Monday, March 14, 2011

Rule: Mixology as Alchemy

I know the post title is really lame and trite, but stay with me here...

The mixing of different ingredients into various combinations can invoke very distinct results.

Some spirit-forward recipes like the Old Fashioned or the (modern) Martini are meant for certain ingredients to "sing the lead" in a mixture, and they use smaller amounts of other ingredients in order to accent the lead singer.

Other recipes, I would argue, work correctly simply because they have some combination of ingredients that taste really good together. Examples I can think of are the Gimlet, the Mojito, the Margarita, or the Tom Collins.

Some recipes are based off of contrast. A good example I know of is the Oriental cocktail, where all of its ingredients battle over your taste buds' attention.

But once in a while you'll find a recipe that, without getting too poetic, borders on alchemy. I'm talking about a recipe where the product is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Recipes like these are often a big surprise because they're so unpredictable.

A prime example of this is an original recipe from Dave of the Sugar House Blog. His cocktail, the Crimson Dynamo, uses ingredients that I don't really like, but the resulting drink is something I find fairly palatable. (It's a faux pas to be a booze blogger and admit that you don't like a certain ingredient. But with me, it's usually a temporary state. You could say that these are ingredients I don't like yet.)

Campari is an herbal Italian liqueur called an amaro. Don't let its gorgeous red color and the word "liqueur" fool you... its bitterness is so overwhelming that most novices who drink it will grimace before spitting it out. It goes toe-to-toe with Fernet Branca as one of the most bitter brews on the liquor store shelf you can find. I don't dislike the stuff per se... I can even drink it alone on ice without a problem, but I'm just not in love with it. I find that most cocktails containing it aren't balanced, and they leave the Campari unchecked to bully around the other ingredients.

Maraschino(the "ch" is pronounced like a "k") is another Italian ingredient made from the cherries of the Marasca type. Completely unlike what most people in the western hemisphere may think is Maraschino, this stuff is completely clear and has a biting cherry character. The flavor is closer to cough syrup than anything a beginner might be expecting. It's a common ingredient used in vintage cocktails, and even in a few tiki drinks. I personally think that almost any drink that uses more than 1/4 ounce of the stuff is completely dominated by it, and in a way that's not pleasant.

Islay is a type of Single Malt Scotch Whisky which is produced on the isle of Islay. Islay whiskies are generally known to be heavily peated, which is a process by which the distiller dries the fermentation's source of malted barely under a fire of burning peat. While the distilled spirit is aging in barrels later on, master blenders of Islay whisky are also known to leave the warehouse doors open to encourage the nearby ocean air to mingle around the barrels, which are surprisingly permeable. The result of all this is a whisky that is earthy, pungent, smokey, medicinal, and sometimes even tastes of iodine and seaweed. The stuff is so strong that Robert Hess uses it as if it were bitters. I love Scotch, but I don't even like Islay Scotch.

Imagine my intrigue when I saw Dave post a drink that uses only these three ingredients, and what's even better, he declares it as "everything [he] want[s] out of life." I smartly assumed that Dave is a man more sage than I, and so, hands quivering, I gave the drink a whirl.

Crimson Dynamo

1.5 oz Islay Single Malt Scotch
1 oz Campari
.5 oz Maraschino liqueur

Stir ingredients together with ice, and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

The Islay base of this drink still makes it pretty challenging for me. Both the overwhelming flavor and aroma is of pungent iodine. But the sip is much less diabolical overall than I had expected. Amazingly, each of the three strong ingredients manage to keep each other in check. The whisky is by far the most wiley, but much of its flavor disappears in the drink, with only the occasional smokiness and medicinal iodine coming through to numb my tongue. The whisky and Maraschino manage to pummel the Campari's flavor mostly into submission, so that in the end it only offers bitterness and a peppery spiciness. The Maraschino comes all the way through, but is largely subdued by the other two gargantuan ingredients, and it provides the sweetness underlying the cocktail. Instead of these ingredients joining together in some awful cacophony, they join together in a harmony of temperance, and I am in awe.

Over the few years that I've been exploring spirits and cocktails, I've slowly and surely come upon an uncomfortable truth that I can't help but humbly accept. The DJ's 2nd rule of the house: You cannot always know how a recipe will taste by simply looking at the ingredients, despite how experienced you may be.


  1. Very nice post... Technically speaking Campari is an "amaro," as this word literally means "bitter." However, Campari refers to their product instead as an "apertivo," designedly eschewing the amaro label to make it appeal to a more international customer base.

  2. Very interesting!

    Though anyone who's tasted Campari might beg to differ with the company's marketing-driven decision. :)

  3. I love me some Islay ... it is my fav spirit because it is so "robust" and unique in flavor. It tastes great on its own with a little ice. Its unique flavor profile usually relegates it to a supporting role in mixed drinks; i love subbing in Islay for gin in a Last Word.

    Great post.