Buried within bartender and author Duggan McDonnell’s new book, Drinking the Devil’s Acre, is a simple but streamlined tip: Mix together several bottles of similar booze to create a “superior” base for mixing drinks.
Now why didn’t we think of that? It makes a lot of sense—and if you have a ton of not-quite-empty bottles left over from holiday festivities, now’s the time to give this versatile technique a try.
McDonnell, a partner with Cantina in San Francisco, is quick to note that he’s not the only barkeep who has hit on this idea. He points to a quote from tiki legend Donn Beach, who famously mixed and matched different types of rum for tropical drinks: “What one rum can not do, three rums can.”
Drinking the Devil’s Acre recommends blending several bottles of booze to create a superior base.
But McDonnell may be the only person to have codified the concept for so many liquor categories. Inspired by Beach—and frustrated by grabbing three bottles of rum to make a Daiquiri on a busy night—McDonnell mixed up his own rum blend.
“That was three or four years ago,” he recalls. Before long, McDonnell experimented with other blends, including tequila and whiskey. “All the Cantina cocktails were made with these blends. It was for ease of execution for my staff—and all these house-blended spirits were very intriguing. They have many different layers, a lot of complexity.”
Before long, he began to notice other bartenders doing the same thing. Daniel Shoemaker of Teardrop Lounge in Portland, OR, started making “the ultimate sherry blend.” Meanwhile, at Goose & Gander in Napa Valley, Scott Beattie was mixing Campari with Gran Classico for Negronis and blending Tennessee whiskey with rye for Manhattans. Over at the Burritt Room in San Francisco, Kevin Diedrich was stirring Martini Rosso with Punt e Mes to create a “house vermouth.” It wasn’t just a West Coast thing, either: In New York, Joaquin Simo was making his own blackstrap rum mix at Pouring Ribbons.
In other words, a secret weapon for bartenders had been hiding in plain sight all along.
“When I realized I was not alone—and that other people were doing the same—I went for it full bore,” McDonnell says. And why not? “It’s so simple to execute, and offers such rewards.”
Of course, it didn’t all come easy. Even for McDonnell, who is well familiar with mixing different spirits as a bartender (as well as mixing similar spirits together in his role as co-founder of Campo Encanto Pisco), ran into some road bumps.
“Vodka was the greatest challenge,” he recalls, namely building a blend that would be robust but still clean. The end result marries two types of vodka, plus splashes of pisco and Maraschino liqueur. “I had to break the rules a little bit to get the best result,” he admits. But of all the “superior” blends, the whiskey is the one to try, he says.
“Different age statements and types of whiskey create layers of spice, sweetness and charcoal,” McDonnell explains. “Within one bottle, you get the best of the American whiskey experience.”
The Boothby Cocktail, made with McDonnell’s superior cocktail whiskey blend.
Superior Cocktail Whiskey
Makes 1 quart/1 liter
Ideally, “cocktail whiskey” should be spicy, round, robust and yet balanced, McDonnell says. “Easy on the palate but not too easy. After all, this isn’t a sipping whiskey we’re building here. This is a whiskey that will be shaken and stirred aplenty.”
This blend uses Wild Turkey for spice, a sweeter, heavy-toasted sour mash Tennessee whiskey to balance with sweetness and depth and a 12-year-old bourbon to finish the blend, adding subtle layers of chocolate, leather and tobacco to the more robust whiskies.
17.5 oz / 500 ml Wild Turkey 81 Rye
10.5 oz / 300 ml Tennessee sour mash
7 oz / 200 ml Elijah Craig 12-Year-Old Bourbon
Blend the liquids in a large vessel, such as a one-gallon pitcher, then allow to rest for two weeks before using.
Mix it: Boothby Cocktail
By “Cocktail Bill” Boothby, adapted by Duggan McDonnell
1 oz Superior Cocktail Whiskey
1 oz Italian vermouth
Dash Orange bitters
Dash Aromatic bitters, such as Angostura
1.5 oz Sparkling wine
Glass: Coupe Garnish: Expressed orange peel
Pour the whiskey, vermouth and bitters into a mixing glass. Add ice, stir 40 times then strain into a coupe. Top with the sparkling wine, stir lightly again and delicately garnish the masterpiece with the orange peel.