From the Manhattan to the Negroni: A Tour of the World’s Finest Cocktails

Welcome! Today we are going on a little journey. A tour of the world’s finest cocktails — or at least of Joe’s favorite cocktails. And these are not just a random assortment of cocktails. They are a family. Each one is distinct, but they share a common gene pool.  And like any family it all starts with the patriarch. The granddaddy. The king.

The Manhattan

We start with the King of Cocktails. After years of being considered your father’s drink the Manhattan is experiencing a rebirth as more sophisticated drinkers flee from the slums of Appletinis. The Manhattan gives us the core of our cocktail family. Its characteristic boozy, spicy profile is passed on to its descendants. And as is the case with many grizzled old veterans we delight in its straightforward simplicity:

  • 2 parts Bulleit Bourbon
  • 1 part Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
  • 3 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry

The Manhattan wraps you in warmth like a good hug from a loved one. The powerful whiskey flavors are softened by the vermouth and gently melted ice. The vermouth adds depth and a touch of sweetness, which is enhanced by the aromatic bitters bringing a fantastic nose to the drink.

It is bliss. But possibly not perfection. What if you want more off all the good things a Manhattan brings? Can we evolve it? Oh yes we can…

The Little Italy

If the Manhattan is a warm hug, the Little Italy is a warm, lingering kiss from Sophia Loren. It takes the Manhattan and replaces the bitters and a bit of the vermouth with Cynar, an Italian Amaro:

  • 2 parts Bulleit Bourbon
  • 3/4 parts Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
  • 1/2 part Cynar
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry

To quote my brother: “this might be the best damn cocktail on the planet”, and it is tough to argue with that. The Little Italy takes all that’s good about the Manhattan and raises it. It’s a touch sweeter. A touch more herbal. And a touch more bitter.

It is spectacular.

But what if this is a bit too dark and earthy? What if you want to lighten things up a bit? Well, let’s just look to our friends in New Orleans for a little help…

The Vieux Carre

While the Little Italy is dark and sultry, the Vieux Carre is smooth and sophisticated. Some of the bourbon is replaced with cognac making for an accessible and easy taste — just like the Big Easy itself. The sophistication is provided by a double dose of bitters and a splash of Benedictine that provides an almost honey-like finish:

  • 1 part Bulleit Bourbon
  • 1 part Cognac
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters
  • 1 dash Peychaud Bitters
  • 1 splash (tsp) Benedictine liqueur
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry

The Vieux Carre is smooth and tasty, but it is a little fussy for me. We seem to have strayed from the simple salt-of-the-earth roots provided by our beloved Manhattan. And I find myself longing for the bittersweet presented by the Little Italy. So let’s get back to basics.

The Boulvardie

The Vieux Carre introduced us to the delightful symmetry of three equal parts. The Boulvardie continues with that theme, but replaces the pretentious cognac with the rambunctiously bittersweet Campari. Dispensing with the other accouterments makes for a delightfully simple, vibrant cocktail:

  • 1 part Bulleit Bourbon
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 part Campari
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with an orange twist

Yes! This is delicious. One wonders how the heck Campari  pairs with bourbon, but it works.  I very much enjoy a Boulvardie when I want a change of pace although the drink does have some uneasiness to it.  It’s a bit of an in-betweener.  If I want a whiskey drink then give me a Little Italy. If I want brightly bittersweet then give me a Negroni!

The Negroni

Oh. My. God. There is absolutely nothing like it. Nothing. I still remember my first sip. I heard angels sing. I remember my brother’s first sip. He heard angels sing. The Negroni takes The Boulvardie and replaces the oakey bourbon with crisp, lightly  medicinal, gin:

  • 1 part Beefeaters Gin
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 part Campari
  • Stir with ice for 60 seconds, then strain over rocks (or up) and garnish with an orange wedge

The Campari is the star of this drink, so you will either love it or hate it. And I’m a lover. A Negroni starts sweet and clean and brightly citrus. It has a pleasant herbal medicinal quality  and a sturdy bitter finish. But like its star ingredient it is polarizing. Those of us that love it consider ourselves blessed.

But what if you aren’t a lover? And what if all of the above drinks are just a bit too much: too bourbony, or too medicinal, or too bitter. What if you want something full of flavor, but showing some restraint. Well, we have a drink for that too…

The Old Fashion

The Old Fashion takes a Manhattan and removes the vermouth, replacing it with a touch of water, a sugar cube and some muddled orange. While still boozey the Old Fashion stays pleasant and easy drinking. And the following recipe makes it even more accessible by using Canadian whisky:

  • 1 sugar cube
  • 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
  • splash of water
  • 1 orange wedge
  • 2 shots Canadian Whisky
  • Muddle the sugar cube, bitters, water and orange wedge in an old fashion glass. Add whiskey and a little ice. Stir well, add more ice and garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino Cherry

A traditional Old Fashion does not muddle the orange wedge, but I like the extra citrus flavor this provides. The bitters and sugar provide the nose and sweetness of a Manhattan without the extra herbalness of vermouth. Using Canadian whisky further mellows the drink making it very easy drinking.

And with that, we are at the end of our tour. I’ll finish with a few notes on the drink recipes.

A Note On The Recipes

I am not holding up the above recipes as definitive. They are just the ones I use. You should consider them as a starting point. As to the ingredients:

  • Bulleit Bourbon. Many of the above cocktails are traditionally made with American rye whiskey, but many of us don’t stock rye in our liquor cabinets. Bulleit is a nicely flavorful bourbon that works terrific in these drinks. And Costco carries it!
  • Carpano Antica sweet vermouth. Carpano Antica is a bold, flavorful vermouth that makes for a spectacular Manhattan because it brings so much to the table. There are lots of vermouths out there. Please try them all. You might want to see my vermouth tasting blog
  • Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth. The worlds most popular sweet vermouth, and my favorite in a Negroni and other cocktails where the vermouth is in a supporting roll. Makes for nicely balanced drinks.
  • Cynar. One of the more common Italian Amari, Cynar is bittersweet and pleasantly vegetal. I recommend you try some others (see my Amari tasting blog).
  • Campari. Another Italian Amari, but different in that it is highly citrus. Wonderfully bittersweet, Campari is polarizing and, alas, not for everybody.
  • Beefeaters gin. I prefer basic London dry gin in my Negronis. No flowery or boutique gins please.
  • Canadian whisky. Canadian whisky is a blended whisky usually containing some amount of neutral spirits. This makes for a whisky that is less bold than American bourbon and more approachable for some.
  • Luxardo Maraschino Cherries. The original and very pricey. But these are spectacular, and you don’t go through them very fast. Consider this one of life’s luxuries that you should indulge yourself in.
  • Benedictine. An herbal liqueur that adds medicinal sweetness to a cocktail. Also fantastic when mixed 50/50 with brandy.

 

 

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Amari: Life is Bittersweet – Tasting Review of 6 Amari

Amaro is a large category of Italian herbal liquor that is traditionally sipped neat as an apertif or a digestif. Here in the states amaro is more typically used as an ingredient for cocktails or with a splash of soda.  The most common example is Campari — the key ingredient of the beloved Negroni.  Cynar shows up in the spectacular Little Italy, a Manhattan variant. And finally, a friend at work (a newly minted Manhattan lover) shared his Manhattan recipe that tempers Carpano Antica with a little Cardamaro.

So clearly there is something worth looking into here. Having already reviewed some of the more common vermouths,  it was time to turn my attention to amari.

The Supplies

After a little research on the web I chose my lineup and headed off to Beltramo’s Wines and Spirits in Menlo Park, CA. Here is what I came home with (as pictured left to right above):

  1. Fernet Branca, 375ml, 78 proof, $14.99
  2. Luxardo Amaro Abano, 750ml, 60 proof, $22.99
  3. Averna Amaro, 750ml, 58 proof, $26.99
  4. Cynar, 1L, 33 proof, $23.99
  5. Ramazzotti Amaro, 750ml, 60 proof, $21.99
  6. Cardamaro Vino Amaro, 750ml, 34 proof, $21.99

Where is the Campari? I chose to leave it out. It’s pretty familiar to many, and  it would be the odd man out in this lineup — being strongly citrus.

All of these amari are italian. Beltramo’s had many more, including a number from other countries. But six seemed a good number for both my palette and my wallet.

The Method

I started off tasting these head-to-head neat. Then incorporated them into my evening libations over the course of weeks. I also invited others (in particular my brother) to join in the fun.

One of the common applications of amaro is to use it in a Manhattan replacing the bitters and a bit of the vermouth. Depending on the ratios this can be called a Black Manhattan or a Little Italy. I call it one of the best damn cocktails on the planet.

For reference here is the Little Italy recipe I (generally) used:

  • 2 parts Bulleit Bourbon
  • 3/4 part Martini and Rossi sweet vermouth (or Cocchi if it’s a special occasion!)
  • 1/2 part Amaro

Stir with ice for 60 seconds and serve up or on the rocks, garnished with a cherry and/or orange twist.

The Results

In alphabetical order.

Averna Amaro

Made in Sicily using a recipe dating back to 1868, Averna is a gentle introduction to amaro. Quite tasty on the rocks, Averna is sweet with a slight herbal orange start and finishes with hints of chocolate and caramel. With little to no bitterness Averna is comfortable and inviting.

In the Little Italy the Averna was good, but easily over-powered by the whiskey. It added some sweetness but not much more. When paired with a lighter whiskey, like Canadian, it might prove to be a good match. I’ll have to give that a try!

Overall a friendly, tasty amaro, but if you want something with a bit more character then there are better choices.

Cardamaro Vino Amaro

I first heard of Cardamaro from a co-worker who uses it in his Manhattan recipe along with Carpano Antica vermouth. Cardamaro differs from other amari in that it is wine based. Sweet, with subtle vegetal flavors Cardamaro is lighter than the other amari here with very little bitterness. On the rocks Cardamaro is easy sipping and refreshing.

Cardamaro was fine in the Little Italy, but the resulting drink tasted more like a stock Manhattan than something special. My co-worker might have had it right — using the Cardamaro to complement a bold vermouth like Carpano rather than using it to enhance a milder vermouth like M & J or Cocchi.

Cynar

Cynar is based on 13 herbs and plants including artichoke and was the winner of Best Herbal/Botanical Liqueur at the 2015 San Francisco Wolrd Spirits Competition. While some reviews I’ve read claim it is less sweet than many amari, I find the opposite to be true. Quite sweet and pleasantly vegetal with a sturdy bitter finish. An no — it doesn’t taste like artichokes. Cynar finally brings the bitterness I was looking for, but on the rocks is not where it shines.

In the Little Italy? Brilliant! The sweet/bitter/earthy flavor rounds out this Manhattan variation perfectly. As I said, this might very well be the best cocktail ever.

Update: Cynar 70: My wife came upon this and bought me a bottle — gotta love her! This is a 70 proof version of Cynar and tastes a lot like normal Cynar but with the warm bite of additional alcohol. As you’d expect it was very good in the Little Italy, but were it shined was on the rocks. Less cloying and more substantial than it’s lower proofed sibling  Cynar 70 makes for an excellent digestif. The downside is the cost, running about $10 more than regular Cynar. Might be worth trying a 50/50 mix of regular Cynar and brandy to see how close it comes to Cynar 70.

Fernet Branca

I don’t get it. Apparently San Francisco is the #1 Fernet Branca market in the US. Go into any Safeway or liquor store around here and you’ll find this strongly bitter elixir. Averna? Nope. Cynar? Nope. Fernet? Yes. Why? Who drinks this stuff?

Fernet is actually a sub-category of amaro, but when used informally it usually refers to Fernet Branca. Fernet Branca is not bittersweet. It’s just bitter. Bracingly bitter. With a touch of menthol. Bitter menthol. That’s it. On the rocks it is awful. The only reason I’d drink this is to settle my stomach. It tastes like medicine. It is medicine. Or poison. I’m not sure.

I knew I had to approach the cocktail portion of my tasting with caution. Use Fernet with a heavy hand and it will run roughshod over the other ingredients — ruining perfectly good whiskey and vermouth. With this in mind I chose to forgo the Little Italy and instead simply replace the bitters in my standard Manhattan recipe with 1/4 part Fernet (2 parts whiskey, 1 part vermouth, 1/4 part Fernet Branca).

And it was terrible. Even at these ratios the Fernet made the Manhattan taste like Fernet. So I’ve learned something. With all the great spirits out there I don’t need to waste any more time on Fernet Branca.

Luxardo Amaro Abano

Luxardo is known for their Maraschino Cherries. Their cherries cost $20 a jar. And no, they are nothing like the ones you just got at Safeway. Luxardo also makes liqueurs and amari. On the rocks the Amaro Abano hits you with flavors of blackstrap licorice and a long bitter finish. On its own I found it a bit unpleasant.

But in the Little Italy the Luxardo was tamed and actually worked pretty well. I still prefer the Cynar with its extra sweetness, but it you want to try something a bit different then the Luxardo is worth a try.

Ramazzotti Amaro

From Milan since 1815, Ramazzotti is one of the oldest amari — and heck, I like saying the name.  On my first tasting of these amari the Averna was my favorite. It was tasty and accessible. But the Ramazzotti stood out as interesting. As I continued to taste these over the course of a couple of weeks the Averna started feeling “ordinary” and my affection for the Ramazzotti grew.

Ramazzotti Amaro starts out with bitter orange and finishes with a touch of licorice and a hint (just a hint) of mint. It’s moderately sweet with a nice bitter finish. This fits my stereotype of what an amaro should taste like, and the Ramazzotti has become my clear favorite on the rocks. It is really good.

But in the Little Italy those flavors that make the Ramazzotti a delight on its own fall to the background, and the resulting drink is good but not quite as good as with the Cynar.

Summary

Other than the Fernet I found all these amari enjoyable to one degree or another. And I will continue to enjoy them until the bottles are empty. Then I plan to keep Cynar and Ramazzotti stocked in my liquor cabinet. In summary:

For drinking on the rocks:

  1. Averna if you want tasty and easy drinking
  2. Ramazzotti if you want a little more flavor and bitterness
  3. Cardamaro if you want light and refreshing

In a cocktail:

  1. Cynar for the best Little Italy ever
  2. Luxardo if you prefer it a bit drier
  3. Cardamaro if you’re pairing with a power-house vermouth (like Carpano Antica)

If you have a stomach ache:

  1. Fernet Branca

The Negroni Cocktail

“I like my cocktails like I like my women — a little bit bitter”

My Negroni loving brother.

A couple years ago I was reading one of my favorite cycling websites and came across an article titled The Negroni Report. Turns out that Richard Pestes, the proprietor of Pez Cycling News, is a lover of cycling, Italy, and the Negroni. Intrigued by his description of the cocktail I bought some Campari and oranges and that weekend made me my first Negroni.

And that first sip was bliss. Pure heaven. I kid you not. I was hooked.

Excited I ran outside and held the glass to my wife. “You gotta try this!”. She took a sip. Made a face. “Tastes like cough syrup”.

The next evening our good friends Scott and Betsy were over. Betsy is a fellow Manhattan lover. I was excited to share my joy with her. Negroni in hand I offered her a drink. She took a sip. Made a face. “Wow. Bitter”.

What the hell?

Thanksgiving comes around, the whole family is at my sister’s in Arizona. My brother is there. We hit the liquor store for Campari and some decent vermouth. I mix him a Negroni. He takes a sip. He need not say anything. I see it in his face. He’s hooked.

And that’s how it goes with the Negroni. It is polarizing. Those of us that love it can’t imagine how anybody could resist it. Those that don’t….well, they don’t.

I’m just happy I’m a lover.

The Negroni is a classic aperitif. Meant to cleans your palette and sharpen your appetite it is traditionally consumed before a meal. But believe me, if you love ’em they are good any time. The Negroni is bittersweet and boozy with a citrus/herbal pop. And if you initially find it a bit too bitter don’t give up. Try again in 6 months. And then 6 months after that. For some it is an acquired taste — but once that taste is acquired you will never let it go.

Like the Manhattan the Negroni is rising in popularity as folks start to turn their backs on appletinis and embrace bolder cocktails with more character. That said, ordering one in a bar is still a bit of a crap shoot and can result in a blank stare. Fortunately it’s an easy recipe to recite to your bartender.

The Negroni

  • 1 part Campari
  • 1 part Beefeater’s GinIMGP7705
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth

Orange for garnish.

Place ingredients with ice in a shaker or large glass and stir gently but briskly for 60 seconds.

Strain over the rocks and garnish with an orange wedge or twist

As with most beloved cocktails, a Negroni lover will have their favorite recipe. So it’s worth looking at the ingredients in a bit more detail.

The Campari

Yes, you must use Campari. There is no substitute. Some prefer to cut the Campari with 50% Aperol, Campari’s tepid cousin. I don’t. I like my Negroni’s bold and brash.

The Gin

I have to be honest. I am not a big gin drinker. My preference for the Negroni is a basic London dry gin. I don’t want flowery overtones messing with my Negroni! The gin is there to support the drink, not make a statement in its own right. So the simpler the better as far as I’m concerned. Beefeater’s is solid and basic. Some also like Gordon’s for similar reasons. But if you have a favorite gin, then by all means give it a try!

The Vermouth

My brother and I have tried eight different sweet vermouth’s in Negronis. We have enjoyed them all. I spec M&R here because it is my every day go to sweet vermouth. I also like Cinzano which is a bit brighter and slightly more bitter than M&R. Some folks swear by Carpano Antica, but I find the vanilla overtones that work so well in a Manhattan are distracting in a Negroni. Others like the extra bitterness of Punt e Mes, but I find the resulting drink, while tasty, not exactly a Negroni.  That said — please experiment! Lots to try

The Garnish

The traditional garnish in the old country is a fat wedge of orange. Here in the states an orange twist is also common — just make sure it is a nice big twist. The extra citrus really compliments the drink.

Shop at Trader Joe’s?

Me too! In our neck of woods the cheapest Campari is at TJ’s. And their Rear Admiral Gin and Ponti sweet vermouth make a darn good Negroni for a darn good price.

Nothing beats a Negroni at Christmas

The Manhattan: The King of Cocktails

Nothing brings a smile to my face like a good cocktail. Yes, I enjoy beer and wine as much as the next guy, but a good cocktail is special in a way that those other beverages are not. Cocktails are almost always enjoyed in a social setting. They involve some degree of preparation and ritual. And they taste so damn good!

Cocktails seem to be experiencing a renaissance of late. No longer are gin and whiskey just “old people” drinks. Even the younger generation seems to be weaning itself off of vodka-tini drinks and enjoying cocktails with a richer palette.

As for me, I have two favorites that stand head and shoulders above the rest. Growing up my dad was a gin martini drinker, but he always had a great appreciation for bourbon. And while I have fond memories of eating gin soaked olives on his lap, my first cocktail love was (and is!) the Manhattan.

The Manhattan is known as the King of Cocktails because….well just because it is. It is rich and spicy and delicious. It packs a kick and is honest about that with its luscious booziness. I love a well made Manhattan. Heck, I even like a mediocre Manhattan. In fact I’ve only had two Manhattans in my life that I did not like. Both were at restaurants. Both were watery messes. Both bartenders should be ashamed for such offensive disregard for their craft (you can’t mix a good Manhattan? Really? Then what the hell can you mix?). But I digress.

Thanks to the recent surge in the popularity of whiskey, the Manhattan is also experiencing a rise in popularity. And it is about time! The following is my go-to Manhattan recipe. But I know that Manhattan drinkers are a passionate bunch, and even though it’s a simple drink there are an infinite number opinions on how to make a great one. After the recipe I go into some detail on each ingredient to acknowledge the wonderful diversity of the Manhattan drinker.

The Manhattan Cocktail

Manhattan

The King of Cocktails

  • 2 parts Bulleit Bourbon
  • 1 part Martini & Rossi Rosso sweet vermouth
  • 3 shakes Angostura Bitters
  • Bada Bing cherry for garnish

Place ingredients in a tall glass or shaker with ice.
Stir gently but briskly for 60 seconds.
Strain into a martini glass and garnish with a cherry

That’s it! But let’s look at the details:

The Ratio

2:1 is the most common Manhattan ratio. Those who prefer their Manhattan a bit sweeter may go closer to 1:1. Those who like it drier drift towards 3:1. But 2:1 works for me!

The Whiskey

I can already hear the objections…yes, yes a “true” Manhattan is made with rye whiskey. I specify bourbon because it is more common in today’s liquor cabinets (including mine) — although rye is becoming more available. Bulleit Bourbon is a bit higher in rye than most bourbons and is widely available (Costco!) so I find it a great choice. But what about other whiskies? Canadian? Tennesee? Yes! Absolutely! If you have a favorite whiskey then by all means use that in your Manhattan. But not Scotch — since that will make it an entirely different drink.

The Vermouth

Unlike the gin martini,  where vermouth’s contribution is subtle, the Manhattan has a healthy dose of it. So its contribution is as important as the whiskey’s. Martini & Rossi is the standard bearer for sweet vermouth and it’s widely available and tastes great. If you want to splurge then try Carpano Antica. It has rich, herbal flavors with a note of vanilla that is just spectacular in a Manhattan (but be careful — it easily overpowers milder whiskeys). The vermouth field is growing quickly so feel free to experiment. My brother and I have recently tasted at least 8 different sweet vermouths so there are lots of choices out there.

The Bitters

Angostura is the bitters for Manhattans. But if you are fortunate enough to have a well stocked liquour store with other bitters feel free to give them a try. I’m pretty heavy handed with the bitters in my Manhattan recipe since I enjoy the herbaciousness it brings to the drink. A side note: a few years ago there was an Angostura bitters shortage that drove fear into the hearts of Manhattan lovers nationwide. Thankfully that was eventually resolved and we could all rest easy once again.

The Garnish

If you want a cherry then I highly recommend you try to find Badda Bing cherries. They are much tastier than those neon red maraschino cherries you find in the grocery store. For a change of pace I sometimes prefer a healthy orange twist — and I mean healthy. With a paring knife cut a thin, broad swath of orange peel (avoiding getting too much white pith). Then fold it lengthwise over the glass to release the oil and wipe it around the rim before dropping it in. If you want to impress your friends you can flame the orange oil as it squirts out of the rind with a match.

Stir vs Shaken

The general rule is that you stir cocktails that contain only alcohol and you shake cocktails that have mixers or fruit juice (no offense intended Mr. Bond). Shaking tends to result in a cloudy drink, and chips the ice causing more dilution. I love the dark, amber color of a stirred Manhattan, and while a little dilution is good (it softens the drink) too much results in a watery mess. Note that stirring takes longer to cool a drink than shaking — that’s why I suggest a full 60 seconds.

On the Rocks?

Happy Hour while camping

Happy Hour is an important part of camping.

While the classic Manhattan is served up in a martini glass, it is absolutely acceptable to have it on the rocks. In fact some of the best Manhattans I’ve had have been on the rocks, in a plastic glass, during happy hour while camping. The best!

Shop At Trader Joe’s?

I love a good bargain as much as a good drink. Trader Joe’s in our area stocks Bulleit Bourbon, and their Ponti sweet vermouth is a fine substitution for Martin & Rossi.

Look at that! An entire blog post dedicated to one grand drink. At the start I mentioned I had two favorites. My second? That will be the subject of an upcoming post.