I’ve always loved Italian vermouth and liqueurs, known as amari, that teeter on the tightrope between bitter and sweet. They vary from one another in color, alcoholic strength and proprietary formulas of infused herbal and fruit ingredients that can number in the dozens.
Vermouth on the rocks with a twist is a standard pre-dinner libation for me. Occasionally I’ll treat myself to the more assertive flavor of Punt e Mes and lately I’ve discovered the pleasures of Carpano Antica. Packaged in an ornate tin, the latter costs 38 dollars a bottle compared to about 22 dollars for Punt e Mes and less than 10 dollars for standard brands like Martini and Cinzano.
When I lived in New York, summer was the time for Campari & soda or a prosecco spritz tinted a brilliant orange by Aperol, a less alcoholic aperitivo made by the Campari company. Now that I live in Florida, the Campari-Aperol season goes on all year long.
I enjoy the unique flavors of these drinks but also their histories and weird make-up. Campari, for instance, originally got its ruby tint from crushed cochineal insects (vegetarians, breathe easy–they’ve stopped that).
Combine these bittersweet beverages with gin as a base and you cross over from aperitif to cocktail, a world of more powerful drinks that have their own appeal. Part of the attraction, for me, is that quite often I already have the amari on hand.
The grapefruits in my refrigerator sparked a memory of the Salty Dog, a gin drink that was a ’70s favorite for me. Skip the salt-crusted rim and splash in some Aperol to create a whole new drink, with just a little bitterness to complement its sweet-sourness (recipe follows).
Mixologists have been having fun with the Negroni, whose standard formula calls for equal parts Campari, red vermouth and gin. Campari is the constant but choosing distinctive brands of the other two components can make a difference. New York City’s I Sodi uses Hendrick’s (a Scottish gin infused with rose petals and cucumber) and Punt e Mes in its Punt-e-groni (visit their site for the recipe). Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune, also known for its Negronis, likes Plymouth gin.
In Jacksonville, Florida, Restaurant Orsay makes its Negroni with Carpano Antica. I wondered how much it would matter, but in a side-by-side tasting, the good stuff prevailed. Carpano gave the drink a long, complex finish entirely lacking in the ordinary red-vermouth Negroni.
The Orsay bartenders also tamed that tiger of an amaro, Fernet- Branca, by putting it in a gin cocktail.
First, let’s just say that Fernet-Branca is a class of its own, infused with over 40 roots, herbs and spices–seemingly, whatever the original maker could dig up. It’s a shock-and-awe kind of drink that some swear by (mostly men, in my experience) and others swear at (including me). I do a micro-sip of Fernet every few years just to confirm it still tastes nasty and medicinal, and it always fulfills my expectations.
That’s why I was so surprised that I liked Orsay’s Blackfriar Cocktail.
The ingredients were right there on the menu: Plymouth gin, Fernet- Branca, lemon juice and demerara sugar syrup. Judging by the cocktail’s color and taste, Fernet was a relatively minor ingredient–and I found afterward that many mixologists recommend using just a dash or two as a substitute for Angostura or other bitters.
When I put one together back home, I found myself upping the Fernet quantity a little. My husband is a Fernet fan and I agreed that it deserved to play a starring role, though not to dominate the drink.
There’s no end in sight for my bittersweet cocktail “research.” All I need to do is segue from gin to rum or brown spirits. Already I’ve seen references to Campari mojitos, a Fernet Old-Fashioned and a promising combination of rye whisky, Punt & Mes and maraschino liqueur.
I think I’ll go cut up some fruit garnishes.
- 5 ounces freshly squeezed grapefruit juice 1/2 large grapefruit
- 1-1/2 to 2 ounces gin
- 1-1/2 ounces Aperol
- Half of an orange slice
Stir together the grapefruit juice, gin and Aperol. Pour over ice cubes in a short glass and garnish with the orange slice half.
- 2 ounces gin
- 1/2 ounce demerara or turbinado sugar syrup*
- 1/4 ounce Fernet-Branca or more if you dare
- 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Lemon zest garnish cut with a vegetable peeler
Stir together the gin, sugar syrup, Fernet-Branca and lemon juice. Pour over ice cubes in a short glass. Garnish with lemon zest.
* To make the syrup: Combine 1/4 cup demerara or turbinado sugar with 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Cool; leftover syrup can be stored indefinitely in the refrigerator.