I follow several Instagram accounts where the drink photography is really good, and these often lead to drinks I haven’t tried before. A happy discovery on Friday was an image of an Old School from the Dragonfly bar in Hong Kong, which sounded very interesting indeed: no proportions were given, but looking at the combination, it appeared to be a Sazerac/Manhattan variant, so I re-built their drink on that basis.
The result is really quite something – there’s a lot going here, in some really subtle proportions, and the bar has created a modern take on the classic Sazerac. The combination an amaro and a fernet in one drink could be really quite an eye-opener, but they have used very small quantities of each, and the amaro, Montenegro, is at the sweeter end of the amaro style (and also one of my favourites – so I had a bottle to hand). For the fernet, I was lucky to still have a small amount of the Britannica fernet sample that Asterley Bros sent me last month; it’s a really excellent new version of this rich and bitter drink & well worth a bottle of your time. A little trial-and-error, and I came up with something really quite smooth and delicious. If you want to be closer to the Sazerac roots, use a rye rather than a bourbon; I used bourbon & it seemed to sit well with the amaro/fernet bitterness. It’s your choice to choose the base spirit, so see what works best for you. The Lillet is the one thing I would keep as a invariable ingredient though; it has a special flavour.
Chill an Old Fashioned glass. Stir the spirits together over ice until well cooled. Rinse the glass with a small quantity of absinthe, so that the bottom third is coated, then drain. Strain the spirit mixture into the glass and garnish with a large slice of lemon zest, expressing the oils onto the surface before dropping the zest into the drink. I served this straight up, and it seemed to suit the drink, but if you like yours with another large ice block, have at it.
A Margarita variant, the Division Bell comes from the mind of Phil Ward, one of the key bartenders credited with New York’s cocktail revival in the 90s. His much-missed venue, Mayahuel, closed there in 2017 & has since re-opened amid some controversy, but some of his most popular creations from there live on. Here is the Division Bell, that pairs the smokiness of mezcal with the citrus flavours of Aperol, which leads to its connection with the Margarita. But the smoky flavours and the richness of the Aperol make this a more intriguing proposition (though I’ve nothing against a Margarita – a properly-made one with a good tequila is a wonderful thing, indeed). I have used the most available brand of mezcal in the UK, Monte Alban, which, frankly, most mezcal aficionados think is poor stuff – but it’s what you’ll mostly find here until mezcal gets the same kind of interest levels as tequila gets now. However, the results aren’t bad at all – if Monte Alban isn’t great, then the Aperol and maraschino lifts it up. This is a really clever drink – it combines elements of a Last Word with a Margarita, and makes more of both. A perfect example of just a little tweak to a recipe can make a very different drink.
22.5ml fresh lime juice
Shake all of the ingredients with plenty of ice, then double strain into a chilled coupe. Difford’s guide suggests grapefruit as a garnish, but I preferred orange to match the Aperol better. No bitters required, as the Aperol provides this, but if you want a more bitter-fronted drink, a few drops of Bob’s Orange & Mandarin would work nicely
My sample of Asterley Bros’ London fernet, Britannica, is proving very versatile, so I have been looking at other ways of using it. Adding a fernet or amaro to a Boulevardier recipe to give it a more cutting edge is a great variation – such as the Palpable Apathy, created by David Little at the Barnacle bar in Seattle – so I decided to try something like that with my sample of Britannica. In a piece of perfect timing, a recipe from my favourite bar, Disrepute in Soho, popped up in my Instagram feed – a Bulleit Boulevardier, developed for them by Jean-Vital at Cocktail Circus. So with a salut! to the original recipe, I have replaced the Fernet Branca with Britannica, and changed the cherry wine to a cherry brandy, just to reduce the sweetness a touch. The end result is a Boulevardier with a kick – more of a Brixton swagger than Champs-Élysées stroll – so I have renamed this one the Londoner with a Bulleit, as its full-fronted bitterness seems to evoke some 60s gangster movie set in the East End. Perhaps you need to drink this one while wearing a trilby, as an additional garnish.
40ml Bulliet bourbon
10ml Britannica fernet
15ml Cinzano Rosso
10ml cherry brandy
Stir in a mixing glass with plenty of ice. Strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with a slim strip of orange zest – mandarin, if you have it.
This drink is an update to a variation on the Manhattan, using the uniquely Italian strong bitter spirit, fernet, to replace the bitters that are so important in the Manhattan. Having re-magined the drink in an Italian style, they also re-named it I Fanciulli or the Lads. The result is a more bitter & powerful version of the Manhattan.
For my version, I was able to use the new London fernet, Britannica, made by the Asterley Brothers, who make an inventive range of modern takes on three key cocktail ingredients: a vermouth, an amaro and most recently, the fernet – which has the correct myrrh & herbal base, plus some uniquely English elements like chocolate malt and a London porter. As this was a British version of the recipe, I renamed the drink to give it a more local name – this is the London Brothers. It is a bold and bitter version of the Manhattan, and needs to be made with a strong bourbon – or perhaps even more correctly a rye – but here the 45% Bulleit was a good choice. This a strong pre-dinner drink, with a full-on bitter hit, followed by the lingering sweetness of the bourbon/vermouth combination
2 oz strong bourbon
1/2 oz Britannica fernet
1/2 oz Italian vermouth
Add alcohols to a mixing glass, and then plenty of fresh ice. Stir and double strain into a chilled coupe. No bitters are required due to the fernet. Garnish also seems to be optional
Suze, the gentian-first Swiss bitter, is a very useful bottle to have in the drink stock; not nearly as sweet as its Italian relatives, the flavour is dry and distinctively bitter, much more so than even Campari.
Gentian isn’t only found in Size, but here it’s so the dominant flavour, it gives the drink a very mysterious herbal-vegetal quality, quite unlike anything else; a simple shot poured over ice makes a very good aperitif, but too much can give that mouth-puckering feeling brought on by drinking large quantities of tonic water.
In the white Negroni, the combination of the Suze and a dry vermouth gives the finished drink a lighter taste, more herbal and delicate than its traditional and more robust cousin; people who don’t like Campari and might refuse a Negroni on that basis could find this one a more delicate and intriguing introduction; whether or not it’s better is a different debate altogether, but it’s certainly distinctive enough while remaining obviously related to the traditional version.
40ml gin (try a delicate, citrus-forward blend – I used the Japanese Roku brand here)
30ml white vermouth (I used the Spanish Casa Mariol vermut)
Stir the alcohols together over ice, then strain into an old-fashioned glass with fresh ice. Garnish with a large piece of lemon zest. Breaking the ‘always add bitters’ rule here, as Suze is herbal enough for you not to need them.
Note: if you like Suze, and I do, then reverse the quantities of the Suze and the vermouth for a more dominant flavour.
Naming cocktails is an odd thing: typically, the barman or establishment that invents a particular combination gets to name that drink (see the Ward 8 for one example). Many stories are known, some are the source of controversy & plenty are lost entirely. With a limited number of ingredients, especially in the classic cocktail era, it’s hardly surprising that some cocktails even come in different recipes bearing the same name: the Derby exists in a number of forms, all named after the famous American horse race.
So what does this have to do with the Negroni, and its many current expressions being offered in bars? The standard recipe, gin, vermouth & Campari is a great combination of strong, sweet and sour, making it a damn-near perfect pre-dinner drink, and its recent resurgence is not surprising. But the twist is that the Negroni itself is a variation – the standard history is that Count Negroni asked his favourite barman to strengthen the regular Americano cocktail by replacing the soda water with gin (most likely because he’d lived in London for a while and picked up a gin habit there), creating the famous mix. But, similar drinks exist, all bearing different names: the Old Pal replaces the gin with whisky, and the other bar classic, the Boulevardier has bourbon in the white spirit slot.
So why are modern Negroni variations not getting completely new names? My guess is that because of the popularity of the standard Negroni, bar staff are wanting to show the connection to the classic drink, whilst trying to do something original. Tequila for gin is a fairly straightforward change, and a basic silver or plata style tequila isn’t going to clash dramatically with the vermouth or Campari. As someone who isn’t completely sold on gin, except in a very dry Martini, the tequila change works very well. But I think the name ‘tequila Negroni’ is a little dull, so I have taken to renaming it the Jalisco Negroni, in honour of the area where tequila production is based. The drink, to my mind, has a slightly fresher taste than the gin version, and benefits from the lightness of the younger style of tequila.
20ml sweet vermouth
Stir the alcohols together in a mixing glass over ice, then strain into an Old Fashioned glass with a fresh single large ice cube. Garnish with an orange peel or a stick of cinnamon if you want to be thoroughly exotic.
The Manhattan formula, so simple but so adaptable, gives rise to endless variation. Some of these are deliberate attempt to rearrange the basic mixture; others seem to have arisen from the simple fact that a combination of a spirit, vermouth & bitters is a mighty fine one and a solid foundation for a very good drink.
One of these variations is the Palmetto, recorded in the Savoy Cocktail book. This puts the drink in the period between the publication of the book and the repeal of Prohibition, making it one of the cocktail ‘classics’. Harry Craddock’s recipe combines rum, vermouth and bitters & is faithfully recreated in Robert Simonson’s excellent book, 3 Ingredient Cocktails; I used his recipe here. One of the key things to note is that bitters here are very important – both rum and the Italian vermouth are quite sweet, so the citrus kick of the bitters is necessary to tie them together, but add too much & they will overpower the drink.
I’m not enamoured with this drink; the equal mix of vermouth and rum just doesn’t seem to work together for me, even with a good shake of bitters; somehow it’s just all too sweet. But it is a complex drink and worth trying, even just once.
1 1/2 oz good, aged rum
1 1/2 oz sweet vermouth
Dashes of orange bitters
Stir over ice, then strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish really seems to be optional for this drink, but a good slice of orange zest wouldn’t go amiss; if you use a cocktail cherry, you would be adding to the sweetness even further.