Balance Behind the Bar

Lara Nixon is a living, breathing example of the adage “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” The bar craft maven, who co-owns Bad Dog Bar Craft with colleague Jason Stevens, just released a third craft bitter (this one Bloody Mary-inspired), travels the country teaching cocktail classes and just published a children’s book called A is for Absinthe: A Spirited Book of ABCs.

And that’s when she’s not busy with her full-time career as a child advocate with her own private practice, or leading an eight-man crew team on Lady Bird Lake.

“The reason I started doing bar craft work was because I needed balance… I needed to have a creative outlet.”

“And now I have a miniature farm happening apparently,” says Nixon, who realized she could never make it back from crew practice in time to get fresh eggs from the farmer’s market. So, the natural solution was to build a coop and raise six hens, before adding a couple goats to the mix.

“I really enjoy all this stuff,” she explains. “It is problem-solving, but the process of figuring it all out is really rewarding. And, because I’m slightly type A, I really want to do it the best way possible.”

Her interest in bar craft unfolded in a similarly organic way. “The reason I started doing bar craft work was because I needed balance,” she remembers. “The work that I do with families and children is really emotionally intensive and I needed to have a creative outlet. So cooking and doing bar craft became that.” And when friends started to inquire about purchasing her homemade bitters, she decided to start a line of those as well.

Lara recently returned from an International Association of Culinary Professionals fundraiser in Chicago, where she crafted handmade vermouth and paired cocktails with dishes by Ray Bayless, Bryant Terry, Maxime Bilet, and more. Nixon’s creation of handmade vermouth was another pastime born of a need. “For the longest time, we couldn’t get anything by Noilly Prat and Martini & Rossi, which have their place,” she explains. “What we had to choose from was so limited, and there were so many specialty cocktails that I was doing – I just started to make my own.”

Turns out creating your own aromatized wine is actually quite simple, and a very tasty vermouth can be made from even the cheapest wine. Below Nixon shares a recipe for a mid-sweet blanc vermouth that she often uses to balance out her cocktails – “It’s just something you can do to make an interesting drink out of something that otherwise wouldn’t have been very palatable.”

Mid-Sweet Blanc Vermouth

Materials needed:

  • strainer
  • cheesecloth
  • large spoon
  • cleaver or mortar and pestle – for crushing dried herbs and botanicals.
  • container

“The Asian ceramic pots [we used] can be found at any Asian market. They’re for hot pots or making kimchi – and they’re cheap!” says Nixon. “They’re excellent vessels because you can clean them, they’re porcelain, and they retain the temperature really well. They have a lid but they’re not airtight, because you do want some oxidation.”

Ingredients:

  • 1 bottle dry white wine (chardonnay, pinot grigio, or chablis would all work well)
  • chamomile (¼ t dry)
  • jasmine (¼ t dry)
  • half a stick of crushed cinnamon
  • 4 crushed white peppercorns
  • 2 dried apricots, torn
  • wild cherry bark (1/8 t dry)
  • 2 oz spirits (vodka or gin for a drier vermouth or a liqueur for a sweeter vermouth)

Directions:

1. Empty entire bottle of wine into the ceramic container. Measure and add each of the ingredients.

“Always start with the tiniest bit,” says Nixon. “These measurements are really good benchmarks. Because you can always increase, but you can’t extract it once it’s in there.”

2. Fortify the mixture with 2 ounces of spirits. Nixon recommends vodka or gin for a drier vermouth, or a fruit-based liqueur for a mid-sweet.

3. Put the container in the refrigerator and stir it several times a day. Most of the time, extractions will be complete within 48 hours.

“Some people do a bouquet garni and throw it in some cheesecloth, but it doesn’t work like that,” Nixon explains. “You really need to let it macerate in your actual liquid because, if you tie it up, it doesn’t interact as much with the surface area of the liquid — it just doesn’t work as well.”

4. Your vermouth should be ready to drink in 48 hours. Strain into a serving vessel and keep it refrigerated. Enjoy your vermouth over the rocks with a slice of lemon or orange, or use it to enhance a cocktail.

“The classic for a dry vermouth is a dry martini, which is made with gin,” says Nixon. “And gin is very botanical — it’s very pungent and aromatic. The martini is designed around enhancing the gin and elongating the gin to decrease the amount of alcohol by volume. So instead of drinking two ounces of that 40 ABV cocktail, you’re drinking 3 ounces of a lesser ABV cocktail. So the vermouth is designed to pair with it, to smooth out the rough edges.”

5. Get creative! Try substituting rose, lavender, calendula, or chrysanthemum in place of jasmine or chamomile. And while vermouth should technically contain at least a little bit of wormwood as the bittering agent, cherry bark is used in this recipe and gentian can also be used.

“When I buy stuff locally, I do it at the Herb Bar. I love those guys,” says Nixon. “They’re so knowledgeable and their herbs are super fresh. When you go in and look at their flowers, they’re just beautiful.”

Photography & Video: Chris Perez
Video Editing: Brooke Blanton


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