Friday, October 04, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Little Italy

You’ve got your list of foodstuffs of which you are not particularly fond. I’ve got mine. On it is the humble artichoke, not so much because of taste as appearance. I don’t like to baffled by what I’m eating. Artichokes, with their puzzle of petals and strangely fleshy hearts, seem more the product of a video game designer’s imagination than nature.

Little wonder, though, that artichokes would factor in a liqueur. As Amy Stewart observes in her book The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks they have long been viewed a digestive aid, a reputation borne out by contemporary research: “they may stimulate bile production, protect the liver, and lower cholesterol levels.”

The surprise is that Cynar (pronounced CHEE-nar and named after Cynara, the plant’s genus) is of fairly recent vintage, having been launched in 1952. It has over a dozen botanicals in play but has staked a claim to that oh-so-lucrative artichoke market. “At last, that weird plant your mother made you eat – in liquid form!” The resilient thistle is pictured right on the bottle, defiantly defining the brand. For decades Cynar has been popular in Europe as an aperitif, served on the rocks with soda and a twist of orange. But of late it’s become a miracle ingredient in craft cocktail bars, a must-have additive the way elderflower liqueur was a few years back. Understandably so, because Cynar is an unusually versatile amaro, one with sufficient bite to substitute for Campari but with a light herbaceousness that mixes incredibly well. Credit perhaps is due to the artichoke’s prankster qualities – as Stewart points out, it can fool the taste buds, temporarily blocking certain receptors so whatever they process next will taste excessively sweet – but Cynar can seemingly be added to any cocktail with delightful results.

What better place to begin, then, than with a classic? That’s what Audrey Saunders of New York’s Pegu Club did when she created the Little Italy. The Manhattan may have spawned the Brooklyn, which in turn gave rise to a host of borough-based offspring, but Saunders’ progeny sticks to the original stomping grounds enough that there’s no need to cross the East River to name it. (Note that her preparation calls for a little syrup from authentic maraschino cherries, but some of that elixir always finds its way into the glass when I’m mixing the drinks.) The Little Italy is a bitter Manhattan with a dense flavor, and consequently I’d take it closer to the source and add a dash of Angostura or aromatic bitters. It’s the perfect introduction to a liqueur that shouldn’t work, yet does beautifully.

The Little Italy

Audrey Saunders, New York

2 oz. rye
½ oz. Cynar
¾ oz. sweet vermouth

Stir. Strain. Garnish with authentic maraschino cherries.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at