Sunday, July 25, 2010

Gran Classico...a new bitters in town

It is not a secret that your host is a fan of bitters. Campari, Cynar, Averna, Fernet...all add an alluring bitterness to cocktails and can often balance against sweeter components.

Recently, a new bitter arrived on the San Francisco market, and is making a big impact on the cocktail scene. It's called Gran Classico, an original bitter based on an 1864 recipe from Turin, Italy.

Unlike its cousin Campari (also another bitter in the Turin style), Gran Classico is darker in color, with a pronounced wormwood bite. Enthusiasts of absinthe will recognize that wormwood provides a bitter taste to absinthe and can help balance its licorice overtones. The taste of Gran Classico is different than most other bitters on the market and the wormwood and gentian stand out, as does rhubarb and bitter orange peel. Gentian is one of the main flavoring ingredients in Angostura bitters. Unlike Fernet, there are no minty/menthol overtones. Bottled at 28% abv, Gran Classico packs a punch and makes a flavorful Negroni when combined with gin and a high quality sweet vermouth.

While Gran Classico is now manufactured in Switzerland at a boutique distillery, its U.S. distribution rights are owned by Tempus Fugit spirits, based in Petaluma. Tempus Fugit imports and markets a variety of French and Swiss absinthes. (as well as Voyager Gin from Washington State). During their research, they came across Gran Classico bitter and decided to add it to the catalog due to its unique and wonderful flavor. In addition, the 2007 U.S. legalization of wormwood opened up access to the U.S. market (previously, thujone, a chemical in wormwood was illegal in the U.S. due to perceived hallucinogenic properties).

The bitter can be purchased at K&L Wine & Spirits and retails for $29.99.

Helpful Links:

Select Bars in SF that have Gran Classico cocktails on the menu:

15 Romolo
Comstock Saloon
Cafe Des Amis

Featured Cocktail:

Old Pal
1/2 oz. Gran Classico Bitter
1 oz. dry vermouth
2 oz. bourbon
Stir and serve over ice in a double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with a flamed orange peel.

Created by Jonny Raglin
Comstock Saloon, San Francisco

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Patriotic Libations: Applejack and the Marconi Wireless Cocktail

Given that today is the 4th of July, it seemed timely to comment on one of America's oldest spirits: applejack.

Applejack was born out of America's early fondness for hard cider. In the 1600 and 1700's, New Jersey apple farmers would leave hard cider out overnight in the winter cold, and would then skim off the ice in the morning. The resulting liquid residue was higher in alcohol, and earned the name New Jersey Lightning. The term "jacking" is another name for freeze distillation. Eventually, producers became more refined and started distilling the hard cider in traditional pot stills. This allowed for a cleaner spirit without excess cogeners and troublesome methanol that could cause blindness and a nasty hangover. While popular in America's early years, applejack waned in popularity over time as bourbon and rye whiskey became more prevalent.

Founded in 1780, Laird and Company is one of America's oldest distilleries and is the main producer of applejack and apple brandy today. Unlike many distilleries that closed down during prohibition, Laird was able to continue distilling apple brandy for "medicinal purposes."

By law, applejack is a blend of 35% apple brandy and 65% grain neutral spirit (at some point post-prohibition the law was changed to distinguish applejack from apple brandy). However, a much better product is Laird's 100 proof bottled-in-bond apple brandy (which is actually much truer to the classic applejack style). The flavor is more concentrated and is perfect for on the rocks sipping or perhaps with a splash of soda water. Some with sensitive palettes may find the spirit a little rough neat. Over 20 lbs of Virginia apples go into a single bottle of the 100 proof version.

Traditional American apple brandy differs significantly from its French counterpart, Calvados. Chiefly, American apple brandy is made from American apples and is aged in charred American oak barrels. This charred oak barrel aging makes the American product have a taste profile and color more in common with bourbon or rye whiskey. Calvados is made from French apples and is aged in French toasted Limousin oak, resulting in a lighter color and more delicate flavor.

In addition to Laird and Company, a number of boutique distilleries have started to make apple brandy including Clear Creek in Portland, OR, Germain-Robin in Ukiah, CA and St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA. However, their products, while excellent, tend to have a flavor and profile more in common with Calvados.

Due to the recent interest in classic and well made cocktails, applejack and apple brandy have seen a revival. An excellent drink that showcases the 100 proof version of Laird's is the Marconi Wireless.

Originally created at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, the Marconi Wireless is essentially an apple brandy Manhattan. It was supposedly named after the wireless genius himself when he came to visit the hotel in the early 1900's.

On this 4th of July, drink to a traditional American spirit!

Marconi Wireless Cocktail

2 oz Laird's 100 proof apple brandy
0.5 oz sweet vermouth (Carpano Antica is best, or to keep the cocktail patriotic, domestically made Vya works too)
Dash of bitters (Angostura works, or continuing on the patriotic theme, use Fee brothers barrel aged bitters)
Orange twist garnish

Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and flame orange twist over the rim. Serve cold. It is important not to add too much vermouth, or the delicate apple flavors will be lost.

Note: Many liquor stores on the West Coast now carry Laird's products. If you must, you can use their more common blended "applejack" product, but it is worth seeking out the pure 100 proof version.