Meditations on the Aromatic Cocktail

David Embury classifies cocktails into two distinct groups: sour cocktails and aromatic cocktails. I've written in the past about sour cocktails but have been mostly silent about aromatic ones.

Until NOW, that is! It was an omission that just had to be rectified. Right? RIGHT?!

Aromatic cocktails are flavoured by some kind of aromatic wine, spirit, or bitters. Based on my (limited) experiments, I broadly categorize these drinks into:

  • Old Fashioned Cocktails
  • Liqueur or wine based Cocktails

But really, there's no real rule here. You basically take a base spirit and you flavour it with some combination of flavouring agent(s). Pretty simple.

Old Fashioned Cocktails

The conventional Old Fashioned contains:

  • bourbon
  • sugar
  • angostura bitters

with an optional splash of soda water. The exact proportions, as always, vary from person to person. The point is that the modern recipe for an Old Fashioned usually uses some kind of whiskey (often bourbon, but sometimes rye, or Canadian).

Now, it used to be the case (going way back) that the term "cocktail" referred to a specific family of drinks, namely sugar-sweetened spirits with bitters added (sugar sweetened spirits were called "slings"; adding bitters transformed them into "cocktails"). As more complex drinks were invented, these simpler drinks came to be known as "Old Fashioned Cocktails". It's worth noting that whiskey wasn't the only kind of spirit used for these drinks - gin was another popular choice.

So that's how I prefer to think of Old Fashioned Cocktails - they're a class of drinks, rather than a specific cocktail made with whiskey. My preferred generic recipe for such an Old Fashioned is:

  • 6 cl spirit
  • 1 teaspoon sugar(-like) syrup (or equivalent amount)
  • 3-4 dashes bitters

Pour the sugar into a glass, add the bitters, add the ice, then add half the alcohol. Mix, and then add the rest of the alcohol.

The recipe calls for sugar(-like) syrup or equivalent amount. The "equivalence" here refers to equivalence in sweetness - some sweeteners are sweeter than others.

As mentioned, nowadays the traditional choice for the spirit is bourbon, and the traditional choice for the bitters is angostura. That being said, you are not limited to whiskey; you can make a Gin Old Fashioned, a Brandy Old Fashioned, a Cognac Old Fashioned, etc. (in some parts of the U.S. a standard Old Fashioned is actually made with brandy, not whiskey). You can vary the bitters. One popular choice is orange bitters instead of angostura in a traditional whiskey Old Fashioned. You can also vary the sweetener (as long as it's sugar based). I'm pretty sure the purists will yell at me at this point and say that what you have then is not an Old Fashioned and they're probably right, technically, but thinking this way makes things easier to categorize in my head.

For example, here's a rather good recipe for a Tequila Old Fashioned:

  • 6 cl 100% Blue Agave Tequila. Aged ones are better in this drink.
  • 1/2 teaspoon agave syrup
  • 3-4 dashes orange bitters

Agave syrup is about twice as sweet as sugar, so you need less here.

Here's one for a Calvados Old Fashioned:

  • 6 cl Calvados
  • 1 teaspoon pure maple syrup
  • 3-4 dashes angostura bitters

The sweetener is maple syrup because, you know, why not?

Liqueur or Wine Based Cocktails

These cocktails are usually duos, i.e. a spirit and an aromatic liqueur, but you can use any combination of flavouring agents you want. The ratio I tend to prefer is:

  • 6 cl spirit
  • 2 cl flavouring agent (usually some kind of liqueur)
  • (optionally) a few dashes of bitters

Depending on my mood, I'll increase the ratio of liqueur. It depends on how much I like the base spirit, and how much I like the liqueur. A little creme de menthe, for example, goes a very long way.

There are several drinks in this category:

  • Martini (gin and dry vermouth)
  • Manhattan (whiskey and sweet vermouth)
  • Rob Roy (scotch and sweet vermouth)
  • Stinger (brandy and creme de menthe)
  • Rusty Nail (scotch and Drambuie)
  • Italian Heather (scotch and Galliano)
  • Godfather (scotch and amaretto)

There are many, many others, of course.

How Much Vermouth?

According to the ratio above my Martini recipe looks like this:

  • 6 cl gin
  • 2 cl dry (white) vermouth
  • 2 dashes orange bitters

My garnish of choice is a brine coated olive in the glass. This technically makes this a lightly dirty Martini, which some people don't like. You can rinse the olive if you hate the salt.

This is a 3-1 ratio of gin to vermouth, and some people will recoil in horror. Modern day recipes tend to use just a dash or a few drops of vermouth, but can I just share an opinion here? This is silly. I can barely taste the vermouth at a 3-1 ratio, and I think that people who just coat the ice with the vermouth before throwing it out are kidding themselves; what they have in that case is just a shot of cold gin. Which is fine if you like cold gin with an olive, but then why bother with the vermouth at all? Do like Winston Churchill and just wave the glass in the general direction of Italy.

Interesting side note about Martinis: as mixed today, Martinis are almost always "Dry Martinis" and people often think that the term "dry" in this case comes from the amount of vermouth used in the drink; "dry" means a small amount of vermouth and "wet" means a relatively large amount of vermouth. Actually, however, the term "dry" refers to the use of dry vermouth (as opposed to sweet), not the amount of vermouth used - the implication being that it's possible to have a "Sweet Martini", made with sweet vermouth. I've tried such a beast, and it isn't bad, but modern palates tend to prefer the dry version, and so that's what you get by default.

It's a similar story with the Manhattan. Manhattans today are almost always Sweet Manhattans, but it's possible to make a dry version, with dry vermouth. Like the sweet Martini, however, few people seem to like this version - though Frank Sinatra is said to have loved them.

As for the bitters, they are optional, but I find they add a nice smell.

By now you can probably guess my Manhattan recipe:

  • 6 cl bourbon
  • 2 cl sweet (red) vermouth
  • 3-4 dashes angostura bitters or Fee brothers Old Fashioned Bitters.

Again, this a pretty high ratio of vermouth, but even at that concentration, I find it just adds a bit of sweetness, and I can barely tell that it's vermouth at all.