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Bartender Todd Thrasher of PX and Majestic explains how to make homemade mixers

By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; E01

There is no food-writing standby so familiar to readers as The Famous Chef Cooks at Home, especially around the holidays. We all want to see whether the maestro's magic can be duplicated outside a professional kitchen. Now that we also live in an age of celebrity bartenders, molecular mixologists and cocktail consultants running around with titles such as "executive bar chef" on their business cards, I wondered whether the time had come for a new Food section sub-genre.

So I approached Todd Thrasher, cocktail innovator at Restaurant Eve, PX and the Majestic, in Alexandria, about what I jokingly called "The Bar Chef at Home." Thrasher laughed and said, "Bar chef? Come on, dude. I am a bartender. And being a bartender isn't just about making drinks. You have to be able to tell stories, put people at ease, take care of them."

That's exactly what he did last week when I visited his home in Falls Church. "It's funny," Thrasher said a little self-consciously as I watched him start boiling various syrups and elixirs on his stove. "This is what I do every day. I'll be up in my kitchen until 3 a.m. experimenting. But I've never had an audience watching me do it."

It was refreshing to see just how straightforward it is to make memorable, even cutting-edge, cocktails. "People take pride in cooking dinner for others, but very few take pride in making drinks," Thrasher said. "It's more work, but it's worth it." Surprisingly, in many cases, it's not actually even that much more work.

Thrasher, 40, used his own life story to illustrate why no one needs formal bartending courses in order to make great drinks. He had bumbled into his first bartender job, at a bar in Richmond, after dropping out of college (where he'd been, oddly enough, both a fashion-design major and a varsity baseball player). "I pretty much lied and said I knew how to bartend," he said. "I brought a 'Mr. Boston' bartending book to work on my first night."

After that there was a short stint at Hard Rock Cafe, among other bars and restaurants, before Thrasher landed at José Andrés's Cafe Atlantico, where he spent six years. Then, after a brief stop at Signatures, he landed at Eve in 2004. Now, of course, Thrasher is considered among the finest bartenders in America, and his cocktails at PX and the Majestic help set the local standard. His house-made bitters, tonics and infusions are part of mixology's avant-garde.

But in his kitchen, Thrasher's advice veered toward the basics. "I want to make sure people measure. You should always measure when you're making cocktails so the results are consistent," he said. "Sometimes, bars think they're doing you a favor by overpouring, but they're not." He also insists that home bartenders should always use fresh juices and avoid artificial ingredients at all costs.

Some of Thrasher's mixer recipes are so straightforward that they make one feel a little stupid for ever having relied on store-bought versions. Grenadine, for instance, is a quick and uncomplicated recipe involving pomegranate juice, lemon juice, sugar and orange peels. We've all been buying bright red, high-fructose-corn-syrupy "grenadine" for so long that most of us have probably forgotten -- or never knew -- that grenadine is supposed to be a pomegranate syrup. That means real grenadine ends up being purple in color. The accompanying homemade recipe is delicious, though the color might create a few minor dilemmas. For instance, the classic Jack Rose now becomes a Jack Mauve. And perhaps the Tequila Sunrise ends up being more like a Tequila Sunset. But I'm willing to make those tradeoffs.

Cranberry juice is even simpler: a matter of combining fresh cranberries, sugar and water, then blending and straining. As Thrasher poured me a glass, he said: "How much time did that take? Three minutes? And you have something better than anything you can buy in a store." The result is a brighter, tangier cranberry juice that's a much more vibrant shade of red. So-called "100% cranberry juice" in a plastic bottle can't compete; after all, who knows how long it has been sitting on the shelf?

The most famous cranberry cocktail is, of course, the oft-maligned Cosmopolitan. But, trust me, a Cosmo with fresh cranberry juice is nothing to sneer at. As a further alternative, Thrasher mixed us the Provincial, called such because "it's the opposite of whatever the Cosmopolitan is." Instead of vodka, the Provincial calls for rhum agricole, and instead of the usual, awful Rose's lime juice, it calls for Key lime syrup and candied Key lime wheels.

Infused spirits, which make great holiday gifts, are even easier: Just add spices, herbs and fruit to booze and set in a sunny window for a few days. Thrasher said he's always had a soft spot for spiced rums and even admits that Captain Morgan-and-Coke is his guilty drinking pleasure. But I've always been amazed by how few good spiced rums exist. No matter; now I know how to make my own, and it is delicious. Relatives and friends shouldn't be surprised if they receive a gift bottle of Captain Jason Spiced Rum. (Perhaps with a photo label of me in a pirate costume? Okay, maybe not.) Thrasher also created an easy hibiscus-and-vanilla-infused vodka that transformed a bland spirit into a lovely liqueur.

From basic infusions, we moved on to slightly more advanced mixology. Cold Buttered Rum (spiced rum infused with Kerrygold butter) requires some technique, though not much. If you can clarify butter, you should be good to go.

As for making tonic water, the only truly challenging part might be sourcing quinine powder (I found it online and locally at La Cuisine in Alexandria). Back in August 2007, I first made one of Thrasher's tonic recipes. The spicier Winter Tonic we made recently is even easier and, I think, tastier. Thrasher said he has honed his tonic-making abilities: "When I did this four years ago, I didn't know what I was doing. But now I have 15 recipes. And I'm always experimenting." As with grenadine, homemade tonic comes out a surprising color -- brown -- and the taste is nothing like Canada Dry, Schweppes or the other too-sweet brands we're used to.

Perhaps the real magic of Thrasher's concoctions is his ability to make people reconsider the flavors they think they already know. He still occasionally runs into bar patrons who blanch at first when served his homemade ingredients. "They're so used to the artificial flavors, they actually miss them!" he marvels. It doesn't take long for him to change their minds.

Recipes

My Tahitian Dream

Winter Tonic Water

Jack Mauve

Provincial

Homemade Cranberry Juice

Cold Buttered Rum

Spiced Rum

Homemade Grenadine

Candied Key Limes & Lime Syrup

Hibiscus-Vanilla Liqueur

ason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

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