© Alen Lin/Blue CowFrom tonic water to blood-orange ginger beer, bartenders are making everyday mixers from scratch as a way to upgrade even the most mainstream cocktails.Read more about house-made mixers >

By Justine Sterling
Updated May 23, 2017
Blue Cow Kitchen & Bar

© Alen Lin/Blue Cow

From tonic water to blood-orange ginger beer, bartenders are making everyday mixers from scratch as a way to upgrade even the most mainstream cocktails.

At the recently opened Blue Cow Kitchen & Bar in downtown Los Angeles, mixologist Steve Livigni carried out owner Mario Del Pero's vision of a “soda jerk meets retro-bartender” cocktail program. “I’m super into the idea of making ingredients better for you without making it gimmicky,” Livigni says. “The whole menu is made up of things people are familiar with—but done better.”

His cola recipe will even evolve with the seasons. “I wanted to make something that tasted like winter,” Livigini explains of his current version. Emphasizing traditional baking aromas and spices, he flavors sugarcane syrup with whole cinnamon, real vanilla beans, cassia bark and chicory root for caffeine. The syrup took a while to perfect. “My stove at home and the one at Blue Cow are covered with syrup from the pot boiling over so many times. I had to remake it a lot.”

Unlike complex Coca-Cola, Livigni felt that the familiar incarnation of tonic water was not worth re-jiggering. “The stuff people get out of a gun is just sugar water and quinine,” he says. To create something more in line with how he felt tonic should be, Livigni sourced a basic recipe from Portland mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler: citric acid, cinchona bark, citrus zests, lemongrass and allspice berries. He then added grapefruit peels for complexity, Aperol for color and bitterness and Gran Classico, another bitter liquor from Italy. When Livigini offers a choice between that “syrupy tonic stuff” (which the bar does stock) and his own take on it mixed with finely bubbled soda water, it's easy for customers to decide. “Mine is much more aromatic than regular tonic,” Livigni says. “It’s a more dynamic syrup.”

Here's where to find more fresh mixers:

The Gin Joint; Charleston, SC: The Prohibition-style bar serves a sophisticated version of a bourbon and Coke with homemade cola syrup consisting of natural oils and extracts. “We wanted to analyze the flavors of traditional cola and make it a bit more herbal and refreshing than sweet,” owner Joe Raya says. For those who want to create the drink at home, the bar is working on bottling the syrup for retail.

Oak at Fourteenth; Boulder, CO: This upscale neighborhood restaurant and bar focuses on local, sustainable ingredients and homemade foods. The cocktails are no different, including many drinks made with house mixers like the 14th St. Soda, a take on a Moscow Mule with Kettle One vodka, goji berry liqueur and handcrafted blood-orange ginger beer.

Tavernita, Chicago: The Latin American–inspired restaurant from New York’s Mercadito family features its own house-made Valencia orange soda in the Tatan-Kat cocktail with Zubrowka vodka, Amaro Averna and Licor 43 (a spiced, Spanish liqueur).