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I got yer bitter right here, pal.

Anybody who knows Wesly and me know that we love bitters and amaro.

“What is amaro?” some of you may ask. (Oh hi, you must be new!) The word “amaro” means “bitter” in Italian, with its Romance language counterparts “amer” in French and “amargo” in Spanish. Synonymous with “digestif” and “digestivo,” an amaro is a bitter liqueur, usually with some sweetness, comprised of herbs, roots, barks and spices, that is primarily meant to be taken after dinner to help settle one’s digestion. Most amari (plural of amaro) are quite effective at this; they’re a perfect example of herbal medicine at work. Italy is a wonderland of amari, with myriad examples made throughout the country, most of which are incredibly local and bound by their ingredients to the regions from which they originate. If liqueurs of any kind could be said to have a terroir, that would describe amari — they tend to feature local very local plants and herbs among their ingredients. The amari we have available to us in the U.S. is but a mere fraction of what’s available in Italy, as most of them aren’t exported. (When we finally go to Italy I’m going to need two suitcases just for booze.) But I digress.

Our addiction to bitters runs the gamut, starting with “dashing bitters,” aromatic or single-flavor bitters that are generally used by the dash rather than by the ounce. The bar at home used to have a dedicated “bitters shelf,” the short shelf on the top. It still does, but our collection of aromatic bitters has far outgrown that space. Now we have aromatic bitters on top of the bar, including a whole pretty row of our locally-made varieties, Miracle Mile Bitters and Olive Heights Bitters. We used to have a piano in the living room that we hardly touched; that went to Wesly’s sister’s house for our nieces to not touch, and was replaced by a bookcase. The bottom shelf is entirely devoted to our drinking bitters — amari, digestivi and aperitivi. At last count we had 48 different kinds of amaro, including bitter apéritifs/aperitivi.

Oh wait, make that 49.

It’s a doozy, too. From our good friends at Haus Alpenz comes Elisir Novasalus, a wine-based amaro that is one of the most bracingly, unrelentingly bitter amari I have ever tasted.

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L’Elisir Novasalus (“The new health elixir”) comes from Distilleria Cappelletti in Trentino in the north of Italy — they make a wide range of grappa, liqueurs, aperitivi — including the fascinating and delicious wine-based Campari alternative Aperitivo Cappelletti — and amari; this appears to be their flagship amaro. Unlike most it has a wine base, in this case dry Marsala wine, infused under the direction of an “erborista” (herbalist) with over 30 plants, flowers, roots and herbs from the surrounding region and in particular the high Alpine region of Alto Adige just north of Trentino; or, as the label says in Italian, “amaro based on wine and plants from the Dolomite mountains.”  Burdock, dandelion, aloe, gentian, alder buckthorn and cinchona are in the mix, as is some kind of tree sap brought in from Sicily (although which one is unclear).

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The Marsala gives it a solid flavor base (and of course also means you’ll need to keep this one in the fridge), and the first sip is … like getting kicked in the crotch by a tree. I know, that sounds bad, but it’s actually … not. Don’t get me wrong, it’s bitter — very, very bitter. You’ll make a face. But then your face will soften, and you’ll find yourself compelled to sip it again, and again. After the initial shock of the first couple of sips Novasalus’ marvelous complexity becomes apparent. It’s a very dry liqueur but then a touch sweetness comes in. My first thought was “earthy,” and you want to keep sipping try to figure out what all those myriad layers of flavors are. “It grows on you” is a cliché but in this case it really does, and it’s fascinating, and while you want to make sure that whatever’s growing on you isn’t something out of a horror movie, you find that this liqueur, this elixir, this amazing new medicine, isn’t going to last long enough to go bad in your fridge.

My favorite description of its medicinal effects were from an Italian website, put through Google Translate: “Elixir Novasalus helps all organs to work in the best way to obtain an improvement in the regularity of the organism. It can be used as needed or for long periods.” All righty, then. Many folks also say it really does help settle your stomach after dinner, and I can testify to this as well.

In Italy, as with most amari, it’s consumed neat, room temperature or chilled, or over ice, and sometimes with a spritz of sparkling mineral water. From our distributor comes this interesting tidbit: “While not traditionally mixed, it is nicely followed by a small glass of sparkling wine,” and that it is of course also “famously comforting after a large meal.” There are those of us who love to mix with amari, though … and our household is no exception. Wesly had tasted some along with our friend Jenn Wong and said that “it reminded me how much I wanted to play with it. I liked the idea of a Manhattan-esque thing, and there was general agreement that this could work.” When he got home he disappeared into the kitchen. “I went with bourbon as I wanted a sweeter base spirit up against the intensely bitter Novasalus (even based as it is on Marsala wine). Did some experimentation while working on overall balance. Ended up with [this].”

Photograph by Wesly Moore, http://instagram.com/weslymoore

Photograph by Wesly Moore

 

2 oz Buffalo Trace Bourbon
1 oz Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth
1/2 oz Elisir Novasalus
4-5 dashes Olive Heights Don Benito Orange Bitters

Stir with cracked ice and strain into chilled cocktail coupe; twist an orange peel over the drink and garnish with the peel.

“Familiar and yet not…sweet, spicy, earthy, bitter, musty. I don’t hate it,” he said. I didn’t hate it either. Jenn didn’t hate it either. Haus Alpenz replied to our Bar Keeper Instagram repost and said, “Well done! We don’t hate it either.”

Never has “we don’t hate it” been such a ringing endorsement, but it is. As we’ve sipped more and more of it, not only do we not hate it … we kinda love it. Make no mistake, this is a challenging amaro. But if you love amari as we do, and if you love to explore the flavors of Italy via spirits, you really can’t miss this one.  It’s inexpensive, in the $23-25 range, well worth it for the bold amaro lover!

What we’re drinking

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#WhatWereDrinking has been a hashtag we’ve been using for the Bar Keeper Instagram feed (y’all know I work at Bar Keeper now, yes?), and I thought it seemed time to start a similar series in the newly revitalized Looka!

Just messing around tonight, but can’t take any particular credit for this as it’s just one or more variations on one or more themes. Arguably this is kind of a Black Manhattan/Negroni/Old Pal hybrid or some such. Equal amounts Congenial Spirits Twelve Five Rye, Aperol, and Amaro CioCiaro, with Bitter Truth grapefruit bitters and an orange twist. Delightfully smooth and mellow, but still aperitif-y.

Cocktail of the Day: Dubonnet Royal

I have to wonder if Dubonnet Rouge is the red-headed stepchild of aromatized wines these days. It just doesn’t seem to get the attention it once did, and that it deserves now.

I love redheads, by the way.

Dubonnet, if you’re not familiar, is a fortified apéritif wine along similar lines as vermouth, and comes in white and red expressions (rouge and blanc, but not a “dry” version as with vermouth). The vast majority of the time when someone refers to Dubonnet they are referring to Dubonnet Rouge. It’s similar to sweet vermouth, although a fair bit sweeter, with fruitier notes, and it’s very slightly more bitter. Dubonnet Rouge does contain quinine, although I don’t detect a whole lot of it on my palate. The sweetness tends toward a ruby port, although not as richly flavored, and one article compared it to sangria, “with a heavier mouthfeel and a spicier aroma.”

Dubonnet was created in 1846 by a Parisian wine merchant and chemist named Joseph Dubonnet, “as a means to make quinine more palatable for the soldiers battling malaria in North Africa.” Still made in France, but for the American market it’s made in Kentucky by the Heaven Hill distillery. There are those who say the American-made product is inferior to the European one. I’ve never tried it in Europe myself, but my pal Martin Doudoroff (who has an excellent site called Vermouth 101 all about vermouth, quinquinas, americanos and other fortified wines) remarked that “[t]he flavor profile is basically the same as the Kentucky edition and it isn’t dramatically more bitter (maybe a touch—it’s still pretty mild stuff in comparison to, say, Bonal) but it’s also clearly a more carefully wrought product. I guess I’d describe the European product as a little move vital and alive.”

I’m quite fond of Dubonnet Rouge myself, and with the proper adjustments I enjoy swapping it in for sweet vermouth for a nice change of pace. It’s lovely in a Dubonnet Cocktail, half and half with gin (one of the preferred tipples of the late Queen Mother, who in her later eyars was probably tipsy all day long, bless her). We also stumbled across this one in the long out-of-print Café Royal Cocktail Book; it’s also up on CocktailDB.

The original recipe called for orange Curaçao, but given the sweetness of the Dubonnet Wesly decided to go for a slightly drier orange liqueur, the excellent triple sec Combier. Cointreau would also work well.

The original recipe, as with so many recipes of its era, also called for precise proportions yet were vague on exact amounts. It read “2/3 Dubonnet, 1/3 gin, 2 dashes each orange Curaçao and Angostura bitters, dash of absinthe on top.” Given some other instructions gleaned from the preface as well as the typical cocktail size of the time, I’m guessing that he was making 2 to 2-1/2 ounce cocktails. I’ve tried to adjust this slightly for the slightly larger cocktails we tend to drink these days, but by all means make the nice little two-ouncers, especially if you have great little tiny vintage cocktail glasses in your collection. Make those proportions 1 to 1/2, otherwise …

I tweeted this recipe after Wesly made this for us one night, and my friend Maitri, who was at the bar at the wonderful Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston drinking at the time, read it to our pal Chris Frankel, who was behind the stick that night. Chris thought it sounded good and made one for Maitri on the spot. Good gods, I love the Internets.

Photo by Maitri Erwin, used with her kind permission. Drink made by Chris Frankel at Anvil Bar & Refuge, Houston

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DUBONNET ROYAL
(collected by W. J. Tarling, American Bar, Café Royal, London, 1937)

1-1/2 ounces Dubonnet Rouge
3/4 ounce London dry gin
1 barspoon Combier Liqueur d’Orange
3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash absinthe
1 Luxardo cherry

Combine the first four ingredients with ice in a mixing glass and stir for 20-30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Top with the dash of absinthe and garnish with the cherry.

Wililam J. Tarling was the head bartender of London’s sadly long-lost Café Royal as well as president of the United Kingdom Bartenders’ Guild, and in 1937 compiled a wonderful book of recipes invented by himself, his fellow Café Royal bartenders as well as other members of the UKBG. He was also a good, charitable fellow, as evidenced by this preface to the edition:

ALL Royalties derived by W. J. Tarling from this book are to be equally divided between the United Kingdom Bartenders’ Guild Sickness Benefit Fund and the Café Royal Sports Club Fund.

The book has been out of print for decades, and was quite hard to find for a long time. As with many of the great old out-of-print cocktail books I own, this one was brought to my attention by the inimitable Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh, who once again sent me scrambling across the Internets in search of a near-extinct tome. My search became fruitful when I finally got not one but two hits on ABEbooks.com — one in decent condition and perfectly readable condition, with a weathered and cracked but intact dust jacket even, for $25; the other was a pristine edition, autographed by the author, for $25,000.

After careful consideration I chose the former.

Fortunately Mixellany Books, in conjunction with the UKBG, has produced a facsimile edition, which you really should get:



 

By the pricking of my thumbs, something bitter this way comes …

It’s fun coming up with cocktail names. Then comes the hard part … coming up with the cocktail.

Most of the time the process is reversed, at least with most bartenders I know. The spirits and flavors form the initial idea, and the name comes afterward. Sometimes, though, you just come up with such a great drink name that you use that as your creative inspriation.

There was one such night several months back, drinking at The Varnish in Downtown L.A. My friend Aaron was with us and was on a roll, tossing out great drink names one after the other. Most of them I don’t remember, given that my memory tends to be a bit hazy with trivial details during periods of cocktail quaffing. I do, however, remember one very clearly.

My friend Zane Harris from Seattle was guest bartending that evening (that was the night he made me the Yellow With Envy cocktail), and one of the concoctions he served up was based on Averna amaro, with a touch of Fernet. It was fabulous, and I loved the idea of using two amari in the same cocktail. Hell, why not try a drink combining bitter elements the way tiki drinks combine rums? Certainly this has been done before, but I hadn’t done it before. Aaron immediately tossed off a perfect drink name — “Something Bitter This Way Comes.” Had he been reading my mind, coming across my lifelong love of the writing of Ray Bradbury, and the fact that Something Wicked This Way Comes has been one of my favorite novels since I was 13? Whether he was mindmelding or not, he nailed this one, and kindly gave me the name to use as I saw fit. (Fortunately I forgot all the other ones, at least one of which I challenged him to actually create.)

I wanted a rye base for this for spice and backbone, and definitely Fernet although not so much that it would dominate. For the primary amaro I chose Amaro CioCiaro — bracingly bitter and herbal but bright and citrusy enough to be refreshing, and sweeter than you might imagine once you’ve had a few sips. What would I use to bind these together, though?

I tried almost everything, or so it seemed; I went through many many incarnations of this one before I was satisfied. Previous versions included maraschino (too sweet) and Aperol (getting there, but no). Cocchi Aperitivo Americano seemed just the thing to ameliorate the sweetness inherent in the amari while adding a bitter element of its own. I tried overproof ryes to attempt to stand up to the amaro combinations but it wasn’t necessary — a 90ish proof rye (Bulleit or Redemption or Sazerac 6) seems to work the best.

And then … I put it aside for a while. Procrastinated. Time passed. Wesly made the amazing Golden Dahlia. The following weekend I thought it might finally be time to run this post, so I’d make the drink again and take some pics … and then I had another thought.

We had just gotten our first bottle of another Cocchi product, the Vermouth di Torino, a fantastic red vermouth from Turin, Italy that’s brand-new to the States. I love it. I decided to give the drink one more incarnation, to let the cocoa and bitter notes of this vermouth work with the other amari and see what happens.

What happened was that the bell rang. This one was it.

That cocoa aspect of the Cocchi di Torino hooked in perfectly with the orangey notes of the CioCiaro, while contributing a bit of citrus of its own along with a great breadth of complexity (in fact, you should be drinking Cocchi Vermouth di Torino by itself as much as possible, and don’t ever let it go bad in your fridge).

The final touch (learned from friends and mentors Kirk Estopinal and Maks Pazuniak after several rounds of drinking at Cure in New Orleans) was a tiny pinch of kosher salt. This helped rein in the bitterness to make it more pleasant and less of an attack on the palate, and helped cut down a bit on the sweetness too. Remember, amari are liqueurs and contain a fair amount of sugar.

Funny thing is … it’s actually not all that bitter, and comes in squarely in the Manhattan variation category. That may not have been what I was initially going for, but it’s what evolved. Who am I to question it? Also, I’m tired of working on it. It’s a mighty tasty drink, but does it live up to the name? That may well be up to you.

SOMETHING BITTER THIS WAY COMES

1-1/2 ounces rye whiskey.
1 ounce Amaro CioCiaro.
1/2 ounce Cocchi Vermouth di Torino.
1/4 ounce Fernet-Branca.
2 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters.
Tiny pinch of kosher salt.

Combine ingredients with cracked ice in a mixing glass. Stir for at least 30 seconds until thoroughly chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange peel after expressing the orange oil onto the drink.

If you can’t find the Vermouth di Torino near you, Cocchi Aperitivo Americano still works well. Barring either of those, I’d say go for Punt E Mes.

Gaah, I might work on it again. Campari or Luxardo Bitter instead of Cocchi Vermouth? *tear hair out*

 

Jim & Rocky’s Barback Pro-Am, Part 4: Dragon’s Blood

My buddy Ron Dollete of LushAngeles.com stands next in the firing line. He did a fine job behind the bar, although was accused of being “cocky,” and bore his annoying tasks manfully without resorting to rolling his eyeballs at Jim and Rocky or saying, “Oh, you bastards…” Good shaker face, too.

While Jim’s Martini featured a dash of his beloved Ardbeg in the mixing glass along with everything else, this one features his trademark Ardbeg float. While not exactly red, given its name this drink could be a contender for the house cocktail of House Targaryen. Dracarys!

DRAGON’S BLOOD
by Jim Romdall, Vessel, Seattle

1 ounce Martin Miller’s Gin
3/4 ounce Green Chartreuse
1/3 ounce Dry Sack Sherry
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
1 dash absinthe
Ardbeg scotch whisky float
Lime twist

Combine the first 5 ingredients with ice in a mixing glass, stir for 30 seconds and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Drizzle a barspoon or so of Ardbeg on top of the drink as a float, garnish with a lime twist and serve.

 

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