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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.

Pinky swear

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Photograph by Brent Falco

This is the sight of four drink & cocktail bloggers (Ron Diggity / Lush Angeles, DrinkBoston, Thirsty in LA*, and yours truly) pinky-swearing that from now on we will post at least once a month on our respective sites. So gird your livers, ladies and gentlemen… we’re gonna get back at it!

We must thank our pal Jake Parrott for his gentle taunting over the last couple of years, via his definition of a cocktail blogger: “someone who does not write about cocktails on the Internet.” Okay, point taken. Funnily enough, we still have a fair bit to write about, and some of us (*cough*CHUCK*cough*) have just gotten lazy (and BUSY!). I can’t speak for anyone else.

(* Actually, Daniel still posts quite often, and joined in with the pinky swear out of solidarity.)

I’m three paragraphs into a draft of a pretty interesting article. Stay tuned! New free content by October 31!

UPDATE: Rumdood is in!

 Rumdood pinky swear

New York City, Clover Club & the New York Sour

New York, just like I pictured it! Skyscrapers, and … everything.

Last December Wesly and I finally, FINALLY went to New York, as we had been wanting and threatening to do for years. I wish I had collected a dollar for every time a friend of ours said, “WHAT?! YOU guys have never been to New York?!” It might have paid for the hotel bill. Well, some of it more likely.

How did we like New York? Well, let me put it this way — we’ve already picked out where we’d like to live. That’d be Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, which is a gorgeous neighborhood, full of places to go and things to do, plus it’s walking distance to one of the best bars I’ve ever been to. (Of course, if money were no object I certainly wouldn’t mind living in the East Village either.) Our first craft cocktail bar experience in New York, in fact, high on my want list — Clover Club, owned by bartender extraordinaire and New York cocktail maven Julie Reiner. An auspicious beginning to our New York drinking, I should think.

We met up with friends who lived in the neighborhood and settled in — neighborhoody, very friendly, less than a dozen seats at the front bar but comfy booths and plenty of tables. I was somewhat agog at the menu, which was voluminous and made me want to try pretty much everything. I ordered something off the menu but then one of our drinking companions ordered something I wasn’t familiar with; “I get this every single time I come here,” he said.

I was a little embarrassed that I did not remember this drink; it was pointed out that the drink appears in the excellent, indispensible tome Imbibe!. (Clearly I need to re-read the book and make some highlights.) It does not appear as a separate, stand-alone recipe but as part of a general entry on sours under the heading “Brandy, Gin, Santa Cruz or Whiskey Sour,” where the general sour of the mid-1800s — “spirits, sugar, water, lemon, ice” — receives a “notable innovation” of a float of red wine,

“to give it what one Chicago bartender called ‘the claret “snap”‘ (in the language of the saloon, red wine was always called ‘claret,’ no matter how distant its origins from the sunlit banks of the Gironde).”

That generic British term for red Bordeaux ended up being used to describe just about any dry red wine, and just about any dry red wine you have on hand will do as long as it’s got some nice fruit to it. I might not use something big and tannic like a Cabernet Sauvignon, but surely a Cabernet blend, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, or I might even go off the wall sometime and try a jammy Zinfandel.

One sip revealed this to be a stupendous drink, with the wine creating myriad secondary flavors in the sour; I even thought I tasted a hint of absinthe although there was none in the drink, but was perhaps due to hints of licorice among the flavor components of the wine. So simple yet so complex; I’m a big fan of wine in cocktails and haven’t had nearly enough of them.

Do try this drink as soon as you can. I think you’ll fall in love with it as much as I did. Upon my return to Los Angeles and to Bar | Kitchen, one of our favorite haunts, I had the pleasure of being served more of these by former New York bartender Joseph Swifka, who of course made perfect ones, and with one sip brought me right back to Brooklyn.

New York Sour

NEW YORK SOUR

2 ounces rye whiskey
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/4 ounce rich (2:1) simple syrup (or to taste; use more if your syrup is 1:1)
1 dash orange Curaçao
1/2 ounce dry red wine

Combine the whiskey, lemon juice, Curaçao and syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously for 10-12 seconds. Strain into a sour glass, then carefully float the wine on top by pouring over the back of a spoon — you want a distinct layer floating on top of the drink, so be careful not to mix the layers. Sip and enjoy.

This was, of course, not the only drink we had at Clover Club — I really wanted to explore that menu, and explore I did. There were a few other concoctions imbibed that afternoon/evening:

Daisy de Santiago

Daisy de Santiago

The Daisy de Santiago, as collected by Charles H. Baker Jr. and tweaked to perfection by Clover Club — aged rum, lime juice, yellow Chartreuse, dash simple syrup.

Volstead Cocktail

Volstead Cocktail

The pre-Prohibition era Volstead Cocktails — rye, Swedish punsch, orange juice, grenadine, absinthe.

Clover Club

Clover Club

The eponymous Clover Club cocktail, because how could I not? Gin, dry vermouth, lemon, raspberry syrup, egg white.

Mr. Brown

Mr. Brown

I had a bit of Wesly’s Mr. Brown, which seemed an Old Fashionedy version of a Revolver Cocktail — Bourbon, coffee liqueur, vanilla syrup, orange and Angostura bitters, and not nearly as sweet as it sounds. He also had one called Zombies in Stereo — Apple brandy, Calvados, Pommeau, Bonal, yellow Chartreuse, lemon, maple syrup (holy hell).

And because it was on the menu, which it almost never is, I finished with a magnificent Widow’s Kiss

The Widow's Kiss

The Widow's Kiss

Dried rose petals did indeed fall from between the pages.

Only I lied, I didn’t finish with that. At that point, I was … well, happy. And as is my wont when I’m happy in a bar, I decided to buy shots for the bartenders and server (and Wesly and me, of course).

Later on Wesly said, “Amazingly enough, you were mostly okay when we left the bar.” We did indeed finally leave the bar, heading back to the subway and to Manhattan, where we were meeting other friends for dinner at a Midtown gastropub. I don’t recall which beer I ordered, but I do recall that it was about 7.8% ABV, that it came in an absurdly large vessel, and then I recall …

 
 
 
 

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:



 

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