Measure & Stir

A Craft Cocktail Blog for the Home Bartender that Focuses on Original Creations Drawn from Culinary Inspiration.

04. Aromatic Drinks

This is part of a series on Mixology Basics.

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Aromatic or “Spirited”
1.5 oz base spirit
(optional) .5 – .75 oz fortified wine
.25 oz optional modifier
1 dash of bitters
aromatic garnish

This style of drink includes the classic Martini, Manhattan, and Old Fashioned. It is a little more variable in its composition, but in my opinion, it is less variable in its output. Fewer drinkers enjoy aromatic drinks than sours. When in doubt about someone’s preferences, you should make them a sour (though asking them is the best way).

If someone says “I drink anything”, or “I like everything”, that more often than not signals that they don’t know anything about cocktails, and you should make them a sour. Exception: you’re talking to a bartender.

A note on service: aromatic drinks are best served very cold. For this reason, you should always chill the glass before you start mixing an aromatic drink. Do this by filling it with ice and water, and giving it a stir. When you pour out the water and ice before serving the drink, be thorough, and don’t accidentally overdilute your drink.

Fortified Wine

  • Fortified wine is wine that has been mixed with spirits, herbs, spices, and sugar. These “fortifications” extend its life and add complex flavors.
  • Common examples include vermouth, madeira, marsala, sherry, and port.
  • VERMOUTH IS PERISHABLE and needs to be stored in the refrigerator.
    • Once opened, a bottle of vermouth is good for about a month. Fortified wines can survive longer than regular wines, but you wouldn’t drink a bottle of wine weeks or months after opening it, and you certainly wouldn’t do so after leaving it sitting in the back of a room temperature cabinet.
    • Vermouth needs to be fresh. Buy small bottles, open them as needed, and use them quickly.
    • Sherry and port keep much longer.
  • Fortified wine is a source of acidity in spirited drinks, but it is also a source of sweetness. It can only stand up to a little bit of syrup or liqueur before it becomes cloying.
  • On the question of the exact ratio of wine to spirit, it depends on the spirits in question and on your own idiosyncratic taste.
  • You should probably not make a Manhattan with top shelf whiskey, unless you really know what you’re doing. Even then, many might call it sacrilege, but in general, the nicer your base spirit, the more your ratio should favor it.
  • In the dark ages of cocktails (~1960s to ~2010), spirited drinks started pushing ratios as skewed as 7:1 base:vermouth, in pursuit of something called “dryness”.
    • There are several hypotheses as to why, the most common being improper vermouth storage. If your choice is an old, disgusting bottle of oxidized vermouth, or no vermouth, you should choose “no vermouth”
  • Post-cocktail renaissance, excellent vermouths are available, and they can sometimes outshine a spirit. If you are using “well” spirits, a ratio of 2:1 is probably the best.

Garniture

  • The garnish is more important in an aromatic drink than in a sour, both because it is the main driver of the aroma, and because aromatic drinks are visually simpler.
  • The most common — and appropriate — garnish for an aromatic drink is a swath of citrus peel, which has been “expressed” over the drink.
    • To express a citrus peel, simply bend it over the drink, such that it expels its oils over the surface.
    • Said oils should float visibly on top of the drink, and contribute a bright, pungent citrus smell.

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Classic Aromatics

Old Fashioned
2 oz base spirit
1 barspoon of simple syrup
1 dash of bitters
1 orange peel, expressed

If you follow the link above, you will notice that citrus peel and ice are optional, according to the oldest traditions, and that stirring the drink over ice before pouring it into a tumbler makes it a different drink.

That’s all well and good, but unless you have ice of exceptional quality, may I suggest that you should stir your old fashioned over ice, and serve it with none. Moreover, most people who ask for an old fashioned expect the ice and the citrus peel, and I submit there is a very good reason for this, the divining of which is left as an exercise for the reader.

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Martini
1.5 oz gin
.75 oz dry vermouth
garnish with an olive

Bitters are not strictly necessary, though I myself prefer them. The salty flavor of the olive, much like the salt in the Margarita, is a light bulb moment for most cocktail drinkers. The flavor of the olive transforms the flavor the of the entire drink. It’s acceptable to ask for two or three olives, but at some point, you’re just bumming for snacks.

There are some canonical variations. Ordering a “dry” martini will result in your bartender using an amount of vermouth that ranges from scant to none.

A dash of orange bitters is an optional addition, though I find that it muddies the flavor.

A garnish of lemon peel, in place of an olive, is a little less challenging. Kennedy is rumored to have made his martini this way, if you care.

A pickled cocktail onion, place of an olive, is called a Gibson. It’s not for me, but it might be for you.

A dill pickle is so wrong, but it feels so right.

Manhattan
1.5 oz bourbon
.5 oz sweet vermouth
1 dash of Angostura bitters
garnish with a brandied cherry

Personally, I prefer my Manhattans with an orange peel.

Swapping out the bourbon and sweet vermouth for various other whiskies and sweet fortified wines seems to be favorite hobby of bartenders in respectable establishments. For example, rye and Amer Picon will yield a Brooklyn, but I’m going to advance the controversial opinion here that it’s basically the same drink.

In fact, I will go a step further. There is an entire genre of aromatic drinks known as “brown, bitter, and stirred”, which consist of one or more brown base spirits combined with a grab bag of bitter and herbal liqueurs, fortified wines, and bitter tinctures. There are good ones and bad ones, but they all taste quite similar.

The muddy flavors yielded by a multiplicity of brown and bitter spirits stirred together approaches a platonic ideal of a cocktail. Much like a good curry, all the flavors run together and yield something which is more identifiably “brown cocktail” than any of its constituent elements.

I like brown spirits and bitter liqueurs, but I’m pretty blasé on this genre, as you can probably tell.

Speaking of platonic cocktail ideals, here is another classic that really drove home, for me, the point that just about any combination of base spirit, vermouth, and liqueur in the right proportions will taste pretty good:

Martinez
1.5 oz gin
.5 oz sweet vermouth
.25 oz maraschino
1 dash of Angostura bitters
garnish with an orange peel

The Martinez is the ancestor of its more well-known sibling, the Martini, according to lore. To me, it captures the “classic cocktail” flavor more than just about any other. It’s worth knowing, and it’s a nice side piece when your bar can already make Martinis and Manhattans.
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Negroni
1 oz gin
1 oz sweet vermouth
1 oz campari
garnish with a flamed orange peel

The Negroni is a true classic; ancient, venerated, and challenging. Indeed, its principle flavor comes from Campari, a spirit that is at once intensely bitter and cloyingly sweet. I enjoy its bitterness, but recoil from its syrupy mouthfeel.

I have seen some bartenders claim that it alone among aromatic drinks must be shaken, or that it must be served on the rocks. Sometimes both. And both modifications are in service of reducing the syrupy mouthfeel, I am sure. May I suggest, instead, a small rejigger?

Better Negroni, IMO
1.5 oz gin
.75 oz sweet vermouth
.5 oz campari
garnish with a flamed orange peel

To flame an orange peel, strike a match, hold it over your drink, and express the peel of an orange into the flame such that it lands on the surface of the drink. Flamed orange oils burn and become acrid, but in the Negroni, it works. As exciting as pyrotechnics can be, use this sparingly.

A fun variation on the Negroni is to swap out the gin for bourbon; this is known as a Boulevardier.

Toronto (My Way)
1.5 oz Rye Whiskey
.25 oz Fernet Branca
(optional) .25 oz Simple syrup
1 dash of bitters
Garnish with a lemon peel

I looked this up before writing down my own recipe, just to see what the internet thought. They seem to be divided between Canadian or Rye whiskey. I’m going to tell you right now that mass market Canadian whiskey is all garbage. There may exist small batch distillers that are worthy, but when someone says “Canadian Whiskey” in a drink recipe, that’s not what they mean.

Admittedly, Canadian whiskey sounds more appropriate in a drink named Toronto, but I can’t suggest that to you in good faith. Stick to rye. And since you’re using rye, use a lemon peel, it complements the sour flavors of rye nicely. You will notice that this is just a fancy old fashioned, which I only highlighted here because I am a fiend for fernet.

I’m not kidding about it being a fancy old fashioned, either, that’s a real thing.

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Fancy Old Fashioned Cocktail
1.5 oz base spirit
.25 oz liqueur
1 dash of bitters
Garnish with a citrus peel

The canonical choices would be bourbon or rye for the base and and cointeau or maraschino for the liqueur, but you should let your imagination run wild. Mezcal and Ancho Reyes? Gin and Yellow Chartreuse? That’s called an Alaska.

Alaska
1.5 oz gin
.25 oz yellow Chartreuse
garnish with an orange peel

Googling around, you will find variations with a higher proportion of liqueur to gin, and you will find suggestions for orange bitters or dry sherry. I have found these things to be lacking. My formulation follows the shape of an old fashioned cocktail, whereas the standard recipe is too sweet. A drink with no acid can take no more than a quarter ounce of liqueur or syrup.

A dry sherry, if selected very carefully, might work. Still, you would have to know what you were doing, and have a wide variety of sherries to choose from. To serve it with sherry, jigger it like a martini:

Nome Cocktail
1.5 oz gin
.75 oz fino sherry
.25 oz yellow chartreuse
garnish with an orange peel

Let’s finish this section strong with one more variation on the Old Fashioned, that New Orleans classic, the Sazerac.

Sazerac
1.5 oz rye whiskey
.25 oz simple syrup
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters
absinthe rinse
garnish with a lemon peel

An absinthe rinse is exactly what it sounds like. Pour a quarter ounce of absinthe into a chilled glass, swirl it around, and pour it out. If you prefer, just pour a barspoon of absinthe into the drink, instead. No one will know the difference and you’ll save money on absinthe.