Spirits: Take a Lesson From the Old School
The classic-cocktail renaissance continues its spread across our grand nation. Which is wonderful.
It's great that more bartenders are discovering that fresh citrus is better than sour mix, that bitters make a huge difference, that soda from freshly opened bottles is nicer than from a soda gun, and that people really will give up their Red Bull-and-vodkas for an interesting, complex drink made with a long-forgotten spirit.
I've lately been surprised by just how much this renaissance has expanded. It has reached beyond just the big cities on the coasts. At the recent Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans, for instance, I sat next to a bartender from Cincinnati named Molly Wellmann. She told me about a tincture she has been making from tobacco leaves that she uses in a smoky drink called the Marlboro Man.
Wow, I found myself thinking. Maybe I'd better check out what's going on in Cincinnati! (She did later confess that she had lived in San Francisco for a long time, but still.)
Of course, as the trend gains steam, certain aspects of the classic-cocktail bar have become universal. You'll find bartenders in old-timey vests and ties, probably beards and tattoos and maybe man buns, and possibly waxed moustaches, depending on how much pre-Prohibition role-playing is going on. Some retro rules ("gentlemen must remove their hats") might be on the menu, to go along with the bar's speak-easy-ish name. Cocktails with rye whiskey and mezcal and applejack will be offered, probably with double-digit price tags. (This is not a knock: Good drinks often aren't cheap.)
There are, of course, exceptions, though I defy anyone to name a hip bar without at least one bartender sporting noteworthy facial hair. But even in the absence of all the usual indicators, I've found that there are always two bottles sitting on the back bar that will serve as a sort of secret handshake or knowing wink. One is Chartreuse, usually the 110-proof green version. The other is a tall, straw-covered bottle of Luxardo maraschino. If you spy those two, you can be pretty certain you're in a bar that takes its cocktails seriously. In fact, when I see a cocktail menu these days, I am shocked if I don't see any drinks using either of those two spirits.
It stands to reason: The herbaceous intensity of green Chartreuse and the sharply sweet and fragrant Luxardo maraschino are about as far from bland, characterless drinking as you can get. They're also about as old-school as liquor gets, with the Luxardo maraschino recipe dating to 1821 and Chartreuse to a 1605 manuscript titled "An Elixir of Long Life."
Both have colorful histories and quirky processes. Chartreuse is famously made from a secret blend of 130 herbs, plants and flowers, and the full recipe is known only to two Carthusian monks who have taken a vow of silence. When I visited the distillery last summer in the Alpine town of Voiron, France, my chartreuse-clad tour guide assured me that the monks still keep a close eye on the process.
The original Luxardo distillery operated in Zara, on the Dalmatian coast of what is now Croatia, until it was destroyed during World War II. Giorgio Luxardo emigrated to Italy and rebuilt the company in 1946 on its current site, near Padua. Giorgio's descendants still make the same product. Their maraschino liqueur is distilled from a special variety of sour cherries called Marasca Luxardo that are grown near the Luxardo family's distillery. The cherries are infused with distillate and aged for three years in Finnish ash, which adds no color to the clear liqueur. The straw wrapping that covers the bottle is created by a co-op of local craftswomen, as it has been for decades.
As recently as a century ago, maraschino was used to preserve Marasca cherries. But today, the liqueur has nothing to do with the fluorescent orbs you find in jars in American supermarkets. I know I've been iterating that for a long time, but I still occasionally get an e-mail from someone who is confused. Even Franco Luxardo had a laugh as he recalled first encountering the ersatz maraschino cherries while in the United States as an exchange student in the 1950s. "I remember being surprised by this strange, bright red cherry they served me," he said.
Over the years, I've championed Chartreuse in drinks such as the Bijou (equal parts Chartreuse, gin and sweet vermouth with a dash of orange bitters) and the Scofflaw (Chartreuse, rye whiskey, dry vermouth and lemon juice), and maraschino in drinks such as the Aviation (maraschino, gin, lemon juice and a dash of creme de violette) and a frothy alternative to the margarita called a Prado (in which maraschino replaces Cointreau).
But perhaps the finest use of both liqueurs is together in the Last Word. This is a Prohibition-era cocktail invented at the Detroit Athletic Club and resurrected a few years back by Murray Stenson at Seattle's classic-cocktail haven, the Zig Zag Cafe. Its fame has spread as far and wide as the classic-cocktail movement itself, spawning numerous variations.
With the huge, bold flavors of Chartreuse and maraschino mixed with gin and lime, the Last Word is definitely not a poolside drink, and definitely not for the appletini crowd. It's a thinking person's drink. A drink with a swagger. The perfect drink for a guy who's comfortable in a vest and a waxed moustache.
Which is why the Last Word gets my vote as the Official Drink of the Classic-Cocktail Renaissance.