How About a Little Restraint with Your Bitter: The Bitter Padre

Bitter used to be my middle name. An order of brown, bitter, and stirred would have me rapt, watching the bartender like a hawk. Mere mentions of new amari online, had me scouring the city's back bars in search of a taste. And often this search would just lead to me procuring my own bottle. I experimented with adding bitters, digestive or aromatic, to every classic cocktails I came across, whether it was a daiquiri, the Japanese cocktail or even a Cosmopolitan. My obsession knew no bounds.

But then something happened. My girlfriend is not so into amari (shock and horror!). As I sought to make her cocktails that she liked, I found myself staring blankly at my liquor collection. Where would I even start? How could I make a cocktail without using a bitter ingredient? In trying to please her very developed palate, I had to think outside of my comfort zone. At first it was frustrating but I now believe that this was the best thing to happen to me. I was very far down the path to forgetting what a balanced cocktail tastes like. Just because a drink is strong and bitter, doesn't mean it is balanced.

Balance is the key factor in creating a successful cocktail. A great bartender can create a drink that is sweet and still balanced, tart and balanced, strong and balanced. Granted being able to make a drink to suit your audience is also important and should provoke creative individuals to think outside of their comfort zone. The hard part of this comes from the fact that your senses crave what you actually put in your mouth. Say you eat a lot of chocolate. You will then crave chocolate. If you eat bitter chocolate, you will crave bitterness. Too little awareness of this can create a palate that is hopelessly out of whack.

As I started thinking about this fact, it became a lot easier to make cocktails that were adjusted to my girlfriend's taste. The more I challenged myself to look beyond of the brown, bitter, and stirred category, the more I found that I liked different things. New flavor combinations came to mind easier. But most important, I regained my knowledge of where balance is.

Don't get me wrong, I still l love a big flavorful, and yes bitter, cocktail. It just has to ring with the right balance. Many go too far, and perhaps solely for bragging rights. The following drink may look like that on paper but it's not. Full of big flavor? Hell yes. But it is tempered, restrained. And it is in that restraint that success comes. Might it still make my girlfriend scrunch her face? Well yes, but even she agrees that it is balanced. And there is one secret ingredient that makes it all work: salt.

Bitter Padre (created by Nikki Worley, Witness)

3/4 ounce mezcal
3/4 ounce Cynar
3/4 ounce Campari
3/4 ounce Fernet Branca
pinch of salt

Stir all ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist. 

Notes on Ingredients: I did not have Campari, so substituted Luxardo Bitter. I also used Fidencio mezcal. The original calls for del Maguey's vida.


A Madeira Link? Baker's Creole Contentment and the Creole Lady

It is always difficult to write about a Charles Baker cocktail that is actually tasty. While many more of his drinks come under the heading of barely palateable experiments from the past, the good ones have already been uncovered. Even if you've never heard of it, entering the cocktail name into a search engine will fill your screen up with links. But of course it makes complete sense--these are old recipes after all. The Gentleman's Companion has been in print for over 80 years. There are no secrets. So what is there to say about a cocktail that has already make the rounds. It sure is tasty, especially when you follow Baker's advice--but just this once.

Creole Contentment

1 1/2 ounce cognac
1 ounce Madeira
1/2 ounce maraschino liqueur
1 dash orange bitters

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry if you must, though, as Baker says, this drink needs no adornment

Notes on Ingredients: I used Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac, Broadbent Madeira, Angostura orange bitters and Maraska maraschino liqueur. 

Sometimes the most interesting part of the story comes where we aren't looking. For me this was the case with the Creole Contentment. Baker states that this tipple was birthed in the Big Easy. As any diligent cocktail nerd, I quickly took to the books in hopes of uncovering some hidden reference that would fill out this cocktail's lineage. I turned to Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Make 'Em by Stanley Arthur. As is my habit, I also grabbed a couple of other tomes as well. To sum up an afternoon, I didn't find any secret provenance for the Creole Contentment, but I did find something interesting--another "Creole" drink that is almost a mirror image of Baker's Contentment, the Creole Lady.

Creole Lady

1 ounce Bourbon
1 ounce Madeira
1/2 ounce maraschino liqueur

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with 2 brandied cherries. I also added a dash of Angostura bitters. 

I found the Creole Lady while flipping through the Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book. Sadly I could not find a true correlation between these two drinks. They look like they are related. They have similar names. But perhaps this just comes from the fact that New Orleans was an important port during Madeiras heydey. Perhaps it is because a lot of Creole cooking has stayed true to the traditional recipes, many of which included Madeira. Or maybe it is because of the many Portuguese immigrants who ended up in the New Orleans region in the years leading up to the Civil War, when Madeira was incredibly popular. Regardless, both cocktails are delicious.


Maraschino Liqueur--To Have or Have Not

The Hemingway Daiquiri, or as is it more simply known, the Daiquiri No. 3, was created by Constante Ribalaiga Vert at the infamous El Floridita in Havana in the early years of the twentieth century. If you haven't been acquainted--and if you haven't, rectify this as soon as possible--this concoction is very closely related to the more traditional daiquiri (rum, lime, and sugar) except a bit of grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur are added to the mix. As with every other cocktail that has been around for multiple decades, the exact recipe will change depending on the drinker. The original recipe calls for but a teaspoon of both the grapefruit and maraschino, with the lime and simple syrup decreased accordingly. More contemporary recipes increase the portion of grapefruit to as much as a 1/2 ounce, while the maraschino, itself contributing intense, often overpowering flavors, is usually capped at around 1/4 ounce. An old school Hemingway is bright and nuanced; more contemporary variations burst with flavor.

Legend has this daiquiri was introduced to Hemingway on a chance encounter--he had ducked into the bar in search of a restroom and on his way out, the illustrious barman was lining the bar with frothy, refreshing house daiquiris. A curious man, Heminway opted to try one and the rest is well, assumption and interpretation. While the famed author and drinker opted to have his daiquiris made without sugar and with a double pour of rum--a variation known as the Papa Doble--most people are happy enough with the original version.

Hemingway Daiquiri (Randall house variation)

1 1/2 ounces white rum
1/4 ounce lime juice
1 ounce grapefruit juice
1/2 ounce maraschino liqueur

Shake ingredients in an ice-filled shaker. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, or into a chilled rocks glass

Notes on Ingredients: I used Chairman's Reserve silver rum and Maraska maraschino liqueur. 

I have always loved this cocktail. A big part of it is the grapefruit juice--in the summer I am drawn to its floral, brightness. But I also love the interplay of th citrus with the unique floral, woody notes of the maraschino. Those flavors create the depth that signals that a drink has been well-crafted--that little bit of restrained flair that keeps you coming back. But then again, I have always enjoyed what maraschino liqueur brings to a cocktail. But not everyone appreciates what maraschino brings to the glass.

Maraschino liqueur's flavor is not the easiest to pin down. Originally created from the tiny sour cherries that grow along the Dalmation coast in Eastern Europe, the first maraschino liqueurs were supposedly created as a sort of "maraschino rosolio." Rosolios are often homemade rose-flavored liqueurs consumed as tonics, often sipped  after dinner. While simple rose-flavored liqueurs were made, more often other flavors were added to create complex liqueurs. In the same way that a mirepoix creates a base for many soups and sauces, the rosolio becomes a foundation for the more principal flavors. 

But the complexity of this liqueur only begins there. The pits and stems of the maraska cherries are separated, fermented and distilled, creating a sort of grappa. The cherries themselves are distilled as well, creating an eau de vie.  Then the two distillates are reblended and aged in ash barrels for two years. When the aging process is complete, the spirit is then diluted and sweetened, often with a blend of honey or cane sugar--the precise sweetener often varies depending on the house's style. The slightly almond-like notes that maraschino is known for comes from the inclusion of the cherry pits in the process. Those characteristic floral elements come mostly from the distilled fruit, though perhaps some of the original "rosolio" has made its way in as well. Naturally, most distilleries do not disclose all of their secrets.

Maraschino liqueur has long been a major element in mixed drinks. It's presence can be traced back to many of the early punches that were widely consumed in the nineteenth century. As the more efficient cocktail overtook the flowing bowl, maraschino played its role as an alternative sweetener that brought big flavor. It is not surprising to find that it had made its way into daiquiris.

For those who do not appreciate the flavors of maraschino liqueur, another cocktail exists that highlights the wonderful intersection of grapefruit and lime. Made with rum, lime, grapefruit juice, simple syrup and angostura bitters, the Nevada Cocktail is just as lovely as a Hemingway. The Nevada first appeared in print in Judge Jr.'s compilation Here's How, published in 1927. Instead of the funky yet floral notes of the Hemingway, the Nevada's recipe instead relies on the spicyness of aromatic bitters to flush out the fullness. Because the Nevada reverses the proportions of the citrus juices, any floral notes instead are contributed by the grapefruit.

Nevada Cocktail

1 1/2 ounces white rum
1/3 ounce lime juice
1/2 ounce grapefruit juice
1/4 ounce simple syrup (1:1)
1 dash angostura bitters

Shake ingredients in an ice-filled shaker. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Chairman's Reserve white rum and Angostura bitters.