Friday, January 10, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Brooklyn

It’s one of the great ironies of the classic cocktail renaissance that the drink best showcasing the movement’s ingenuity does so because of how often it can’t be made.

Once upon a time the Brooklyn might have given the Manhattan, named for a neighboring borough of New York City, a run for its money in terms of popularity. The cocktail allegedly devised at Kings County’s Hotel St. George riffed on its better-known predecessor, adding maraschino to the mix of rye and dry vermouth. One curiosity regarding that last ingredient: PDT’s Jim Meehan cites Jack’s Manual, a 1910 book by Jacob A. Grohusko, as the earliest appearance of the Brooklyn. But the recipe as it appears in Grohusko’s guide calls for equal parts rye and Italian (sweet) vermouth, pushing the formula even closer to that of the Manhattan. The vermouth was listed as the now-standard French variety in 1930’s Savoy Cocktail Book, playing second fiddle to the whiskey (Canadian Club in the Savoy, but trust me, you’ll want rye). When this change occurred is a mystery to me.

It’s what replaces the Manhattan’s bitters that is the Brooklyn’s elusive element. Amer Picon is a dense orange liqueur created by France’s Gaéton Picon in 1837. Picon (the amer, not the Frenchman) wasn’t all that easy to acquire back in the Brooklyn’s heyday and has not been exported to the United States in some time; as I have recounted, it can be difficult to put your hands on a bottle in la belle France. The stuff was scarce enough in 1948 for David Embury to suggest in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks substituting Angostura bitters – which would mean you were making a dry Manhattan with a whisper of maraschino. Further complicating matters was the reformulation of Amer Picon in the 1970s, reducing the alcohol content and altering the flavor.

Bartenders rose to the challenge by improvising. Some deployed Torani Amer syrup seasoned with orange bitters. Seattle’s own Jamie Boudreau concocted his own version based on the amaro Ramazzotti. But the greatest flowering of creativity came simply by working around Picon’s absence. The previous decade spawned a host of Brooklyn-inspired drinks christened after the borough’s neighborhoods, among them the Greenpoint and my all-time favorite cocktail the Red Hook. You can even head across the river for an applejack variation in the Newark, provided of course you can clear the George Washington Bridge.

But now there’s another option that gets you closer to what Jack Grohusko would have whipped up prior to Prohibition. The amer China-China was cooked up by Felix and Louis Bigallet in 1875 at the family’s Lyon distillery. Like Amer Picon, it combines orange peels with cinchona, gentian and other spices. Unlike Amer Picon, it is being sold in the United States as of 2013. It’s also 80 proof, compared to the original Picon’s 78 proof formula. Think of it as a boozier, more viscous variety of present-day Picon with a more pronounced orange flavor. The ready availability of Bigallet’s China-China – I picked up my bottle at Whole Foods – means that a host of vintage libations that in recent years had been solely the province of craft cocktail bars can now be prepared at home. The Brooklyn is the ideal place to start.

The Brooklyn

2 oz. rye
¾ oz. dry vermouth
¼ oz. maraschino
¼ oz. Bigallet China-China amer (in place of Amer Picon)

Stir. Strain. No garnish.

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