You know (cause you’re you) that I’m a big fan by a country mile (as the saying says) of coming up with a new original amazing (or at least new) name when you concoct a new drink, even if said drink only changes one ingredient from an existing drink. That’s the way our bartending foremothers and forefathers did it back in the cocktail day (in this instance, meaning late 1800s, early 1900s) I believe, and if it was good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. However! Sometimes, when the drink is really close, even I am tempted to just add an “ini” on the end or “insert word here + existing drink name” as the name and call it good. But I, even when lazy (which is most of the time) try to resist! Here, for example, I almost just said “Cherry Negroni” but then decided (still, lazily) to call it instead, The Ciliegia, which is Italian for cherry! But really, it’s mostly a Negroni (slightly different portions) with delightful Washington distillery Oomrang’s (in your mind, insert umlauts over the Os) delightful Cherry eau de vie in place of gin.
If you haven’t had it (you should!) Oomrang Cherry eau di vie, or fruit brandy, is made from natural Washington black cherries, picked at the peak of ripeness, at which time the finest of the fine have the stems removed, as well as any leafage, and then they’re rapidly turned into brandy via the joys and wonders of distillation. Fruit brandies (the real ones, not the fake ones – of which there are a lot, especially I think a lot of “cherry brandies” which are really just cherries muddled with vodka or another neutral spirit and a lot of sugaring agent, ending up oversweet and yucky) if you haven’t delved in are straight spirits, which – as demonstrated in this very drink – boast clear, crisp, flavors that catch the essence of a fruit in a way that’s wholly unique, and tasty. Here, the cherry notes mix a treat with the herbal sweetness of the sweet vermouth, and the bittery beauty of the Campari, without sacrificing the gin’s umph, as this real cherry brandy has the same ABV as the average gin. Heck, it’s a good enough combo that I’d drink it even if you did call it just a Cherry Negroni.
I know, I know, it’s the middle of August, hottest month of the year for most of us stateside, and so for many not perhaps the right time of year for a whiskey forward (very so, classically so) cocktail. These folks think that this should be a winter, or maybe fall choice, and they in some ways are right. But in other ways, they’re wrong. Exhibit A way: when you’ve received an absolutely choice bottle of single malt whiskey in the mail and decide you must have it in a classic drink. This, friends, is that exhibit. Or story. Or some such.
Let’s back up. Recently (and yeah, don’t hate me cause I’m lucky like this), I received a bottle of Paul John Brilliance single malt whiskey. An Indian – maybe the Indian – single malt, it’s made from ingredients, including a special six-row barley, grown at Himalayan foothills, and aged for five years in the tropics of Goa, India. This tropical climate makes for a fast maturation, in American white oak. The end result has won awards all over the world already, but just recently become available here. It’s a very distinctive whiskey, one that, by all rights, you should sip solo and let the demerara and barley fragrance tempt you and the spice and vanilla taste and intriguing cocoa finish with just a hint of orange linger (maybe a splash of water or a single ice cube for the second glass, just to see how it goes).
But, if you’re me (and of course you aren’t, cause that would be an existential pickle that would be, oh, too much to go into now) or like me, you can’t stop at that, even with a whiskey of this level. No, you have to try it in a cocktail. And now I’ve gotten a little weird with pronouns. Let’s stop that. I decided on the Rob Roy, one of the legendary Scotch cocktails. A single malt and a Scotch are of course, at least cousins, maybe siblings, in the grand scheme of things. And I wanted a cocktail that would really let the Brilliance flavors come alive, and provide some proper cocktail partners – here, the otherworldly Carpano Antica vermouth, and Angostura. The end result is dreamy. Any time of year.
This seaworthy cocktail is an on-board twist on one of my all-time favs, the Bobby Burns. The Bobby Burns is one of those strong classics that doesn’t sacrifice flavor for umph, or get try to sub in tricksy-ness for good taste (not that many classic cocktails do). In this variant, I’ve subbed in the new 3 Howls Navy Strength rum, for the Scotch, which is a seriously strong rum, following up on their award-winning Navy Strength gin. The rum goes well with the sweet vermouth (Carpano Antica is the way to go here) and the Bénédictine, too, delivering a memorable mix, and one with a nice warm kick. I’ve upped the Bénédictine a little, because the herbalness was playing well.
The Midshipman Burns
2-1/2 ounces 3 Howls Navy Strength rum
1/2 ounce Carpano Antica
1/2 ounce Bénédictine
Lemon twist, for garnish.
1. Fill a cocktail shaker or mixing glass halfway full with cracked ice. Add the rum, Carpano, and Bénédictine. Stir well.
2. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with the lemon twist.
Sometimes, I’m a bit lucky (now, I’m not like tootin’ my own horn here or anything. I’m unlucky lots of times, too), and when I come home from the coal mine I work days at I find a package on my doorstep, and sometimes, sometimes that package is filled with bottles from which flow delicious elixirs. Meaning: booze. Recently, in one box that was on the doorstep was a bottle of Hoodoo chicory liqueur. Made in Mississippi at the Cathead distillery (where they also make the mighty fine Cathead vodka, Cathead honeysuckle vodka, and Bristow gin), Hoodoo is a rich mix, not too sweet, and with herbal and coffee notes jumping all around just the tiniest bitter whispers. I’ve always thought of chicory tied up with coffee (and probably remember hearing of it first the first time I went to New Orleans and visited Café Du Monde years and years ago), and so when I started playing around with this liqueur in drinks – which is what I do with a new liqueur, after I taste it – my first thought was to mix it with coffee. But then I started thinking back to when I was growing up in Kansas, and when I’d see farmers in the doughnut shop get coffee then add a splash of bourbon or rye to it. To sort-of invert the ratio (hey, I’m not in Kansas anymore), I decide to try adding a splash of the Hoodoo to a large bit of the brown. To round things out, and to add a few more herbal touches, I added a smaller splash of Carpano Antica. And the Mississippi Morning was born. While it is a dandy drink for the a-m, it also shines at night. And after you’ve gotten up from a nap.
The Mississippi Morning
2 ounces rye
3/4 ounces Hoodoo liqueur
1/4 ounce Carpano Antica
1. Fill a mixing glass or cocktail shaker halfway full with cracked ice. Add everything. Stir well.
2. Strain into a cocktail glass. Drink up.
A Note: Here’s a funny thing: I used Woodinville Whiskey Company rye, which I love. But, currently (but hopefully not forever) Hoodoo isn’t available in Washington State, where I live. So track down some Hoodoo and use the rye of your choice – unless you can track down some Woodinville rye as well. But if that’s the case, you’re some sort-of jetsetter. And lucky yourself.
Those who known me well (or who have ever met me, or ever read this blog, cause honestly, I’m somewhat of an open book, and have been known to go along and along and along a bit, even though you may have a hard time beliving that now) know that I spent my formative drinking years, if not my formative cocktail-creating years, in Kansas. Which may lead you to hypothizing that this particular mix was monikered after the big city in northeastern corner of that state. But, mysteriously, it’s not. Hah! And neither is it named after the ingredients (which include scotch, some homemade cherry hazelnut bitters, and superstar and super-misprounced Italian sweet vermouth Carpano Antica). Hah! Instead, it’s named after two separate gentlemen. First, a fella named Ken who writes the Price Family Farms blog (when he has time and sunshine) and who created those homemade bitters alluded to just two sentences before this one. And secondly, a fella named Callanan (first name Dave, but don’t stalk him or anything). They both seemed to need strong drinks, and while at least the latter, Dave, strays more towards beer (don’t hold it against him as he’s still quite rad), I figured neither would turn down having a drink that boasted a serious wallop of blended scotch with the edges slightly sanded by the stitch-sweet and herbally Carpano and the also-a-hint-cuddly-but-boastin -nutty-goodness-bitters named after them. Who, in their right mind, in Kansas or anywhere else would turn that down though? No-one in their right mind, that’s who.
2 ounce blended scotch (I’ve been enjoying the famous Famous Grouse here)
1 ounce Carpano Antica
2 healthy dashes cherry hazelnut bitters
1. Fill a cocktail shaker or mixing glass halfway full with cracked ice. Add all the ingredients. Stir well.
2. Strain into a cocktail glass.
A Note: Want your own cherry hazelnut bitters? Well, go on over to Price Family Farms and beg for the recipe.
A Second Note: Feel this absolutely has to have a garnish? Try a really good brandied or whiskied cherry if you can find one.
If you haven’t read Part 1 of our Branca Distiller tour, well, do so now. It talks lots about company history, the Collezione Branca, the Branca philosophy of novare serbando (renew but conserve), and much more. Go read it. Okay, are you back? Now we’re ready for Part 2, in which we actually get to walk around the distillery and see where the magic happens. Still with our tour guides Elisa, Marco, and Valeria, we last stopped at the Carpano area of the museum, where we learned more about Branca’s purchase of Carpano Antica (and the full Carpano family of vermouths), had a quick drink of Carpano Antica, and then got ready to hit the distillery proper. But first, as we’re walking into delicate areas, we had to suit up (attractive, aren’t we?):
Check out the wonderful Carpano ad in the background, too. Yet another piece of Branca-related advertising I wish I had framed in my house. After suiting up, we started by going through a few doors into the Borghetti coffee liqueur room. Now, here’s where I have to admit one downside for you, dear readers, in this Part 2 of the tour post. We couldn’t, in most areas of the distillery, take pictures. As mentioned in Part 1, having delicious liqueurs, vermouths, and amaros means that folks are always wanting to know how you make them. Which means even someone as un-spy-ish as me (though I could be a spy, I suppose–I have that look, right?) can’t snap snaps. Borghetti, if you don’t know (and you might not, as it’s sadly not readily available in the States) is the coffee liqueur made by the Branca company. It’s a staple in Italy (all the everyday bars/cafes we’d visit had it, usually in both big bottles and in these small, 3-inch-ish, portable bottles), and I’m not 100% sure why we don’t have it in the U.S., as it’s scrumptious. Normally, I’m not either a big coffee liqueur fan or a big coffee drinker (a lot of coffee liqueurs taste ickily chemical to me), but I really love the Borghetti, and after seeing where it’s made, I know why. It only contains coffee (freshly roaster and made there), liquor, and a natural sweetener. Walking into the room where it’s made is somewhat like walking into the best coffee roaster inside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, as there’s a perfect sweet/coffee aroma—which matches Broghetti’s taste. Here’s what the bottle looks like, if you want to scoop some up on your travels:
From there, we saw where the ingredients in Fernet Branca are treated during production (where the secret processes mentioned in Part 1 happen), including the big iron pot (pictured in Part 1) where the spices and more are stirred up. Amazing stuff, really, as it’s partially mechanized, but still there are always workers in attendance, watching over the process. We next went to perhaps my favorite part of the whole tour (well, just hanging out with our awesome tour guides was my favorite part, but this coming up was a close second), the cask where Stravecchio Branca spends time before bottling. Stravecchio Branca is the brandy made by the Branca company, and is another item I wouldn’t mind seeing more of over here (again, it’s in most bars/cafes in Italy and is a really good, full-bodied brandy). Here’s the bottle if you ever want to try some and you see it:
But the cask (or flask, as they referred to it as) in question we could take pics of, but we didn’t have a wide enough angle lens to do it justice. See, it’s the biggest cask in Europe, and was built over a two month time period way back in 1892. And it’s massive and astounding to stand in front of:
Stravecchio was originally called “Vieux Cognac,” but they had to change the name due to the Cognac rules (about it having to be made in the Cognac region of France, that is). Today, the brandy spends some time in other casks, but each batch spends a least some time in this massive cask–which is never empty, as some is always left in to ensure that the brandy stays consistent (a nice little touch). On the back of the ginormous cask, there’s a chart that tells how full it is (somewhat like the little marks made on the wall as kids get taller), alongside a little chalkboard notepad (which is alongside my head):
My favorite part of the photo (and another reason why I loved this cask so much) is right above the “B100” where the cask looks like it’s sweating. This is a slight oozing out that happens, about which Marco said, “it is crying.” He even wiped some off on a fingertip to taste, and encouraged us to do the same–which I, naturally did. It was super-brandy-charged, and I dug it so much I went back for more (hey, I have a hard time seeing anything cry). After the Stravecchio, we wandered down into the cellars, where we viewed wooden cask after wooden cask, rows of them (all lovely, by the way), first more brandy (they start here in smaller casks before moving to the biggest cask in Europe), then the wooden casks Fernet Branca is aged within. Fernet Branca has to be aged at least a year, and the brandy for three, so you can imagine that there are tons of casks (not to mention that Branca Menta is also made with aged Fernet Branca, on to which is added pure peppermint oil, sweetening, and love). All these hundreds of casks, the giant cask, the production facilities upstairs, the museum from Part 1, and the offices live in this one building, in the center of Milan, a bustling city. There’s something almost otherworldly about it, especially when wandering through the building’s many rooms and passages. One could easily get lost down here—you’d never go thirsty, luckily. Also luckily, we didn’t have to worry about getting lost, because we were with our friendly and knowledgeable (and fun) tour guides. Check them out, aren’t they great:
After seeing the casks, and saying our goodbyes, we walked out in Milan craving a little Fernet Branca or Branca Menta. Of course, we had a four-and-a-half hour drive ahead of us, so the cravings just became sharper, until we were back in our home Italian neighborhood, where we could indulge our Branca thirst at Bar Fizz. Thanks again Fratelli Branca Distillerie, we had a great time.
Back in April (when still living in Italy), wife Nat and I took the road north from our Italian pre-tirement home, driving up to Milan so we could make a visit to the Fratelli Branca Distillerie, where Fernet Branca and many other delicious drinkables are made. When we showed up in the morning for our tour, we weren’t sure at all what to expect—a little talking, a little walking around the building, we just didn’t know. But it ended up being an amazing day, where we learned a ton and had some fun (huge props to Laura Baddish for helping to set it up, too). Once past the guards (serious liqueurs always need guards at the gates, cause secret formulas are too tempting to weaker minded individuals), we were met by three swell Italian folks: Elisa, Marco, and Valeria. Marco gave most of the tour, with tons of expert translating (his English is better than our Italian, but not by enough to carry on in-depth conversations) and more touring by Elisa, with Valeria filling in the cracks.
The tour started in the Collezione Branca, which is a museum created by the Branca family, a museum in the distillery (the aromas of Fernet Branca and other drinks waft up as you wander the museum), collecting Branca historical items, memorabilia, and more. It really serves as a tangible history of the company in many ways, and was full of intriguing artifacts. Right at the beginning are portraits of those family members who were there at the beginning, with a picture of Bernardino Branca in the middle:
Bernardino was the original creator of the famous Fernet Branca, developing the formula with Dr. Fernet, a Swedish doctor, to assist malaria and cholera patients. With this aim, it was first tested in hospitals (where it was shown to help patients) and first sold in local farmacias, or pharmacies (quick aside: Italian pharmacists have a lot more leeway than those here in the States, in prescribing and diagnosing). The first cask that Bernardino made this herbal health mixture in is also in the museum, and lives right under his portrait:
When walking through the museum, we learned more about the Branca family, which still runs the company today (the head of the company, Count Niccolo Branca, is the 5th generation of the family to make Fernet Branca). The family focus isn’t just with the Brancas, either, as our tour guide Marco is the 4th generation of his family to work at Branca (he’s been there since 1972). This lengthy dedication and devotion is quite remarkable, and shows in the end results: the liqueurs. There are lots more interesting family stories, such as those about Maria Scala, who married the third son of Bernardino and eventually became one of the first women in charge of a large company, and who originally developed the focus on continually creative Branca advertising—the company has always been on the forefront of advertising and advertising trends. One of my favorite, and a somewhat obscure, piece of marketing is this Branca suitcase:
I would carry one of those in an instant (if you have one you’re tired of, please let me take it off your hands). The museum also has loads of production implements from the past, and some that were used in the past but are still utilized today, which points towards the Branca philosophy of novare serbando, or renew but conserve. For one example, Marco showed us these giant iron pots for herb maceration and heating, which are still used today, though the stirring is done mechanically instead of by hand:
The pots were at one point stirred with both iron and wood stirrers (depending on the spices), and as the iron sticks were “cleaning” the pots, many thought that Fer-net came from some rendition of “clean iron.” Which is, I have to say, a great story. Fernet Branca gets its signature bitter, herbal, rich taste from an wide assortment of herbs, roots, spices, and other ingredients, and there’s a giant, mind-blowing, round table in the museum where you can see the complete layout of ingredients:
I knew (hey, I’ve done a little research before) that there were around 40 ingredients, and that the list included such far-reaching items as gentian root, rhubarb, myrrh, cinchona bark, galanga, saffron, and others, but I learned while there that all the products used are completely natural, and that all the suppliers have to sign a code of sorts, that says the products were obtained in a non-exploitive way. Another (and this was fascinating to me, but hey, I’m interested in odd things) fact I learned is that the real secret in the secret recipe for Fernet-Branca is how the ingredients are treated in production. Only the family knows, and the Count himself still does the treating (which means he has to go to the other distillery, in Argentina, regularly). Cool, isn’t it? After spices, we got to see tons of hip old Fernet-Branca ads, including the first one to use the eagle-over-the-world logo:
This logo was created in 1895, due to the large amount of Fernet Branca imitations being shuffled out of back alleys—always look for the eagle bringing the Branca over the world to ensure you get the real thing. There are a number of side rooms along the museum’s main path, where you can get a better picture of how Branca workers worked back in the day (as they say), with an herbalist’s room, chemist’s room:
and more. The museum is persistent in remembering not just what was made, but those who made it—not to mention that the museum itself was built by current workers at the plant. Again, there’s that whole atmosphere of devotion to people and product, to stories and to history. After looking over the production process, the spices, and hearing about the history contained within, we walked into a room full of bottles, whole tables of old Fernet Branca bottles, and bottles of other products brought out by the company, including older bottles of Branca Menta (a minty-er and sweeter version of Fernet Branca released in 1965), bottles of Carpano Antica (Branca bought the Carpano company years ago in a particularly astute moment—Carpano Antica being the first Italian vermouth, and one still made partially by hand, and the Carpano company also making Italian vermouth Punt e’ Mes), and more bottles. There’s even a whole cabinet of Fernet Branca impersonators (I suppose success always leads to imitation):
Then we stopped in the bar room (of course the museum was going to have a bar at some point), talked a bit more about advertising, had some Carpano Antica (which I loved even before stopping, and which I was happy to have a glass of even at 11:30 AM), and saw a host of happening ads for the non-Fernet-Branca-Branca brands. If the tour ended now, I would have been more than happy–but we still had the actual distillery to see! Which I’ll talk more about in Part 2, so come on back. Oh, first, check out this sweet and colorful Punt e’ Mes ad (one of about, say, 96, that I wished I had on my walls at home):
The Man Behind the Evening's PlansA.J. Rathbun is a freelance food and entertainment writer, poet and author, a frequent guest on the Everyday Food program (Martha Stewart Living/Sirius satellite radio), and is a contributor to culinary & entertainment magazines such as Every Day with Rachael Ray, The Food Network Magazine, Real Simple, Wine Enthusiast, and many others. Of course, there's so much more to it than that...Read More