Bitter Is Better

27 November 2013

CynarI distinctly remember the first time I tried Cynar, an artichoke-based liqueur from Italy. About 10 years ago, a friend and I were in some small-town café in Umbria, and I spotted the bottle behind the bar. Even then I was interested in trying unusual spirits, and the idea of an artichoke liqueur proved irresistible. With no idea what this thing could possibly taste like, I ordered a glass. It was not to my liking. Aghast at Cynar’s bitterness, I discreetly carried the small snifter to the men’s room and poured the remainder down the drain.

I therefore felt a little apprehensive, as you might imagine, when I recently received a free sample of Cynar to review on this blog. But what a difference a decade makes. This time, my palate was prepared.

Tasted straight and well-chilled in the refrigerator, the Cynar had a pleasantly bittersweet aroma and a very bitter, intense flavor profile leavened with a strong dose of caramelly sweetness. It doesn’t taste at all like artichokes — it’s made with 12 other herbs and plants, according to its website — and I certainly didn’t want to pour it down the drain this time. Despite Cynar’s relatively low 16.5% alcohol content, it tasted powerful, bracing and surprisingly balanced.

Although it makes a fine digestif on the rocks, Cynar can add some wonderful depth to cocktails as well. My mixology buddy and I first tried it with some rye, but that proved to be too one-note and Robitussiny. We actually liked it better with gin, the aromatic and spicy notes of which worked wonderfully with Cynar’s bitter and sweet characteristics. Add a little lemon, and you have a cocktail that’s well-balanced and aromatic, with a fascinating underlying savory note. The citrus gives the drink the proper texture and keeps it from becoming too medicinal:

CARCIOFO (that’s “artichoke” in Italian)

–2 parts gin (we used Death’s Door)

–1 part Cynar

–1/2 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice

Combine the above in a shaker with a few large ice cubes, and shake vigorously. Strain into a martini glass, and garnish with a lemon or orange twist if you’re feeling fancy. If you’re making a bigger batch, use a pitcher instead, and stir for a minute or two instead of shaking to achieve an even smoother texture. I don’t usually reach for the gin at this time of year, but this complex cocktail felt perfect for a cold autumn evening.

You could also use Cynar to make a wonderfully refreshing aperitif, an ideal way to get your Thanksgiving or Christmas party started:


–1 part Cynar (chilled)

–4 parts club soda (chilled)

–1/4 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice

Pour the soda over a large ice cube or two in a lowball glass. Top with the lemon juice and the Cynar, and garnish with a lemon or orange twist if you like. This well-balanced cocktail is relatively low-alcohol, yet it packs a serious flavor punch. And though I associate spritzes with the summer, this version has enough depth to make it appropriate for the colder days now upon us.

Happy Thanksgiving all, and Cheers!

Cool Cocktails At Taverna 750

9 November 2013
Taverna 750

Taverna 750

One problem with my closest neighborhood cocktail bar, Marty’s, is that their fishbowl-size martinis warm up well before I finish them. I don’t go to Marty’s because I never enjoy the second half of my drink (and because I once caught a bartender substituting Razzmatazz in my cocktail for the Chambord listed on the menu). Oversize cocktails just aren’t for me.

Or so I thought until my visit to Taverna 750 in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. Here they’ve devised a simple and elegant solution for keeping that last half of your martini ice-cold: storing it on ice in a little glass pitcher until you’re ready to drink it. Each cocktail comes with this sidecar, whether you order off the menu or not.

But I do recommend ordering off the cocktail menu — we tried three different cocktails over the course of our shared small-plate dinner, and each was thoroughly delicious. I started with a Blood & Sand, a concoction which dates at least as far back as Bill Boothby’s 1934 cocktail guide, World Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em, which calls for scotch, Cherry Heering and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Taverna 750 gooses up that simple recipe by mixing together Glenmorangie Single-Malt Scotch, sweet vermouth, Cherry Heering, housemade orangecello, lemon juice and simple syrup.

Blood & Sand

Blood & Sand

A waiter placed the drink in front of me, sidecar and all, and asked, “One Colonel Gaddafi?” I must have had a pained look on my face as I chuckled. “Too soon?” Well, at least it wasn’t a Syria joke. In any case, I loved the Blood & Sand. My dining companion had a taste of it, rolled his eyes with pleasure and ordered one of his own. It had a creamy bitter-orange aroma, a profile carried through on the palate: rich, sweet and bitter, undergirded by orangey acids. The sidecar kept the second half of my drink ice-cold, with no loss of integrity as I finished the first.

My dining companion’s second drink — a classic Aviation made with Nolet’s Silver Dry Gin, Crème Yvette (a violet-infused liqueur), Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, fresh lemon juice and simple syrup — was just as good, if not as deeply complex. It looked pink and tasted purple, with an appealing floral/citrusy character.

I kept things on the bitter side of the spectrum with my Toronto, another classic (if unfamous) cocktail mixing whiskey, Fernet Branca (a very bitter amaro) and simple syrup. As with the Blood & Sand, Taverna 750 took this recipe up a notch by combining Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey, Fernet Branca, maple syrup and orange bitters. It smelled pleasantly green and bitter, and it presented a startling flavor profile of bitterness, then mint, and finally rich caramel. This Toronto packed a seriously boozey punch, but it felt remarkably smooth on the tongue. An excellent digestif.

We should have been finished at that point, but our personable waiter Chris asked if we would be interested in a complimentary shot of one of Taverna 750’s housemade ‘cellos. The most common of the ‘cellos is limoncello, made by steeping lemon zest in vodka and mixing in some sugar. I’ve also had ‘cellos made with the zest of other citrus fruits and even fennel, but never pistachio or espresso. Taverna 750’s unorthodox pistachiocello had a wonderful nutty thickness balanced out by some pointy citrusy notes, and the espressocello combined rich coffee flavor with the dense, sweet texture of a ‘cello. Both were delightful.

Marty’s and Taverna 750 both offer a stylish atmosphere, and they would ostensibly appeal to the same type of patron. But make no mistake: Taverna 750 is much better suited to cocktail connoisseurs. Marty’s, with its oversize and oversweet martinis, is for amateurs.

Taverna 750 on Urbanspoon

Toast Independence Day With A Bang

29 June 2013

Note: This is a repost from last year, with some modifications. I can’t think of a better drink for the 4th than this.

If I were to be perfectly honest, I would recommend cracking open a refreshing bottle of dry rosé with your July 4th barbeque. This is very likely what I’ll be drinking, but frankly, dry rosé seems too effete, too continental, for celebrating America’s Independence Day. We didn’t gain our independence by playing nice with the Brits, negotiating at endless length, relying on the hope of their essential good nature.

No longer able to bear, among other indignities, taxation without representation, our ancestors risked their lives and the well-being of their families so that we could live as a free people. They took up arms and kicked those colonial bastards out of the country by force, because force is the only language tyrants comprehend.

No, as delightful as dry rosé may be, it does not rise to the task of commemorating the wisdom, bravery and strength of our foremothers and forefathers. Independence Day calls for something unabashedly powerful and unashamedly American. Something with a bang. Something like Artillery Punch.

The first time I had Artillery Punch was at a friend’s holiday party. I remember consuming only about two glasses of the punch (along with, admittedly, a fistful of rum balls), before we all decided it would be a great idea to strip off our Christmas sweaters and take some topless group photos. It’s that kind of punch.

A number of recipes published in books and on the Internet purport to be Artillery Punch. Some, like this one, incorporate tea and cherries into the mix. This one goes further by adding pineapple as well, which to my mind dilutes the 18th-century revolutionary je ne sais quoi. Both recipes also make use of gin, an altogether too British spirit for this occasion.

I prefer to relate the simplest (and strongest) recipe I found, the dangerously delicious concoction described in David Wondrich’s Punch. Mr. Wondrich found this recipe in an 1885 copy of the Augusta Chronicle, which describes how Artillery Punch was created by a certain A.H. Luce in honor of Savannah’s Republican Blues visiting Macon’s Chatham Artillery sometime in the 1850s. It makes use of that very French spirit Cognac, but since the French were our allies, a bit of Cognac seems appropriate.

The original recipe calls for a horse bucket “of ordinary size” to be filled with crushed ice, whiskey, rum, bourbon, sugar and lemon, and then topped off with Champagne. Should you have a horse bucket of ordinary size at your disposal, I have no doubt it would be the hit of your barbeque, but failing that, an ordinary large punch bowl will do:

David Wondrich’s Artillery Punch (as adapted by Odd Bacchus):

12 lemons

2 cups raw sugar (the larger crystals of raw sugar are useful, but white sugar will also work)

1 bottle Cognac (Mr. Wondrich recommends VSOP, but the budget-conscious should opt for VS)

1 bottle Jamaican-style rum

1 bottle bourbon

3 bottles brut Champagne (or sparkling wine, for heaven’s sake)

1 bag of ice

Using a vegetable peeler, zest the twelve lemons, making the peels broad and long and as free of the white pith as possible. In a mixing bowl, muddle firmly with the sugar to extract the peels’ essential oils. Let the mixture stand in a warm place for 30 minutes to an hour.

Meanwhile, juice the 12 lemons. You’ll need about a pint of juice, so it’s wise to have a few extra lemons on hand. (Note that store-bought lemon juice will not be a good substitute.)

Add the lemon juice to the sugar/peel mixture and dissolve the sugar. Once the sugar is completely dissolved, pour the mixture through a strainer into another bowl in order to remove the peels. Using a funnel, empty the contents of the bowl into a clean wine bottle (or other 750-milliliter bottle) and top up with water. Cork, and refrigerate.

The above steps can all be done in advance of the party, and the sugar/lemon mixture will keep in the refrigerator for a few hours or even overnight.

Just before you want to serve the punch, fill a large punch bowl halfway with crushed ice (bash the bag of ice on the floor a few times to get smaller pieces, or hit it with a mallet). Add the bottle of sugar/lemon mixture and the bottles of Cognac, rum and bourbon. Top off with the three bottles of Champagne. As noted above, it need not be real French Champagne, but it should be a quality dry sparkling wine of some sort — don’t skimp too much here. A fine Cava could work, for example.

This thoroughly delicious punch goes down with surprising ease, so be sure to warn your guests of its strength. It’s enough to knock the socks off even the most self-confident of tyrants.


24 April 2013


Olga, it turns out, isn’t the only one in Costa Rica making moonshine. In fact, in an effort to curb the production of homemade sugarcane liquor, also known as guaro, the Costa Rican government began manufacturing the stuff itself, according to Wikipedia. Now, bottles of Cacique guaro, produced by the Fabrica Nacional de Licores-Fanal, appear behind nearly every bar in the country.

Of course, I took the opportunity to try Cacique both in cocktails and straight up. Sipped neat, this clear spirit (30% alcohol) reminded some of my fellow tasters at the bar of a smooth vodka. I didn’t disagree, but to my Odd Bacchus mind, it resembled a good-quality soju (a Korean spirit distilled from rice or sweet potatoes). The Cacique had a bare hint of sweetness and fruit at the beginning, followed by some white pepper spice.

Because of its basic lack of flavor, Cacique (translated as “chief,” as in the head of a tribe) makes for very versatile cocktail ingredient. I sampled it in a number of different concoctions during my stay in Costa Rica, each one more delicious than the last.

At a swim-up bar — a ridiculously fun addition to any pool — I sampled a wonderfully refreshing Mojito made with Cacique, fresh limes and fresh mint. Another evening, lacking electricity in my accommodations, I decamped to the bar for a delicious “Guapiriña,” a Caipirinha which substituted Cacique for the usual cachaça (a Brazilian sugarcane-based spirit). The simplicity of fresh limes muddled with sugar and mixed with guaro was pure delight. And at the very fancy Grano de Oro Hotel in San Jose, I indulged in a Tico Sour, a light and perfectly balanced mix of Cacique shaken with lemon and egg white.

As a matter of fact, as I go through the list of cocktails I sipped while in Costa Rica, I can’t think of a single stinker. The cocktail menus may not include the most innovative concoctions, but the bartenders I met excelled at mixing the classics. Fresh ingredients were the norm, not the exception, which made coming back from a day of steamy jungle hiking all the sweeter.

White Lion Of Sri Lanka – Part 2

17 April 2013
White Lion Mixology Session

White Lion Mixology Session

After I tasted White Lion VSOA‘s cognac-like flavor, I couldn’t wait to try working with it in some cocktails. This Sri Lankan spirit is distilled from the nectar of unopened coconut flowers, but it doesn’t taste especially like coconut. It starts sweet and smooth, gets spicy, and finishes with something savory and herbaceous (you can read more about White Lion VSOA in my previous post).

Because it reminded me of cognac, I wanted to see how it would perform in a classic Sidecar recipe.


–2 parts White Lion VSOA

–1 part Orange Liqueur (I used Stirrings Triple Sec, but Cointreau or Gran Marnier would also be lovely)

–1 part Freshly-Squeezed Lemon Juice (do not use bottled juice or, heaven forbid, sour mix)

Juice your lemon, and use the amount of juice you get as the measure of one part. A standard lemon will make one large Sidecar or two small ones. Combine all the ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake vigorously, and strain into a martini glass. It’s traditional to rim the glass with sugar, but I can’t be bothered with that sort of thing. The cocktail had a luscious aroma of orange and caramel, and its darkly sweet flavors were balanced perfectly by the bright citrus. It’s a smashing drink, and I made myself a second round the next day.

I’d experimented previously with ginger liqueur, and I had some success substituting it for the orange liqueur in the recipe above. This WHITE LION GINGER SIDECAR tastes wonderfully spicy and exotic, but the ginger can get a little overpowering if you use the proportions above. I recommend 2 parts White Lion, 3/4 part ginger liqueur (Koval or Stirrings), and 1 part freshly-squeezed lemon juice.

The White Lion website recommends a number of different cocktail recipes, including an “Aria,” which combines White Lion, lime juice, simple syrup and a lot of water. But why add the water? As my father is fond of saying, “Fish swim in it!” I tried the recipe without any dilution, and I don’t think it suffered:


–2 parts White Lion VSOA

–1 part Freshly-Squeezed Lime Juice

–Splash of Simple Syrup

As before, juice your lime(s) first, and use the amount of liquid you get as the measure of one part. Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice, shake vigorously, and strain into martini glasses or cocktail coupes. Garnish, if you like, with a lime wheel or wedge. This cocktail, in which White Lion takes the place of rum, tasted tropical, aromatic and citrusy — I felt like I should be drinking it in the courtyard of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Exotic and delicious.

Another recipe the White Lion website recommends is a classic arrack/ginger beer cocktail they call a GBA. I tried that combination, which is essentially a Dark ‘n’ Stormy substituting White Lion for rum, and I didn’t find it satisfying. It felt a little tight to me, and not rounded. Since I’d already juiced some limes, I decided to take it in more of a Moscow Mule direction. That worked wonders:


–2 parts Ginger Beer (Use the very best you can find. My go-to ginger beer is Reed’s.)

–1 part White Lion VSOA

–1/2 part Freshly-Squeezed Lime Juice

To maximize fizz, pour your chilled ginger beer in an empty tumbler. Carefully add a couple of large ice cubes, and then top off with the lime juice and White Lion. Give the drink a gentle stir to incorporate the ingredients. With the addition of the lime juice, the cocktail took on a new dimension, becoming a little sweeter, a little spicier, and definitely more well-balanced. A traditional Moscow Mule also includes mint, but I didn’t have any on hand, and so neither does this recipe.

I also attempted a classic Manhattan recipe using the White Lion, and again, it required a little tweaking for my palate. My first try, which combined White Lion, sweet vermouth and Angostura Bitters, tasted a little dry to me, but those who enjoy Perfect Manhattans will love this cocktail. I changed out the sweet vermouth for some Byrrh, and that made a cocktail I could really get behind:


–2 parts White Lion VSOA

–1 part Byrrh

–Few dashes of Angostura Bitters

Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously, or if you’re not rushed, try stirring everything for a minute or two to achieve an extra-smooth texture. The resulting red-orange cocktail tastes intriguingly sweet, bitter and savory, with some menthol and spice on the finish.

Finally, since White Lion is distilled from coconut flower nectar, I wanted to try mixing it with coconut water. That combination unfortunately tastes terrible. A little lemon juice helps immensely, however, especially if you like your cocktails on the savory side. Since this is the last cocktail in my White Lion round-up, I’ll call it the


–2 parts White Lion VSOA

–1 part Coconut Water

–1 part Freshly-Squeezed Lemon Juice

–Splash of Simple Syrup

As before, use the amount of juice you get from your lemon as the measure of a part. Combine the ingredients in a shaker with ice, and shake vigorously. Strain into a martini glass, or — why not — into a coconut shell. This mix has a uniquely savory flavor which is not at all unpleasant. You can omit the simple syrup, but I found that it brightened the citrus notes considerably.

These recipes but scratch the surface of the potential of White Lion in cocktails. It’s currently available online and in California, but expect distribution to the Midwest and East Coast in the near future. It can’t come to Chicago soon enough for me — I’ve already knocked off most of my bottle!

Taco Night

3 April 2013

Lemon Ginger MargaritaAs much as I enjoy drinking unusual wines, spirits and cocktails, sometimes I drink them out of simple necessity. Last Saturday evening, for example, I just wanted to make myself a simple margarita to drink with the tacos we prepared for dinner (see my favorite traditional margarita recipe here). Unfortunately, Whole Foods was under Easter siege during our shopping trip, and in my haste to escape, I neglected to buy any limes. All we had was a solitary lemon. If I wanted a margarita, it would have to be an unusual one.

As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make Lemon Ginger Margaritas. I had lemon and ginger on my mind in the wake of my experimentation with Koval Ginger Liqueur. Produced in a distillery just down the street, this liqueur worked well with vodka, bourbon, and cognac, so why not tequila? And fortunately, it tasted delicious with lemon as well.

The recipe of tequila, lemon juice, and ginger liqueur followed a classic mixology trinity: One Spirit, One Liqueur, One Juice. That gave me some hope. But lemon with tequila? Surely it’s been tried before, and surely it’s failed. After all, it’s not that hard to find strawberry, raspberry, mango, and even banana margaritas, but when is the last time you saw lemon? I felt less than optimistic, and I prayed this wouldn’t be a repeat of the Chimayó debacle.

I juiced the lemon, combined the ingredients in the shaker, and shook with fingers crossed. The result looked appealing, and it had a pleasantly citrusy smell. I took a sip, and it actually tasted quite good! The cocktail started off sweet, then moved to juicy citrus, a tight tartness, some smoke from the tequila, and finally an aftertaste of ginger. Paired with the tacos (actually tostadas topped with beans, beef, cheese, onions, guacamole, salsa and cilantro), the cocktail gained some zesty spiciness.

It’s a very fun drink, with a very easy recipe:


–2 parts Tequila (I used El Jimador Reposado, but any decent reposado or gold tequila should do the trick.)

–1.5 parts Ginger Liqueur (If you can’t find Koval‘s organic ginger liqueur, Stirrings makes a perfectly fine substitute.)

–1 part Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice (There’s no substitute for this. Use bottled juice or sour mix at your peril.)

–Splash of Simple Syrup (Available bottled, or make it yourself: simmer a cup of water, dissolve a cup of sugar in it, and let cool.)

Juice a whole lemon, and use the amount of juice you get as the measure of one part. Combine the lemon juice, tequila and ginger liqueur in a shaker with ice. I recommend adding the splash of simple syrup as well. The sugar enhances the flavors and rounds them out. You can make this cocktail without the simple syrup and it will taste fine, but a small splash really does wake it up. Shake vigorously, and strain into a large martini glass. Garnish, if you’re feeling fancy, with a slice of lemon or a strip of fresh ginger.


The Joys Of Ginger Liqueur

20 March 2013

Koval Ginger LiqueurOne of the great benefits of living in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood is the easy walk to both a brilliant brewery and a distinctive distillery. I’ve written before about the carefully crafted spirits produced by Koval Distillery, and I was recently fortunate enough to receive a tall, slender bottle of its Organic Ginger Liqueur as a gift from a friend.

Each 10-gallon batch of Koval’s Ginger Liqueur requires 60 pounds of fresh ginger, which explains both the deliciously rich ginger flavor as well as the periodic e-mails I receive encouraging me to come to Koval’s ginger peeling parties. The effort pays off — the liqueur (with 20% alcohol) has a seductively warm aroma of ginger and caramel, and it tastes lusciously smooth with a spicy bite at the end. It tastes so smooth, in fact, that my friend exclaimed, “It’s smooth enough, even a child could drink it!” This friend, reassuringly, has no children of his own.

As delicious as this liqueur was served neat, I had a feeling it could do wonders in a cocktail. My friend and I got to work. We kept things simple for our first attempt, a basic martini that  allowed the ginger flavor to shine. It’s strong but smooth, with a citrusy start, a ginger midsection and an alcoholic punch on the finish:


–2 parts vodka (For the money, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better vodka than Sobieski.)

–1 part Koval Organic Ginger Liqueur (or Stirrings Ginger Liqueur, should Koval be unavailable)

–1/2 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice

Squeeze half a lemon first, and use the amount of juice as the measure of half a part. Depending on the amount of juice you squeeze, you should be able to make one large drink or two small ones. Add all the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a martini glass. If you’re so inclined, garnish with a twist of lemon peel or a thin slice of fresh ginger.


–1 part bourbon (I used Rowan’s Creek, because life is short.)

–1 part Koval Organic Ginger Liqueur

–2 or 3 dashes of Angostura bitters (or similar)

Combine all of the above in large cocktail shaker with ice, and if you’re not in too big of a hurry, stir it for 60 seconds or more for maximum smoothness. Or just give it a good shake and strain into a martini glass. If you’d like to garnish, I recommend a twist of orange zest. This combination makes a wonderfully bright and spicy Manhattan, but it has a surprising creamy quality to it. It’s not as sharp as you might expect.

And finally, my favorite:


–1 part Cognac (I used XO in this tasting, but if you’re not lucky enough to have a free sample bottle of that lying around, VS or VSOP will work just fine.)

–1 part Koval Organic Ginger Liqueur

–1/2 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice

Combine all of the above in a cocktail shaker with ice, stir or shake as is your preference, and strain into a martini glass. It’s traditional to rim the glass with sugar, but I can’t be bothered with that sort of thing. Garnish with a lemon twist if you like. This cocktail moved from flavors of molasses to citrus to ginger — it was stellar.

I’m sure this is only the beginning of the cocktail possibilities. A bottle of Ginger Liqueur belongs right next to the Triple Sec in your liquor cabinet. Happy mixing!

An Argument Lost At The Cocktail Club

9 March 2013

A Valiant Soldier at the Cocktail ClubThe Cocktail Club on north King Street in Charleston offers an atmospheric place to sip craft cocktails, accompanied occasionally by live music. I had settled in with my drink at the bar when I overheard the young lady next to me ordering drinks:

Woman: “Hi there. I need something for a girl and something for a guy [indicating the fellow next to her].”

The bartender, to his credit, delved further into their taste in cocktails, made some recommendations and got mixing. I felt fascinated — especially after attending a conference dedicated to women and Cognac — to hear her order drinks this way, as if gender had something to do with palate.

Me: “I couldn’t help but hear you order your cocktails, and I wanted to ask — why did you order them that way? I mean, do you think women have different palates than men?”

Woman: “Oh, that’s interesting — I don’t really know why I did that, actually. I’m actually a bartender myself, and I like all sorts of things.”

Me: “Right, absolutely. I mean, what if I’m a guy in the mood for something sweet and spicy, and I see this cocktail on the menu here with cinnamon, chili peppers, chocolate vodka and so forth. I probably won’t order it because it’s called ‘For Her Pleasure.’ But why is it called that? Because it’s a dessert drink?”

Woman: “Yeah, I don’t know. But it’s funny, because I actually ended up with a pretty strong martini, and my boyfriend’s is on the sweeter side. So I’m not sure me ordering the way I did made much of a difference after all. What are you drinking?”

Me: “Ahem. This is a ‘Valiant Soldier.'”

Woman: [Raises eyebrows.]

Oops. And with that, this valiant soldier was forced into retreat!

Laura’s Luscious Loquat Liqueur

6 March 2013

Loquat Liqueur in processI had the opportunity to drink a number of thoroughly delightful tipples while in Charleston, South Carolina, and one of the best things I tasted was homemade. If you go to Charleston, and I certainly recommend that you do, give Laura Wichmann Hipp of Charleston Tea Party Private Tours a call. The tour isn’t inexpensive at $100 per person, but it’s worth every penny. She gives you wonderfully personalized, idiosyncratic insights into Charleston that only a lifelong resident could. How else would I have learned that “north side manners” dictate that you don’t linger at the windows on the north side of your home? If your neighbor’s yard and piazza (porch) are on the south side, Mrs. Hipp explained, staring out your northern windows infringes on your neighbor’s privacy.

But more important for the purposes of this blog, Mrs. Hipp also makes her own unique Loquat Liqueur by steeping loquats from her garden in vodka (see right). Now what the heck is a loquat? I thought it might be related to a kumquat, that tiny citrus fruit one eats whole, but the similar names are just a coincidence. Loquats are actually a variety of small stone fruit, which became immediately clear to me when I took a whiff of the liqueur.

It smelled to me like Prunelle, a marvelous plum-based French spirit with a distinctive amaretto aroma shared by the Loquat Liqueur. It tasted floral, sweet and lush, but it wasn’t just a syrup bomb — it had balance, ending with a note of spicy citrus peel. I loved it neat, but it also tasted delicious mixed with some warm apple cider.

For the moment, the only way to obtain the Loquat Liqueur is to head down to Laura’s well-kept Charleston home and pick some up yourself. But Mrs. Hipp has been in off-and-on talks with the owner of Firefly, a local distillery best-known for its Sweet Tea Vodka (mix it with lemonade for a mean Arnold Palmer). The distiller might just be interested in producing this wonderfully unusual liqueur, which would be great news for those of us not fortunate enough to call regularly on Mrs. Hipp.

Until then, I’m glad I brought a bottle home to Chicago, where loquats — in liqueur form or otherwise — are decidedly hard to come by. Every time I take a sip, I’ll be reminded of one of my loveliest days in Charleston.

A Nice Cool Byrrh

27 February 2013

ByrrhI love drinks ressurected from the grave, such as the violet-flavored Crème Yvette or Old Tom Gin. The aperitif called Byrrh (pronounced “beer”) wasn’t dead, exactly, but for years you couldn’t find it in the United States. France stopped exporting it to the U.S. during Prohibition, and for some reason never started again. And so we were left bereft of Byrrh, because as charming as it is to travel to France for a little aperitif shopping, it can get a little impractical.

I had heard of the sweet vermouth-like Byrrh, but I had never tasted it because my aperitif shopping tends to be limited to the northeast side of Chicago. Then one day, there it was! Just standing on a shelf in Binny’s, like nothing had happened. I snapped up a bottle posthaste.

I couldn’t wait to try it, because although at first glance Byrrh appears to resemble many other sweet vermouths, or even Port, it differs in one important respect: It’s spiked with quinine, the anti-malarial compound found in cinchona bark that gives traditional tonic its unique flavor.

I tried it first at room temperature, though it’s traditionally consumed chilled. It had a Porty, richly fruity aroma with something herbal in there as well — a bit of parsley perhaps. I loved the round, luscious mouthfeel which slowly developed into orangey acids and the barest hint of menthol on the finish.

After that taste, there was no question — I needed to see what it would do for a Manhattan. I shook two parts Rowan’s Creek Bourbon, one part Byrrh and a couple dashes of Angostura Bitters with ice, and strained it into a martini glass. It proved to be a balanced but very bright and lively Manhattan. It seemed to end with a deep note from the bitters, but it jumped up again at the last second with a little cedar and mint.

Fun to drink on its own, and fun to mix in a Manhattan — I’d say Byrrh is a winner. And it’s not even that expensive. I picked up a 375 ml bottle at Binny’s for $13. So by God, go out and get some Byrrh!

« Previous PageNext Page »