Byrrh and Swedish Punsch, on the comeback trail


Byrrh Cocktail. Tableware from Crate and Barrel. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
June 19, 2012

A few years ago, I coined the term “Liquor Store Archeaology” to describe the pith-helmeted explorations that cocktail geeks make to unearth so many lost and forgotten spirits.

Liquor Store Archaeology can refer to scouring the dusty shelves of older bottle shops to look for surprises. In this way, my friends and relatives have found weird treasures such as Cordial Campari, a clear after-dinner, raspberry-tinged cousin to the bitter aperitif, rarely seen in the United States since the 1960s; and quirky historical footnotes such as Peanut Lolita, a thick, peanut-whiskey liqueur that infamous presidential brother Billy Carter once shilled.

It also can be taken figuratively: a way of thinking, investigating, traveling, importing and even resurrecting (through old distilling recipes). This sort of study begins in the imagination. You read a 19th- or early-20th-century cocktail book and see drinks that call for creme de violette or Old Tom gin or batavia arrack or allspice dram, and you wonder what they would taste like, if only you could find the ingredients.

It’s not nostalgia, because you’ve never tasted these spirits. But it’s something akin to it. When you finally locate that authentic ingredient and taste the cocktail you’ve dreamed of, you experience history in a visceral way. It can be powerful.

In this way, no one has been a better archaeologist than Eric Seed, whose Edina, Minn., company Haus Alpenz has been responsible for bringing many of the fine spirits mentioned above back to American shelves. (Not Peanut Lolita. That, thankfully, remains extinct.) To my mind, he deserves a space in the Spirits Hall of Fame — or at least a big hug — simply for making Zucca, the earthy, bittersweet Milanese rabarbaro, available.


Diki Diki cocktail (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Seed hates the nickname, but it’s not for nothing that he has been called the “Indiana Jones of spirits.” His two latest rediscoveries, Byrrh Grand Quinquina and Kronan Swedish Punsch, may be his best yet.

I’ve seen the name byrrh many times in old cocktail guides, and it always seemed impossibly pre-modern — perhaps because of its similar spelling to the biblical myrrh. (What bartender will be the first to name a cocktail Frankincense & Byrrh?) Or maybe from the black-and-white era, since it was the sort of thing people drank in Francois Truffaut films.

Byrrh is a quinquina, meaning it’s a wine-based, low-proof aperitif with a measure of quinine, similar to Dubonnet, Cocchi Americano or Kina Lillet (the pre-1986 ancestor to the widely available Lillet Blanc). Byrrh is made from a 125-year-old recipe that uses red wine from Languedoc-Roussillon. It has been owned by Pernod Ricard since 1977, but as with another coveted aperitif, Suze, the company has kept it bottled up in Europe for decades. (Suze will also be available soon.)

It’s close in taste to Dubonnet, but byrrh has richer, more portlike aromas and flavors — notably ripe berries and herbs — and a balancing bitterness to the fruit. I loved it recently in the Byrrh Cocktail. With kirsch (cherry eau de vie) and cognac, it’s one of those cocktails I saw in a book by Frank Meier, a bartender from Paris’s famed Ritz Bar, and always imagined how it would taste. It’s like a stroll into another century.

Swedish punsch has even more history, dating to the 18th century when the Swedish East India Company began importing its key ingredient, batavia arrack (a rumlike spirit made from sugar cane and red rice). By the 19th century, the punsch — a blend of batavia arrack, sugar, spices and sometimes rum, citrus or tea — was a folk favorite in Sweden, often served during the winter with the country’s traditional Thursday pea soup.

It was an essential cocktail ingredient in 19th-century America, but after Prohibition — like so many spirits — it basically disappeared. Some brands still exist in Sweden, but even there, it’s nowhere near as popular as it once was. For Kronan, Seed developed a new recipe that replicates Swedish punsch from a century ago. Kronan Swedish Punsch has a gamy, complex sweetness with smoky, funky dried-fruit flavors. It brings a wonderful layered, bold, pirate-juice quality to cocktails.

For years, I longingly noticed two cocktails in old books calling for Swedish punsch that I yearned to make: the Diki-Diki, with Calvados, Swedish punsch and grapefruit juice; and the Mabel Berra with sloe gin, Swedish punsch and lime.

A couple of weeks ago, when I got my hands on Kronan Swedish Punsch, I made them both. In my job, there may be no more profound moment than when I first taste a lost, longed-for spirit. This part of Liquor Store Archaeology is forever thrilling, but also a little nerve-racking. Would it live up to the imaginary taste I concocted?

I guess because I’m telling you about it, there’s no real suspense. They did. I loved them.

Wilson’s Spirits column is going on a summer hiatus. Join him on today’s Free Range chat: live.washingtonpost.com.

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