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I have been spending the last few weeks making my way through the recipes in the NYTimes summer drinks section which has meant sipping some wonderfully delicious drinks that are refreshing, citrusy and herbally—ideal qualities for a summer cocktail, in my opinion.  My favorite so far is Italia Libera, created by Chaim Dauermann of ‘inoteca e liquori bar in New York City.

An adaption of the Cuba Libre (take out the lime juice and you have the ever-popular Rum and Coke), this highball combines an amaro, Ramazzotti to be specific, with the 150 proof Wray and Nephew rum for an Italian-inspired variation.  Chaim explained his inspiration to me, “I was trying to emulate the flavors of a ‘rum and Coke’ while classing it up a bit.”  He added that a friend’s reference to Ramazzotti as “the Coca-Cola of amari” factored into his Italian version the classic Cuba Libre.  Although I cannot quite remember the last time I had a rum and Coke (I vaguely remember a Halloween party about 10 years ago in which I fear one too many were consumed), I can attest to the fact that while the general flavor may be familiar this is something entirely different.   It is the perfect drink to sip lakeside (which I did the last two weekends) or even to enjoy while suffering through household chores (which I did yesterday).

Italia Libera

1 oz Wray and Nephew white rum

1 oz Ramazzotti amaro

¼ oz lemon juice

¾ oz simple syrup

Chilled seltzer

Combine the rum, Ramazzotti, lemon juice and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker, fill with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a highball glass over fresh ice, top with seltzer and garnish with the lime wedge.

Cheers!

“We’re not serving you drinks. We’re serving you an experience.”  This is how owner Tony Abou-Ganim introduced us to the premise behind the small, bright, Italian-inspired ‘inoteca e liqouri bar.  When Jeff and I selected this as one of our Stories from Behind the Bar events for this year’s Manhattan Cocktail Classic, we had no idea what to expect. We didn’t know anything about the place, but were drawn by the focus on amaro, those delicious Italian bitter liqueurs I’ve been slightly obsessed since my fall trip to Milano.  We made a very good choice!  In the able hands of bar manager Chaim Dauermann and his staff, the amaro of the day—Ramazzotti— was shaken, stirred, and even combined with an egg to produce some wonderfully delicious cocktails.

Chaim pouring our first drink, Ausano's Punch

The event was sponsored by Ramazzotti—surprisingly, an amaro that I had yet tried.  The charming Konstantin Prochorowski (of The Experimental Bar in London) better known as Coco, shared a bit about the brand history and formula.  Developed in 1815 in Milano by a pharmacist, Ramazzotti combines 33 different ingredients including bitter orange peel, cinnamon, cardamom, mint, vanilla, ginger, and cloves.  I found it to be a bit less bitter and an easier flavor than other amaro like Zucca or Fernet Branca.  It was good sipped on its own, with soda over ice, and in a variety of cocktail styles ranging from a punch with black tea to a flip.

Of the many cocktails we imbibed, my favorite was Howick Hall, which is a regular on the ‘inoteca menu.  I loved the combination of the herbals of both the Ramazzotti and the gin, the nutty Maraschino and the brightness the lemon juice added.  Really delicious!

Howick Hall (created by Chaim Dauermann)

1 oz Ramazzotti

1 oz gin (Breuckelen)

2/3 oz lemon juice

1/3 simple syrup

¼ oz Luxardo Maraschino

dash of Regan’s Orange Bitters

Our final drink of the event was the Ramazzotti Flip, created by bartender Will. (Sorry, I didn’t catch his last name.  I may have been distracted by his cuteness and all that cocktail shaking he was doing.)  I have come to appreciate flips as a decadent, rich ending to a flight of cocktails.  The Ramazzotti and a strong citrus grappa Nardini Acqua di Cedro held up quite nicely with the egg.

Will pouring the Ramazzotti Flip

In my opinion, these Stories from Behind the Bar events are the best part of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic.  As with the other such events I went to the gracious hospitality of the people hosting these equals the quality of the cocktails and is what really make them memorable.  As Tony started off the event by saying, “We’re not serving you drinks. We’re serving you an experience.” 

And our afternoon at ‘inoteca e liquori bar was a fabulous experience.  Cheers!

One of the highlights of our trip was visiting the Fernet Branca plant.  Being at Branca itself was only matched by our fabulously gracious guides Marco Ponzano and Nicola Olianas.

 

Marco and I in front of the huge barrel of Stravecchio Branca, a 3-year aged brandy

As the brand history goes, in 1845 Bernadino Branca, an Milanese doctor, joined forces with a Swedish pharmacist Dr. Fernet to combine 27 herbs and plants to create a treatment for cholera.  The 5th generation of the Branca family continues to produce this amaro (bitter) that we enjoy today straight as an apertivo or digestivo, or in the popular Fernet and cola, known as Fernandito.  Brian, Jeff and I tried this upon our return home and although I was skeptical, I have to admit it was pretty good.  Fernet Branca is said to both stimulate the appetite, as well as aid in digestion; and its said to help with a hang-over.

Fernet bottles through the years. Heaven.

 

On the one hand, the taste of Fernet is similar to many amaros—bitter, of course, and herbaceous.  But at the same time, it is totally different.  I get a strong menthol fragrance and the earthly flavors for which I have no reference (have you ever tasted myrrh?) are strong on my palette.  I also enjoyed tasting Brancamenta which is as Nicola described a “mint explosion” in your mouth.  Developed in the early 1960s, this liquer is made by adding sugar and mint to a year-aged Fernet.  The story behind the “Brrrrranacamenta” marketing campaign is very funny.

Fernet is an international phenomenon.  As early as 1860, Fernet was present in international markets.  The Branca’s understood the importance of marketing.  When Maria Scala Branca took control of the company in 1891, marketing efforts really took off.  To counter confusion between the real Fernet Branca and the many “copycats”, the Branca World brand was born in the form of the logo image created by Leopoldo Metlicovitz—globe held up by an eagle.  In true Milanese style, posters and calendars not only advertised the product, but can also be viewed a works of art in and of themselves.  One of my favorites features two mermaids balancing the Branca world symbol as they playfully romp in the ocean—pretty racy for the late 19th century.

The display of the 27 ingredients that make up Fernet Branca was pretty cool.  We got to handle and smell wonderful things like mace, chamomile, Chinese rubarb, and myrhh.  While we didn’t get to touch and smell the very expensive saffron, we learned that that is what gives Fernet its golden color. Swirl it in a glass sometime and check out the amazing gorgeous hue.  Supposedly only Nicola Branca, the 5th generation of the family to oversee the company, has access to the recipe. When a new batch needs to be made, either in Milano or Argentina (the only two places Fernet Branca is produced), Nicola takes the recipe and oversees the measurement/mixture of herbs.

This is the spice table. Have you ever? That's Marco to my right in the glasses, knit tie and blue blazer,and Nicola to my left with the notebook.

The last stop on the tour was the aging room—500 barrels filled with Fernet.  Each barrel holds about 2,000 bottles!  The  minute you step off the elevator the sweet-bitter, potent aroma fills your nose– just wonderful.   I can see why this part of the tour is kept short—you could get drunk from the boozy fumes.

Again, like most of my best spirit experiences, it’s not the booze that makes it, it’s the people.  Marco and Nicola gave us the basic Branca story but infused it with so many interesting personal stories that made the afternoon extra special. To Marco, Nicola and Fernet Branca. Salute!

I am excited for my trip to Milan.  I love Italy.  I love traveling.   But I hate packing.  What to bring? What to leave home? With piles of clothes and a few too many pairs of shoes covering my bed, I decided a cocktail might take the stress out of this process.  It was only appropriate to get inspiration from Italy.  I chose Cynar, a tasty Italian bitter made from 13 plants and herbs. The most prominent ingredient is artichoke—yes, artichoke.  The taste is in fact bitter, as it should be, but there’s also an earthiness and butteriness from the artichoke that make it interestingly smooth.  To propel me through my packing woes, I made a refreshing and delicious Cynar Sour.  It hit the spot perfectly and my suitcase eventually got packed.

Cynar Sour

2 oz Cynar

¼ oz Luxardo Maraschino

1 oz lemon juice

¼ oz agave nectar

Shake and serve over ice.

To further procrastinate from packing, I found this fun commercial for Cynar. L’amaro vero, ma leggero.

I look forward to enjoying Milan’s famous apertivo, the evening cocktail hour, and visiting Fernet Branca and Campari.  So, expect a full report upon my return. Salute!

Tuesday night I went to mingle with fellow art peeps at this month’s Opus Affair at Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square.  With Aaron Butler at the helm, this bar is in very good hands—Aaron makes pretty damn good drinks.  The menu has lots of yum stuff on it, but don’t be afraid to go off menu and ask Aaron to suggest something. I did and was not disappointed.  My request: something interesting and fresh with Chartreuse.  I know, not particularly creative on my part, but I was kind of tired and indecisive.  And when I am in that kind of mood, I always return to my old friends, those spirits and liqueurs I like best.  Luckily for me, Aaron was a bit more on his game than I and I ended up with a really delicious variation of the Last Word.  The versatility of the formula of this drink never ceases to amaze me.  In this version Aaron mixed equal parts Tru2 Organic Gin (this really nice, rich California-made gin), green Chartreuse, Meletti Amaro and lime.  From the first sip, I knew there was something wonderful going on– the gin, chartreuse, and lime were familiar, but was that other flavor?   Meletti Amaro.  A bittersweet Italian herbal liqueur (amaro means “bitter” in Italian) is often served as a digestivo.

On its own, the flavor reminded me a warm gingerbread cookie—creamy and caramelly with a sweet spice.  So good! I fell head over heels!  And the rich, warm flavor worked well with the California gin and the Chartreuse for yet another amazing variation of my favorite drink.  I think Meletti Amaro will be the next bottle I buy.

Cheers!

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