The Problem with the Martini

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.

That awkward moment when you realize you mixed up “drier” and “wetter,” probably as a result of drinking a bunch of martinis.

The Problem:

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 (+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 (+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
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.

[martini] montage

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:

[martini] Spreadsheet
Interesting, no? Some preliminary conclusions:

(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.

[martini] glamour shot

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.

Go back to where you were.

Three Floyd’s Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout (2013)

[dark lord] cap intro

While I am a person who enjoys beer, I am not a Beer Person.

How do I know I’m not a Beer Person? Because I have no opinion on the Fuggle hop. Because I can and do drink Miller High Life in public, I don’t know what flavor crystal malt imparts, and I don’t give a single lonely fuck if you serve me a saison in a pint glass. I’m not proud of my ignorance, nor am I ashamed. I just don’t care that much. Because I’m not a Beer Person.

The corollary is that I don’t get to try the worlds best beers, because I’m not willing to do things like fly to Belgium, or even really set an alarm. The beer I drink is the beer of convenience; it is the beer that is already in my path.

That being said, when my excellent friend Justin Platt gifted me a bottle of the elusive Three Floyd’s Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout, I admit, I got Christmas-morning excited.

Dark Lord Day:


The Dark Lord is a Russian Imperial Stout brewed with coffee, vanilla, and sugar, weighing in at around 15% alcohol. It is available for exactly one day a year, Dark Lord Day, the last Saturday in April, and only at Three Floyd’s Brewery, in Munster, Indiana.

To get it, you have to perch yourself online for the moment tickets go on sale, as they will sell out very quickly. You are allowed to buy two tickets. The ticket is $30, and doesn’t get you the beer, but rather earns you the opportunity to buy the beer. Upon showing up on Dark Lord Day (itself a beerfest with live music and such), you’re sorted into groups A-E, and when your group is called, you wait in line for the privilege of buying one (1) allotment of Dark Lord, which is between 2 and 4 bottles, depending on that year’s yield.

And if that all seems like a giant pain in the ass, consider this: the two variants of Dark Lord currently sit at #8 and #11 on‘s Best Beers Ever list, and #8 and #61 on beeradvocate’s. Which is why it’s not something I’d fly to Indiana for, but it’s something I’ll absolutely fucking drink.

Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout:

[dark lord] taste

This beer was seriously amazing. Sits heavy. Mouthfeel like heavy cream. Caramel, obviously, but also a very pleasant fig/dried fruit presence. Darker fruits like plums show up too. Not very bitter, a balancing presence is all. Lots and lots of complexity. And as I settled into it, the dominant flavor for me turned to be milk chocolate, probably because of the mouthfeel. “So much damn chocolate,” I wrote. Coffee and vanilla integrated seamlessly. Crazy good. A+.

A warm thank you to Justin for this bottle. What a cool experience. California’s a bit far, but if I still lived in Chicago, I can see driving an hour for this.

Highland Park Scotch Whiskey

“It’s not easy. It’s not simple. And there’s no way to make it faster or better.” — Martin Daraz, of Highland Park Distillery

[hp] wood brand

The Facts:

Distillery: Highland Park distillery
Location: Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland
Owned By: Edrington Group (also owns Famous Grouse, Macallan, and a couple others)
Origin: Allegedly founded in 1798. Actually founded in 1826.

A Sense of Place:

No matter which way you’re headed, the Highland Park distillery, on Scotland’s Orkney Islands, is out of your way. From Glasgow, you would head 300 miles north to the seaside port of Scrabster, the northernmost port on mainland Britain, and somewhere that sounds, to me, like a place where you could get punched just for having a full set of teeth. There, you catch the 2 hour Northlink ferry to the tempestuously named Stromness, on an island known as “Mainland,” head east for half an hour, and there you find Highland Park, waiting to reward your journey.

Orkney is an archipelago of some 70 islands off the northernmost tip of Scotland. In terms of latitudinal brothers, we’re talking about Oslo, St. Petersberg, Stockholm, and Juneau, Alaska — historically not whisky hotspots, but the fact that it’s an island tempers the seasons: winter temperatures range tightly between 34°F-45°F, and summer average high stretches to a giddy 61°F. It’s the northernmost distillery in Scotland, and everyone who goes — from the ancient Greek explorer Pytheas to travel writers today — say to be in Orkney feels like the edge of the world.

[hp] map

The Story:

Highland Park was allegedly founded in 1798 by a butcher, church-official, and secret distiller/smuggler named Magnus Eunson, about whom there are plenty of charming and roguish stories that, in the grand tradition of liquor, are likely all between 50 and 100% untrue. Nonetheless, the story goes, he was distilling on that spot in Kirkwall, and finding amusing and blasphemous ways to hide the liquor from the taxmen until they finally arrested him.

In 1818, a straw-plaiter named Robert Bordwick felt like a legitimate distillery could succeed as a business, and together with his son-in-law John Robertson (Eunson’s arresting officer, as it turns out) bought Eunson’s land on High Park and officially founded Highland Park. They built what is still the current distillery, received their license in 1826, and have been distilling more or less continuously since then. In the last 188 years the company has passed through more sets of hands than I care to list, and has since 1999 been owned by the medium-sized Edringer Group, who also own Macallan.

[hp] tasting

The Whisky:

There’s a little variation among the individual bottlings, but what they all have in common is that they’re all (1) peated, and they (2) use sherry-seasoned casks for aging. This is not a terribly common combination, and one that has me personally coming back to Highland Park again and again:

Air dry that shit.

Air dry that shit.

Spanish Sherry-seasoned Oak: they source all their oak, at least for the standard line, from Northern Spain (the limited edition 15 is American oak). The staves are air-dried as opposed to kiln dried (like our friends at Buffalo Trace in Kentucky), as air-dried wood is universally agreed to be better — it gives the harsh tannic quality in the wood a chance to mellow out. They then make barrels and fill them with dry Oloroso sherry for 2-3 years. By the time they’re emptied, some 11 liters of sherry have saturated the wood, waiting to add spice and dried fruit richness to the scotch.

Local Peat: Highland Park is one of the few distilleries who still malt a proportion of their own barley (about 20%), which they then kiln dry with local Orcadian peat. Because of the climate, their peat is all moss and grass, and gives a distinctive heathery floral note to the finished spirit. They smoke it to about 20 phenol parts-per-million (ppm) over 16 hours, before mixing it with unpeated malt they contract from one of the malting houses on the mainland. This lowers their total peat levels to about 4-6ppm once bottled, which is very low, and it’s kind of amazing that the flavor translates so well.

Also, for what it’s worth: Michael Jackson (the legendary beer and whiskey writer, not the legendary pop singer) wrote of Highland Park that it’s “the greatest all-rounder in the world of malt whisky.” In Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible, the 12 and 25 won best single malt in their respective categories for 2014, and F. Paul Pacult of Spirit Journal  has retired the Highland Park 18 from competition, calling it “the best spirit in the world.” So there’s that.

[hp] 30


Highland Park 12: It has a pronounced sweetness like salted caramel that gets a little bit stone-fruity, and a nice lingering peat smoke with a little depth. All in all, somewhat light. Vanilla. Not at all bad, but especially tasting it next to older versions I’d be very happy to put it back in the barrel for a few more years.
Cost: ~$45
Would I buy it?: Yeah, but there are 12 year olds I like more.

Highland Park 15: No longer available outside U.S. Being phased out. This is made in American wood as opposed to Spanish wood, 35% first fill sherry barrels. Creamy, vanilla. There’s no sign of that leather I get a little of in the 12 and a lot of in the 18. Cinnamon spicy, like red hots, but also has a cool grassy element. This was the favorite of many at the tasting.
Cost: ~$80, if you can find it
Would I buy it?: Yes, if only because it won’t be around anymore.

Highland Park 18: My definite favorite of the Seven Grand tasting. It’s got a really nice raisiny sweetness from the sherry, but enough leathery depth to keep me coming back. Floral heather mixes with enough peat smoke to make me take notice. I can’t get enough of that dark leathery oak and smoke, like sinking into a comfortable chair in a dim cigar lounge. This, to me, tastes like whisky should taste.
Cost: $100
Would I buy it?: Absolutely. One of the best $100 you can spend on whiskey.

Highland Park Freya: Part of their “Valhalla Collection” limited bottlings. 51.2%, 15 years in bourbon casks. Sweetness is more candied, almost like gum (this comment invited mockery from the brand ambassador, but I swear it tastes like Juicyfruit). Strong fruity spice.  Peat is a bit subdued and the texture is a bit waxy. A surprise from the others. No dark elements at all. Tasty. Interesting.
Cost: ~$250
Would I buy it?: Absolutely not. Way too much money.

Highland Park 30: Bonus! I went home and had a small glass of this while the others were fresh in my head. All that time in sherry barrels gives it a stronger dried fruit nose, but on the palate it’s all peat, leather, and caramel. Texture is concentrated, a little  buttery. After a minute the caramel becomes a little raisinated. New elements keep popping into the mingling of sweetness and peat and oak. It’s not really fair to compare, but this is my favorite. Obvi.
Cost: A lot.
Would I Buy It?: Only on the most special of occasions, to be enjoyed with close friends.

Bushmills: The Other Irish Whiskey

Distillery: Old Bushmills Distilling
Location: Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Owned By: Diageo
Major Products produced: Bushmills, Black Bush, Bushmills Single Malt 10, —16, and —21
Origin: Founded in 1784. Distilling off and on since then.

[bushmills] opener

A Quick Word:

If there were a single misapprehension I could correct in the average drinker, it’s the naïve and somewhat touching belief that the most popular thing is the most popular because it is the best. It’s sweet, really, this inclination toward justice, but the world of liquor is not a meritocracy. Not even close.

I say that to say this: there is one big reason that everyone thinks Jameson is the Irish Whiskey, and everything else is just a cheap echo thereof. And while Jameson does make some tasty products, that reason has nothing to do with either the quality or the flavor of the whiskey itself.

That Reason:

[bushmills] 1608The year 1608 proudly adorns every bottle of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, sitting like a foundation stone above the brand name itself, implicitly suggesting that Bushmills has been around since 1608. This is false — weirdly, brazenly false. While someone in Northern Ireland got a distillation license in 1608, it wasn’t Bushmills. The Bushmills company wouldn’t be even founded until 1784, a 176 years later. Just to clear that up.

(Seriously, they could’ve been founded seventy-six years earlier, and they’d still miss the 1608 date by a hundred fucking years. Once again, please ignore all historical claims from liquor companies. The ones that aren’t half-truths are outright lies, and it has no bearing whatsoever on what the liquor actually tastes like.)

Here’s the history that actually matters: in the beginning of the 20th century Irish whiskey was terrifically popular, with 20+ distilleries operating at full bore. But the twin punches of Prohibition and WWII left the industry bloodied and meager, and by the mid ’60s there were just a handful of distilleries left. To weather the times, Powers, Jameson, and Cork distilling companies merged in 1966 to form Irish Distillers, and set about consolidating resources. In 1972, they acquired Bushmills, making Irish Distillers the only whiskey company in Ireland, a total monopoly that would last some 15 years, and a near-monopoly that would last 15 more.

So why is Bushmills overlooked? Because by the time Irish Distillers scooped up Bushmills, they had already chosen their favorite son: they built a new Jameson distillery next to the old one, opened it in 1975, and put their resources behind it. Even more, once French liquor giant Pernod Ricard took over Irish Distillers in 1988, they jumped on Jameson — the lightest of the whiskies — and marketed it toward vodka drinkers. “Take it as a shot! Try it with some apple pucker!” Jameson got all the attention and popularity, and Bushmills got a black hoodie and an eating disorder.

In 2005, Pernod Ricard unloaded Bushmills on their archnemesis Diageo, who haven’t pushed it much. But apparently, they’re beginning to start, because they recently sent a couple guys to San Diego to talk to us about it.

[bushmills] event snaps

Irish Whiskey:

People who love Irish whiskey call it “smooth” and “mild.” People who don’t call it “boring” and “effete.” And they’re both right, because they’re describing precisely the same thing. Generally, people who like their barley-based spirits lighter will go Irish. Heavier, they’ll go scotch.

Bushmills aims to bridge that gap, by offering higher malt, fuller flavored whiskeys that still retain their essential Irish smoothness. All their products are distilled three times in pot stills, ultimately to between 58.5%-60.5%, and all are aged in some mixture of used bourbon and used Olorosso sherry casks (the mixture varies for each product).

Bushmills Original || Aged 5 years minimum. 

Light and fruity at first. A little buttery with spice. There’s an essential grainy lightness that is distractingly light/mild. Like there should be something there. A pear flavor takes over toward the end, a long-ish finish of spiced pear.

Overall: not bad at all, if mild for my taste. The fruit could use some richness to back it up.

Black Bush || Aged 7 years minimum. Unusually high percentage of malt whiskeys(80% malt, 20% grain.)

[bushmills] black bushThis fills in nicely that hole I tasted in the Bushmills Original. This is the product they’re pushing hard, and you can taste why — a one-time favorite of mine, back when I used to drink more Irish whiskey. More sherry influence, with apricot and apple backed up by a slight — slight — richness.

Overall: this is one of the better Irish whiskies out there, especially for the price. As a malt/grain blend, I’d put this at a respectable 2nd place behind Redbreast.

Bushmills 10 Pure Malt || Aged 10 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey. 

Here’s where we start getting to Bushmills real strength, their 100% malt whiskey. This has no light grain blended in, and it shows — it’s got the same essential flavors, just more robust. Cooked apples. Honey. Melon. Tingly spice. My notes say “apple-y as fuck.” Pear. That fruit really comes through.

Overall: this is my favorite of the lot, and the one that best showcases the strength of this particular distillery. Recommended.

Bushmills 16 Pure Malt || Aged 16 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey. 6-9 months in Port wine casks.

The port shows itself here, along with more alcohol heat. Raisins & honey, oak and heat were the dominant flavors. These are rich flavors but without much richness in the whiskey itself, it didn’t land for me. “Not much force,” I wrote.

Overall: a different set of flavors to be sure, but this one missed the mark for me… though I should say that it was the favorite of many at the tasting, so take that for what it’s worth.

The difference a little bit in a port cask makes.

Bushmills 21 Pure Malt || Aged 21 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey.

Finally, here we have some richness, more from the wood I’m sure than the malt. That same signature fruit/spice is familiar, but with much more presence. Darker, richer, and more textured. Honey, almond, spice. The sherry influence itself is surprisingly subtle, perhaps muted by the wood. Cinnamon redhots finish (light).

Overall: tasty to be sure, a great choice for Irish whiskey fans who also happen to be hedge-fund managers. For the rest of us, it’s hard to imagine spending $120 on this. Good though.

The Best Mojito in the World

[mojito] recipe porn

The Prologue: Here’s Your Fucking Mojito

As a bartender, I’ve always hated mojitos.

The very word “mojito” has the power to make me shudder. More often than not, I have to fight the urge to say “here’s your fucking mojito” when I drop one off. I know bartenders who have purposefully made horrific mojitos so they won’t be asked to make another — Splenda instead of sugar, Branca Menta instead of mint, etc — and I have celebrated these people as heroes.

I grind my teeth at the dictional and ontological contortions involved in the question, “do you have mojitos?,” and can’t help but scowl at the flinching apology face everyone always gives when they order them.

I really hate mojitos.

The weird thing is, it’s mostly vestigial. There was a time when it was the most annoying drink a bartender would be asked to make, but now it doesn’t even crack the top 20. And yet. Hate.

I can mutter about them them all day, however, and it will have no bearing whatsoever on their two eternal truths:

  1. Whether Havana in July or Manitoba in January, they will be ordered in all occasions until the end of time.
  2. Unlike a Long Island, or Tokyo Tea or Scooby Snack or any of the other drinks favored by that particular cohort, mojitos don’t suck. At all. Mojitos are, actually, intrinsically delicious.

Point #2 can be a problem all its own — if precision isn’t required to make a good drink, it’s too easy to be satisfied with good and not reach for great. And this is where our story begins.

The History:

I wrote it all out, but then erased it because I honestly don’t care. The mojito, like a whiskey sour or Tom Collins, isn’t invented so much as inevitable: mint grows where limes and sugar cane grow, and soda water because it’s damn hot outside. If, as a culture, you’ve got all that stuff and you never think to put them together, I’m sorry but you don’t get to come out to play.

Just know this: it’s from Cuba, and it shows up in print in the 30s. If you need more history than that, David Wondrich does the best job, as usual, here.

The only interesting thing is the etymology: mojar is the verb “to make wet” or “moisten,” and in Cuban Spanish, “mojo” means “sauce.” So a mojito is “a little sauce” or “a little wetness” which, if you remember that “dry” also can mean “without alcohol,” starts to make some sense.

The Good vs. The Great:

That Good vs. Great thing has always been my problem with mojitos. My recipe was fine, and certainly gets the job done, but I wanted better. And I thought, a few weeks ago, maybe I’d feel better about the drink if I knew, without a doubt, that my mojito was so goddamn delicious that that it would force people to stop and take notice. To tap their friend on the shoulder and say “you’ve got to try this.”

[mojito] three glasses

So I did experiments. A lot of them. And after at least 30 iterations spread over two weeks, I dialed in what I believe to be the best mojito recipe in the world, and in the process became tediously familiar with every ingredient, and all their variations.

The Principles:

I am operating under the assumption that the mojito is, first and most, a refreshing drink. That means it can’t be too sweet, lest it be cloying, nor too tart, or the mint won’t come out. It should be shaken — all the built-in-the-glass recipes, even over crushed ice, were too viscous.

It’s important to note that 95% of the drinks I made were good, and so some of this inevitably falls to personal taste. But following these principles, I set out to find the best.

The Players:

[mojito] ingredients

Rum. Limes. Sugar. Mint. Carbonated Water.

RUM: Flor de Cana 4yr silver rum

Use a Spanish style, clear/silver/white rum. What’s Spanish style? It’s an oversimplification of course, but if your rum is from a Spanish speaking country and/or is called “Ron,” it’s Spanish style. It will be light and clean. And probably <$20, which is even better.

An identical side-by-side with Flor de Cana (silver), Banks 5 (silver), Plantation 5 (amber), and El Dorado 15 (dark) yielded not just a winner, but an obvious winner. While Plantation 5 makes my favorite daiquiri, the unavoidable caramel/spice notes in aged rums have no business in tall, refreshing drinks. I love the funk of Banks 5, but it distracted the palate here. With the El Dorado one, a little more rum and less soda would’ve made a handsome drink, but a mojito it ain’t.

[mojito] rums

I then tried Flor de Cana, a 40%, fairly standard Nicaraguan rum, against the robust Caña Brava,at 43%. I earnestly expected Caña Brava to be the winner, and it was close… it seemed better at first, but after a minute and a little more dilution Flor de Cana surged ahead. To be clear: they were both deliriously good, but my guiding principle was refreshment, and in the end the extra ABV points on Caña Brava took away more than it added.

[mojito] lemon hart 151Just for kicks, I tried Wondrich’s recipe of floating a little Lemon Hart 151 on top. Still delicious, but it takes a clean drink and confuses the flavors. Not an improvement.

LIME: fresh lime juice

This was the least examined part, as there’s nothing even close to fresh lime juice. A bunch of cocktail nerds figured out a few years ago that the enzymatic bittering of juiced limes somehow mitigates a little of the lime’s sourness and that limes juiced 4 hours ago are better than limes fresh squeezed. If you feel like timing your drinking to stay 4 hours ahead of your lime juice, go with God. I wish you all the best.

MINT: 6-8 mint leaves, not muddled, shaken with ice in the drink

This was maybe my biggest surprise in the whole thing. It is gospel in the cocktail world: do not over muddle mint. “If you press it too hard,” they say, “you break the little capillaries in the mint leaf and release bitter chlorophyll, thereby ruining your drink.” I’ve lived by this law for years. Until I tried them side by side. One, I over muddled the mint. The other, gentle pressing. The gently pressed mint barely registered, and to my great surprise, the one I practically jackhammered, where I was expecting bitterness, instead presented a full, delicious mint flavor.

[mojito] over muddled mint

Then I shook the mint with ice, and my god: the mint flavor is so much more pervasive and intense, buttressing every point of the palate. Then I took about 3 minutes and tried to over muddle the mint. I muddled the silly fuck out of that mint, then shook it, and still there’s not a single off-putting note in the drink. You cannot overmuddle mint. Please, someone, prove me wrong.

Then, in the spirit of anti-stone-unturnedness, I tried mega mint: 20 leaves instead of 8. It was, predictably, too much. 6-10 leaves, or one small pinch, is magic.

Oh, and there’s no difference between muddling then shaking, and just shaking without muddling. I tried that too. Save yourself the step.

SUGAR: sugar cane, demerara or muscovado syrup

It’s too much with aged rum, but there’s something perfectly soft and subtle about those molassas flavors when they come from cane syrup, or a demerara/muscovado syrup. They are processed much less than white sugar, and add a rustic layer of personality, like a coat of dust on the harvest jeans.

As we learned with the Southside experiments, fresh mint is always better than mint syrup. But some recipes, like the Employees Only one, double down and use both fresh mint and mint syrup. After all, if mint is good, wouldn’t double mint double your delightment? The answer is no. The mint offers a clean flavor; adding mint syrup only muddies it up.

SPARKLING WATER: highly carbonated mineral water

[mojito] soda water back to backQ Soda and Fever Tree are the expensive good ones, and Topo Chico and Mineragua are the cheaper good ones. You want high carbonation and some dissolved sodium to make the flavors pop. If you want to know why, I did a best sparkling water write-up here.

ICE: crushed ice 

Even when you shake it (and you should), the drink benefits from crushed ice. It’s not strictly necessary, but it keeps the inside cold and well diluted, and the outside frosty. No matter the pace of your drinking, the recipe below will stay good to the end.

The Best Mojito In The World:

Look upon it, barkeeps, and despair.

2oz Flor de Cana silver rum
0.75oz demerara or muscovado simple syrup (1:1)
0.75oz fresh lime juice
2.5oz-3oz soda water
6-10 mint leaves.
Add all ingredients except mineral water, including mint, to the shaker. Add ice, shake to high heaven for 10-12 seconds. Fine strain over crushed ice into a collins glass. Top with soda water and garnish with a mint sprig. Drink. Then find me, and shake my hand.

[mojito] glamour shot


Vodka — Horizontal Tasting

[cv] grid

The Question:

How big of a role, if any at all, does the base ingredient play in the final character of vodka?

The Necessary Justification:

Yes, I’m really writing about  vodka.

Here’s the thing — everyone in the craft cocktail world seems to have the same two things to say about vodka:

  1. Vodka is a spirit without any real character or distinction, and therefore
  2. There’s no difference between vodkas.

Point #1 is true by definition. Point #2 isn’t true at all.

Vodka is distilled to at least 95% alcohol. When it’s distilled to 95%, one (specious but nonetheless workable) way to look at it is that there’s only 5% flavor left (see Trivia, at bottom). 99 times out of 100, vodka marketing pretends there’s no flavor at all, focusing instead on what it doesn’t taste like, which is hard if what it doesn’t taste like is everything. This is why they all try to bludgeon you to death with the word “smooth.”

word cloud

I’ll say that what distinctions do exist are easily drowned out by cranberry juice or even tonic water. But taken neat at room temperature, there are surprisingly significant differences: you find that Absolut is relatively viscous and Russian Standard is impressively neutral, that Ketel One has a tongue-numbing bluntness and Ciroc smells like acetone but actually tastes pretty good.

The Necessary Disclaimer:

I’m not saying vodkas are interesting. They’re not. They are, as spirits, savagely fucking dull. After all my tastings and experiments, my official line remains: if you mix it with anything hardier than soda water, buy Sobieski/Svedka/Smirnoff for like 8 dollars and never look back.

So why do any of this? Because science, that’s why. I’d rather actually know the answer than imagine I know it.

[cv] intro shot

There are a galaxy of factors that can make one spirit taste different from another, and because of this, it’s nearly impossible to hold one production decision accountable for any individual flavor or characteristic.

However — Chopin recently debuted wheat and rye vodkas to complement their famous potato vodka. So if we taste them side by side, we can deduce what role the raw ingredients really play in the final flavor of neutral spirits.

Note: I can’t help but want to shake the hand of whoever decided, in the last few years, that what America wanted was more wheat-based products. Distillation removes the gluten protein, but still: I haven’t seen corporate balls like that since Taco Bell introduced a potato burrito in the middle of the Atkins hysteria.

Assumptions: from all I can tell, they use the same yeast, same overall fermentation process, same distillation process, and same filtering for their whole line. The only variable is what they’re made from. So question: how much does base ingredient matter?

[cv] ready for tasting

The Tasting:

nose: Wet newspaper. Strangely enough, it kind of smells like potatoes. Sliced, raw potato. Grainy.
taste: Hot. A little sweetness, like cakebread. Tastes better than it smells. Lemon frosting.

nose: Wet newspaper again. Stale bread.
taste: Drier. That cakebread business is gone. Some faint citrus on the finish. Still a bit of sweetness mid-palate, but nothing like the potato. Dusty grain.

nose: Dried newspaper. These all smell like fiber. The filtering, maybe? The yeast?
taste: Drier still. Very faint sweetness. Extremely impressive neutrality. No flavors really stand out. I detect faint lime on finish, but it might my imagination.


How interesting. Here, with vodka, distilled and filtered within an inch of its life, we still have fairly sizable distinctions between the bottles. A couple things worth noting:

(1) All three have a distinct wet/dry newspaper nose, which I’m betting is their yeast. Either that, or all three got cork contamination, but then this project is totally screwed.

(2) Potato seems to give a perceived sweetness that I find very pleasant, if while being hot (read: alcohol burn) at the same time.

(3) I was looking for spice in the rye, as rye whiskies are generally spicier than their corn and wheat cousins. But nothing. Mostly, I got a sense of the dusty graininess (also frequently seen in rye whiskey).

(4) This is why almost everyone makes vodka from wheat. If neutrality is the point — and for most people, it is — wheat is the most demure of all our cereal grains. The others have character. It may take some teasing out, but it’s there. But for wheat, especially tasting it last, I  couldn’t help but define it by all that wasn’t there.

And here, finally, the inevitable problem with rating vodkas. What do you want from it? Many would want it to taste as close to nothing as possible, so the wheat is best. Personally, I like things that are interesting, so I’d go potato. Take it for what it’s worth.

Trivia: The reason it’s specious to say that liquid distilled to 95% ABV only has 5% flavor is that different alcohols (part of the 95%) have flavors and textures all their own. Both the heads (harmful, isopropyl-smelling) and tails (pungent and heavy,called “fusel oils” because they chemically resemble oil) are alcohol, and their levels in the final product will influence it as much as anything else ever could. Facts!

Vieux Carré

Note: a version of this article appears at

The elevator opens, and you’re met with the bright ecstatic cacophony of the city. Everyone up here is dressed well, but not as well as you. You’re a little early. You move easily through the crowd as a seat opens before you at the long mahogany bar. She’ll be a few minutes yet, so you look from your watch to the bartender, vest and tie over a shirt so white it must be new:

“May I offer you a drink, sir?”

[vc] through the sun

That’s what the Vieux Carré is to me. It’s a tailored suit. It’s jazz and a good cigar. Muscular and elegant, beguiling and complex,  it’s one of those cocktails that you look good ordering and you feel good drinking, as if you yourself are more sophisticated for being in its company. And while that would be enough, it also just happens to be really, really damn good.

The Story:

As with so many grand Manhattan variations, the cocktail is named after the neighborhood in which it was invented: “Vieux Carré”means “old square,” what they call the French Quarter in New Orleans. It comes to us from 1937 — one of the rare few classic drinks to be invented post-Prohibition — conceived by head barman Walter Bergeron at the famous Hotel Monteleone, which stands now, as it has since 1886, a block off Bourbon Street on the French Quarter’s southern end.

Today, the Hotel Monteleone is most famous for its somewhat curious Carousel Bar, what the website proudly boasts as “the city’s only revolving bar,” in which the bar and everything on it literally circles bartender at the manageable but still bizarre rate of  1 revolution per 15 minutes. The thought of a cocktail this elegant invented in a room that gauche kind of ruins my day, and it’s comforting to know that it actually wasn’t — in his time it was called the Swan Bar,  and wouldn’t be converted to an orbital experience for another 11 years.

This is a thoroughly New Orleans drink. Them Crescent City folks are unusually proud of their heritage, and any time you’ve got French cognac and liqueur, rye floated down the Mississippi, and the city’s own Peychaud’s bitters in a single drink, there’s really only one place it could come from.

[vc] glamour shot

Vieux Carré
1oz Rye whiskey
1oz Cognac
1oz Sweet Vermouth
0.25oz Bénédictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Stir for 30 solid seconds (if using Kold Draft, 45 seconds). Strain into cocktail glass, garnish with a lemon peel.

Ingredient Notes:

Rye: should be big and spicy. I find Rittenhouse 100 proof does the trick perfectly. Many insist on Sazerac Rye just to hammer in the New Orleans connection (despite the fact that the Louisiana-owned Sazerac Rye has been made in Kentucky for its entire existence), which works great if you can find it. Steer clear of bottles that are too soft or low proof. 45% minimum.

Cognac: I prefer V.S.O.P or better. Too young and you’ll taste the brandy’s funkiness, which still makes a fine drink, but it’s not ideal. The cocktail is at its best when the cognac is giving rich, supple, woody notes to balance the spicy rye.

Vermouth: I prefer Carpano Antica, because not much else can stand up to the rest of the ingredients while maintaining the complexity we’re looking for.

[vc] grid


There’s some reasonable dissent on the sweetness (some say more Bénédictine, which is crazy; many say less, which is not), and whether or not to use a lemon peel (personal choice, though I think it’s begging for it), but I think the most fertile disagreement is whether to make this drink on ice or up.

This particular cocktail needs a lot of dilution. That sweetness can cloy if it’s not suitably chilled and diluted, which is why almost everyone chooses to make it on ice. It was definitely conceived that way, and I would never say a Vieux Carré on ice is in any way incorrect.

But it’s not how I like it. I mitigate the sweetness instead by stirring longer than other drinks, about 30-45 seconds, depending on the ice, to get a little extra water before straining it up. This is because one of the principle pleasures of this drink is how the herbal interplay from the vermouth and Bénédictine evolves as it slowly warms.

[vc] shot

The cocktail is deliriously good in almost any form, but my favorite part is how the herbal complexity— a background note at first, lumped in with the perception of sweetness — begins to take center stage as time goes on. The warming changes it and the change is half the fun, providing an axis point on which to focus.

It’s like a Manhattan but more interesting. What’s more sophisticated than that?

Trivia!: the Hotel Monteleone apparently offers publications the “official” recipe, which should never be followed by anyone. I’ve found two very similar, equally gross sounding versions:

A la The Georgetowner:                              A la Saveur
0.5oz rye                                                                 0.5oz rye
0.25oz cognac                                                      0.5oz cognac
0.25oz sweet vermouth                                    0.5oz sweet vermouth
0.25oz Bénédictine                                            0.5oz Bénédictine
3 drops Angostura bitters                               dash Angostura
3 drops Peychaud’s bitters                             dash Peychaud’s
Build in rocks glass. Lemon peel.                 Build in rocks glass. Lemon peel.
Served, ostensibly, in a thimble.                  Served alongside a shot of insulin.

Syrups, Part 1: Herbs

“What’s your recipe for mint syrup?”

I was asked this the other day, and was embarrassed to realize that I had a passable recipe but never really examined it. This is to say, I knew it was a fine way to infuse mint into sugar, but I didn’t know if it was the ideal way. Which is, I admit, inexcusably lazy.

There are 100 different ways to make an mint syrup — literally any combination of water, sugar, and mint will make one — but the question lingered, because we cocktail people tend get particular about this kind of thing. How can I make it best?

All that follows is a piacular and demonstrative answer to that question.

TL;DR: if you’ve got things to do and just want to know the answer, scroll down or click here.


Herb-infused simple syrup is a clean, easy, consistent way to add flavor to otherwise straightforward drinks, particularly when using fresh herbs are inconvenient or otherwise unavailable. If I’m making one mojito, I use mint. If I’m making 100 mojitos, mint syrup starts to look a little better.

With  any syrup, the first thing we do is ask a couple fundamental questions, as herbs need to be treated differently than strawberries or limes or nutmeg:

  1. What exactly do we want out of our ingredients?
  2. What is our solvent?
  3. What is our method?

With herbs, what we want are the bright, fragrant oils. Oil transfer won’t happen much in plain water, because they’re non-soluble… you need a solvent, like oil, salt, sugar, or alcohol. What’s more, you probably want some amount of heat to catalyze the exchange, while keeping in mind that the oils are very delicate and should be treated  as such.

For the trails, I used mint because (1) it’s delicious, and (2) it’s delicate enough that the conclusions here can be applied to basil or lemongrass or pretty much anything else.

Let me save you the Google work and tell you the internet is, predictably, all over the place. Some, like Epicurious,  say to muddle the mint in sugar, let the sugar draw out the oil, then add water and dissolve (as with the oleo saccharum). Others, like The Hungry Mouse, say to bring the simple syrup to a boil, remove it from heat, and steep the mint as you would tea. Still others say to cook the mint, sugar, and water all together: see Chow, a different Epicurious recipe,, the Wannabe Chef, the Shiksa, and many more.

So, as with all such situations, the only thing left to do is make one.

Which one?

Everyone Gif

The Experiments

3oz sugar
3oz water
3g mint (10-12 leaves or so)

I ruled out the obvious bad ideas (the “put the ingredients in a bowl and walk away” theory, etc) and made the three most promising syrups:

  1. Muddled: muddled mint in sugar, waited 30min for the naturally oleophilic sugar to leech the oils, then added water, dissolved sugar, and strained solids. No heat.
  2. Boiled: brought sugar, water, and mint to a boil, let simmer for 5 min, removed from heat and strained.
  3. Steeped: brought sugar and water to a boil, removed from heat, added mint and let cool to room temp.

[syrups1] procedure

The amounts were the same for all three, so hopefully we can get a semi-scientific comparison.

[syrups1] cooling


(1) Muddled:

Color is Pale yellow/white, like hay, or sunbleached stone. Nose is faint… a bit too faint, but nice bright mint. A little vegetal. Maybe sat too long on the sugar. Light on the midpalate, with a nice clean minty finish.

This had been my method of choice. Until now, anyway. It’s nice and bright, but not too much flavor. It’s also extremely easy to let it sit too long, at which point the mint begins to smell like mulch.

(2) Boiled:

Color is deep, full yellow, more toward apple juice. Not much of a nose, strangely. Boiled off the aromatics? When tasted, it is as suspected: it’s loud but not bright, with more plant bitterness — there’s only one note, and that’s cooked mint.

Much more extraction here, obviously. But that doesn’t necessarily make it better. One of the chief delights of herbs is their brightness, and this more or less takes that all away.

(3) Steeped:

Color is yellow with light green tints, like medium-strength green tea. Nose is much stronger than the other two — as with the others, there’s still some slight vegetal notes, but it has a much brighter mint flavor than the boiled one and much louder than the muddled one.

Baby bear’s porridge: halfway between not enough and too much. This is both bright and loud. The best and most flavorful syrup, by far.


Confirmation/drinking  time: I made a Southside with each syrup, and tried them side by side.

2oz Beefeater Gin
0.75oz lemon juice
0.75oz mint syrup
Shaken and fine strained, up.

[syrups1] taste tests

  1. Muddled: Barely any nose. You’ve got to look for the mint. Gin more takes over.
  2. Boiled: Mint is loud and low like a boat horn. It could almost pass for one of the botanicals of the gin.
  3. Steeped: The best. By far. Bright mint nose. Mint shows up mid to late palate, almost like a wintergreen sensation. Vegetal-flavors still come through a little, but the overwhelming impression is of fresh, bright, mint.


Steep the mint.

Herbs are fragile. Heat changes them. So we want to use a small amount of heat to catalyze the oil exchange but not enough to significantly alter the flavor.

How to make the best possible mint syrup: bring equal parts sugar and water to a boil. Remove from heat, allow 15-30 seconds for the temperature to come down, then stir in  lots of mint — more than you’d think, about 20-30 leaves/cup, as quantity has a lot to do with volume of the flavor. Cover immediately, and let cool to room temperature. Once cool, strain out solids, bottle, and refrigerate.

Bonus Truth:

Hidden door #4: a Southside with regular simple syrup and actual fresh mint.

The best. Obviously. This brings a brightness that the syrups can’t touch. Front, mid, finish… all mint. Plays a role in all of it. The best by a landslide. So, the conclusion, so clear it could be seen from space: when possible, use fresh mint.

Post Script:

Hey bartender friends! Lemonade aficionados! Syrup junkies! Do you have a better way? Does your mint syrup make my mint syrup look like a little bitch? Leave a comment and tell me about it. Like I said, I want best.

Fernet Branca

The Prelude:

Devil Fernet. My old friend.

My first taste of Fernet Branca was forced upon me at Green Street Grille in Boston. I think the bartender’s name was Andy, but we called him Copatude, in honor of ‘tudes he would so invariably cop. He mentioned Fernet, and then incredulous of our vacant expressions, asked (with raging ‘tude), “how have you never had Fernet?!,” and poured us some. I smelled it, and looked up at him to see if this was some kind of prank. “Dude,” he said, “trust me. This is the business.”

It tasted like boiled woodchips. It tasted like some hideous pre-Hippocratic Chinese remedy, or maybe the kind of after-dinner mint they’d offer in hell. It tasted not so much bad as unlikable, and I nope’d my way through every subsequent Fernet offering for at least a year. After a while, curious that so many people around me claimed to like it, I tried it again, and was surprised to find it tolerable. Six months later, I had it and I actually liked it. Then, the cravings began, the inexplicable desire for that sharp bitter complexity, a need for which nothing else would do. It was all I wanted to drink. “Mysteriously satisfying,” they say, one of the only lines in alcohol marketing that I completely affirm. That was probably three or four years ago, and it hasn’t stopped since.

This is how it goes for everyone, and Fernet Branca is, thus, the shibboleth of the cocktail world: when someone asks for a shot of Fernet, I usually ask them where they work. It is the bartender’s handshake, a way to recognize each other, as acquired a taste as you’ll ever find behind the bar. In fact, it’s so vile to the uninitiated that it works — more than any bar tool or tattoo or mustache — to distinguish between cocktail people and non-cocktail people. The perennial us and them.

This may all sound insufferably pretentious to you, and I’m not here to say you’re wrong. All I will say in our defense is that it’s not an affectation: we really, sincerely do love it.

[fernet] antique

The Facts:

Name: Fernet Branca (Fur-net, not Fair-nay)
Category: Potable bitters — the “amari” (plural) or “amaro” (singular) in Italian.
Subcategory: A digestive, and the first and most popular of the subcategory of Fernet
Proof: 78° (39% ABV)
Origin: Milan, Italy, since 1845.
Nose: pine; menthol; sharply herbal
Taste: layered throughout with peppermint oil, menthol, resiny pine, aloe, saffron, a little coffee, cooling mint, deep mid-palate bitterness, and a lingering, peppery minty finish that reminds me of the spots you blink out of the darkness after a firework show.

The Story:

Italians, as a people, are somewhat preoccupied with digestion. As such, they view eating and drinking as two arms of one culinary experience, meant to be enjoyed concurrently: before a meal, an apertivo/apertif has bitter herbs to stimulate the appetite; wine comes during the meal to compliment the food; and after, the bitter herbs in a digestivo/digestif allegedly (see Trivia, at bottom) hasten digestion and stimulate enzyme production while the carminative herbs relieve some of the gaseous effects of overeating. It’s not that they drink any less than we do. They just have a more convincing pretense.

So what is Fernet Branca? It is a digestive made by the Branca company, and the first and most popular of the subclass of amari (bitter liqueurs) called Fernet. So even though everyone always calls it “Fernet,” there are in fact many different Fernets — Branca has just managed to become synonymous with the category. So much so, in fact, that even bartenders are frequently surprised to hear that other Fernets exist. At the Branca distillery, they have an enormous case of these imitators (below), in a kind of “isn’t that cute” magnanimity.

[fernet] imitators

Fernet Branca was marketed initially as a home remedy. In 1845, Bernardino Branca (or his herbalist daughter-in-law Maria Scala) created the elixir in Milan and named it after Doctor Fernet, a Swedish centenarian who, they claimed, attested to the liquor’s health benefits and who, we know now, never actually existed. Despite his rather glaring ontological disadvantage, the imaginary Swede was very convincing, and together with Scala’s no-less-dubious claim that it relieves menstrual cramps, the brand took off.

One funny thing about Branca is that they’re unusually proud of their advertising prowess, a subject most brands allergically avoid. Most liquor companies don’t want their populace-manipulation tools to be scrutinized, but Branca has a whole section on their website about it, and a solid hour of their distillery tour is literally just showing you advertisements from the last 165 years. Funny or not, they were early to the idea that alcohol is a field especially susceptible to marketing, and this knowledge continues to serve them well.

[fernet] advertisements

Italians have it after dinner, or sometimes as a hangover cure, spiked in a bit of espresso. Fernet and coke is the national drink of Argentina, Fernet with a ginger back is the civic drink of San Francisco, and as I said, Fernet shots are the unofficial liquid mascot of the craft cocktail world.

The Product:

[fernet] flavor wheel

They tell people it’s made from 27 herbs, some of which are secret. The real number is closer to 40, seeing as there is actually an enormous flavor wheel at the Branca distillery that shows you 29 raw ingredients. It may be 27 herbs and 14 roots, or whatever, but the point is that there’s a lot. Here’s what they’ll tell you is in it:

Orris, colombo root, coffee, laurel leaf, myrrh, cardamom, aloe, small centaury, mace, bitter orange, juniper, zedoary, chamomile, tea, anise, cocoa, musk yarrow, linden, peppermint, marjoram, white agaric, Chinese rhubarb, bitter orange ring, gentian, cinnamon, chinchona bark, galanga, saffron, and what my notes seem to say is “Green Perding,” which is not a real thing but I embarrassingly can’t read my own handwriting.

They infuse these in (secret) batches according to their (secret) recipe on a backbone of overproof neutral spirit they buy by the railroad car. It’s aged in their cavernous cellar in 10ft tall, 20,000-30,000 liter Slovenian oak barrels for a year before bottling.

[fernet] caves

One of the things that marks Fernet Branca is that it’s exceptionally dry — there is very little, if any, sugar added, and is therefore not a liqueur, by definition or otherwise: liqueurs are sweet and soft and simple, meant to facilitate introductions between spirit and drinker, like Fredo Corleone sent to Vegas to meet Moe Green and establish the family. Fernet is more like Sonny, who can barely spend 10 full minutes in a room before either (1) fucking someone or (2) beating the shit out of them.

The Uses:

I’m of the opinion that alcohol is never healthy — there are smart people who swear by that digestivo business, but I personally have never experienced it. I will say that a shot of Fernet is the greatest short-term hangover cure ever created (long term being, of course, cheeseburgers and action movies). It’s great to shoot and nice to sip, once you’ve acclimated. It goes well with ginger ale or ginger beer, and the South Americans will insist on pouring coca-cola into it, and… you know… fine.

In cocktails, you rarely see it more than a half-ounce at a time. It’s an uphill battle getting it to play nice with other ingredients, and the best Fernet cocktails I’ve had use between 0.25oz and 0.5oz for a lingering peppermint finish. Online searches will give you the Toronto and the Hanky Panky, but the best Fernet cocktail I’ve had is either the Autumn Negroni or the Don’t Give Up The Ship.

Full list of Fernet Branca cocktails here.

TRIVIA #1: Allegedly. Digestivos allegedly aid digestion. This article is written taking this claim at face value, but I’ll save you the Google work and tell you there is no reputable scientific evidence for these claims, or at least none that I could find. In fact, every single time the emotionless light of science has been shined on this particular issue, it finds the opposite: alcohol hinders digestion considerably more than any herbs in the alcohol would help it. As a mild anaestetic and vasodialator, alcohol may relieve some of the experience of overeating, but hasten digestion it don’t.

TRIVIA #2: The inclination to pronounce it “fair-nay” is understandable, as it actually is a French word. It’s a surname originating (as best as I can tell) around Burgundy. The Brancas probably chose it for their fictional 100 year old Swede because it was exotic. Nonetheless, as Fernet Branca is an Italian product, we pronounce it the Italian way, and Italians — like almost every other language using the classical Latin alphabet — think a silent T is fucking stupid.

Chrysanthemum Cocktail

“Numerous early-20th century cocktails, none more pleasant to sip than this drink, were named after flowers.”

— Jim Meehan, PDT Cocktail Book

There are more complex cocktails than the Chrysanthemum, there are more inventive drinks and more refreshing drinks, but I can’t think of anything more unrelentingly pleasant than this bizarre little sipping cocktail from 1916.


In bars, the Chrysanthemum is semi-known: ask for one, and you’ll see your bartender try to summon it from a dim echo of memory. Even if he or she knew the recipe at one point, they’re rarely made and never ordered. On the internet, however, seemingly every cocktail blog that has ever existed in the world has written about it in one way or another.

[c] google screenshot

Usually when I see this kind of wall-to-wall, Kardashian-grade coverage of a topic, I just move on. But here’s the thing: I can’t stop telling people about this drink. It’s that fucking good.

It’s sometimes erroneously credited to Harry Craddock’s 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book. Craddock’s book does include the recipe, but he adapted it from Hugo Ensslin’s Recipes for Mixed Drinks, published some 14 years earlier in New York City. Ensslin, a German immigrant, was head bartender at the Wallick Hotel at the southwest corner of Broadway and 43rd St (an intersection now more or less engulfed by the neon madness of Times Square), and he self-published his cocktail book and sold copies out of his modest home, in what is now Harlem. He wasn’t the celebrity Craddock was, but his talent, told through his drinks, was monumental.

The Chrysanthemum is unusual in that it doesn’t contain any traditional liquor base at all. It’s chiefly dry vermouth, spiced and warmed with the 80 proof liqueur Bénédictine, and spiked with a dash of absinthe. 

Chrysanthemum Cocktail

2oz dry vermouth
1oz Bénédictine
2 or 3 dashes (<0.2oz, about 1tsp) of absinthe
Stir over ice for some 20-30 seconds. Serve up, garnished with an orange peel.

[c] glamour shot

The vermouth is a very light spiced wine, whose botanicals stretch and showcase and diffuse the much more pungent Bénédictine very well. We get all of Bénédictine’s warm spice, the cinnamon, saffron, honey and nutmeg, combining with the vermouth to give a curious and alluring bready note. The absinthe spikes up and adds complexity, culminating in a delicate, elegant, beautiful drink.

[c] bottles


The only problem with this drink is that it’s a little bit sweet, on par, as Erik at Savoy Stomp points out, with a glass of apple juice. With the sweetness and the absinthe, I’ve had more than one person compare it favorably to a Good & Plenty. It’s not so sweet to be a problem for everyone, but it’s a valid critique. And that’s already toned down: in Ensslin’s 1916 original, it was equal parts (!) Bénédictine and dry vermouth. Craddock improved it in 1930 by making it 2:1, but he still says to shake it, which absolutely no one should ever do. Nonetheless, his 2:1 with a few heavy dashes (~1/8th oz) of absinthe is most-quoted recipe.

If the sweetness is an issue, it might seem obvious to reduce the amount of Bénédictine, but this is a mistake. Bénédictine is the backbone of this drink, and bringing it down to even 0.75oz gives you a watery, effete cocktail. In Meehan’s PDT Cocktail Book, he lists it as 2oz dry vermouth and 0.75oz Bénédictine, but he comes with a full 0.25oz absinthe. This does succeed in bringing down the sweetness while keeping the overall force of the drink, but for me, the absinthe chases away much of the delicacy.

[c] from the topIf sweetness is a problem for you, my favorite mitigation is to tune up the vermouth a little. My submission:

Chrysanthemum Cocktail (Dry)
2.5oz dry vermouth
1oz Bénédictine
2 or 3 dashes (<0.2oz, about 1tsp) of absinthe
Stir. Up. Orange peel.

It’s worth your time, any way you take it. Cheers.