Fall Cocktails: Pushing Past Brown, Bitter, and Stirred

As the first rains of the season created a staccato on my windows and the pavement outside, I knew that fall had officially arrived. Though I tried to keep my head buried in the proverbial sand, my taste buds were not so easily fooled. As the weather held off, my own denial seemed to intensify. But the glass never lies. As I bellied up to the bar, more often than not I heard myself utter those three words that seem to coincide with the change in season: brown, bitter and stirred. While I watched varied bartenders collect bottles of amari and bitters, I tried in vain to hold on to the last vestiges of summer. At long last the truth won out--summer had indeed fled and the dark days of pre-winter were here to stay.

For years whiskey defined brown, and thus fall. My entire drink repertoire revolved around Manhattans and anything even mildly related--Brooklyns, Boulevardiers, Rob Roys, even the venerable Seelbach. More recently, though, sweet vermouth and dark, earthy quinquinas usurped this role. Their rich, bold flavors shifted my intense focus from whiskey and allowed me to explore other spirits. Rum Manhattans, tequila negronis, and the Martinez followed. But cravings are not so easily understood. Last year, the flavor of the moment was apple brandy. Over the past month, I have explored even stranger flavor combinations. And while not all of them can be characterized as "brown," or even "bitter," they have all of course been "stirred." I am still me after all.

Tequila and Quinquina

This drink was not created specifically for me. I was sitting in front of the well on an average Wednesday or Thursday, watching Erik craft drinks at the Zig Zag. Though my drink was well-crafted and delicious, this other concoction, which had been made for an entirely different person, stole my attentions. With each new ingredient introduced into the mixing glass, my curiosity was piqued. Before long, I had pulled out a scrap of paper and jotted down my observations as best I could remember them. 

Unnamed Cocktail (inspired by Erik Hakkinen, Zig Zag)

1 3/4 ounces reposado tequila
3/4 ounce Bonal
1/3 ounce Benedictine
1 dash Peychaud's bitters
1/2 dropper Bittermens tiki bitters

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Note on Ingredients:  I used Milagro reposado tequila.

When (re-)creating this cocktail, there was one obvious obstacle--I had never even tasted it. I didn't even know the magic words that had inspired its creation. I started with the golden ratio: 1 1/2 ounces spirit, 3/4 ounces vermouth (or quinquina), 1/4 ounce liqueur, 1 dash bitters. After a bit of fine-tuning, the assorted ingredients finally came together. Though I am sure this cocktail only barely resembles Erik's original, the intersection of flavors is well worth exploring. I discovered this drink while battling a bit of palate ennui. But this cocktail, with its unexpected depth and challenging flavors--the unusual combination of tequila and Benedictine alongside the earthy Bonal certainly helped revive my interest.

Mescal and Chartreuse

I discovered this drink during Sambar's last summer. Customers lined the bar, filling every table both inside and on the patio, while others stood anywhere they could, awaiting one last tipple at one of Seattle's most celebrated cocktail bars. From my seat, I could see the drink tickets piling up--never were there less than ten. I know that I should have been happy with a cocktail from the menu. But a last hurrah is after all an occasion. So, hoping he would forgive me, I forged ahead, requesting a stirred mezcal cocktail. The result was a tipple that expertly combined three of my absolute favorite ingredients. While the flavors could be described as light, nothing is sacrificed in the way of flavor. Its adept combination of smoky and herbal flavors seems perfect for fall days when dark and bitter has become mildly repetitive.

Unnamed Drink (Jay Kuehner, Sambar)

1 1/2 ounces mezcal
3/4 ounce Cocchi Americano
1/2 ounce Green Chartreuse

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a grapefruit twist.

Notes on Ingredients: I used del Maguey Minero mezcal.  

Notes on Preparation: I was sadly out of grapefruit and substituted Bittermens grapefruit bitters.

Bitter and Bitter

Inevitably, most of the cocktails I consume in the fall still contain some measure of bitterness. This fact, I am sure, surprises no one. In fact there are those who might claim that my tastes run toward the bitter in general. But given that most of the months in Seattle are dark, cold and primarily damp, it seems natural that high proof, full flavor spirits and amari tend to prevail. Then again, I can't imagine a season where I would turn down a cocktail that contains an amaro. Most often this bitter component comprises a fraction of the total ingredients, with the brown doing most of the heavy lifting. But this certainly isn't a rule. 

Unnamed Cocktail (Adam Fortuna, Bar Artusi)

1 1/2 ounces Santa Maria al Monte
3/4 ounce dry vermouth
3/4 ounce Cynar
1 dash aromatic bitters

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Notes in Ingredients: I used Vya Whisper Dry vermouth and Angostura bitters.

This cocktail is surprisingly smooth for a cocktail that combines two different digestive bitters in addition to Angostura. The Santa Maria, perhaps the most mellow of Fernet-style amari, is surely responsibleSurely, using either Luxardo Fernet, Fernet Branca, or even the elusive bitter monster, Fernet Magnoberta, would drastically change the results. With the orange notes of the Santa Maria mingling with the almost grassy artichoke flavors of the Cynar, this drink is perfect for the cold damp temperatures that run rampant in autumnal Seattle. Regardless of season, however, this cocktail gives new meaning to the idea of brown, bitter and stirred.

While most of the drinks I consumed this fall could easily fit into themes of years past, exceptions do exist. And yet I know that my tastes have to expanded exponentially since my recent enchantment with the Martinez. This year, however, my cravings have led me farther from my comfort zone. But what happens when the distinct patterns of the past no longer apply? Perhaps it is time for a new perspective. This fall I have been celebrating surprises found in unlikely places, whether an unexpectedly earthy tequila drink, a smoky, herbal exercise in restraint, or even a bitter bomb. After all, we can celebrate brown bitter and stirred all winter.

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