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.

[vc] grid

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.

[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.

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.

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.

Mane of Needles

“…soft as a mane of needles…”
The Mars Volta
Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore — B. Pour Another Icepick

At URBN, we take a measure of pride at being one of the only places in North Park to get a proper drink. Regardless of their individual background knowledge or off-menu skills, everyone behind our bar can make a great Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Negroni, etc. No one could legitimately call us a cocktail bar, and yet we’re a bar that can make great cocktails.

This is a tool in our belt that I refuse to give up. I don’t care one fucking bit that the nuance and balance of our drinks are wasted on 99% of our clientele. We don’t maintain quality just for them; it’s for us too. Or, at least, for me. Tending bar is not an inherently cerebral activity, and craft cocktails, for me, are what forestall the fungal ennui that grows on everything that doesn’t progress.

In that spirit, we left one spot on the winter cocktail menu for an drinker’s drink, something whiskey and potent. That drink is the Mane of Needles. Of the 10 or so cocktails on the new menu, this is the one I really like, the one for the enthusiastic minority of our customers that share my taste. It’s the only one I’d happily make for Scott Holliday or Misty Kalkofan or Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli or any of the other Boston greats who introduced me to this world. Borrowing inspiration from the Violet Hour’s wonderful Autumn Negroni, I combined my initial goal of marrying Fernet Branca and Benedictine with the layered-bitter thing that they did so well, and thus:

Mane of Needles
2oz Bulleit Rye
0.75oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Campari
0.25oz Bénédictine
0.25oz Fernet Branca
1 dash Angostura Orange bitters

Stir ingredients in a mixing glass for 30 seconds; strain into a chilled cocktail glass; garnish with orange peel.

There’s something soft and accessible about Bulleit Rye, but at 90 proof it’s study enough to provide the infrastructure for this drink. I think of Carpano in this case as an emulsifier, with Campari’s robust bitterness playing against the sweet; the Bénédictine and Fernet, though just at a quarter-ounce each, are co-dependent enablers that play off each other to add spice and flourish. But it’s devil Fernet, with its peppermint oil and menthol, gives the Mane of Needles its name. The drink is, on the whole, soft and smooth with gentle bitterness and enough liqueur to make it silky, and yet while drinking it, the Fernet jumps up to offer little bridled pinpricks along the way.

This was also, of all the cocktails, the easiest to name. The experience of drinking it immediately reminded me of the Mars Volta lyric. It’s like petting a porcupine. But a delicious one.

Note: at URBN, we slightly modify the proportions to make it (1) easier to construct in a hurry, (2) less expensive for the consumer, and (3) not so much damn booze. The Mane of Needles (Album Version) is 1.5oz of Bulleit Rye, and 1.25oz of a 3:2:1:1 Carpano / Campari /Fernet / Bénédictine batch that we pre-make, with a dash of Angostura Orange bitters. This has the added effect of slightly increasing the ratio of rye to liqueur, which in the end makes the whole thing taste a little better anyway.

Trivia!“Soft as a mane of needles” is six words, which is the maximum amount of consecutive words you can quote from the Mars Volta — from any part of any of their songs — before you start getting strange looks. The full stanza, by way of proof:

“Punctuated by her decrepit prowl she, washed down the hatching gizzard.
Soft as a mane of needles, his orifice icicles hemorrhaged by combing her torso to a pile.”

See?

Bénédictine

The Facts:

Name: Bénédictine
Category: Liqueur — Herbal
Proof: 80 (40% ABV)
Origin: France, at least since 1863, allegedly since 1510.
Nose: Honey and saffron; low spice notes of nutmeg & mace
Taste: Thick and sweet; cinnamon, honey and saffron instantly; vanilla on the midpalate with cardamom, with slight alcohol burn; faint cooking spices; long, lingering finish

The Story:

Here is what is indisputably true:

Bénédictine is a liqueur built on a neutral grain spirit base made from distilled beetroot (and not brandy or cognac, which is what practically everyone thinks). It is a combination of 27 different plants and spices, the exact composition of which is a fiercely guarded secret, but are known to include angelica, hyssop, aloe, arnica, vanilla, myrrh, nutmeg, mace, cloves, cinnamom, cardamom, citrus peel, saffron, and honey. The ingredients are divided in four different batches, or “esprits,” which are individually aged for 3 months, then combined with the saffron and honey and aged for 12 additional months. It is made at the baroque Le Palais Bénédictine, in Fécamp, Normandy, it is currently owned by Bacardi, and it is delicious.

Here is what we’re told is true:

At the dawning of the sixteenth century, a young Venetian monk of the Benedictine order named Dom Bernardo Vincelli was transferred from his comfortable lodgings in Monte Cassino to the abbey at Fécamp, Normandy. The erudite Italian was practiced in the alchemical arts and crafted several recipes, among them an initially medicinal “elixir” based on 27 plants and spices. The elixir of Friar Bernardo swiftly became a local favorite, impressing even King François I who, upon tasting the liquid during a visit to the region, exclaimed, “On my word as a gentleman! I have never tasted better!”*

Bolstered by a royal endorsement, the liqueur thrived on for almost three hundred years, until in 1792 the Abbey was partially destroyed during the tumult of the French revolution by whom the New York Times would later refer to as “the implacable republicans of Normandy.”

The recipe gone, the monks scattered, the abbey burned to the ground, the liqueur all spilled or drank by pyrophilic heathens, it seemed as if Friar Bernardo’s elixir was forever lost to time. Until about 70 years later, in 1863, a lucky wine merchant named Alexandre Le Grand discovered an ancient instructional manuscript at a relative’s house, and began making the liqueur, which he named after the monk who invented it. Being delicious, as it is, is rapidly propagated. He housed his distillery in Fécamp, as Vincelli had done, and began large scale production. The building again burned to the ground in 1893 and was rebuilt as something of a gothic castle in 1900, and Bénédictine has been produced there ever since.

Here is what is almost certainly false:

Pretty much everything you just read except for the last half-paragraph or so.

Wikipedia flat out says the story of the seredipideous manuscript is outright false, and common sense agrees. I don’t know why, but the world of liquor is uncommonly flush with these stories, of the toiling monks of the silent order who make the liqueur and only say one word a year, “…delicious,” and so on and so on. There was indeed a Benedictine abbey at Fécamp, and it was indeed partially destroyed, but there are no monks there anymore and haven’t been in centuries (note: Bénédictine never actually claims that monks currently make the liqueur), and no corroborating evidence I’ve been able to find for it. There is, in fact, no evidence of Dom Bernardo Vincelli’s existence at all.

Far more likely is that Alexandre Le Grand created a remarkably good liqueur, and created an ancient origin story based on the history of the city in which he was based. Bullshit though it likely is, it remains a charming story.

The Uses:

In play, it’s a tremendously versatile liqueur. It’s complex and delicious enough to drink straight after dinner, or mixed to great effect. Equal parts  it and cognac is a B&B (also pre-bottled by Bénédictine themselves, for the lazy) and it pairs tremendously with whiskey for drinks like the Fort Point or Bobby Burns and just a little bit of it shines like a diamond out of the Vieux Carré.

See the complete list of Bénédictine cocktails here.

Trivia!: The promonint “DOM” does not refer to the “Dominican Order of Monks,” a wholly imagined backronym. It is “Deo Optimo Maximo,” the latin motto of the Benedictine order, which they translate to “to God, most good, most great.”

(Trivia about the above trivia!: “Deo Optimo Maximo” was a Latin phrase from way back. All the way back to when the Romans were polytheists, actually, as it directly translates to “to the greatest and best God,” referring to Jupiter. When the Roman empire became Christian, they cleverly took advantage of the arbitrary nature of latin phrasing, so “to the greatest and best God [of all the rest]” became “to God, greatest, best.” Which doesn’t have a thing to do with drinks or drinking, but is interesting nonetheless.)

*He would’ve said this in French.

Copper Monkey

The magnificently named Copper Monkey is a creation of Bek Allen, in-house bartender at Saltbox and the other half of Erin Williams’ Hush Cocktails. On paper, it looks like it has the potential to be the most offensive drink ever made. It features not one but three distinct ingredients that are found revolting by a significant cross-section of Americans. The Bols Genever with its malt & agricole funkiness, the briny smoke of Islay scotch, and of course the Vida mezcal, with all its lovely notes of smoked gasoline.

I’m crazy about scotch and mezcal and I tolerate genever, but even I wouldn’t imagine they would taste very good together. And I was, of course, wrong.

Copper Monkey

Bols Genever
Del Maguey Vida mezcal
Highland Park scotch
Bénédictine
“Ginger” (Canton ginger liqueur)
Highland bitters
Orange bitters

I asked for the proportions, and was rebuffed. Rebuffed! Apparently they don’t do that, which is kind of lame. It’s against my professional philosophy to keep recipes secret, but I do more or less understand. Also, Bek herself wasn’t there, so perhaps I can grab it from her personally next time I see her, seeing as she invented it and all.

For all of its bizarre and intimidating ingredients, the cocktail was surprisingly approachable. Faint genever and Bénédictine on the nose, and the first impression is strangely one of sweetness. It’s not a trivial amount of Bénédictine – probably 0.75 to 1oz – and the sweetness serves to make it complex instead of abrasive with a sweet, long finish.

The scotch shows up on the finish, along with a hint of the mezcal. Honestly I expected to taste the mezcal a lot more, making me wonder if it’s just a rinse. The agricole from the Bols Genever forms the backbone of the drink, with some fresh orange notes from the bitters along with a whisper of cinnamon here and there (I assume from the “highland bitters,” which are new to me). The only sensation that really steps out from the crowd of ingredients is one of sweetness. Aside from that, it’s a terrifically balanced and inventive cocktail.

Barrel-Aged Vieux Carré (a.k.a. Ancien Carré)

Barrel-aging entire batches of cocktails is a relatively recent phenomenon. The idea, they say, is that the cocktail softens and sweetens in the used whiskey-barrel, picking up picking up flavors and tannins and adding a really cool complexity. The New York Times Magazine did a nice little piece on it about 18 months ago, and has since been written about extensively, including by Jeffrey Morganthaler, who more or less invented the process.

To cities a little more serious about cocktails – Portland, Seattle, New York, etc. – Barrel Aging has come, peaked, and all but left. In the rest of the country, as will happen with trends, barrel   aging   is   fucking  everywhere. But apparently, everywhere still doesn’t include San Diego, so here we are. There’s a bit at Small Bar in North Park and a bit at Vin de Syrah and The US Grant Hotel Downtown, but for the most part the trend has avoided our fair city.

This is problematic for those of us who want to put them in our mouths. So we have to do it ourselves. Enter barrel:

I’ve wanted to try to barrel age cocktails ever since I heard about it. I started the hobo way, with oak chips I picked up from the local homebrew store and a bottle of Buffalo Trace White Dog, and it went…. okay.

You’re supposed to use about 2oz of oak chips per 5 gallons of liquid. I used 0.75 oz for about 12 oz of liquid, exceeding the recommended dose by about 2000%. “I’ll super-age it,” I thought, because I’m an idiot. It tasted like a puréed oak tree. I am not a patient man.

I had fully intended to try again, but my friends Dan and Sam bought me a 3L barrel from these wonderful people for my birthday. The first thing I could think of was a Vieux Carré. It’s one of my favorite cocktails, with a delicacy and sweetness that evokes barrel aging anyway, and I’m terribly curious to see what happens to it.

The only (possible) problem is that barrel aging yields the most dramatic changes to things that haven’t already been barrel aged. So gin over whiskey, white rum over aged rum, etc. But Jeffrey Morganthaler’s first experiment was with Manhattans which he says changed considerably over two months, so fuck it. I’m having daydreams about selling this for $15 each at the bar and making my money back, but odds are good that this will be just for my friends and I.

Ancien Carré
25oz Hine V.S.O.P cognac
25oz Rittenhouse 100 rye
25oz Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
6oz Bénédictine
25 dashes angostaura bitters
25 dashes Peychauds bitters

First, prep the barrel with water and let sit. Casks are made without glue, so we need the oak to soak up the water and swell, sealing the barrel. The water will leak out at first, so we do it in the sink.

Empty water. Then, we mix all the ingredients together. Then pour. Carefully.

Then, demonstrate monkish patience and try not to see the little guy poking out at you from the bottom of your barware shelves.

It went into the barrel Tuesday, February 7th. I anticipate about two months, but will start tasting it in a week or so to see how its coming along. I’ll keep you posted.