∴ A Triple-header Tasting: Vodkas

Three vodkas

I usually skip the vodkas at our local ABC store. Mostly of grain-based origin and bearing only a hint of flavor diversity amid the overpriced top shelves, this liquor doesn’t so much go with everything as need something for cocktail flavor. The only bottles of interest I’ve found to date have all been potato vodkas, those descendants of the mythical, original vodkas of yore, drank by fur-clad Russians and hardy Poles.

Here, though, are three vodkas worthy of a taste. Not grain-based, nor potato-based, these are interesting on the palate and, in my opinion, worth their price. There’s not a stinker among them. I think you’ll find at least one worth experimentation in your favorite vodka cocktail.

Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Fifth Generation, Inc., Austin, Texas. 80-proof, $22/750ml (Virginia ABC). This is my control against which I’ve compared and contrasted the other two. Well-regarded and amply available, Tito’s has graduated from small batch obscurity to eponymous must-have. It smells slightly sweet, betraying its 100%-corn origins. After 6-time pot-distillation and carbon filtration it’s surprising any corn sweetness makes it through. The flavor is also sweet, though not so much as, say, a bourbon, and is very soft on the palate. Think the exact opposite of Jack Daniels’ cutting sharpness. This soft sweetness in combination with a good dry vermouth lends itself to a fine, if mild vodka Martini. Low quality or old vermouth shines through Titos’ softness, though, so be forewarned: don’t go cheap. Tito’s aftertaste remains pleasant as it fades.

If Martinis pique your curiosity, but the thought of near-straight liquor puts you off, a Tito’s Martini with a lemon twist may be your entrée.

(Worth the short read, Tito Beveridge’s story about how he got into the vodka business kinda makes you proud to enjoy his product.)

Kopper Kettle Vodka, Belmont Farms of Virginia, Culpeper, Virginia. 80-proof, $20/750ml (Virginia ABC). Distilling doesn’t get any more local for me. These folks are just down the road a stretch. Another 100%-corn vodka, I knew I had to put it up against Tito’s as soon as I saw it on the shelf. Its scent is sweeter yet than Tito’s, though not off-puttingly so. The flavor is more corn-forward on my palate, and slightly more harsh, though still sippable. This one would make a more interesting vodka Martini than Tito’s. (A blander affair than its sibling the gin Martini, a Martini using this vodka will give you something to savor without resorting to olive brine for interest.) There’s no mention of how many times the spirit is run through a pot still, and their filtration method is a “secret,” but my guess is one to three fewer rides through than Tito’s. The aftertaste is also slightly more harsh than Tito’s, not surprising for fewer distillations. It matches the initial flavor. Their filtration could also lend to this difference. Though less soft and mild than Tito’s, Kopper Kettle is pleasant and more memorable and, as mentioned, a worthwhile mixer.

I used Kopper Kettle’s vodka to mix a Vesper, my go-to Friday evening reward. My first reaction was, “oh, my.” In my opinion there’s no substitute for a good potato vodka in a Vesper. It stands up to a juniper-forward gin. Tito’s, like grain vodkas, falls down in this respect. And yet Kopper Kettle’s liquor ably stood up. What a pleasant surprise.

Also worthy of note, Kopper Kettle distills what they’ve trademarked as “Virginia Whiskey.” Resting first on charred Virginia oak and applewood, then on traditional charred American oak, this whiskey has a unique, pleasant flavor and can be enjoyed neat or with a few drops of water. I keep a bottle in my repeat collection of bourbons and ryes. Recommended.

Jens Vodka

Jen’s Vodka, Cassinelli Winery & Vineyards, Church Hill, Maryland. 80-proof, $30/750ml (distillery MSRP). Triple-distilled from 100%-grapes and carbon filtered, this vodka brings to mind its fruit origin. In a blind test we could pick this vodka from among the three by scent alone. Sweeter than either Tito’s or Kopper Kettle, it’s not quite as soft on the palate as Tito’s. I’d call it about the same in this way as Kopper Kettle, but its flavor and aftertaste keep those plump grapes in mind until well after it’s in my belly. If I had to put a word to this liquor, it’d be “juicy.”

I’ve already made a handful of Vespers with Jen’s and good local gin, MurLarkey ImaGination from MurLarkey Distillery in Manassas, Virginia, and its sweetness neatly balances that gin’s juniper-forward flavor. This vodka makes for a nice sipper as well as a good citizen in your favorite cocktail, as long as its sweetness is kept in mind and balanced. Also of note is its beautiful Art Deco bottle art. Unique. (Click the image for a larger view.)

Of these three I’d recommend Jen’s for straight sipping. Keep a bottle in the freezer and pour just a couple ounces at a time, and enjoy. It’s very smooth, with enough interest of flavor to make it memorable. Or mix it into a cocktail and see what happens. Ditto Kopper Kettle’s vodka.

Jen’s caught my palate by surprise, and I’ve had my eye and mind on it ever since. My pal David gifted me this bottle and I need to thank him again for the experience. It’s always a pleasure to try something new and find it to my liking.

∴ A Gin-off: Locals and One From Far, Far Away

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This was perhaps the most difficult head-to-head taste-off I’ve enjoyed. Left to right: Strange Monkey Gin, Silverback Distillery, Afton, Virginia; The Botanist Islay Dry Gin, Bruichladdich Distillery, Islay, Scotland; Watershed Gin, Catoctin Creek Distilling Company, Purcellville, Virginia.
The Botanist has been a go-to gin for the Vesper, a favorite warm-weather cocktail, for a while. Moderately floral with a juniper-forward flavor, it blends well with just about anything. Add a dash of bitters and it melds with anything else. The Botanist’s bright, clean flavor, devoid of aftertaste, sets it apart as a prime ingredient in any gin cocktail. Top of the top shelf.
Watershed Gin was the surprise local upstart a year or two back, earning a prime spot in my line-up with its clean flavor. More floral with slightly sweeter aftertaste than The Botanist, I’m hard-pressed to favor either. Watershed compares favorably with Bombay Sapphire. Tie-breaker goes to local origin – Watershed. Priced similarly to The Botanist, you won’t find better ingredients for your cocktails.
Enter our latest discovery, found on a mead-buying, cider-sampling run to Afton, Virginia last weekend. On a lark Neal and I stopped in at Silverback Distillery for a tasting, after hearing a positive mention from Kristin at Blue Toad cidery.

Silverback offered two liquors for sampling. Their Blackback White liquor was, as expected, a novelty not appealing for purchase by the bottle (same goes for Mosby’s Spirit from Catoctin Creek). White liquor is what you get right out of the still before re-distilling for vodka or dispensing into barrels for maturation into whiskey. It’s an interesting bit of distilling education, and maybe one could concoct a cocktail of it, but I wouldn’t. Too raw.
Blackback is for sale now, but a portion of the output goes into barrels, eventually becoming Silverback’s bourbon. There’ll be a multi-year wait for maturation, hence the sale of Blackback today. Whiskeys are an investment; white liquors are cash flow. Made of corn, winter wheat and barley, Blackback will produce a wheated bourbon. “Wheaters,” as they’re known, are softer and rounder in flavor than regular bourbons.

Silverback’s gin, though, was intriguing. Again made with winter wheat, Strange Monkey provided a juniper flavor that finished uniquely sweet. Not your usual gin experience. Seeing my interest piqued, Neal kindly gifted me with a bottle for experimentation, which led to this work. After an afternoon of yard work in Virginia’s warm, delayed spring wind, the sky full of sun for the first full day in nearly two weeks, and after a recovery loaf on the floor with my girls it was time for a taste-off.
Strange Monkey is also floral, though not as much as Watershed, and its juniper is less forward than that of The Botanist. On those counts you could call this a flavorful, pleasant gin similar to the other two.
After sipping among the three, comparing and contrasting, the only negative I found in Strange Monkey was its unique sweetness. Strange Monkey won two competition awards in 2015, so I’m compelled to add that this is obviously a matter of personal taste. Others find its sweetness endearing. It’s a minor quibble that left me puzzled – every sip began with enjoyment of the floral, juniper flavor and ended with a question mark over the aftertaste.
Watershed possesses a very minor degree of this sweetness, too, though The Botanist, clean as the wind-swept Hebrides from which it emerges, is devoid of it. The hint of Watershed’s sweetness is what makes it a treat for use in cocktails. So it comes down to how much of this sweetness you’ll enjoy before finding it off-putting.
I needed a more complex sampling to understand how Strange Money played with other flavors, so I incorporated it into both a Vesper, at 3-1-¼ with Tito’s vodka and Cocchi Americano, and a Martini at about 7:1 with dry vermouth. I’d normally use a potato vodka in the Vesper for its earthy flavor, but I wanted no interference with the gin flavor for this tasting. Both cocktails were stirred over ice in a mixing glass to simultaneously reach optimal temperature and dilution. A few sips of each and a conclusion was reached.
The Botanist stands alone in its stark sharpness. Go here for fine gin flavor, full stop.
Watershed Gin remains my sentimental and flavorful favorite by a hair, though. As with a favored warm bourbon, this gin will grace my Vespers and Martinis for a long while. (I should sneak it into my pals’ cocktails just to see their unknowing enjoyment.) Not as crisp as The Botanist, Watershed more than succeeds with its floral scent and flavor. A head-to-head against Bombay Sapphire would be fun with this one.
Either way you win with these two. Experiment. Maybe you’ll take one over the other. Write about it if you do – I’d like to learn why.
Strange Monkey remains an experimental ingredient. Though initially bright and flavorful, I’m undecided on its use due to the underlying and lasting sweetness. I wouldn’t use this gin in a Vesper any more than I would Hendrick’s, though I like the latter very much. And though I’ll always relish a Hendrick’s Martini, I don’t think I care for Strange Monkey in a Martini, either. I’d say this one will mix well into a sour such as a Gimlet, its sweetness offsetting some of the grapefruit sourness and making for a yummy cocktail. Another day’s entertainment.
So: Watershed, The Botanist, Strange Monkey, in that order. Add Bombay Safire between the first two just for the hell of it.
Yeah, I love Virginia. We have a surprising number of breweries, distilleries, meaderies and cideries, with more on the way. Another few open every month, it seems. And I like a good gin. Somewhere, an old friend is smiling. “Think of a pine forest.”

∴ A Contest of Wills

Or, a contest of flavors. Never underestimate your palate’s capability to discern more.

The Manhattan is a simple cocktail. Two parts whiskey, one part sweet vermouth, a couple dashes of bitters. A classic.

Turn up the volume. Let’s say the whiskey must be rye, with all of the bold spiciness it imparts. And let’s say the vermouth must be something that elbows its way onto your palate no matter what it’s mixed with, no matter the ratio: Carpano Antica Formula.

Now tweak the bitters. One dash Angostura aromatic tying the whiskey and vermouth together, one dash orange to play with the whiskey. Rye is sharp vs. the corn sweetness of bourbon, so add one dash cherry bark vanilla bitters to give back a mild sweetness.

Now stir. No shaker needed, only a mixing glass, a bar spoon and a fistful of ice. Keep the back of the spoon on the inside of the glass and circulate the liquids among the ice until the cubes soften. Say, twenty back-and-forth rotations. Sample with a cocktail straw – this is a “stirred and boozy” cocktail, it should taste just so. Expect a jungle of flavors, none overwhelming the others.

Serve up, with a Bing cherry garnish. Sublime.

∴ Quick Take: Rittenhouse 100 Rye Whiskey vs. Bulleit Rye Whiskey

Bulleit and Rittenhouse rye whiskeys

We paid a quick visit to our local Virginia ABC shop this afternoon. A group of friends is gathering to plan our upcoming vacation tomorrow, and our hostess is making cocktails to go with lunch. We’re to bring one of the ingredients. I’ll say only that when the drinks are of the frozen type, it matters not what hue the Triple Sec imbues.

Anyhow, my bar is running low on rye whiskey, so I perused the whiskey aisle while Kelly went in search of tomorrow’s ingredient.

I’m partial to Rittenhouse 100 Rye for my Manhattans, but our state ABC appears to have lost interest in carrying it. That’s a shame, because its bottled-in-bond stamp ensures a sturdy, well-aged product, and Heaven Hill, distiller of Rittenhouse, steps squarely to the plate and knocks this whiskey out of the park. Rich, flavorful for its high ABV, and bargain priced in the high twenties, Rittenhouse is a smart buy. But not today. It’s a mail order item anymore.

I’ve enjoyed a Manhattan made with Bulleit Rye at one of our better local restaurants, though, and every liquor store seems to stock it. Hmm. With a third of a bottle of the Rittenhouse left, I could wait, or i could bring home the Bulleit and do a head-to-head tasting.

Cutting to the chase: both exhibit a rich, spicy rye flavor. There’s a bit of sweetness to both, almost a bourbon-like corn flavor, though there’s no corn in the Bulleit product. Rittenhouse’s new formula includes 37% corn in the mash bill, while Bulleit’s MGP pedigree includes 95% rye, 5% barley – no corn at all. I was hard-pressed to taste a difference, though, aside from the 10% ABV difference in alcohol content.

If you’re a Rittenhouse fan and have a hard time finding it, or want to branch out to something new without straying to far afield, Bulleit is a good choice. I’ll be using it in my Manhattans for a while, and for a new cocktail I’ll be playing with: the Black Manhattan. The Virginia ABC stocks Averna amaro, so this cocktail is next on my experimentation list.


∴ The Forgotten Ingredient

One of the three classic cocktail styles, the sour, includes an ingredient added almost as an afterthought: sweetener. Acting as a balance to lemon, lime or other sour flavoring, this component is most often simple syrup, a 1:1 mix of water and granular table sugar, or sucrose.

But “simple” can be a wee too neutral. I used to employ simple in my Lemon Drop cocktails, but changed sweeteners to agave syrup because it imparts a strong richness amid its sweetness. That richness stands up well to the Lemon Drop’s Cointreau and lemon juice components, adding depth to the drink. No small task against pungent flavors.

This weekend, though, I began experimenting with a classic cocktail, the Daiquiri. The original version (which involves no ice outside of a shaker tin) was around long before Hemingway made it his drink of choice. Simply made of two parts white rum, one part fresh-squeezed lime juice, and three-quarters part sweetener (more on this to follow), this cocktail is said to demonstrate much about a bartender’s skills.

  • Measurement of all ingredients is the key to a well-made cocktail, and there are not only three to this drink, but one is measured from a fruit press. Whether you use a two-handled model or a tried-and-true countertop twist-style, you’re not pouring from a bottle for this one.
  • Fruit preparation is important here. Either style press will give you proper juice, but giving your limes a roll on the cutting block while pressing down with moderate force will begin breaking down the pulp structure, helping release more juice. One medium lime should provide an ounce of juice, maybe a little more. Measure it to be sure.
  • Too much leverage on a one- or two-handled press will release oil from the rind, resulting in an overly sour drink. Knowing when to stop squeezing is make-or-break.
  • Shaking technique is all about combining ingredients while chilling to the right temperature, and diluting the ingredients with just enough melt water. It’s said that 20% of a properly made cocktail is water from the shake or stir. The more practice made at getting that dilution, the easier it is to know when it’s reached. For this drink, shaken, the ice should just begin to sound soft. You’ll know it when you hear it.

These are the details that make for a fine cocktail. Attending to them, out pours one of the simplest cocktails in the book. But not so fast: I found ¾ part simple syrup left the drink a bit sharp on first sip. A guest might pull up short on such a sip – removing that hesitation is why I switched my Lemon Drops to agave syrup. But agave is far too rich for the delicate flavor of a fine white rum. Something else is needed.

The Daiquiri calls for cane sugar syrup. Made by stirring two parts evaporated cane juice sugar into one part water warming on the stove, this sweetener adds a depth of flavor absent in simple syrup, yet less imposing than that of agave syrup. It preserves the delicate flavors of white rum while taking the edge off fresh lime juice. It is the perfect correction to that sharp first sip.

I performed a direct comparison between two sweeteners today, shaking two Daiquiris identical in composition save for the syrups. Into one tin went ¾ part simple syrup, and into the other went ½ part cane sugar syrup. I tried the simple syrup-laced cocktail first, noting the sharpness of the lime juice first, which then gave way to the rum flavors. The sugar cane syrup-laced drink blended, where no one flavor overshadowed the others. The sweetener, so minor a player in this ensemble of ingredients, turned out to be a key player.

(Take a sip of the cane sugar syrup-laced version first if you try this for yourself. The initial tartness of the simple syrup-laced version threw off my palate, and it wasn’t until I walked away from the two for a few minutes and came back to a slightly warmer, and more flavorful-for-it drink that I noticed the difference.)

The beauty of cane sugar syrup is that it may be used anywhere simple syrup is called for, and will provide an additional dimension to your cocktail. Though its sweetness is the same as table sugar, in my view, go a little lighter when subbing in for simple syrup. Cane’s depth of flavor, though subtle, adds to its sweetness. Use ½ part cane sugar syrup for ¾ part simple in a Daiquiri, for example. Play with it to find your “sweet spot.”

So what’s the difference between common table sugar and cane sugar? Table sugar is fully refined from raw, brownish, milled sugarcane. I’ve never given it much thought; I’ve just grabbed the bag from my wife’s baking supply and mixed in an equal part to make simple syrup. Evaporated cane juice is made by removing moisture from milled, pressed sugar cane; it’s partially refined, and that leaves in enough molasses to enhance its flavor.

Finding evaporated cane juice sugar is not a straightforward task. Skip the baking aisle of your local grocery and go instead to the organics section. I found a number of sweeteners there, including two labeled “organic cane sugar.” Only one listed evaporated cane juice as its sole ingredient. Caveat emptor, and have a good look at the nutrition label before buying.

I titled this article The Forgotten Ingredient, because few think about the sweetener when building a cocktail. It’s usually last into the shaker, and one’s mind is on buttoning up and shaking – but don’t be hasty in your preparation: the right sweetener can make all the difference.

* I found this interesting passage in the Wikipedia entry for sugar:

Sugar production and trade have changed the course of human history in many ways, influencing the formation of colonies, the perpetuation of slavery, the transition to indentured labour, the migration of peoples, wars between sugar-trade–controlling nations in the 19th century, and the ethnic composition and political structure of the New World.

All that for (by?) a simple, organic compound. Wow.

∴ The Lemon Drop

Here’s a cocktail that’s both lemony-refreshing for summer, and satisfyingly rich for colder months.

Absolut Citron vodka

There are four components in this Lemon Drop: vodka, orange liqueur, lemon juice, and sweetener. The quality of each ingredient affects the finished product, so I’ve recommended what I use as a starting point.

Before you begin, chill your cocktail glasses with a handful of cracked ice each, and water. They’ll be nice and cold by the time you mix up your ingredients.

First, we’ll reach slightly lower on the store shelf for flavored vodka. I use Absolut’s Citron. Readily available, and flavorful yet not cloyingly so, it’s a good all-around choice. A pricier pick is Hangar One’s Buddha’s Hand Citron. Other brands produce a lemon product, so pick your favorite.

Whichever product you choose, its lemon flavor shouldn’t stop you from enjoying a shot glass-full neat. It’s a good test of palatability.

No-one’s expecting this vodka to stand up on its own, but in keeping with the theme that good ingredients make for good drinks it shouldn’t leave you feeling under-served, either.

Keep in mind that there are three more ingredients in this drink, one very pungent, so an expensive pick isn’t going to stand out in proportion to its price. Save your money here, just don’t go cheap.

One measure of lemon vodka goes into the mixing glass.

Cointreau liqueur

The second ingredient in our Lemon Drop is crucial wherever it’s called for, but often overlooked by casual drinkers: Cointreau. This aperitif bears a pungent orange flavor similar to other Triple Secs and Curacaos. Its original name was “Curaçao Blanco Triple Sec,” even. Made from bitter orange peels steeped in pure, sugar beet alcohol, the critical difference between it and other Triple Secs isn’t so much the method of production, but rather its flavor on your palate.

Try a head-to-head taste-off to divine the better product. You probably have a bottle of Triple Sec in your bar. Pick up a small bottle of Cointreau and pour a half-ounce into a shot glass, and another half-ounce of your usual Triple Sec into a second. Try the Cointreau first.

Use the money you save on top-priced vodka and spend it on Cointreau. It’s easily quadruple the price of garden-variety Triple Secs, but you can use it anywhere Triple Sec or Curacao is called for. It’s even tasty over ice on a hot day.

One measure of Cointreau, into the mixing glass.


Our third ingredient lends the drink its name: lemon juice, freshly squeezed from fresh lemons.

I’ve used week-old lemons for this drink with mixed results. Those who favor a more tart version won’t mind; they might actually prefer it. Everyone else will make the face.

You know the face. It’s the eyes-averted, this-drink-is-harsh look. You’ll know you’ve goofed. Squeeze the lemons while your friends watch, and you’ll never see that look.

A sharp paring knife and a two-handled lemon press make quick work of it.

One measure of freshly squeezed lemon juice goes into the mixing glass.

Among vodka, Cointreau, and lemon juice, a sweetener is called for. It’s our last ingredient.

Avoid granular sugar. It won’t dissolve enough unless you stir it into hot water – and that’s choice number one: simple syrup. Equal parts very hot water and sugar allowed to cool, it’s a staple behind the bar. I recommend making a few Lemon Drops with simple syrup to get the recipe down pat.

Using simple syrup, one measure goes into the mixing glass.

Dark agave syrup

Or try something that will set your cocktail apart: pure agave nectar. Available from most grocery stores in light and dark versions, I go for the dark. They’re equally sweet, but the dark bears a richer, earthy flavor. Avoid anything containing corn syrup or other ingredients.

Agave is both a secret to keep in your bag of tricks and a pain to work with. A secret, because most home barkeeps don’t know of it. Agave will set your cocktail apart from others with its rich flavor.

It’s also a pain in the neck to work with, because there’s a very fine line between just right and too much. Shy on the mild side with agave syrup.

No special effort (see: dry shaking) is required to dissolve or emulsify agave nectar; it blends in like any other syrup. If you go too far in your measured addition, add a wee bit more lemon juice to adjust your drink before shaking.

Using dark agave nectar, one-third (just one-third) measure goes into the mixing glass.

Pile the mixing glass high with cracked ice, add the shaker tin with a tap and shake with an easy, Martini-like rhythm until your hand feels frost-bitten on the tin. Shaking introduces melt water into the drink, toning down any sharp flavors.

Three Lemon Drops

Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and serve with a twisted lemon peel garnish, or hold the fruit and sip away.

(The examples at right show how dark agave nectar makes a normally pale yellow cocktail into a more inviting, darker version.)

I’ve heard of an alternative to agave nectar that you might try. Look for demerara or turbinado sugar, and incorporate one into your Lemon Drop as a syrup. Mix 2:1 sugar to hot water, and let cool. Go easy on it in the mixing glass, working your way up from ½ measure until you find balance. Successful experimentation here leads to your own signature cocktail.

You can further experiment with how long you shake the mixture, or try stirring over a handful of cracked ice for thirty seconds, instead. Stirring introduces less melt water and therefore, a stronger cocktail. Find the balance between too-hot, alcohol-forward and nicely mellowed.

Lemon Drops can be bulk-assembled ahead of a party in the right proportion, 1-1-1-1 with simple syrup or 1-1-1-⅓ with agave nectar, and chilled down in a pitcher. Stir the pitcher before lightly shaking a couple of servings at a time and the result will put drinks in your friends’ hands quickly, without much effort.

You’ll empty a vodka bottle getting this one just the way you like it, but repetition is the pleasure of mixing well-made cocktails, right?

∴ Bitters, For Better Cocktails

I’m laid up recovering from surgery. What better time to think and write about bitters?

Angostura bitters

Many cocktail recipes include a dash or two of this enigmatic product. For most people that amounts to a couple drops of Angostura bitters, sold everywhere in a small bottle with an iconic, oversized label. Nearly everyone has a bottle of this otherwise undrinkable substance tucked away, gathering dust. And yet it remains one of the least explored parts of drink-making.

If we agree that a cocktail, if made at all, should be made well, it stands to reason that we should know why we’re including bitters, and why leaving the well-trod road of Angostura for less well-traveled paths is a good idea.

In a nutshell, bitters are a combination of organic matter and alcohol, usually aromatic or savory botanicals. Typically very concentrated in flavor, bitters are measured in dashes or drops. Some were originally marketed as digestifs for relief from upset stomach and other maladies.

Packing so much flavor into so small a volume gives bitters their name. Some are downright awful taken on their own.

A bitters-like product popular in the San Francisco area of late, Fernet Branca is occasionally sold by the shot, and had mainly on a dare. It’s nasty stuff. Yet despite its harshness, a drop or two added to a Manhattan recipe gives that cocktail a lovely mint aftertaste, which kicks in just as the whiskey flavor fades.

Not all bitters are terribly harsh on their own, however. Orange bitters, and particularly vanilla bitters are quite nicely sweet, though one would still be hard-pressed to drink even a mouthful neat.

So why use a cocktail ingredient that’s so powerfully flavored and, on it’s own, so often harsh? In a word, depth. Bitters adds depth to the flavor of just about any cocktail. Since we’re hand-crafting the flavor of our drink when mixing a cocktail, not simply slapping together booze, mixer and ice, the individual flavors matter. Enhancing a cocktail with bitters makes its flavor deeper, richer.

It’s important to note that I mix my cocktails by parts. My basic part, or measure, varies from ¾- to one-and-one-half-ounce, resulting in a cocktail of 3- to 4-ounces. I don’t keep large cocktail glasses at home, and I don’t mind sending one off the bar half-filled when using someone else’s glassware. Better to make two and enjoy each cold in turn than to make one big sloppy drink that finishes unpleasantly warm.

In my size drink, one or two drops of bitters suffice. If you’re mixing larger drinks you’ll use a larger base measure, so up your bitters component accordingly.

Bittercube bitters

I’ve had one of those “forever” bottles of Angostura bitters in my liquor cabinet for ages. It hasn’t gotten any lighter lately, because Kelly gifted me a collection of six bitters from Bittercube, a boutique bitters manufacturer in Milwaukee, this past Christmas. Bittercube produces their own unique formulations for orange, “cherry bark” vanilla, blackstrap molasses, two variety of Jamaican and one they call “Bolivar.” The last bears a lovely floral aroma, and enhances cocktails as much by its scent as its flavor, I’ve found.

This six-bottle variety pack includes one-ounce bottles each topped with a dropper cap, allowing for simple measurement experimentation. Bittercube also sells each bitters product in a full 5-ounce bottle with a “dash” top, as well as each 1-ounce sample bottle individually. They thoughtfully include suggested uses for each of these unique flavor enhancers packaged with the set, giving mixologists a starting point.

There’e really no wrong way to use these products. I’d add one guideline that’s always wisely applied: use them sparingly. A dash is a drop. Two drops is usually enough, and I’ve never found it useful combining more than three bitters in a single cocktail. I have, though, found the right three to be quite entertaining in cocktails otherwise largely devoid of flavor, say, a dry vodka Martini.

Therein lies the joy of mixology: experimentation. For example, orange bitters are often suggested as an accompaniment to whiskey-based cocktails. While I’ve found Bittercube’s suggestions useful, it’s when I’ve plunged headlong off that path that I’ve obtained the most interesting results.

My go-to Manhattan recipe includes two drops orange bitters, and one drop vanilla. The vanilla obtains a sweeter expression of the aromatized sweet vermouth I use, while the orange deepens the whiskey barrel flavor of my favorite rye. With just a few drops of otherwise unremarkable liquid this simple cocktail becomes a sublime expression of the classic drink, and a welcome end-of-the-week reward.

Another interesting result is obtained by adding Bolivar bitters to the classic Vesper recipe. The mild citrus and bitter tang of Lillet Blanc, or better, Kina L’Aero D’Or is enhanced with the fine floral essence imparted by just one drop of this bitters.

I’ve found a simple gin Martini, mixed to my taste at about a six-to-one gin/vermouth ratio, takes on a very satisfying depth and uniqueness of flavor with the addition of two drops black strap molasses bitters. It’s an odd combination, but I think the flavor interest springs from the contrast between gin’s botanicals and the black strap’s rich, almost burnt sugar flavor. It’s an enjoyable variation on one of my favorite cocktails when I’m looking for something different to sip.

Using a light hand with the bitters keeps their flavor contribution a pleasant accompaniment. They shine through the finished cocktail as but a third or fourth component. Sometimes the bitters flavor shines only as a remnant, an echo of the cocktail. The aforementioned Fernet Branca in a Manhattan is one example.

I know I’ve hit the right combination when I get a pleased smile and hear “oh!” a few seconds after the first mouthful of drink is consumed.

As you can see, the possibilities are many. Take your favorite cocktail preparation, add a few drops of well-crafted bitters and see where it takes you. Then change it up and try a different path. You might find that your “favorite” cocktail has multiple expressions!

∴ A Gin-off

The Botanist gin and Broker's gin

I’m always looking to improve my cocktails’ ingredients and their results. Today’s liquor taste-off follows an identical try from last evening, but with an important change. This time the tasting is blind.

I’m taste-testing two gins, weighing which will remain or become my go-to ingredient for the Vesper. Ian Fleming fans will recall the Vesper as three parts gin, one part vodka, and a half-part Kina Lillet, so the gin carries a lot of this cocktail’s flavor. And since there’s no mixer or fill in the Vesper recipe, there’s nothing to hide a bad choice.

Putting Hendrick’s, my favorite Martini gin, aside for the moment, today’s tasting is between Broker’s and The Botanist. Brokers enters as the gin I’ve come back to from each excursion into something new.

The Botanist was recommended in an article by Aaron Tubbs, wherein he discussed how to build a better Vesper.

Broker’s, a London dry gin distilled in England and bottled at 94-proof, has a distinct aroma of juniper and pine. No surprise there. It also goes down a little harsh neat, likely (I thought) due to its elevated alcohol content. Enjoyable in a mixed drink, even one composed only of liquors, this gin makes for an affordable house bottle at around $22 for the 750 ml size.

The Botanist, a not quite dry gin distilled in Scotland by the Bruichladdich whisky distillery, clocks in at 92-proof. Surprisingly, it lacked the strong aroma found in so many gins. On the nose it comes forward sweeter than Broker’s. Its flavor is similar to, but milder than Broker’s, and finishes cleanly. The Botanist rings up at about $37 for a 750 ml bottle.

In both the self-poured and blind tests, the differences between these two were apparent. I had forgotten which had the nose-full of scent from my self-poured test and began the blind test with what turned out to be The Botanist, on the assumption that the less aromatic sample would be less flavorful. This was a false assumption. Both gins gave a good accounting of themselves on the tongue, but the nod goes to The Botanist for its more refined, and yes, even a wee bit sweeter finish. A gin aficionado could enjoy The Botanist neat. I don’t believe the same true of Broker’s.

Two Vespers, one each made with The Botanist and Broker's gin

At nearly double the price of Broker’s, though, The Botanist presents a choice. I prefer my Martinis made with Hendrick’s and a good dry vermouth. But Hendrick’s renowned mild cucumber infusion makes it wrong for a Vesper. That leaves these two from among the several I’ve sampled. And, at three parts gin per cocktail, a bottle disappears quicker than any other in my bar. The Botanist makes for a pricey Vesper.

On solo taste alone, The Botanist finishes a head above Broker’s. You’d be forgiven for assuming that the inclusion of vodka in the Vesper recipe masks Broker’s harsher edge and brings them even in that cocktail. Add a bit of Kina and the difference should vanish altogether. Not so. Broker’s harsh finish shines through in the poured cocktail, though not as evident as when taken neat. The Botanist is the better gin, both neat and in a strong liquor mix such as the Vesper.

But let me be clear: Broker’s is not an unpleasant gin, having survived many a taste test. You’ll enjoy its strong gin flavor in any cocktail that calls for London’s renowned spirit. You may even prefer its boldness in the Vesper. Simply, there is no wrong answer between these two.

I’ve found liquors whose price belied their quality. Rittenhouse rye whiskey comes to mind. With a price in the twenties it sits head AND shoulders above bottles twice the price. These two gins don’t present such a choice. The Botanist is an easy favorite, but Broker’s, even with its harsher finish, is not unpleasant and provides more enjoyable drink per penny. Either is a good choice mixed. Go with The Botanist neat, however.

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.

Brewery Chart – Beer Drinkers, Unite!

Click through for enlightening data. Looks like Reagan gave us a reason to drink.

So, two things. When our supermarkets are stocking more fine brew than macro crap, we’re living in the golden age of craft beer.

Second, does anyone really believe the prohibition “dip?” I’d guess a true data plot would include a dotted line connecting pre-prohibition to post-. But what do I know?