Brian Johnson’s not a bartender, but he plays one on video. The Tacoman, who works a day job in marketing, is one year and more than 60 episodes into a video hobby that tells viewers 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 message 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.
With New Year’s Eve approaching, I checked in with Johnson about the YouTube series he publishes with his wife, Brooke Johnson, and asked him about the best potions for a party. Johnson also shared two cocktail recipes.
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: 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 3-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.
Q: With New Year’s Eve almost here, can you give recommendations for drinks to make at a party?
A: I think the key is if you’re at a big thing, a group thing, you have to think about preparing a punch. … You’ll spend a good and complete hour – depending on how complex it is – preparing it. But once people are there, people can serve themselves, it’s easier for a group thing.
There’s a book called “Punch,” by David Wondrich. It’s the bible of making punch. The author has a Ph.D. – he does amazing primary source researching, so I pretty much follow that.
Q: Tell readers about that author’s best advice for making punch.
A: In general with a punch, you need to have at least four components. Basically, you need a spirit of some kind, something sweet, something sour and then something (that’s) called a weak component – tea or champagne, or something like that.
Q: Can you explain the weak component a bit more?
A: I think it come out of the Caribbean. Just remember the saying – one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak. If you follow that, you can do what you want. The kind of ingredients you use are going to change the flavor.
Q: Are there any ingredients to avoid in making a punch?
A: Most people when they make punch make it with 7-Up which is disgusting and too sweet. We filmed a punch, I think it was last fall, it was a really simple punch. It was simple syrup, lime juice, black tea and rum. It’s a super easy one.
Q: What are decent cocktails to try for New Year’s Eve?
A: Champagne cocktails. Nobody makes them at home because you’re only going to make one or two and they call for one or 2 ounces of champagne – its such a waste of a bottle for people at home unless you make several of the cocktails for a group.
Q: Which champagne cocktail do you like?
A: The classic one with bitters poured over a sugar cube and champagne. … There’s also a variation of a Horse’s Neck. It’s a cocktail traditionally made with ginger ale. It’s got brandy or bourbon, but it’s defined by its garnish. You put a whole peel, a long peel, of lemon in the glass. It’s a cool drink you can transform with champagne instead of ginger ale.
Q: Are there other cocktails that lend themselves well to champagne?
A: Yes, anything made with club soda, you could probably sub in decently with champagne. You could mix - any cocktail you make - you can top with champagne. You could take a sidecar and put champagne in it. That’s how I use champagne a lot. I’ll use it as an addition to drinks I find I normally like.
Yield: Serves 1
1 ounce apple brandy
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes orange bitters
3 ounces Martinelli’s sparkling apple cider
Combine all ingredients in a glass, over ice.
Bombay Government Punch (for 3 people)
Yield: Serves 3
3 ounces lime juice
3 ounces 2:1 simple syrup (use a turbinado or demerara sugar, see note)
1/2 quart black tea
1/2 bottle rum
Grated nutmeg, for servers
Mix all ingredients together in a punch bowl. Adjust for taste. Let punch bowl sit in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Prior to service, remove bowl from refrigerator and add some chunks of large ice. Grate fresh nutmeg over the top immediately before service.
Note: To make simple syrup, boil together two parts turbinado or demerara sugar to one part water, cool and refrigerate until use. Can substitute granulated sugar.