Balblair Scotch

balblair scotch

This bottle of Balblair 2001 was bottled in 2012, making it an 11-year-old scotch. The bottle itself is classy, to be sure: a squat oval shape with a raised glass vine crawling up the left side. The whisky itself is pale, a more yellow tinted liquid than I’ve seen in scotches, but I’d guess the color is all-natural.

Balblair 2001 is a treat, with a wonderful fruitiness in the smell and a flavor that’s bright and cool. From there, Balblair has a lingering agey-ness in the flavor: the scotch itself is lighter bodied, but the finish is rich and has a distant flavor of charred wood. This isn’t a smoky scotch, nor a peaty scotch, but it’s a very complex tasting, high quality scotch for sure. You can pick up Balblair 2001 for about $65.

Cocktail Cherries Compared

cocktail cherries

I’m pretty staunch about using quality, natural ingredients, and as a result, it seems I’m always in search of the “perfect cocktail cherry.” I’ve even made my own brandy cherries here on the blog. A group of us tasted 7 different types of cocktail cherries and compared them in price, flavor, and cocktail usefulness. Here’s what we thought (cherries are pictured above from left to right):

Rainier Reserve.

  • Visual: yellow cherries with stems.
  • Ingredients: cherries, water, sugar, citric acid, natural flavors, beta carotene.
  • Cost per cherry: 13¢
  • The first of 4 cherries from Tillen Farms, Rainier Reserve are particularly interesting because of their color. A bright yellow cherry looks really cool in tiki drinks, and these have an tropical-like flavor to match. The cherry flavor in these is pretty subdued, and they’re not overly sweet.

Bada Bing.

  • Visual: rich crimson cherries with stems.
  • Ingredients: cherries, water, sugar, vegetable/fruit concentrate (color), malic acid, citric acid, natural flavor.
  • Cost per cherry: 13¢
  • Also a Tillen Farm cherry, Bada Bing were the largest of the bunch. Tasters said they taste the most like cherries off the tree, and have just the right balance of sweetness and good looks to make them great cocktail cherries.

Pink Blush.

  • Visual: pink cherries with stems.
  • Ingredients: cherries, water, sugar, citric acid, vegetable/fruit concentrate (color), natural flavor.
  • Cost per cherry: 13¢
  • Tasters were surprised that these cherries actually taste pink, almost like cotton candy. These are the sweetest in the Tillen Farms line, and like the Rainier Reserve cherries, they’re best use is for their visual impact as your cocktail garnish. An added bonus is that Oregon Cherry Growers donate 5% from the sale of Pink Blush towards breast cancer.

Merry Maraschino.

  • Visual: red cherries with stems.
  • Ingredients: cherries, water, sugar, vegetable/fruit concentrate (color), natural flavor.
  • Cost per cherry: 13¢
  • Tasters found Tillen’s Maraschino cherries really juicy and thought they tasted almost like apples or candy…or apple candy. Of the list, these cherries are the most natural, most red cherries with stems, so they’d be a good choice in a home bar.

Luxardo Maraschino.

  • Visual: dark red cherries, almost black, without stems.
  • Ingredients: cherries, sugar, marasca cherry juice, glucose, citric acid, natural color, maraschino flavor.
  • Cost per cherry: 29¢
  • Luxardo is the true craft cocktail cherry. These are actually marasca cherries, grown around the Luxardo distillery in Italy. These are uniquely packaged in syrup that, instead of sugar and water, is actually sugar and cherry juice. These have tons of flavor and are dark and rich. Tasters felt like these worked best in cocktails like Old Fashioneds, as they were a little intense as a snack.

Ole Smoky Moonshine.

  • Visual: bright red cherries without stems.
  • Ingredients: cherries, 100-proof moonshine.
  • Cost per cherry: 22¢
  • This one is unique because you’re really buying a mason jar full of cherries and getting some cherry moonshine, too. These cherries are not sweetened, so tasters found them comparatively abrasive. These were the most crisp and red of the bunch, so they work well in cocktails, but most often people did not eat them when they were finished with their drink.

Grocery Store Maraschino.

  • Visual: bright red cherries with stems.
  • Ingredients: cherries, water, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, natural and artificial flavors, potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, red 40, sulfur dioxide
  • Cost per cherry:
  • I included these simply for comparison purposes, though these are the most easy-to-find of the lot. Visually, these are very appealing, but there’s not many natural ingredients. Since I avoid HFCS, I don’t use these cherries. They’re crisp, sticky and sweet like candy, but the flavor ends up being very un-cherry-like.

cocktail cherries

Click here to get the Simple Cocktails Guide to Cherries as a downloadable PDF.

Cigars and Cocktails

oliva cigar and old fashioned cocktail

While cocktails are my primary focus around here, I like to pair my drinks with a great cigar from time to time (evidence of this is on my Instagram profile). Brown liquors are usually a better fit with a cigar than the clear ones, though I’ve also found some vodkas that work with a stogie, too. Here’s what I like to drink with my cigars:

Tallarico on the rocks. A spicy rye vodka fits well on a hot summer night with a nice mild cigar.

Phraya Rum. I’d call this the best cigar rum I’ve tried yet. Rum is usually a good fit with a smoke, especially aged rums like Zacapa or Thomas Tew.

Old Fashioned. If you’ve read this blog much at all, you’ll realize this is my favorite cocktail. A bourbon Old Fashioned is great with a cigar because it’s usually sweeter than rye, or you can use rum (see above).

Aged tequilas. I don’t drink a lot of tequila outside of Margaritas, but Don Julio is an amazing tequila. Buy the most expensive one you can afford, and enjoy it neat in a snifter while you smoke.

Lastly, I’ve discovered that Martinis – which I love to have before dinner – don’t work so well with stogies.

So what do you like to drink with your smokes? Leave a comment below.

Speyburn Scotch

speyburn scotch

Speyburn is a very affordable single malt scotch that I’ve found to be an great choice at its $20 price point.

Remember that I’m still trying (really hard) to learn to love scotch, and Speyburn helps. In general, I’ve gravitated towards the spicier or sweeter scotches that I’ve tried. So far, Dewar’s White Label and Johnnie Walker Black have been my favorites, and I’ve tasted some pricey ones. Speyburn now joins those two as a scotch I’m glad to have in the home bar.

While $20 can be a real hit-or-miss price point for scotch, I found Speyburn to be smooth when I drank it neat (no ice). There’s a spicy and flavorful mix there as well, like a bourbon that’s both zesty and maybe minty, with the familiar scotch/barley taste on the finish.

At this point, I haven’t tried another $20 scotch that I’d recommend any more highly than Speyburn. It’s a solid buy.

How to: Make Simple Syrup

making simple syrup

Simple syrup is one of the must-have ingredients for your home bar. Liquefied sugar mixes better in cold cocktails than granulated sugar. It’s an essential ingredient in all sorts of classic drinks, like a Daiquiri, Mint Julep, or Pisco Sour.

While you can actually purchase simple syrup already made, it’s cheaper and easier to just make it yourself. It’ll take you 5 minutes and last a few weeks.

Step 1: pour 1 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of clean water (distilled or spring) into a mixing glass.

Step 2: microwave the mixture for about 30 seconds to a minute, stirring with a fork at least once.

Step 3: stir well again once heated. Allow to cool.

Step 4: pour into a refrigerate-able container. I use these plastic squeeze bottles.

making simple syrup

Here is a great party punch recipe you can use that simple syrup in:

Pitcher of Mojitos

  • In a pitcher with a strainer lid, add:
  • 1 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
  • 50-100 mint leaves
  • muddle those two indredients in the pitcher, then add:
  • 1 1/2 cup simple syrup
  • 1 bottle white rum
  • 2 limes, sliced into thin wheels (this is just for looks)
  • 1- 1 1/2 liters mineral water. I used the big bottle of Trader Joe’s lime mineral water
  • add lots of ice. Stir.
  • Pour into glasses filled with ice. I use a straining pitcher or a big beverage dispenser to serve them.


Tennessee Dream Ice Cream


Here’s a recent conversation I had:

Mrs. Simple Cocktails: You should make homemade ice cream this summer.
Me: I want to make cinnamon. I love cinnamon ice cream.
Mrs. Simple Cocktails: Ooh! You should put pecans in it. Pecans taste good with cinnamon.
Me: You know what else tastes good with pecans and cinnamon? Whiskey.

Pretty smart, aren’t we? Here’s our recipe for homemade cinnamon-pecan-whiskey ice cream, which turned out delicious:

Tennessee Dream Ice Cream (by Greg Mays)

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 cup half and half
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3/4 oz of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans (I used candied pecans)
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon

Directions: In a saucepan over low heat, mix sugar and half and half until liquefied, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir the heavy cream in. Once mixed, stir in 2 whisked eggs, vanilla, and Jack Daniel’s. Add the mixture back to the stove on low heat for a few more minutes until it’s mixed well. Remove from heat and stir in cinnamon and pecans. Allow to cool, then pour into ice cream maker and freeze according to directions.

One note that’s particularly important to the readers of this blog: while you may be tempted to double….triple….the Jack Daniel’s in your ice cream, remember that liquor won’t freeze. I know 3/4 oz doesn’t seem like enough JD, but it’s just enough to flavor it and keep the ice cream a tad soft.

Sebor Absinth

sebor absinthe

A friend recently gave me a bottle he bought abroad of Sebor Absinth, which is a Czech version of the green fairy. From what I can tell, Sebor is not available in the U.S., though it can be ordered at The Spirit Cellar for £31.95.

Absinthe is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of drink, and some are enamored with with licorice bite while others detest it. I’m no aficanado, but I found Sebor to taste just fine, plus the slightly lower alcohol (55% vs some absinthe which tops 70%) means you can just serve it on the rocks if you like, or use it as a cocktail ingredient without usual risk of it dominating the whole drink.

I wanted to create a summer absinthe sipper with Sebor, much like the Death in The Afternoon cocktail, Ernest Hemingway’s absinthe/champagne coma recipe. The absinthe and a sweet, citrusy white vermouth are a good combination:

Wisp of Evil (by Greg Mays)

  • in a glass full of ice, add:
  • 1 1/2 oz absinthe
  • 1 1/2 oz Vya Whisper Dry vermouth (Lillet Blanc would also be a good choice)
  • 3 oz club soda
  • no garnish, serve with a sip straw


Moonshine Cherries

ole smoky moonshine cherries and white lightnin

Ole Smoky distillery, on top of their line of moonshines and moonshine liqueurs, sells a mason jar of pitted cherries that are properly drowned in high-proof moonshine. The cherries make a nice cocktail garnish and the liquid they’re in a tasty, strong, non-sweetened “cherry moonshine.”

There are two types of Ole Smoky moonshine: White Lightnin’ and Moonshine, the first is more of a neutral-flavored drink (like vodka) and the second is a traditional corn liquor. Here’s a simple cocktail recipe with White Lightnin’ and Cherry Moonshine:

Oh Cherry

  • 1 1/2 oz White Lightnin’ moonshine
  • 1/2 oz Cherry Moonshine (the juice from the jar)
  • 2 tsp simple syrup
  • stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
  • cherry garnish (duh)

Custom Party Drinks

party bar with garnishes

Recently I bartended a graduation party for some friends and I wanted to create some special cocktails for the event. I have very limited professional bartending experience (I’ve never bartended outside of my house or at parties). Here are some things I learned when you’re creating custom drinks for parties:

1. Keep the recipes simple (see below for the recipes I chose). If you have to explain the list of ingredients to people over and over, the line at the bar will back up. Occasionally Mrs. Simple Cocktails jumped in to help me, too, and I didn’t want to annoy her with complicated recipes. All four drinks I made only had 2 ingredients to pour together.

2. Lean towards sweet in your recipe ingredients. This was a summer party with a pretty even divide of men and women, and three of my four drinks were either fruity or sweet.

3. Garnishes are important. Nice-looking fruit or citrus really makes cocktails extra special. Also, pre-cut all of your garnishes.

4. Don’t get too creative. I named these drinks after professors at their school, which they loved, but the cocktails didn’t have any unusual or unfamiliar ingredients.

5. Watch the alcohol content. Try to keep the percent of alcohol down near wine or beer levels. That allows the guests to try multiple cocktails and enjoy their night without being three sheets to the wind.

party cocktails

Here are the recipes, pictured above from left to right:

Clem Club

This is a renamed Gentleman’s Club cocktail. I pre-mixed the liquor so I could make the cocktails quickly.

  • in an empty liquor or wine bottle, mix 1 cup gin, 1 cup brandy, and 1 cup sweet vermouth
  • pour 2 oz of the mixture in a cup full of ice
  • top with soda water (about 1 oz)
  • garnish with a cherry

Holcomb & Tonic

A simple vodka tonic.

  • pour 1 1/2 oz of vodka (I used Smirnoff Blue Label) in a cup full of ice
  • top with tonic water
  • garnish with a lime slice

Blackberry Bruskas

This was a favorite. This was a pre-mixed punch in a pitcher, ready to pour.

  • in a pitcher full of ice, add:
  • 1/2 jar (about 13 oz) of Ole Smoky Blackberry Moonshine
  • 3/4 carton of Newman’s Own Organic Virgin Lemonade
  • fill cups with ice and 3 fresh blackberries before pouring

Driscoll Bay

The most popular by far, a very simple take on a Piña Colada.

  • in a cup full of ice, add:
  • 1 1/2 oz rum (I used Bacardi Gold)
  • top with Trader Joe’s Tropical Carrot Juice
  • garnish with an orange slice


Credit for both photos: Latisha Lyn Photography.

Uncle Alex Cocktail

uncle alex cocktail

This is a rum cocktail for those who like their drinks on the sweeter side, and the crushed ice means you can serve it really cold in the summer. It’s a little bit like a Daiquiri with grenadine in the place of simple syrup.

Uncle Alex (by Greg Mays)

  • 1 1/2 oz white rum
  • 1/2 oz grenadine
  • 1/4 oz lime juice
  • serve over crushed ice with a straw
  • garnish with cherries