Drink of the Week: The Campari Cocktail

The Campari CocktailSo, you’re starting a new job requiring a long enough commute from your home that it will ultimately require a costly move. Then, the second day of your aforementioned lengthy commute, your car starts hesitating in stop-and-start cross county traffic. Next thing you know, you’re staring down the barrel of a big, big transmission repair bill while suddenly finding yourself with a rented Ford Focus in your driveway instead of your charmingly banged-up Buick.

When that happens, you don’t want a drink that requires a lot of fuss. It’s better if it trying it out helps finish up some nearly empty bottles, lightening your liquor load on your impending cross-megalopolis move.

So, I’ll spare you the usual classic cocktail history lesson as well as the tortured connection to current events or this weekend’s holiday. (Could any cocktail possibly be appropriate for Memorial Day, anyway?) This is clearly a time when you — by which I obviously mean “I” — want my evening cocktail to be simple, stimulating for the taste buds, and strong — which is why I’ve gone and doubled the amounts for my version of today’s DOTW. Feel free to halve it if you’re situation is different or if you’ll be driving anytime soon.

The Campari Cocktail

2 ounces Campari
1 1/2 ounces vodka (preferably 100 proof)
2 dashes aromatic bitters
Lemon or orange twist (fairly optional garnish)

Combine Campari, vodka, and bitters in a cocktail shaker. Shake as vigorously as you can manage and strain into — what else? — a chilled cocktail glass. If you like, throw in a lemon or orange twist — it can’t hurt and it might help. Sip and, if you you’re not likely to give a significant amount of your personal worth to a mechanic, thank your freaking lucky stars.

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I’ve praised the oh-so-sweet and then oh-so-bitter one-two punch of Campari before while discussing the hugely underappreciated Negroni as well as the oh-so-refreshing Americano. As the name implies, here’s a drink where the Campari flavor is really and truly front and center, perhaps too much for some folks. Certainly, replacing the gin in the Negroni with vodka (and actually using less of it), doesn’t do anything to complicate the drink or stand in the way of the Campari flavors, even if they could use a bit of leavening. That’s why I think I found adding in the stronger flavor of 100 proof Smirnoff resulted in a more satisfying taste experience as well as a more effective attitude adjuster.

Vodka-disliking cocktail snobs won’t be surprised that, while I’ve tried this drink with a number of brands, the results with the 80 proof vodkas, however, didn’t vary by much. Indeed, the very cheap Seagram’s and the much more high-endish Kettle One I used to make it didn’t really change the experience by that much. Still, since I like Campari, I’m declaring that a reason to like this drink. In fact, next week’s drink will also feature it, but it’ll be just a mite more complex…unless something else happens to my car.

  

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Drink of the Week: Income Tax

Income TaxI was born on April 15, which means that, most years, when my birthday doesn’t fall on an Easter Sunday it falls on the United States anti-holiday that is income tax day. Being an ides of April baby also means that each and every year I am also reminded of the sinking of the Titantic and the death of Abraham Lincoln.

This year, we all get until 4/17 to turn in our taxes. However, as Saturday becomes Sunday 4/15, I’ll be at the Turner Classic Movies festival in Hollywood where I’ll have a choice between an actual movie about the sinking of the Titanic (1958′s “A Night to Remember”) or I can contemplate my mortality via an avant gardish science fiction movie in which character actor John Randolph has a mid-life crisis and becomes Rock Hudson. (That’s John Frankenheimer’s 1966 “Seconds.”) Movies are about escape, you know.

All of which is a long-winded and self-indulgent way to get to this week’s cocktail, named for a day most of us agree is far worse luck than a Friday the 13th like today but which most of us agree is necessary in some form. Thus, the cocktail classic represents the healthy orange sweet of it — the roads, bridges, schools, fire and police protection we get in return for our taxes — and the bitters of actually paying them. If you note a strong similarity to another drink covered here, you aren’t hallucinating. Believe it or not, Income Tax is both the bitter and the better of the two.

Income Tax

2 ounces gin
1 ounce orange juice (fresh squeezed, for sure)
1/2 ounce dry vermouth
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
1-3 dashes aromatic bitters
1 orange slice (optional garnish, but since you’re squeezing the orange already…)

As with the Bronx, people are over the map on proportions, and I certainly encourage readers to experiment to their heart’s content with more or less sweet and dry vermouth, OJ, and gin. Nevertheless, especially with the addition of bitters, I found this easy to remember and straight forward version was actually quite the best.

A few notes on ingredients. I’m using Tanqueray (94.6 proof) right now, though I’m sure this will work as well with most other high proof gins such as Bombay Dry or Beefeater. With an 80 proof gin like Gordon’s, it might be a bit sweeter which can either be a good or bad thing. I tried making my Income Tax using both traditional Angostura bitters as well as Fee Brother’s aromatic bitters and it came out fine with both.

I even ran out of my usual Noilly Pratt sweet vermouth — which for some reason Bev-Mo in Orange County, CA has stopped carrying, darn them — and went to an inferior brand that I had sitting around. Still very nice. Like tax day itself, this drink can be attacked but it will never be killed. Would that that were true for the folks on the Titanic and, of course, Old Abe. Fortunately, the magic of cinema can take care of that.

  

Spotlight on Booze: Gin

It’s lost some commercial ground to vodka over the decades, but the revival of interest in classic cocktails has given gin a boost lately. In any case, this venerable liquor remains the standard clear alcohol among serious cocktail aficionados, who strongly prefer its more complex flavor and swear it’s the only true main ingredient in a martini.

Gin is distilled from grain, usually wheat or rye, and starts out as a fairly plain spirit probably not so different from vodka. After that, “distilled gins” are then distilled a second time with various flavorings. That slightly perfume-like aroma you’ve noticed comes primarily from juniper berries. That’s only for starters, as gin manufacturers use a pretty vast assortment of herbs and other botanicals ranging from licorice root to grapefruit peels. Some ultra-cheap brands are “compound gins.” These gins are not redistilled, but simply have tiny infusions added — they’re basically gin-flavored alcohol.

Most modern gins are “dry” and manufactured in England; these gins legally may not contain any added sugar and that aids in the liquor’s superb mixability. As far as we can tell, however, there isn’t much predictable difference between “London dry, “extra dry,” and other similar designations. “Plymouth” gins technically only have to come from the coastal town, but they tend to have a somewhat more complex, pungent, and slightly sweeter flavor profile. Largely produced in Holland and Belgium, genever is a less strong gin variant popular in central Europe. With plenty of added sugar, you can still find very sweet “old Tom” gin if you look hard. Speaking of sweet, you’ve likely had a slurp or two or of “sloe gin,” actually a liqueur made with gin or cheaper neutral spirits mixed with sloe berries. Most brands of gin are between 84 and 92 proof (42-46 percent alcohol), but a number of less upscale mass market brands are available at 80 proof or even less.

Like all types of booze, gin is available in a number of price levels, but there’s not really any such thing as a super premium gin. While you can easily spend $150.00 or much more on a bottle of small batch bourbon or single malt Scotch, if you find a bottle of regular size bottle of gin selling for more than $50.00, you’re probably paying mostly for ultra-fancy packaging. Some of the best and/or most popular premium gins include Tanqueray Ten, Plymouth (a brand as well as style of gin), and Bombay Sapphire. Just as good or better, in our opinion, are the mid-priced premiums, available in some states at discounters like Costco, Bev-Mo and Trader Joe’s. These include Tanqueray, Bombay Dry Gin (less heavy on the perfumey juniper berries than Sapphire), and Hendricks, an increasingly popular Scottish gin we like quite a bit. A bit cheaper, still quite good, and very rich in “Mad Men”-style classic street cred, is Beefeater.

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Drink of the Week: The Negroni

It is with some shame that your humble writer admits that, until a few days ago, he had never tasted Campari. In case you don’t know, Campari is theoretically a very popular Italian apéritif — that’s “before dinner drink” to us English speaking barbarians — that’s essentially a drinkable variety of bitters. You see it consumed with soda in European films and every bar in the world seems to stock it but, classic spirit or not, nobody we know seems to drink it or anything made with it.

So it was with great curiousity that yours truly brought home a bottle of the stuff and broke the lifelong Campari drought. First, a surprising and delicious burst of orangey sweetness reminiscent of a really tasty Italian vermouth, then, a bracing bitterness. A bit strong and not 100% pleasant in the usual sense, but fascinating. Time for had another sip.

the NegroniYep, it was good to take the bitter with the sweet. It was better to try the most famous cocktail made using Campari.

The Negroni

1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce dry gin
Twist of orange peel (garnish)

Shake like the dickens and serve in a chilled martini glass. Semi-optional final step: swirl the orange twist around the rim of the glass and “express” it (twist it) over the drink. Drop it in.

If the above seems a bit too sweet for you, feel free to increase the gin slightly and decrease the Campari and vermouth. (David Wondrich‘s version is 1.5 ounces gin to 3/4 ounce Campari and vermouth, and it works beautifully.)

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Folks, I’m going to drop the “royal we” I’ve been using and say in the first person that I really love the Negroni. It appeals to my sweet tooth while also being plenty refreshing on a warm summer day and offering a delicious complexity thanks to the one-two sweet-bitter punch of the Campari, softened by the sweet vermouth and with a terrific tang coming from the gin. For some reason, bartenders I’ve met are skittish about this drink and it has a somewhat “difficult” reputation. My take is that, if you can enjoy a Manhattan, you’re probably more than definitely ready for a Negroni and it’s a lot more accessible than a martini. I love this drink and think you will, too.

The Negroni is often served on the rocks, particularly in Europe, but I tried it that way and, like most “up” drinks served on the rocks, the results were not exciting, almost sickly sweet. It’s also often served anti-James Bond style, stirred and not shaken, on account of the bar worker’s lore that gin should only be shaken when non-alcoholic ingredients are present. I tried that too and decided that worrying about the gin here was complete balderdash. Negronis demand a good shaking.

Oh, and if you’re wondering where the name comes from, it’s simple enough. It seems that a turn-of-the-20th-century Italian count named Negroni was drinking another Campari-based cocktail, an Americano, (we’ll cover that some other time) and wanted a stronger version with some gin in it. That’s the whole story.

  

Drink of the Week: The Martini

It wouldn’t be right to kick off our new “Drink of the Week” feature with any less of a beverage than this most durable but paradoxically most intimidating of cocktails. It’s the strong but perfect before dinner drink.

A million things have been written about martinis, but the first thing you need to realize is that it’s a specific cocktail and not just any liquid poured into a martini glass. We love a good chocolate martini, because it’s chocolate, but it’s no more a martini than a chocolate bunny is a rabbit. A cosmopolitan is also not a martini; it’s a freaking cosmopolitan.

Here’s our starter recipe:

2 ounces gin or vodka
1 ounce vermouth
1-2 dashes of Regan’s Orange Bitters (optional, but especially recommended with gin)
Olive(s) or twist of lemon garnish

the Martini. Pour gin/vodka and vermouth over ice into cocktail shaker, along with a dash or two of orange bitters if you’ve got them. Shake or stir very vigorously and strain into chilled martini glass or, for smaller portions, a wide-mouthed champagne glass, add olive(s) or lemon twist. Always serve up — i.e., without ice. (We know people who drink martinis on the rocks, but we’ve tried them that way and think they’re wrong. Very, very wrong.)

Now, note that this is a starter recipe. You’ve doubtless heard of the dry martini. It’s possible that the term once simply referred to dry vermouth, but in common usage this is one with very little vermouth. From the “M.A.S.H.” TV series, to “Auntie Mame,” to Luis Buñuel’s surrealist comedy classic, “The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” the extremely dry martini has been lionized and joked about endlessly in low, middle, and high culture. Feel free to experiment in the direction of less vermouth, reducing the amount as much as you dare.

It’s even legitimate to make your martini a la Mame Dennis (Rosalind Russell, in the movie) and pour a small amount of vermouth into a glass and then simply discard it, filling it with extremely cold strained gin or vodka afterward. This can work particularly well with vodka. We’re pretty sure, however, that Luis Buñuel was kidding in his autobiography when he suggested merely having a ray of sunlight pass through a vermouth bottle on its way to a gin bottle.

Importantly, don’t be afraid to go in the opposite, not-so-dry, direction. Many would call our recipe, which is in fact similar to what you’ll find on the back of vermouth bottles, a bit overly “wet,” particularly for vodka. Nevertheless, it’s good to use a significant amount of a good brand of vermouth. (Señor Buñuel’s choice of Noilly-Pratt is our default.) The martini is, after all, a cocktail not just a gussied up shot. We’ve even been experimenting with a drink called, “the fitty-fitty” which is, as you would expect, 50 percent gin and 50 percent vermouth. Done right, it’s an extremely smooth martini and highly recommended.

Moving on, our take on the shaken vs. stirred debate is that shaking works really well for vodka martinis, which is what James Bond is mostly ordering in the movies, and we’re still making our mind up about how it works with gin. We’ve had good and less good gin martinis made both ways.

We hope to return to the shaken/stirred and dry/not dry dichotomies at some date in the not-so-immediate future as we continue to explore classic cocktails. For now, just remember that martinis are very much a case of trial and error with your taste buds, but even the errors should be fun.

  

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