What’s the best Gin and Vermouth for a Negroni?

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.

The Negroni:

[nt] stirring

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:

The Negroni
1oz gin
1oz Campari
1oz Sweet Vermouth
Stir, and serve either on ice or up. Garnish with an orange slice or peel.

[nt] intro glamour shot

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?

Rules:

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.

Procedures:

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.

[nt] double blind

Competitors:

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

[nt] intro montage

Process:

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:

Negroni raw data

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

[nt]  test lineup

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 Tanqueray
1oz Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
1oz Campari.
Stir on ice. Garnish with an orange peel. Drink. Melt. 

[nt] winner!

*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.

Ingredient Conclusions:

GINS

[nt] gin lineup

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.

VERMOUTHS:

[nt] vermouth lineup

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.

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 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.

[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.

  •     •     •     •     •     •     •

Footnotes:

(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.

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.

Mojito
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

Cheers.

Vieux Carré

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.

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Variations:

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.

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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.

Herbs

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, About.com, 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

Results:

(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.

Verification:

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

Southside
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.

Conclusions:

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.

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.

History:

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

Variations:

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.

Bottle Conditioned Cocktails: La Grenade

I find carbonated drinks to be mysteriously satisfying.

I know I’m not alone on this. It’s just a tingly feeling, a strange pleasure completely isolated from the thinking part of the brain, and yet so many of us find it so pleasant. It’s the kind of dumb sensory stuff that makes me feel like a gorilla, but regardless: there’s nothing quite like it.

One of the better trends in the craft cocktail world over the last couple years has been applying that sensation to our drinks. Not just adding soda water or sparkling wine to cocktails (as we have been since forever) but actually carbonating the cocktails themselves. The basic idea is instead of relying on a splash of carbonated liquid for your bubbles, use flat liquid and then carbonate the whole thing in whatever way you can. It works particularly well with cocktails that are designed for carbonation. So while a carbonated Negroni (Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and Gin) is weird and semi-unpleasant, a carbonated Americano (Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and Soda Water) is glorious.

There are two ways to carbonate. We’ll call them the easy way and the hard way.

A work in progress...The Easy Way: As far as I know, this is a technique yet again pioneered (or, at least popularized) by Jeffrey Morganthaler, and is referred to in the home-brew business as “force carbonation.” You make your batch of cocktail, get it as cold as possible, somehow get your hands on CO2 (either a large tank or single-use cartridge), and hit the liquid with the gas in a pressurized environment. This is SodaStream, Soda Siphons, anything by iSi, and pretty much all DIY carbonation methods. It’s clean and simple, and produces larger-type bubbles. From there, either serve it, or bottle it for later (picture, right).

The Hard Way: Fermentation. Yeast + sugar = alcohol, heat, and CO2. When you’re done fermenting (in other words, when the yeast has eaten all the sugar it can), you’re left with low-alcohol mixture (beer, wine, etc), which, if you did it under pressure, is also carbonated. If not, the bubbles escaped to air, so you can add a small amount of what’s called “priming sugar” before bottling, and the yeast will finish off this sugar in the bottle, creating the carbonation you experience when you open it. This is called “bottle-conditioning” or “secondary fermentation.” The best beers and all Champagne producers do this, giving them their very small, delicate bubbles. (Aside: the most knowledgeable and passionate Bubble Connoisseur I know, Ms. Victoria Young, insists on such small bubbles.)

Now: me, you, or anyone with a soda siphon can do technique #1. I did a couple for the cocktail menu at Gang Kitchen. Don’t get me wrong: it’s hard to come up with a good carbonated cocktail recipe, as CO2 turns into carbonic acid (C2HO3) when induced into a solution, which fucks up the balance of whatever you’re trying to do. But as a technique, force carbonation is fairly easy.

As for technique #2, Champagne and beer are tricky enough, but it must be mind-bendingly difficult to bottle ferment a cocktail and do it in a way that’s not gross. Fermentation is primal. It muddies the waters, very unlike the clean measurements and individual ingredients we cocktail people are used to. Yeast affects flavor and final character dramatically, and a little carbonic acid is the least of your concerns. If you use the wrong kind of yeast, it’ll be disgusting. If you add your spirit at the wrong time, nothing will happen at all. If you miscalculate the sugar levels even a little, your bottles will literally explode.

It’s hard. And Jeff Josenhans, at the Grant Grill, has managed to do it.

How cool.

La Grenade
Cognac
Hibiscus Tea
Pomegranite Juice
Black pepper
Bay leaf

Sadly I don’t have a recipe for you. I imagine, as a technical innovation, that’s under lock and key.

The cocktail is called “La Grenade,” which I wish was a reference to that exploding bottle business but is actually the French word for “pomegranate” (the same root as the pomegranate syrup Grenadine, if you were ever wondering). Initially the first impression is one of wine. The delicate carbonation combined with the floral element from the hibiscus and the tart juiciness of the pomegranate evoke a Lambrusco. The cognac is barely detectable, coming though as a kind of stickiness on the finish. The pepper adds a bit of spice, and the bay leaf just kind of hangs out.

If I’ve got my critical pants on, I’ll say I can’t help but feel like it might want for a little acid to help with that slightly thick finish. I notice that neither this nor the Mule (his other Cocktail Sur Lie, as he calls them, French for “on the lees” a.k.a. resting on yeast) use any citrus. I wonder if they mess with the fermentation process.

That said, this is delicious, something I would absolutely order again. As with anything cocktail-related I can’t do, I want to learn how to do this. Thus far, I’ve only learned enough to know how impressive it is that he actually pulled it off. This is a proper achievement. Check it out some time.

Fort Point (Smoked)

I used to work for a newspaper in Boston. Every couple of months we had a seasonal insert — “Summer Fun” or “Ski and Snowboard” or whatever — that were all themed articles, pretty much just filler to sell extra advertising space. So when I pitched them Christmas cocktails for the Holiday insert, I got an enthusiastic “why the hell not?!”

What are some nice holiday drinks? I spend an hour or so googling candy-cane martinis before I realized I could use this opportunity to literally subsidize my drinking, and decided to recruit my friend Nick for some boozy reconnaissance. We went to go to five different bars, and ask each bartender for two drinks that evoke Christmas for him or her in any way.

Two nice things came out of that night. The article was published (here), and I was given what is probably the best drink I know how to make.

It happens all the time at the bar: “I don’t know what I want. What’s your favorite drink?” I used to try to explain to them that my favorite is irrelevant, that I love bitter whiskey things but that’s a taste I’ve acquired over several years, that like a favorite movie or book or meal, one’s favorite drink can be tasty but not for everyone………… but I don’t do that anymore. When someone asks me for my favorite drink, I just say ok and make them this:

Fort Point (Smoked)
2oz Rittenhouse Rye
0.5oz Punt e Mes
0.25oz Bénédictine
Rinse of smoky scotch (Lagavulin works wonderfully, but really any smoky/peaty scotch will do).
Stir over ice; strain into cocktail glass rinsed with smoky scotch. Garnish with flamed orange peel.

Aside from the flamed orange peel, this is a creation of Misty Kalkofan and a subtle variation of the Fort Point, the house cocktail of Drink in Boston. The Fort Point is the same without the smoky rinse or the orange peel, so this isn’t different enough to earn its own name (nor should I name it, as I’m not its father), but this version is definitely my favorite.

Punt e Mes is a sweet vermouth made by same people as Carpano Antica, a little sweeter with brighter fruit flavors and a lot more bitter on the back end, making aromatic bitters unnecessary. With a backbone of rye and just a hint of that warm herbal sweetness from the Bénédictine, this is a phenomenal drink. It’s at once simple and grandly complex, each sip offering a different accent as it warms.

But the scotch. The scotch is what makes it both transcendent and niche. Without, it’s excellent for pretty much everyone who likes whiskey. With, it’s perfect for me. Though just a rinse it’s a definite presence, picking up where the others drop off and taking you blissfully into the finish. There are some flavors, some floral or smoky or herbal ones, which seem somewhat undimmed by mixing as if they exist on a different plane.

Remembering that, if you don’t like that medicinal peaty flavor of scotch, skip the rinse. But if you do, don’t. It’s divine.

BONUS! How to rinse a glass:

1. Pour a very small (<0.25oz) amount of rinsing liquid in the glass.

2. Tilt the glass over a container so the liquid approaches the rim, then slowly twist the glass while steadily dripping the liquid out, thereby coating the inside of the glass with the flavor without leaving too much volume behind.

3. Drink the liquid out of the container.

I really do love rinsing with scotch.

Widow’s Kiss

“As the scene opens, you are up in your grandmother’s attic opening the dusty steamer trunk she brought from Europe in 1914. You reverently turn back layer upon layer of old lace and brocade … unveiling a packet of old love letters tied in silk ribbon. Ancient dried rose petals flutter down from between the envelopes.

This is what the Widow’s Kiss is like. Sweet, complex and darkly golden, thought-provoking and introspective. It is a cocktail of fall turning toward winter, and it wins [my] award as the most evocative drink ever. Have one by the fire.”

— Ted Haigh, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails

There’s something about the Widow’s Kiss that compels people write about it romantically. It’s not just that it’s delicious, though it is. And it certainly has one of the best cocktail names in history. But there’s something else… as with the lovely Colleen Bawn, this drink uses Yellow Chartreuse and Bénédictine, both pungent herbal liqueurs, which lock into each other like a vacuum seal. They work wonderfully together, full and rich and infinitely complex. Add the apple brandy at their base and some Angostura bitters to spice the apples, and the result synergizes into wistfulness like a half-forgotten memory, and seems to force people to write about it like this:

On a chilly November evening, post-Dallas, post-Watergate, post-Florida, post-9/11, and not-yet-post-Iraq, there’s no small amount of satisfaction to be found in a drink that calls up a honeyed past, and provides a moment’s distraction from the bitter present.

— Paul Clarke @ The Cocktail Chronicles

Or consider The New York Herald, in the 1890s, writing an article about the drink’s creator George J. Kappeler and his bar the Holland House, declaring:

[The Widow’s Kiss is] the most passionate poem which the liquor laureates of the Holland house hand out.

Facile alliteration aside, I think you catch my point. People just can’t seem to help themselves.

Not that I blame them. The Widow’s Kiss is a wonderful drink, in any of its forms. Everyone agrees on the principal ingredients: Apple brandy (either the clean American kind or the earthier French Calvados), Yellow Chartreuse, Bénédictine, and Angostura bitters. Most agree on the proportions, preparation, and technique, as well, though there is some reasonable dissent. Here’s the thing: it’s really goddamn sweet. Tastes have grown drier in the 117 years since this drink’s invention. So there are three things that people do:

  1. Reduce the proportion of the liqueurs. It’s traditionally 2:1:1, and some very reputable people, like Jim Meehan in the PDT Cocktail Book, go instead 4:1:1. This or something like it is similarly recommended by Savoy Stomp, Eric Felten at the Wall Street Journal, and others.
  2. Do your best to water it down. Some, like David Wondrich in Imbibe, stick with with Kappeler’s original instructions to shake this drink instead stirring it. Shaking is considerably more effective to dilute and chill than stirring (100 seconds of stirring ≈ 12 seconds of shaking), and it also aerates, making the drink thinner. Others, as with the Stinger (another all-booze drink that’s too sweet), advise crushed ice to deliver the extra water.
  3. Deal with it. Accept the drink as it is and only serve it after dinner, at the end of the night, or any other time a sweet drink is called for.

After an exhaustive and grisly round of experiments, I am firmly in camp #3. My favorite recipe:

Widow’s Kiss
1.5oz Calvados [French apple brandy]
0.75oz Yellow Chartreuse
0.75oz Bénédictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir over ice, strain into cocktail glass; garnish with nostalgia.

Notes on execution:

Insofar as calvados vs. apple brandy is concerned, go with calvados if you’ve got it. It’s a heavier spirit, more rustic and agricultural than American apple brandy, and it seamlessly fills the gaps left by the liqueurs and bitters. With calvados, use either no garnish or a neutral aesthetic garnish, like a cherry. If all you have is Laird’s Apple Brandy, or even worse, Applejack, feel free to make the drink but garnish with a lemon peel: the lemon oils offer a rather pleasant misdirection to compensate for the brandy’s lack of weight.

Whether to shake or stir (a.k.a. why above point #2 doesn’t really work): this kind of sweetness is only acceptable to the palate if it’s enrobed in velvet texture. Shaking makes it thinner, losing the silkiness and shoving the drink into diaspora: too sweet for a thin drink, too thin for a sweet drink. What I found curious about this experiment was that even though more dilution means less overall sugar/ounce, the shaken drink had an increased perception of sweetness. It needs the texture. That’s all there is to it. Stirring, for the win.

As for reducing the ratios of the liqueurs (a.k.a. How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Sweetness): maybe you shouldn’t try to mitigate the sweetness. Maybe you should just accept that this is a sweet drink. My feeling is that the Widow’s Kiss is a perfect after-dinner-on-a-brisk-winter-night drink. Apple, honey, cinnamon spice… what could be better than that? It’s strong and warming, with no ingredients under 80 proof. It’s pungent and herbal, with complexity that unfolds over time. The sweetness helps neutralize the strength, the thickness helps justify the sweetness, and the flavors help recommend it all. They lean on each other like a tripod, and changing one brings the whole thing down.

That’s the problem with the PDT recipe. It’s fine, but it adapts the recipe to be an average anytime drink, as opposed to an exceptional after dinner drink. It loses the magic, the fifth essence, that ineffable harmony that makes Wondrich write things like “we don’t know if Kappeler had any particular widow in mind. If he did, she must have been something.”

Colleen Bawn

As I’ve already said, I think maybe more than once, it was in Boston that I learned how to drink. The bar that was singularly instrumental in teaching me was Green Street Grill in Cambridge.

It was the kind of bar people go out of their way for. Fortunately for me, I lived about 35 seconds from it, and it was there I had my first Old Fashioned, first taste of Fernet Branca, first flip, fizz, Collins, sour, etc., etc., etc. And it was there I had my first Colleen Bawn, then a fixture on their extended cocktail menu.

We ordered so many of them that winter that the bartenders used to groan when they saw Vikki’s bright red coat walk in the front door, because they knew they would be forced to make at least one egg drink. Eggs, you see, are a giant pain in the ass. You have to shake them once without ice and then once with, and with the ice you have to shake them forever, and you usually have to garnish ornately, artful dashes of bitters or hand-grated nutmeg or other such annoying flourishes that take up valuable doing-other-things time.

It’s worth noting, however, that we didn’t care about their groaning then, and I have even less sympathy for it now that I work with eggs myself. Never let a bartender make you feel bad about ordering a drink. If like Amaretto Sours, order an Amaretto Sour. I don’t care if you like Splenda Mojitos in January: you want what you want, and our job is to make it for you. Unless, of course, you order Ramos Gin Fizzes on a busy weekend night, in which case you can go fuck yourself.

Anyway.

The Colleen Bawn (meaning “fair girl,” from the Irish cailín bán) is the name of a play from 1860 by Dion Boucicault. It dramatizes the true story of Ellen Hainley, murdered at 15 by her wealthy husband and his servant. The murder of a beautiful young commoner and indictment among the aristocracy caused something of a stir, as you might imagine, and the story became about justice overcoming social class. Both men were hanged, and Hanley was interred under the inscription:

“Here lies the Colleen Bawn
Murdered on the Shannon
July 14th, 1819”

Once again, the connection between this cocktail and its name eludes me — my best guess is that it’s named after a “fair girl” because it’s so lovely, but who the hell knows? What we do know is that  it shows up in 1904 in Edward Spencer’s The Flowing Bowl, and it’s as good today as it was then:

Colleen Bawn
1oz Rittenhouse Rye
1oz Yellow Chartreuse
1oz Bénédictine
1 full egg
Shake without ice to whip the egg; add ice and shake with hearty vigor; strain into cocktail glass; garnish with grated nutmeg and/or cinnamon

Yes, I realize I’m advertising a cold weather drink with pictures of sunshine. I live in San Diego. Deal with it.

The egg combined with the saffron in the Chartreuse gives the drink the color of custard, which texture-wise is not so far off. It is creamy with egg, smooth and a little thick. The rye, big as it is, is more for infrastructure than flavor; the liqueurs, as with the wonderful Widow’s Kiss, mix perfectly together. Individually, Yellow Chartreuse and Bénédictine are both full, pungent, herbal French liqueurs, and it seems kind of silly to put them together save for the fact that it works.

This is a drink of strange opposites: it’s highly complex but not difficult, it’s a little sweet but also a bit bracing. While it’s good any time, the thickness of the egg and the sweetness of the liqueurs (also that one cocktail is the equivalent of 3.2oz of 80 proof liquor) make the Colleen Bawn perfect as the last drink on a cold night.