Autumn Negroni

When I was back in Chicago over Thanksgiving, Vikki, my sister Kelly and I took occasion to go to the Violet Hour — my favorite thus far of the Chicago cocktail bars, even if it is a faux-speakeasy. I’ve never really been into the whole  fake speakeasy idea, and am relieved that the trend seems to be dying. People sometimes forget that “pretense” is the root of “pretentious,” a fact I’m never more aware of as when I’m at a hidden, exclusive, “password-only” bar that I found by checking their address on yelp.

Regardless — once you find the stupid hidden door and wait at the stupid velvet curtain, actually being there is a very pleasant experience.

The standout drink I had there was called the Autumn Negroni, which on paper looked redundant. Five of the seven ingredients (71%) are bittering agents, and one could reasonably think that once you have Campari, Cynar, Fernet Branca, and Angostura Orange bitters, a dash of Peychaud’s seems like a waste of everyone’s time.

In practice, however, the bitters strip away individually and at different moments, yielding waves of flavors that make each each sip last like 10 seconds. Each ingredient picks up at the tails of the last one and carries the flavor for a while before handing off to another. It’s like a relay race, or cars of a train. This drink is so fucking good.

Autumn Negroni

2oz dry gin (Beefeater)
0.75oz Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
0.5oz Cynar
0.5oz Campari
0.25oz Fernet Branca
1 dash orange bitters (Angostura)
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters
Stir over ice and strain into coupe glass; garnish with orange peel.

I immediately asked them for the recipe, which they immediately gave me. Not to single out Saltbox, but I’ve made this drink for probably two dozen people, all of whom loved it, and all of whom now know where to get it if they ever find themselves in Chicago. I share recipes with anyone who asks. I firmly believe it makes all of us better.

Peychaud’s anise shows faintly on the nose alongside aromas of the sweet vermouth’s wine. But what’s so engaging about this drink is that you get to taste all the ingredients, more or less one after another. When taken, the sweetness of the amari mixes with the gin’s juniper, followed by the bittersweet Campari and the brightness of the orange bitters, but right when the Campari would turn rusty bitter that quarter ounce of Fernet Branca prickles up all peppermint and menthol, only to be batted back down by the long, earthy finish of the cynar.

Before this, I had no idea that bitters could layer in this way. I have since used this as the inspiration for the Mane of Needles, my favorite of the URBN cocktails and about which I’ll write soon.

This is the kind of drink that you keep going back to, keep taking small drinks because you identify something different in each sip, and when you feel like you’ve almost mapped all the flavors, you find there’s nothing left but sweetness on your lips and you have to do the whole thing all over again. Which is all I could ever ask from a cocktail. Four stars. A+.


The Facts:

Name: Cynar (Chuh-nar)
Catagory: Potable bitters – the “amari” (plural) or “amaro” (singular) in Italian
Proof: 37 (16.5% ABV)
Origin: Italy, made since 1952.
Nose: Molasses; orange sweetness
Taste: sweet front palate; warm earth and orange; vegetal flavors; firm, robust bitter finish

The Story:

I had Cynar for the first time in 2008 at a place called La Groceria, an Italian restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts that had been around for 37 years. The restaurant was closing down and we were taking stock, and from the depths of the lowest shelf was pulled an fading bottle of Cynar, encased in so much dust we could barely tell there was liquid left in it. No one could remember where it came from. Charlie, the owner, swore it had been there since the late 80s. Of course, the inevitable — “What does it taste like?” his son Matt asked — and we were soon betting each other to try.

At 16.5% alcohol it wasn’t immune to the ravaging of time, and the decades had left it with the viscosity and color of used motor oil. I knew nothing whatsoever about it, just that the label featured an artichoke busting into the foreground like a cartoon superhero, and everyone seemed to agree that a small sip would be worth five dollars.

It was then, and remains now, the worst thing I’ve ever had.

Fortunately, bottles that haven’t long ago given way to decay are significantly more palatable. Which is not to say that it is not challenging. Those with no exposure to potable bitters will dislike it the first time they have it, and look at you with a face of wounded betrayal, like a dog when you take it to the vet. A face that says, “I thought we were friends… why are you doing this to me?” While it comes sweet at first, the finish is a distinct and robust bitter mixture of earth and copper, like a mouthful of pennies mixed with topsoil. But in a good way.

Cynar is one of the crucibles of the craft cocktail world, one of those things that cocktail people use to tell other cocktail people because of the inherent hurdles involved with (1) finding a bottle behind a bar, (2) finding a bartender who has the slightest inclination to use it, and (3) overcoming the obvious mental difficulties in purposefully ordering a cocktail featuring an artichoke.

But like most all the Amari, once embraced it can be a delightful liqueur, and one that can give incomparable depth of flavor to cocktails. Its bitterness isn’t quite as sharp as Campari’s but is much fuller and rounder and more reminiscent of earth than Campari’s rust. It also features a nice sweetness that leads the palate to the pronounced bitter finish. Like Campari and Aperol, it’s artificially but appropriately colored, with dark orange hues in dark brown base that give a hint of what’s to come.

The Uses:

In my experience, it is most successfully mixed with gin as a base, or with some of its Italian brothers. Its role in cocktails is definitely to deepen or enrich. Things that are too sweet or light could do with a small dose of Cynar, or really anything that wants some robust earthy fullness. Sweet vermouth and Cynar (with a pinch of salt) makes a Bitter Giuseppe, and it can be layered with about 5 other bitters to make an Autumn Negroni.

View the full list of cocktails here.

Trivia!: Unlike what I’ve heard at least one uninformed douche tell someone, “artichoke” in Italian is not Cynar but “carciofo.” The name Cynar comes from the Latin genus of the artichoke, Cynara cardunculus.

The label on the left translates to, “Herbal and artichoke leaves – The Original Recipe – Cynar is a product obtained from the mixture of artichoke leaves and other herbs infused according to a unique recipe.”

Bitter Giuseppe

After the Milano Swizzle, I wanted more salt in cocktails, and thought back to a drink my friend Addison had made me some six months ago, the Bitter Giuseppe.

There are a few different versions of this drink floating around. According to this blog, the drink was created by Stephen Cole of Chicago’s wonderful The Violet Hour, and then made salty by Kirk Estopinal of Cure in New Orleans. Estopinal’s recipe calls for Punt e Mes with salt, Cole’s original with Carpano Antica without, but both share Cynar’s artichoke heart. At Craft and Commerce, they (predictably) do it their own way.

Bitter Giuseppe
2oz Cynar
1oz Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
2 small dashes of salt
Combine ingredients in Old Fashioned Glass over ice.
Cut a lemon peel with enough meat to extract about 10-15 drops of juice
Squeeze juice into the drink, express peel oils on top, stir, and serve.

As detailed in a marvelous post on beta cocktails, the extra salt reins in the Cynar — this cocktail has twice the Cynar but only half the bitterness of the Milano Swizzle. Apparently while reading French scientist Hervé This’s dense & detailed volume, Molecular Gastronomy, Estopinal found that salt curiously tempers bitterness in liquids even more than sugar.

In this case, the salt blunted the bitter effect, allowing the liqueur’s component ingredients to showcase their otherwise overpowered flavors. The nose is a bit unengaging, but the taste offers a complex and pleasing barrage of herbal notes (orange and artichoke, to name two of several) and deep salted umami that fades into soft and lingering bitterness at the finish.

Milano Swizzle

Every great once in a while, a happy accident aligns our schedules and all my best friends have the same afternoon off. Tuesday was such an afternoon, and never one to beat a dead gift horse, we all immediately descended upon Craft and Commerce for some sunshine cocktails.

It was gorgeous outside – we’ve had more summer this winter than we had all of last summer – so I plucked the Milano Swizzle off the menu for something bitter and refreshing before my embarrassingly bourgeois meal of bacon-wrapped corn dogs.

Milano Swizzle
0.25oz lemon juice
1oz Cynar
1oz Beefeater London Dry Gin
1oz Carpano Antica
pinch of cracked salt
Fill with crushed ice, swizzle or stir until glass frosts;
garnish with lemon peel.

I’m fairly confident that this is unrelated to Tony Abou Ganim’s Milano, and shares the Italian city only as a source for the lovely potable bitters – in this case, the earth and artichoke of the Cynar. This is essentially a Negroni with a different bitter and a bit of lemon juice. What really excited me about this drink was the salt, still a stone relatively unturned in my cocktail experience and used deliciously here.

The drink started tart and led to a complex orange and earth herbaceous that the salt made almost savory, with the alchemy of the ingredients intensifying the Cynar for a sharply bitter finish. The salt was mostly undetectable but for the savory effect, and definitely makes me want to play with it more.

Our bartender Ryan commented that salt and Cynar enjoy each other’s company. Drinking it, you can clearly see how it can be taken too far, but you can also get a glimpse of its potential.