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*

 

Consider the Negroni … the perfect cocktail?

[NOTE: This is a preview post highlighting an upcoming seminar at the 2011 Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, taking place July 20-24, and is is crossposted from the original post at Talesblog.com. It fits in rather well with my Negroni variation series posted here, here, here and here.]

Do you remember your first Negroni?

The Negroni

Photo by Jeremy Brooks, licensed via Creative Commons

I do. It was way back in the early days of my cocktail journey, when I was a mere cocktail toddler. One of the many silly things I thought I “knew” then was that I hated Campari, the frighteningly red (colored with bugs, eww!) and bitter (gaah!) potion that I had heard Italians drank with soda. I tried a Campari and soda at the time and … it didn’t speak to me. (That was primarily because I wasn’t listening, and my palate still had some maturing to do.) Then someone made me a Negroni. I was hesitant — I don’t like Campari! — but I was assured, “You’re going to like this a lot more than Campari and soda. Trust me.” I don’t even remember who the bartender was, but I owe him my thanks. The Negroni is one of my very favorite cocktails, and we go through so much Campari at home now that I ought to start buying it by the case. I’m even enjoying cocktails (nay, especially enjoying cocktails) in which Campari is actually the base spirit.

It’s such a marvelous combination of ingredients — the bracing bite of the Campari, the aromatic and spiritous backbone of the gin, the sweetness and spice of the vermouth — that it lends itself to lots of tinkering. Some bartenders have made them with genever instead of gindifferent styles of gin and bitters, or even a powerfully funky rum, and I’ve become a huge fan of its Bourbon-bearing cousin. As much as I enjoy those drinks, we keep going back to the original time after time. Before dinner, a Negroni just hits the spot, and is one of our primary preprandial quaffs.

If you share a similar love and fascination with the Negroni, Paul Clarke has a seminar for you. He’ll be moderating “The Negroni: An Iconic Cocktail” at Tales of the Cocktail next month, and this is one you’re not going to want to mix. I asked Paul why a whole seminar about this cocktail, and what tantalizing tidbits he could share with us with five weeks left to go.

“In thinking about this session, I’ve come to the conclusion that not only is the Negroni an excellent cocktail — it’s perhaps the PERFECT cocktail,” he said. “It balances potency, sweetness and bitterness with an elaborate flavor that can be consistently engaging and always open to interpretation and inspiring creativity.” Indeed — see the interpretations and inspirations above!

Paul will be joined by some distinguished panelists as well. “One of my panelists is Livio Lauro, a bartender originally from Florence who is now head of U.S. Bartenders Guild in Las Vegas, and who just completed a translation of Luca Picchi’s book about Count Negroni and the development of the Negroni cocktail; the history and background of the drink is his department. I will be talking about the cultural context of the Negroni and how it’s a ‘bridge-the-gap’ drink between not only the 19th century simplicity drinks and the turn-of-the-century vermouth/bitter drinks, but also between the European aperitif tradition and the American cocktail tradition. My other panelist, Jacques Bezuidenhout, is of course a San Francisco-based bartender and consultant and a bonafide Negroni fiend; he’s going to talk a bit about the Negroni’s enduring legacy, and how it’s a foundation drink for so much creativity and inspiration behind the bar.”

I tried to pry a bit more from Paul about what we’ll actually be tasting during the seminar, but that proved to be a bit more difficult. “We’re going to be serving a few variations on the Negroni theme, all using identical ingredients and proportions, with minor tweaks to demonstrate how what’s basically the same drink can appeal in several different guises. I’ll keep the precise details close to the chest, but expect a couple of interesting takes on the Negroni — including one that most people have never before tried, and that for the first time is available for a large audience.” I have a suspicion as to what the latter reference refers, but I’ll keep that close to the chest as well. If I’m right, you’re in for a major treat.

Paul, Livio and Jacques will be presenting “The Negroni: An Iconic Cocktail” on Thursday, July 21 at 12:30pm. Buy your tickets now before this one sells out.


Sodatender or Barjerk: Lost Secrets Revealed?

[NOTE: This is the first of several preview posts I'll be writing to highlight upcoming seminars at the 2011 Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, taking place July 20-24. This is a crosspost from the original post at Talesblog.com.]

Last year I had the best Ramos Gin Fizz I’d ever had in my life.

As a New Orleanian I’ve had a lot of ‘em, good and bad. (The nadir was the one at an unnamed restaurant which should have known better; it had so much orange flower water in it that it tasted like hand soap.) I’m thrilled to see the drink being made very well around the country thanks to the craft cocktail renaissance, but my favorite place to get them is in New Orleans. It’s part of what makes the city feel like home.

This particularly stunning Fizz was made at Bar UnCommon in the Père Marquette Hotel, and was made by Chris McMillian, unsurprisingly. Chris is a consummate bartender — methodical and deliberate, making perfect drinks, and entertaining you with tales and history as he does it. This one, though, this one …

Chris had been trying some new things out on me, and we’d had some classics, and even though it was late at night and I do tend to enjoy this particular drink earlier in the day, I was just in the mood. “Could you make me a Ramos?” I asked.

“Coming right up!”

I continued chatting with my friends, not really watching what the bartender was doing, oddly enough, as bartender-watching is something I frequently do. I noticed that he wasn’t shaking the egg white for nearly as long as I’ve seen other bartenders do it, though, and I began to try to pay more attention. The conversation also demanded my attention, so I wasn’t able to closely follow what Chris was doing, but I recall there being a bit of soda already in the glass as he strained the drink, agitating it gently with a barspoon as the glass filled.

He placed the drink in front of me, and I took a sip of what was the most spectacular Ramos Gin Fizz I had ever tasted.

It was perfect. Not only the balance of flavor, but the texture … holy hell, the texture was magnificent. Silky and smooth and completely emulsified, almost like very soft peak meringue, but not just on top. This emulsified texture remained consistent all the way to the bottom of the drink, with no separation at all, until I slurped the very last drops of it through the straw. Even the best Ramos Fizzes I’ve had separated after a bit. Not this one.

I had to gush. “Chris, this is amazing! I caught a few glimpses of you making it — how’d you get it like this?”

Chris replied that after all these years making them in the usual way, he had recently completely changed his technique after reading Darcy O’Neil‘s book, Fix the Pumps. “Read it if you haven’t,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “and you’ll see how I did it.”

Intrigued yet?

Darcy is a bartender and trained chemist from Ontario, Canada whose aforementioned self-published book is a history of the American soda fountain, its rise and fall, and the myriad secrets of the sodajerk — many of which were nearly lost to history (when’s the last time you saw a full-fledged, old-fashioned soda fountain?) and nearly all of which are incredibly useful to the modern bartender.

Along with the esteemed David Wondrich Darcy will be presenting a seminar called “Sodatender or Barjerk?” in which they’ll review this history, techniques of the sodajerk that the bartender can use (see above), and how the techniques of the bartender — many of whom were out of work 90 years ago due to Prohibition — came into play at the soda fountain.

Want to learn some fascinating history and some great techniques to make your drinks even more amazing? If so, this seminar is not to be missed!

 

Martinique, meet Italy

So the other night—it was in point of fact Wednesday evening—it was my turn to mix. (We take turns at our house, as do civilized gentlemen everywhere.) I had a vague feeling that I wanted something Manhattan-esque, but Chuck had made superlative Manhattans just the previous evening, so that was right out. I felt that something original was called for, and this meant first thought, and then experimentation. “Brown, bitter and stirred” is always well received, so I decided to go in that general direction. In the end, what I came up with was not very brown, but it was nicely bitter, and I stirred it, so hey.

If there’s anything I like almost as much as rye, it’s rum. And if there’s anything I like more than a good amaro, it’s…actually, I don’t know what that is. This gave me the foundational idea I needed to get started. I’d like to say that next I went through some astonishing testing gyrations, or chemical flavor component analysis, or dug deeply into the Flavor Bible. Alas, I can make no such claims. What I did was, I pawed through the liquor stash in the rum and amaro sections and found one of each that (a) weren’t nearly empty and (2) seemed, very subjectively and unscientifically, i.e. all in my mind, like they would play well together.

I see a great deal of sense and logic in Gary Regan’s theory of cocktail and mixed-drink families, as outlined in his essential, eminently readable resource, The Joy of Mixology. Is there a “family name” for drinks following the formula rum + amaro modifier, or even base spirit + amaro modifier? Is it sufficiently original to warrant its own surname? Chuck helpfully pointed out that Cora, like most although not all amari, is not a fortified wine.  So, technically at least, this drink is something other than a Manhattan variation (and therefore not a member of Gary’s French-Italian cocktail family), even though that was certainly my inspiration. In the end, I decided that it didn’t really matter, and if someone decides that it does, they can work out the family tree with my blessing.

But what, oh what were the two bottles I selected? I can hear you wondering from here. I’ll just cut right to the chase. Without further ado:


Golden Dahlia cocktail

Golden Dahlia
created by Wesly Moore

2 ounces Rhum Neisson Agricole Élevé Sous Bois
1 ounces Amaro Cora
3-4 dashes Bittermen’s Xocolatl Mole Bitters
Large lemon twist

Stir over ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and squeeze a lemon twist to express its oils over the surface of the drink. You may choose to commit the delicious sacrilege of dropping the twist into the drink, or not, as you prefer.

[Note: Amaro Cora is hard to find, but you can mail order it without a problem. If you enjoy amari, you need this in your collection. Find it here via Mount Carmel Wines & Spirits in the Bronx, New York City, only $10 per bottle.]

As I mentioned, this cocktail is not terribly, or really even at all, brown—this Neisson is aged for but 18 months in French oak barrels, so the resulting pour is light in color, and Amaro Cora is far from the darkest of the amari I tend to prefer and enjoy. In the glass, the cocktail has a lovely blonde color, and who doesn’t admire a lovely blonde? (I myself thought of Veronica Lake—hence the name I’ve given the drink—although Scarlett Johansson will certainly do in a pinch.) But the flavor experience is somehow browner than that, delightfully complex and pleasantly but not overwhelmingly bitter. Neisson is an agricole rum from Martinique. I love how distinct, uniquely local flavors stand out in agricoles; here the drink has an underlying earthy/grassiness that is just beautiful. I have on occasion overheard Amaro Cora dismissed a bit more readily than I think is warranted, typically for being “not all that bitter”. It’s true: Cora is not as bitter as Cynar or Fernet Branca, but its flavor profile is just gorgeous—lovely notes of orange peel and cinnamon. Here it does play very well together indeed—the bitterness it provides is understated and mellow, but clear and clean. I’m a huge fan of the Bittermens line of bitters (in spite of their disappointing caps, which always seem to crack and split long before the bottle is anywhere near empty), and their Xocolatl Mole is one of my favorites. It’s such a distinctive flavor combination that of course it isn’t suitable for just any cocktail, but here it adds a spicy richness with notes of not-at-all-sweet chocolate that’s just right. I did play a bit with proportions before settling quite happily on the classic and successful 2:1.

And now the world opens up before us, a world of rums, amari and bitters, all with the potential to be combined in luxurious and near-infinite variation, no doubt with varying degrees of success, but all to the pleasure of our palates. Go forth and conquer. Please do post your own suggestions as a comment.

 

Jim & Rocky’s Barback Pro-Am, Part 6: Marquee Cocktail

As the barback demolition derby continues, the next novice into the frying pan is … um, me.

(Oh, crap.)

I was a little nervous about this whole being-on-camera thing to begin with, and after hearing from Tatsu about how he ran the gauntlet the night before, I had a minor panic attack. (Not a real panic attack, but more along the line of all the chickens in “Chicken Run” — “We mustn’t panic!” … *sounds of chickens panicking*)

I wasn’t panicking about doing the work — I was really excited about doing the work, in fact. Other than at home and friends’ houses, and bartending some parties, this would be my first time behind a working bar. I was a bit more concerned about the idea of having shots poured into me all night. Alas, I had to be a party pooper and put my foot down — no 12 shots over the course of the night, as not only did I have to be at work at 7:30 the next morning but I also had to drive myself home. Sigh, what the day job will do to us …

I showed up bright and early to help prep, which was apparently a good sign. Points scored already! Before starting the video I’d like to describe one thing it didn’t portray — in fact, none of the videos did — what Jim called “the pre-shift ritual.” This wasn’t any kind of barback hazing, this was a participatory ritual in which Jim and Rocky would join me. Sure, sounded great, but I wasn’t getting any explanations until we got to the site of the ritual.

The site, in everyone’s case, was the nearest dive bar to the venue where Jim would be guest-bartending. The ritual was for the three of us to consume … a Jäger Bomb.

Would you believe, though, that in my entire life, and after all the spirits and liqueurs I’ve quaffed or merely tasted in my life (I’ve lost count), I have never once tasted Jägermeister, much less some college kid drink made from it.

You’d think it’d be right up my alley, if you look at it for its original purpose — a herbal* liqueur meant as an after-dinner digestivo. Somehow over the years it became some kind of frat-boy shooter, and that whole reputation that developed around it just put me off. Actually though, if the ritual had just been shots of Jäger, I would have been fine with that. I mean, I’ve done shots of Malört, fer chrissakes — very little could be less palatable than that (and I actually kind of like Malört). I started thinking about it and figured a Jäger Bomb would likely be something like a shot of Jäger dropped into a beer, which I imagine would have been palatable enough. Sure, I’d be fine with that.

Nope. You probably already knew this, but that night I learned that a Jäger Bomb is a shot of Jägermeister dropped into a large glass of Red Bull. *groan*

I hate Red Bull. Sickly sweet, tasting like bad cotton candy and with an absurd amount of caffeine … blecch. In fact, I despise all those so-called “energy drinks,” primarily for the fact that they all — every single one of them — unequivocally tastes like shit. I mean, spit-take bad. And Red Bull is probably the best of them.

The bartender at the little dive down the street delivered unwelcome news, though. “We’re out of Red Bull,” he said. “All we’ve got is Rockstar.” Rockstar not even out of the can — Rockstar squirted out of the soda gun, in fact.

Here’s what Wikipedia says about Rockstar:

“As with all energy drinks, Rockstar can cause jitteriness, anxiety, and high blood sugar levels. If mixed with alcohol it may also mask the level of alcohol intoxication. Because of the diuretic effect of caffeine, Rockstar can exacerbate dehydration. [...] Rockstar Original was named Worst Energy Drink by Men’s Health magazine for having 280 calories due to 62 grams of sugar.” Rockstar also has about four times as much caffeine as Coca-Cola. Then there’s that whole tasting-like-shit thing. That, plus I mislike that company for other reasons as well. I found myself wishing they had had Red Bull.

Sigh. Stop whining and just drink it. Yep, it was about as bad as I thought it’d be, entirely due to the Rockstar. I’d gladly have done a few Jäger shots instead.

But enough grousing about the pre-shift ritual (which, other than the Rockstar, was fun). Let’s get down to work!

I was very happy to get a good grade! I was even happier that compared to some other videos, I was pretty boring. (Being earnest at your job is not terribly entertaining.) I’d rather be boring than be “good TV” though, I guess. I’m really glad Rocky and Jim asked me to participate, and I had a ton of fun. Despite what the video’s web page says I learned a lot working with Jim — a hell of a lot more than “Never run unless someone’s chasing you with something pointy,” which I actually already knew.

Jim’s featured drink this time is way better than a Jäger Bomb. I love the combination of gin and Aperol, and the lovely savory note from the sage really makes this drink.

MARQUEE COCKTAIL
by Jim Romdall, Vessel, Seattle

1-1/2 ounces Martin Miller’s Gin
3/4 ounce Aperol
3/4 ounce lemon juice
1/4 ounce simple syrup
2 sage leaves
Pinch of salt

Shake all ingredients with cracked ice until very cold, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a sage leaf.

 

* — “You say ‘erbs’ and I say ‘herbs,’ because … there’s a fucking ‘H’ in it.” — Eddie Izzard.

 

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