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Stubborn Spirits

Just as with a great cook, it’s often said that a great bartender can make anything taste good. However, in reality, there are several types of liquor that are very difficult to use in cocktails—even for pros like me. It takes some creativity to balance these stubborn spirits with other ingredients while not completely covering them up or having them dominate the drink.

So I offer you a “my way or the highway” set of rules for turning these different alcohols into delicious cocktails. Cheers!


Many people, especially in the restaurant and bar industry, love the bitter Italian digestif fernet. (You’ve probably heard of the best-known brand, Fernet-Branca.) What makes fernet fernet is a special blend of herbs and spices that is steeped in high-proof grape or neutral grain alcohol. (Sometimes, sugar beet-based alcohol is used as well.) Usually, the final product offers notes of mint, myrrh, cardamom, chamomile, aloe and saffron. Because of its strong flavor, violently bitter finish and high alcohol content, fernet tends to overpower anything you try to mix it with.

But don’t give up all hope: Fernet does balance out other very sweet and aromatic ingredients. Just keep in mind that fernet’s signature flavor will still shine through; you really need to be a fan of the category to enjoy a drink calling for fernet. One of my favorite ways to incorporate the spirit is in my Italian aperitivo cocktail, the Fernando. The taste of fernet works beautifully with herbal vermouth and sweet Galliano.


One spirit that is really hard to mix is the Eastern European plum brandy called slivovitz. Aged or un-aged, it does not matter. The thing that makes it so hard to use is that it usually overtakes anything else it’s mixed with. It is strong, it is pungent and sometimes it is oaky: Slivovitz just behaves like a bull in a china shop. And when you taste it, you will be carrying it with you for the rest of the day or night, just like when you eat fresh garlic. So what to do with it? Europeans drink it neat and do not bother adding anything. Bartenders have tried combining it with orange Curaçao, bitters, vermouth and egg whites without much success. In all my years behind the stick, I only could make slivovitz taste great in the one thing, The Slivopolitan, which also calls for Cointreau, fresh plum puree and lime juice. And it’s actually a pretty good drink.


During the 1800s, Dutch genever, which is gin’s barrel-aged ancestor, was a favorite of bartenders and cocktail drinkers. But it takes some skill to create concoctions with the stuff that appeal to the modern palate. That’s not to mention that if you go to Amsterdam, you’ll find many people enjoying it just neat or with a beer chaser. (In Dutch, the genever-and-beer combo is called a kopstooje, which means “little head-butt”.) Fortunately, many genevers have a nice dose of whiskey-like malt on the palate, so it’s natural to pair them with savory flavors or use them as a substitute for whiskey in classic drinks like the Old Fashioned or Mint Julep. The Gin on Gin Julep (pictured center), which appears in my book Speakeasy, combines genever and a more traditional British gin with mint, sugar and lots of ice.

Apricot, Peach & Pear Brandies:

Slivovitz isn’t the only brandy that’s tough to use in drinks. I also find apricot, peach and pear brandies (the latter is often known as poire Williams) to be tough to use, since they tend to dominate most other ingredients. David Wondrich created an ingenious recipe in his Rooster-Tail that features peach brandy as well as rainwater Madeira, lemon, raspberry syrup and Peychaud’s Bitters. I like to use my pear brandy in the Last Resort (pictured left), which matches it with similarly assertive absinthe. And just a dash of apricot brandy adds a deliciously unmistakable note to the World’s Greatest Hotel National (pictured right), created by David Kupchinsky of The Eveleigh in Los Angeles.

The Slivopolitan

Contributed by Dushan Zaric


  • 1.5 oz Stara Sokolova Slivovitz
  • 1 oz Cointreau
  • .75 oz Plum Puree*
  • .5 oz Fresh lime juice
  • Garnish: Plum
  • Glass: Coupe


Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with large, cold ice cubes. Shake vigorously for 8 to10 seconds and double-strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with half a fresh plum.

*Plum Puree


  • 1 lb French prunes, washed and pitted
  • .5 lb sugar
  • 1 drop Vanilla extract (or the tip of a fresh vanilla bean)
  • 8 oz Water


Add all the ingredients to a small saucepan and cook over low heat for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool. Transfer to a blender and blend until smooth. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week.

World’s Greatest Hotel National

Contributed by David Kupchinsky


  • 1.5 oz Caña Brava Rum
  • .5 oz Fresh lime juice
  • .5 oz Petite Canne Sugar Cane Syrup
  • .75 oz Fresh pineapple juice
  • 1 tsp Blume Merillen Apricot Eau-de-Vie
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters
  • Glass: Coupe


Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with large, cold ice cubes. Shake, and double-strain into a coupe glass.

Last Resort

Contributed by Dushan Zaric


  • .25 oz Absinthe
  • 2 oz Massenez Poire Williams
  • .75 oz Fresh lime juice
  • .75 oz Rich simple syrup (two parts sugar, one part water)
  • 1 Egg white
  • Garnish: Nutmeg and Peychaud’s Bitters
  • Glass: Coupe


Add the absinthe to a coupe glass, swirl to coat the inside, discarding any excess, and set aside. Add the remaining ingredients to a shaker and shake without ice. Fill with ice and shake vigorously for 30 seconds. Strain into the prepared glass and garnish with freshly grated nutmeg and a drop of Peychaud’s Bitters.

Gin on Gin Julep

Contributed by Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric


  • .5 oz Rich simple syrup (two parts sugar, one part water)
  • 15 Large mint leaves
  • 1 oz Bols Genever
  • 1 oz Plymouth Gin
  • 1 splash Club soda
  • Garnish: Mint sprig
  • Glass: Julep


In a Julep cup, muddle the simple syrup and mint. Fill with crushed or pellet ice and add the genever and gin. Top with the club soda and stir until combined. Garnish with a mint sprig.

Dushan Zaric is co-founder of The 86 Spirits Company and the co-author of Speakeasy. He is also a Liquor.com advisory board member.