Friday, May 18, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Ragtime

The easiest way to start talking about amaro is to point out that the word itself means “bitter” in Italian. Many of you will want to leave right now.

But don’t be misled. Yes, bitterness is always a component no matter which of these Italian digestifs you’re drinking, but amari offer a range of flavors, each with its own nuances. Initially served over ice straight or with a little soda – still a splendid way of enjoying them after a meal – they are now regularly used in cocktails.

At the far end of the spectrum is the pungent liqueur Fernet Branca, where bitterness is pretty much the whole show. To quote spirits writer Wayne Curtis, “it’s hard to describe what Fernet Branca tastes like; it mostly tastes like Fernet Branca.” Personally, I enjoy its harshness, welcoming its challenge as a penitent does a hair shirt. OK, that’s overstating the case. Slightly. But I genuinely appreciate Fernet’s bracing taste on its own and in mixed drinks.

It isn’t where you want to start with amaro, though. A far more accessible variety is Ramazzotti. Its history sounds like something from a Dan Brown novel: developed in 1815 by a Milanese pharmacist ... using a still-secret formula of almost three dozen ingredients ... Among the various herbs, flowers and spices is a combination of oranges that adds a beguiling sweetness. The aroma is frequently compared to root beer and writer Jason Wilson, who called Ramazzotti the easiest-drinking liqueur in this category, dubbed it the Coca-Cola of its class. I wouldn’t go that far. It’s more a gateway amaro. Like this, and in no time at all you’ll be guzzling Fernet and writing reviews of opium dens on Yelp.

One of the more popular cocktails featuring Ramazzotti is also the simplest: the Black Manhattan, with the dark-hued liqueur in place of vermouth. A far more engaging drink is the Ragtime, brainchild of Jeremy James Thompson of the Raines Law Room in New York. It pairs Ramazzotti with Aperol, which also balances the bitter and the sweet, tending toward the latter even as Ramazzotti does the former. The result is an intriguing partnership. Thompson’s recipe calls for a mist of absinthe, but as I didn’t have any in the home bar – I’m pretty sure I left the bottle at the last opium den I went to and the sons of bitches won’t give it back, so you can bet your ass that’s going into the review – I substituted Pernod. It’s a final grace note that brings many complex flavors together perfectly. There are a lot of kids on this playground, but they all get along.

The Ragtime

Jeremy James Thompson, Raines Law Room, New York City

1 oz. rye whiskey
1 oz. Ramazzotti amaro
1 oz. Aperol
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Mist of Absinthe (or Pernod)

Stir. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist.