Spirits: Nutty liqueurs
Among cocktail aficionados, there is something vaguely embarrassing about admitting a fondness for nut liqueurs. In a highfalutin cocktail bar, one surefire way to be ostracized is to mention how much you like, say, Frangelico hazelnut liqueur or, God forbid, the almond-flavored amaretto. During the holidays, while I was making mixers from scratch with Todd Thrasher, he nearly laughed me out of his kitchen when I suggested a recipe calling for amaretto -- just a quarter-ounce.
That attitude might have to do with the embarrassing drinks the category has spawned, such as an old girls-night-out standby, the amaretto sour (usually concocted with artificial, pre-made sour mix). For an earlier generation it was the Pink Squirrel, made with the hot-pink, fake-almond-flavored creme de noyaux, that offended sensibilities. Maybe the negativity has to do with silly packaging: Frangelico's monk-shaped bottle wears a tiny rope belt; Disaronno's has a square spinning cap; Nocello's has a walnut-shaped stopper. Or perhaps it just has to do with that cheesy "Disaronno on the rocks" commercial: You know the one, where the sexy woman sucks the last drop of amaretto off her ice cube as the studly bartender coolly stares. Admit it: You're rolling your eyes right now.
Whatever the reason, I've lately been finding this bias a little unfair, and I'd like to say a word in favor of nut liqueurs. I'm not saying amaretto is my usual cup of tea, but in small doses it occasionally has its uses, such as in the Zapple Cocktail I suggested in December. Actually, amaretto isn't a totally nut-based liqueur: Though there are bitter almonds in the mix, most amarettos rely more on apricot kernels (the apricot being a cousin of the almond) for their flavor.
If you're looking for a romantic back story, the kind that so many liqueurs boast, amaretto's got a doozy: In 1525, Leonardo da Vinci's assistant, Bernardino Luini, was painting a fresco of the Madonna in a Saronno church and found his inspiration in a young widow, who became his model and lover. As a token of her affection, the story goes, she steeped apricot kernels in brandy and presented the infusion to the artist.
Beyond amaretto, I've been experimenting with the rest of the nut category. I'm still not totally sold on Frangelico, the hazelnut liqueur that claims a 300-year history connected with monks in northern Italy (though it's been available only since the 1980s). But I've found a couple of relatively new nut-based spirits that are worth seeking out.
Nocino is a delicious liqueur made from an infusion of green walnuts. I first tasted it in Emilia-Romagna, where it's a homemade infusion akin to limoncello in southern Italy. For years, nocino had been nearly impossible to find in the United States. Many people have thought they were drinking it when they bought Nocello, but there's a difference. Nocello, produced by Toschi, is a lower-proof walnut-hazelnut liqueur. It's not bad: a reasonable substitution for nocino in some drinks. But for the real thing, try the exquisite Nux Alpina, made in Austria, which Haus Alpenz began importing a few years ago. It's as close to traditional farmhouse nocino as you can find. And it's wonderful in the perfectly nutty Seymour Glass cocktail featured here.
I've also been pleasantly surprised by a peanut cream liqueur called Castries, imported from St. Lucia. I did not have high hopes when I first tried it. Peanuts (which, yes, I realize are legumes and not technically nuts) have always been a tricky proposition in cocktails. A couple of years back, I wrote about the somewhat disturbingly named Peanut Lolita, a thick, peanut-flavored liqueur made in the 1970s that my brother found in a dusty, forgotten corner of an old liquor store. It was awful: gritty and overly alcoholic, with an overwhelming whiskey-and-peanut taste. I took one sip; the rest is still sitting in my liquor cabinet.
Castries, which is rum-based, offered just the opposite experience. It's low-proof, and not cloying like cream liqueurs can often be. It certainly has limited applications, but in after-dinner cocktails such as the Dulce y Salado, it's delightful.
Admittedly, the Castries bottle has a somewhat silly (or perhaps whimsical) peanut-inspired shape. I have to say it: Perhaps such nuttiness goes with the territory.