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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.

10891-1765

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!

The Boulevardier Cocktail

I didn’t entitle this post with a “Negroni Variations,” because technically it isn’t, although it has two of the same ingredients and follows the same general formula.

This is a drink that I think should get a lot more attention than it does, ’cause it’s damned good. It isn’t a Negroni variation per se, as it developed quite independently from that drink, but fits in with them quite nicely. As Dr. Cocktail said in the above link, “The Boulevardier … appeared in Harry [McElhone]’s 1927 bar guide, Barflies and Cocktails … Obviously, this is a Negroni with bourbon in lieu of gin. The Negroni, however, would not see print for another 20 years, and Americans had never heard of Campari in 1927.”

THE BOULEVARDIER COCKTAIL

1-1/2 ounces Bourbon whiskey
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth.

Stir and strain. Garnish with orange slice, lemon twist or cherry at your discretion.

Ask for it by name!

Finally, here’s a variation on that which came about one night when bartender Chris Day and I were talking about cocktails in Google Chat. Our Boulevardier and Funky Negroni got together and had a demon spawn, which is actually amazingly good.

The conversation went something like this: I wanted a stiff drink, something with Stagg Bourbon. Chris and I had been talking about Smith & Cross rum. As I was musing about mixing Smith & Cross and Stagg, Chris said almost simultaneously, “Try a Boulevardier with a Smith & Cross float.” My eyes lit up and I said, “A STAGG Boulevardier!” He said, “Oh god, what have I done?” (AWESOMENESS, that’s what you’ve done!)

George T. Stagg Bourbon is arguably the best Bourbon on the planet. It’s certainly my special favorite, so full of flavor that it makes your head spin … quite literally. This is because Stagg is also barrel proof, slightly varying in proof each year but is generally around 144 proof. That’s 72% alcohol, kids — not to be trifled with. It’s a bit hot to drink neat — you might want to add a bit of cool water — but it mixes amazingly well. Given its strength proportions almost always have to be adjusted, but this gets easier with practice.

I wondered if the strength of this whiskey would overwhelm the Campari, but when I tried it with equal proportions I didn’t like it as much. The Campari is still there in the standard Boulevardier proportion, but it’s less assertive. That said, Wes and I both preferred the version below. “The other one was perfectly fine,” Wes said, “but this one … this is the one that makes you pound on the table, say ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck!’ and order it again.” Your mileage may vary; try it 1:1:1 if you like, and see if you like it. Justin Burrow in Houston said, “That drink should be called the ‘Naptime.’” That gave me the idea to call it this:

BOULEVARD DES RÊVES

1-1/2 ounces George T. Stagg Bourbon
1 ounce Carpano Antica
1 ounce Campari
1/4 ounce Smith & Cross rum

Combine the first 3 ingredients with ice, stir and strain into a chilled coupe. Float Smith and Cross onto the surface of the drink. Lemon peel garnish.

Make sure someone else is driving you if you have this one.

And with that, our little series on Negroni variations comes to an end. This should give you plenty of stuff to try at home or in your favorite bar, as they should be pretty easy to order (i.e., “Genever Negroni,” “Stagg Boulevardier with a Smith & Cross float,” etc.). So, give ‘em a try!

 

The Negroni Variations, Part 3: The Kingston Negroni

As we continue with The Negroni Variations … nope, it’s not a classical piece composed by the Italian equivalent of Johann Sebastian Bach featuring the Italian counterpart of Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. (Insert Woody Allen joke: “I-I-I don’t know anything about classical music … for years I thought The Goldberg Variations were something Mr. and Mrs. Goldberg tried on their wedding night.” ba-da-BUMP!)

This next one is the one that’s been killing me lately, and I mean in the best possible way. As with so many of us, I just can’t get enough Smith & Cross rum. This “traditional Jamaican” navy-strength rum (coming in at 100 English proof, i.e. 57% alcohol by volume) is so packed with flavor and funk and “hogo” that a bottle doesn’t last long on our shelf. I like it so much I briefly considered pouring a bottle into my humidifier so that I could breathe it. Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz, whoi imports this stuff, should be canonized for bringing this to us alone, not to mention all the other wonderful things he provides — Batavia arrack,Crème de Violette, allspice dram, Old Tom gin, Cocchi Americano … *boggle*

Oh, what’s “hogo,” you ask? From David Wondrich at the above link:

[B]ack when it was young, rum was possessed of a certain “hogo.” Derived from the French phrase for the “high taste” (haut goût) game meats develop when they’re hung up to mature before cooking — and by “mature,” we mean “rot” — hogo used to be a term of art in the rum trade to describe the sulfurous, funky tang that raw-sugarcane spirits throw off. For 300 years, rum distillers have sought ways first to tame and then to eliminate it: high-proof distillation (more alcohol equals less hogo), filtering, tweaking the fermentation, long aging in barrels — all very effective, particularly when used in combination. Perhaps too effective.

A lot of that hogo has been removed from smooth, easy-to-drink rums of today. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing — give me a glass of Zaya or Appleton Extra any day — but there’s something to be said about that funk, properly tamed. Smith & Cross doesn’t exactly tame it but makes for a delicious rum that won’t funk you to death, although it will funkify your life. (Ah, my stream of consciousness calls for a musical interlude …)



I had forgotten what this drink, first sight of which came from bartender Joaquin Simo at Death & Co. in New York was actually called and started calling it the “Funky Negroni” — fortunately Garret reminded me it’s really called …

THE KINGSTON NEGRONI
(adapted from Joaquin Simo, Death & Co., NYC)

1 ounce Smith & Cross Jamaican rum
1 ounce Campari
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth (Carpano)

Stir & strain, no garnish.

Joaquin takes the vermouth back to cut down on the sweetness, but feel free to kick it back up to 1 ounce if you like. The way I first heard about this was without a garnish, but sometimes I enjoy an orange twist with it.

This drink came into my house, mated with another one and begat a Devil’s Spawn … a most diabolical, wonderful one. Stay tuned!

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.

NEGRONI’S LOSS
(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.

606
(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.

 

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