Lately, I’ve been spending some quality time in the 19th century. I haven’t grown a walrus mustache or Civil War officer’s beard or mutton chops. Nor have I taken to wearing bowlers or top hats or an ascot with a stickpin. My time travel has been solely one of taste.
When it comes to spirits, the 19th century may be the last frontier. It makes sense. At this stage of the spirits market, we’ve already seen the reintroduction of foreign spirits formerly thought to be lost. Pre-Prohibition bar staples such as genever from the Netherlands, Old Tom gin from England, creme de violette from the Alps, maraschino liqueur from Italy and Croatia and batavia arrack from Indonesia were still being produced in their native countries, and savvy importers simply brought them back to American shelves, after an absence of a half-century or more.
Making the rare and obscure available again has driven the past decade’s cocktail renaissance. But where do we go from here? Apparently, we burrow deep into dusty old distilling recipes from the mid-19th century, if my recent tastings are any guide.
For instance, I recently got my hands on a bottle of kummel, made from a mid-19th-century recipe, distilled from caraway seed, cumin and fennel. All I can say, is: Wow; We are not in a world of Justin Bieber and Walmart and whipped-cream vodka anymore. The pungent, spicy-sweet aromas and flavors deliver a funky tasting experience that feels pre-modern, elemental.
Now, what exactly one does with kummel is still something I’m experimenting with. A quarter-ounce in a Fifty-Fifty martini gives it a delicious herbal kick. This kummel — available at Ace Beverage in Foxhall Square — was distilled by Combier, which makes outstanding liqueurs, including one I’ve raved about before, the original triple sec, made in France’s Loire Valley since 1834.
Orange liqueurs such as Combier triple sec are one of the primary building blocks of a good bar. That has always been the case. The term “curacao” has been a catch-all for orange liqueurs since the early 19th century. “Triple sec” was always a fancy curacao. There is no legal qualification for “triple sec,” but it usually denotes that the orange liqueur is a product of three distillations, including a final one of pure bitter orange peel.
Until Combier ($33) came along, followed by Mandarin Napoleon ($42), the only name-brand orange liqueurs most people knew were Cointreau ($43) and Grand Marnier ($44), both also dating to the 19th century. Though these orange liqueurs are pricey, they are worth it, among the most essential spirits in your bar.
“They are such a quantum leap forward in quality than basic DeKuyper or Bols or other ‘rail’ or ‘well’ orange liqueurs,” says Joe Riley, Ace Beverage’s fine spirits manager. “Why spend money on, say, top-shelf gin or tequila, only to drag it down with pedestrian orange liqueur?”
Which is why I was so excited to see another new old recipe enter the market: Pierre Ferrand’s Dry Curacao Ancienne Method ($31). Many times I have recommended Ferrand cognacs, and I consider Ferrand Ambre to be one of the best-value cognacs on the market. Ferrand already took a stroll back into the 19th century last year when it launched a higher-proof cognac (90 instead of the usual 80 proof) called 1840 Original Formula that was closer to the sort of brandy used in cocktails more than 100 years ago.
However, when David Wondrich, the famed cocktail historian (who sports a Civil War officer’s beard) was helping to develop 1840, he told Ferrand president Alexandre Gabriel about his search for a true 19th-century-style curacao. “I had made my own home-distilled version for a seminar, following one of the old recipes, and was struck by the slight bitter-orange edge it had, and the complexity,” Wondrich said. Gabriel tested more than 40 old recipes before coming up with the final blend.
Ferrand Dry Curacao is similar to Grand Marnier or Mandarin Napoleon, with some aged cognac added to the blend. But the 19th-century recipe is much spicier and more complex — and, frankly, more old-fashioned — than the others. Although I still think a clear triple sec such as Combier or Cointreau works best in a margarita, Ferrand’s Dry Curacao is amazing in a classic sidecar (2 ounces cognac,
3 / 4 ounces each of lemon juice and curacao, shaken). And it’s wonderful in a Yellow Daisy, a Hoopla, a Corpse Reviver and the old-timey Brandy Cocktail (see accompanying recipe).
“I really thought this was going to be a niche-of-a-niche product for a few geeks and misfits like us,” Gabriel says of his dry curacao.
Perhaps. But given the current interest in 19th-century tastes, I wouldn’t be surprised if his dry curacao becomes as
au courant as the frock coat was in the 1860s.