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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


American Trilogy

This morning I watched an amazing cocktail video, produced by Shlomo M. Godder at the bar Dutch Kills in New York City. It’s absolutely gorgeous — beautifully directed and photographed, entirely visual (no dialogue at all), nicely integrated graphics and lush music. It begins with a fascinating look at the unnamed bartender’s custom ice prep before shift, moving onto a cocktail that I had been making for quite a while and didn’t even know it.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, the Old Fashioned might just be my favorite cocktail ever. It’s certainly at the top of my “comfort cocktails” list, being the first one I ever learned to make — Dad taught me when I was a kid, and sometimes I’d get to make him one after he got home from work. That basic recipe, truly the first “cock-tail” ever, adheres to a very simple recipe — “spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.” One of my favorite variations has been to make Old Fashioneds with half rye whiskey for spice, and half bonded applejack for the wonderful fruit flavors, along with a variety of different bitters. Turns out that for the last four years or so, head bartender Michael McIlroy of New York’s Milk & Honey has been making essentially the same drink for over three years now. I’m glad to know that my cocktailian brain is wired properly, at the very least!

His cocktail is called the American Trilogy, combining those two very American spirits with orange bitters. Whether he named his drink after Mickey Newbury’s song, an arrangement of 19th Century traditional songs that was a hit for Elvis Presley, I don’t know. It’s a decent guess, at least.

Make sure you use Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy for this drink (and for all drinks containing apple brandy if you’re not using Calvados), a 100% brandy product not to be confused with Laird’s other product, called Laird’s Applejack. “Applejack” is the proper name for American apple brandy, but Laird’s Applejack brand is not all apple brandy; it’s 60% grain neutral spirits (i.e., vodka), with only 40% actual apple brandy by volume. It’s an inferior product to be avoided if the bonded product is available, so don’t be fooled by the prettier bottle. Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy is an outstanding product, and an indispensable part of your bar. I really wish they’d ditch that blend and concentrate on the bonded product, which is one of the finest spirits produced in the country.

In the video the bartender is shown muddling a sugar cube with a splash of water. I’m down on the use of sugar cubes in cocktails unless you can be certain that every granule of sugar is dissolved; I don’t like grit in my cocktails, and it takes time to do it this way. I much prefer a 2:1 simple syrup — either brown or demerara sugar in this case.

Thanks to Garret Richard for sending me the video — he’s becoming our semi-official Looka! New York correspondent!

(adapted from Michael McIlroy, Milk & Honey, NYC, 2007)

1 ounce rye whiskey (we like Rittenhouse bonded rye).
1 ounce Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy.
1 barspoon rich Demerara syrup.
2 dashes orange bitters.
Orange peel.

Combine with ice and stir for 20-30 seconds, strain over a large ice cube into a large Old Fashioned glass. Express the oil from the orange peel onto the drink and around the rim of the glass, and garnish with the peel.


South Central

I love it when I get a cocktail via text message.

Sadly, I don’t have a spiff new prototype iPhone which will take the texted recipe and use its built-in replicator to rez one on the spot. (“Cocktail. South Central. Cold.”)

My friend Garret recently moved back to New York City to go to gradual school and regularly excites/taunts me with reports from their amazing bar scene, including some recipes for drinks he’s managed to pry out of the bartenders. Since my iPhone won’t rez them just yet I have to make them myself — fun, and easy enough … if I can find the ingredients, that is.

The latest one he sent was one he encountered at Fatty Johnson’s, one of the newly trendy “pop-up” restaurants and bars, which will serve for a mere six weeks and then close, perhaps to move on elsewhere, or perhaps not. Fatty’s features a rotating cast of bartenders and mixologists, and recently featured Eben Freeman, head bartender at Tailor Restaurant in NYC, whose amazing cocktails range from perfectly-made classics to complex, modern cocktails employing molecular techniques from the restaurant kitchen, working closely with the chef in developing his cocktail program.

I’ve never met Eben nor have I had the opportunity to sit across the bar from him, but have been reading about his work for quite a while and have been quite eager to sample his concoctions. (His signature drink at Tailor is the Waylon, made from Bourbon with a smoked Coca-Cola syrup … wow.) The drink Garret had and texted me about sounded fantastic, but one specified ingredient was going to give me a bit of trouble.

The cocktail was called the South Central. I liked it already just from the name, having grown up in the south central part of the country, also growing up with our own version of Ma Bell in the form of South Central Bell plus being part of the title of an R.E.M. song I love, so the name rang a few … um, never mind. Two rums formed its base — one light, one dark. In the video below Eben says any light and dark rum will do; he named the drink not for any of the things that the named triggered in my memory, but for the South and Central American rums he mixed. The ones he was using at Fatty Johnson’s have very distinct flavors, though — the rums you choose to make this drink will definitely make a difference, and I wanted to try it the way he was serving it there. The dark one he specified is one of my all-time favorite rums, the rich, brown-sugary, caramelly, spicy, tropical fruity wonder that is Lemon Hart Demerara rum. The other was one I’d never heard of, and that I’d never seen locally — Banks 5 Island.

I looked up Wayne Curtis’ review of Banks rum from about a year ago, and it sounded fantastic. It’s a blend of rums from five different islands, if you pretend that Guyana (the source of Demerara rum) is an island and not a very continent-bound north-coastal nation in South America. Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados round out the actual islands, along with the Indonesian isle of Java. Yep, this blend of rums actually contains some Batavia arrack, the sugar cane and fermented red rice spirit that gives this rum some of the wonderful funk that Garret mentioned in his voluminous text messages. Wayne mentioned aromas and flavors that led him to believe there was an agricole rum in the blend, and was startled to find that there was none. The various rums are aged between 3 and 12 years, blended then filtered through charcoal, resulting in a crystal clear, nicely dry spirit.

I can’t WAIT to get my hands on some of this stuff, but I’ve had no luck locally so far — even the venerable Hi-Time Wine doesn’t seem to have any! I’m unaware of anyone in the L.A. area who’s carrying it at the moment. (Matt, please correct me if I’m wrong.) It is, however, mail-orderable from DrinkUpNY.com, from whom I order regularly, so I’ll have some on the way soon.

“This doesn’t do me any good NOW,” I whined night before last, because I was channeling Veruca Salt and wanted the drink NOW, Daddy! Furthermore, Eben uses his own cacao-mole tincture that he makes “with a crazy process involving liquid nitrogen,” Garret said. Impractical in my kitchen, to say the least. He recommended substituting Bittermens most excellent Xocolatl Mole Bitters, and I concur.

So, except for the housemade mole tincture, here’s the drink you’d get if you ordered it from Eben:

(adapted from the original recipe by Eben Freeman)

1-1/2 ounces Banks 5 Island Rum.
1-1/2 ounces Lemon Hart Demerara Rum, 80 proof.
1/2 ounce white crème de cacao.
3 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters.
Orange peel.

Combine with ice in a chilled mixing glass. Stir for 30-45 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Express the oil from the orange peel onto the drink and garnish with the peel.

First problem — no Banks 5 Island. Second … I was almost out of Lemon Hart. There wasn’t enough to make one drink, much less two, and the future of this brand was in question for quite a while.

If I was going to try this drink — which I really, really wanted to do — I was going to have to improvise and come up with something similar, but not the same. Since I didn’t have enough (or any, in the case of the Banks) I need to do some blending. What the hell, blending one, two or several rums into one drink is a classic Tiki technique, right? And stumbling into a more or less blind blend of rums in order to substitute for and approximate an unavailable rum that I’ve never even tasted before? Yes, that’s crazy talk, but I want a drink and I want it now. Let no man, beast or empty bottle stand in my way.

Given that the review had cited an herbal, vegetal agricole-like flavor, I thought of using a non-agricole cane juice rum like 10 Cane. Checked the rum stash, and … nope. Out of 10 Cane. Well, what the hell, let’s try for that vegetal, herbal, tropical fruity flavor from an actual agricole. And since the blend contained Batavia arrack for a little funk, let’s throw in a little of that. And because I love the funk and felt like funkin’ it up, let’s supplement the Lemon Hart with some magnificently funky Smith & Cross Jamaican pure pot still rum. (Garret used half Banks — available in NYC, and half Smith & Cross, but if I’m blending to try to approximate this other rum that I’ve never tasted I want some of the other described characeristics to come through and not be too funky just yet.) Then maybe a visit to our hometown run to help balance and tie things together.

Okay, okay … it wasn’t all that much alchemical cleverness. It was mostly me finishing up the last few drops of some of the rums I had because that’s what I had on hand, not unlike the chemistry student who says, “Hey, let’s mix some of this stuff together, and hope it doesn’t blow up!” or the explorer who plows into the jungle on heretofore unexplored Skull Island hoping not to become dinosaur or giant spider food.

There was a total of 2 ounces of Lemon Hart left (and that’s the end of my supply of the 80 proof until it’s reimported) and a scant ounce of Smith & Cross. I just needed something else to make up for what I was missing, and I needed to finish up some bottles that had a half an inch of spirit in them. I stumbled right into this one; fortunately, no explosions.

Do I really get to rename his drink? Probably not, but I’ll name this version anyway. Given that I’ve been wanting to name cocktails after some R.E.M. songs, one of the names I had already picked out to use for some future drink was so close to the one he chose for his original that it had to be used for this one. I want to make clear that this is still Eben’s drink, but with the slight variation of my wacky blend of rums. To paraphrase the namesake song, “The wise man built his drink upon the rums / But I’m not bound to follow suit.”

That said, I steeled myself before the first sip. “This is probably going to suck.”

(adapted by me from Eben’s original)

1 ounce Lemon Hart Demerara Rum, 80 proof.
3/4 ounce La Favorite blanc rhum agricole.
1/2 ounce Smith & Cross Jamaican pot still rum.
1/2 ounce Old New Orleans Crystal Rum.
1/4 ounce Batavia Arrack van Oosten.
1/2 ounce Marie Brizard dark crème de cacao.
3 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters.
Orange peel.

Combine with ice in a chilled mixing glass. Stir for 30-45 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Express the oil from the orange peel onto the drink and garnish with the peel. Just like above!

*sip* … oh my. No, this most certainly did not suck.

I was halfway through drinking this when Wes said, “You know, I think you have a keeper here.” Well actually, Eben has the keeper, I just switched the rums around a bit. Still though, he said I should write it up, hence this post. As the drink was already half-gone I wondered if I should bother with a picture, but what the hell … I grabbed my iPhone and snapped. Imagine a full glass — it’s a big drink.

This was one of those weird combinations of cocktailian effort — part trying to recreate someone else’s drink, part dumb luck and part total fluke. Fortunately it worked, and I hope this encourages experimentation! There’ll have to be more experimentation soon, though — that’s going to be the last Lemon Hart I see until Ed Hamilton completes his Herculean efforts to get Lemon Hart — both the 80 and 151 proof varieties — back into the States, and there’ll have to be yet another variation next time we try it. I have a couple of bottles of Lemon Hart 151 left, but that along with the navy strength Smith & Cross might just knock me flat on my arse. I may just have to do it Garret’s way with all Smith & Cross, or try it with 2 ounces of the Banks and one of the 151. It shouldn’t be too much longer before my Banks rum comes in; I am eager to try different variations, and will stock up on both varieties of Lemon Hart the instant I see them. This is indeed one hell of a drink, and I look forward to finally trying one as close to the original as possible.

I love it when I get a cocktail via text message, and I love it even more when it sends me on an adventure. Thanks to Eben for coming up with this superb drink, and thanks to Garret for sending it to me!

Next, stay tuned for a three-part series on delectable Negroni variations.

Cocktails on Arrakis, Part 1

[N.B. -- If you 1) haven't read Frank Herbert's Dune novels, and/or 2) aren't a geek, then this post is likely to make little sense to you.]

My old friend Chris Caldwell, a writer and cocktailian living in Denver, issued the following post on his Twitter feed the other day:

“And how can this be? For he is the Kwisatz Sazerac!” #cocktailsonarrakis

I laughed, I groaned, I shouted “ARRGGGHHH!”, I wanted to buy him a drink, I wanted to slap him upside the head with a flyswatter. In other words, my natural reaction to a really great/awful pun.

But it got me thinking.

I wrote him back right away and said, “Shai-Hulud’ll get you for that, Chris. That said, The Crysknife would be a great name for a drink.”

He replied, “That was better than ‘I must not beer. Beer is the mind-killer. Beer is the little death that brings total oblivion.’” Oh, gods. *facepalm* Okay, it’s a good thing I wasn’t in the room with him, because he’d have flyswatter prints on both cheeks.

“Or ‘May thy coupe glass chip and shatter.’” Hmm, that’s better. Now we’re getting somewhere.

“Or ‘When you reach the bottom of the drink you dare not drink, you’ll find me staring back at you!’” Oh, oh … the boy’s on a roll.

I told him that now he has to make a Kwisatz Sazerac. It would, of course, have to have a faint whiff of cinnamon, to recall the spice melange — “the smell – bitter cinnamon, unmistakable.”

Not only that, we need to get to work on other Dune cocktails too. The Crysknife, of course. The Heighliner? The Gom Jabbar! Chris said, “A Gom Jabbar would be an awesome drink! ‘I remember your gom jabbar, you remember mine!’” I mentioned this to Matt “Rumdood” Robold, and he immediately said, “You mean a Gomme Jabbar, of course.”

*SCREAM!* Genius!!

A while after our initial conversation Chris got back to me with the results of his experimentation. “Surprisingly good,” he said. It’s really just a simple Sazerac variation, but the geeky pun is just too priceless to pass up, and warrants a post of its own — the first, I hope, of several posts featuring Cocktails on Arrakis.

It’s still a rye base with a rinse of absinthe. A spiced simple syrup is the main difference, plus some orange bitters (the color of the spice) and an orange peel instead of lemon.

Don’t add a splash of the Water of Life, though, because you’ll die an agonizing death. Or, if you’re female and can transmute the poison, you’ll become a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother. Or if you’re male, and you don’t die, you become …

(by Christopher Caldwell)

2 ounces Rittenhouse 100 bonded rye whiskey.
1 barspoon Spice-Must-Flow Syrup.
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters.
1 dash Regans’ Orange Bitters.
Splash of absinthe.

As in a traditional Sazerac, coat a chilled Old Fashioned glass with the absinthe and discard all or most of the excess. Combine rye, Spice-Must-Flow syrup and bitters in a chilled mixing glass and stir with ice for 30-45 seconds. Strain into the absinthe-coated glass. Twist the orange peel over the drink. It is the will of Shai-Hulud that you drop the peel into the drink (especially if you’ve cut it to look like a sandworm).


1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cinnamon stick
1/8 teaspoon green cardamom seeds (not pods)

Crush the stick and seeds in with a mortar and pestle. Toast the spice gently in a small saucepan, tossing constantly, until it begins to become fragrant. Add the water and sugar and heat gently, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and allow the syrup to steep for 15-20 minutes. Strain out the spice through a fine strainer and pour into a jar. Keep in the fridge; should last about a month.

Stay tuned for the Gomme Jabbar — the high-handed enemy. My idea for the base was a navy-strength gin; Matt thinks Wray & Nephew Overproof, which I may like better and should be sufficiently deadly. Don’t worry, though — it kills only … animals.

P.S. — Chris has one of the most consistently great Twitter feeds of anyone I know. Follow him.


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