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The Negroni Variations, Part 2: Ransom Negroni

None of this is particularly rocket science, as I’m sure you’ve caught on to. Substitutions of spirits, bitter and aromatized wine that basically hew to the basic Negroni formula are often quite tasty, and great springboards for experimentation.

Last time I was at the venerable Vessel* in Seattle, bartender Jim Romdall made me a lovely, spicy, bracing Negroni variation using a very different style of gin, the aforementioned Gran Classico Bitter, and a different vermouth to kick up the spice and bitterness profile a notch.

Ransom Old Tom Gin comes from Ransom Spirits in Oregon, and is their recreation of one possible expression of the 18th and 19th Century style of gin known as “Old Tom.” It’s lightly sweetened, sweeter than a London dry style, where the juniper is not so forward as in the latter. I’m not sure of the botanicals that go into Ransom, but they provide a nice, peppery spice profile, and the color comes from an amount of barrel-aging roughly equivalent to what the gin might have picked up while being shipped over from the Old Country in barrels. They developed the spirit in collaboration with writer, historian and monarch of the Hereditary Principate of Drunkistan, David Wondrich. If you’re looking to recreate a spirit from the mid-1800s, he’s probably your man. Or prince. Or … well, you get the idea.

Ransom works wonderfully in a Negroni, and Jim kicked it up with the new bitter on the block as well as my second-favorite vermouth after Carpano Antica, most coincidentally made by the same folks.

Feel free to vary the proportions to adjust to your preferred level of sweetness; this is just a guideline.

I don’t remember what Jim called it, but it was probably something like this:

(as served by Jim Romdall at Vessel, Seattle)

1-1/4 ounce Ransom Old Tom Gin.
1 ounce Gran Classico Bitter.
1 ounce Punt E Mes.
Orange peel.

Stir with ice for 30 seconds, strain into a chilled coupe, garnish with the orange peel. You know the drill.

* – Vessel is currently closed, having lost their lease at the old location. They’re working hard to reopen in a new space (which I think will have parking, yay!) by late spring or early summer 2011. That’s a grand reopening party I don’t want to miss.


The Negroni Variations, Part 1: Negroni’s Loss

I do love me a Negroni.

The bitterness of Campari sometimes scares folks away, but it shouldn’t — it’s a bracing flavor that’s perfect for awakening your palate before a meal. It can be a bit much if the first time you try it is in a Campari and soda (wildly popular in Italy), but most places tend to serve it tall, in a highball or Collins glass. It works much better short, in nearly equal proportions with soda, to give the sugar in Campari a chance to balance out the bitterness. Too much dilution will tend to let the bitter element take over the sweet. Remember, it’s all about balance. (I prefer my Americanos short too.)

My first introduction to Campari was in the entertaining Combustible Edison cocktail, in which an ounce each of Campari and lemon juice are shaken and strained into a cocktail glass, and then two ounces of warmed Cognac are flamed and poured in a flaming stream into the glass. Entertaining indeed, but not my favorite. Many folks’ introduction to Campari is by mixing it with orange juice, about double juice to spirit, perhaps with a splash of soda or tonic. I’d have to pick the Negroni as my favorite, though, and if you haven’t tried it you should. As with most adult tastes, it’s one worth acquiring.

The drink we know as the Negroni has had various names; the Camparinette is perhaps the most well-known, and according to Andrew the Alchemist it was also called the Cardinale in Italy. It dates back to as early as 1919, although what the Italians were calling a “Negroni” then would seem more like an Americano with gin to us.

All this has evolved into the classic Negroni proportion we’ve come to know — equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. That can be a bit sweet for some people, and I’ve seen many variations on the proportion — typical is 1-1/2 gin, 1 Campari and 3/4 vermouth, to keep the sweetness at bay. I’ve also been fond of the Cinnabar Negroni, in which the Campari is doubled and orange bitters added.

The basic Negroni formula lends itself quite nicely to variation of spirits and even in the bitter element, despite Campari seeming quintessential to the drink. I’ve sampled many lovely versions that take the gin-Campari-vermouth formula to something more like spirit-bitter-aromatized wine. Aperol is a natural substitute for the Campari, but other interesting bitters outside the dark Italian amaro field have popped up recently. One of my favorites is the Swiss-made bitter called Gran Classico Bitter, based on a recipe from Turin from the 1860s. It contains bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb and wormwood among its botanicals. It’s got quite a bitter punch, not unlike Campari but with a less bright, rounder, deeper flavor. It’s being directly marketed as a Campari substitute, even recommending its use in cocktails like the Negroni, Americano or spritzer.

Jason Schiffer at 320 Main in Seal Beach, CA uses Gran Classico in one of my favorite recent twists on the Negroni, swapping the gin for its malty progenitor, Dutch genever, and bringing down the other two components. The maltiness of genever with the citrus oils accenting the citrus notes in the bitter work beautifully here; this one didn’t last long the last time we visited 320. They’ve just changed their menu and this cocktail isn’t on it anymore, but they’d still be happy to make you one. If you’re in Southern California, and especially if you’re in Orange County, you need to drink here — it’s the best place to get a drink for many miles. The food’s terrific, too. Duck mac ‘n cheese? Oh my.

(320 Main, Seal Beach, CA)

1 ounce Bols Genever.
3/4 ounce Carpano Antica sweet vermouth.
3/4 ounce Gran Classico bitter.
Lemon and orange peel & oils.

Combine with ice and stir for at least 30 seconds. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass. Express the oil from the lemon and orange peels onto the surface of the drink, and garnish with the peels.

Now, moving on from “Holland Gin” to another older style of gin for our next drink


Left Coast Libations Cocktail of the Day: 606

After the typical, eye-roll-causing procrastination between the last post and now, we finally resume with a couple more of the cocktail featured on the menu at the Varnish during the Left Coast Libations book release party … two months ago. (Well, good things come to those who wait, I hope.)

This one comes from bartender Neyah White, who’s been behind the stick for many years and made a particular impact on the San Francisco cocktail scene before he decided to take a gig traveling the world, teaching folks about the wonders of Japanese whisky. I finally met Neyah a few months back at a local bartenders’ gathering, where we all knocked back some fine whisky and astonishing Japanese whisky-based cocktails (oh my, that Yamazaki 18 year Old Fashioned … oh my). He’s a great guy, and I hope we get to knock back a few more.

This is one of Neyah’s drinks featured in the book, which was on the menu at the party. It’s closely related to Ada “Coley” Coleman’s classic Hanky Panky cocktail from her stint as head of the bar at the Savoy Hotel in the early 1900s; her original recipe is half gin, half sweet vermouth with 2 dashes of Fernet Branca. A more recent version by Ted Haigh upped the gin, lowered the vermouth and brought the Fernet up to 1/4 ounce. This is an entirely different drink though, even if you think of genever as “Dutch gin” (which I think is really a misnomer). To me genever is more like whisky than gin, with that wonderful maltiness bringing a body and flavor that’s miles removed from actual gins like a London dry.

This is also a hefty dose of Fernet Branca in a cocktail, and that’s one difficult ingredient to work with. It doesn’t like to play with others, and has a tendency to completely take over unless it’s used in very small quantities. We’ve got a whole tablespoon of the stuff here, but it’s properly tempered — the thick maltiness of the genever reins it in, the vermouth smooths it out and they both provide a strong enough counterpoint (especially if you use a powerful vermouth like Carpano Antica). Make sure you don’t use a jonge style genever, which is light and has a minimum amount of maltwine in its base (5% or less). You’ll want an oude style genever, and our favorite these days (and the easiest to find) is Bols Genever. I can’t wait to try this with an oude with a bit of age on it, or with a corenwijn

This drink is a whoop upside the head, but in the nicest possible way.

(by Neyah White)

1-1/2 ounces genever (our favorite is Bols Genever).
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth.
1/2 ounce Fernet Branca.

Stir with cracked ice for at least 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with an orange peel.

The flaming of the orange peel is an optional step; Neyah doesn’t specify this in the book but Chris was making them this way at The Varnish. I do enjoy the flavor of caramelized orange oil, and of course I love the light show. Enjoy it either way.


Cocktail of the Day: San Francisco

Last week gave us a really fun (and somewhat raucous) evening at Seven Grand, one of our favorite bars — they had a reunion night for the entire original opening crew from April of 2007. Well, nearly; unfortunately John Coltharp, busy at his new gigs at The Tasting Kitchen and Copa d’Oro, wasn’t able to make it. It was great to see friends like Marcos Tello and Damian Windsor behind the stick there once again, though.

They brought back the entire original 7G menu for that night, too. Well, nearly; the Ramos Gin Fizz was missing (perhaps a bit too labor-intensive for a night when they were going to be slammed two or three deep at the bar), and of course the Bartender’s Choice drinks came at us left and right.

When I asked Damian for something whiskey-bearing but not on the special menu for the night, he offered this tasty variation on the Old Fashioned, or the Manhattan, or the Monte Carlo … sort of like all three fused at the molecular-genetic level inside a telepod (and with no fly, fortunately).

For the base spirit Damian chose Bernheim’s, a wheat whiskey from Kentucky made by the folks at Heaven Hill. The primary grain here is soft winter wheat (at least 51%, differing from Bourbon and rye in that those spirits must be at least 51% corn or rye grain, respectively), with some corn in the mashbill for sweetness and a bit of barley as well. It’s dry and crisp although with a bit of sweetness in the nose, full-bodied and fruity-nutty. Really wonderful stuff, and works very well in this drink where Bourbon might work less well. “The syrup takes the edge off the whiskey,” Damian says, and makes this a very well-balanced drink.

There’s a classic cocktail called The San Francisco; this isn’t it. I’m not certain if this is one of Damian’s own creations, but until he corrects me let’s say that it is.

San Francisco Cocktail

2 ounces Bernheim Straight Wheat Whiskey
1/2 ounce Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
1/4 ounce simple syrup
1 dash orange bitters
Splash Bénédictine liqueur
Lemon twist

Rinse a rocks glass with the Bénédictine and pour out the excess. Combine the other ingredients with cracked ice in a mixing glass and stir for at least 30 seconds. Strain into the coated glass, add a large ice cube and twist the lemon peel over the drink. Garnish with the peel.


La Descarga

Los Angeles has a new rum bar!

La Descarga has been open almost three weeks now, after a grand opening night on February 2. I absolutely love how the bar is revealed to you — you read a brief description of the entrance in the above-linked article, but fortunately it didn’t give away the good parts. When you do walk in you’re transported to Old Havana, pre-Fidel and ignoring the despotic dictators and corrupt American corporations, concentrating on the good stuff — rum, cocktails, music, floor shows and letting the good times roll (I don’t know how to say that in Spanish, sadly).

Check out the profile video from the Los Angeles Times

Steve Levigni, formerly of The Doheny, is the general manager and Pablo Moix is behind the stick with a talented crew of bartenders, all of whom took good care of us on our first visit (first of many, I hope). We actually had reservations on opening night, as part of a group of friends, but unfortunately we had to cancel. We finally made it in four nights later, and they were already in full swing.

This isn’t really a full review, as we’ve only spent the one evening there so far, but Pablo and the rest of the folks behind the stick kept us and a two-deep Saturday night crowd well-oiled with excellent drinks from a good menu that will likely only get better. As it’s a rum bar that’s the featured spirit in the currently offered drinks, but I’ll be looking forward to seeing what else they’ll be offering, including cocktails blending different rums (always a favorite among aficionados of that spirit). I’m also looking forward to having a chance to sample tasting flights from their collection of 70+ rums … I’ve got my work cut out for me.

La Descarga

For an extra treat, if you go on the weekend, you’re treated to a bit of Caribbean cabaret as well.

The floor show begins

Dancer and musicians, La Descarga

You’ll want to call ahead for a reservation — they’re not required at this bar, but it’s a good idea to have one, so that you can be escorted right in without having to wait, especially on weekends. We tend not to go out on weekend nights anyway, as crowds are not my thing — and if they’re not yours either do as we do and go early, as after 9 or so it gets very, very busy — if you don’t mind them let the bar know you’re coming and you’ll become part of that crowd a lot faster. You’ll want to dress up as well; the bar prefers ladies and gentlemen to don their snappiest outfits when they visit, and at this place it’s warranted. Besides, who wants to be underdressed in Old Havana? Be a part of the fabulousness!

The three drinks I had were excellent, and this one, which Pablo was kind enough to confirm my guess of proportions, was probably my favorite. I love aromatic cocktails, and it’s particularly nice to enjoy a complex rum cocktail that contains no citrus (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It’s currently made with the new incarnation of Zaya rum from Trinidad, and fortunately not with rum from a barrel containing the remains of Admiral Nelson.

Tapping the Admiral

Tapping the Admiral

2 ounces aged Rum (Zaya).
1/2 ounce Carpano Antica sweet vermouth.
1/2 ounce Cherry Heering.
1 healthy dash Fee’s Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters.

Stir with ice for 20-30 seconds and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe, orange peel garnish.

I had a couple of others for which I didn’t get a recipe, as I was actually talking to my friends and having fun instead of being a cocktail geek and watching Pablo like a hawk. The Tropical Holiday was nice, with a J.M. Rhum Blanc base (mmm, rhum agricole!) sweetened with simple syrup and John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum for a dose of island flavors, plus lime and bitters, topped with soda. Tangy and refreshing. Wes’ Honey Swizzle is based on Cristal Aguardiente, a rather fiery cane spirit from Colombia with an anise flavor that I found surprising and ultimately delightful when I first tried it about 10 years ago (and a belated thanks to Patrick for bringing a bottle of it to that cocktail party at our place back in ’00!). Besides the honey syrup and citrus I forget the rest of the ingredients, but I’ll return to this one as well.

I’m going to have to visit a couple more times in the next few weeks, but y’know … I think I could fall in love with this place.

They don’t serve food at La Descarga but have no fear — right next door is Tacos de Patio, open late and serving excellent street-style Mexican food. Mmmm, tacos al pastor …

Tacos de Patio

If they were smart, given who’s just opened up right next door, they’d add Cuban sandwiches to the menu.

La Descarga is at 1159 Western Ave., Los Angeles CA 90029, between Lexington and Virginia, just south of the 101.


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