A Nice Cool Byrrh

27 February 2013
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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!

Some Lenten Meditations

22 February 2012
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With Mardi Gras fading into fatty, beaded memory, it’s time to take stock and think about a little self-sacrifice. This blog isn’t exactly known for its abstemiousness, so it may seem odd to come to Odd Bacchus for ideas about how to mark Lent. But even I try to respect the Lenten tradition of giving something up.

I have nothing but respect for those who give up sugar or Facebook or even alcohol, but most of us lack the self-control to achieve such a lofty goal. If you, like me, are not a paragon of self-restraint, set your sights just a little lower, and consider sacrificing one of the following instead:

Sour Mix: Many restaurants, bars and home bartenders use this fluorescent green concoction to make sugary sweet margaritas. Instead of this chemical brew of high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and food coloring, try some fresh-squeezed limes and a dash of simple syrup instead. (Simple syrup is available in liquor stores, or make your own by  simmering one part water and one part sugar together.)

“Maraschino” Cherries: Speaking of food coloring… Give up the unnaturally bright red “maraschino” cherries you find atop sundaes. Instead, buy some true Maraschino cherries (also known as Marasca cherries), which are available on Amazon and in well-stocked liquor stores. Your Manhattan will thank you.

Old Vermouth: All too many of us home bartenders (myself included) have ancient bottles of crappy vermouth. Give them up! Pour them down the drain and recycle the bottles. A good vermouth can make a world of difference in your cocktail. Carpano Antica, a red vermouth, has lately taken the bartending world by storm, and it makes a mean Manhattan. Also watch out for Vya, which makes both red (sweet) and white (extra dry) vermouths. If you worry you won’t be able to use all of that relatively expensive vermouth before it spoils, you can always drink it straight.

Cheap Booze: Just because a wine or liquor is inexpensive doesn’t mean that it’s a good value. All too often, that $7 bottle of wine tastes like it should have cost about $3. Life is too short for that kind of nonsense. Give it up! In large amounts, alcohol is unhealthy, which means it should be both delicious and just a little expensive. Better to drink less of something really satisfying than glass after glass of plonk. Not all inexpensive wines are bad, of course — I’ve written about a number of decent wines that cost less than $15 (or even $10), but the good values in that price range usually require avoiding famous brands.

Your Go-To Drink: It’s easy to become a creature of habit and stick with what we know, buying the same brands of wine and ordering the same cocktails over and over again. Give it up! Try something new. Tell your (trusted) bartender or wine store clerk what you usually order, and ask for an interesting alternative to try. Who knows? Next year, you might have a new go-to drink to give up for Lent.

Vermouth? Really?

20 April 2011

Like most people with moderately well-stocked home bars, I have a couple dusty bottles of aging vermouth. A whisper of the dry vermouth occasionally provides a veneer of propriety to what would otherwise just be a big glass of vodka, and the sweet, red version appears in slightly greater quantities in my Manhattans.

That’s about as far as I’ve gone with my vermouth experimentations. Europeans sometimes order a glass of vermouth, as I learned years ago in Paris when a friend ordered a martini. The waiter returned with an aperitif of Martini & Rossi Bianco, a dry vermouth, on the rocks.

She felt less than pleased with her “martini,” but according to the Wall Street Journal, she is one of the few Americans to have drunk vermouth properly. The recent article Straight Vermouth, No Chaser claims vermouth can be a lovely drink all on its own. And who are we to doubt the Wall Street Journal?

I’m particularly looking forward to trying some Cocchi Vermouth di Torino:

Resurrected this year from a 120-year-old formula, this Italian sweet vermouth produced in the Asti region of Italy could give Carpano Antica a run for its money. Amber in color and using muscato grapes as its base, there are notes of tobacco, orange peel and raisin as well as hints of cola and leather. 750ml, $19

I’m curious — are there any readers who have actually tried vermouth straight up or on the rocks? (Drinking it as a last resort at a college party doesn’t count.)