Bartender team stresses quality ingredients, like agave nectar for margaritas
New Yearâs Eve is the perfect time to dress up drinks with garnishes.
âItâs like a costume for a drink,â said Todd Stowell, lead bartender at the Twisted Willow restaurant in downtown Port Washington.
âHave fun with it. When you have umbrellas in a drink, it feels tropical. â
On a Brandy Alexander thick with ice cream, Stowell adds an artistic swirl of whipped cream on one side, fresh grated nutmeg and two gingersnaps.
The garnish, whether an inedible umbrella or an array of fresh or marinated vegetables for a Bloody Mary, sets the mood and anticipation for the drink, he said.
The perfect old fashioned, martini, Manhattan or Harvey Wallbanger differs according to the bartender and customer, but there are some things one can do to make any drink special.
Stowell and Joe Buth, Twisted Willow bar manager, shared a few tips. They willingly provided key ingredients for their favorite drinks, but not exact recipes, saying bartenders, like chefs, have their secrets.
At the top of the list, both agreed, is to use fresh ingredients and high-quality alcohol and mixers.
To make a really good old fashioned, which is basically whiskey, sugar, bitters and water, muddle an orange slice, maraschino cherry and sugar in the bottom of the glass until the sugar is dissolved and juices are released. Fill the glass with ice cubes, add bourbon, bitters and water and garnish with an orange slice and cherry.
âMuddling is the key,â Buth said. âEven something as simple as vodka and orange juice will taste better if you muddle the orange. It brings out the flavor.â
The bartenders use a wooden muddler that is rounded on one end and squared on the other end. Buth uses the round end, while Stowell prefers the square end. The pestle from a mortar and pestle can also be used.
Margaritas should be made with agave nectar not sugar, Buth said. Thatâs the way the drink is made in Mexico.
Avoid pre-mixed drinks, Stowell said.
âItâs like baking a pie. Itâs going to be better if you make it from scratch,â he said.
For Brandy Alexanders, Buth makes a large tub full of ice cream, brandy and creme de cacao, and bartenders scoop out whatâs needed.
He lets vanilla bean ice cream soften, then uses a blender to incorporate the liquors, using about two cups brandy and 1-1/2 cups creme de cacao to one gallon of ice cream. He taste-tests the concoction until he finds the right blend of flavors.
For the holidays at the Twisted Willow, a large glass jar with a spigot holds a spiced mixture of cranberry juice, apple cider, orange zest (the white pith, which can make the drink bitter, is removed), whole allspice, cinnamon sticks and fresh cranberries.
Itâs perfect for a holiday party because it can be served hot or cold with or without alcohol.
Stowell uses the mixture, which is called merry berry juice, for a twist on the traditional cranberry cosmopolitan martini. Martini glasses are always filled with ice cubes to chill, so theyâre cold when the drink is strained into the glass.
At his home parties, Stowell said, he often serves coffee drinks.
âI love coffee and love coffee drinks,â Stowell said. âIt can be as simple as coffee and Irish whiskey topped with whipped cream and little fresh grated nutmeg.â
He and Buth grate fresh nutmeg and other spices whenever possible rather than using ground spices.
Buth develops the drink menu, which lists ingredients, and is kept in a binder that customers peruse. He likes to experiment with new drinks and adds them to the list if they pass the taste test with the staff and owners.
Two new offerings at Twisted Willow are Hot & Sour Manhattan (muddled sugar, bitters, lemon and maraschino cherry, bourbon, simple syrup and tabasco sauce served in a martini glass with a sugared rim) and an old standard popular with sailors, the Dark & Stormy, made with rum, ginger beer and lime.
Each bartender brings unique talents to the bar, which is frequently packed with diners waiting for tables, folks enjoying the live music on weekends and others there to choose from the wine and beer lists or sip a well-made cocktail.
Stowell, who majored in classical guitar and pre-med studies at the Univeristy of Wisconsin-Madison, backpacked through 33 countries in four years, enjoying the cultures and learning to make the cuisine and drinks native to the regions. He was a kindergarten teacher in Thailand, where he met his wife, and owned a rock climbing business in Baraboo before moving to Port Washington six months ago.
When not bartending, Stowell is a stay-at-home dad, taking care of his son Harper, 3, and daughter Yahna, 2. His wife is a veterinarian in Brookfield.
Buth, who grew up in Saukville, worked in restaurants all his life and lived in western states for 15 years. One of his favorite jobs was as a barista in a lodge at Yellowstone National Park.
âI made coffee drinks four days a week and hiked and camped for three days. It was a great life,â Buth said.
He was also a chef in a seafood bistro and was an intern on an organic farm in Oregon.
Image Information: The Twisted Willowâs bar manager Joe Buth reveals (some of) the secrets of a perfect cocktail.