Archive for the Amari Category

Vermouth in the Balance

Posted in Amari, Bourbon and Rye, Cocktails, Manhattans, Musings with tags , , , , on April 21, 2011 by Mr. Manhattan

Part one of an investigation into achieving balance in spirits-driven cocktails.

A few days ago I had the occasion to revisit an old original cocktail called The Criollo. I created it back in 2009 when I first fell in love with amari (singular amaro), the class of Italian digestive bitters that many bartenders were experimenting with at the time, most notoriously in the so-called “Black Manhattan.” In that cocktail some or most of the vermouth is replaced by an amaro. My particular goal was to bring chocolate flavors into a manhattan-style cocktail that would appeal to adult drinkers—i.e. not be creamy or too sweet. I had found that Mozart (the people who make the Austrian chocolates) had a liqueur (Mozart Black) that claims to contain 87% cacao mass. It wasn’t creamy but still pretty sweet with plenty of chocolate flavor. My thinking was to balance the sweetness of the Mozart Black against the bitterness of the amaro. Here’s what I came up with:

The Criollo (No. 2, AKA The Mozart Black Manhattan)

2 oz. rye
3/4 oz. Amer Boudreau (or Ramazzotti)
1/4 oz. Mozart Black chocolate liqueur
1 barspoon Grand Marnier
1 short dash Fee Bros. Whiskey Barrel Aged bitters
1 short dash Angostura orange bitters (optional if you used Amer Boudreau)
Long thin orange peel, for garnish

I liked it well enough when I first formulated it but when I remade it I was struck right away by how sweet it was. Not sickly, but pretty out there. I don’t know why it didn’t strike me so at the time. However, the reason for its sweetness is certainly no mystery to me now: it was the amaro. While we experience them as bitter, most amari contain a lot of sugar. I am guessing anywhere 20 to 30% by volume, possibly higher. Add that to the sugar in the Mozart Black liqueur and then my barspoon of Grand Marnier, and well, my recipe starts to look pretty lopsided. Think of it in terms of major flavoring components:

rye: congeners+wood flavorings
amaro: sugar+bitters/herbs
liqueur: sugar+cacao
liqueur: sugar+orange
aromatic bitters: bitters/herbs

If this were a glass of wine I was tasting, I might apply the adjective “angular,” meaning to me that the flavor is dominated by a couple of notes (in this case sweet and bitter) that don’t particularly harmonize. Nothing much links them together (though the chocolate and orange do help). In my mind, when I picture the flavors of this cocktail, this is what I see:

What this cocktail needed was a major rethink!

Back to Basics

I started by considering my point of origin, the Manhattan and flavors lent to it by the ingredient I had chosen to replace, the sweet vermouth. To be honest, it’s not an ingredient I had given my deepest thoughts to before. I knew which brands I liked but had otherwise taken it more or less for granted. Now however l had reason to really engage with it. Why does sweet vermouth create a balanced cocktail while the combination of amaro and liqueur (a pretty complex set of flavors) fails to do so? For starters, the vermouth is far less sugary. But what else is going on in there? I decided that it would be worthwhile tasting though a number of different sweet vermouths* and cataloging aromas and flavors. Here’s my aggregated list:

vanilla, orange peel, white pepper, wine, licorice, sun dried tomato, cedar, mint, dust, brown sugar, nuts, vinegar, soy sauce, black pepper, menthol, baby powder (flowers), anise, cherry, plum, chalk, band-aid, bitter

If I then reduce this list to classes of aromas and flavors, I get this more canonical list:

Acid
Sugar
Herbal/Bitter
Oxidized Flavors
Fruit
Minerals
Savory

Looking at this list, two things occurred to me in quick succession:

First, this single ingredient is capable of providing a very wide spectrum of flavors. It has what I believe flavor chemists call high amplitude, where “amplitude” is defined as the total effect of flavor and aroma in a food. The higher the flavor amplitude, the more broadly it stimulates our taste buds. (Ketchup is the classic example of a food which has high amplitude.) So including vermouth in a cocktail provides a big flavor bang for the buck. Depending on the brand of vermouth used, it tickles pretty much every major flavor receptor in some degree.

Second, neither of the ingredients I used in place of the sweet vermouth provided any significant amount of acid. If you think about all the different sorts of ingredients one uses in spirits-driven cocktails, you can see that while it’s easy to get sugar into the drink, its much harder to get acid to balance things out—that’s the brilliance of citrus in a sour. Vermouth, being based on wine, brings acid along with all of its other flavors. In addition to balance, that acid also helps heighten our experience of all the other flavors as well.

It seems pretty obvious that when we replace vermouth in a spirits-driven cocktail, we’ve got a pretty tough act to follow. It’s kind of a super-ingredient: complex flavors and acid. In The Criollo cocktail, I had found a way to bring complex flavors together (there’s plenty going on in there) but I had lost any acid that might balance against the additional sugar in those ingredients. Obviously I could try adding back some vermouth to fix The Criollo and re-balance it. That seemed like going backward. What I really wanted to know is what other options I might have for bringing acid into a spirit-driven cocktail. It was time to do some serious science!

Next: Putting Ingredients to the Acid Test

[*] - Vermouths evaluated were: Carpano Antica, Dolin rouge, Noilly-Pratt rouge, Vya sweet, and Cocchi Barolo Chinatto. Technically the latter isn’t a vermouth but it can certainly be used as one and I happen to have an open bottle.

When the Fat Lady Sings…

Posted in Amari, Brandy, Cocktails, Stone Fruit with tags , , , on September 1, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Stone fruit season is definitely coming to a close. A recent trip Berkeley Bowl last week revealed the selection of apricots, plums, nectarines, and their various crosses starting to diminish. There were in fact only about two or three apricot varieties on display, way down from the dozen or so earlier in the month.

Of course, what’s important about this story is that this was supposed to be the summer I overcame my traditional resistance to stone fruit and figure out how to make some original cocktails with them. While I have been known to eat (OK, take a bite of) the occasional peach or apricot, I just seem to be missing the gene that makes one crave this class of fruit. (Excepting cherries. I love cherries.) At the same time, I completely get how outrageously fortunate we are in this part of the country when stone fruit come into season and how awesome it is to use them in cocktails. Hence my resolve, which was thwarted every time I went into the market. How easily my eyes leapt from the piles of pluots and apriums towards the baskets of easy to love marion blackberries and raspberries. How simple to think of something to make with those! How quickly I forgot my good intentions to learn something new!

Finally, a few days ago, I purchased some of the last apricots, Rival from Washington state. They were medium sized fruit, good looking, firm but starting to show signs of serious ripening. They even smelled like apricots, while so many reveal nothing when sniffed. This, I said to myself, was it: my last chance to make good on my promise. Thus, into a bag a few of the softer feeling fruit went.

That evening, I got to work. I have admit I didn’t tinker around very much before hitting upon the recipe I am about to share. That’s mostly because on the second iteration of this fresh apricot sour, when I swapped Calvados for Laird’s 100-proof straight apple brandy, I felt I had created something so delicious, I felt no inclination to do more than sit back, sip, and savor. No rush, I told myself, there’s always next season.

When the Fat Lady Sings
(Fresh Apricot Sour)

A half of a medium-sized very ripe apricot, cut into about six pieces.
1/2 oz. lemon juice
1/2 oz. home made orgeat
2 oz. Laird’s 100-proof straight apple brandy
1/4 oz. Amaro Montenegro
A small slice of apricot, for garnish

Put the cut apricot half, the lemon juice, and the orgeat into a mixing glass.
Firmly muddle this mixture until the apricot is well pureed.
Add the apple brandy and amaro.
Shake over ice.
Fine strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Garnish with the small slice of apricot, if desired

Notes:

Made this cocktail using the season’s last apricots, hence the name.

Earlier iterations of this cocktail used Calvados and the regular Laird’s Applejack. Neither had the assertiveness necessary to balance against the fresh apricot.

You may need to use a barspoon to work the cocktail through the strainer as it gets pretty thick in there.

A Shot of Jacob Briars and Sebastian Reaburn

Posted in Amari, Bartenders, Bitters, Tales of the Cocktail with tags , , , on July 28, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

A Tales of the Cocktail Follow-up

Last week at Tales of the Cocktail 2010 (already last week?) I was able to attend quite a number of excellent seminars and tastings. However the one I was most excited about in the run up was A Shot of the Black Stuff on amari and bitters. I love amari and have been really keen to improve my knowledge of their history and provenance. Some of you might remember that this was one of the seminars which I previewed before TOTC. Since the primary presenter, Jacob Briars, failed to respond to any of my email inquiries, I had to get creative which really means I just made up most of what I wrote. I was however right about one thing: this was an excellent and informative seminar and for people wanting to learn more about drinking bitters, a great and tasty introduction.

The Origin of Bitters

According to Messrs. Briars and Reaburn most all bitters as we know them today (and by extension, many aperitivi, but that’s another seminar about which I will write later) started as medicines.1 The formulation of these medicines was based on the work of the polymath Paracelsus during the 16th century, based in turn on theories of health and disease originating with Hippocrates in the 5th century BCE. The idea, which was probably not new at the time, was that ‘evil’ could be used to expel ‘evil’ and restore balance in the body. A bitter medicine, therefore, would be taken to help someone suffering from an excess of bile (AKA choleric humor), which has a bitter taste. Yum!

Briars and Reaburn were quick to point out the following:

1- Most of these medicines were totally useless.

2- Even if these medicines contained herbs today known to contain beneficial compounds, they were either not prepared in an effective manner and/or used in sufficient quantities to matter.

3- Some of these medicines contained herbs which we know are NOT very good for you.

In fact, a 19th century slang term for someone useless and apathetic was “a Stoughton bottle,” a reference to Stoughton’s bitters, generally considered good for nothing.

Despite all of this, the practice of consuming bitters as medicine continued through the 19th century right up to 1906 when the United States passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, effectively bringing it to an end.

[1] – If I understood Briars and Reaburn correctly, Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, which was invented in 1786, represents a departure from this narrative. It was created in Italy as a means by which wine could be made more stable for transport (or to mask the taste of poorer wines; you choose). While not particularly bitter in itself, Carpano contains some of the same herbs that would have been found in contemporary medicines, including wormwood, known in Germany as Wermuth, from which the name vermouth was derived.

What happens next?

Briars and Reaburn now make two assertions about the development of bitters as we know them today from their roots as medicine.

First, and some what astounding to me, what the idea that in the United Stated during the 19th century it becomes common for people consuming bitters to mask the awful flavor of these medicines with whiskey and sugar. Sounds familiar? We know that cocktails began life as ‘morning after’ tonics so this hardly seems that far fetched.2 Over time these medicinal (or drinking) bitters would have changed to become the accent flavorings we use by the dash in modern cocktails. (Sodas, originally compounded by a pharmacist, are the other means by which the flavors of medicines could be made more palatable, ultimately without the alcohol or even the medicine, i.e. soft drinks.)

Second, in Europe, bitters get taken in another direction. First, by becoming better formulated it becomes possible to consume them (more or less) directly. Second, so-called drinking bitters become associated with food as a class of beverage to complement a meal. Those formulated to stimulate an appetite become aperitivi, such as vermouth and the quinas, to be enjoyed before a meal. Those designed to aid digestion, become digestivi and amari, to be drunk after eating.

[2] – Two things puzzle me about this assertion: first, most of these bitters contained a godawful lot of alcohol already, their most effective ingredient, so mixing them with even more alcohol to mask their flavor seems odd. Second, we would expect to find drink recipes from the time which called for significant amounts of bitters. I am not aware of these.

Enough history already! What did you get to taste?

Carpano Antica Formula vermouth
Averna amaro
Luxardo Albano amaro (distinctly more bitter than the Averna)
The Bitter Truth Elixier (not yet available in the US)
Fernet Branca
Braulio amaro (an alpino style amaro)

There was also a horrible homemade bitters of some sort from Mr. Reaburn, which I seem to recall contained mouthwash, followed by a sample of a horrible Reishi mushroom slurry, possibly by Mr. Briars.

What my words can’t convey…

To say that this seminar was “presented” by Jacob Briars and Sebastian Reaburn is to undersell what was in no small measure a great bit of entertainment. I would have needed a video camera to properly capture it. If I am ever asked to give a seminar, and one day I hope I am, I know how high the bar has been set and by whom. (I better start working on my Kiwi accent now!)

(Sorry the picture isn’t better!)

Amaro, and Amaro, and…Amaro

Posted in Amari, Bitters with tags , on July 2, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

So here’s my third post involving amari in almost as many days.

For the past few weeks I’ve been corresponding with one of my readers, Lucio Tucci, a bartender living in Treviglio, near Bergamo, Italy. After reading my last post on mixing with Nardini amaro, he sent me a link to a site in Italy dedicated to amari. I thought I’d share that link with all of you. Appropriately enough, the site is called “Amari” and the URL is:

http://www.amariamari.com/

Though the site is completely in Italian—you can use bablefish to get it crudely translated—it’s totally worth exploring. Among other things you’ll find a list of common amari brands and producers, typical amari ingredients (and their purpose), and a collection of vintage poster art, though all you get are thumbnails of them. There’s even a set of amari recipes, though in bablefish translation they aren’t particularly easy to follow. Sadly, it obvious that the site hasn’t gotten much love from it’s creators in a few years. Still worth a visit.

Lucio also sent me a booklet from Nardini on their various products, including their amari. I’m trying to find out if it’s OK to post it on my site for you to download. Once I get that figured out, I’ll update this post.

Thanks to Lucio! Mille grazie per tutto il amari!

Negroni + Amaro = Negromaro

Posted in Amari, Bitters, Cocktails, Spirits News with tags , , , on July 1, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

The past few months have seen a plethora of new products on the market. Some have been long anticipated, like Crème Yvette from Ron Cooper or Cocchi Americano, the Kina Lillet surrogate which has now been re-introduced in the U.S. by Eric Seed and Haus Alpenz. There’s also Gran Classico bitter, from Tempus Fugit, which provides us with an alternative to Campari without the food coloring, and Amaro Montenegro, absent for several years from US shelves after its importer was bought by Frexinet. Still to come is Maker’s 46, just barely creeping into some markets (or so I hear), a new (clear!) violet liqueur from Tempus Fugit, plus whatever surprises might await us in New Orleans. (I know of at least one!) Frankly, I expect to be playing catch up for the rest of the summer.

Gran Classico vs. Campari

Last week I bought a bottle of Gran Classico which has started showing up on the shelves of liquors stores and bars all over town. I sampled it last year during SF Cocktail Week, first neat and then in the form of a Negroni, made with Voyager gin and Carpano Antica Formula vermouth. That cocktail was amazing and, well, it set a standard for what a Negroni could (and should) be. I’d been craving a chance to have another ever since.

There is going to be a tendency for people in the cocktail business who stress the importance of natural flavors and traditional (non-industrial) processes to simply embrace Gran Classico (which contains no added colorants) as a de-facto replacement for Campari (a product made on a much vaster scale). However, in the interest of fairness and for my own education, I thought a little A-B comparison would be in order.

I would normally do a comparison between spirits blind but the difference in color between the Gran Classico and Campari is so startling as to make such precautions pointless: the Gran Classico is medium-amber in color while the Campari is intensely red. (For some reason it made me think of red M&Ms, the color of which is definitely NOT natural.) The Gran Classico is also far more viscous and syrupy in appearance than Campari and the nose is less intensely bitter, more muted. Campari, I now realize, really smells bitter and dusty! I dunno: that could be a good thing when it comes to mixing with it.

The viscosity I detected in the glass follows straight through into the mouthfeel of the Gran Classico. There are several layers to the flavor including bright vanilla notes, marmalade and wormwood. Surprisingly, it finishes pretty sweet. The Campari also leaves you with a sugary finish, but its flavor is far less complex overall, dare I say unidimensional.

Which do I prefer? Oh, the Gran Classico is a far more attractive and nuanced product. It would seem to be a better starting place for any cocktail that calls for Campari and probably Aperol. My only lingering doubt is whether, by the time it’s mixed with other ingredients, its superior attributes will still stand out. That’s something that’s going to merit some more investigation.

A new amari standard

The same day I obtained the Gran Classico, I also purchased a bottle of the Bortolo Nardini amaro, inspired by an upcoming seminar on bitter spirits at Tales of the Cocktail (A Shot of the Black Stuff). I had tried a number of the Nardini products before: the lemony, if somewhat sweet, Acqua di Cedro and the almost indescribable Tagliatella. But not the amaro. I am so glad I did! Much as I LOVE the Amaro Montenegro (which is like drinking flowers), the Nardini set my new standard for what an amaro could be: layers of licorice, vanilla, orange peel, cola, and a hint of lavender.

(Damn. I have to stop writing and pour myself a glass right now. Wait. OK. Ah! Better!)

Together with these two new lovely purchases, I gathered my bottle of Carpano Antica Formula vermouth and my bottle of Beefeater 24 (generously gifted to me by the folks at Pernod-Ricard) and set myself to the task of making some cocktails.

And this is what I did…

Negroni (classic proportions)

1 oz. Beefeater 24
1 oz. Carpano Antica Formula vermouth [try 3/4 carpano instead]
1 oz. Gran Classico bitter

Stir over ice for 30 seconds.
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Garnish with a long thin lemon peel strip, tied into a knot.

As delicious as I remember it! Gran Classico bitter has won a permanent place in my home bar. You’ll note however, that I swapped Beefeater 24 for the Voyager gin. After some consideration, I felt that the Voyager, with its citrus peel/sweet tea nose and soft finish, would be lost under all the vermouth and bitter. B24, lemony and creamy in the nose as it is, is still a juniper-forward product that asserts itself more intensely on the palate. I felt it would balance better against the other ingredients.

Now, do you recall I mentioned that the Gran Classico was pretty syrupy and had a distinct sugary finish? Well, I definitely saw that play through into the Negroni as made using the traditional proportions above. I’ve seen the exact same thing with Negronis made with Campari. For this reason many bartenders cut back the proportions of the vermouth and bitters, to dry the cocktail out. I suppose this reflects as much on the modern cocktail palate as anything else. The Negroni recipe on the back of the Gran Classico bottle makes just such an adjustment. Recently I’ve even had a Negroni made with Dolin blanc in place of the sweet vermouth, an accident best as I can tell. That becomes a different cocktail all together, quite enjoyable in it’s own way, like most everything else made with Dolin blanc!

The last time I tinkered with this aspect of the Negroni, I replaced half of the Campari with Amaro Nonino. That was pretty damn tasty but it just didn’t seem to go far enough. Inspired by that lovely bottle of Nardini amaro, I decided to ‘go darker’ yet, resulting in the following formulation:

Negromaro (or Nardini Negroni)

1 oz. Beefeater 24
1 oz. Bartolo Nardini amaro
3/4 oz. Carpano Antica Formula vermouth

At this point, the Negroni has been pretty well transformed into something new. The amaro lends distinct dark notes to the mixture, in particular the flavor of sweet licorice (not to be ever confused with anise), but is itself now tamed by being paired with gin and vermouth. Damn satisfying.

OK, I better stop here or I’m never going to finish this ambling blog post. Salute!

Amo Amari: A Tales of the Cocktail Seminar Preview

Posted in Amari, Bitters, Tales of the Cocktail with tags , , on June 26, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Update: I’ve just learned that the Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck (previously on SNS) from The Bitter Truth will also be speaking at this seminar. This is happening in conjunction with the US release of their hotly anticipated Creole bitters. Sazeracs for everyone!

Sooner or later, as one navigates their way through the bestiary of flavors that can found on the shelves of well-stocked liquor stores, one eventually encounters bottles which contain bitter spirits. These can take several guises: lighter aperitivi such as Campari or Aperol (and now Gran Classico), their heavier bodied cousins, the amari, taken religiously after dinner in countless European villages, and, of course, the aromatic bitters, essential components of “The Cocktail,” generally consumed in dash and barspoon quantities only [*]. Acolytes of bitters are truly blessed by the possibilities this varied array of products provides to them—whether mixing or looking for a shot. For others (heathens though they be) bitter spirits rank in flavor only slightly better than a slug of NyQuil taken for an evil cold. We forgive these souls their trespass and, honestly, are just as glad to save the all black stuff for ourselves. Amen.

A Seminar Guaranteed to Leave a Bitter Taste in One’s Mouth…

For those who might not as yet have formed a strong opinion on the matter of bitter spirits, or, for those who, like myself, feel compelled to try every bitter they can get their hands on, I am pleased to recommend Jacob Briar’s seminar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail entitled: A Shot of the Black Stuff – Amazing Amaros and Brilliant Bitters to be held on Thursday, July 22nd at 3:30 in the afternoon. As a member in good standing of The Bitter Brotherhood [**], I have been sworn to utmost secrecy and so cannot divulge too many details about this seminar. OK. That was a lie. I actually can’t tell you anything because Jacob hasn’t told me. Yes, it’s going to be THAT good and THAT entertaining! Whether those who eschew bitters upon entering will leave converted to the faith, however, I cannot say. As your mother might have said, regarding the leafy green vegetables remaining on your dinner plate: “It couldn’t hurt to try.”

[*] – We’ve certainly all had a bitters-heavy cocktail at this point. Bah! I encourage any serious fan of Fernet to pop the shaker top off a bottle of Angostura and pour themselves a full ounce of the stuff and down it. It will change your life! The serious bitter goodness in that little bottle deserves this kind of treatment more often. Kudos to Daniel Hyatt for showing me the way.

[**] – There is no such organization.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 54 other followers