The Varnish, 2011

I stopped by The Varnish in Downtown Los Angeles late one night, looking for a spot to kick back and enjoy just one more sip that wouldn’t put me over the edge. With nothing specific in mind, I asked general manager Chris Bostick for something “tall and low-proof” and he obliged with a snap of the fingers, producing this stunning, friendly, and balanced delight.

It specifies Gran Clasico, made by Tempus Fugit Spirits up in Novato, north of San Francisco. It’s a bitter liqueur in the style of the great Italian amari like Montenegro and Ramazzotti. Track that down and the rest is probably already on hand: lime, orange, simple syrup, and the bubbles of your choice – seltzer, soda, or mineral water.

THE KIT

Hardware: Shaker, Jigger, Barspoon, Straw (optional)
Ice: Ice cubes, Cracked ice
Glassware: Collins glass
Mixers & Liqueurs: Gran Clasico, Simple syrup, Seltzer or tonic water (recommended: Fever-Tree) or sparkling mineral water (recommended: Pellegrino)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Orange wedge

HOW TO

In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add:

1 oz Gran Clasico
1 oz lime juice
1/2 oz simple syrup

Shake well to blend and chill, then strain into a Collins glass filled most of the way up with cracked ice. Top with:

2 oz seltzer, tonic water, or sparkling mineral water

Squeeze in the juice from one orange wedge and stir lightly to blend, then garnish with the orange wedge. Optionally, serve with a straw.

Milan, Italy (1860s)

Situation: you’re gearing up for dinner, but it’s still a ways away. A Negroni sounds great, but in this heat? Not exactly refreshing. You just want a little something to sip on, something tall, something… satisfying. Satisfying without knocking you on your ass, if possible. Americano to the rescue.

Back in the 1860s, Gaspare Campari (yes, that Campari) ran a bar in Milan, the Caffè Campari. Locals enjoyed a late-afternoon cocktail of half-Campari / half-vermouth cut with seltzer they called the “Milano-Torino” (vermouth being from Turin and all). As more and more Americans visited Italy during Prohibition for a break from the squares ruining the party back home, the Milano-Torino became their favorite. So much so, the barkeep at Caffè Campari renamed it the “Americano.” Try it out next time you need a vacation from the heat.

THE KIT

Hardware: Jigger, Barspoon, Straw (optional)
Ice: Cracked ice
Glassware: Collins glass
Mixers & Liqueurs: Campari, Italian vermouth, Tonic water (recommended: Fever-Tree), sparkling mineral water (recommended: Pellegrino), or seltzer
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Orange wheel

HOW TO

In a Collins glass filled with cracked ice, add:

1 1/2 oz Campari
1 1/2 oz Italian vermouth

Stir well to blend and chill, then top with:

1 1/2 oz tonic water, sparkling mineral water, or seltzer

Stir lightly to blend and garnish with an orange wheel. Optionally, serve with a straw.

Uncertain origin (1870s)

For most of the 19th century, anything called a “cocktail” was of the same template: a spirit with sugar, a bit of water (or ice), and bitters. As vermouth became available in the US around 1870, there was a surge of revolutionary cocktails pairing this exotic new item with spirits: gin, genever, bourbon, rye, Scotch, rum, brandy… people couldn’t get enough of the stuff. The original pairing of spirit with vermouth and bitters may have been the Turf Club – unfortunately, history is frustratingly hazy on this subject. Damned drinkers! The classic Martini and Manhattan came from this period, as did the Martinez. It’s most likely named for the San Francisco-adjacent East Bay town that was a hub of activity during the Gold Rush. The oldest printed recipe for the Martinez specifies a ratio of one part spirit to two parts vermouth – the variation I prefer marks a subsequent point in its evolution, at a one-to-one ratio. All these spirit-and-vermouth cocktails went through a long dry spell in the 20th century, some getting down to just a quarter-ounce of vermouth, others just rinse the ice with vermouth before stirring and drain out any excess. Why the fear of vermouth? Who knows. I’m just glad that bartenders are re-embracing denser ratios these days.

Old Tom gin was most likely used in the original recipe since the London Dry style hadn’t taken hold yet. Another possibility would be genever, called “Holland gin” back in the day – try this with Bols genever sometime if you really want to get a taste of the past. The Martinez is one of my favorite examples of “time travel in a glass” – imagine yourself in a candlelit saloon, heavy with dark wood and red velvet, as you sip this. You may just get the urge to head across the Bay and go panning for gold.

THE KIT

Hardware: Mixing glass, Jigger, Barspoon, Vegetable peeler
Ice: Ice cubes
Glassware: Cocktail glass
Spirits: Old Tom gin (recommended: Hayman’s, Ransom)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Italian vermouth (recommended: Carpano Antica, Dolin red), Maraschino liqueur (recommended: Luxardo)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Orange bitters (recommended: Regan’s), orange twist

HOW TO

Chill a cocktail glass in the freezer at least ten minutes.

In a mixing glass, add:
1 1/2 oz Old Tom gin
1 1/2 oz Italian vermouth
1/3 oz maraschino liqueur
2 dashes orange bitters

Add a mix of ice cubes and cracked ice to cover well above the liquid level. Stir well to blend and chill, then strain into the prepared, chilled glass. Pinch an orange twist over the drink to express oils onto its surface, then rub the twist around the glass rim to coat. Garnish with the twist laid across the surface of the drink.