find anywhere else. We can’t always source it, but we will give it the college try. And we love a good hunt. Stop in and talk with us.

So don’t let the pandemic deprive you of a fine cocktail. If you can’t enjoy one at Lark, make it at home. We can help get you started.