Homemade Cocktails — Experiments, Critiques & Travels
Here in the U.S. we now have access to a growing number of European spirits and liqueurs that, until now, were rarely seen on these shores: Carpano Antica and Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Zucca, Bonal Gentiane-Quina, Cocchi Americano, and Suze, to name a few of them. Then there are the numerous Italian amari and Fernets — Averna, Cynar, Ramazzotti, Nonino, Meletti, and the bartender’s secret handshake, Fernet-Branca. Humbler still are the old standbys like Campari, Aperol, Noilly Prat Original, and Lillet, all of which would have been considered exotic only ten years ago.
Unless they’ve cruised the streets of Milan during Happy Hour or sipped an apéritif in a French café, most Americans probably haven’t tasted these spirits, let alone heard of them. And though these European novelties are likely residing on the shelves of their local liquor store right now (excepting the most removed of package stores), customers will likely cast an eye over the dusty bottle with the overly-fancy Italian label that costs $20 or $30, then move on. The biggest deterrent, aside from unfamiliarity, I think, is the basic contrast between European eating habits and our own: we don’t really have an apéritif or digestif drinking culture (yet), and most of the spirits listed above are consumed before or after dinner with little or no modification, so the American demand for them remains low. Things seem to be changing, however.
If you pay attention at craft cocktail bars, then you’ll notice that amari have invaded the inventory. Maraschino liqueur is now a given, as is quality sloe gin. Shots of Fernet-Branca have become a rite of passage. Vermouth is being treated and stored properly, as are other fortified wines and apéritifs. Even the chefs on the Cooking Channel are using Campari. The thing is, all of these spirits are being incorporated into cocktails — rarely are they taken neat, on ice, or with a splash of soda or champagne, enjoyed as their makers often intend. To the Europeans, I say: I’m sorry, mixed drinks are part of our history and drinking culture, and we just can’t help dumping your spirits (however wonderfully balanced they may be) into a cocktail. To the Americans, I say: sip that well-crafted $12 cocktail, but go out on a limb, surprise the bartender, and order a Lillet (on the rocks, with an orange twist) before your meal or an amaro (neat), after dinner — even better, order a glass of port or sherry, that’ll really throw ‘em for a loop.
Anyway, you might have noticed one of these apéritifs lurking in the recent Elder-Upper post: Byrrh Grand Quinquina. As spirits writer Jason Wilson notes, Byrrh has long been confined within European borders, but thanks to the efforts of Eric Seed (spirits importer of Haus Alpenz, responsible for Batavia Arrack van Oosten and R&W Violette, among others), Americans may now enjoy this quinquina. A quinquina, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a fortified wine that is infused with chinchona bark, a source of quinine; the quinine in the bark gives adds a tonic water-like taste to the quinquina.
Oh, and on the pronunciation: apparently it’s BEER or BEE-AIR, rather than BRRR…though the latter is much more fun to say, so I’m sticking with it.
Being a fortified red wine, Byrrh is slightly sweet and quite fruity, with a port-like taste that is accompanied by a bit of tonic-quinine bitterness and a hint of spice — cinnamon, perhaps. I like to use the following analogy:
Byrrh : Dubonnet Rouge :: Cocchi Americano : Lillet Blanc
Byrrh has a bit more flavorful oomph to it than Dubonnet, and much more emphasis on the quinine; Cocchi and Lillet work the same way, but with a white wine base. If you locate a bottle of Byrrh, try it on the rocks with an orange or lemon twist — before dinner, of course, and preferably in the company of something French — then get to mixing. I suggest the following to start…
Byrrh Cocktail #1
- 1-1/2 ounces Byrrh Grand Quinquina
- 1 ounce VSOP Cognac [Ferrand 1840]
- 1/4 ounce Kirschwasser [Clear Creek]
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Adapted from Meier’s The Artistry of Mixing Drinks (1936) via Jason Wilson, The Washington Post.
The #1 is quite marvelous, and, as my tasting notes say, “very French.” The sweetness level is perfectly balanced, and the woodsy, cherry notes of the kirsch are surprisingly emphasized by the fruity Byrrh — I hadn’t expected to get that much out of a quarter ounce of the eau de vie, but there you have it. I recommend a dry, yet fruitful, cognac — Pierre Ferrand 1840 is a bit on the sweet side, but Camus VSOP will also do nicely — to play along with the cherry and spiced wine flavors of the kirsch and quinquina. The recipe itself comes from Jason Wilson’s aforementioned column, though he found it in Frank Meier’s The Artistry of Mixing Drinks (1936); Meier was head bartender of the Ritz Bar in Paris for two decades, and his Byrrh Cocktail has a distinctively Old World feel to it.
Byrrh Cocktail #2
- 1 to 1-1/2 ounce Bourbon, Rye, or Canadian Whiskey [a mild is rye suggested]
- 1 ounce Byrrh Grand Quinquina
- 1 ounce Dry Vermouth [Noilly Prat Original]
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
The #2? Not quite as marvelous. Rather unexciting, I found, but perhaps my choice of ingredients played a part. Using Buffalo Trace as a base, the drink is entirely dominated by the bourbon — slightly sweet, slightly altered bourbon, it’s true, but still bourbon. I had better results using Whistle Pig Rye (yes, I mixed with the precious stuff), which is the mildest, smoothest rye I have on hand; its grassy notes worked well with the herbal Noilly Prat and fruity Byrrh. Definitely go with the equal portions on this drink: though the result may be slightly sweet, it’s the only way to counter whatever whiskey you opt to add in. I’ve not tried this one with scotch, but Pig’s Nose seems like a nice choice, being malty, smooth, and on the mild end of the Scotch spectrum.
I also have a hunch that Byrrh will go well with gin…future experimentation awaits! Cheers!
Photos by IJL.