My relationship with Frangelico began innocently enough (or not-so-innocently, depending on your perspective) in the spring of 2001. I was 18, and it was just a year after I had decided that bartending was a noble pursuit. I was infatuated with a 23-year-old woman, and was standing in her kitchen. We’d gone to dinner, and she’d taken me back to her place and put some coffee on. She also had an unopened half-bottle of Frangelico on hand. At the time, I thought this made her unbelievably sophisticated. Now, before you cry foul over this story of an older woman corrupting an underage drinker with alcohol, fear not: No booze was consumed that night because we could not get the damned bottle open. The cap simply spun around and around but would not unscrew. We both worked at it for several minutes using a variety of different techniques, but the result remained the same: The Frangelico was staying in the bottle that night.
I’ve been marked for life by this event. First of all, I can’t look at the silhouette of the Frangelico bottle’s pious friar without thinking of the curves of a beautiful, smart, and unpredictable young woman who was ultimately too much for me to handle. (Some might find this to be weird, but my argument is that all bottles are inherently phallic anyway, so there’s really nothing new here.) Secondly, the cap to that bottle is still spinning. I don’t mean that particular bottle—I’m sure she eventually opened her bottle and served it to a more mature man who was better prepared for its contents than I was. Back then, I didn’t know what to do with Frangelico (beyond putting it in coffee). And now, even though I’ve opened many bottles since then, I still often find myself perplexed. Eleven years later, it’s just as mysterious to me as it was in that kitchen in Silverlake. So, in that sense, I still can’t get the darn thing open.
There are a lot of popular liqueurs that I banish from my home and from bars left and right, but there’s definitely nothing wrong with Frangelico. First of all, it’s Italian, which means its sheik and artsy. Secondly, it’s “all natural.” And lastly, it’s really delicious. I don’t think anyone can take this over the rocks and complain it doesn’t taste good. But there’s a problem: It’s pungent.
I feel confident enough to work with nearly every ingredient in any bar. I’ve put together an entire menu of amaro cocktails. Absinthe? No problem. Strega, grappa, Islay Scotch, blackstrap rum, batavia arrack—throw them at me and I’ll knock them all down. As long as a spirit or liqueur is of fine quality in its own right, I will confidently make a delicious drink. But when it comes to Frangelico, I have often found myself shrugging my shoulders in resignation.
Frangelico is what is know as a noisette, which is French for “hazelnut,” and also refers to a liqueur featuring the same flavor. Although it markets itself as “the original hazelnut liqueur,” with “origins” dating back over 300 years, and has a bottle that calls to mind something old and traditional, Frangelico has actually only been around since the 1980′s. It’s made with real hazelnuts, which are steeped in an alcohol solution. This solution is then distilled again, resulting in a hazelnut distillate. Then other ingredients are added, including cocoa and vanilla. Although I don’t know for sure, I would wager there’s fruit in there as well, berries in particular.
Frangelico’s modern origins are surprising for the reasons listed above, and for this one: It doesn’t exactly play to a young crowd. It’s been passed over by the craft cocktail movement, and lacks horrible TV commercials with a “bartender” explaining the subtle art of pouring Frangelico into a glass with ice. Instead, it sits on the back bar gathering dust, brought out only to go into a coffee, or when someone wants something sweet on the rocks after a meal.
A few months ago, I’d had enough of this. I decided that I would come up with new and interesting things to do with Frangelico. I figured that if amaretto can get play in cocktails, why not Frangelico? It turned out to be harder than I thought.
There are very few Frangelico cocktails out there that aren’t in the “dessert” category. It is seemingly always paired with one of the following: Coffee, cream, Bailey’s, Kahlua, Creme de Banana or Creme de Cacao. It’s always suffering the indignity of whipped cream, shavings of cinnamon, or, God forbid, playing along in a layered shot. Recently, after I briefly explained my cocktail background and the challenge I had set for myself, one well-meaning liquor store employee excitedly explained to me that mixing equal parts Pinnacle “Whipped” flavored vodka and Frangelico would yield a drink that tastes just like chocolate covered pretzels. (I smiled politely and then narrowly avoided vomiting into a nearby waste bin.)
I worked at it for months during off hours at the bar and prime hours at home, pairing Frangelico with every conceivable ingredient, trying to come up with something that worked. What I wanted was not a cocktail that accepted Frangelico, but one that needed it. But it also had to be fresh, interesting, and something that compelled you to drink more.
Eventually, I came up with this. Although the ingredients may seem unexpected, I believe the combination works extremely well.
1oz reposado tequila (I prefer Casa Noble)
1oz freshly-breweed genmaicha green tea
1/2oz freshly squeezed lime juice
Large pinch of cilantro (10-12 leaves)
Add the cilantro directly to a shaker with the rest of the ingredients.
Strain the drink into an ice-filled rocks glass.
I’d encourage you try try it before rendering judgment. The hazelnut and cilantro match-up is one I’ve long suspected would work, and have not been disappointed by the way this cocktail has come out.
So, I’ve gotten one Frangelico cocktail down. Will it take another several months to create a suitable follow-up? We’ll see. But now, at last, I have something to produce whenever a guest asks, “Do you make anything with Frangelico.”
Despite my new discovery and many years of familiarity with this product, there are still times when I just can’t seem to get the cap off of the bottle. It spins, just like it did all those years before. It’s embarrassing. After all, I’m older and more experienced now, and shouldn’t be running into issues like this. On nights when the problem has come up, bar colleagues and guests have assured me that it happens to every bartender once in a while. I always unconvincingly insist that it’s the first time it’s ever happened to me.
I love my country and plan to stay here for good. That being said, Santorum doing well in the polls had me starting to worry. Whenever I become afflicted by the “Republican itch,” I often scratch it by contemplating moves to other countries. The thing is, I’m in the wrong field when it comes to immigrating to another place. Despite the fact that some countries occasionally decide that bartenders aren’t so bad, bartending is not generally considered to be skilled labor, and thus isn’t on the shortlist of occupations thought to be attractive in immigrants. Long story short: if I was a nuclear physicist, I could go anywhere I wanted to.
Bartending is considered, by and large, to be unskilled labor. I can certainly understand how that misconception could come about. In fact, an ill-fated and rather hilariously disastrous attempt to acquire a drink at a wedding a couple of years ago (first a martini, then a simple scotch on the rocks) left me temporarily convinced that foreign immigration officials might be on to something. But one night spent on a bar stool at a decent dive bar will leave one with the understanding that a guy or gal doesn’t have to be a fedora-wearing, suspender-snapping mixologist in order to have valuable skills.
I contend that bartending, in its best sense, is skilled labor. It’s an important, valuable asset to the community, and goes beyond a simple “service job.” On some nights, I’m in manufacturing. On others, I’m an artist. Read on to understand my rationale. Here are my five reasons why bartenders matter:
1. Bartenders are historians.
No, I’m not talking about our annoying habit of recalling the disastrous effects of prohibition, or the esoteric minutiae of our favorite cocktails. A good bartender is an expert in the sort of history that matters to you. We remember that drink you had last Saturday that you loved. And we remember the one you had on Friday that made you sick. We remember where we had the best cup of coffee of our lives, and how to get there. We know what that cute girl at the end of the bar does for a living, and whether she has a boyfriend. If she has a boyfriend, we know what they were fighting about last week. We remember your favorite drink, your birthday, and where you went on vacation last spring. We know the score of the Knicks game, and how much Mark Sanchez is getting paid next year to lose more games for the Jets. Okay, we might not have remembered your name the first few times you came in, but no one is perfect. The point is, we are the keepers of whatever information is relevant and important. I get asked a lot of questions about a great many things when I’m behind the bar. Why? Because I am expected to know. Why? Because I am a bartender.
2. Bartenders are artists.
I like to take pictures of the drinks I make. I do this because I don’t have any children or pets. And, like a child, or an adorable puppy, a cocktail can and should be a beautiful thing. True, things can go wrong. It’s not uncommon to see a cocktail that looks like this, or the Seinfeld baby. But usually, if your cocktail has a solid pedigree, it can come out looking like something beautiful. Andy Goldsworthy is applauded for creating marvelous works of art designed to be washed away by the tides, melted, or otherwise destroyed by natural processes. But no one would doubt he is an artist. So, too, are bartenders taking time to craft things that widen the eyes, only to have them destroyed within minutes. Cocktails are edible art. We learn about ice, about sugar, about the merits of various cocktail spoon designs, glassware, strainers, garnish, and just about every other factor that can determine how a cocktail looks and tastes. We want every cocktail to be the best. We want each one to be perfect before it goes out. And we recognize that we taste with our eyes as much as we do with our mouths. We are artists. Our works sell for $12 a pop in darkened lounges rather than for $12,000 in brightly-lit galleries, yet we don’t complain. Every night, we ask how you liked it, then say “thank you” and “good night.”
3. Bartenders are craftsmen.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word craftsman as:
- A worker who practices a trade or handicraft.
- One who performs with skill or dexterity especially in the manual arts.
A bartender works with specific tools and skills in order to produce a cocktail. First, we must learn how to use those tools. Julep strainers, swizzle sticks, even a simple bar spoon, all require endless practice until muscle memory kicks in and drinks become second nature. Secondly, we must develop the knowledge to use those tools effectively. The ingredients and other components and factors of a drink (ice, glassware, ambient temperature, etc.) all must be taken into account if those tools are to be used to their greatest potential. Some bartenders retain their own set of bar tools that they carry with them from job to job, confident that their unique relationship with the form and function of their personal implements will enhance the work they do. These are not the habits of an unskilled laborer.
4. A bartender is a therapist and confidant.
I was hesitant to include this one because it is such a cliché. In the end, I found that I had to, because it is undeniably true. The simple fact is that, at his or her best, a bartender will know what a guest wants or needs before they even know themselves. Our job is to anticipate needs and clarify desires, and then fulfill both to complete satisfaction. We have to be good listeners, or else we won’t be good at our job. These skills help us choose the perfect drink, but they also help us advise you on whether to put in an offer on that condo, or how to deal with your mother in law. The relationship between a frequent guest and a bartender can be a deep one, and it frequently results in friendship outside of the workplace. This is not an accident, and you’d be hard pressed to find any other job in the so-called “service sector” that engenders such trust and mutual respect.
5. Bartenders can handle it.
Experienced bartenders are a special class of people. Please indulge me while I tell a story:
Early on in my bartending career, I was working in a reputable place that was a favorite spot for nearby restaurant professionals. On a semi-regular basis I poured drinks (always Dewar’s on the rocks) for a quiet, well-groomed man in his 60’s. One night things were slow and I got a chance to chat with him. I found out that he was the food and beverage director for a very well-known hotel nearby. Before he’d gotten into that side of the business, he’d been a bartender for over 20 years.
“Let me let you in on a little secret,” he said. “You like your job?”
“Sure. I like it.”
“No, I don’t mean this job in this place. I mean as a bartender. Do you like it?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“Good, because it’s the greatest job in the world. You’ll come to understand why in a few years, when you come to appreciate what it’s done for you. Stick it out, and eventually you’ll realize that this job has left you prepared for pretty much anything, ready to deal with any kind of person. You are going to see things in this job you never thought you would see, and deal with situations you never imagined could happen, and eventually you are going to learn to handle these things as if they happen all the time. It won’t just be behind the bar. People fuck with you all the time, everywhere. People you know, people you don’t know, and people you wish you didn’t know. What this job teaches you is how to adapt and how to react. It teaches you about people, and once you understand people, you know the world, and then there’s nothing that can touch you.”
That man was right.
It can certainly be said that of well-known classic cocktails, the Blood and Sand suffers from a less-than-cuddly reputation. It could be the name, and it could be the ingredients. I certainly doubted the worth of the drink until I tasted it for the first time. On paper, it looks awful, which is one of the things I love about it. Modern cocktailing suffers from a number of disturbing trends, one of which is that many cocktails I find in bars and restaurants look amazing on paper but fail to deliver once mixed and served. Good cocktails are good for one reason only: they taste great. The Blood and Sand is no exception. When pressed, I might even say it’s my favorite cocktail.
As with many classic drinks, not much is known about the cocktail’s origins. But that doesn’t stop the Internet from being rife with details. The most common story is that it was invented to celebrate the premier of the 1922 film Blood and Sand, starring Rudolph Valentino as a matador. Most will also say that it was made with blood orange juice. (An understandable assumption given the cocktail’s name.) The truth is that the first printed mention of the drink is in Harry Craddock’s 1930 volume, The Savoy Cocktail Book. Unlike modern cocktail books, this volume lacked flowery descriptions of the recipes within it. (Mr. Craddock was probably betting on smarmy bloggers taking care of that a few generations later.) His recipe was simple: equal parts scotch, Italian vermouth (sweet vermouth), cherry brandy and orange juice.
It could be that the story of the blood orange cocktail invented for the premier of a film is true, simply being passed down orally until later being written down. I can find no record of anyone coming forward with evidence to disprove this story. But, the tale could have just as easily been made up by someone writing about the drink, later to be taken as fact. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how the drink came about. What matters is that it is truly delicious when made properly. When thinking about cocktails, the most important thing to consider is the taste. It all starts with ingredients.
Many people make the mistake of using a very lightly-peated or unpeated scotch. I’ve seen recipes calling for Glenlivet, Dewar’s, Oban and others. These scotches get overwhelmed by the other ingredients and disappear into the background. This leads some to worry that the Blood and Sand needs to taste “more like scotch,” and ambitious cocktailers often try to remedy this perceived imbalance by changing the proportions of the drink to increase the amount of scotch present, and/or using a total smoke-bomb. People who do this are missing the point.
Yes, there are some old cocktail recipes that just don’t work. For example, I will never agree with the “French school” view on the sidecar, a recipe that calls for equal parts lemon juice, cointreau and cognac. I, and most other people, find that to be un-palatable. Then the “English school” emerged, thanks (once again) to none other than Harry Craddock, who published an updated ratio for the drink in his 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book: 2 parts brandy to one part each of Cointreau and lemon juice. Most would agree this is a much better drink. We should all recognize that Craddock was a good judge of taste in this case, yet chose to preserve the equal-parts ratio for the Blood and Sand. Surely, he had a reason. Indeed, in the case of the Blood and Sand, we should seek not to reinvent the wheel, but rather to grease the axel: What matters are the ingredients; the proportions are perfect. In fact, they are vital.
Let us go back to the question of the scotch. Harry Craddock was working at the Savoy Hotel in London when he published his famous cocktail guide. The odds are very good that he was using something common: Johnnie Walker, or something like it. I certainly doubt that he was using anything light and delicate. (Sorry Glenlivet fans, but scotch makers weren’t widely using bourbon barrels for aging until the late 1930′s. In Harry Craddock’s London, the scotch would have been a bolder sherry-aged spirit). If we use Johnnie Walker Black Label as a benchmark, what this cocktail needs is something smokey and flavorful that will shine through to join (but not overpower) the other ingredients. Ardbeg or Laphroaig, although amusing to use, do not make for the best drink.
Lately, I have taken a liking to using Highland Park 12 in the Blood and Sand. It is well-rounded, smoky enough, but not so bold as to dominate the drink. It plays fair with the other ingredients. Sadly (but justifiably) the stuff is not cheap. Johnnie Walker Black Label works wonderfully, is affordable, and is likely authentic when it comes to replicating the cocktail as it was intended.
The Cherry Brandy
Some would have you believe that the cocktail has always been made with Cherry Heering. Of course it’s possible that this was the very liqueur the Blood and Sand was first made with. Peter Heering’s famous cordial has been the gold standard in cherry brandy for many, many years. But there were, and are, many other brands.
It is important to distinguish between “cherry brandy,” a term used for sweet cherry flavored liqueur that doesn’t necessarily have to contain any brandy at all, and cherry eau-de-vie, commonly known as Kirschwasser, or Kirsch. Kirsch, though delicious, has no business being in a Blood and Sand. I have also seen it happen that, in the absence of Cherry Heering, inexperienced bartenders and uninformed amateurs at home will try substituting Luxardo’s famous Maraschino liqueur. Anyone familiar with both products knows that this is not a wise choice, as the two liqueurs have little in common other than cherries.
It’s not much of a stretch to presume that Cherry Heering was the very “cherry brandy” that Harry Craddock used at the American Bar at London’s Savoy Hotel all those years ago. But I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that if he wasn’t using it, he should have been. You won’t find a better dark cherry liqueur on the market today, and evidence suggests that in the past 100 years at least, the product hasn’t changed much. You shouldn’t make a Blood and Sand without using Cherry Heering. Period.
Craddock’s recipe calls for “Italian vermouth.” At the time, this was understood as meaning sweet, red vermouth, whereas “French vermouth” referred to the dry, white variety. Nowadays, of course, you can find sweet and dry vermouth from both countries, as well as a variety of other places. But I see no reason to try anything fancy by diverging from Craddock’s description. So, Italian vermouth it is. Punt e Mes is one of my favorite vermouths, but it’s far too bitter for this cocktail. Carpano’s other, more well-known vermouth, Antica Formula, is also disqualified. Although delicious, the vanilla in the recipe ends up being rather conspicuous in the finished cocktail.
My favorite Italian vermouth at the moment, and one I think goes best in this particular drink, is Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, a spectacular vermouth made from a 1891 recipe. This is a vermouth well-worth sipping on its own, a necessary quality in anything you are going to mix into a drink.
The Orange Juice
Here is perhaps the biggest point of contention when it comes to the Blood and Sand. It is a common misconception that the original recipe for the Blood and Sand called for blood orange juice. There are some who say that this is the “blood” in the cocktail’s name. It’s an odd notion, actually, considering that the red hues of both Cherry Heering and sweet vermouth could both just as easily be “blood.” I prefer to see things that way, with the scotch and the orange juice representing the “sand.” Harry Craddock certainly doesn’t specify anything more than “orange juice” in his recipe. Although, of course, it’s possible that the cocktail’s creator used blood orange juice, there’s no real reason to believe this is so.
As it turns out, blood orange juice is quite delicious in this cocktail. The tart, grapefruity notes of the juice lend an interesting character to the drink. But blood orange juice should by no means be considered necessary, and in fact I may prefer the juice of a simple Valencia orange over it. What is most important to consider, above all, is that whatever juice you use must be freshly squeezed.
To sum up, if I were to make a Blood and Sand right now with my preferred ingredients, it would consist of:
1 part Highland Park 12
1 part Cherry Heering
1 part Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
1 part freshly squeezed orange juice
I like 1oz across the board. It yields a drink big enough to say I mean business, but not so big that it becomes indulgent (not to mention tasteless). My general rule is: Always keep your cocktail just small enough that passing up a second drink would be pointless and shameful.
When made correctly, this drink is nothing short of divine. If you prefer things differently, I would love to compare notes.
A woman sat at my bar and said: “I’d like a classic martini, please. Make it with Grey Goose.”
“I can’t do that,” I said. “Even if I stocked Grey Goose, which I don’t, I would not be able to make you that drink, because a classic martini can only be made with gin.”
Although some folks might have taken offense at my tone, this woman took everything I said in the instructive spirit in which it was intended. “Really? I had no idea,” she said. “I’ve never heard of a martini being made with anything other than vodka.” And then she asked, “What exactly is gin, anyway?”
It’s a sad story, but it has a happy ending. I made her a gin martini that she loved.
But it’s a sad state of affairs when our country’s most recognizable and iconic cocktail is more easily identified with the glass it is served in than its components or preparation. It’s gotten to the point where anything served in a “martini glass” becomes a “martini,” whether it be nothing but cold vodka, or a syrupy sludge tasting vaguely of watermelon. I sometimes serve martinis in a coupe glass rather than the traditional “martini glass,” and it’s not uncommon for a guest to complain that the drink I served them is somehow “not a martini” simply because it came in an unexpected glass.
So, in light of all of this information, let’s straighten things out right now: A martini is gin and dry vermouth, stirred with ice until chilled, and garnished with either an olive or a lemon peel. Or a cocktail onion if you wish to have a gibson. That is all a martini is or ever will be. You will notice I say it should be stirred. It should never be shaken. James Bond is a moron. I would never say that to his face, because he’d break my jaw with his pinky finger and then run off with my girlfriend. But, in my heart of hearts, I know he’s secretly a wuss. No real man would ask for a shaken martini and, good lord, ask for vodka in it. The only thing worse than a vesper is a straight vodka martini. Don’t do it. Just don’t.
Now we know what a martini is. It honestly doesn’t really matter what glass it goes into. You could pour one into my cupped palms and it would still be a martini. (Mad props and a huge tip, by the way, to the bartender that eventually makes that dream of mine a reality.)
I enjoy all manners of gin. I will admit that I believe it is easier to find bad gin than it is to find poor examples in other spirit category (with perhaps one exception in the case of tequila). This is largely because many upstart distillers in the United States decide to make a gin while they are waiting for their brand new whiskey to mature. The problem is that making a good gin takes a daunting amount of skill, and few people have it. Sometimes to find the best gin, you have to stick with the big names, because they are the ones who pay the big bucks for the best people. My preferred gins are Beefeater and Plymouth, plain and simple. Many people who know me as a fellow who gravitates toward esoteric, lesser-known labels, would be shocked to hear this, but it’s the honest truth. (That’s not to say that there aren’t smaller gins I adore. Oxley and The Botanist have both held my attention recently.)
If you were to make a martini for me right now, here’s what I would expect from you:
3/4oz dry vermouth (Noilly Pratt and Dolin are both preferred. It should be refrigerated if already opened. Otherwise, throw it away and open a fresh bottle.)
-Add the ingredients to a mixing glass and then add freshly-made ice. If the ice is large, crack it with a spoon into smaller pieces.
-Stir well. No more than 10 seconds if the ice is cracked, a bit longer otherwise.
-If you think you might have stirred it for too long, YOU DEFINITELY HAVE AND NEED TO STOP NOW.
-Strain into my cupped palms, or, if we are expecting polite company, into a martini glass or similarly non-embarrassing vessel.
-Don’t chill the glass in the freezer. The martini shouldn’t be ice cold, and one should never drink a cocktail out of a glass that is colder than the cocktail itself. If you must serve it in a cold glass, put it in the fridge, instead.
-Yes, that’s right. My martini shouldn’t be ice cold. If it’s too cold, I won’t taste the subtle nuances of the cocktail which have made the drink so beloved, and will have wasted your precious time and my own. Don’t go for “igloo cold.” Go for “I wish the bus would goddamned get here already because my ears are beginning to hurt a bit.” But no colder than that.
-Garnish with a lemon peel. Yeah, I know an olive is considered “classic,” but we are talking about what I would do, and I prefer a lemon peel. If you are out of lemons, a small green olive will be fine. None of that bleu cheese-stuffed garbage though. That’s just ridiculous.
I will drink my martini within 8 minutes. That’s how long I have before the thing gets too warm, unless we are sitting in an igloo or waiting for the bus, in which case I’ll probably have a bit longer.
This isn’t just how I would want you to make a martini for me, but how I think a martini should be made for all people. It is the closest one can get to the essential martininess to which we all strive. Alas, I rarely order martinis when I go out drinking. The martini pays a steep price for being the simplest cocktail around: It’s the easiest one to get wrong.
“The stuff is wretched. Not even the Italians are willing to drink it. It’s just cheap swill that they try to pawn off on gullible Americans.”
The speaker, a British gentleman, was at my fully-sat bar loudly proclaiming his convictions about amaro just after I had spent the better part of 5 minutes trying to convince a wary guest of its virtues. Although I have yet to meet any Italians who have been able to confirm this man’s account, his words did capture a negative sentiment held both by drinkers at large and by many bartenders: That amaro is difficult to work with, difficult to drink and difficult to love. But this could not be farther from the truth.
Perhaps only gin is more maligned by the modern drinker than is amaro. Which is fitting, because the two do have some similarities which, once discovered, are difficult to ignore and easy to appreciate. But I will talk more about that later.
What is amaro? Amaro (or, the plural amari) Italian for “bitter,” is a concentrated infusion of bitter herbs and roots in alcohol (often a neutral beet or grain spirit), which is often aged in oak casks and is generally sweetened. It is traditionally taken as a “digestif” to settle the stomach after a meal, and historically has had other medicinal properties associated with it. Although the word amaro refers to such concoctions produced in Italy, the style of digestif is popular throughout much of Europe and Eastern Europe. A lot of people I serve inquire about what amaro is, but many of them don’t realize they are already familiar with it. Jaegermeister is, for example, a popular representation of the very style of bitter herbal digestif of which the Italians are so fond.
Amaro tastes like medicine. This is the number one complaint that I hear from people who either won’t drink the stuff, or swear they will never drink it again. As if medicine, something intended to make us well, is something to be shunned. In fact, amaro began as medicine. Medicine itself began with herbs and roots. Distillation of alcohol was first embarked on in order to produce medicines thought to cure practically every ailment. The marriage of herbal medicine and alcohol was an obvious one, and amaro began as herbal elixirs sold in pharmacies. The alcoholic content was thought to enhance the medicinal benefits of the ingredients. The elixirs were sweetened in order to mask the bitterness of the ingredients.
This quality of “bitter masked by sweet” is what we identify as “medicinal.” Modern medicines — cough syrup, for example — are based on the same principal. Syrupy synthetic cherry flavor is dumped into cough syrup to mask the bitterness of the medicinal components. The science behind medicine has changed over the centuries, but the science of taste has not. Amaro may not cure our every physical ailments, but it can raise the spirits and settle the stomach. And, beyond that, it can help to make a fabulous cocktail. Yes, although I enjoy amaro after a meal, or, admittedly, in the afternoon over a newspaper, my true love for amaro was discovered once I started using it in cocktails.
My first introduction to amaro was through another bartender, who told me that one must be very careful when using it in cocktails, as it will quickly overwhelm everything else in the drink. That seemed reasonable to me at the time. But, in fact, I wasn’t particularly appreciative of amari in the first place. Aside from a brief fling with Averna, and a few shy, curious evenings spent with Fernet Branca, I mostly steered clear of the stuff, content to slake my thirst with more conventional brown liquors. It wasn’t that I disliked it. I just hadn’t discovered its worth.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started imbibing amaro and using it in cocktails regularly. Although not every amaro is a great cocktail ingredient, I’ve found that the vast majority of them are. All present a dense, tight concentration of flavor which, when diluted and embellished, unfurl and display great complexity and surprising, unexpected characteristics. (Not unlike the aforementioned gin.) Simply by taking some amaro and cutting it with a neutral spirit, or even with water, can bring out surprising flavors that would otherwise be masked by others.
I hosted a “Stories From Behind The Bar” event last year for Manhattan Cocktail Classic, at ‘inoteca liquori bar, and put together an entire presentation based on using amaro in cocktails. Our sponsor was Ramazzotti, and during my preparations for the event I spent a lot of time playing around with the amaro and teasing flavors out of it. Try this:
2 parts Ramazzotti
2 parts vodka
1 part light rum
Stir it with ice until chilled, then strain and enjoy. But try it at room temperature for maximum effect. This mixture brings out tremendously fruity characteristics in this particular amaro, and it led me down different avenues than I might have explored otherwise.
Amaro brings more flavor to cocktails than nearly any other bottle behind the bar. But, unlike most syrupy flavored liqueurs, and when judiciously mixed, it will enhance the flavors in a cocktail, and can shed new light on familiar concepts.
Here’s one I serve at ‘inoteca liquori bar:
1 1/2oz Averna
1/2oz Orange Juice
1/4oz Lemon Juice
Shake with ice and strain into a sugar-rimmed glass (a small brandy snifter, or a large sherry glass will work nicely)
Garnish with a long orange peel curled around the inside of the glass.
Both of these recipes expose some of the potential that amaro holds as a cocktail ingredient. But the appeal of amaro extends far beyond this. It is both a historical curiosity, and a unique, modern-day delicacy. It has yet to be packaged in frosted glass bottles and endorsed by glamorous hollywood stars. It doesn’t need to be.
Amaro is, for better or worse, fiercely itself. And, like medicine in your cabinet, I think it’s a necessity on any bar.