Friday, February 21, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: Tales of the White Negroni

At the heart of this week’s entry lies a temptress known as Suze. Her wiles are such that I haven’t actually tasted the drink this post is putatively about, much less prepared it myself. Instead I offer two variations that attempt to carry on in her absence.

Suze is made with a species of the flowering plant gentian. According to Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist, gentian’s use for medicinal purposes dates back to 1200 BC. The plant is harvested at an age when its roots weigh several pounds. The bitterness of those roots informs a host of liqueurs including Campari and Aperol, but in Suze it’s the whole show. I’ve tasted Suze. The best word for its flavor is funky. Additional tidbits about Suze –

- It’s beloved in France, where gentian grows in the mountains, but has only been commercially available in the United States since 2012.

- It comes in a bottle approximately the size of the torpedoes from which Joaquin Phoenix got his squeezings in The Master.

- In Washington State, one of those bottles will run you about seventy dollars.

- As the product of a Catholic union household, I cannot in good conscience drop seventy dollars on a mammoth bottle of liqueur possessing a taste I am inclined to describe as funky.

- Craft cocktail bartenders in Washington State are also galled by that price, particularly when they know you can pick up a bottle of Suze in Parisian supermarkets for the spare Euros found in the couch cushions. So plenty of craft cocktails bars don’t have Suze, either.

The Fatty 'Cue White Negroni
All of which comes as a disappointment in light of the growing popularity of a drink called the White Negroni. Created by U.K. bartender Wayne Collins in 2002, the drink riffs playfully on the basic structure of the Negroni: gin/aromatized wine/potable bitters. The relative scarcity (and high price) of Suze has led others to tinker with that formula even further. Several of those later innovations, mercifully, all use ingredients I happened to have on hand.

First up was a variation from Michael Dietsch of Serious Eats. Dietsch used Cocchi Americano in place of Lillet Blanc, which is now my default substitution, along with dry vermouth. My contribution: grapefruit bitters. The drink certainly qualifies as white – I’ve had martinis that aren’t as clear as this – and its crisp, cool taste is bolstered by the presence of grapefruit. But I longed for some additional bitterness.

More to my liking was the White Negroni credited to the New York restaurant Fatty ‘Cue. As in Dietsch’s drink, they use gin (favoring Plymouth), Cocchi Americano, and dry vermouth. They also throw in my old favorite, celery bitters, then push the result more toward the Negroni camp with the addition of the artichoke liqueur Cynar. (Fatty ‘Cue also garnishes the glass with a fennel frond, which is the kind of flash I leave to the professionals.) It’s more herbal than Dietsch’s cocktail but still possesses a bright, clean taste. This is the one I’ll make when I wonder what a White Negroni with Suze might be like.

The White Negroni I’ve Never Actually Had

Wayne Collins, London

2 oz. Plymouth gin
1 oz. Lillet Blanc
¾ oz. Suze

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist.

The White Negroni, Variation #1

Michael Dietsch, Serious Eats

1 oz. gin
1 oz. Cocchi Americano
½ oz. dry vermouth
2 dashes grapefruit bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist.

The White Negroni, Fatty ‘Cue Edition

Fatty ‘Cue, New York

1 ½ oz. gin
¾ oz. Cocchi Americano
½ oz. dry vermouth
¼ oz. Cynar
2 dashes celery bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist, or a fennel frond if you have that kind of time.

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