We’re here to talk about sparkling water in cocktails. But first:
My Obsessive Nature, a.k.a. A Briefish, Seemingly Unrelated Disclaimer on Why Its Hard to Buy Things
I like research.
Before I buy something, for example, I tend to comb through reviews. This can be important, like finding the right hotel for a vacation. This can also be shatteringly unimportant, like when I suddenly realize I’ve wasted 90 minutes on a Tuesday morning comparing customer reviews and build specifications between a bunch of $12 can openers. I can’t help it. It’s who I am.
I say that to say this: what follows is an article about what carbonated water is best for your cocktails. My conclusions have changed my thinking about soda water (a little). But even at its most dramatic, we’re talking about a flavor difference of 20% maximum, and usually closer to 5%. Which is my way of acknowledging that what follows is esoteric and largely insignificant, and if you ignore my conclusions regarding sodium content vis-a-vie effervescent cocktails, I assure you that your life won’t be any worse for it.
Carbonated Water & Its Many Forms
Carbonated water is what happens when carbon dioxide and water are hanging out together under pressure. Sometimes it’s natural: mineral-laden water, bubbling up through limestone in underground springs, finds some trapped underground CO2 and self-carbonates. People used to find these special places, and drink/soak there as a medicine. When they’re constantly traveling to Bath to “take the waters” in Jane Austen novels? This is what they’re doing.
Some of the carbonated water you can buy is natural, and while others are imitations of the natural minerals, or the natural carbonation, or both. All in all, you can break down bubble water into 4 different categories.
• Carbonated Water or Seltzer Water or Sparkling Water: pure water, artificially carbonated.
• Soda Water or Club Soda: water, carbon dioxide, and small amounts of added sodium salt and/or potassium salt.
• Mineral Water: naturally carbonated water from a protected underground spring, containing more than 250 parts per million (ppm) dissolved minerals/salts, like sodium, magnesium, calcium, potassium, etc.
• Spring Water: water from a protected underground spring, containing less than 250ppm dissolved minerals/salts.
This alone is fairly simple, but it’s only the very beginning, because each individual brand of sparkling water needs to be evaluated on three traits. And these three traits aren’t in any way predictable from the four categories, because waters within the same category swing wildly from one extreme to the other.
(1) How carbonated is it?
This is vital, and the only unconditional trait you need in your carbonated water. You want big, ripping carbonation. In something like a Tom Collins, carbonated water is only about 1/3 of the liquid in the final drink, and has to carry twice its own weight in effervescence. The more carbonation, the brighter and more alive your drink will be.
(2) How does it taste?
Carbonating water is like hitting it with a spotlight — bad tasting water tastes even worse carbonated.
(3) How does the mineral composition affect the experience of flavor?
As affirmed by Dave Arnold and explained well by Kevin Liu here, a very small amount of salt can make flavors “pop,” even if it’s not enough to actually perceive any salt at all (known as subthreshhold saltiness).
To compound that, we know a small amount of salt is incredibly effective at reducing bitterness, so in the case of bitter sparkling drinks like Americanos or Campari & Soda, it might give the the other flavors a boost.
I picked up a couple bottles of every brand of sparkling water I could find. Which is, by the way, a good way to look insane in the check-out aisle.
I got a couple rain-cheap grocery store brands, a few world-famous mineral waters, two ludicrously expensive artisanal mixing waters straight from an advertisement in Imbibe, some super basic carbonated distilled water, and capped off by a gift: the elusive and broadly-revered Topo Chico, courtesy of the excellent Carlos Ochoa.
12 waters in all, and a decently representative sample:
San Pellegrino and Crystal Geyser were immediately disqualified for insufficient carbonation, and Crystal Geyser doubly because it sucks (In my notes is one line, a cryptic, but damning, “this is shit and the people who make it are shit and I hate them.”).
Then, we did tests. Lots of tests.
All in all, I blind tasted all of them, 6 at a time, shuffled randomly:
— 2 rounds all the way through, just water alone
— 6 rounds as Americanos
— 3 rounds as Lillet + Sodas
— 2 rounds as Tequila + Sodas
— 1 round as Gin + Sodas
— 1 round as Vodka + Sodas
— 1 round of Tom Collins’
So why did I do this so many times? Because the results were incredibly subtle, and maddeningly inconsistent. I’ve never experienced anything like this. One round of Americanos, Fever Tree is the best. A few more rounds it hovers around 2nd or 3rd place, and then once it drops to last. Mineragua was 3rd place for the first Lillet + Soda test, but then the next time it drops to last. La Croix is an underperformer at Americanos but it makes the 2nd best Lillet + Soda. My homemade soda + a crack of salt made the best tequila soda, but when bittersness came in, it was only 4th best at an Americano. Why is Refreshe Seltzer better than Refreshe Soda? WHY?
I mean really. What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?
I did it so many times that, yes, I managed to find patterns and draw conclusions:
(1) The biggest factor is the amount of carbonation. If you taste the water, hold it in your mouth before you swallow. CO2 in liquids forms carbonic acid, and it should burn. If you can pleasantly hold it in your mouth for 5 seconds, it’s not carbonated enough. San Pellegrino is nice for lunch, but it’s nowhere near bubbly enough for your cocktails.
(2) We’re really only talking about simple Americanos or spirit/wine + bubbles. In the round of Tom Collins’, which introduces sweetness and tartness, I literally couldn’t tell the difference between the 3 or 4 best versions. Just bring enough carbonation, and it’s fine.
(3) The more bitter your cocktail, the saltier your water. Q Soda and Mineragua in particular are salty as hell, but in bitter drinks they make the flavors pop because of that salt + bitterness thing we mentioned earlier. And the top performers, as far as I could tell, just had sea salt. Sodium citrate, an industrial salt in the Refreshe Soda, was not as beneficial.
(4) Enjoying a water alone and its performance in cocktails are two very different things. Both Q and Mineragua, for example, are too salty for me alone, but added to bitter sweetness in an Americano, that ceases to be a problem. Likewise, Fever Tree is the king of sipping waters in my house, but it doesn’t come close to dominating the competition the way I thought it would.
(5) We’re not talking about a big flavor difference here. This ain’t different vermouths, or even different gins. We’re talking about water. For most of these we’re dealing with shades of carbonation and shades of salt. The subjective difference between 1st and 4th in the conclusions could very well have been due to what I ate last.
(6) Water costs money. More on this in a second.
What’s the Best Sparkling Water for Cocktails?:
Q Club Soda.
Big carbonation, nice and salty, and well flavored, Q was the best all around competitor, with Fever Tree, Refreshe Seltzer, Topo Chico, Mineragua, and my homemade water (carbonation technique nicked from Liquid Intelligence) coming in as respectable runner ups.
If I didn’t have my own, would I be buying Q Club for home? No, I would not. I would be buying Refreshe Seltzer and adding a pinch of salt (or Topo Chico, if I could find it). Because of the final column, cost, that I left off earlier.
If I were in some kind of competition, I’d bring Q Club. But it’s not significant enough of a difference for me to buy boutique imported water at nearly $0.20 a fucking ounce. Q was best, and Refreshe Seltzer is somewhere around 3rd. But Q is 7.5x the cost of Refreshe, and only like 5% better. And I’m not living that life.
In other words, did I just make you read 1500 words on carbonated water just to tell you it doesn’t matter all that much? Yeah, I did. Sorry. I tried to warn you.
SUPPLIMENTAL CAVEAT: There’s still so much I don’t know about these waters. Sodium, in miligrams, is available on the back. But what about potassium? Or calcium, or magnesium, or fluoride, or nitrates? All that stuff can show up in mineral water, and it tastes like something, and I don’t have the tools to identify them. And honestly, what tools I could’ve bought (pH strips, etc) I opted against buying when I realized how difficult it is to draw conclusions from such scattered, subtle results in the first place.
TRIVIA #1!: Why is salted water even a thing at all? This is already much too long, but the history of artificial carbonation is pretty awesome, so I’ll just leave this superb article here if you want to know more.
TRIVIA #2!: If you’re wondering if the English town of Bath was named Bath because people bathed in the natural hot springs, the answer is yes.
There is a rule in my house: if I ever make a Negroni for myself, and Victoria is home (or about to come home), I have to make one for her too. Every time. This rule was put in place more than two years ago, and never once has it been broken, never turned down, never exceptioned.
There is only one other such mandate between us, in the case of bacon.
That’s the Negroni. It’s the bacon of cocktails. And yes, I take that comparison as seriously as it deserves, because like bacon, (1) it is always great, and (2) I’m never not in the mood for it.
So first things first — what is a Negroni?
I’m not going to spend too much time on the history, but briefly: from the moment Campari was invented in 1860, it’s had a heedless love for sweet vermouth.
Somewhere along the line, some genius (perhaps Gaspare Campari himself) united them with a little soda water and created the Americano, still the greatest pre-meal cocktail ever made. And the story goes that in 1919, Count Camillo Negroni walked into the Caffe Casoni in Florence and ordered an Americano with gin instead of soda water. He took one sip, lightning struck in the same spot three times, Jesus appeared on a biscotti, and the Negroni cocktail was born (unless it wasn’t. See Trivia, at bottom).
Look anywhere for the recipe for a Negroni and you’ll find the same thing, more or less everywhere, from more or less everyone:
1oz Sweet Vermouth
Stir, and serve either on ice or up. Garnish with an orange slice or peel.
Almost no one specifies types of gin or vermouth, and in a way, it’s not vital — one of the charms of the Negroni is it’s near invincibility. Use any gin or sweet vermouth you like, and it’s going to taste great. Substitute Campari for any of it’s competitors, and it’s going to taste great. Understir it, overstir it, add orange bitters, screw up the measurements, carbonate it, age it in barrels, do whatever you want to it, and it’ll still be great. It’s great for men or women, first dates or business meetings, after dinner, before dinner, before breakfast, on the train, in outer space, anywhere, always, forever. It’s bitter, it’s sweet, it’s perfect. It is one of the handful of mixed drinks that enjoys universal respect in this industry.
But that’s my problem. I get it, no one looks for the best Negroni because saying “best Negroni” is a little like saying “best orgasm” — yeah, there are shades of difference there, some better than others, but even a terrible one is still better than almost everything else in the world. But. If you could have the best one every time, wouldn’t you?
And so, our question: what’s best? What gin, what vermouth, what combination?
These are my guiding principles:
(1) Campari. Bartenders are a tinkery bunch, which is mostly a good thing, but here, we’re sticking with Campari. Yes, a Cynar/Aperol/Cappelletti/etc Negroni is a fine drink, but a true Negroni has to be made with Campari.
(2) Sweet Vermouth. Not dry vermouth, not bianco vermouth, not barolo chinato (which is like double-dutch heaven), but sweet vermouth. The red kind. Because that’s what’s in it.
(3) Gin. It’s made with gin. For the love of god. Not mezcal, not aquavit, not genever, not barrel-aged gin. Gin.
(4) Equal Parts. A Negroni is equal parts Gin, Sweet Vermouth, and Campari. Yes, it comes with a bit of sweetness. Deal with it. The sweetness is part of the charm. There’s no adding more gin. That’s blasphemy, and it also doesn’t taste as good.
Identical glasses, identical large (2″ x 2″) ice, stirred the same amount of times, tasted double blind by both Victoria and I according to the sticker on the bottom of the glass method. As double blind as possible, anyway. Punt e Mes is recognizably darker than the others, but it tastes so different it’s not like we wouldn’t have known anyway.
I chose gins and vermouths that are fairly standard. Yes, obviously I’m only tasting 5 each, and yes, I might be missing out on some other brand that makes the Negroni of my dreams. I’m sure you’ll message me about it.
GIN: Beefeater, Tanqueray, Plymouth Navy Strength, Hendrick’s, and Aviation.
VERMOUTH: Carpano Antica, Punt e Mes, Dolin Rouge, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, and Martini and Rossi
First, we did 5 rounds of 5, keeping the gin constant and doing 5 different vermouths. Victoria and I silently rated them, then shared when we were done. Then, we did 5 more rounds, keeping the vermouth constant and doing 5 different gins. By the end, every one of the 25 possible combinations was tasted twice in two different heats. Points were given based on our respective ratings (we didn’t always agree, of course), and the data looked like this:
There are a couple different ways to look at this:
The way I like best is to count the amount of times each ingredient earned a 1st place ranking. You’ll notice every ingredient had its own heat, so at one point or another, they all got at least 2 first place prizes, one from each of us. If I tally up Victoria’s and my votes, the data looks like this:
Number of times each gin won it’s heat:
Tanqueray — 6
Plymouth Navy Strength — 5
Hendricks — 4
Beefeater — 3
Aviation — 2
Number of times each vermouth won it’s heat:
Cocchi Vermouth di Torino — 7
Carpano Antica — 4
Punt e Mes — 4
Dolin — 3
Martini and Rossi — 2
Another way to sort the data is individual Negroni scores. As we tasted every combination twice and both of us ranked them 1-5 each time, each Negroni has 4 ratings, so if it were #1 every single time, it would score a 4:
By points (lower is better):
Beefeater & Carpano — 6
Tanqueray & Cocchi — 7
Hendricks & Punt e Mes — 7
Aviation & Carpano — 7
Plymouth Navy Strength & Cocchi — 7
Tanqueray & Dolin — 9
This isn’t perfect because they’re rankings as opposed to evaluations, which means even if all 5 were bad (looking at you, Martini and Rossi) they still get ranked 1-5. However, this is how we did the Final Round, because it has the added benefit being fairly diverse, which is good because they’ve already competed against themselves in every possible way.
The final combined results, with my ranking and Victoria’s ranking for reference
6th: Carpano and Aviation | #6 and #5
5th: Plymouth N.S. and Cocchi | #5 and #3
4th: Beefeater and Carpano | #4 and #4
3rd: Hendrick’s and Punt e Mes | #2 and #6
2nd: Tanqueray and Dolin | #3 and #2
1st: Tanqueray and Cocchi | #1 and #1
Not even close. We both, independently, liked Tanqueray and Cocchi best by a significant margin. They were all great, but Tanqueray and Cocchi tasted tasted the most like the ideal Negroni. No hair out of place. As close to perfect as I can imagine.
In fact, of the 6 times Tanqueray and Cocchi was rated, there is only once where it wasn’t #1, a weird spike in the data on our very first test and one I’m tempted to explain away by error, but we’ll never know. Nonetheless:
The Best Negroni*
1oz Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
Stir on ice. Garnish with an orange peel. Drink. Melt.
*That is, best of the 5 gins and 5 vermouths we tried, of course. And according to our specific palates. Out of only 1:1:1 Negronis. With strict rules. This is a very limited experiment featuring two people and 10 products. But, Tanqueray and Cocchi is now my champion, and what I’ll make against any new combination I’m told about.
Tanqueray: The bars I’ve worked at have always carried Beefeater instead of Tanqueray so I’ve never been too familiar with its nuances. But I’m finding the more of these experiments I do, the more I find Tanqueray still standing at the end. I’m beginning to realize what an incredible gin this really is.
Beefeater: Great product, great for Negronis. Most cocktail bartenders I polled before starting this said Beefeater and Carpano are the best, and indeed, it’s great. Carpano was too sweet, too much vanilla for most gins, but Beefeater handles it admirably.
Plymouth Navy Strength: I really thought the strength would counter the sweetness of the cocktail, but it just made most of them kinda flat, like a dampener.
Hendrick’s: Performed better than I would’ve thought. I figured it didn’t have the backbone for this and only included it as a reference point, but it did well. Its floral nature is absorbed by the cocktail and doesn’t stick out. I’ll drink Hendrick’s & Punt e Mes Negronis all day.
Aviation: I love Aviation gin. It won my Martini experiments, after all, but the sarsparilla note comes through as wintergreen, and has no place in a Negroni.
Cocchi Vermouth di Torino: Performed incredibly well. Mixes with Campari like a dream.
Carpano Antica: Great vermouth, but most of the Negronis, especially against peers, were too sweet with too much vanilla. It’s like a Vanilla Negroni as opposed to just a Negroni.
Punt e Mes: I like Punt e Mes Negronis a lot, but Victoria doesn’t much. It really shouldn’t have been in this experiement because t’s like a spin-off of a Negroni. It’s too different. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a cherry/chocolate Negroni with Punt e Mes, but if I just want a normal one, Punt e Mes is not the answer.
Dolin Rouge: Too weak. All the Negronis with Dolin tasted flat & dull.
Martini and Rossi: Terrible. The worst performer of the whole experience. It tastes like an herb shop. The only time this was best was when it ran unopposed.
Trivia: All of that history up there is true, unless of course Count Camillo Negroni never actually existed, but we’re pretty sure he did. It’s a minor rats nest and I don’t feel like getting into it. If you’re curious, there’s an admirably complete discussion of the topic here.
“Some say the first bottle of ____ was brought to the court of Charlemagne by a captured Druid mystic, who proclaimed it the greatest potion in all the blah blah blah blah lies.”
— Every Liqueur Marketing Team Ever
I generally council people to just ignore the stories behind brands, because (1) they don’t matter and (2) they’re usually untrue. Made-up historical relevance is the herpes of the liquor industry, an embarrassing but manageable stain that we learn to tolerate because there is no cure. Examples are too numerous to list and range from minor exaggeration to outright lies, but as a rule, when the story begins 200+ years ago, I don’t even want to hear it.
This is true for all liquor, across the board, everywhere. Except Chartreuse.
Name: Chartreuse — Yellow, Green, V.E.P., Elexir Vegetal, etc.
Category: Liqueur — Herbal
ABV: 55% for the Green; 40% for the Yellow; 69% for the Elixir
Origin: France, at least since 1737, allegedly dating to 1605 (or earlier).
Characteristics: Intense and pungent; beguiling; very herbal; sweet, strong, and full; vegetal flavors, anise, saffron, honey, mint, and about 130 others.
A quick word about the Carthusian monks:
In 1084, St. Bruno founded a spin-off of the Catholic church he called the Carthusian Order, after the Chartreuse mountains in France where he chose to live. The motto of the Carthusians is “Stat crux dum volvitur orbis” Latin for “The cross is steady while the world is turning,” and indeed, for the last 931 turns of the world, the Carthusian monks still live almost exactly as they always have.
It is one of the most ascetic orders of Christianity in existence, and is all about finding God through contemplation, solitude, silence, and prayer. They literally don’t talk all day. They barely see each other. Technology obviously is non-existent. It’s all stone and wood. Their whole charterhouse is built so one monk can bring a meal and spin it through a hatch so the feeder and the feedee don’t have to interact. It’s broadly misunderstood that they’ve taken some kind of vow of silence, but this is not strictly speaking true. It’s more that their lives are built around the rhythm of stillness, solitude and silence, and because speech breaks that, it is reserved for certain ritual occasions. And they also make Chartreuse, as they have since 1737.
Here’s what we’re told:
In 1605, some Carthusian monks just outside Paris were met by Francois Hannibal d’ Estrées, Marshal of King Henri IV artillery, who gave them a recipe for the Elixir of Long Life. The recipe was hopelessly complex and the initial recipients couldn’t figure it out, so after 100 or so years the recipe was sent to the mother order, Grande Chartreuse, in the French alps near Grenoble. The monks there studied the recipe intently and ultimately cracked it, and in 1737, the Carthusian monks produced the very first Chartreuse, a vivid green from 132 different herbs, roots, and spices harvested not only at specific times of year but specific times of day. Part of the magic is that the color is natural: it somehow doesn’t turn brown like every other chlorophyll infusion in the world.
It was 71% alcohol and, like most liqueurs back then, used as medicine. But people liked to drink it as well, so in 1764, a milder version was developed at 55% alcohol, what we now know as Green Chartreuse (praising Green Chartreuse for its mildness is like praising a forest fire for its subtlety, but I suppose it’s all relative). In 1838, they made an actually mild version at 40%, Yellow Chartreuse, which uses about 80 plants, and is colored mostly by saffron.
There have been interruptions over the last 278 years. As one might imagine. The monks were forced from the country after the French Revolution in 1793, and again in 1903 when the government nationalized the distillery. In 1810 Napoleon demanded all secret recipes turned over to the state, but his scientists couldn’t make sense of it. It was made in exile for a time. In the 1930s, the distillery was destroyed by a landslide. All these obstacles, all this mystery, and still, these men who in 2015 still wear white robes in stone rooms and don’t speak and pray all day, they still produce one of the most beguiling, tastiest, inimitable liqueurs in the world.
Here’s what is indisputably true:
It’s made by Carthusian monks, in France, according to a secret recipe. It’s been made since the mid 1700s. It is one of the few bottles behind the bar that matures as it ages. And many of us regard it as the greatest liqueur ever made.
Here’s what I sincerely believe is true, despite our lack of proof:
All of it. I believe all of it. That there are 132 ingredients. That ingredients are harvested at specific hours to get the right chlorophyll levels. That the color is natural at all.
Everyone repeats these endlessly, but we have no proof. All the same, I choose to believe. It tastes true.
Here’s what let’s just say is true because who cares:
That 1605 business. Why not? Everything else about it seems true, so why not this? Whether the recipe was from 1605 or 1737 couldn’t possibly matter less, so whatever. I’ll tell that story.
For a while I was ready to call shenanigans on the whole thing, because how could these monks who probably still use a damn abacus make enough of this stuff for the million or so bottles bought every year? But they do. As with the recipe itself, you can figure things out when you have nothing but time on your hands.
It goes like this: there are only two monks who know the recipe, Dom Benoît and Brother Jean-Jacques, and they aren’t allowed to do things like ride in a car together. Every year, a total of some 18 tons of the various 130+ berries, roots, herbs, barks, and leaves are delivered in secret numbered sacks to the herb room, where only those two monks dry, grind, and combine them into new sacks, which are then themselves numbered and sent to the distillery.
Even the distillery is off-limits to most, but there they have help — two “laymen” who help physically run the stills. Each sack is macerated for it’s certain amount of hours in neutral spirit, and then distilled for about 8 hours. It is then macerated again for color and flavor, sweetened with sugar and honey, then sent to age in large neutral oak casks for couple years until it’s ready.
There’s Green and Yellow, of course. In Europe they sell the original “Elixir,” at 69% ABV. There’s also the Green and Yellow versions of the V.E.P. (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé), a more expensive, extra-aged version that is devastatingly tasty.
For many of us, Green Chartreuse is inseparable from the Last Word cocktail. Invented at the Detroit Athletic Club in 1916, it twiddled in cocktail purgatory until being resurrected by the legendary Murray Stenson, at the Zig Zag cafe, somewhere around 2005. It shouldn’t work but it does, and there is, quite simply, nothing else like it. It’s gone around the world and everyone knows it now. Ask for one next time you’re at a cocktail bar. And get the original. No, you don’t want to try their house variation with tarragon-infused Aquavit or whatever instead of gin. You want a Last Word.
The Last Word
0.75oz Green Chartreuse
0.75oz Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
0.75oz lime juice
Add all ingredients to tin and shake well. Strain into chilled cocktail class, and garnish with a real maraschino cherry. If you have no cherries, or only have the shit cherries the color of a clown’s nose, just leave it naked.
Beyond that, there a classic called a Bijou, which is equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Green Chartreuse, and which I admit I’ve never liked. Yellow Chartreuse makes one of my favorite Manhattan variations, the painfully delicious Greenpoint. There’s the fantastic tiki-d out Chartreuse Swizzle by Marco Dionysos up at Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco. I’ve also had great fun with the Silent Order, a Green Chartreuse-based drink I enjoy pulling out of my mental weird shit folder when such a thing is called for.
More Chartreuse cocktails here.
TRIVIA!: Interior decorators among you will know Chartreuse already as a the name of a color. There are in fact two colors, chartreuse green and chartreuse yellow, and they are named after the liqueurs. Or, as Quentin Tarantino says, fumbling in front of the camera in Deathproof, “the only liquor so good they named a color after it.”
- This is a nice little article by Sean Kenyon that goes slightly more into history (and some first hand impressions).
- The uncommonly informative official website.
- Some fascinating information on the Carthusian monks, from their own website.
- For those who are seriously interested in the life of these monks, there is a nearly 3 hour documentary called Into Great Silence. Be warned: there is nothing about the liqueur in the film. There are no words. It’s just a camera on the wall, no explanation, just a witness to the strangely admirable silent rhythms of these men who give up their entire lives in search of peace. Trailer on youtube.
There’s nothing quite as cool as old school Italian class. I don’t know where I’m getting this image, Fellini or something probably, but I see a mid-century man in a perfect suit. Wayfairers, scarves, and Alpha Romeros zipping along the coast. He’s definitely smoking a cigarette. And he’s drinking Campari, probably with soda. Has to be. There’s no other way.
Category: Potable bitters — the “amari” (plural) or “amaro” (singular) in Italian.
ABV: 24% ABV, in the U.S. anyway.
Origin: Milan, Italy, since 1860.
Nose: Herbal, like chinese medicine. Orange and rhubarb. Wood chips. Lightly floral.
Taste: Floral into orange sweetness, with a slow building bitterness that crescendos after you swallow and lingers for a minute+, leaving you either (1) begging for more, or (2) wondering why anyone would ever do that to themselves twice.
In 1860, a 32 year old bartender and salesman named Gaspare Campari finalized the recipe for a bitter liqueur he’d been working on. He had other liquers — fruit and cream cordials, mostly — but this bitter red business was propelled by an unusual tastiness. As its fame increased, he soon earned the money to move from the suburbs to the center of Milan and opened a cafe in the newly built Galleria Vittorio Emanuele across the street from the Duomo, making his booze in the basement and serving it in the afternoon to the Milanese intelligentsia.
Caffe Campari was the place to be. If there were movies back then, movie stars would’ve hung out there, and when Gaspare died his obituary ran on the front page of the Milanese daily. His son Davide took over, built a production plant in 1904, and stopped making almost all other products in 1926, focusing heavily on the eponymous apertif.
It is Davide Campari’s name wrapped around the neck of every bottle, not his fathers’. Davide is the one who took Campari from a popular local phenomenon and put it on the road to what it is today, which is multinational leviathan selling 3 million cases a year across 190 countries. Which, if you’re wondering, is a whole hell of a lot.
Of all the aggressively bitter Italian liqueurs, and there are many, Campari is by far the most pervasive. Speakeasy or sportsbar, towny dive or rooftop club, it’s one of the few bottles you can find in pretty much any bar. Which is nice, because it is also amazing.
It is an aperitivo — the aperitivo, really, as it is widely credited with inventing the category — and is sharply bitter, more rust than dirt, one of those things that you’ll hate the first time you have it but grows on you over time. This aperitivo business suggests that you drink it before meals: the acute bitterness, they say, rouses your body’s digestive enzymes from their twixt-meal slumber and prepares you for eating. Italians are big on that kind of thing (there are also digestivos, which is even more bitter liquor, for after the meal).
As for the product itself, we don’t know what’s in it. Oranges for sure, with rhubarb, ginseng (maybe), plenty of herbs and roots as well as the unmistakable bitter gentian and Red #40, but beyond that, Campari seems to take a dickish pleasure in their own secrecy. “Many have guessed simply at the number of ingredients,” they say on their website, toothy smile implied, “some say there are 20 or 60, but others list the ingredients at 80.” There are only three living humans who know the recipe, and no one even knows who those three humans are. So ok: you don’t tell people. Got it.
Regardless, Campari is one of those bottles that is somehow more than its ingredients. Their secrecy doesn’t frustrate me, because a list of herbs would only tell half the story. It’s like Angostura bitters. Yes, there are similar products, in some cases very similar, but all Campari’s peers lack whatever ethereal magic it possesses that makes it sublime and absolutely indispensable. It is at once bitter and sweet, aggressive and subtle, and has that most charming of ingredient characteristics, which is to elevate whatever drink it is mixed in — specifically and especially its three brilliant, canonical cocktails:
(1) Campari & Soda, which is so popular in Italy that an adorable little 3oz version has been pre-bottled and sold since 1932, and which holds the noble purpose of being the one real drink you can get in almost any bar in the world that the bartender literally cannot fuck up.
(2) Americano, a Campari & Soda with sweet vermouth. The greatest pre-meal cocktail ever made, and which more or less defines the category of aperitivo. Still near impossible to fuck up, though some particularly incompetent bartenders have risen to the challenge. Some have also returned with an espresso and hot water, which is less a fuck up than a hilarious misunderstanding.
(3) Negroni, equal measures Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and Gin. It deserves its own post, and will get one shortly. Bitter, sweet, strong and seductive, the Negroni is good before dinner, after dinner, before bed, in a mountain lodge, at the bottom of the sea, or really anywhere, at anytime at all. I’m not being hyperbolic about Campari as indispensable: a world without Campari is a world without Negronis, and in that case we should all just kill ourselves immediately.
Trivia #1: Campari has historically not been a vegetarian product. The brilliant red color was, from 1860-2006, the crimson dye carmine, which is created by collecting a bunch of cactus-feeding cochineal insects in a bowl and grinding them up with a pestle. For reasons either compassionate or capitalistic, they changed in 2006 to artificial color.
Trivia #2: Campari was initially called Bitter all’Uso d’Olanda, which translates to “Bitter – the Use of Holland,” or Holland-style bitter. There is, of course, nothing whatsoever Dutch about it, just that Gaspare wanted to tie in something exotic and the Dutch have long been at the center of the spice trade (just like the Branca people did with their imaginary Dr. Fernet). But as “Bitter – the Use of Holland” is an extremely stupid name, they changed it.
There’s something about Holiday Gift Guides, in magazines and such, that I find tremendously frustrating. Not because the suggestions are worthless, but because every single one seems to be just barely on the far side of useful. There are two kinds: the chintzy necessities you already have, except this time imprinted with kitsch (i.e. R2-D2 Measuring Cup Set, $19.99) or the solutions to problems that really don’t exist (i.e. a small electronic pouch to pre-warm your pijamas, $39.99).
Sitting, ostensibly, in the latter camp, nearly standard on such lists for the last few years, are Whiskey Stones. Whiskey Stones are 1″ cubes of soapstone that you keep in the freezer and drop (gently) into your glass of whiskey, they claim, to chill your whiskey without diluting it. One package gets you nine little rocks, and it costs $20.
I get asked about Whiskey Stones a lot, about whether someone’s boyfriend or son would like them, about what the best kinds are (there are a few), about how I feel about ice, and several other versions of the same basic question: are Whiskey Stones worth it?
This is not one question, but three:
(1) How much cooling power do they have?
(2) Is chilling without dilution something you even want?
(3) What is it like to use them?
The first question can be answered with science. The second two fall to personal taste, and are therefore more vexing. But we’re going to tackle it anyway, because this is a blog.
(1): How Much Cooling Power do they Have?
I’m going to save you the suspense: almost none.
You would think that 2oz of whiskey stones and 2oz of ice, both straight from the freezer, would have a similar effect, no? Just that one dilutes while the other doesn’t? While that indeed does seem intuitive, you’d be wrong. You’d be wrong because ice is magic.
Without getting too much into it, the fact that ice is cold isn’t why it’s so good at chilling liquids. It doesn’t take much energy (a.k.a. chilling power) to take ice from 31°F to 32°F, or water from 32°F to 33°F But it takes a ton of energy to turn 32°F ice into 32°F water. Like 80x more. It’s the melting, called the “heat of fusion,” that makes ice magic.
So what does this mean for whiskey stones?
In the marketing materials, they say they used soapstone because it has “unique ability to retain temperature for extended periods of time.” and that’s true: compared to most stones, the specific heat of soapstone is high. But comparing it to ice is like comparing a foot massage to oral sex: it ain’t the same league, it ain’t even the same fucking sport.
In my trials, 2 Whiskey Stones in 1oz of whiskey, which is not much, brought the temperature down a measly 10.3°F. By comparison, a frozen glass (very thin) chilled it 14.9°F, ice chilled it 22.5°F, and a frozen glass (thicker) chilled it 25.2°F.
I’m also definitely not the first person to do this:
• the Art of Manliness found Whiskey Stones register a 8°F difference
• the appropriately named Cool Material posted a 7°F difference
• drinkhacker put a ridiculous 3 stones in 0.65oz whiskey and posted a 12.8°F difference
• Doing Science to Stuff found a meager 6.2°F difference
• the metric folks at Scotchblog.ca found it to be 9°F (I converted for you).
This graph is pretty typical:
Basically, somewhere between 6-10 degrees, depending on how many you use. Which if you’re wondering, really isn’t much. It’s barely noticeable in the glass against the room temperature ones.
Conclusion: Whiskey Stones don’t chill for shit.
(2): Is Chilling without Diluting Something You Even Want?
But what’s the value of this? I mean, what’s the relationship between spirits enjoyment and temperature anyway?
I tried 1oz of 45% whiskey, side by side, 5 different ways, and took temperature readings after 5 minutes:
- neat, at room temperature (66°F)
- whiskey stones (56°F)
- frozen thin glass (51°F)
- frozen thick glass (41°F)
- ice (44°F)
Because so much of this falls to personal taste, I tasted with Vikki and we both silently jotted down our favorites, then shared them:
• I usually drink Japanese whiskey straight, so it’s unsurprising that I would like that best. Vikki’s no stranger to Japanese whiskey either, though she liked it 2nd best.
• The frozen thick glass was the coldest, and while the cold temperature did suppress some of the more delicate flavors, it also suppressed some alcohol burn and also added silky viscosity, which we both loved. I wouldn’t always have whiskey so cold, but for casual drinking (instead of tasting/experiencing all possible nuance), it was great.
• As for our old friend ice, we both loved it in the beginning, as a little dilution of a 45% spirit does release and stretch out some flavors. But after a while it became too diluted and therefore gross. Get bigger ice or drink faster.
• The big question was why did we love the frozen thick glass but not the frozen thin one? For this, I can only guess — the thin glass made the spirit cold enough to suppress flavor but not enough to add texture, and seemed to be in some weird middle ground, neither as flavorful as neat nor as silky as actual cold.
(3) What is is like to use them?
And finally, Whiskey Stones. Both of our least favorite, by far. The temperature change was negligible. The threat of taking a rock to the teeth, however, was not. Drinking whiskey, or really doing anything at all, doesn’t exist in a vacuum: the same whiskey in the same glass at the same temperature would taste a lot better enjoyed around a fire with old friends, and a lot worse at a Motel 6 in Gary, Indiana.
Atmosphere and aesthetics matter. Temperature-wise, it didn’t really do anything but disappoint me. Beyond the disappointment, beyond the constant specter of dental injury, I ultimately found it a weird bit of superfluous pageantry to drink with actual rocks clunking around in my glass.
So, are Whiskey Stones worth it?
No. They’re not.
In late 2012, a few guys named Simon Ford, Dushan Zaric, and Jason Kosmas launched a booze line under the banner 86 Company Spirits. For those of you who don’t know, 86 is restaurant slang for either we’ve run out (“86 lobster, we’re subbing shrimp”) or we threw someone out (“Guy on 22 was drooling like a basset hound and tried to pay in nickels, so we 86’d him.”)
All three of these guys come from the bar, and wanted to create a spirits company specifically accommodating to bartenders. So in this case, the 86 refers to “86 the bullshit.” As in, we are going to tell you exactly what is in our products, exactly how we made it, in what proportions and in what amount of time. No apocryphal yellowing recipes, no arbitrary ties to great men of history, no juju magic. Here is what we make, here is how, here is why.
That why is important. The transparency alone would be enough, but the fact that each of these products has a why — a real reason to exist — is what makes them so special.
There are way too many craft distillers making vodka and gin and shitty white whiskey and 9 month old bourbon just to do it, and their products neither taste better, nor are meaningfully different, than what is already abundantly available. This is why so many of them attempt to tie themselves to Napoleon or Hemingway for no reason at all, and why so many of them claim that their recipe dates to the 18th century, even though they’ve only been making it for 9 fucking months. And this is why the 86 Co. products are so refreshing. Each stands on its own merits, and each one (save, of course, for the vodka) is made to satisfy a cocktail need that had, up until now, been unmet.
If you’ve ever stood within earshot of the cyclonic bloviations of liquor marketing you’ll know that almost everyone says their products are designed “specifically for cocktails,” but in this case, it is fundamentally true: when creating them, the Ford and Zaric let the needs of the cocktail shape the spirit, not the other way around.
I’m not going to write everything about them. They have been extensively reviewed all over the web, to say nothing of fact that every production detail about them can be found on the website, or, handily, on the labels themselves. But a couple weeks ago, Dushan himself came to Kettner Exchange to give us a little training on their wonderful line, and there are a few interesting things that are worthy of special note.
Caña Brava Rum
First things first: daiquiris (rum + lime juice + sugar) are amazing. In the desperate yearning heart of every 2oz of rum is the unspoken desire to be turned into a daiquiri. Yes, rum is mixed with other stuff sometimes, but it never really wants to be. It wants to be a daiquiri. Because daiquiris are amazing.
So, the goal with Caña Brava was to create an authentic, prohibition-era Cuban style light rum, a robust, dry spirit bottled at higher proof so to shine in daiquiris. They went to Don Poncho Fernandez, who was the master blender of Havana Club for decades and is now in Panama (making him, let’s just say, a Panamaniac), and together created Caña Brava. Apparently Dushan showed up to the distillery with sacks of limes and boxes of sugar, and made daiquiris with each rum sample until they nailed it.
It is extremely dry, allowing you to manage your own sweetness. It’s bottled at 43% instead of the standard 40%, providing cocktail infrastructure, and it has a mid-palate explosion, the point in the tasting experience where most drinks suffer. It makes a brilliant daiquiri, and is, therefore, an enormous success.
Note: Loyal readers will recall I once wrote something similar about Banks 5 Rum, and indeed, these two products aspire to the same thing. The difference, then, is in how they try to get there: Banks blends in Indonesian Arrack for a dynamic and wholly original flavor profile, while Caña Brava aims at recreating the Cuban style straight through distillation. They’re almost too different to compare, but I can say that the two products make daiquiris that taste nothing alike and yet are both enormously tasty.
Made at the Thames distillery in London, Ford’s aims to be the ultimate cocktail gin: to be good for Tom Collins’, good for Negronis, good for Martinis, and to work with both lemon and lime. I admit, this education was the first I’d ever heard of this lemon vs. lime business — apparently some gins work better with lemon and some with lime, which through some deficit of palate or experience, I’ve never encountered (it’s also always possible that’s not a real thing, but honestly, I’m inclined to trust Dushan’s palate over my own).
In any event, they experimented with oil extraction and botanical steep time until they got it just right, at 15hrs. Its viscosity and balance is ideal for martinis (it was the best London Dry Gin in the Great Martini Experiements). Like the rum, it has a mid-palate explosion of flavor. Because gin is all about specific tastes at specific strengths, much of it falls to personal preference. What I will say is that it can stand shoulder to shoulder with its legendary peers, which is, for a London Dry Gin, the biggest compliment I have to give.
The tequila is bottled at 43% instead of the standard 40%, which in and of itself gives it broad shoulders. But more than that, they wanted a tequila that could present a bold agave flavor even when mixed. The agave is the most delicate flavor and the first to get drowned out, Dushan complained, and too often you’ll have a margarita that has all the pepper and vegetal notes and creaminess of the tequila, but no agave.
They went to El Ranchito distillery in the highlands, NOM1414, and worked with the distiller to craft the product. They found the tequila can only be made in the winter, interestingly, when the temperature is lower and fermentation can happen more slowly, because only a long fermentation can give the flavors they wanted. So after about 10 days of fermentation, it’s distilled to industry standard 55%, cut back to 43%, and bottled.
Taken neat, it’s a bit rougher than it’s peers, probably because of those proof points. But those are what makes it pop in cocktails, with a giant mid-palate agave sweetness, a bit of bitterness from the extra booze, and a nice creamy texture. Very cool, utterly unique.
Aylesbury Duck Vodka
… is vodka. I don’t know. It’s good vodka. It’s well priced and well made and it’s not hurting anyone. Plus, the label is funny.
Trivia: I had always assumed the term 86 was some antiquated computer code or something, but apparently it’s at least 70 years old and no one actually knows how it came about. There are several competing theories, and they are all equally unsatisfying.
More Trivia: I wrote “juju magic” up there because it felt right in the sentence, then got nervous because I wasn’t sure if it was some kind of slur. In the process of looking into that, my googling took me to The Racial Slur Database, an organization that for some bizarre reason categorizes these things. They have a search bar, or you can just browse by ethnic group. They have a homepage feature, “Racial Slur of the Day.” In the submission section, they take pains to remind you that only racial slurs will be accepted, and gender and sexuality slurs are strictly prohibited.
I have nothing more to report on this, just that it exists and I find that fact endlessly amusing.
I know several people who probably followed this link just to tell me that there is no problem with the Martini, that it is the Platonic ideal of gin cocktails and God’s Perfect Drink. Let me first tell you that I agree, for the most part, that a well-made Martini is a radiant and profound drink, and also that you’re wrong, there is indeed a problem, but it has nothing to do with taste.
Get 20 cocktail bartenders in a room and ask them all for a recipe, and you might get a little individual variance.
Ask for a Last Word, and you’ll get the same thing from everyone. A Corpse Reviver #2, and there might be a little trembling on whether to use Lillet Blanc or Cocchi Americano, but the ratios will be the same. I have, embarrassingly, killed a whole drunken hour arguing about whether it’s lemon or lime juice in a Southside, but again, it’s essentially the same drink.
But the Martini. The goddamn Martini. The Martini diffusion is hopeless.
Everyone agrees on the principle ingredients: a martini is gin, dry vermouth, (sometimes) orange bitters, stirred, up, with a lemon peel. If you disagree with any of this, I invite you to explore your wrongness in the footnote(1) at bottom.
But it’s not that easy, because look it up 10 times and you’ll get 8 different ratios, the range of which is both hilarious and absurd. Just gin and vermouth, right? How much of each? Consider the list below, which is the Martini ratio given in all the books I have at home, plus a bit of google poking. I didn’t cherry pick these. These are the first 15 I found:
Ratio of Gin to Vermouth
1:1 — Edmund Spencer, via The Flowing Bowl, 1898 (+orange bitters)
2:1 — Sam Ross, via Bartender’s Choice (app)
3:1 — Jim Meehan, via PDT Cocktail Book
3:1 — Death & Co. Cocktail Book (+orange bitters)
3:1 — Dushan Zaric, via Liquor.com (+orange bitters)
4:1 — Andre Domine, via Ultimate Guide to Spirits and Cocktails
5:1 — David Wondrich, via Epicurious (+orange bitters)
5:1 — Simon Ford, via Liquor.com (+orange bitters)
5:1 — Gary Regan, via Joy of Mixology
6:1 — International Bartender Association (IBA)
6:1 — Dushan Zaric, via Food Republic (+orange bitters)
6:1 — Dale Degroff, via The Essential Cocktail
8:1 — Ted Haigh, via CocktailDB.com
10(+):1 — Cookworks, via FoodNetwork
10(+):1 — David Wondrich, via Esquire
You’ll notice that some people don’t even agree with themselves. I want to make the best drinks I can, and this list gets me no closer to the perfect Martini than I was before.
So I did what any sensible person would do: I made them all. Over the course of about 6 weeks, I made every ratio, with every gin I have at home, across two different vermouths, with and without orange bitters. And then I drank them.
So Who’s Right?
Possibly everyone. Or at least, everyone between 5:1 and 1:1. Also maybe no one. Because, as it turns out, there is no single perfect recipe. The ideal recipe varies wildly from gin to gin, and further depends on your dry vermouth, and even further, likely, personal taste.
To find the best ratio, first assess what you’re looking for: a good martini radiates out of the glass. It shines like a diamond. It is a strong, bracing drink, that nonetheless charms you with impeccable balance and clarity of flavor, a harmonic resonance that’s remarkable when hit just right. So make everything between 1:1 and 5:1. Then try again, this time with orange bitters. Find your champion, make sure to write it down (you’re pretty drunk by now), and write off the moral cost of today’s inebriation as a learning experience (the story of my damn life).
Eight gins in all, and here are my last page conclusions, sorted by my personal preference:
(1) Beyond 5:1, you’re just drinking cold gin.
(2) When the vermouths did disagree, Dolin almost always wanted to be a bigger part of the drink than Noilly Prat. It also tasted better every time.
(3) Orange bitters works with more juniper-forward gins, like Beefeater and Fords. In the others it made the flavors less clear.
(3a)… with the obvious exception of Hendrick’s, which was admittedly a very close call, maybe the closest of this whole experiment.
(4) If you’ve got to guess, go 3:1. It was best 5 of the 8 times, and even when it wasn’t best, it was never bad.
(5) Even my least favorite of the eight, Hendrick’s, was still damn tasty at 3:1 with orange bitters. A well made Martini is a wonderful drink.
My Favorite Martini
2.25oz Aviation Gin (for elegance/licorice accents) or Tanqueray 10 (for brighter fruit accents)
0.75oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
Stir briskly in a mixing glass, over ice, for about 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled Martini glass, and express the oils of a lemon peel over the top.
Notes from the Martini Trials:
1st (tie): Aviation Gin, 3:1
More licorice, like licorice candy (good & plenty). Bubblegum. Has an elegance that’s hard to touch. Deep and strong and balanced. 2:1 with orange bitters was a close second… it had more flavor, but muddied the clarity of 3:1 without bitters. Savory. Wonderful.
1st (tie): Tanqueray 10, 3:1
Made with whole orange, grapefruit, and limes, as well as chamomile, this had a much more citrus forward clarity. Lemon Starbursts. “All kinds of candied citrus,” I wrote, “I could drink these all the time.” Radiant. Dynamic. This pops.
3rd: The Botanist, 1:1
Nice sweetness. Surprisingly balanced at 1:1. How weird. The gin complements the vermouth very well, and makes the overall cocktail almost savory. This is a great drink.
4th: Ford’s Gin, 3:1 + Orange Bitters
Nose is great. 1:1 without bitters was actually pretty good here too, but 3:1 with takes the day. Probably my favorite of the classic London Dry style martinis.
5th: Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength, 5:1
Nice cucumber dryness. This is the gin in which I actually taste cucumber, and that note is highlighted here, as opposed to masked. This is an example of why gin martinis are so cool.
6th: Plymouth, 4:1 + Orange Bitters
Very nicely textured. Orange bitters bring a candied orange flavor that’s quite nice, and make it a little front heavy. This is very nice but not extraordinarily memorable, like a white dress shirt.
7th: Beefeater, 3:1 + Orange Bitters
At its most balanced. It’s still a little raw, but 2:1 is too weak and 4:1 is too much. It’s a stiff, tasty drink, meant for those who want their drinks stiff and tasty, and care about those adjectives in that order.
8th: Hendricks, 3:1 + Orange Bitters
This was a really tight choice between orange bitters and not. 1:1 was good too, but a little tart. 3:1 had nice acidity, mouthwatering. Clean. Floral. Probably cleaner without bitters than with, but I thought the round orange flavor made it more dynamic.
• • • • • • •
(1) A Martini is made with gin and vermouth. It doesn’t matter at all that 95% of the “martinis” I’m asked to make are with vodka. This is a gin drink. If you want a 5oz cone of 19°F vodka, fouled with tepid olive brine and made murky by lactose wisps of dissolving cheese, fine, but a martini it ain’t.
(2) Martinis may or may not contain orange bitters. Orange bitters are traditional, satisfying the original requirement of being called a cocktail, but most people these days choose to omit them. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s not. We’ll deal with it case by case.
(3) A Martini is stirred, not shaken. If you shake it, you lose the velvety texture, overdilute it, and make it all turbid & ugly. James Bond has gauche taste and he should keep it to his fucking self.
(4) Our garnish will be a lemon twist, not olives. I hate olives. Sorry. Bias.
(5) Yeah, I’m really using footnotes.