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Bitter Sweet

September 2, 2011

As much as I love a well-made classic cocktail, I am not a cocktail geek.

I say this not as a matter of pride, because I admire and respect the cocktail geeks out there. It also doesn’t mean that I’ve given up the valiant fight for justice for crimes against cocktails. Rather, it’s a self-realization about where I am on the cocktail continuum.

The geeks will try to seek out rare bottles of spirits and liqueurs in order to faithfully recreate drinks made a century ago. And if they cannot find them, they will make the closest approximation possible, given the tools at their disposal.

These people make great friends and bartenders.

But I am not one of them. I am happy to take certain short cuts, or use things that are close enough. Especially when the original ingredients are no longer available. Like, for example, the pre-1970s formulation of Amer Picon, which is arguably the Holy Grail of cocktail geeks.

In the Fussy household we love bitter things.

When Little Miss Fussy sees a lemon slice garnishing the rim of the drink, she asks to take a taste. Now you might be saying, “Well, lemon is sour, not bitter.” But LMF doesn’t eat the fruit, she takes a hearty bite right out of the rind, pith and all.

At least she comes by it honestly. A favorite “soft drink” of mine is seltzer spiked with Angostura bitters. Mrs. Fussy has been favoring a splash of Aperol in her seltzer recently. It’s a bitter Italian liqueur that when diluted becomes an alarming shade of orange. Fittingly it has a pleasant orange flavor in addition to an overall bitter-sweet profile.

Amer Picon is similar but different. It falls into a classification of Italian liqueur called amaro, except instead of Italian it’s French. And in the 1970s the producers changed how it was made and lowered the proof. The problem is that it was used widely in the forgotten cocktails of the early 20th century.

The geeks make their own, which is crazy complicated. If money is no object, you can always directly import the current formulation from Europe.

I was happy to stumble upon Amaro Ciociaro which some have accepted as a worthy substitute for Amer Picon. I was able to pick it up for under $20 at a local liquor store. Having never tried the original Amer Picon (almost nobody has) I have no idea how it compares, but it is herbal and bitter, with a good orange core and a sweet and complex lingering finish.

For what it’s worth, Wine Enthusiast called it a Best Buy and gave it 90-95 points.

As it turns out, I had all of the components to make one of these forgotten cocktails that calls for Amer Picon. I found the recipe for The Mother-In-Law Cocktail here. Remarkably, the nine ounces of bourbon called for in the recipe only produce three drinks. So I made myself half a drink.

Despite having a good Amer Picon substitute it wasn’t easy, because how do you divide one teaspoon of bitters into sixths? You consult the Food Lover’s Companion. In the back, it tells you that one teaspoon is equivalent to 60 drops.

So with that, I added:
10 drops of Angostura bitters
10 drops of Peychaud’s bitters
10 drops of Amaro Ciociaro
(totaling 30 drops or ½ teaspoon)
½ teaspoon Cointreau
½ teaspoon Maraschino liqueur
½ teaspoon simple syrup
1½ ounces bourbon
over fresh ice cubes, stirred and strained.

And what I was left with was a well-balanced, bitter, lightly sweet and bracing cocktail. Which was fine. But that’s a lot of bottles to be dealing with, and more work than is necessary to produce a mighty fine drink. No. I’m obviously not a cocktail geek. Just a simple man, with simple tastes, who is perfectly happy enjoying his amaro with seltzer and ice as an aperitif or in a glass on its own as a digestif.

Like with food, when you start with great ingredients, you don’t need to do a lot with them to make them shine.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 2, 2011 10:26 am

    The bitter beverages are huge in Europe. Italians drink a soda called Chinotto, which deceptively looks like Coca Cola, has the sweetness of Coca Cola, but is bitter as heck. I can’t tell you how awesome it was working in my dad’s shop and being handed a cold Chinotto when special friends or family used to visit. There’s also an orange version that comes in a skinny glass bottle, but the name is escaping me. Now I gotta ask him next time I talk to my dad.

    Another favorite of mine is Fernet, which is a play off Amaro and is a great apertif. Quick aside: In the movie Made with Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, Vaughn has a really funny exchange with P. Diddy over the suitability of Fernet as a digestif. It’s classic stuff!

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