TJ Vytlacil doesn’t understand why people love to hate the Blood & Sand.
As a founder of the St. Louis private cocktail club Blood & Sand (and prior to that, proprietor of a yearlong pop-up with the same name), he’s tried nearly every iteration of the 1920s drink, not to mention countless variations beyond the original equal-parts combination of Scotch, cherry liqueur, sweet vermouth and orange juice. And he remains a staunch defender.
“Anybody who’s debated me on this topic tends to lose,” he says. “We sold the Blood & Sand more than any other cocktail on the menu. It was the No. 1 seller all five years I ran the business. ... I don’t know how you can argue with the kind of success that drink has had.”
Vytlacil left Blood & Sand in 2017; he’s since relocated to Black Forest, Colorado, just outside Colorado Springs, where he runs the POS company Brigade Society and teaches cocktail classes. But he’s still affiliated with Blood & Sand, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2021, and still a champion of its namesake cocktail that he workshopped while there.
According to Vytlacil, the perceived problem with the drink almost always boils down to technique: “I’ve had it at bars where it’s by far the worst thing on the menu. But the drink is killer if it’s made well.”
He favors the original equal-parts construct. For the Scotch portion, he gravitates toward a “mild peat,” such as Famous Grouse, though he can see the case for a peat monster like Laphroaig “if you want something really big.” Cherry Heering, the Danish cherry liqueur, and “a good-quality sweet vermouth” like Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry Rouge are must-haves, too.
But if there’s one ingredient that makes the difference between a good and a bad Blood & Sand, it’s fresh-squeezed orange juice. “For a Blood & Sand, it’s everything,” says Vytlacil. “If it’s day-old, or orange juice from concentrate, or anything other than fresh, you lose the froth when you shake it. It just dies in the glass.”
Shaking as vigorously as possible—“shake till your arms are tired”—thins out the viscosity of the juice just enough to let the smokiness of the Scotch come through, while aerating the drink into a perfect froth, the hallmark of a well-made Blood & Sand. “If any of these steps are missing, it falls flat, with a smoky sweetness that’s not appetizing,” he warns.
As for the garnish, Vytlacil opts for a traditional round of orange peel, flamed to caramelize the orange oils, then dropped atop the foam head. “It’s imperative. It pops all the bubbles on top, which looks really great,” he explains. “If you do it right, it looks almost like an egg yolk. That presentation is killer.”
While Vytlacil notes that the Blood & Sand may not be for everyone, he’s not sorry that he named the bar after the drink: If nothing else, it sparks conversation. “Whether or not someone hates it or loves it, it’s still being talked about.”