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.