Amaro 101, The Negroni & The Four Horsemen
Lesson and recipes from Canadian Bartender of the Year – Jay Jones.
Does that make any sense to you? If you know cocktails then of course it does, but if you don’t, you might think I’m a racist or about to create my own version of the bible. Well I’m definitely not a racist and not creative enough to do the second part, but I am keen on feeding my culinary curiosity. However in this case I wasn’t feeding it, but drinking it.
After an intense 3.5 hour lesson with enRoute Magazine’s Bartender of the Year 2012, Jay Jones, and many sips of several cocktails and liqueurs later, I have learned more than you probably want to know about any of the above. And if you do want to learn more, then
you can visit Mr. Jones at Market by Jean-Georges (Update! As of January 16, 13, Jay Jones is no longer at Market). But if this is as far as you’re going to get, then welcome to my guided breakdown of Amaro 101 (liqueur), The Negroni (cocktail) & The Four Horsemen (cocktail).
Just to put things into perspective, consider me a grasshopper, or a food nerd. I’ll take either. There are things that I know and lots that I don’t, but when it comes to food and drink I want to know everything. I’ll never know it all, but given the opportunity, I’ll take any chance I get in an effort to learn more. In this case, I went into my lesson saying “yeah I’ve had a Negroni before”, and I came out saying “I don’t think I’ve had a Negroni until now”. The same thing happened when I was exploring the world of Whiskey at Hawksworth- see here.
The Negroni is the “meat and potatoes” of the bitter cocktail world. Trust me, I wasn’t keen on exploring the world of bitter cocktails, but I’ve actually warmed up to it quite nicely… I even had a pinkish hue to prove it!
Anyways this all started because I’ve been hearing more and more about the Negroni cocktail (especially at Tales of the Cocktail), and it almost seemed like the drink of 2012. It’s not a new drink, but maybe a newer drink for most. It dates back to 1919 although that too is debatable. It originated in Italy when Count Camillo Negroni asked the bartender to strengthen his favourite drink which was the Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth, and club soda). To satisfy his customer’s request the bartender swapped the club soda for gin and added an orange twist to distinguish it from the Americano’s classic lemon twist. And this is now what we refer to as the Negroni.
By definition the cocktail handbook officially states that a Negroni must be made with Campari otherwise the drink becomes a variation of the Negroni. The standard recipe for the Negroni cocktail is 1 part gin, 1 part Vermouth, and 1 part bitters (Campari). There’s no messing around with the Campari unless you want to create your own version of a Negroni, but then don’t call it a “Negroni”. As you can tell I’ve been severely influenced, but at least it’s from a legit source.
The part you can play with are the type of gin and the type of Vermouth, although Punt e Mes seems to be the go-to benchmark for the sweet red Vermouth. I honestly could drink Punt e Mes alone and it has a bittersweet syrupy quality, and it’s sweeter than the Campari. As for the gin? I prefer it to vodka anyday and this Negroni used Tanqueray as the gin. This was a beautiful floral and earthy gin that was fruit forward with juniper berries followed by a clean and refreshing finish.
So what else makes for a good Negroni? Of course we each have our own palate, so it really depends on what gin and vermouth you like, but other things to look for are the ice, temperature, and garnish. The glass it’s served in I would consider a bonus. The presentation ice Jay used are perfect 1 inch square cubes that don’t melt as fast. The drink itself is also prechilled so that the ice won’t melt away in it. All these details ensure that the drink is served at the temperature it’s best enjoyed.
Last but not least is the garnish or orange essence. This is not an empty glass, but actually signs of the orange zest and oils from a pinched orange rind. The oils pretty much splatter around the edges of the glass before the drink goes in and this is what creates that orange essence in a fantastic Negroni. Not everyone will do this and some may use grapefruit or lemon, but the orange is classic.
The Amoro Line Up
As I mentioned, the Negroni cocktail is 1 part gin, 1 part Vermouth, and 1 part bitters (Campari). When you start changing the bitters (Campari) that’s when you start making your own style of the Negorni. And this brings me to Amaro 101 (above). Yeah, I know. It’s quite the collection of Amaro, and it’s probably one of the biggest ones you’ll see at a legal restaurant in Vancouver, BC. I guess you could say the strengths go from right to left, the right being the lightest or the “whites” (if I was relating it to wine), and the furthest left would be your “reds”.
Amaro (bitters) are Italian herbal liqueurs and each Italian family has their own unique recipe for it. It can have between 4-30+ ingredients which include herbs, roots, citrus peels and spices, but they all share a bitter-sweet quality. It’s commonly enjoyed as a digestif in Italy, but it’s not really in the culture for Vancouver to sip it alone. Since it is in the bitter family, I would say it is acquired, but it’s a flavour that is becoming more popular with cocktail enthusiasts. From sweet, sour and now bitter, it almost reminded me of the dessert scene and how it has gone from sweet, salty, spicy to now even smoky. Anyways I shouldn’t confuse the topics, but it just gives another point of reference in “Follow Me Foodie” terms.
Personally my favourites from the above bottles were the Amaro Ramazzotti with its medium-high body, creamy syrupy texture, fig and date flavours and orangey ginger aftertaste. The Amaro Nonino was more fragrant and floral with more citrus notes and it was light and quite delicate, which I also enjoyed. Last but certainly not least was the Averna, which deserves its own shout out.
Fernet-Branca - If he started me off with this I probably would have though it was a joke. I have an open mind when it comes to trying new things, but this smelt like Vick’s and Jay said it nicely by calling it “liquid Tiger Balm”. It smelt like something my mom used to rub on my stomach when I was sick as a kid. It is known as the “industry” drink though… for bartenders who work and play hard.
It basically smelt like medicinal minty herbs and it tasted like Scope with an aggressive bitterness to follow. It didn’t burn, but left a minty herbal flavour that prolonged in the nose. It also had an oiliness and woodiness to it and the bitterness just lingered and got more intense by the second. It lasted maybe 30 seconds which was 22 seconds too much. I can stand and appreciate about 8 seconds of bitterness, before it starts to just annoy me.
I wouldn’t say I hated this, but it’s acquired and I can appreciate it as a drink that settles your stomach. It’s a digestif, which is always a bit acquired and not for everyone. If I had a confit pork belly for dinner, then I actually might not mind this to contrast the richness, but I’m also definitely not buying a bottle anytime soon.
Averna – This one was sweet syrupy gold. I loved it, but it is pretty sweet although balanced since it is still a bitter. It was along the lines of a chocolaty espresso and I found it quite syrupy although still palatable neat or served over ice. It reminded me of a port and it had a very rich and luxurious feel that could easily be enjoyed as a dessert. I guess some consider it “creme de la creme” of Amaro (even though almost all retail at about $30), but this one just made you want to roll around in silk sheets for a day. Personally I didn’t even find it that bitter and alone it would probably be on the sweet side for me, but it was certainly distinct from all the other Amaros.
The Four Horsemen
Now if you got all the way down to here, I would consider this part a bonus and compliments of Bartender Jay Jones. It’s his signature drink he created December 2011 and it’s his interpretation of The Four Horsemen. It’s made with 4 hard liqueurs and requires 4 bartenders to stir… no I’m kidding. It does require 4 liquers though and it’s based on whiskey (the “protein” of the drink). The Averna would be considered the “starch”, the Giffard Abricot du Roussillon the “vegetables”, and Angostura bitters the “seasoning” or “sauce”. Doesn’t that make so much sense? Jay spoke in “Follow Me Foodie” terms which helped a lot.
Note: Giffard Abricot du Roussillon was probably one of the most amazing liqueurs in terms of aroma. I could honestly use it as perfume and it had the scent of almonds, apricots, quince, marzipan and flowers. Alone it’s purse your lips sweet and I would say not palatable, but in a cocktaill… I could cry tears of joy.
The Four Horsemen Cocktail Recipe
- 1½ part Makers 46
- .75 ounce Averna
- .5 ounce Giffard Abricot du Roussillon
- 4 hard dashes of Angostura bitters