Monthly Archives: February 2012
A woman sat at my bar and said: “I’d like a classic martini, please. Make it with Grey Goose.”
“I can’t do that,” I said. “Even if I stocked Grey Goose, which I don’t, I would not be able to make you that drink, because a classic martini can only be made with gin.”
Although some folks might have taken offense at my tone, this woman took everything I said in the instructive spirit in which it was intended. “Really? I had no idea,” she said. “I’ve never heard of a martini being made with anything other than vodka.” And then she asked, “What exactly is gin, anyway?”
It’s a sad story, but it has a happy ending. I made her a gin martini that she loved.
But it’s a sad state of affairs when our country’s most recognizable and iconic cocktail is more easily identified with the glass it is served in than its components or preparation. It’s gotten to the point where anything served in a “martini glass” becomes a “martini,” whether it be nothing but cold vodka, or a syrupy sludge tasting vaguely of watermelon. I sometimes serve martinis in a coupe glass rather than the traditional “martini glass,” and it’s not uncommon for a guest to complain that the drink I served them is somehow “not a martini” simply because it came in an unexpected glass.
So, in light of all of this information, let’s straighten things out right now: A martini is gin and dry vermouth, stirred with ice until chilled, and garnished with either an olive or a lemon peel. Or a cocktail onion if you wish to have a gibson. That is all a martini is or ever will be. You will notice I say it should be stirred. It should never be shaken. James Bond is a moron. I would never say that to his face, because he’d break my jaw with his pinky finger and then run off with my girlfriend. But, in my heart of hearts, I know he’s secretly a wuss. No real man would ask for a shaken martini and, good lord, ask for vodka in it. The only thing worse than a vesper is a straight vodka martini. Don’t do it. Just don’t.
Now we know what a martini is. It honestly doesn’t really matter what glass it goes into. You could pour one into my cupped palms and it would still be a martini. (Mad props and a huge tip, by the way, to the bartender that eventually makes that dream of mine a reality.)
I enjoy all manners of gin. I will admit that I believe it is easier to find bad gin than it is to find poor examples in other spirit category (with perhaps one exception in the case of tequila). This is largely because many upstart distillers in the United States decide to make a gin while they are waiting for their brand new whiskey to mature. The problem is that making a good gin takes a daunting amount of skill, and few people have it. Sometimes to find the best gin, you have to stick with the big names, because they are the ones who pay the big bucks for the best people. My preferred gins are Beefeater and Plymouth, plain and simple. Many people who know me as a fellow who gravitates toward esoteric, lesser-known labels, would be shocked to hear this, but it’s the honest truth. (That’s not to say that there aren’t smaller gins I adore. Oxley and The Botanist have both held my attention recently.)
If you were to make a martini for me right now, here’s what I would expect from you:
3/4oz dry vermouth (Noilly Pratt and Dolin are both preferred. It should be refrigerated if already opened. Otherwise, throw it away and open a fresh bottle.)
-Add the ingredients to a mixing glass and then add freshly-made ice. If the ice is large, crack it with a spoon into smaller pieces.
-Stir well. No more than 10 seconds if the ice is cracked, a bit longer otherwise.
-If you think you might have stirred it for too long, YOU DEFINITELY HAVE AND NEED TO STOP NOW.
-Strain into my cupped palms, or, if we are expecting polite company, into a martini glass or similarly non-embarrassing vessel.
-Don’t chill the glass in the freezer. The martini shouldn’t be ice cold, and one should never drink a cocktail out of a glass that is colder than the cocktail itself. If you must serve it in a cold glass, put it in the fridge, instead.
-Yes, that’s right. My martini shouldn’t be ice cold. If it’s too cold, I won’t taste the subtle nuances of the cocktail which have made the drink so beloved, and will have wasted your precious time and my own. Don’t go for “igloo cold.” Go for “I wish the bus would goddamned get here already because my ears are beginning to hurt a bit.” But no colder than that.
-Garnish with a lemon peel. Yeah, I know an olive is considered “classic,” but we are talking about what I would do, and I prefer a lemon peel. If you are out of lemons, a small green olive will be fine. None of that bleu cheese-stuffed garbage though. That’s just ridiculous.
I will drink my martini within 8 minutes. That’s how long I have before the thing gets too warm, unless we are sitting in an igloo or waiting for the bus, in which case I’ll probably have a bit longer.
This isn’t just how I would want you to make a martini for me, but how I think a martini should be made for all people. It is the closest one can get to the essential martininess to which we all strive. Alas, I rarely order martinis when I go out drinking. The martini pays a steep price for being the simplest cocktail around: It’s the easiest one to get wrong.
“The stuff is wretched. Not even the Italians are willing to drink it. It’s just cheap swill that they try to pawn off on gullible Americans.”
The speaker, a British gentleman, was at my fully-sat bar loudly proclaiming his convictions about amaro just after I had spent the better part of 5 minutes trying to convince a wary guest of its virtues. Although I have yet to meet any Italians who have been able to confirm this man’s account, his words did capture a negative sentiment held both by drinkers at large and by many bartenders: That amaro is difficult to work with, difficult to drink and difficult to love. But this could not be farther from the truth.
Perhaps only gin is more maligned by the modern drinker than is amaro. Which is fitting, because the two do have some similarities which, once discovered, are difficult to ignore and easy to appreciate. But I will talk more about that later.
What is amaro? Amaro (or, the plural amari) Italian for “bitter,” is a concentrated infusion of bitter herbs and roots in alcohol (often a neutral beet or grain spirit), which is often aged in oak casks and is generally sweetened. It is traditionally taken as a “digestif” to settle the stomach after a meal, and historically has had other medicinal properties associated with it. Although the word amaro refers to such concoctions produced in Italy, the style of digestif is popular throughout much of Europe and Eastern Europe. A lot of people I serve inquire about what amaro is, but many of them don’t realize they are already familiar with it. Jaegermeister is, for example, a popular representation of the very style of bitter herbal digestif of which the Italians are so fond.
Amaro tastes like medicine. This is the number one complaint that I hear from people who either won’t drink the stuff, or swear they will never drink it again. As if medicine, something intended to make us well, is something to be shunned. In fact, amaro began as medicine. Medicine itself began with herbs and roots. Distillation of alcohol was first embarked on in order to produce medicines thought to cure practically every ailment. The marriage of herbal medicine and alcohol was an obvious one, and amaro began as herbal elixirs sold in pharmacies. The alcoholic content was thought to enhance the medicinal benefits of the ingredients. The elixirs were sweetened in order to mask the bitterness of the ingredients.
This quality of “bitter masked by sweet” is what we identify as “medicinal.” Modern medicines — cough syrup, for example — are based on the same principal. Syrupy synthetic cherry flavor is dumped into cough syrup to mask the bitterness of the medicinal components. The science behind medicine has changed over the centuries, but the science of taste has not. Amaro may not cure our every physical ailments, but it can raise the spirits and settle the stomach. And, beyond that, it can help to make a fabulous cocktail. Yes, although I enjoy amaro after a meal, or, admittedly, in the afternoon over a newspaper, my true love for amaro was discovered once I started using it in cocktails.
My first introduction to amaro was through another bartender, who told me that one must be very careful when using it in cocktails, as it will quickly overwhelm everything else in the drink. That seemed reasonable to me at the time. But, in fact, I wasn’t particularly appreciative of amari in the first place. Aside from a brief fling with Averna, and a few shy, curious evenings spent with Fernet Branca, I mostly steered clear of the stuff, content to slake my thirst with more conventional brown liquors. It wasn’t that I disliked it. I just hadn’t discovered its worth.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started imbibing amaro and using it in cocktails regularly. Although not every amaro is a great cocktail ingredient, I’ve found that the vast majority of them are. All present a dense, tight concentration of flavor which, when diluted and embellished, unfurl and display great complexity and surprising, unexpected characteristics. (Not unlike the aforementioned gin.) Simply by taking some amaro and cutting it with a neutral spirit, or even with water, can bring out surprising flavors that would otherwise be masked by others.
I hosted a “Stories From Behind The Bar” event last year for Manhattan Cocktail Classic, at ‘inoteca liquori bar, and put together an entire presentation based on using amaro in cocktails. Our sponsor was Ramazzotti, and during my preparations for the event I spent a lot of time playing around with the amaro and teasing flavors out of it. Try this:
2 parts Ramazzotti
2 parts vodka
1 part light rum
Stir it with ice until chilled, then strain and enjoy. But try it at room temperature for maximum effect. This mixture brings out tremendously fruity characteristics in this particular amaro, and it led me down different avenues than I might have explored otherwise.
Amaro brings more flavor to cocktails than nearly any other bottle behind the bar. But, unlike most syrupy flavored liqueurs, and when judiciously mixed, it will enhance the flavors in a cocktail, and can shed new light on familiar concepts.
Here’s one I serve at ‘inoteca liquori bar:
1 1/2oz Averna
1/2oz Orange Juice
1/4oz Lemon Juice
Shake with ice and strain into a sugar-rimmed glass (a small brandy snifter, or a large sherry glass will work nicely)
Garnish with a long orange peel curled around the inside of the glass.
Both of these recipes expose some of the potential that amaro holds as a cocktail ingredient. But the appeal of amaro extends far beyond this. It is both a historical curiosity, and a unique, modern-day delicacy. It has yet to be packaged in frosted glass bottles and endorsed by glamorous hollywood stars. It doesn’t need to be.
Amaro is, for better or worse, fiercely itself. And, like medicine in your cabinet, I think it’s a necessity on any bar.