Category Archives: Spirits
My relationship with Frangelico began innocently enough (or not-so-innocently, depending on your perspective) in the spring of 2001. I was 18, and it was just a year after I had decided that bartending was a noble pursuit. I was infatuated with a 23-year-old woman, and was standing in her kitchen. We’d gone to dinner, and she’d taken me back to her place and put some coffee on. She also had an unopened half-bottle of Frangelico on hand. At the time, I thought this made her unbelievably sophisticated. Now, before you cry foul over this story of an older woman corrupting an underage drinker with alcohol, fear not: No booze was consumed that night because we could not get the damned bottle open. The cap simply spun around and around but would not unscrew. We both worked at it for several minutes using a variety of different techniques, but the result remained the same: The Frangelico was staying in the bottle that night.
I’ve been marked for life by this event. First of all, I can’t look at the silhouette of the Frangelico bottle’s pious friar without thinking of the curves of a beautiful, smart, and unpredictable young woman who was ultimately too much for me to handle. (Some might find this to be weird, but my argument is that all bottles are inherently phallic anyway, so there’s really nothing new here.) Secondly, the cap to that bottle is still spinning. I don’t mean that particular bottle—I’m sure she eventually opened her bottle and served it to a more mature man who was better prepared for its contents than I was. Back then, I didn’t know what to do with Frangelico (beyond putting it in coffee). And now, even though I’ve opened many bottles since then, I still often find myself perplexed. Eleven years later, it’s just as mysterious to me as it was in that kitchen in Silverlake. So, in that sense, I still can’t get the darn thing open.
There are a lot of popular liqueurs that I banish from my home and from bars left and right, but there’s definitely nothing wrong with Frangelico. First of all, it’s Italian, which means its sheik and artsy. Secondly, it’s “all natural.” And lastly, it’s really delicious. I don’t think anyone can take this over the rocks and complain it doesn’t taste good. But there’s a problem: It’s pungent.
I feel confident enough to work with nearly every ingredient in any bar. I’ve put together an entire menu of amaro cocktails. Absinthe? No problem. Strega, grappa, Islay Scotch, blackstrap rum, batavia arrack—throw them at me and I’ll knock them all down. As long as a spirit or liqueur is of fine quality in its own right, I will confidently make a delicious drink. But when it comes to Frangelico, I have often found myself shrugging my shoulders in resignation.
Frangelico is what is know as a noisette, which is French for “hazelnut,” and also refers to a liqueur featuring the same flavor. Although it markets itself as “the original hazelnut liqueur,” with “origins” dating back over 300 years, and has a bottle that calls to mind something old and traditional, Frangelico has actually only been around since the 1980’s. It’s made with real hazelnuts, which are steeped in an alcohol solution. This solution is then distilled again, resulting in a hazelnut distillate. Then other ingredients are added, including cocoa and vanilla. Although I don’t know for sure, I would wager there’s fruit in there as well, berries in particular.
Frangelico’s modern origins are surprising for the reasons listed above, and for this one: It doesn’t exactly play to a young crowd. It’s been passed over by the craft cocktail movement, and lacks horrible TV commercials with a “bartender” explaining the subtle art of pouring Frangelico into a glass with ice. Instead, it sits on the back bar gathering dust, brought out only to go into a coffee, or when someone wants something sweet on the rocks after a meal.
A few months ago, I’d had enough of this. I decided that I would come up with new and interesting things to do with Frangelico. I figured that if amaretto can get play in cocktails, why not Frangelico? It turned out to be harder than I thought.
There are very few Frangelico cocktails out there that aren’t in the “dessert” category. It is seemingly always paired with one of the following: Coffee, cream, Bailey’s, Kahlua, Creme de Banana or Creme de Cacao. It’s always suffering the indignity of whipped cream, shavings of cinnamon, or, God forbid, playing along in a layered shot. Recently, after I briefly explained my cocktail background and the challenge I had set for myself, one well-meaning liquor store employee excitedly explained to me that mixing equal parts Pinnacle “Whipped” flavored vodka and Frangelico would yield a drink that tastes just like chocolate covered pretzels. (I smiled politely and then narrowly avoided vomiting into a nearby waste bin.)
I worked at it for months during off hours at the bar and prime hours at home, pairing Frangelico with every conceivable ingredient, trying to come up with something that worked. What I wanted was not a cocktail that accepted Frangelico, but one that needed it. But it also had to be fresh, interesting, and something that compelled you to drink more.
Eventually, I came up with this. Although the ingredients may seem unexpected, I believe the combination works extremely well.
1oz reposado tequila (I prefer Casa Noble)
1oz freshly-breweed genmaicha green tea
1/2oz freshly squeezed lime juice
Large pinch of cilantro (10-12 leaves)
Add the cilantro directly to a shaker with the rest of the ingredients.
Strain the drink into an ice-filled rocks glass.
I’d encourage you try try it before rendering judgment. The hazelnut and cilantro match-up is one I’ve long suspected would work, and have not been disappointed by the way this cocktail has come out.
So, I’ve gotten one Frangelico cocktail down. Will it take another several months to create a suitable follow-up? We’ll see. But now, at last, I have something to produce whenever a guest asks, “Do you make anything with Frangelico.”
Despite my new discovery and many years of familiarity with this product, there are still times when I just can’t seem to get the cap off of the bottle. It spins, just like it did all those years before. It’s embarrassing. After all, I’m older and more experienced now, and shouldn’t be running into issues like this. On nights when the problem has come up, bar colleagues and guests have assured me that it happens to every bartender once in a while. I always unconvincingly insist that it’s the first time it’s ever happened to me.
“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.