How to Invent a Cocktail, Part IV of VI

(Recently, my friend Luke quietly published a book of poetry. It's called Abacus, and you can buy or download it here. I created a signature cocktail for the launch party, and because I sometimes get asked how I go about inventing a new cocktail, I thought you might like to see my thought process for this one. It's a longish story, so I've broken it up into six pieces, each of which will be a separate post and conclude with a recipe. Last week's chapter, "What's in a name?" can be found here.)

Chapter 4: Taking stock. Now what have we got?
Incorporating all of the above - the inspiration of Lautrec, the idiosyncratic taste for Gibsons, the love of absinthe, the necessary presence of kirschwasser - I came up with a first draft of the drink. It was going to have a dry gin base, with a quarter or half ounce of kirschwasser, a twist of lemon, a dash of Peychaud's, and possibly a rinse of absinthe. I wanted to import the structure of the Earthquake and adapt it for the audience. I'd paired Peychaud's and kirsch successfully before, so I was confident about that. The one hesitation I had was with the absinthe, which I worried might not play so nicely with the heavy dose of stonefruit. Other than that, I felt confident that I'd just be tinkering with the volumes.

Boy was I wrong.

The absinthe was a clear nonstarter from the very first try. It was complicated, it clashed, it overpowered everything else if there was too much and stuck out like a sore thumb if there was too little. Gone, totally gone.

But once I'd dealt with the absinthe problem, I realized there was a bigger one: the gin. The savory notes of the gin were really coming to the fore, and not in a good way. I thought it might be a problem with the particular gin I was using, so I tried another. And another. Each one worse than the last.

The actual problem was the kirschwasser, of course, which is a tricky ingredient. First of all, it's a strong presence. You usually get all the kirsch flavor you could possibly need with just a quarter ounce. But it's also simultaneously fruity and dry, and either characteristic can pop when you least need it to. You can't reliably use it for a fruit accent, because you might end up drying the cocktail out instead; you can't reliably use it as a better-than-vodka way to dry out a recipe, because the fruitiness can imply sweetness to the palate. And it has the tiniest hint of woody plant matter, like a cherry stem left out in the sun to dry, which you have to figure out a way to work with to have any hope of using this stuff in a cocktail.

It will fight you. Sometimes it will win. But if you can get the hang of it, kirschwasser is an incredible ingredient.

And given that it actually showed up in the book of poetry, I wasn't about to take it out of the recipe. So if it was clashing with the gin, the gin had to go. With the absinthe already gone, that left me with the following recipe:

1/4 oz. Kirschwasser
1 dash Peychaud's Bitters
Lemon Twist

Yeah, not gonna happen. It was time to take this back to the drawing board.

You'll see how this turned out next week, but for now I do feel compelled to say that there is a classic cocktail that uses both kirschwasser and gin, just not in the way I was trying to. It's called the Acacia, and it doesn't go anywhere near bitters or absinthe, balancing the dry gin/kirsch palate with warm, rich, sweet Bénédictine, another favorite ingredient of mine. In other words, I had a decent idea and was playing with it in the wrong sandbox:


2 oz. Gin
3/4 oz. Bénédictine
1/4 oz. Kirschwasser
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon peel.

Note that the garnish is very important in this drink. Twist it over the glass, run it along the rim, and then drop it in. That slight hint of citrus ties it all together.

Stay tuned for next week's post, "Chapter 5: Trusting your gut, even when your gut gives you every reason not to."

Day 5: Nebo

Day five and Negroni fatigue was setting in. Even the weird-spin versions were still high-sugar, big on syruppy cordials and fortified wine. I was flagging. I needed a drink that could remind me why I was doing this in the first place.

Kudos to Nebo's Jenna, who mixed my favorite variation all week. It came just in time.

It starts with a house-infused Carpano Antica vermouth, which sat three days with basil, orange peel, and lemon peel. (The basil was more of a subtle herbaliness than what you have in mind.)

Then they add the Campari - real, honest-to-God Campari, because after all they were the ones sponsoring Negroni Week. Jenna informed me that all Campari sales, Negroni or otherwise, counted for charitable purposes; and that, in her view, ditching the red bitters was cheating. She had a point.

Ingredient No. 3 is G'Vine's Floraison gin, which has grape-flower as its primary botanical - so primary that if there were any others, I couldn't tell you what they were. Very light, slightly sweet, and delicate. The success of this Negroni owes much to the success of this gin, and each is in its subtlety. Non-gin-drinkers might even appreciate G'Vine - it hasn't got the heavy evergreen taste that turns some people off.

They also add a bit of Bénédictine, and garnish the concoction with a double-skewered lemon peel and a maraschino cherry. Served down and on the rocks, as it ought to be.

So. Damn. Good.

This Negroni - I don't recall it having a kitschy name, which is fine since it was pretty clearly a Negroni - has a lower sugar content than most of the others. The folks at Nebo also deliberately eschew the bitter-on-bitter tactic - Campari was undoubtedly less than 33% of this drink.

But enough about what the cocktail isn't, let's talk about what it is.

Fresh, light, and invigorating, it hits your system like water, but crosses your tongue like all the reasons you ever liked a Negroni decided to visit you at once. The nose is precisely what it should be: gin-dryness, Campari's distinctive aroma, and the whole pervaded with the essence of citrus - in this case, of lemon. (I'm told the local Campari rep calls this the "Citrus Burst Negroni.")

The body of the sip is like chilled mineral water - all the work is in the details. A wave of Campari-bitterness covers the tongue on the swallow, tinged with the citrus infusion and the Christmas spices of the Bénédictine. Slowly, but noticeably, the aftertaste evolves - resolves, even - through a citrus crest to an appetite-whetting bitter finish. Each sip begets another. I could hardly put it down long enough for a photograph. 

Remember, a Negroni should be refreshing. It should put more back into you than it takes out. If it feels like work, you're doing it wrong. A+ work at the Nebo bar.

And apparently, my timing was doubly good - they had just recently set up the outdoor-dining tables, so the bar was practically deserted. That left me plenty of time to chat with the bar staff, sample the G'Vine gin straight, and swap blog information with Jenna, who maintains one of her own.

My Negroni, as well as all Campari sales during that week at Nebo, served to benefit the Italian Home for Children in Jamaica Plain. The Italian Home started as an orphanage after a 1918 flu epidemic left a lot of Boston's children parentless; today they specialize in programs for children with learning disabilities and behavioral or mental health issues.

If you missed out on Negroni Week, you can approximate the experience by giving them money at this link while having a drink at Nebo.


AccesSport Young Professionals' Event (Also, Day 3)

Here are some shots from the AccesSportAmerica young professionals' networking event! We had a great showing, and raised a bunch of money for an awesome organization.

It was a two-drink menu, consisting of the Negroni and the Frisco Sour - the theme was "herbal cocktails for the summer." We had 3-oz. paper cups instead of 1-oz. ones, so our pouring was...generous. We ended up needing six shakers' worth of each drink, but nobody was complaining.

These were the recipes we used:

1 part Beefeater gin
1 part sweet vermouth
1 part Campari
Stir with ice. Strain into cups. Garnish with a tiny orange peel.

Frisco Sour
4 parts Michter's rye
1 part Bénédictine
1/2ish part lemon juice*
Shake with ice and strain into cups. Garnish with a tiny wedge of lemon.

The asterisk in the Frisco Sour indicates a deviation from my standard recipe of 4:1:1, because that preparation assumes fresh lemon juice. We had the more concentrated, bottled variety, which called for a (roughly) 50% reduction in volume. 

The Negroni got a fair bit of it's-just-not-for-me, which makes sense, because both Campari and gin are love-it-or-hate-it spirits for a lot of people. I found myself explaining that Campari is a "potable bitters" a lot that night. I also couldn't resist the (perhaps apocryphal) story that Campari was legal during Prohibition, because the regulators couldn't believe anyone would drink it who wasn't taking it medicinally. It's easy for cocktail enthusiasts to forget, given how much we all love the Negroni, but it really isn't for everyone.

The Frisco Sour, on the other hand, was almost comically popular. The nice thing about events like this is that it's really easy to judge your success - the Frisco Sour was the only thing going around in cocktail glasses, and there were a lot of those to be seen. I owe a debt of gratitude to Frank Bruni of the New York Times, for first introducing me to the drink in this article.

Thanks also to North 26, for donating the space and the liquor, and to everyone who came out for AccesSportAmerica - this is the second year in a row they've asked HCS to play this event, and I feel good about our odds of a third performance.

For more pictures, check out our facebook page. You should also feel free to like us, along with North 26 and AccesSportAmerica!

Vieux Carré

Vieux Carré (dry)

1 oz. rye whiskey
1 oz. Cognac
1 oz. dry vermouth
2 barspoons Bénédictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Stir before adding bitters. Serve neat or with ice, as you prefer.

I’ve been wanting to put this one up for a while. I made these left, right, and center while Mardi Gras was upon us, but they were going down so fast I never got a photo of one. Until now!

"Vieux Carré" is the French name for what Anglophones would call the French Quarter, New Orleans’s oldest, most famous neighborhood. The Vieux Carré is not New Orleans’s most famous cocktail, that honor probably falling to the Sazerac, but it was invented there, at the Carousel Bar of the Hotel Monteleone.

This is a nice cocktail in that all of the recipes are very similar. It’s not quite as formulaic as the Negroni, but it’s reasonably easy to get in your head. Start with equal parts of whiskey, brandy and vermouth. Add a spoonful or so of Bénédictine, then top with equal parts of Angostura and Peychaud’s (ordinarily one or two dashes). All the recipes I’ve seen for the Vieux Carré can be described like this, although they quibble over the precise numbers. Mine is more Bénédictine-heavy than most, but, hey, I like Bénédictine.

The Vieux Carré is most commonly found with sweet vermouth. I have to credit Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails with the knowledge that it can be made with the dry stuff as well. It’s a perfect one-for-one substitution. That’s not always the case - Jon and I had to do a lot more doctoring when we tried to make a dry Americano. But in this case, don’t stress about your vermouth. I just use whichever I feel like that day, or in this case, happen to have on hand.

According to Haigh, this drink had been forgotten at the Carousel Bar itself, until very recently. I’m happy to report that this is no longer the case. The Carousel Bar is, in fact, where I first met the Vieux Carré, during Tales of the Cocktail in 2012.