The Fanciulli Cocktail

Cocktails are like people. The more complex, the more interesting and memorable they are. In the spirit of fine wines, craft beer and well-rested liquors I present the Fanciulli cocktail: a precise blend of fine American rye whiskey, aromatic sweet vermouth and a touch of an otherwise undrinkable, bitter digestif, yielding an enjoyable revision to the classic Manhattan.

Think of the Fanciulli cocktail as the Manhattan James Bond would order if he were a whiskey man. Like the Vesper, Ian Fleming’s twist on the classic gin Martini, the Fanciulli is a more nuanced version of the basic Manhattan.

My first experience of the Fanciulli came at a roadside inn and fine dining restaurant called Buck’s T-4, in the mountains of Montana. Their version went by the monicker “Porter’s Manhattan.” It was the start of a delightful evening of dining and conversation with my wife and two dear friends, each making the other all the more memorable.

I wanted to recreate the cocktail at home. A little online digging, using the ingredients as keywords, yielded a proportioned recipe that served as my starting point. It took more digging to source two of the ingredients, and a little experimentation to refine the recipe to my liking.

Experimentation is at least half the fun here. As with any cocktail, your palate will dictate what’s good and how much drink is enough. Many Manhattan recipes call for a 2:1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth. That produces what is for me a too-sweet cocktail, and given the other Fanciulli ingredients’ flavor contributions we might lose the whiskey altogether. Your mileage may vary in this regard.

As always, measure every ingredient precisely. Your local barman may pour by the count, but you aren’t he. Use a pair of measures, one sized ½-ounce on one side, 1-ounce on the other, the second ¾-ounce and 1½-ounce. These will allow variation in whatever recipe you’re mixing by using “parts,” or “measures.” If your base part is one-ounce, a 3:1 ratio will require three ounces of whiskey. A smaller drink can be had by using a ¾-ounce part, or even a ½-ounce part, which will yield a drink possessing the standard 1½-ounces of liquor. It’s all about proportion.

I have a friend who, when he gets the urge for a Martini, but lacks the time to enjoy a fuller serving, will mix the appropriate proportions in a shot glass topped with a single green olive. The yield is a single mouthful, just enough for appreciation without clouding the next hour with alcohol’s after-effect.

Rittenhouse 100-proof rye whiskey

Our cocktail begins with a good American rye whiskey. “Good” doesn’t necessarily imply expensive, and cheap never yields good. Cast your eyes upward when shopping.

Rye is as old as the hills, hills that stretch from Canada down through the American heartland. No slight to our northern friends, but for this spirit you want to buy American. By US law, to be called rye a whiskey must be distilled and aged in the US from a mash bill composed of no less than 51% rye grain, and rested in new, charred American oak barrels. No ex-sherry, ex-port, ex-brandy wood enters the mix. Aging of at least two years yields “straight” rye, and as with many of life’s pleasures, greater maturity produces better results.

No such requirement exists for “Canadian rye.” Your mileage will vary greatly based on the spirit selected, so choose wisely.

The remaining 49% of a rye mash bill may be any combination of barley, wheat, corn or even more rye. The more rye grain in the rye whiskey, the spicier the finished product and the better it will stand up to our remaining ingredients. You want a cocktail that speaks to you, not one that disappears off your tongue.

As with cooking with wine, the best mixology advice I’ve heard is to use what you’d drink “neat.” In this case I’ve chosen Rittenhouse 100-proof rye. This whiskey sits comfortably among the finer bourbons as an enjoyable evening sipper; a few fingers in a tumbler with a wee splash of still water bests most bourbons and Scotches, in my opinion, so if you’re of a mind to sip spirits, this one’s a gem. Today, though, it merely begins the recipe that will yield our Fanciulli. Three parts rye go into a shaker tin.

Carpano Antica sweeth vermouth

The next ingredient for any Manhattan-like cocktail is sweet, red vermouth. Like its dry, white cousin, sweet vermouth is a fortified wine product suitable for mixing, but not often taken alone. The pungency of lesser vermouths can be off-putting. Better vermouths may make for an enjoyable summer afternoon sip with soda water over ice, however.

My choice for the Fanciulli is Carpano Antica, a vermouth not only sweet, but pleasingly so, and original to the aperitif style. One part Carpano Antica vermouth adds the right degree of enjoyable sweetness, taking the edge off our whiskey.

Remember, well-made cocktails should never taste like their constituent liquor. Even a gin Martini, properly combined with dry vermouth and shaken for an appropriate duration will bear far less edge than gin alone. And, taken very cold in a comfortable chair on a hot, summer Friday’s shaded porch will definitely take the edge off an otherwise mediocre week.

Fernet-Branca digestif

Our third ingredient is the most difficult, both in its procurement and its use. Beware this one. Listed as a digestif, Fernet-Branca is a bitter concoction of botanicals infused into spirit. Unlike most digestifs I’ve enjoyed, this one is very hard on the palate, opening bitter and finishing with a menthol-like flavor. Just the smallest portion of it added to our shaker tin will give our Manhattan a solid floor on the palate and a pleasingly fresh aftertaste. One-quarter part Fernet-Branca, at most, goes into the tin. Better yet, use it as you would bitters: a couple of drops.

I mentioned a shaker tin, but we’re not going to use it in that capacity. For the Fanciulli we’ll instead employ a bar spoon. Typically long-handled with a decorative set of slots in the bill, and often bearing a twisted square handle shaft to aid rotating it through ice, the bar spoon has no other use beyond blending our ingredients among cubes, the larger the better.

No cracked ice! We want minimum dilution and no cloudiness. These ingredients don’t come cheap, and tasting each component’s contribution is among the pleasures of this cocktail. Twenty-seconds of rapid stirring, until the outside of the tin frosts over with whatever humidity is nearby, is enough.

Let the mixture rest while you prepare a glass to receive our evening’s refreshment.

Some drinks take a lemon twist, others take a bleu cheese-stuffed green olive as garnish. A straight Manhattan takes a Maraschino cherry with its attendant sweetness. As with the Martini’s green olive, it awaits at the bottom of a long-stemmed cocktail glass as a final palate pleaser. We’ll go with a cherry. Leave the stem on to make removing and eating it easier.

Whiskey, straight, best comports itself at room temperature. It’s a quicker trip from that to blood temperature on one’s tongue. In whiskey cocktail mixtures where ice is involved there’s no need to prolong the cold with a chilled glass.

Fruit in glass, we double-strain the tin’s contents to remove all traces of ice. A standard Hawthorne strainer goes on top of the tin, a powdered sugar sifter between that and the glass. Pour out the goodness.

Sit back, sip and enjoy. That’s the Fanciulli cocktail. It’s marginally complicated, mostly in acquiring the ingredients, and it takes a few minutes to put together. The result, though, brings all the spicy goodness of America’s other home-grown liquor, but with less edge, a firm floor for the palate and pleasing aftertaste. And there’s a fat cherry at the bottom as icing on this cake.