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Don’t Give Up The Ship

October 10, 2012

In the late afternoon of June 1, 1813, as he lay dying, Captain James Lawrence could tell by the shouts on deck that the British had boarded his ship. The USS Chesapeake was battered and outgunned but Lawrence was a military man, and he gave what would be his stoic final order: “Don’t give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks.”

His command was universally seen as an act of valor, despite the obvious fact that he had quite a bit less to lose than his men, considering that he was, at that moment, already bleeding to death. But that’s not the point. The Chesapeake was ultimately given up, within the hour even, but that’s not the point either. The point is that “Don’t Give Up The Ship!” became the rallying cry for the fledgling U.S. Navy, who ultimately overpowered the British and (spoiler alert!) won the war of 1812.

Now. What any of that has to do with gin, Fernet Branca, orange liqueur and Dubonnet is anyone’s guess, but it does. Not everything is explainable; enjoy the mystery. What best I can tell, a cocktail by that name first appeared some 130 years later in Crosby Gaige’s Cocktail Guide and Ladies’ Companion in 1941, but twiddled its thumbs in obscurity until sometime around 2004, when it was unearthed and reanimated, like so many other greats, at Seattle’s Zig Zag Cafe.

It was first made for me by Dave Kinsey at Craft and Commerce, who told me he picked up the recipe from Sam Ross. I immediately fell in love with this drink. Fernet Branca is such a problem child that getting it to play nice is a treasure in itself, and the flavors layer perfectly … it hits clean and bright, with the Fernet sparkling like a firecracker on the finish. It’s beautiful.

But, when I looked up the recipe online (here or here or pretty much anywhere), it was different than the one I was given. Not entirely different, but different enough that it would change not just the flavors but the character of the final drink. Mine had a half ounce each of Cointreau, Fernet Branca, and Carpano Antica; the original subs Dubonnet Rouge for Carpano, and halves the liqueurs down to 1/4oz each, subbing Grand Marnier for Cointreau.

WTFuck?

Clearly an extensive round of experiments was in order. Which is like my favorite thing. I made 8 incarnations, learned quite a bit about the mechanics of this particular drink (as well as Dubonnet and Grand Marnier), and came up with what I think is the definitive recipe. I’ll give you that first (if that’s what you’re here for), then below I will — as we used to say — show my work.

Don’t Give Up The Ship (The Best Version)
1.5 oz London Dry Gin
0.5oz Cointreau
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Fernet Branca
1 dash Angostura Orange bitters
Stir over ice for 30 seconds; strain into chilled cocktail glass; garnish with a orange peel.

Cheers.

But why should we believe you? (a.k.a. Nerding Out w/Cocktails)

Because I got good and drunk over two nights just so I could tell you these things.

Also, please don’t take my gin choice to say that I think it’s the best for this drink. It’s just what I had lying around.

Attempts 1 and 2:

1: Craft and Commerce/Sam Ross/The One I Initially Fell in Love with

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Cointreau
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

…vs…

2. Same ratios, switch out Cointreau for Grand Marnier

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Grand Marnier
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

The only difference is the orange liqueur, and my god is it a difference. The original recipe calls for orange curacao and most people sub in Grand Marnier, which is way, way worse. Maybe changing to Dubonnet as well will somehow change that, but I doubt it. Not only is the entire drink out of balance, no harmonies to speak of… but the finish, where the Fernet should fizzle, instead there’s all these oaky vanilla flavors from GM’s cognac base. The flavors don’t fit at all, and actually makes me wonder it’s possible that Grand Marnier could ever fit in this drink.

Attempts 3 and 4, reducing the liqueurs from 0.5oz to 0.25oz:

3: Original ratio, with Cointreau

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.25oz Cointreau
0.25oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

…vs…

4. Original ratio, with the (seemingly more traditional) Grand Marnier

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.25oz Grand Marnier
0.25oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

This is interesting… this echos the original recipe that has only a quarter ounce of orange liqueur and Fernet Branca. Where before (with 0.5oz each) the Cointreau was perfectly balanced, taking away a quarter ounce of Fernet and Cointreau renders the cocktail effete and kind of waifish. … and it should be noted, this is a problem that the weighty force of Grand Marnier solves nicely. #3 is too light, #4 restores balance. I still don’t think the cognac flavors belong there, but let’s see what happens with Dubonnet.

Attempts #5 and #6: Enter Dubonnet

5th Attempt: The Classic Recipe

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Dubonnet Rouge
0.25oz Grand Marnier
0.25oz Fernet Branca

Thinner, a bit oaky, but the near-fruity brightness of the Dubonnet mixes incredibly well with the Grand Marnier. This is totally delicious. The dissonance is fascinating. Definitely a different drink than #1. This may be a Happy Gilmore/Billy Madison situation (you prefer the one you saw first). Perfectly balanced with high complexity. I can’t get over the bright/heavy thing with the Dubonnet/Grand Marnier. Great.

…vs…

6th: Craft and Commerce recipe with Dubonnet instead of Carpano Antica

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Dubonnet Rouge
0.5oz Cointreau
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

I feel like in a way this is a drink without a country. Dubonnet has less richness than Carpano, a richness the drink really needs to balance the crisp punch of Cointreau. Very interesting. The lightness makes the Fernet almost toothpaste-y, plus with a mess of jaunty flavor wisps on the back end. It just misses. Flavor waves don’t line up. One of five stars. Would not buy again.

Final Test: #1 against #5

I guess I could’ve just skipped straight to this, but I wanted to understand the mechanics and now I do. The classic with Dubonnet and Grand Marnier is a lower tone, more restrained. Sitting around a fire, maybe. Craving warmth. The vanilla and oak flavors certainly dictate the overall feel. #1, on the other hand, is bright and cheery, cleaner and crisper. It showcases the Fernet. It’s a modern drink – bright, complex, full. I end with what I started with. #1, with a bullet.

Attempts #7 and #8: Postscripts & Curiosities

7th: Can I switch out a citrus-forward new gin for the juniper-forward London Dry?

1.5oz gin (Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength)
0.5oz Cointreau
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

Miller’s Gin is on the other side of the spectrum: fuller, and much more citrus/less juniper. The answer is No, no, you can’t mess with the gin. Use London Dry, something crisp and juniper forward. It’s actually pretty amazing how much the cocktail fell apart with the Miller’s. Heavy, unpleasant bitterness. Don’t even bother.

8th: How about the new ratios with the classic liqueurs? 0.5oz of everything but with GM and Dubonnet?

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Grand Marnier
0.5oz Dubonnet
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

No way. Way too much. This is a jumbled hodgepodge of messy flavors all trying too hard to get noticed, like the cocktail equivelent of watching The Bachelor. Curiosity satisfied. I don’t need any more. We have our champion.

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