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Thirsty Thursday: Checking in with Brian Johnson of Better Cocktails at Home

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on Oct. 24, 2013 at 3:00 pm | No Comments »
October 24, 2013 4:10 pm
Pictured here, Brian and Brooke Johnson on Tacoma. They produce a web show called Better Cocktails At Home. Photo courtesy of the Johnsons.
Pictured here, Brian and Brooke Johnson on Tacoma. They produce a web show called Better Cocktails At Home. Photo courtesy of the Johnsons.

Brian Johnson’s not a bartender, but he plays one on video. The Tacoman is one year and 54 episodes into a  video hobby that tells Tacomans how to make better cocktails at home. That’s also the name of his weekly video series on YouTube.

Johnson’s not the kind of guy who will spend an episode dictating how to steep your own digestif with 324 varieties of hand-harvested forest herbs or how to dust a rim with magic truffle glitter. That’s because he’s lazy. (His words, not mine.)

To make a better cocktail at home, Johnson’s edict is simple. Keep a well-stocked bar. Learn to balance sweet with sour. Use the right spirit with the right mixer. And, most of all, invite friends over to drink your mistakes.

Here’s Johnson’s take on his weekend hobby as a video bartender.

Q: You’ve never worked in cocktailing, right?
A: I’ve got zero professional experience. I’ve never worked in a bar in my life – ever.

Q: Can you tell readers about how you got into perfecting your drinks at home?
A: It was probably 2008ish, I was sitting at home one day and I was like, the drinks I make are terrible. They were not good. I was on my laptop and I did a Google search for a margarita recipe. I found a video for this guy he seemed like he knew what he was doing. In the video, he was talking about the history and the basis of it.

Q: Did something connect there for you?
A: Yeah. I started watching more videos and reading new books and trying new stuff. I liked the history aspect of it a lot. That’s what drew me to it.

Q: Are you someone who could spend hours putting a dish together for dinner?
A: Me and my wife (Brooke Johnson) hate cooking with a passion. Part of our problem is we never put a lot of effort into doing it right. Or, we spend an hour into slaving away on it and it turns out mediocre. Whereas if I spend 5 minutes making a drink, I’ve only wasted 5 minutes. I thought, ‘This is fun because it takes little time and it’s still delicious.”

Q: Who shoots your video and do you ever let the videographer drink the cocktails?
A: Everything we do is just me and my wife. It was a little rough at first. She’s a business and tax lawyer and she does not have the experience. We film after we put our 2-and-a-half-year-old to bed. In the videos if I’m not looking so alert it’s because we’re filming at 10:30 at night at the end of our day. She films everything; she brings me water and makes sure the set looks nice.
The way it works, we’ll film two cocktails in one session. Each one we film, we film twice. We do one where the camera is on me – we don’t have two cameras. First we do the wide angle.The whole thing with the camera and the tripod, then we do the exact same over and she gets close-ups of the drinks.

Q: Are you democratic in divvying up your drinks?
A: Each session there’s four cocktails, and no cocktail goes to waste on our show.

Q: Do you tell your wife what’s in the cocktail before you serve it?
A: She basically just taste tests everything I make, but sometimes I won’t tell her what’s in it just to see what she thinks of it first. If I make cocktails for people when they come over, a lot of time I’ll make stuff and not tell them what’s in it. There was one cocktail I made this summer that uses sherry as a base. If I told someone it was based on sherry, they might not even taste it. I sometimes won’t tell them until afterwards.

Q: Where do you film?
A: In our attic. (It was) a little rough this summer. It was 115 degrees up there. I would just be dripping sweat.

Q: For a hobby, you spend a lot of time on your video series, don’t you?
A: Yeah, I think we produce a really good product and if you see what I spent on this, it’s not much. I think we’ve spent probably like $1,400 or $1,500 and I think we have really good production for that cost.

Q: Your bar tools are nothing exceptionally fancy, right?
A: What’s cool about making cocktails is you can get really good tools for $50-$60. A Boston shaker, a Hawthorne strainer, these are like $12 or $20 apiece. You can get all your tools for $60, but you can make a lot of stuff with them. The real expense is the product, the bottles of liquor.

Q: What is the one thing a cocktailer could make from scratch that would really improve their cocktails, but doesn’t take much effort?
A: Simple syrup by far. It’s super easy and has the biggest impact on the flavor of your cocktail. When you make a cocktail with sugar, it never dissolves correctly. The simple syrup distributes the sweet throughout the drink. I use the cold method, if you use a ratio of one to one (sugar to water), it goes pretty quickly. Plus you can do other stuff. Instead of simple syrup, you can make a brown sugar simple syrup, it will totally change the flavor of the cocktail.

Q: Who are the best cocktail slingers in Tacoma?
A: Tacoma Cabana and Hilltop Kitchen. Maybe this is my total snobbery, I won’t buy cocktails anywhere else.

Q: What does Tacoma need to do to get better at cocktailing?
A: That’s one thing I can’t figure out with restaurants.They’re concerned about having really good chefs and their cocktails are so disgusting, these sugary things with a float of rum on top.

Q: Why are they so sweet?
A: We started seeing that back in Prohibition to mask really bad spirits. That’s when they started down that road and it just kind of – you come out of that in the 40s and 50s and that’s when tiki rose to popularity. And tiki drinks that are well made are balanced, but they are sweet, you got some influence there. Then you move into the ‘60s ‘70s and ‘80s where it’s a dark period of cocktails where you get vodka with orange juice. Now there are high fructose corn syrups and everything.

Q: Which flavors would you like to see become more popular?
A: There’s a lot of things the American palate is not used to, like the whole anise category. It’s so popular in Europe. The whole amaro thing, they’re tasty and delicious. Amaros are really pretty sweet, but the interaction with the bitterness suppresses the sweetness. I’m always surprised from my experience that people are more open to trying different foods than they are different spirits and I don’t know why. People always say, ‘That’s my drink, that’s what I get every time.’ They won’t step outside and try something else.

Q: What’s your latest project?
A: I always think it’d be cool to do drinks that have a local connection. Lately I’ve been making Tacoma bitters that capture the smells and flavors of the area. I like those connections.

Q: What’s in a Tacoma bitters?
A: They’re woodsy and earthy with a touch of ocean to it. I’m kind of designing this drink in my mind. We were at the Ruston waterfront beach a few months ago and I happened to be on the dock where Top of the Ocean used to be. I saw that and I thought that could be a cool drink. What if you could somehow make a drink back in the 40s, what would they have been drinking then? What kind of martini would you have in your hand if you were sitting there looking out at the ocean?

Find “Better Cocktails At Home” on Facebook here.

A few videos from “Better Cocktails At Home”
Making crystal clear ice at home.
What to do with leftover sage and ginger?
Brian makes his dad’s favorite drink.
How to make a Zaza.

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