The Brooklyn Cocktail: A Personal History

The Brooklyn was first mentioned in print in an obscure tome, J.A. Grohusko's Jack's Manual (1908). Though it was lost to history for over fifty years, its popularity has skyrocketed in recent years. It is yet another cocktail that has become a darling of the cocktail resurgence, embraced by craft bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts alike. But what an unlikely star. The combination of rye and dry vermouth is a hard sell for many, and even procuring a bottle of Amer Picon, or a suitable replacement, remains a challenge. Perhaps these details play a part in its popularity. Many formerly lost cocktails have resurfaced and are loved in part because of their polarizing flavors or hard to acquire ingredients. Regardless of the cultural weight of these details today, these two factors could have been what propelled such cocktails into obscurity in the first place. Despite all of this, the Brooklyn is my favorite cocktail.

I first came across the Brooklyn in the July/August 2007 issue of Imbibe magazine. The main article was centered on lost ingredients that were making a comeback in the bar world. Several do-it-yourself recipes were also included for the more ambitious. While allspice dram and creme de violette were mentioned alongside several others, it was the Amer Picon that drew me in. Looking back I am surprised that it wasn't the allspice dram that tempted my novice palate. At that point, I had never even tasted an amaro. But while the catalyst remains hidden, the Amer Replica, also known more commonly today as Amer Boudreau, was the first major cocktail ingredient I crafted at home, and with it came my introduction to the Brooklyn.

The hardest part about making homemade ingredients lies in replicating flavors that are sometimes slightly and sometimes completely out of reach. The Amer Picon used in that 1908 Brooklyn is not the same as the one available today. Sadly, the recipe was altered sometime in the 1940s and the resulting product is supposedly a shadow of its former self. Sure there are bottles of the old stuff out there--some hoarded, some just waiting to be found in the back of liquor stores in random corners of the world. But for most people, the original Amer Picon is unattainable. The current Amer Picon has not been imported into the United States for decades. In 2007, the closest substitute on the market, Torani Amer, was not available in Washington.

Of course I still remember my first Brooklyn. While I waited for the orange tincture to steep--the first step in making Amer Boudreau--I decided I needed more firsthand knowledge about this mysterious cocktail. Whenever I wanted to know more about an obscure classic cocktail, I would find myself at the Zig Zag sitting on a bar stool in front of Murray. He seemed to always know not only the recipe, but also some other tidbit of information that would propel me to uncover another drink. When I ordered a Brooklyn, he leaned in across the bar and asked me how old I was. I will admit I was surprised. But then he smiled and told me that only eighty-year-old men ordered that drink. While I am not sure how he solved the Amer Picon problem I do remember loving the resulting cocktail. And I have been drinking them ever since.


2 ounces rye
3/4 ounce dry vermouth
1/4 ounce Amer Picon
1/4 ounce maraschino liqueur

In an ice-filled mixing glass, stir ingredients and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Optional: garnish with a lemon twist.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Maraska maraschino liqueur, Bulleit rye, and Vya's Whisper Dry vermouth.

Over the years, I have had many Brooklyn variations. Because of the nature of lost ingredients, it seems that everyone has a different solution to accommodate the absent Picon. (Don't even get me started on all of the recipes with different proportions!) I have seen amari blended--usually Rammazotti and Averna. Sometimes a bartender will use Amaro Ciociaro, which is widely recognized as a workable substitute. I have even had a Brooklyn with the current Amer Picon, which I returned from Paris with. And of course, I still have some of that homemade Amer Picon from all those years ago.

On a recent visit to San Francisco, I decided to order a Brooklyn at the Comstock Saloon. As soon as I tasted it, I knew that it was not the cocktail I had come to know and love. Though it did resemble most Brooklyns I had experienced, something was noticeably different. Almost immediately I knew it was the Amer component--after all, rye, dry vermouth and maraschino only differ so much among the various brands.What I didn't know was how lucky I was to have ordered that specific drink at that specific location. Finding a bar that was attempting to replicate the original Amer Picon was a wonderful surprise. With access to a bottle of the original Amer Picon, they decided that the combination of amontillado sherry, Bonal quinquina, and orange bitters best matched those long-sought after flavors. I can certainly understand the Bonal and bitters. Torani Amer, Ciociaro, and Ramazzotti (the base of Amer Boudreau) all have a strong orange flavor. It was the sherry that gave me pause. Jeff Hollinger explained to me that the savory, nuttiness of the sherry was the answer to the flavors of oxidation that they detected in the original. This was a curious detail about Amer Picon that I had never heard before. And while the resulting cocktail was tasty, the entire experience was still curious.

Brooklyn (as inspired by Comstock Saloon version)

2 ounces rye
3/4 ounce dry vermouth
1/2 ounce Amer mixture*
1/4 ounce maraschino liqueur

Combine ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.  

Notes on Ingredients: I used Bulleit rye, Whisper Dry vermouth and Maraska maraschino. 

Amer mixture (as inspired by Comstock Saloon version)
3 ounces Bonal
1.5 ounces dry amontillado sherry
3 dashes Angostura orange bitters

Note on Amer mixture: At the time, I failed to ask for the proportions used at Comstock and sought to replicate the flavor from memory. I hope that I was close, but I had the Brooklyn at the beginning of a long day.


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.