Equal parts cocktails: Classic Manhattan

manhattanI was psyched to see an perfect equal-parts Manhattan take the top spot in Woodford Reserve’s recent drink competition.  Even the extra touches — 2 dashes bitters, 2 dashes absinthe — measure out in equal parts! That’s Jonathan Howard, a Nashville, TN bartender, in the photo above pouring out multiples of his drink for the lucky judges.

Jonathan Howard’s Classic Manhattan

1.5 parts Woodford Reserve Rye
1.5 parts Cocchi Torino Vermouth
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
2 dashes Absinthe

Grab a Lewis bag and crack several pieces of large format ice. Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with cracked ice. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

UPDATED 8/17: Oops! It was helpfully pointed out to me that a “perfect” Manhattan means equal parts sweet and dry vermouth – NOT equal parts whiskey and vermouth. Now corrected above. It’s a good thing I never claimed to be “perfect” myself, ha ha.

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Behind the scenes: my map of Italian spirits

 

Italy

The April issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is the annual “Italy issue.” That means a strong focus on Italian wine, food and travel. For me, it meant the opportunity to drill down into Italy-made spirits like never before, ultimately resulting in a feature story, “Beyond Grappa: a regional guide to Italy’s spirits.” And it was an incredible rabbit hole to fall down.

I thought that anyone who is currently learning about spirits (or wine, for that matter — or writing, even), might enjoy a peek behind the process that led to this article, since it’s kind of geeky and completely different from the usual get-out-on-the-road-and-see-what-you-find reporting approach.

It started with the reviews. Here’s what happened: we put out a deliberately wide-ranging call for “Italian spirits” — and I was completely unprepared for the volume of bottles that poured in. The only way to keep from losing my mind was to find a way to organize the spirits.

I started with categories. It was easy enough to identify the familiar bottles: the aperitivo spirits (Aperol, Cynar) the brisk and bitter amaros (Montenegro, Nonino) and even a handful of vermouths made from fortified Italian wines.

After that followed a parade of fragrant anisettes and sambucas. I used to think of Sambuca as a specific brand of anise-flavored liqueur, but no, it’s a rather large category of its own. Sunny limoncellos were segregated into a cheerful yellow pile, made with fruit from sunny Southern Italy. Fiery grappas, mellower aged brandies, and even a vodka distilled from Italy’s famed grapes also factored into the mix. And rounding things out came a pile of digestivos, lovely sticky sweeties flavored with fruit, coffee, chocolate, almonds and even Italy’s beloved biscotti.

This organizational system got me through the reviews, and safely to the other side. It was an exhilarating process.

At the end of it all, I realized there was another way to view all of these spirits:  by region. Since so many of Italy’s spirits are made from the raw materials that grow nearby, they can be categorized by place — just as we do wine. And just like that, a map started to form among the bottles: the roots and herbs that grow in the northern Alpine regions are used to flavor amaros; the grape-growing regions contributed the grape-based aperitif wines, vermouths and brandies; the fruit of sunny Southern Italy are macerated into limoncellos and liqueurs.

I photocopied a map of Italy and started a crude visual system of sticky-note flags to indicate where each of the bottles were produced – at least, those where I could figure out the provenance. Then I removed a bunch, ending up with the map above. That became my feature article about Spirits of Italy, as I then drilled down to learn more about where and how each bottle was made. It also reminded me of previous visits to Italy — during my last trip, I had noticed how every village seemed to have its own very specific, very personal and regional take on pastries. So why wouldn’t spirits have similar regional tales to tell?

I learned a tremendous amount working on this particular issue, and I can’t wait to repeat this with another region. Though maybe next time, instead of backing in from the bottles,  I’ll start by getting out on the road.

Negroni Sbagliatos for a crowd

Image courtesy Manhattan Cocktail Classic

The Manhattan Cocktail Classic has officially drawn to a close. This is one of those epic events where bartenders serve hundreds — in some cases thousands — of cocktails at a go.  There were plenty of mediocre offerings, to be sure. But there were a great many memorable drinks too. And this was perhaps the most memorable drink of them all.

Likely, I was particularly attuned to this drink because of the Cocktails for a Crowd book. No doubt I was paying closer attention than ever before to how batched drinks were presented, ranging from the punch served in painted ceramic punchbowls at Dead Rabbit to colorful pink and orange Palomas decanted into swing-top glass flasks and arrayed on silver platters during a seminar.

But Campari topped them all, offering wee cans of Negroni Sbagliato cocktails. It’s a relatively simple classic cocktail:  Campari, sweet vermouth, and dry sparkling wine, like Prosecco. I first heard of it after Frank Bruni wrote about it a couple of years ago; it started popping up on drink menus shortly thereafter, though it’s still lesser-known vs the Negroni (Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin).  The cans were handed out at the splashy MCC gala, as well as at a party thrown by the brand a couple of nights later.

Apparently, the genesis of this canned cocktail began at last year’s gala, where Negronis were pre-batched, carbonated and bottled. At the event, bartenders merely popped off the bottle caps and inserted a straw. It was on-trend — arguably, ahead-of-trend— fun to drink and speedy to serve. The canned cocktails had been floated for the 2012 gala, a PR rep told me (as we sipped Sbagliatos, natch), but tabled until 2013.

Apparently, a great deal of effort went into those canned cocktails. They had to be specially made, the cocktail had to be made in large quantities, and they had to be shipped over. The red-and-white striped plastic straws (not paper, which disintegrate quickly), were sourced from Etsy.

Everyone noticed them. From a drinker’s perspective, it was a good cocktail — truly, the most important part of this equation — and it was fun to drink, so people actually walked around and drank from the cans. It wasn’t too big and it wasn’t too boozy, so it was one of the few cocktails I actually finished at the Gala. From a marketer’s perspective, it was clearly branded — no mistaking the distinctive Campari red, and it was labeled in big letters anyway, identifying the brand and the name of the drink. It was memorable and everyone asked where to get one. It was clever and not too ostentatious. Even the straws reinforced the branding, but in a tasteful way.

Now here’s where things fall apart. Despite this marketing coup, no one can buy this product. And I heard many people say they would gladly purchase a six-pack of Sbagliatos (I was one of them). You can buy a cans of Pimm’s at convenience stores in the UK, yet in the United States, the Ready-To-Drink category is limited to pouches of awful slushy Margaritas made with fake lime flavoring. If Campari brought the canned Sbagliato product to market, I would consider it to be an outright marketing success. If not, it was just a clever flash-in-the-pan that will need to be topped again next year.

Talking and tippling with the 3 “Vermouth-kateers”

The "Vermouth-kateers":  Carl Sutton, Neil Kopplin and Andrew Quady

The “Vermouth-kateers”: Carl Sutton, Neil Kopplin and Andrew Quady

Julia Child splashed French vermouth into much of her cooking. James Bond added Italian vermouth to his famous “shaken, not stirred,” martinis. But American-made vermouth is what’s now taking the cocktail world by storm.

So on April 8, it was my pleasure to moderate a panel of West Coast wine and vermouth producers, “Fountain of Vermouth,” at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in San Francisco.

The three panelists- who jokingly refer to themselves as “vermouth-kateers“-  were Neil Kopplin, a former bartender and current partner of Portland, Oregon’s Imbue Cellars, who makes his Bittersweet Vermouth with Willamette Valley Pinot Gris; Carl Sutton, owner of Sutton Cellars in Sonoma, Calif.; and Andrew Quady, a Madera, California-based winemaker who also produces vermouth under the Vya label.

Quady first provided the attendees with a definition of the aromatized, fortified “wine-but more than just wine,” including an overview of some of the botanicals used to flavor it.

That was followed by a lively debate between Kopplin and Sutton, who have divergent philosophies about what makes for good vermouth. Sutton said he starts with both wine and brandy that is “absolutely neutral” in character: “I want a completely blank canvas, something I can project onto.” He then adds as many as 17 ingredients for flavoring.

Kopplin, for his part, insisted that since the wine makes up 75-80% of what’s in the glass, it should be “the bright shining star” that the botanicals are selected to complement. He fully expects his vermouth to change from year to year, he added, since he switches up the base wine with each vintage. This year, he’s using local Pinot Gris; next year, the base will be Sémillon.

To cap it all off,  Sutton mixed up a round of Bamboo cocktails for the crowd – here’s the recipe:

Bamboo Cocktail

1½ oz. Lustau amontillado sherry

1½ oz. Sutton Cellars dry vermouth

2 dashes orange bitters

1 dash Angostura bitters

Stir together all ingredients with ice, and strain into a cocktail glass.   Garnish with a lemon peel twist.

Blast from the Past: The Ultimate “Mad Men” Martini

Aside

Image

The return of Mad Men on April 7 seems like a fine excuse to revive this post, which originally ran on March 18, 2012. A retro post about a retro show – Cheers!

Yes — I am one of those geeks counting the days until Mad Men returns (7 days left!). So I was happy to receive a copy of The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook, which is refreshing my memory about seasons past and teaching me a few new culinary history tidbits.

At first, I couldn’t decide which drink to make. The 21 Club’s version of the classic Bloody Mary? The campy Blue Hawaii? In the end, I decided simplicity was best, and opted for the sleek, streamlined Martini. (It didn’t hurt that I have a shiny new bottle of Imbue vermouth in my fridge.)

[A quick aside:  Ever try to photograph a Martini? They might taste crisp and refreshing, but they look like dullsville on film. My husband gets 99% of the credit for the photo above. Hey, I made the drink!]

Here’s the recipe from the book, by way of New York’s legendary Grand Central Oyster Bar. Although I have oversized glasses and thus made mine a double, the Oyster Bar likely wouldn’t approve. According to the book, the restaurant recommends using small martini glasses, because the martini gets too warm in a larger glass.

Martini

Courtesy of The Grand Central Oyster Bar, New York, NY

Note:  Serve in a small martini glass and put leftovers in a rocks glass.

1/8 ounce dry vermouth

2 1/2 ounces gin

1. Fill a martini glass with water and large ice cubes (enough to keep it cold while mixing drink).

2. Pour vermouth and gin into a mixing glass and stir.

3. Pour ice and water out of martini glass. Pour martini from mixing glass into martini glass.

Source: “The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook” by Judy Gelman and Peter Zheutlin.

5 Things I’ve Learned About…Aperitif Spirits

The February 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Aperitif Spirits.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1.  For me, the single biggest takeaway was a schooling on what constitutes “aperitif.” When I first proposed this category, I hadn’t figured on including vermouths, which are fortified wines, rather than spirits. At one end of the spectrum, you have the strong and often bitter distilled spirits, which include amaros and all those monk-made herbal liqueurs; on the other, the gentle and sweet/dry aperitif wines. The latter category also spans vermouths, as well as French aperitif wines known as quinquinas and their Italian counterparts, chinati. Luckily, booze expert Paul Clarke has broken some ground writing about the latter category, so I can just direct you here for a primer.

2.  When it comes to vermouth, it’s either transcendently good, or woefully disappointing, reminiscent of wine gone bad. Not much middle ground. Carpano Antica and Punt e Mes are going to find permanent places in my personal bar.

3.  Bitter aperitifs – it’s all a matter of taste. Fernet is perhaps the most polarizing spirit of them all. Some people find it refreshing. I hate the murky brown stuff – for me, it inspires a visceral” ick!” reaction, like a little kid to mushy lima beans. I had to recognize that I could not objectively review it nor assign a rating. I will never acquire a taste for Fernet. I am okay with this.

4.  Herbal is big in the aperitif spirits category. Good luck actually picking out the specific herbs, though; most combine a mix of dozens of mysterious herbs and spices, and the recipe is deliberately vague.

5.  For whatever reason, Italy and France seem to have walloped the rest of the world in creating aperitif spirits. Where are the contributions from the rest of the world?

If you have a favorite aperitif spirit or wine, or aperitif cocktail, I’d love to hear more about it, please leave a comment! You can also use that space to bad-mouth (or defend) Fernet, if you so desire.