Amari: Life is Bittersweet – Tasting Review of 6 Amari

Amaro is a large category of Italian herbal liquor that is traditionally sipped neat as an apertif or a digestif. Here in the states amaro is more typically used as an ingredient for cocktails or with a splash of soda.  The most common example is Campari — the key ingredient of the beloved Negroni.  Cynar shows up in the spectacular Little Italy, a Manhattan variant. And finally, a friend at work (a newly minted Manhattan lover) shared his Manhattan recipe that tempers Carpano Antica with a little Cardamaro.

So clearly there is something worth looking into here. Having already reviewed some of the more common vermouths,  it was time to turn my attention to amari.

The Supplies

After a little research on the web I chose my lineup and headed off to Beltramo’s Wines and Spirits in Menlo Park, CA. Here is what I came home with (as pictured left to right above):

  1. Fernet Branca, 375ml, 78 proof, $14.99
  2. Luxardo Amaro Abano, 750ml, 60 proof, $22.99
  3. Averna Amaro, 750ml, 58 proof, $26.99
  4. Cynar, 1L, 33 proof, $23.99
  5. Ramazzotti Amaro, 750ml, 60 proof, $21.99
  6. Cardamaro Vino Amaro, 750ml, 34 proof, $21.99
  7. Amaro Di Toscana, 750ml, 60 proof, $19 (purchased later so not in photo)

Where is the Campari? I chose to leave it out. It’s pretty familiar to many, and  it would be the odd man out in this lineup — being strongly citrus.

All of these amari are italian. Beltramo’s had many more, including a number from other countries. But six seemed a good number for both my palette and my wallet.

The Method

I started off tasting these head-to-head neat. Then incorporated them into my evening libations over the course of weeks. I also invited others (in particular my brother) to join in the fun.

One of the common applications of amaro is to use it in a Manhattan replacing the bitters and a bit of the vermouth. Depending on the ratios this can be called a Black Manhattan or a Little Italy. I call it one of the best damn cocktails on the planet.

For reference here is the Little Italy recipe I (generally) used:

  • 2 parts Bulleit Bourbon
  • 3/4 part Martini and Rossi sweet vermouth (or Cocchi if it’s a special occasion!)
  • 1/2 part Amaro

Stir with ice for 60 seconds and serve up or on the rocks, garnished with a cherry and/or orange twist.

The Results

Averna Amaro

Made in Sicily using a recipe dating back to 1868, Averna is a gentle introduction to amaro. Quite tasty on the rocks, Averna is sweet with a slight herbal orange start and finishes with hints of chocolate and caramel. With little to no bitterness Averna is comfortable and inviting.

In the Little Italy the Averna was good, but easily over-powered by the whiskey. It added some sweetness but not much more. When paired with a lighter whiskey, like Canadian, it might prove to be a good match. I’ll have to give that a try!

Overall a friendly, tasty amaro, but if you want something with a bit more character then there are better choices.

Cardamaro Vino Amaro

I first heard of Cardamaro from a co-worker who uses it in his Manhattan recipe along with Carpano Antica vermouth. Cardamaro differs from other amari in that it is wine based. Sweet, with subtle vegetal flavors Cardamaro is lighter than the other amari here with very little bitterness. On the rocks Cardamaro is easy sipping and refreshing.

Cardamaro was fine in the Little Italy, but the resulting drink tasted more like a stock Manhattan than something special. My co-worker might have had it right — using the Cardamaro to complement a bold vermouth like Carpano rather than using it to enhance a milder vermouth like M & R or Cocchi.


Cynar is based on 13 herbs and plants including artichoke and was the winner of Best Herbal/Botanical Liqueur at the 2015 San Francisco Wolrd Spirits Competition. While some reviews I’ve read claim it is less sweet than many amari, I find the opposite to be true. Quite sweet and pleasantly vegetal with a sturdy bitter finish. An no — it doesn’t taste like artichokes. Cynar finally brings the bitterness I was looking for, but on the rocks is not where it shines.

In the Little Italy? Brilliant! The sweet/bitter/earthy flavor rounds out this Manhattan variation perfectly. As I said, this might very well be the best cocktail ever.

Update: Cynar 70: My wife came upon this and bought me a bottle — gotta love her! This is a 70 proof version of Cynar and tastes a lot like normal Cynar but with the warm bite of additional alcohol. As you’d expect it was very good in the Little Italy, but were it shined was on the rocks. Less cloying and more substantial than it’s lower proofed sibling  Cynar 70 makes for an excellent digestif. The downside is the cost, running about $10 more than regular Cynar. Might be worth trying a 50/50 mix of regular Cynar and brandy to see how close it comes to Cynar 70.

Fernet Branca

I don’t get it. Apparently San Francisco is the #1 Fernet Branca market in the US. Go into any Safeway or liquor store around here and you’ll find this strongly bitter elixir. Averna? Nope. Cynar? Nope. Fernet? Yes. Why? Who drinks this stuff?

Fernet is actually a sub-category of amaro, but when used informally it usually refers to Fernet Branca. Fernet Branca is not bittersweet. It’s just bitter. Bracingly bitter. With a touch of menthol. Bitter menthol. That’s it. On the rocks it is awful. The only reason I’d drink this is to settle my stomach. It tastes like medicine. It is medicine. Or poison. I’m not sure.

I knew I had to approach the cocktail portion of my tasting with caution. Use Fernet with a heavy hand and it will run roughshod over the other ingredients — ruining perfectly good whiskey and vermouth. With this in mind I chose to forgo the Little Italy and instead simply replace the bitters in my standard Manhattan recipe with 1/4 part Fernet (2 parts whiskey, 1 part vermouth, 1/4 part Fernet Branca).

And it was terrible. Even at these ratios the Fernet made the Manhattan taste like Fernet. So I’ve learned something. With all the great spirits out there I don’t need to waste any more time on Fernet Branca.

Luxardo Amaro Abano

Luxardo is known for their Maraschino Cherries. Their cherries cost $20 a jar. And no, they are nothing like the ones you just got at Safeway. Luxardo also makes liqueurs and amari. On the rocks the Amaro Abano hits you with flavors of blackstrap licorice and a long bitter finish. On its own I found it a bit unpleasant.

But in the Little Italy the Luxardo was tamed and actually worked pretty well. I still prefer the Cynar with its extra sweetness, but it you want to try something a bit different then the Luxardo is worth a try.

Ramazzotti Amaro

From Milan since 1815, Ramazzotti is one of the oldest amari — and heck, I like saying the name.  On my first tasting of these amari the Averna was my favorite. It was tasty and accessible. But the Ramazzotti stood out as interesting. As I continued to taste these over the course of a couple of weeks the Averna started feeling “ordinary” and my affection for the Ramazzotti grew.

Ramazzotti Amaro starts out with bitter orange and finishes with a touch of licorice and a hint (just a hint) of mint. It’s moderately sweet with a nice bitter finish. This fits my stereotype of what an amaro should taste like, and the Ramazzotti has become my clear favorite on the rocks. It is really good.

But in the Little Italy those flavors that make the Ramazzotti a delight on its own fall to the background, and the resulting drink is good but not quite as good as with the Cynar.

Amaro Di Toscana

This was not in the original tasting, but I had a $10 off coupon for our local Total Wine & More, and I couldn’t get out of there without buying a bottle of amaro. Man I love that place. I tend to wander around and drool.

Anyway, I picked up a bottle of this and I like it.  I would place it between Ramazzotti and Cynar 70 in terms of taste. It’s similar to Ramazotti but with a bit stronger bitter finish — although not as strong as Cynar 70. It has the (very) slight menthol of Ramazotti, and not as vegetal as Cynar. So if you like Ramazotti, but want a bit more bitter then give this a try.

In a Little Italy this was quite good. Since it has a little more backbone than the Ramazzotti it held its own and the slight menthol fell to the background so it was not distracting. I still prefer Cynar for my little Italy, but Amaro Di Toscana works nearly as well. It was quite yummy.


Other than the Fernet I found all these amari enjoyable to one degree or another. And I will continue to enjoy them until the bottles are empty. Then I plan to keep Cynar and Ramazzotti stocked in my liquor cabinet. In summary:

For drinking on the rocks:

  1. Averna if you want tasty and easy drinking
  2. Ramazzotti if you want a little more flavor and bitterness
  3. Cardamaro if you want light and refreshing

In a cocktail:

  1. Cynar for the best Little Italy ever
  2. Luxardo if you prefer it a bit drier
  3. Cardamaro if you’re pairing with a power-house vermouth (like Carpano Antica)

If you have a stomach ache:

  1. Fernet Branca

Repairing A Scratched Bumper

While camping at Pismo Beach this summer I backed into the wooden rail that lined our campsite. Not hard enough to dent the bumper, but hard enough to scratch off a good chunk of paint. Faced with a $500 insurance deductible I, after some consulting with my son, decided to attempt the repair myself.  I had never done any automotive body repair or painting before. But he convinced that with the proper supplies and a little “self training” I could do it. And he was right!

He recommended products from plus they have good information on their website, including a collection of short how-to videos. So I decided to go with them for supplies.


Here was my order from

  • 12oz Aerosol Spray Paint, 2006 Honda Pilot: Taffeta White NH578
  • 12oz Aerosol White Sandable Acrylic Lacquer Primer
  • 12 oz Aerosol High Gloss Clear Coat
  • 12 oz Aerosol Plastic Parts Adhesion Promoter
  • Assorted Wet Sandpaper Pack (180/320/600/1000/1500)
  • Grey Fine Scuff Pad
  • CANGUN Spray Can Tool
  • 2oz Prep solvent
  • 1.5″ 3M Green Auto Grade masking tape
  • 3/4″ 3M Green Auto Grade masking tape
  • Bondo Gold Tack Cloth

This came to under $80 delivered to my door. Note that it takes a while for them to mix the paint and get the order out, so make sure to order a couple weeks in advance of when you need it. Additional supplies/tools:

  • Hand block sander
  • Paper cups and small paint brush for additional touch ups
  • Various drop cloths, tarps, etc for masking and tarping
  • Tunes: you absolutely need music when working on your car


  1. Prep
    1. Wash car
    2. Clean panel to be repaired thoroughly
    3. Mask panel to be repaired
    4. Scuff entire panel (to be clear coated) with scuff pad or 1000 grit sandpaper
    5. Sand damaged area with 180 then 320 grit to feather all edges
    6. Wipe panel off with damp rag
    7. Clean panel with prep solvent
    8. If bare plastic exposed, coat plastic with plastic parts adhesion promoter
  2. Prime
    1. Spray damaged area with primer
    2. Let dry 5 minutes, wipe with tack cloth, then repeat for 3-4 coats
    3. Let final coat dry 30 minutes, then wet sand with 600 grit sandpaper
    4. If any imperfections, then add more coats of primer, and wet sand again
    5. Wipe area with damp rag
  3. Color coat
    1. Wipe area with tack cloth
    2. Spray color coat over primer making sure to blend with surrounding paint
    3. Let dry 5 minutes, wipe with tack cloth, then repeat for 3-4 coats
    4. Let final coat dry 30 minutes
    5. If imperfections then wet sand with 1000 grit sandpaper and apply one more coat. Do not sand final coat.
  4. Clear coat
    1. Wipe area with tack cloth
    2. Spray entire panel with clear coat
    3. Let dry 5 minutes, wipe with tack cloth, then repeat for 3-4 coats
    4. Do not sand between coats
  5. Final polish
    1. Let clear coat dry for 24 hours
    2. Polish and wax


  1. Masking and prep
    1. Tape hard lines at panel seams
    2. Use backtaping if you need to tape across a panel
    3. Automotive Masking Tape Techniques video
    4. After masking around the panel to be repaired, make sure to extend the masking/tarping over the rest of your car. Overspray gets everywhere.
    5. For applying the plastic adhesion promoter, I sprayed it into a paper cup and used a small paintbrush to paint a light coat on the bare plastic (instead of spraying it).
  2. Sanding and priming
    1. Your scratched area must not have any hard edges. You need to feather the edges by sanding. Don’t be shy.
    2. After the final primer coat the surface must be perfectly smooth with no imperfections. Remember, the color coat just adds color, it won’t hide imperfections.
    3. Wet sanding is awesome. The sandpaper cuts smoothly, there is no dust, and it just works great. Make sure to wet sand when you sand the primer and (optionally) the second to last color coat.
    4. It’s import to wipe with the tack cloth after every coat. This not only picks up any dust that has settled, but more importantly picks up light overspray.
  3. Take your time. Recovering from a mistake is much more costly than going slow and getting it right. Don’t rush to get that color coat on. A good paint job is all about the prep and getting the primer coat nice and smooth.
  4. The Cangun spray can tool worked fantastc. Well worth it.
  5. has collection of short videos that I found very helpful


Overall I was very satisfied with the repair. Was it perfect? No. I have a little bit of orange peel if you looked real close — but even the pros get that. And the color match isn’t perfect, but it is very good. Good enough not to be noticed by anybody but us.

Overall I am very happy and, more importantly, the spouse is happy.



The Supplies


The damage


Masking job


Scratches sanded down and edges feathered


White primer applied and sanded smooth


Completed repair

Coleman Popup Trailer ABS Roof Repair

Fleetwood Folding Trailers (FFT) (which sold trailers under the Coleman brand) began using an ABS roof in 1996 on their Coleman popups. The idea seemed sound: a strong one piece roof with no seams to leak. Unfortunately these roofs have had their share of problems: sagging, bowing, cracking and delaminating.  FFT phased out these roofs around 2003.

FFT became FTCA and continued to replace roofs under a lifetime warranty, but in 2008 FTCA was acquired by Blackstreet Capital Management which then shutdown FTCA in 2011. No company means no more warranty service. So what do you do if you have ABS roof issues?

Fortunately there is lots of information on the web about repairing these ABS roofs. If you have serious bowing or sagging you are probably out of lucky. But there are solutions for cracking and delaminating. Just Google “Coleman ABS roof repair” and you will find lots of information.

We have a 1996 Coleman Cheyenne, one of the first trailers with the ABS roof. After a few years it sagged, and we had it replaced under warranty with a new roof. The new roof had an improved shape (crowned in both directions) and a metal support brace. It has resisted sagging and bowing, but after over a dozen years the roof was showing its age:

  1. The awning rail had opened up and was cracking
  2. The roof was covered with cracks, most small but a few larger ones.

In this article I will go over what we did to repair our roof.  Fortunately our roof had no delamination, so I won’t be covering that. But there is plenty of information on the web for that if you have delamination issues.

We repaired our roof in two phases:

  1. Replaced the awning rail
  2. Repaired cracks and coated roof with Grizzly Grip

The awning rail replacement is covered in a separate article. The rest of this article will focus on refurbishing the roof.

Refurbishing the Roof

Since our roof did not have any delamination the steps were pretty simple:

  1. Inspect the roof and fill any large cracks
  2. Coat the roof with Grizzly Grip

Repairing Cracks

Our roof was covered with many cracks. Most were small, but a couple were a bit larger. None seemed to be causing structural issues, but I was concerned that left over time these cracks would result in delamination.

Lots of small cracks

Lots of small cracks

And some bigger ones

And some bigger ones

Since we had so many cracks I decided to fill just a couple of the larger ones, and then let the roof treatment (Grizzly Grip) cover the rest.  If you have fewer larger cracks then you might want to check out this blog posting on Coleman ABS Roof Repair where the author does a more complete job than I cover here.

The most recommended way to fill cracks is to use an ABS paste made of Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK) and ABS plastic (either  purchased pellets, or shaved directly off of scrap ABS).  The problem is MEK is not available in California, so I had to go with a substitute: acetone.

Making the ABS Paste

I was unsure how well acetone would work compared to MEK. In the end it worked out OK, the biggest challenge is that acetone is very volatile (it evaporates almost instantly), so your work time with the paste is just a couple of seconds. Here is how I made the paste:

  1. Purchased ABS pellets from Apache Replacement Parts
  2. Placed them in a small canning jar in a ratio of 1 part pellets to 1 1/2 parts acetone
  3. Let it sit overnight
  4. Stir mixture with screwdriver. The ABS had separated into a liquid slurry and a gel-like chunk. I had to work a bit to break up the chunk and blend it.
  5. Add a bit more acetone, stir, let sit for a couple more hours, add a bit more acetone, stir some more

At this point I had a nice paste a bit thinner than toothpaste (and BTW, a week later the paste was still in good shape in the canning jar — so you can make this well in advance).

ABS plus acetone plus time equals ABS goo

ABS plus acetone plus time equals ABS goo

Filling the Cracks

I decided to go quick and dirty, and just fill the cracks. I did not drill holes at the ends of the cracks, nor bevel the cracks with a dremel (as described here). If you have large structural cracks then I think those extra steps are a good idea.

Warning! I should have spent more time filling cracks. See “Update” at the bottom of this article.

One problem with acetone over MEK is that the work time of the paste is just a few seconds. So filling went like this:

  1. Open the jar
  2. Using a coffee stir stick scoop up some paste and dab it along the crack
  3. Immediately scrap it in with a putty knife
  4. Close the jar

So filling my cracks took just a few minutes. Then on to the Grizzly Grip!

Coating the Roof with Grizzly Grip

Grizzly Grip is a bedliner, and has become a popular material for coating aged ABS roofs. Any white bedliner will probably work, but Grizzly Grip is nice because it is designed to be rolled on — so it’s easier for DIYers.

First step is to order your Grizzly Grip. Here is what I ordered:

  • 1 4 X 8 Aliphatic Bedliner Kit, Snow White, Fine (comes with 2 4″ rollers)
  • 1 additional quart (turns out I did not need this for my 7×10 roof. Although if I had extra rollers I could have done an extra coat)
  • 2 9″ rollers
  • Shipping was $39 to California. Kit came with instructions, a pair of gloves, and an accelerant to use with the coating.
  • Total Cost: $217.36

Additional Supplies

  • 9″ roller handle
  • 4″ roller handle
  • Metal roller pan
  • 2 2″ cheapo brushes (NOT plastic)
  • Tape and plastic drop cloth
  • Paint stirrer (used with power drill for stirring paint, make sure yours is small enough to fit into the gallon jugs! Mine was too larger so I had to resort to stir sticks at the last second).
  • Extra stir sticks
  • Acetone
  • 3M 6211 Paint Respirator

That last item is important! The Grizzly Grip is pretty nasty and I was very thankful I used the respirator.



Coating the roof went like this:

  1. Wash the roof well. Might as well do the whole trailer!
  2. Mask rubber gasket that is attached to roof and protect sides of trailer with plastic drop cloth and newspaper
    1. I chose to leave my gasket in place. If you are replacing your gasket you can remove it.
    2. Oh, you might want to mask around the awning rail and clasps.
  3. Wipe roof down with acetone (or MEK)
  4. Open a gallon of Grizzly Grip, add the accelerant, stir like crazy
  5. Roll on first coat
  6. Wait until it has dried to the touch (about 2 hours for me)
  7. Roll on second coat using new rollers

A couple tips:

  • Do not do this in direct sun. I did mine in late afternoon shade.
  • I used the 4″ rollers for the sides and 9″ for the top
  • I used the 2″ paint brush to daub paint around the awning rail, etc.
  • Bits of the rollers pulled off and embedded in the Grizzly Grip. I’ve heard this complaint from others. The Grizzly Grip does degrade the rollers, so maybe I took too long or overworked it. I dunno. It doesn’t look too bad, but I do have some bluish speckles in my roof now!
  • The Grizzly Grip handles differently than paint, and my first coat went on a little gloppy in places. You might want to go with a light first coat.


Overall I’m very satisfied.

If I had to do this over I would consider ordering extra rollers and do 3 thin coats instead of two medium ones. I had enough extra Grizzly Grip to do this.

Did it hide the cracks? Yes! Not all of them perfectly, but overall it came out very good.

Finished Product

No more cracks!

No more cracks! You can see little bits of roller foam here and there. I’ll live with it.

Looking better than it did

Looking much better than it did. That squiggly line is some dirt on my camera sensor.


Update (July 9, 2018)

Three years after the repair and there is good and bad news.

  • Good: the Grizzly Grip has held up great. No oxidation, no flaking, still a very nice finish.
  • Good: the larger cracks I filled with ABS paste are holding up pretty well.
  • Bad: other cracks are starting to re-appear. Both the hairline cracks and some larger cracks that I did not fill and should have. I don’t blame this on the Grizzly Grip, but on my insufficient crack filling.

Some lessons learned:

  1. Fill those cracks! As many as you can.
  2. Unclear if there is much to do about hairline cracks other then maybe skimming them with ABS paste.
  3. It’s possible you’ll need to do a touch-up every few years.

But overall I’m still pleased, and so far this is the only practical solution I’ve seen to prolonging the life of a Coleman ABS roof.

Coleman/Fleetwood Popup Trailer Awning Rail Replacement

We have a 1996 Coleman Cheyenne, one of the first years  with an ABS roof. In this article I will discuss how I replaced the old, cracked awning rail with a new one. In another article I describe refurbishing the roof.

Replacing the Awning Rail

A few years ago the plastic awning rail started to open up and lose its grip on the awning bag. As a stop-gap I drilled some holes in the rail and droIMGP7821ve screws through the top of the rail and into the bag bead. That worked for a couple years, but the awning rail continued to sag and crack. Time had come to replace it.

There were a couple challenges:

  1. How to remove the old awning rail? It was glued to the roof.
  2. How to attach a new awning rail? An ABS roof isn’t really meant to be screwed into.
  3. What awning rail to use? Metal? Plastic?

This is what I did (at the end of the article is a series of photos illustrating the procedure).

Removing Old Awning Rail

I considered a couple of choices:

  1. Pry up the old awning rail and hope the old adhesive lets go before it pulled up pieces of the roof.
  2. Admit prying up the old rail will damage the roof, so cut around the old rail so that as it pulls up the ABS skin it will do so cleanly
  3. Cut off only the C channel of the old rail, leaving the flanged base.

I initially tried #1, gently probing and prying at the old rail with a putty knife. My evaluation was if I was going to pry it up then I was going to damage the roof. I considered #2, but decided it was best to leave the roof as intact as possible, so I went with #3.

To facilitate cutting off the C channel I purchased an inexpensive Oscillating Multifunction Power Tool from Harbor Freight ($15 on sale!) along with the 3/4″ cutting blade. I did my best to cut the old channel off flush without gouging the base and was, for the most part, successful. Any cosmetic issues would eventually be covered up by the new rail or the Grizzly Grip coating.

Attaching New Awning Rail

Research on the web uncovered three techniques for attaching a new rail to the roof:

  1. Glue it on with a suitable adhesive. 3M 5200 Marine adhesive was the most commonly recommended.
  2. Bolt it on by drilling all the way through the roof and using  bolts with nuts and washers on the inside.
  3. Screw it on by embedding drywall anchors into the roof (secured with Gorilla Glue)

I had some concern with #1 especially since it was unclear how well 5200 works with plastics. I initially considered #2, but decided I did not want unsightly washers and nuts on the inside of my roof. So I decided to go with a combination of #3 and #1 — belt and suspenders! Also the 5200 would act as a sealant (in addition to an adhesive).

The Awning Rail and Other Supplies

I considered three replacement rails:

  1. Flanged metal
  2. Flanged PVC
  3. PVC Flex-A-Rail

Since the roof  line curves I figured PVC would be more flexible (although I’m sure a metal rail would have enough flex). I also figured white PVC would look better than metal. One small issue I had was that the flanged PVC rails I found had a base that was a tad bigger than the base I had left behind from my old rail. I was concerned that that would leave a pocket for moisture to collect in. So I decided on the Flex-A-Rail from Sailrite since it was similar to the C channel portion of the old rail I had cut off. And since I was screwing and bonding the rail I was not overly concerned about the narrowness of the Flex-A-Rail base. Finally the screws are hidden in the C-channel improving appearance.

Update: After completing this project and using the awning with the new rail on a camping trip I would NOT use the Flex-A-Rail if I were to do this project over. The reason is that with the Flex-A-Rail the C-channel opening is perpendicular to the base of the rail (see photo at end of this article), while the old rail’s opening was offset more towards the side of the trailer. This means the awning bag bead bends at a sharper angle and the bag itself is about 3/4″ higher than before. I noticed on our camping trip that the horizontal awning poles no longer pressed completely on the flat face of the roof — instead resting a bit higher where the roof side starts to curve. These are not big problems, and I’m still happy with the repair. But if I were to do this over I would used the Flanged PVC rail mentioned above.

To save on shipping costs I ordered 44″ sections. Here is what I ordered from

  • 3 Flex-A-Rail White 44″ Long
  • 3 10-pack 4 x 6 x 3/4″ screws (special small headed screws are needed to fit down in the rail).
  • 1 #0 square head screw driver (the special screws need a square drive).

Other supplies

  • Plastic Anchors #4-6 x 7/8″, 100 pack (I used 25)
  • Acetone
  • Gorilla Glue
  • 3M 5200 Marine AdhesiveIMGP7842


  • 1/8″ drill bit
  • 3/16″ drill bit
  • Drill
  • Hammer
  • Blue tape
  • Measuring tape and pencil
  • That square headed screw driver from Sailrite

The Procedure In Pictures


Cutting the old C channel off with the budget oscillating multi-tool from Harbor Freight.


C channel all gone. Hey! That worked pretty well.


Drilling pilot holes through Flex-A-Rail with 1/8″ bit. Let the bit kiss the old rail base to mark it so you know where to drill for anchors. I drilled 1″ from each end and then every 5″ to 5.5″. Sailrite recommends spacing the screws every 4″ to 6″.


If you look closely you can see the divots in this photo that mark where to drill for the anchors.


Next drill with 3/16″ bit for the anchors. I used some tape on the drill bit to act as a depth gauge.


Gorilla glue works best if there is some dampness, so toss the anchors in some water.


A little glue goes a long way since it expands.


Anchor glued in.


Looking good! I let these dry for a few hours before moving on to the next step. As the Gorilla glue expands it might seep out of the anchor. I cleaned that up with a bit of acetone.


3M 5200 Marine Adhesive Sealant. You can find it at Lowes and Home Depot. This tube was plenty for the job. The 5200 is supposed to provide a permanent bond. But if I ever need to remove the rail I should be able to with the help of heat and a chemical debonder.


The 5200 was thinner than I thought it would be. Here it is running a bit. You might want to put it on the channel instead of the old base Don’t be afraid to use a decent amount. You can wipe off the excess with a paper towel wet with acetone.


I went ahead a added tape in between the screws. The 5200 takes a couple days to fully cure.


Awning bag slipped in for a test fit. Note that since the channel opening is perpendicular to the base (instead of opening more towards the side of the trailer) the bag bead bends at a sharp angle. This also raises the awning bag a bit, resulting in the horizontal awning poles hitting the side of the roof where it curved. I recommend using a channel where the C opening is tilted down towards the side of the trailer.

Vermouth Roundup: A Sweet Vermouth Tasting Review

So many sweet vermouths, so little time!

Until a few years ago my sweet vermouth universe consisted of Gallo and Martini & Rossi. And there really ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. Some of my best Manhattans have been with Gallo and Jim Beam sitting under a pine tree while camping, and M & R is terrific in a Negroni.

But variety is the spice of life, and during the last few years I (along with my brother) have enjoyed trying out different sweet vermouths. The good news is none of them are really bad. Yes, some are more flavorful and sophisticated than others, but the worst you can say about the lower rung vermouths is that they lack depth and character — which for some people is just what they want.

The following are my tasting impressions of over a dozen vermouths. Tasting vermouths in one sitting is a challenge. You really need to taste them neat, in a Negroni and in a Manhattan. That’s a lot of drinks.  So these tasting notes are based on my experiences over the last few years, plus some dedicated tasting sessions mixed in.

Also, none of these were done blind, although I think I could identify many of these Vermouths when tasted neat. In a mixed drink is another matter. Yes there are at times significant differences, but could I tell a Manhattan made from Gallo from one made with Ponti? Probably not. But between one made with Carpano Antica and Gallo — hell yes.

The Manhattans used for tasting were typically made with:

  • Two parts Bulleit Bourbon
  • One part vermouth
  • Three dashes Angostura bitters

The Negronis:

  • One part Campari
  • One part  London dry gin (often Beefeaters or Trader Joe’s Rear Admiral Joseph’s)
  • One part sweet vermouth

Bulleit Bourbon is a nicely flavorful bourbon with a relatively high concentration of rye that can overpower some of the more mild mannered vermouths. For some of these I also tried them in a Manhattan made with Canadian whiskey — which has a more neutral flavor than American bourbons. That’s called out in some of the tasting notes.

In the Negroni more subtle differences could stand out. In a Manhattan I really can’t tell the difference between M & R and Cinzano — but in a Negroni I can.

OK, enough rambling. Here are my impressions…

1. Gallo  ($2.99 750ml Safeway, not pictured)

I grew up with Gallo. It’s the vermouth you can find when you can find no other — at least here in California. And it’s cheap.


Very sweet and lightly herbal. No bitterness. Approachable, but this is not a vermouth to drink on its own. No depth. No complexity. No bitterness.


Harmless and inoffensive. Yes there are better choices, but at least Gallo doesn’t ruin the drink!


Serviceable in a pinch, especially for those that like a sweeter Manhattan with a tame whiskey (like Canadian). With a bolder whiskey the vermouth is lost.

Best For

Those on a budget. Or if you can’t find any other vermouth.  Or you are not a fan of bitter and like a basic sweet Manhattan.

2. Ponti  ($3.99 1ltr Trader Joe’s)

One of two sweet vermouths carried by Trader Joe’s in our area.


Sweet and marginally more herbal than Gallo. No bitterness. This will offend no one, and excite no one. It’s pretty much a slightly better version of Gallo.


Works in a pinch. If you’re picking up your liquor at TJ’s then it is fine.


Like Gallo, it is serviceable. No problems — but no fireworks either.

Best For

You’re shopping a TJ’s and you need some vermouth. A better alternative to Gallo.

Update: Trader Joe’s in our area has stopped carrying Ponti as of summer 2016.

3. D’Aquino Rosso  ($3.99 1ltr Trader Joe’s, not pictured)

The other sweet vermouth carried at our Trader Joe’s.


Very sweet and pleasant. No bitterness. There is nothing wrong with this vermouth, but Ponti has a bit more flavor. In any case, you probably aren’t buying this stuff to drink on the rocks.





Best For

You’re shopping a TJ’s and you need some vermouth and they are out of Ponti.

Update: As of 2016 this product appears to have a new label: Sole Vermouth Rosso. This is what Trader Joe’s now carries in our area. Sole is imported by D’Aquino and tastes the same as D’Aquino Rosso, so I think it’s the same product.

4. Martini & Rossi Rosso ($7.99 750ml Safeway)

The world’s most popular sweet vermouth. Tasty and reliable, this vermouth is a straight shooter. No bar should be without a bottle of M & R.


Moderately herbal and jammy. Very slight bitter finish. This is the quintessential all-arounder sweet vermouth, but not a great choice for drinking on the rocks.


My favorite. Yes, I said it. Plain old M & R is my favorite vermouth for a Negroni where it provides a solid foundation without competing with the Campari. I don’t like flowery gin nor overly bold vermouth messing up my Negroni!  M & R hits the right balance for me.


Perfectly good in a Manhattan. Nothing you would rave about, but totally acceptable.

Best For

Best bang for the buck sweet vermouth. Every bar should have a bottle. And makes a terrific, balanced Negroni!

5. Cinzano Rosso ($7.99 750ml BevMo)

The other moderately priced contender, from the makers of Campari.


Initial cola taste and nicely herbal with a slightly more bitter finish than M & R. Cinzano has just enough personality to be tasty on the rocks or with soda.


Quite good in a Negroni, but pushes it slightly off balance. I prefer M & R.


Just fine, just like M & R.

Best For

Everyday on the rocks. That touch of extra character and bitterness over the M & R makes this a better choice for drinking on the rocks or with a splash of soda (hence the near empty bottle in the photo).

6. Vya Vermouth Aperitif ($ 12.99 375ml BevMo)

A relative newcomer from California.


Initial slight cola flavor followed by an herbal finish of somewhat mysterious makeup — maybe coconut? I find Vya interesting, but not necessarily tasty.


Not my favorite. Adds a subtle distinctive flavor that I don’t necessarily appreciate. This is a case where I’d rather have Gallo in my Negroni than a “better” vermouth.


The Bulleit dominated anything distinctive in this vermouth, so in a Manhattan it was serviceable but not special.  Wanting to give it a second chance I tried it with some Canadian and found it did better with a lighter bodied whiskey (if you like its taste).

Best For

Try it neat. If you like it then it would be good on the rocks or in a Manhattan with a lighter bodied whiskey. But for me, I will look elsewhere.

7. Cocchi Vermouth di Torino ($13.00 375ml BevMo)

Top shelf we are here! One of the more popular high end vermouths.


Luscious and delightfully herbal with notes of cocoa and citrus. Little bitter finish, but enough herbal depth to still be complex and interesting. This is a delicious vermouth that can easily be appreciated on the rocks — even by non-vermouth lovers.


Good, but nothing special. The delicate flavors that are so tasty neat are somewhat lost in the Negroni and the lack of bitterness doesn’t help either.  I wouldn’t use this vermouth in a Negroni — not that it is bad, but it can be put to better use in a…


Spectacular! This warm, flavorful vermouth makes for a balanced Manhattan with depth. Really, really good. I mean — really good.

Best For

Sipping on the rocks and in a Manhattan. A great choice if you like a vermouth with depth, but low in bitterness. A perfect choice for Canadian Manhattans.

8. Carpano Antica Formula ($31.99 1ltr BevMo)

This is the vermouth that is currently all the rage, and is generally considered the best sweet vermouth out there. Pricey, but top notch.


Bold herbal profile with hints of vanilla and licorice. Strong, pleasant bitter finish. This is a big, complex vermouth with lots going on. Might be a little bold for some.


While the Cocchi was a little tame in a Negroni, the Carpano is a little unbalanced. The vanilla pokes through the citrus base of the Negroni in a distracting way. It’s not bad, but not my favorite. Again, a Negroni is not the place to use this vermouth. Instead…


Now you’re talking! The forwardness that hurts in a Negroni shines in a Manhattan as long as you have a bold whiskey to stand up to it. It is fantastic in the Bulleit Manhattan: bold, deep and complex. But pair it with a lighter bodied whiskey and the balance is lost. Canadian lovers should reach for Cocchi.

Best For

On the rocks if you like the bold flavors and in a Manhattan when mixed with a suitable whiskey.

Tip: If you like the boldness of a Carpano Antica Manhattan, but balk at the price (or worry about the bottle of Carpano loosing character before you finish it) then try using a cheaper vermouth and adding a splash of Cynar amaro. Delicious!).

9. Carpano Punt E Mes ($26.99 750ml BevMo, not pictured)

Carpano Antica’s rambunctious little brother.


Out of all of the vermouths here, I would consider Punt E Mes closest to an apertif. Initially sweet with a bit of root beer followed by a steadily building quinine bitterness that lingers. This is a flavorful vermouth with a big bitter bite. Delicious on the rocks or with soda if you enjoy herbaciousness with a strong bitter finish — and I do!


I’m not sure what you call Gin, Campari and Punt E Mes …. but I wouldn’t call it a Negroni. Not that it’s bad, but the Punt E Mes is like a bull in the china closet fighting the Campari to be top dog (how’s that for a mixed metaphor).


Like in the Negroni, Punt E Mes alters the Manhattan into a different drink — reminiscent of a Little Italy. It’s actually quite good, but if you’re looking for a traditional Manhattan then save Punt E Mes for drinking with soda. Canadian lovers should flee.

Best For

On the rocks, or with soda.

10. Cinzano 1757 ($29.99 1ltr, Zanatto’s Market, not pictured)

Cinzano’s attempt at a premium vermouth.


A little less sweet than normal Cinzano with a bit more herbaceousness and a sturdy bitter finish. Herbal notes are more floral and less complex than Carpano Antica — and the bitterness seems a bit forced. This is a fine vermouth, but if you are in this price range and want a bold vermouth then Carpano Antica is a better choice.


Works fine in a Negroni, but isn’t really any better than M & R. Maybe adds a touch more bitterness — but not worth the premium.


Meh. Does not add the depth and complexity of Carpano Antica nor the deliciousness of Cocchi. If you’re going to spend for a premium vermouth for your Manhattans then I would not spend it on 1757.

Best For

In a Negroni if you want to look fancy. But I won’t be buying any more of this vermouth.

11. Noilly Prat Rouge ($12.00 750ml, Safeway, not pictured)

French sweet vermouth. Our local Safeway started carrying it so I decided to give it a try.


Sweet, light bodied. Low herbal. No bitterness. Touches of clove and prune. Reminds me a bit of Gallo, but a tad more pleasant.


OK, but nothing special. Definitely inferior to good old M & R.


Pedestrian. Did not stand up to the Bulleit. As with other light vermouths might work well for those that prefer a lighter Manhattan made with Canadian.

Best For

Those that like a basic, light bodied Manhattan. Me? I’ll pass.

12. LeJon ($3.97 750ml, CVS, not pictured)

I was in CVS buying a birthday card and, of course, wandered down the liquor aisle. I recognized this label from my youth. It was $1.99 on sale — so I had to pick up a bottle.


A bit winey and not very vermouthy. No bitterness. Not very herbal. Rather unpleasant.


First attempt resulted in no detection of vermouth whatsoever. So I tried doubling the portion, and the Negroni became barely drinkable. But why bother.


I haven’t tried yet. Not sure I’m going to.

Best For

Uh….nothing comes to mind. If you want a cheap vermouth then both Gallo and Ponti are clearly better. This is the only vermouth on this list that I would consider truly bad.

13. Sole Rosso ($3.49 1ltr, Trader Joe’s, not pictured)

Recently our local Trader Joe’s stopped carrying Ponti and D’Aquino, and now carries only this brand. Sole Rosso is labeled as being imported by D’Aquino and it tastes just like the D’Aquino Rosso described above (#3), so I suspect it is the same product. See the D’Aquino tasting notes.

14. Rivata Sweet Vermouth ($6.29 750ml Total Wine & More)

We just got a Total Wine & More in our area and they carry this as a mid tier vermouth. (BTW, Total Wine & More destroys BevMo in terms of prices — bye, bye BevMo).


Sweet with a touch of cherry cola. Low bitterness. First sip on the rocks is tasty, but then it wears out its welcome.


Similar to Cinzano in that it adds a slightly different note to the drink. Acceptable.


Not bad! The hints of cherry cola worked pretty well with Bulleit. Not spectacular, but not bad either.

Best For

You’re shopping at Total Wines and you want an inexpensive change of pace. But really you should reach for M & R or Cinzano instead.

15. Dolin (11.99 750ml Total Wine 7 More)

A French vermouth that confirms my impression of French vermouths: while Italian vermouths strive to make a statement, French vermouths are more reserved and prefer to rest in the background of a cocktail.


Light and mild, Dolin is not too sweet, not too medicinal, low bitterness. Dolin is nicely restrained which makes it very good on the rocks with a twist of lemon.


If you’re a bourbon Manhattan drinker then Dolin seems pretty run-of-the-mill to me. Bold whiskey benefits from a more substantial vermouth backbone.

On the other hand, if you’re a Canadian (or brandy) Manhattan drinker, then Dolin hits the spot. Pleasant, restrained, tasty, it makes for a nicely balanced Canadian Manhattan — although I would still put Cocchi ahead.


A pass for me. Dolin is a bit tame for a Negroni.  Viva l’Italia!

Best For

Canadian Manhattans with a French slant, and on the rocks with a twist.

16. Imbue Sweet Classic Vermouth

Imbue Cellars is a small vermouth producer from Oregon. I was given a bottle as a gift from a dear friend.


A bit drier than a typical Italian vermouth the Imbue was lightly herbal with some vanilla and a lightly bitter finish. It is slightly wine forward which makes it reminiscent of a port or sherry. It was very tasty neat and on the rocks.


Not the place for this vermouth as it was over powered by the bourbon. Might work in a Canadian or brandy Manhattan — but certainly not better than Cocchi (or Dolin for that matter).


Surprisingly this vermouth faired a bit better in a Negroni where the sweetness and bite of the Campari made up for the lack of herbal sweetness, and the slight vanilla hints came through in a pleasantly subtle fashion. No problems here, but no fireworks either.

Best For

Neat. This vermouth is more suited as an aperitif than as a cocktail ingredient.

17. Martini & Rossi Riserva Speciale Rubino

A specialty vermouth from Martini & Rossi. My brother had a bottle that I was fortunate enough to taste on a visit. Ruby red in color, this vermouth promises something different.


Exotically colored, the Rubino looks great on the rocks. Warmly herbal with a nice bitter finish, this vermouth makes a terrific aperitif. Would also be excellent with some soda.


I did not have a chance to try, but I predict a Manhattan is not the place for this vermouth.


The flavors that delight on the rocks falter in the Negroni where the Rubino and the Campari compete. Also the resulting Negroni is oddly colored. Not a deal killer, but esthetics is an important part of cocktails. This is a case where the the parts are greater than the whole.

Best For

An aperitif on the rocks or with soda. As with many speciality vermouths, the characteristics that make this vermouth tasty on the rocks are either lost or misplaced in a mixed drink.

Summary and Recommendations

  • Best for a Bulleit Manhattan: Carpano Antica Formula
  • Best for a Canadian or Brandy Manhattan: Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
  • Best for a Negroni: Martini and Rossi Rosso
  • Best on the rocks: Punt E Mes
  • Best on the rocks everyday: Cinzano Rosso
  • Best on the cheap: Ponti Sole Rosso (Trader Joe’s)
  • Best everyday/all-around: Martini and Rossi Rosso

Tip: keep your good quality vermouths in the refrigerator and consume them within a couple of months.

And the fun doesn’t stop here.  If you want to go beyond the world of Vermouth see my review of some popular Italian Amari. And for some great cocktails made with sweet vermouth see From the Manhattan to the Negroni: A Tour of the World’s Finest Cocktails

Converting Protected iTunes Audio Files So You Can Play Them Anywhere

Music purchased in iTunes in Mid 2007 and earlier can’t be played on any non-Apple (iOS/MacOS) device. These music files are protected with Digital Rights Management (DRM) and are labeled in iTunes as Protected AAC audio file and have a file suffix of m4p. Apple introduced iTunes Plus in 2007 — a DRM free, higher quality format. These files are labeled as Purchased AAC audio file and have a file suffix of m4a and can be played on (most) any device. By 2009 Apple stopped selling DRM encumbered music and all was iTunes Plus.

Since we were an early iTunes adopter our iTunes library had a lot of protected files. Over a thousand. In the last year or so I’ve started using the Amazon ecosystem more and more. We use Amazon Prime music, we have an Amazon Fire TV Stick and Echo, and I’m considering getting an Amazon Fire tablet. With Amazon Prime I can upload my purchased iTunes music — yeah! — but NOT if it is Protected AAC. Boo! And if I do get that Fire Tablet, those protected iTunes files won’t play. The more recent stuff will — but not most stuff purchased before 2009.

Bottom line is: you do not want any DRM protected music in your music library. So how do you get rid of the iTunes DRM?

There was a period of time where you could upgrade protected files to iTunes Plus for a fee. But that option is no longer available. Fortunately there is still a way — it’s just a little indirect and will cost you $25.

Before doing this process you should check your iTunes library and see how many protected music files you have. One easy way to do that is to create a smart playlist where Kind contains “Protected AAC audio file”. You can then see how many you have and if it is worth the $25 to convert them.

iTunes Match

Apple introduced iTunes Match in early 2013. The concept is simple. iTunes Match scans your iTunes music library. Most of your music files Apple already has sitting on their servers (“in the cloud”). For those that don’t match, iTunes uploads them to your own private corner of the cloud. Once the scanning/uploading is complete your music is available to you on any iOS device. You no longer have to sync the music files from your Mac to your phone. And you don’t even need to keep local copies of the files on your Mac if you don’t want to.

The catch? It costs $25 a year. But for the $25 you get another bonus. Since all the music in Match is iTunes Plus (DRM free) you can convert your m4p files to m4a by simply forcing a re-download of the files. Once you do that you can upload them to Amazon Prime, copy them to your Android tablet, etc.

Here’s How

1) Subscribe to iTunes Match

You can do this in the iTunes store. It will cost you $25.

2) Turn off Auto-Renewal

If you are primarily using iTunes Match to convert your library, then go to your iTunes Account settings and turn off auto-renewal now so you don’t forget. When iTunes Match lapses in a year you won’t get the cloud benefits, but all the converted files you have downloaded will stay converted.

3) Click on the Match tab in iTunes

After subscribing to Match it will go through three phases:

  1. Gathering info about your iTunes library
  2. Matching your music with songs in the iTunes Store
  3. Uploading artwork and remaining songs

I stopped the process after it finished #2. I will likely go back and start it up again to finish #3, but it’s not critical at this point.

4) Examine Your Library

Now click on My Music. Bring up the Songs menu in the upper right corner and make sure “Kind” is checked in the Show Columns menu.

Next click on the Kind column to sort your music by file type. Scroll down to your “Protected AAC audio files”. These are the files you want to upgrade.

5) Delete a protected file and re-download it

First try just one file to make sure things are working as you expect. Do this:

  1. Select one of your Protected AAC audio files
  2. Press the Delete key
  3. Click Move to Trash
  4. In iTunes the song will now be labeled “Purchased AAC audio file”. There will be a ready to download icon next to it: available
  5. Control-Click on the selected song and choose Download off of the menu
  6. The music file will download as an m4a file! Yipee!

6) Repeat for the rest of your library

I did it this way:

  1. Sort by Kind to identify Protected AAC audio files
  2. Some of my protected songs had the Waiting cloud icon: waiting. From what I could tell these are songs that did not match and iTunes wanted to upload them. This seems like a bug, since one would think that any song I purchased in iTunes would match, but for some reason they did not. Less than 1% of my Protected songs had this icon, so I decide just to ignore them for now.
  3. For the other protected songs I selected large chunks of them and hit Delete then Move to Trash.
  4. Once I was done deleting the protected songs I sorted the song list by the cloud icon column, then selected all the “ready to download” songs and downloaded them
  5. It took a couple hours to finish the downloads

7) You iTunes Library is now DRM free!

I then uploaded some Nirvana to my Amazon Prime account and listened to it on my Echo (Alexa! Play Nirvana). Something I could not do before the conversion


  1. Subscribe to iTunes Match
  2. iTunes Match: Understanding the iCloud Status icons
  3. About iTunes Plus and Converting DRM music

Amazon Echo Review


Last fall Amazon announced the Echo:  a combination personnel assistant (think Siri) and bluetooth speaker. For some reason I found the cheezy video strangely compelling, so I signed up for one (and at $99 for Prime members it seemed pretty reasonable). And here we are in February and it just arrived.

Unbox and Setup

IMGP7806The unit arrived in a nice compact box. The internal box followed Amazon’s Fire branding: low key black outside with a pop of orange on the inside. Contents of the box:

  1. The Echo tower
  2. Power adapter
  3. Remote control
  4. Batteries for remote control
  5. Getting started guide and Echo tip sheet

The Echo tower itself is nicely finished and pleasantly hefty due to the two speaker drivers with large magnets. On top of the tower is a light ring that is both a volume knob and a visual indicator that changes color/pattern depending on what’s going on with the Echo.

So I plug it in and it powers up, first flashing some blue, then changing to a sweeping orange. Echo then speaks, telling me that it’s time to start the setup app. My dog is slightly spooked.

The companion app for the Echo runs on iPhones, Android phones, and browsers on your computer. I decided to do the setup using my iMac and Safari, so I went to and the app loaded. So far so good. I advanced to the connection screen where I’m informed that the Echo has set up a WiFi network, and it was time to turn on my iMac WiFi and connect to Amazon-XXX. I did, and the Echo pleasantly informed me that my client had connected and to continue with the setup app.

And then I hit a problem. The application was stuck on “Connecting….”. My iMac had joined the temporary wifi network just fine (according to my network settings), but it couldn’t connect to the Echo. I tried all the normal things you try in this situation: power cycling the Echo, trying the app on an iPad, etc. Nothing helped. So I called Amazon support.

Initially I talked to a general support engineer in some far away country, but he quickly transferred me to an Echo specialist, Stephanie, who sounded like she was right next door.  After going over some basics, Stephanie had me reset the Echo by inserting a paper clip into a small hole in the base of the Echo. And to make a long story short — that did the trick. I was able to perform the setup process. So to highlight this for others:

If your Echo setup application hangs on “Connecting…”, then turn your Echo over, insert a paper clip into the small hole in the bottom of the Echo, hold for 5 seconds to reset the Echo to factory defaults, and then re-do the setup process.

OK! So now our Echo was up and running.

Speaker Quality

The first thing I was interested in was the speaker quality. One of the primary uses of Echo is to play music so it better sound pretty good. And it does.

The tower contains two downward firing drivers: a 2″ tweeter and a 2.5″ woofer.  Clearly you’re not going to get window shaking bass, but the Echo does produce a full rich sound. Since it is a point source of audio, it’s not going to fill your room like a good home system does. But for background music while you are cooking dinner? Perfect!

Overall the Echo played louder and sounded better than the Cambridge Soundworks Oontz we have (a small decent sounding bluetooth speaker). But it likely lacks the punch of higher end ($200) speakers. I do wish the Echo had some way to support adding external speakers — maybe a headphone out.  But it does not.

In general I have no complaints with the sound quality. It sounds great for what it is.

Voice Recognition

To get the Echo’s attention you use a wakeup word — “Alexa” by default (you have an option to use “Amazon” for those families that already have an Alexa). In general the voice recognition works well. Both my wife and I had no problem using the Echo, and even when it is playing music it easily recognized me without needing to shout. The Echo comes with a remote control with a microphone for those cases when the room is too noisy, or you are too far away. The companion app contains a voice recognition training feature, but so far we’ve felt no need to use it.

In terms of range — it is quite good. The Echo seemed to easily hear us from any point in a large room — and even a room away (with no music playing).

In fact, the voice recognition might be too good! We were watching American Idol one evening, and there was a contestant named “Alexis”. I’m not sure exactly what Ryan Seacrest said, but in the middle of the show our Echo announced “Adding Books to your shopping list”.

Music Streaming

Currently the primary use of the Echo will be to stream music. The Echo has access to your Amazon Prime music, as well as the streaming services iHeartRadio and TunieIn. Some example of requests you can ask Echo:

  • Play my “Dinner Party” play list
  • Play Journey
  • Play KNBR radio
  • Play Taylor Swift
  • Louder
  • Softer
  • Next
  • Volume 4
  • Mute

Generally Echo first tries to satisfy your request using your Prime Music library, then falls back to free content on Prime Music. At times it has also fallen back to iHeartRadio and TuneIn. For example Amazon Prime has plenty of Journey, but apparently no Taylor Swift. So “Play Journey” played stuff from Prime, and “Play Taylor Swift” went to iHeartRadio.

iHeartRadio also streams live radio, so “Play KNBR” plays our local sports radio station. And of course you can explicitly pick an iHeardRadio custom station by saying “Play iHeartRadio My Jazz”.

TuneIn has a variety of podcasts and NPR shows, so “Play This American Life” will play the latest episode.  Unfortunately I have not found a way to select a specific podcast episode via voice command. For example I want to listen to Episode 1 of the Serial podcast, but I can’t get the Echo to do that unless I use the companion app to select it.

Overall the music streaming works pretty well, but it is not without frustration. There have been times that I just can’t get the Echo to understand what I’m requesting. For example, I have some tracks from the soundtrack to Whiplash in my Prime music library, but no matter what I said it kept playing some song name Whiplash. I had to resort to creating a specific playlist — at which point “Play playlist whiplash” did the trick.  Also, sometimes requesting specific classical pieces does not go well. It just has no idea what I’m asking for.

But these frustrations have been relatively minor, and we find ourselves using the music streaming capability often.

Other Features

In addition to streaming music Echo has some additional features:

  • Sports: The Echo has some integration with sports results. It’s very handy to be able to ask: “Alexa, when do the Warriors play next” or “What was the score of the Giants game?”.
  • Setting a timer: we love this feature! If you’ve just phoned in your Japanese take out order and you need to leave in ten minutes to pick it up: “Alexa, 10 minute timer!”. Our your hands are covered in bread dough: “Alexa, 15 minute timer!”.
  • Shopping and ToDo list: You can add and remove things from these lists by asking Alexa. These lists are made available in the companion app so you can access them on your smart phone. “Alexa, add Almond Milk to the shopping list”.
  • Flash Briefing: You can get a brief update on news and weather by asking: “Alexa, flash briefing”. We have ours configured to use NPR for the news.
  • General info: I was concerned that the Echo might be a temptation to cheat on my Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle — after all, I’m used to asking my wife questions. Why not Alexa? Well no worries there — the Echo is not as smart as some of the other digital assistants — at least not yet. For example it did not know the largest lake in South America. And in general, these type of queries are hit and miss. But the Echo does know about local sports teams, which is huge! So this does work: “Alexa, when do the Warriors play next?”.  And I get the answer in Pacific Time  (which is better than Yahoo Sports which seems to list everything in ET).
  • Spelling: oh yes, the Echo can spell. So now my family can ask Alexa instead of me!


So why is this better than Siri on your iPhone plus a bluetooth speaker?

It’s better because the Echo is always on, and always there. You don’t have to find it. You don’t have to touch it. You just talk at the room and voila — you have your answer or your music. So for $99 bucks I think it’s a bundle of fun for Amazon Prime members.

Backyard Landscaping: Paver Patio

My wife hated The Deck. We had lived in our house 18 years, and every single summer she asked “when are we going to tear out The Deck”? The Deck was dirty, high maintenance, and was elevated 18″ which, although not a great height, still made you feel like your head was poking above the fences — further reducing any sense of privacy. We really didn’t use our backyard — which was a shame — in large part because of The Deck.

Each year I mumbled something non-committal. Tearing out the deck is the easy part. But then what? We would need a new patio, and after fits and starts and high estimates from contractors I continued to avoid that endeavor.

Finally the spouse had had enough. She hired my son and his friend to tear out The Deck. They were quite efficient. It was gone in a couple days.

So that was that. We were getting a new patio. And we decided to do it ourselves.

There are lots of DIY articles on installing a paver patio. They make it look so simple. And really, it is not rocket science. But there is a big different between laying a 10′ x 10′ patio and a 20′ x 30′ patio. And there are lots of details the DIY articles gloss over.

In this article I’ll go over how we did our patio, and highlight some mistakes we made.


We wanted a fairly large format paver which ruled out the smaller pavers found at your big box store. After looking around we chose Calston Quarry Stone Versailles (the same manufacturer we used for our garden retaining wall materials) in Sequoia Sandstone using the Versailles 3 pattern. Along some edges we used a border of 6×9 Quarry Stone.

One thing to keep in mind when doing a large landscaping project is the weight of materials. For exaIMGP7635mple, I think the 16″x16″ pavers were around 40 pounds each. You have to haul those around, try to set them delicately, and then sometimes remove them and reset them. I would not have wanted to work with any larger of a paver. And I’m glad “only” 40% of our pattern was the large paver.

Once you have picked the pavers, pattern and know your square footage your supplier can help you determine how many pavers of each size to get. Also most manufacturers have estimation guides that you can use for budgeting purposes.

In addition to the pavers you will need baserock, bedding sand, and grouting sand. Again, your supplier can help you determine how much you need of each.

And finally, you will need some sort of edge restraint. There are various products. We ended up using a couple of different brands of flexible plastic edge restraints that are held in place with metal spikes. This was especially helpful on our one curved section. The professionals often pour cement footings with a little rebar, but I didn’t want to mess with that.  So far the plastic restraints have held up just fine.


The tools you will use most are good old fashioned, hard working hand tools. I also rented a mini loader since I had a fair amount of dirt to push around (and yes, part of the benefit of DIY is being able to rent fun equipment). You’ll want to rent a plate compactor twice. Once for compacting the base rock and once (with a rubber pad) for compacting the pavers after laying and grouting them. A brick saw is necessary if you have cuts to make (which you will if you have any curves).


Hand Tools

  • Shovels, pick axe, digging bar
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Two 4′ x 1″ external diameter iron pipe
  • Hearing protection
  • Buckets
  • Various hand trowels for leveling sand, etc
  • A few straight 2×6’s for screeding sand
  • Wooden stakes
  • Hammer
  • Rubber mallet
  • Hand plate compactor
  • Levels: 4′ and short
  • String for doing layout

Layout and Pitch

Layout seems simple — you know where you want your patio after all, but there are some things to keep in mind:

  • The dimensions given for the pavers are typically “nominal”. That means they are not exactly that size. Just like a 2×4 isn’t 2″ by 4″. The pavers will likely be a bit smaller than their nominal dimensions.
  • Think about where you want full pavers versus cut. You might have some fixed sides — against the house for example, or against a sidewalk or retaining wall — that prevent you from rounding to the next whole paver. In that case you will have to make some cuts. In our case we wanted hole pavers on the outer edges of the patio and cuts up against the house.
  • Remember, not everything is always square! In our case we had the garden wall that ran parallel to the house. But not exactly parallel!  We choose to keep the patio square to the wall which means it hit the house slightly skewed.

The recommended pitch for a patio is 1/8″ to 1/4″ per foot. And you want to pitch it away from your house (so water runs away from your house).

We pitched our patio 1/4″ per foot (or 1″ per four feet) and this was our first mistake. Pitching this much caused two problems:

  1. The slope is perceptible. It’s not a big problem, and you certainly don’t feel that the patio is sloped, but you can still perceive it (or at least I can!).
  2. On one section of our house the stucco comes down fairly low. Our reference elevation point for the patio was the base of our retaining wall, and the patio rose up from there to meet the house. Since we had a decent pitch, the patio rose nearly 6″ from that point. That resulted in the top of the pavers hitting the house above our stucco line. If we had done a more gentle pitch the pavers would have met the house below the stucco at the foundation.

I think if we had done a gentler pitch, like 3/4″ per four feet I would have been happier with the results.

Excavation and Grading

First you need to plan your grade. For our patio it went like this:

  • The thickness of our patio is: 6″ baserock + 1″ bedding sand + 2.5″ paver = 9.5″
  • We wanted the top of the patio to intersect our garden wall at a certain spot at its base. This became our reference point.
  • I hand dug a shallow trench along the garden wall that was about 9.5″ deep. I then hammered in a stake such that the top of the stake was 3.5″ below where I wanted the top of the patio. The top of the stake represented the top of the baserock layer so about 6″ of stake was exposed. This was the reference point for laying out our grade.
Excavating with the SK350

Excavating with the SK350

To dig out the rest of the soil I rented a Ditch Witch SK350 mini skid steer loader. It was fun. The entire family took turns. A couple tips while excavating:

  • Tape a 3/4″ wood block (in our case it was a 1″ wood block — see mistake above) to one end of a 4 foot level.
  • As you excavate, use this to check your grade. Place the end of the level with the wood block on the downhill side, and when the level is level, you have the correct pitch.
  • Your pitch doesn’t have to be perfect, but if it is close it helps
  • We used the mini loader to dig the grass up in the rest of our backyard too
  • We distributed the dirt around the rest of the yard to generally raise the grade of our backyard up a bit
  • Wear hearing protection if use something like the SK350. It was pretty loud.

We were able to excavate in one day. And yes, it was a long day.


Pushing dirt around

It is recommended that after excavation you compact your base soil with a hopper or vibrating plate compactor. I have to be honest that I did not do this. Our soil has a high clay content and is really dense and compact as it is. So I took a shortcut and skipped this. This has not proven to be a problem, but if your soil is loose you’ll definitely want to compact it.

After you finished excavating it’s time to set the rest of the grading stakes. These will help you lay your base rock to grade. The idea is to have the top of the grading stakes be at the level that you want the top of your baserock.

Use that first grading stake as a reference. Hammer in stakes every four feet across the pitch from your reference stake. The tops of these stakes should be level with each other. So for us these ran parallel to our garden wall.


Grading stakes installed

Now off of each of those stakes run a row of stakes up the pitch four feet apart. Use your 4′ level with the 3/4″ wood block to check the height of the new stake: place the end of the level with the wood block on the downhill stake and rest the other end of the level on the uphill stake. When the level is level your uphill stake is the correct height. Repeat this process until you have a grid of stakes 4′ apart.

When you are done do some sanity checking by running a line down a row of stakes and ensure the total drop from top stake to bottom stake is what you expect.

You might also want to spray paint the top of the stakes with florescent orange spray paint. This makes the stakes more visible and helps you not to trip over them.

Base Rock


Tucker the Cavalier helping lay baserock

Now it’s time to lay down the base rock! The recommendation is to do this in multiple 3″ lifts, compacting between the lifts. Once again I took a short cut. During the week my family hauled baserock and spread it until it was even with the top of the stakes (all 6″ at once). Then on the weekend we compacted it with a plate compactor and hauled and compacted more as needed.

Once you think the baserock is done, you need to double check it to make sure it is even. And this is where we made our second mistake.


Tucker inspecting

To check the baserock  get a nice straight 2 x 4 and lay it on edge on the baserock and check for low and high points. Make sure to keep turning the 2×4 90 degrees so you are checking both across and with the ptich. If you have a gap (that a pencil will slip through) under the middle of the 2×4 then you have a low spot If the 2×4 wobbles on a high spot, then you have a high spot.  Fill, level and recompact as needed.

Our mistake is that we rushed this and ended up with some low spots that we did not detect until too late. That caused problems later (see below). So do a good job and make sure that base rock is even!


Compacting baserock


Where you have exposed edges of your patio you need some form of edge restraint to contain the pavers. Professionals often do this with cement and some rebar. We used a couple different brands of plastic edging product that you secure in place with metal spikes. The plastic edging is especially helpful if you have any curves as the edging makes it easy to get a smooth even curve.

I don’t recall the specific brands we used — but I don’t expect there is much difference.

Since it is difficult to exactly predict where the edge of the patio will end up (due to variations in pavers) we did not install all of the edging to start.

Laying Pavers

Once we had the baserock compacted we started to lay the pavers. We did not install edging on one edge of our patio, since we knew we’d need to adjust that to fit tight up against the pavers.

Before you start laying your pavers make sure to do some dry fitting to confirm your layout and dimensions. Think about where you want full versus cut pavers. For example on our patio we wanted full pavers on the outer edges of our patio, and cut pavers against our house. We also did a border along those edges (and not against the house). IMGP7625

Laying the pavers is the fun part of the project. First lay down those two iron pipes parallel to each other (see photo). Next dump sand between the pipes and rest a 2×6 on the pipes. Then pull the 2×6 along the pipes to screed, or level, the sand. Once you have a nice area of sand gently remove the pipes and fill the gaps left by the pipes with sand (using a small trowel).

Once the sand is down start placing pavers following your pattern. Make sure to drop the pavers flat — try not to let a corner dip and gouge out the sand. Tap the paver with a rubber mallet. Periodically check the pavers to make sure they are pretty even and none are sitting low.

This was our third mistake! We were behind schedule at this point and rushing and did not carefully check for uneveness. After we had laid most of the pavers we could tell we had low spots — all caused by not double checking our baserock (see mistake #2). We ended up going back, pulling up pavers and re-leveling with sand. This was a huge pain — especially with the larger pavers. Rookie mistake. We were able to correct the most egregious of the low spots, but it was no fun.

After laying the main field you might have to cut pavers for some edges. We needed to cut pavers against the house, as well as the pavers in the curve. For this I rented a brick saw.

Compacting and Grouting

At this point all your pavers are laid, and it looks pretty darn good. But you’ll notice that the pavers aren’t completely even (even if you did a nice job leveling them). No worries — compacting smooths that out.

When you rent the plate compactor this time, make sure you get one with a rubber pad that is designed for running over the tops of the pavers. Even with the pad we had a couple pavers chip. Once the pavers are compacted it’s time to grout.

You can use plain old grouting sand — but the latest thing is polymeric sand. When activated with water this sand hardens and binds together. It makes for a great, durable, weed resistant grout. The down side is it will be more work if you need to repair or replace pavers. But we used it and I am pleased with the results. Just make sure to follow the directions on the bag.


Ready for a party. Note the ugly white post. We later wrapped with a sythetic stone post wrap.

Ready for a party. Note the ugly white post. We later wrapped with a sythetic stone post wrap.

When we did our patio we had a deadline. We were throwing my daughter a going away party on the day we planned on finishing the patio. We had until 5pm! I was just finishing activating and rinsing the grout when the first guests arrived. Just made it!

So make sure to throw a party to celebrate your new patio!

Stock Tank, Rain Chain Fountain

No backyard landscape job is complete without a water feature. This was high on my wife’s list both to provide some pleasant ambient sound and to act as a focal point.

The common DIY water feature is a flower pot fountain, but we wanted something different. Inspired by the corrugated metal on our tool wall and a stock tank we’re growing bamboo in, we came up with the stock tank rain chain fountain. Check out the video on YouTube to see it in action. Instead of going through detailed build instructions I’ll let the photos do the talking and then provide some tips.

550 GPH submersible pump. Turned out this was just the right size.


PVC pipe frame to support plastic disk that was then covered in cobbles. You can also see the hose and power cord coming in for the pump.

Weather proof outlet on back of 2x6. You can also see the remote control dongle. The pump and some (temporary) lighting is plugged into it.

Weather proof outlet on back of 4×6. You can also see the remote control dongle. The pump and some (temporary) lighting is plugged into it.


Tubing running up back of fountain from pump. I used 3/4″ until I got to the top, then reduced to 1/2″ for the final run to the PVC pipe manifold.


End shot of the PVC manifold. You can see the hooks that the rain chains are attached too. I drilled holes into the PVC pipe above the rain chains. I actually drilled them too big and wrapped some electrical tape to reduce the size of the holes.


Top shot of the 1/2″ tubing running to the PVC manifold. I had water flow into both ends of the PVC pipe. The PVC pipe is attached to a 2×4 sandwiched between the 2×6’s. Another option would have be to just run drip irrigation tube off of the 1/2″ tube to the top of the rain chains.


Plastic disk in place.


Stones covering plastic disk. The disk is 1/4″ thick and is sturdy enough to support a thin layer of stones. Since the disk is black you don’t have to worry too much about coverage.

All done!


  1. Key parts:
    1. 32″ diameter by 24″ high stock tank
    2. 10′ redwood 4×6
    3. Two 5′ redwood 2×6
    4. Two large galvanzied carriage bolts with nuts and washers
    5. 550 GPH pond pump
    6. Miscellaneous 3/4″ and 1/2″ tubing and fittings
    7. Two 8.5 foot rain chains  (we got ours from Monarch Rain Chains)
    8. 3 hooks for hanging rain chains
    9. A 31″ diameter (or whatever size fits inside of your tank) disk of 1/4″ black plastic
    10. Cobbles
  2. General construction:
    1. Sink 4×6 post where you want it
    2. Cut decorative ends on the 2×6’s and attach hooks to inside face of front 2×6. You can also attach the hooks later, but it’s a little tougher once the 2×6’s are bolted to the 4×6.
    3. Bolt 2×6’s to 4×6 post
    4. Cut hole in the back side of stock tank about 9″ from the bottom to run power and tubing to pump.
    5. Run tubing from inside tank, over to post, up post, across rear 2×6. Cut hole in rear 2×6 and run tubing to above the hooks. I ended up using a two foot piece of PVC pipe to act like a manifold above the hooks and drilled holes in the PVC to feed the rain chains. See photos.
    6. Install pump in tank. Connect to tubing. Fill tank with water up to hole. Hang rain chains and give it a test run.
    7. Build a PVC platform to support the plastic disk (see photos). Set platform in tank. I used 1/2″ risers as the legs of the platform.
    8. Drill a 1/2″ hole some place in the disk to help lift it when you need to remove it for maintenance. Drop disk into tank. Cover with cobbles.
  3. For power I tapped into an outdoor outlet and ran conduit to the back side of the 4×6 to a weatherproof outlet box. I then got a cheapo remote controlled dongle that is typically used with Christmas lights. Got it at Lowes. That way we can turn the fountain on and off with a remote.
  4. I purchased the pond pump from Amazon. See photo above. It had pretty good reviews and seems well made. For the flow rating (size of pump) I just took an educated guess, and it worked out nicely.
  5. I wanted to put a rubber grommet in the 2″ hole I cut in the tank for the tube and power cord, but I couldn’t find a grommet of the correct size. So I wrapped the tube and cord with some foam to protect them from the sharp edges of the tank.
  6. The rain chain was pretty easy to break apart and reassemble to turn two 8.5 foot chains to three ~5.5 foot chains.
  7. We had the plastic disk cut at a local plastic store. It was a bit of a splurge, but was worth it. I was originally going to kludge something together with plastic lattice, but the disk worked out great.

The Negroni Cocktail

“I like my cocktails like I like my women — a little bit bitter”

My Negroni loving brother.

A couple years ago I was reading one of my favorite cycling websites and came across an article titled The Negroni Report. Turns out that Richard Pestes, the proprietor of Pez Cycling News, is a lover of cycling, Italy, and the Negroni. Intrigued by his description of the cocktail I bought some Campari and oranges and that weekend made me my first Negroni.

And that first sip was bliss. Pure heaven. I kid you not. I was hooked.

Excited I ran outside and held the glass to my wife. “You gotta try this!”. She took a sip. Made a face. “Tastes like cough syrup”.

The next evening our good friends Scott and Betsy were over. Betsy is a fellow Manhattan lover. I was excited to share my joy with her. Negroni in hand I offered her a drink. She took a sip. Made a face. “Wow. Bitter”.

What the hell?

Thanksgiving comes around, the whole family is at my sister’s in Arizona. My brother is there. We hit the liquor store for Campari and some decent vermouth. I mix him a Negroni. He takes a sip. He need not say anything. I see it in his face. He’s hooked.

And that’s how it goes with the Negroni. It is polarizing. Those of us that love it can’t imagine how anybody could resist it. Those that don’t….well, they don’t.

I’m just happy I’m a lover.

The Negroni is a classic aperitif. Meant to cleans your palette and sharpen your appetite it is traditionally consumed before a meal. But believe me, if you love ’em they are good any time. The Negroni is bittersweet and boozy with a citrus/herbal pop. And if you initially find it a bit too bitter don’t give up. Try again in 6 months. And then 6 months after that. For some it is an acquired taste — but once that taste is acquired you will never let it go.

Like the Manhattan the Negroni is rising in popularity as folks start to turn their backs on appletinis and embrace bolder cocktails with more character. That said, ordering one in a bar is still a bit of a crap shoot and can result in a blank stare. Fortunately it’s an easy recipe to recite to your bartender.

The Negroni

  • 1 part Campari
  • 1 part Beefeater’s GinIMGP7705
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth

Orange for garnish.

Place ingredients with ice in a shaker or large glass and stir gently but briskly for 60 seconds.

Strain over the rocks and garnish with an orange wedge or twist

As with most beloved cocktails, a Negroni lover will have their favorite recipe. So it’s worth looking at the ingredients in a bit more detail.

The Campari

Yes, you must use Campari. There is no substitute. Some prefer to cut the Campari with 50% Aperol, Campari’s tepid cousin. I don’t. I like my Negroni’s bold and brash.

The Gin

I have to be honest. I am not a big gin drinker. My preference for the Negroni is a basic London dry gin. I don’t want flowery overtones messing with my Negroni! The gin is there to support the drink, not make a statement in its own right. So the simpler the better as far as I’m concerned. Beefeater’s is solid and basic. Some also like Gordon’s for similar reasons. But if you have a favorite gin, then by all means give it a try!

The Vermouth

My brother and I have tried eight different sweet vermouth’s in Negronis. We have enjoyed them all. I spec M&R here because it is my every day go to sweet vermouth. I also like Cinzano which is a bit brighter and slightly more bitter than M&R. Some folks swear by Carpano Antica, but I find the vanilla overtones that work so well in a Manhattan are distracting in a Negroni. Others like the extra bitterness of Punt e Mes, but I find the resulting drink, while tasty, not exactly a Negroni.  That said — please experiment! Lots to try

The Garnish

The traditional garnish in the old country is a fat wedge of orange. Here in the states an orange twist is also common — just make sure it is a nice big twist. The extra citrus really compliments the drink.

Shop at Trader Joe’s?

Me too! In our neck of woods the cheapest Campari is at TJ’s. And their Rear Admiral Gin and Ponti sweet vermouth make a darn good Negroni for a darn good price.

Nothing beats a Negroni at Christmas