That Zero Review: Back Bar, Pt 3

Apologize for the large delay between the last post and this one. I’ve been busy preparing for the start of the Girl Scout year with my multi-level troop. Also got over whatever crud I had so am back to work full-time.

Recipe Grades


Equipment: Medium saucepan with lid, fine strainer – A
Ingredients: Less common are French chicory (C), cinnamon sticks (B), angelica root (C), gentian root (C), anise seeds (B) – C
Technique: Slightly burning sugar – B
Overall: B

Sweet Vermouth

Equipment: Medium saucepan with lid, fine strainer – A
Ingredients: Less common are verjus rouge (B), vanilla pods (B), dried figs and cherries (B), cinnamon sticks (B), gentian root (C), chamomile (B), cinchona bark (C) – C
Technique: Slightly burning sugar – B
Overall: B

Herbal Liqueur

Equipment: Sealer and sous vide OR saucepan with lid, fine mesh strainer – A
Ingredients: Less common are vegetable glycerin (B), poblano (B, depending on your region), mastic (C), galangal (B, depending on your region), star anise (B), fennel pollen (C) – C
Technique: Heating things up – A
Overall: B+


Equipment: Saucepan with lid, fine strainer – A
Ingredients: Less common are galangal (B, depending on your region), cane syrup (B), aloe vera leaf powder (C), gentian root (C), cinchona bark (C), green cardamom pods (B), saffron (B) – C
Technique: Slightly burning sugar – B
Overall: B

Bitter Liqueur (a la Campari)

Equipment: Saucepan with lid, fine strainer – A
Ingredients: Less common are gentian root (C), cinnamon sticks (B), star anise (B), angelica root (C), whole cloves (B) – C
Technique: A
Overall: B+

Next time: We’ll go slightly out of order and I’ll share one of the recipes from the Modern Cocktails chapter that I’ve tried and love.

That Zero Review: Back Bar, Pt 2

We continue with the back bar today with some common and som uncommon recipes.

Recipe Grades

Spanish Rum

Equipment: Saucepan with lid, peeler, fine strainer – A
Ingredients: Less common are vanilla beans (B), Cacao nibs (B) and whole nutmeg (B) – B
Technique: Caramelizing sugar is hardest part – B
Overall: B

Orange Bitters

Equipment: Sealer/sous vide OR saucepan with lid, mesh strainer – A
Ingredients: Less common are vegetable glycerin (B), gentian root (C), dried orange peel (B), star anise pods (B), green cardamom pods (B), cinchona bark (C), whole cloves (B) – C+
Technique: You have to crush the pods of star anise and cardamom which can be hard for some (B)
Overall: B

Aromatic Bitters

Equipment: Saucepan with lid, fine strainer – A
Ingredients: Less common are whole cloves (B), gentian root (C), star anise (B), dried orange peel (B), whole nutmeg (B), green cardamom pods (B), whole allspice (B), vanilla bean (B), dried sassafras or sarsaparilla root (C) – B-
Technique: Semi-burning sugar is hardest part which I would surely screw up unless supervised – C
Overall: C

Bitter Amaro (Inspired by Cynar)

(No, I have never heard of this, either.)

Equipment: Blender (B), shallow pan (A), fine strainer (A), saucepan with lid (A) – A-
Ingredients: Less common are whole artichokes (B), gentian root (C), cinchona bark (C), angelica root (C) – C
Technique: Sugar nearly-burning, pot swirling, several steps use descriptions rather than times for judging when complete – C
Overall: C+

Jamaican Rum

Equipment: Sheet tray, parchment or silicone baking mat, sharp knife, sealer and sous vide or saucepan with lid, fine strainer – B
Ingredients: Less common are whole pineapple (B), fresh ginger (B), toasted oak chips (C, the chips are easy to get but you’ll have to have a way to toast them), black cardamom pods (B), whole allspice (B) – C+
Technique: Most difficult is cutting up pineapple bark (is it just me or will you have a LOT of chopped pineapple lying around if you make these recipes?) – B
Overall: B-

Later this week: Finishing up the back bar section with Amaro, Sweet Vermouth, Herbal Liqueur (inspired by Chartreuse), Fernet, Bitter Liqueur (Inspired by Campari)

That Zero Review: Back Bar Pt. 1

Zero breaks up the recipes into big categories: basic syrups (see last post), back bar (15 recipes), classic cocktails (13 recipes), modern cocktails (38 recipes), wines (15 recipes), and et cetera (11 recipes). I’m going to break these up in roughly groups of 5 so, well, I don’t have to take a ton of time writing up a given post.

The first big section is Back Bar – those basic liqueurs and other liquids the bar tender uses to make drinks. The stuff you use more than an ounce of in a given drink. This was one of the sections I was most excited about as NA beer and wine of good quality are easy to purchase but there are few making back bar alternatives outside of the more basic vodka, whiskey and tequila. But that’s another post.

Each recipe in the book starts with “In the style of….” which I’m not going to repeat below. Obviously none of the protections on geographic areas or ingredients have been followed. More inspired by.

Also, I’m including online ordering from Penzeys Spices in the B category for ingredients. They have fast shipping, cheaper-than-McCormick prices, and very high quality spices and dried herbs. If you cook often, you’ll easily be able to get an order together to qualify for free shipping. You may also be lucky enough to live near one of their brick and mortar locations and able to do contactless pickup. They don’t give me anything to point you their way, I’ve just loved their products for a dozen years.

Change to Grading Scheme

So, after some though, I decided to remove the “Sounds Good” category as, really, who am I to judge what others would like? Overall grades will now be a simple average of the equipment points of each category.

Recipe Grades

To see the grades of all recipes reviewed so far, open the Google Sheets here.


  • Equipment: Blender, fine strainer, sealer/sous vide OR saucepan, scale – B
  • Ingredients: Odder items are glycerin (B, stocked at Whole Foods), star anise (B, bigger grocery stores or Penzeys), juniper berries (B, bigger grocery stores or Penzeys), and angelica root (C, $10 online for culinary type) – averages to a B
  • Technique: A
  • Overall: B

American Whiskey

  • Equipment: Oven, cookie sheet/sheet pan, parchment paper, sealer/sous vide OR sauce pan – A
  • Ingredients: Odder items are barley (C, homebrewer supply store), dried peaches and dried figs (B Trader Joe’s if you have one nearby), fenugreek seeds (B, Whole Foods), and vanilla bean (B, Whole Foods or Penzeys or sometimes in bulk from Costco but they are priceyyy), Oak chips (B, good hardware or BBQ supply store) – C
  • Overall: B


Note: Someone in an NA drinks group posted that they made this and it was quite minty right away. They recommended letting it sit for awhile before consuming it unless you want to use it in place of rum in a mojito.

  • Equipment: knife sharp enough to cut a pineapple, sealer/sous vide or saucepan – A
  • Ingredients: Odder ones are a whole pineapple (A-B, depending on season and how close to the Tropics you live), apricots (A if in season, you’re SOL otherwise), agave syrup (A), vanilla beans (B, see above), fresh bay leaves (C – unless you have a store/market that serves the Latinx community, you’ll need to look online) – averages to a B
  • Technique: hardest part is cutting up a whole pineapple which seems scary to me, though you only need the outside for this – B
  • Overall: B

Orange Liqueur

Note: I made this myself and it is easy and quite tasty. If you live the vanilla bean in the mixture when it “cooks” it’ll be very vanilla. If you’re not as into vanilla, consider using just the seeds, half a bean, or a bit of vanilla extract.

  • Equipment: Sealer/sous vide OR large pot and Ziplock (look here for the water displacement trick for sealing a bag with as little air inside as possible) – A
  • Ingredients: Odder ones are whole cloves (B, Whole Foods or Penzeys), vanilla bean (B, see above) – B
  • Technique: A
  • Overall: B+


  • Equipment: grill or gas burner (to char outside of a pineapple), sealer/sous ide or saucepan – B
  • Ingredients: Odder items are whole pineapple (B unless in Tropics), apricots (B in season), black cardamom pods (B – green are easier to find, Penzeys), Szechuan peppercorns (B – Whole Foods or Penzeys), Lapsang Souchong (C – smoked black tea, tea shop), fresh bay leaves (C, see note on Tequila recipe) – C+
  • Technique: De-bark pineapple, char said pineapple – C
  • Overall: C+

Next time: Back Bar, Pt 2 with Spanish rum, two types of bitters, bitter amaro (Cynar), and Jamaican rum

Zero Review: Basic Syrups

The first two recipes in Zero aren’t particularly exciting, I’ll agree, but they are important. Offered are two syrups – simple syrup and demerara syrup – you can use in cocktails but also coffee and tea, especially the iced versions.

I won’t repeat what Mental Floss explained better in this post about what makes simple syrup simple. What I like best about it is that it’s so easy to make – heat up water, add sugar, stir to blend. Before you can make many of the drinks in the book, you’ll need simple syrup so you may as well whip up a batch and put it in the fridge to use later.

Quick tip: Label everything you have in a container in your fridge that’s not in its original packaging. Use painter’s tape.

We have three jars of what look like the same thing but one is sweet, one spicy, and one is bacon fat. Pigment doesn’t wear off painter’s tape, it’s easy to write on with a Sharpie or normal pen, and it pulls off easily without leaving residue. Just make sure you don’t buy the dark blue kind as it’s hard to read.

Recipe Grades

To see the grades of all recipes reviewed so far, open the Google Sheets here.

Simple Syrup

  • Equipment: Bowl, spoon, kitchen scale – A
  • Ingredients: Sugar, water – A
  • Technique: Weighing ingredients, stirring – A+
  • Sounds Good: It’s sugar melted into water, who wouldn’t like that? Okay, that person who decided to use the quarantine to give up sugar. – A
  • Overall: A

Demerara Syrup

  • Equipment: saucepan, spoon, kitchen scale – A
  • Ingredients: demerara sugar (a bigger basic grocery store would have it but you may have to shop around), water – B
  • Technique: weighing ingredients, boiling water, stirring – A+
  • Sounds Good: Again, it’s sugar syrup – A
  • Overall: B+

Later this week: Getting started with the Back Bar

Zero Review: Approach

I’m an engineer and I can’t help but approach my review as I would an engineering task. What’s the problem? The book is expensive and on one know if it’s worth it. And, for some reason, folks have decided I can figure that out. How will we know when we’re done? Well, that one is pretty easy. Once I’ve got through every recipe and weighed it against some criteria of “worth,” I can make a judgement. How will we measure that the solution solves the problem? Measurement, oh, measurement. Always fun to debate. I’ve lost more arguments in technical meetings over how we’ll decide something is “good” than I can count. (Also lost many about definitions of so-called “common” terms but that’s a topic for another time.)

What Makes a Cookbook Worth Buying

For some people, cookbooks are about fantasy. They show us a glimpse into the kitchen at a fancy restaurant or into the Barefoot Contessa’s house in the Hamptons. It’s not a life we’ll likely ever had, but we could. It lets us dream. Maybe this is why you’d buy Zero, for the idea of it. If that’s the case, do your own evaluation as I don’t live in your head nor you in mine. What I find to be my ideal is very different from yours.

For some people, cookbooks are about inspiration. You flip through and maybe you make a recipe or two, but mostly it inspires you to do more. Bake more bread. Try out your Nana’s recipe for meatballs. Eat outdoors. It’s a jumping off point for things already on your “someday” list – or adds to it. It inspired me to try more things in the kitchen, as the non-cook in my family. Heck, I even used the sous vide for something other than making cold brew or setting it up for my husband to make something. Again, I can’t help you decide if this will inspire you or not. Your head != my head. (It’s weird in there, full of Disney lyrics and a childhood fear off the vacuum cleaner.)

For some people, the cookbook is about the recipes. You buy the book to actually make things from it and eat/drink them. That’s how I’m approaching the book. Do I want to and can I easily get the stuff to make the recipes?

The Criteria

Each recipe will be graded on the following:

  • Equipment Needed
    • Does a typical person already own all they needed? (Rating of A)
    • Do you have to buy a few investment items to make these things? (Rating of B)
    • Does only a very well-equipped home kitchen have these things? (Full disclosure: My household falls into the last category.) (Rating of C)
  • Ingredients Needed
    • Go to an average grocery store – using Publix Supermarket for comparison but think your typical Giant, Safeway, King Sooper (Rating of A)
    • Go to a better grocery store – using Whole Foods for comparison (Rating of B)
    • Go online – unless you live in a town with a ton of specialty stores, you’ll need to jump online for this (Rating of C)
  • Techniques Needed
    • Anyone can do it – think someone who has made things like boxed mac and cheese and has to Google what “spatchcock” means (after giggling) (Rating of A+)
    • I can do it – okay, so you don’t know me, probably. I don’t like to cook but have basic knife skills, can bake things that are just mix and pour, can make a roast chicken with the “cover in butter and herbs and cook to temperature” technique. If you’ve ever successfully made a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen, you are me. (Rating of A)
    • My husband can do it – He loves to cook and has been doing it for years. He’s the type to make bread from scratch to use to make stuffing from scratch for Thanksgiving. We own over 500 cookbooks. (Rating of B)
    • Only my neighbor could do it – He’s an Art Institute-trained chef who now works on the Operations side of things but, again, trained chef. (Rating of C)
  • Sounds Good Factor
    • Good to almost everyone – Ask ten people (who like cocktails) on the street if something sounds good, and you’ll get 8 or 9 affirmatives. (Rating of A)
    • Good to the not-very-picky – I hate vinegar and asparagus and mushrooms so consider myself a picky eater. I’d not be in this category. Think odd but not extremely odd ingredients for cocktails. (Rating of B)
    • Good to the adventurous – If you try things like Parmesan gelato or the world’s hottest salsa, you’re in this category. Nothing scares you when it comes to food except foodborne pathogens. (Rating of C)

We’ll use the good ‘ole letter grade to GPA translation (A+ = 4.5, A = 4, B = 3, C = 2) to get a number score then do a weighted average as follows:

Final score = (Equipment + Ingredients + Technique + 2 x Sounds Good) / 5

Once I get to the end of the book, I’ll tally up all the scores and come up with a master Worth Buying the Book (WBTB for short, ’cause engineering LIVES for acronyms) score. And, yes, I’ll probably make up a Google Sheets of the ratings for those with no attention span / my fellow data-lovers.

Tomorrow: The first two recipes to whet our appetites. You may even run off and make them right after reading.

Coming Soon: Review of Zero

A few weeks ago, Matt puchased me a copy of Zero: A New Approach to Non-Alcoholic Cocktails from a Facebook ad. I can no longer have alcohol for medical reasons and tend to stick to NA beer or wine or the sort of thing a kid orders. The book offers to make my drink choices larger while still having the taste of a “normal” cocktail.

The book has come up in several NA beer groups on Facebook, with everyone speculating about complicated the recipes are. Do you have to hit up Whole Foods and buy things from the ‘Net to make just about anything? Do you have to have a giant chef’s kitchen full of specialty equipment and tools?

Really, their question is “Should I pay the high price to buy this book?”

I’m currently home for some time due to COVID-19 symptoms and figured this was a good a time as any to tackle a review. I’ll be tackling this question over a series of posts as I’m easily worn out and need to take frequent breaks.