Untraditional Bitters Part Two: Smoky Vesper and Dunbar

Choosing between the different flavor profiles of bitters wasn't the only option available for early bartenders seeking to differentiate their own creations. The evolution of the Cocktail into the wide array of drink families and styles of today began with the addition of all sorts of untraditional ingredients that were used like bitters--in mere dashes. The Fancy Cocktail was one of the earliest, incorporated as it was into the first edition of Jerry Thomas's cocktail tome. It was simply an Old Fashioned served up with a dash of orange liqueur and a lemon twist. Then, as absinthe and other liqueurs became popular and easier to come by, the Improved Cocktail was created--an Old Fashioned served up with a dash of absinthe and maraschino liqueur. But for the most part, these drinks were all made in the same way--shaken or stirred with ice--with the newest ingredient just added to the mix. As far as availble techniques, bartenders did not have a vast amount of options. Sure, muddling happened, as well as layering. And there was the always popular pouring flaming hot liquid from two tankards method. But perhaps the most interesting innovation in technique was introduced in New Orleans with the adaptation of the Sazerac: the rinse.

You see, it's all about the rinse. Now, this technique didn't change the way drinks were made at the time, and it certainly have a resounding impact on the ways drinks were constructed over the years. The rinse was still used here and there--sometimes to good effect and sometimes to none at all. Steadily, it plodded along with the Cocktail, though it wasn't until much later that it would garner  attention as one of the important tools in the bartender's bag of tricks. But back in the beginning, the absinthe rinse was even not part of the original Sazerac. This was only added later, most likely when the popularity of absinthe began to soar in the late nineteenth century. The small amount is easily understood--even a quarter ounce of absinthe can overpower many ingredients. But why use a rinse? Why not just add the absinthe, as a dash, to the chilled mixture? Perhaps the easiest hypothesis is that the absinthe was an add-on--some bit of flair to finish things off. But just maybe those bartenders were using a rinse to incorporate the powerful anise aroma as an additional garnish. Unfortunately, the intentions of the nineteenth century bartender will always be a mystery.

Temperature plays a most important factor in the succesful use of a rinse. The ingredients in the mixing glass, for example the bitters, syrup and rye of the Sazerac, will be thoroughly chilled. If you pre-chill your glass, the absinthe rinse will only be partially chilled, otherwise it will be room temperature.  This absinthe will have a stronger aroma than the bitters-syrup-rye mixture. Along with chilling and diluting, the ice also constricts aroma. By combining a chilled mixture with a warmer rinse, the aroma of the rinse will be more pronounced on that intial sip, and perhaps even subsequent sips. If you use a glass that is slightly larger than the volume of the cocktail, the rinse will have an even more profound effect. The extra space, layered with the more aromatic rinse, makes it less likely that the rinse will be incorporated into the cocktail, meaning that the intense aroma will be stronger for longer. After a few sips, however, the two elements will mingle and the drink's flavors will approach equilibrium.

For years I took this small detail for granted with the Sazerac. I just always assumed it was a way to incorporate a strongly flavored ingredient without allowing it to take over the cocktail. I never really thought about the fact that just by adding a dash to the mixing glass would accomplish this all on its own. It was only recently that I began thinking about the mechanics of the rinse and how it is an integral part of using strongly flavored ingredients as bitters. The rinse has become one of the most popular ways of incorporating such untraditional bitters. It just makes sense that ingredients that have whopping flavors also have strong aromas. Whether a bartender is adding smoke, as in the Dunbar (Laphroaig rinse), herbaceousness as in the Man with No Name (green chartreuse rinse), bitter orange in New Orleans Is Drowning (from 2008, Campari rinse), dry almond-cherry notes in the Cuzco (kirsh rinse), or fruitiness in the entire class of Bell-Ringers (apricot brandy rinses), these cocktails were counting on a particular aroma to finish the cocktail, sort of like twisting a citrus peel over a finished cocktail. Not all of these drinks are new, but it seemed that as soon as I was actively looking for rinsed cocktails, everywhere I looked a glass was being drizzled with something.

Dunbar (recipe from cocktailvirgin.blogspot.com, created by California Gold of Drink in Boston)

1 3/4 oz scotch
1 oz amontillado sherry
1/4 oz Benedictine
1 dash aromatic bitters
1 dash orange bitters

Stir with ice and strain into a glass pre-rinsed with Laphroaig Scotch. Twist an orange peel over the top.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Famous Grouse, Lustau amontillado sherry, and Angostura orange and aromatic bitters. Instead of Laphroaig, I used Arbeg.   

Of all of the rinsed cocktails that I have tried though, the most successful in my mind is probably the simplest: the Smoky Vesper. It is exactly what it sounds like, a Vesper with a rinse of Islay scotch. Specificity isn't needed, though each scotch will bring its own qualities to the fore. When you dip your nose into the glass, the smell of the peat smoke mingles with the brightness of the lemon oils glistening on the surface. Of course the gin is there as well, and all of the herbal notes together create a kind of symphony. It isn't magical--it tastes like scotch added to a Vesper. But it is the interaction that, at least for me, pushes the boundaries and elevates the experience.

Smoky Vesper

1 1/2 ounces gin
1/2 ounce vodka
1/4 ounce Lillet

Stir ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass. Strain into a scotch-rinsed cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Martin Miller gin, Chopin vodka, Ardbeg, and Cocchi Americano in the place of Lillet.