Somewhere in the Middle of America

I know that we are located in what a lot of the country would consider flyover country (although I suppose it’s even more likely people think of our part of the Midwest as Southern Canada, ha).  On the national stage we’re always playing a fourth fiddle to the coasts and the south, and this, in spite of the many, many differences across the region, knits the Midwest together with a sort-of middle child syndrome.  People rarely notice us, no matter how good our grades are.  But, we know, and you know, that the midwest is rich with culture.  Because of this, we went into our first visit to Omaha with high expectations (even if most of our knowledge of Omaha was based on a Counting Crows song ;).  And they were certainly met.  Omaha has a hopping food and drinks scene combined with a close-knit sense of creative community and some of the sweetest people we’ve met anywhere.  In other words, it has all of the ingredients of the Midwest’s special sauce.


We threw ourselves right into the middle of things by hosting a cocktail competition. Cocktail competitions are usually the prerogative of huge liquor companies with equally huge budgets, but you know what they say: fake it till you make it!  Plus, what better way to meet a whole slew of super-talented bartenders and taste a barrage of super-delicious cocktails all at once, right?!  The night of the cocktail competition gathered bartenders from across the city at Spirit World for an evening of friendly rivalry.  All of the drinks were excellent, but the winning bartender rose to the top with cocktails that exhibited especially meticulous flavors and balance, and that we were floored to learn were almost sugar free - but more on that in a moment.


Our winner, Doug Strain, followed a circuitous path towards cocktailologizing.  After working for a spell in the medical field as a Certified Nurisng Assistant he decided he was tired of sticking needles into people’s fingers, and he trained to become a licensed massage therapist.  As a massage therapist he began to delve into the world of essential oils, learning all about botanicals and the wide ranging impacts that aromatics can have on an individual.  Meanwhile, he was becoming interested in cocktails and craft spirits, and he began to hang out at the Berry & Rye, a then-new craft cocktail room in Omaha, absorbing the action behind the bar.  When a job-opening popped up, he figured he might as well apply.  He basically blew the interview.  Instead of answers to questions about service and bartending, he gave blank stares.  But, as luck would have it, the faltering conversation eventually turned to aromatherapy, and Doug described all the work he was doing with botanicals and aromatics.  Some sort-of lightbulb must have gone off because the bar manager, Luke, called Doug back and told him that even though Luke was really looking for a bartender with experience, Doug was welcome to come start working as a barback and to begin learning cocktailing under him.  Doug spent a year and a half working his way up, honing his bartending skills and falling especially in love with the culinary aspects of cocktail creation.


And this is the part where, someday when Doug writes the book about his life and career, the action really begins.  He was about to take on the position of head bartender at Laka Lono Rum Club, a sister bar to the Berry & Rye and Omaha’s first tiki bar, when he got an urgent call from his doctor’s office.  They wanted him to come in immediately to discuss some lab results.  Cue the ominous music.  Doug was diagnosed with Type I diabetes.  This is the type of diabetes that is an autoimmune disease wherein your body attacks your own pancreas, shutting down your ability to produce insulin.  It’s really bad news.  It basically means that you have to monitor your blood sugar levels constantly and inject yourself with insulin several times a day otherwise your cells can’t absorb energy.  You also have to be really, really careful about how much sugar and other carbohydrates you eat.  In Doug’s own words, “just imagine the irony – I devote two years of my life to learning how to put sugar, ice and alcohol into pretty glasses for people and right before I get my chance to help lead a program to put LOTS of sugar, ice and alcohol into pretty glasses I find out that it’ll kill me if I drink it. Ha.”


For most, this would be the end of a career in cocktails, but Doug has risen to the challenge, exploring new sweeteners that don’t cause the spikes in blood sugar that regular sugar does.  And he’s taking it a step further, working to understand sugar-free cocktail making well enough that he can teach this different set of tools and principles to others in the industry.  After all, people with diabetes deserve to have just as much fun as the rest of us!  An important tool is the sugar alcohols, like xylitol.  They’re extracted from natural sources, and while they can be used in similar measurements to traditional sugar, they have a much smaller and slower impact on your blood sugar.  Even the sugars in fruit juices - even tart juices like lemon and lime - present a potential problem for diabetics, if they’re not carefully monitored.  Doug has discovered ways of combining citric acid for sharpness and citrus oils from peels expressed over the drink to trick your senses into tasting citrus.  You can see these clever techniques at play in his winning cocktails.

The Gimless

The Gimless is a riff on none other than the simple and delicious Gimlet.  Traditionally, this popular gin-sour variation is made with Four Roses lime cordial but these days, many opt for a version using fresh lime juice and simple syrup. Like any good mad scientist, Doug spends much of his time in his lab.  While experimenting, he discovered xylitol and citric acid can interplay in a way very similar to simple syrup and lime juice.  He put this carb-conscious mixture to the test in a few classic cocktail recipes, starting with the Daiquiri. And the Gimlet is basically a Daiquiri with gin instead of rum, and the rest is history. Doug’s favorite Gimlets use a stiff, aggressive, gin so he went with Boreal Spruce Gin to make the Gimless bright and bold.  


How to make the Gimless

  • 2 oz Vikre Spruce Gin
  • .75 oz xylitol gomme
  • .75 oz Citric Acid Solution

Shake and strain and express lime peel into drink. Garnish with lime diamond (Cut lime wheel and slice off edges to form square and set on pick)

The Improved Lavender Cocktail

Before the Old Fashioned was old fashioned, it was what people called a cocktail.  The original “cocktail” was composed of any spirit, plus sugar, and bitters.  In the late 1800s, the creative cocktail juices began flowing, ingredients like maraschino liqueur, absinthe, or otherwise were added, and the “Improved Cocktail” was born.  When Doug created his Improved Lavender Cocktail, he tried his recipe with each of our three Boreal Gins.  The Cedar Gin stood out for its unusual but friendly, soft, botanical elements.  The finished cocktail was garnished with a lemon peel and a cinnamon stick.  The sight and scent of the lemon peel and cinnamon stick garnishes promise a taste of a floral yet cozy cocktail, which is exactly what you get.  


How to make the Improved Lavender Cocktail

  • 2 oz Vikre Cedar Gin
  • .5 oz Sugar Free Cinnamon Lavender Syrup*
  • .25 oz Pierre Ferrand Orange Curacao
  • 4 dashes Absinthe
  • 4 dashes Creole Bitters (Peychaud's)

Build over ice sphere. Express lemon peel into glass and wrap around torched cinnamon stick for garnish.

*The Cinnamon Lavender syrup was created by double boiling 24oz of xylitol gomme syrup with 15 grams of dried lavender flowers and six 4 inch cinnamon sticks. By using the gentle heat from a double boil, the lavender isn't scorched or burned and it still extracts the flavors. Using the existing syrup as a base facilitates flavor extraction as well, as opposed to using water and adding xylitol later.

Doug has recently teamed up with Maven Social and has taken the position as Director of Maven Labs, a craft cocktail subscription service that will be incorporating his sugar-free ingredients into several of it's boxes in the upcoming months as well as selling them in stores.

Get more recipes from Doug on his blog,