A few years ago, prior to one of my periodic trips back to New York, I stopped by my usual haunt to ask the crew where I should bend an elbow. They suggested one bar in particular. Good drinks, good people, lots of buzz. Then they asked me to prank the place.
“Go in, tell them we said hello,” I was instructed. “At some point, a round or two in, order a Liberal.” The cocktail is made with Amer Picon, the bitter orange liqueur from France which regular readers know can be tough to acquire. Said Big Apple bar had a bottle of Picon prominently displayed on their shelf.
And there, I was told, it would stay. “It’s just for show. They refuse to open it because they’re afraid they won’t get any more. So go in, ask for a Liberal, and tell us what they say.”
Subterfuge on behalf of my home away from home. Who was I to say no?
The highly competent bartender didn’t bat an eye. “That’s a good one. The Zig Zag makes those beautifully, don’t they? But they use a very specific type of bitters and we’re out of them. Let me fix you something like it I think you’ll enjoy.”
He did, and I did. In Seattle I relayed my report, which was met with nods of approval. “Blaming the bitters? That’s a smart play.”
Now that Bigallet’s China-China amer is being imported to the United States, Amer Picon is no longer the problem. It’s the rest of the Liberal that’s giving me fits.
The recipe as it first appeared in George J. Kappeler’s Modern American Drinks (1895) couldn’t be simpler: “one dash syrup, half a jigger Amer Picon bitters, half a jigger whiskey ... a small piece of lemon peel on top.” Maybe too simple; half whiskey and half Picon isn’t the modern version. We’re a bit closer by the time of Albert Stevens Crockett’s 1931 Old Waldorf Bar Days, which drops the syrup, adds a crucial missing ingredient – the drink is now half whiskey and half sweet vermouth – but scales the Picon down to a mere three dashes, which hardly seems worth the trouble of flying back from Marseilles with several bottles taped to your chest.
The China-China burning a hole in my liquor cabinet, I set out to find an acceptable contemporary variation and was flummoxed. Rye had become the default whiskey choice, but aside from that the recipes frequently contradicted each other. One called for equal parts rye and vermouth while preserving Crockett’s minimal quantity of Picon. Another was spirit-forward but boasted equivalent, hefty portions of vermouth and amer. The whiskey was too dominant in my initial attempt. What was the formula for the lovely, balanced cocktail I’d enjoyed in the past?
So I did something I’d never done before. I reached out to the man who’d made many of those cocktails and contributed mightily to the Liberal’s revival, bartending icon Murray Stenson.
My next Liberal paired James E. Pepper’s 1776 straight rye whiskey with Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. It was a very good drink, but these elements were almost too similar. Their spiciness echoed each other and overwhelmed the China-China, even with a dash of orange bitters to bolster the citrus notes.
For Liberal Number 3 (a phrase previously only heard on the MSNBC version of The Dating Game), I opted for Rittenhouse bonded rye and a vermouth with some feistiness, Punt e Mes, along with Angostura bitters. Result: pay dirt. The Angostura provided a solid foundation, the cleaner taste of the rye giving the amer room to run. Murray told me the Liberal recipe “just depends.” But with the master’s formula in hand, you can continue to experiment.
Unless I’m pranking you. Or he’s pranking me.
Murray Stenson variation
1 ¾ oz. robust whiskey (rye)
¼ oz. sweet vermouth (Murray suggests Carpano Antica Formula)
¼ oz. Bigallet China-China amer (in place of Amer Picon)
1-2 dashes orange or Angostura bitters
Stir. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist.
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