By Dale DeGroff
(Originally published in Beverage Media)
Around the Mediterranean the tradition of flavored wines and spirits goes back thousands of years and was even practiced by the Phoenicians, who were the first great sailors and returned with exotic goods from around the known world and beyond. The Greeks and the Romans were flavoring wines and were certainly aware of the process of distillation, if not practicing the art. When the western world fell into the darkness of the middle ages monks took refuge in monasteries under the protection of feudal lords and collected the accumulated knowledge for safe keeping. But the storage of information was not all that went on in the monasteries. In many cases the work that went on behind the doors of these “laboratories” led to an explosion of information and technology when the renaissance or rinascita finally arrived.
The Renaissance was the birth many new professions and among them the liqouriste. Liqouriste were favored members of court who were specialists in fabricating beverages from alcohol and multiple ingredients. Doug Frost, wine and spirits professional remarked in a tasting of amaro recently, “Amari are truly the first bottled cocktails”, and in a sense liqouriste could be considered the first modern bartenders.
The work of the liqouriste has left Italy with the richest group of flavored wines and liquors of any country in the world. Travelers returning from Italy face the stark reality that until the next trip they must endure a forced abstinence from the myriad of liqueurs, amari, vermouth, and bitters they enjoyed while traveling the boot. “Every little town has their own specialty spirit or fortified wine:”, is often repeated by these pilgrims returning home from this mecca of epicurean delights. But indeed that does not go far enough; it seems that almost every household in every little town has their own house specialty. Now that I have complained a bit I will pull back from my blanket statement because today the Italian offerings are so much richer than they were 35 year ago when I got into the business. Tuaca, Strega, Campari, Fernet Branca, and Frangelico were the best known of the sparse Italian offerings in the 1970’s. But today dozens of cordials, Amari, and aperitivi and are exported. Here in the United States we have more than 30 amaretto and sambuca bottlings, a half a dozen Amaro, and a couple dozen miscellaneous offerings from Mezzaluna Espresso liqueur to a line of fruit liqueurs from Fragoli and at least a a half dozen Limoncello
The categories of liqueur, amaro, bitters, and vermouth often overlap making it difficult to classify them one from the other. Amari and liqueurs are digestives but in the cafes it is not unusual to see the Italians sipping them in the afternoon for a midday pick-up. And the aperitivi which are meant to include vermouth and bitters are more than pre-prandial with consumption beginning right after breakfast and carrying on throughout the day in some cases. We find many of theses herbal and spice concoctions very much at home in a tiny glass next to an espresso; the rules are flexible according to individual tastes.
These strong flavors present a challenge to the bartender. We figured out vermouth 150 years ago when American bartenders replaced the sweeter curacao with vermouth and created the superstars of the cocktail world the Martini and the Manhattan. We must take cue from these pioneers and find richness and body to stand up to these huge flavor bombs; American straight whiskeys is certainly rich soil to till and it follows also that gin is a perfect companion for amaro or bitters but nothing new here Count Negroni got it when he asked his bartender at Hotel Baglioni in Florence for a splash of gin in his Americano. Today Bartenders are routinely replacing the milder sweet vermouths with Punt e Mes or even spicier Carpano Formula Antico.
Below are couple of my recipes and a few from pals on my side of the Atlantic who love working with amaro, bitters, and anything Italian!
Created for Keith McNally’s Italian restaurant Morandi in NYC
Assemble the mango pieces and the pepper jelly in the bottom of a Boston glass and muddle well. Slowly pour the prosecco down the side of the glass while pulling the flavors gently up from the bottom. Strain through a tea strainer into the prosecco glass. Garnish a basil leaf.
Created for Keith McNally’s Italian restaurant Morandi in NYC
In a tall serving glass drop in one slice of English cucumber and the Cynar smash the cucumber slice with a muddler. Add the ice and all the remaining ingredients finishing with the tonic and stir. Drop in the remaining slice of cucumber and the slices of lime and lemon.
INTRO TO APEROL (Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club)
Assemble all the ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake well. Strain into a coupe glass and garnish with a flamed orange twist
LITTLE ITALY (Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club)
(A Manhattan variant with Cynar)
Assemble all the ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir to chill. Strain into a small cocktail glass and garnish with two Luxardo cherries
DAMSEL IN ROUGE (cocktail by Gary Regan for World Cocktail Day)
Shake and strain into a chilled wine goblet. Add the garnish.
ARCHANGEL (cocktail by Sasha Petraske for World Cocktail Day)
Stir gin and the Aperol with ice to chill. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon zest.
RESURRECCION (Tony AboutGanim from Mocha by Michael Turback)
Shake, strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the sprig of rosemary.
In a saucepan bring water to a boil and dissolve cocoa, espresso powder, sugar and salt. Cool and refrigerate until ready to use.
CALIFORNIA NEGRONI (Kim Haasarud of Liquid Architecture, Los Angeles California)
Fill a highball glass with ice and garnish with grapefruit wedge. Set aside. In a cocktail shaker combine the gin, sweet vermouth, Campari and fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. Shake moderately and strain into iced highball glass. Top off with tonic water.
TRI AMICI (George Delgado, former head bartender Window on the World)
Shaken with an orange wedge in the shaker and strained into an ice filled rocks glass. Garnish with an orange spiral.
Originally I was using this drink as a digestive when I felt like I ate too much, on other occasions I have used it as an aperitive (here I serve it straight up) when I wasn’t in the mood for a Manhattan or Martini… It works great either way, before or after dinner!
*Dale DeGroff original