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!