negroniFlorence, Italy (1919)

A classic cocktail with a surprising number of devotees, the Negroni is distinguished by its use of Campari, the bitter-orange aperitif that is – to put it kindly – an acquired taste. But I’ll say this: once you do acquire the taste, there’s no going back.

The Negroni is a great appetite stimulant – perfect before a big dinner. It works equally well on the rocks (in spring and summer) or up (in fall and winter). You’ll want a good, sharp, juniper-forward gin here – one that won’t get beaten down by the other two bullies in the drink.

The drink has an interesting origin story: Italian-born Count Camillo Negroni had spent time in America as a cowboy and in London as a bon vivant. On his return to Florence in 1919, he asked the bartender at the Caffè Casoni for a stronger take on the popular Americano cocktail, swapping gin for soda water, and serving it up (or on the rocks). It caught on locally, and his namesake cocktail became a hit internationally. Anthony Bourdain is on record as a fan; Gaz Regan is famous (infamous?) for his “finger-stirred Negroni.”

There’s something magical about a well-made Negroni: it’s like a reset button for your day, signaling the start of a great night when anything is possible.

THE KIT

Hardware: Mixing glass, Jigger, Barspoon
Ice: Ice cubes
Glassware: Cocktail glass (or Old Fashioned glass)
Spirits: London Dry gin (recommended: Beefeater, Tanqueray) or Plymouth gin
Mixers & Liqueurs: Italian vermouth (recommended: Carpano Antica, Noilly Prat, Dolin), Campari
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Orange twist

HOW TO

Chill a cocktail glass (or Old Fashioned glass) in the freezer at least ten minutes.

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

1 oz gin
1 oz Italian vermouth
1 oz Campari

Stir well to blend and chill, then strain into the chilled glass. As an alternative, this drink may be served in an Old Fashioned glass over rocks.

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.

Chicago (1914)

palmettoThere’s not much to say about the Palmetto. Except to say it’s delicious and mysteriously absent from most cocktail menus. If you ask for one from a bartender who returns a blank stare, just say “it’s a rum Manhattan” and their eyes will light up.

It’s possible this drink goes back to the 1870s vermouth craze in New York City, but the first documented recipe I’ve found is in Jacques Straub’s 1914 pocket-book Drinks. Straub was the son of a Swiss distiller, and worked as a wine steward at Louisville’s famed Pendennis Club before relocating to Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel. But, as David Wondrich notes in his foreword to the book, Straub was a tee-totaler. No wine, no booze. So what we have in Straub is a simple curator, a collector and distributor of data. His catalog of recipes must’ve been cribbed from the various bartenders he knew in Kentucky and Illinois – and for the most part, those recipes are still solid 100 years later.

Having said that, an adjustment to his spec of equal parts rum and Italian vermouth (1.5 oz each) to a 2:1 ratio prevents this from veering off balance. After all, the rum brings its own sweetness to the party – vermouth can take a small step back.

In the book, Straub calls for St. Croix rum; Cruzan Aged Dark Rum would be the closest widely-available version. But a tour of the Caribbean suggests even better options: try Appleton Estate V/X from Jamaica, El Dorado 8 from Guyana, or the fantastic Mount Gay Black Barrel from Barbados, which brings delicious cinnamon and vanilla notes to the drink.

THE KIT

Hardware: Mixing glass, Jigger, Barspoon, Cocktail pick, Hawthorne strainer, Fine-mesh strainer
Ice: Ice cubes, Cracked ice
Glassware: Cocktail glass
Spirits: Aged rum (recommended: Appleton Estate V/X, El Dorado 8, Mount Gay Black Barrel)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Italian vermouth (recommended: Dolin, Noilly Prat, Martini & Rossi, Carpano Antica)
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:

2 1/4 oz aged rum
3/4 oz Italian vermouth
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 double-strain (to catch small bits of ice) into the prepared, chilled glass. Pinch an orange twist over the drink to express oils onto its surface, then lightly brush the twist around the glass exterior. Garnish with the twist.

improvedgenevercocktailNew York City (1860s)

Time-travel in a glass, this one. So much so, when you sip it you can almost picture the hazy gaslamp-lit sidewalks and almost smell the horseshit-strewn cobblestone streets. Almost, I said.

New York City in the 1860s was a thick, bubbling, funky melting pot of cultures: Irish, Italian, German, Caribbean, British, Dutch, and beyond. Politically corrupt Tammany Hall ran the show. Manhattan became heavily militarized and fortified against a Confederate attack that never came. And Central Park was an under-construction showcase of wilderness in the middle of the world’s greatest city. This close-quarters assimilation was (and still is) responsible for the cocktail as we now know it: American whiskey mixed with Italian or French vermouth, British gin mixed with fresh-squeezed citrus (originally cultivated in southeast Asia), and the rise of exotic local liqueurs imported from across Europe.

It was in this landscape that Jerry Thomas worked his magic. I can’t cover his influence any better than David Wondrich’s excellent book Imbibe!, but here’s the short version: Thomas was the original rockstar bartender, traveling the country from coast to coast showing off his skills. And a showoff he was: One of his signature drinks, the Blue Blazer, involves tossing flaming Scotch whisky from one metal tankard to another – maybe the original Vegas flair-style bartender. Hell, the guy had a statue of himself in his bar on Broadway and 21st. Jerry loved Jerry.

But his lasting legacy outweighs his ego, thankfully: Thomas wrote the world’s first cocktail book. How to Mix Drinks (or The Bon Vivant’s Companion), published in 1862, was his enforcing of order on a chaotic world in transition: Colonial drinks like Punches, Eggnogs, Juleps, Shrubs, Smashes, and Cobblers were cataloged along with newfangled 19th-century trends like Cocktails (at the time, simply any spirit with sugar, water, and bitters) and Sours. The book is still in print today and offers a fascinating view of Civil War-era drinkmaking culture: Just before the vermouth craze of the 1870s, just before the Industrial Revolution. He did a good thing, getting all this stuff down for posterity before he died of a stroke at age 55, twenty-three years later. Apparently, he was a victim of the changing times: he died deeply in debt and unemployed. His family made exactly squat from his book.

This cocktail, what he called an “Improved Holland Gin Cocktail,” would’ve been popular in his heyday, and is indeed documented in his book. It uses a spirit popular at the time and only recently revived: genever, the Dutch predecessor of British gin (say it “jenn-EE-ver”). Made in Holland of distilled maltwine (corn, rye, wheat, and other grains) and flavored with juniper, genever was originally made as a medicinal drink of crushed juniper berries distilled with brandy. As wine grapes became scarce, malty beer mash was substituted to keep the product rolling – and to great effect. In this way, genever is kind of a weird cousin to both whiskey and gin – similar to both, but like neither. The British enjoyed genever so much, they sought a way to replicate it back home, modifying the base and formula to suit their palates – first as the Old Tom style of gin, then London Dry. The Bols company has recently revived genever as a contemporary product, unavailable since Prohibition (thank you, Bols!).

Where a standard “cocktail” back in the day would’ve been spirit, sugar, water / ice, and bitters, Jerry Thomas specified a category of “Improved” cocktails with a touch of absinthe and Maraschino liqueur. Any spirit can be used in these Improved cocktails – try rum, bourbon, or brandy… but there’s something strange and perfect about the way genever plays with these other flavors.

A couple notes: You’ll be serving this up, like a Martini – stirred (even though Jerry said to shake, we know better now). You can use a cocktail glass or a small rocks glass. I like the latter – it feels right since it’s an offshoot of the Old Fashioned and cousin to the Sazerac. Also – if you have a demerara syrup on hand, you’ll get a more authentic idea of the drink’s history. But regular old simple syrup will certainly work. And if you’re lucky to have Berg & Hauck’s formulation of “Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter” bitters in your arsenal, now is the time to get them out.

A toast to Jerry Thomas, the original.

THE KIT

Hardware: Jigger, Barspoon, Mixing glass, Hawthorne strainer, Vegetable peeler or sharp knife
Ice: Ice cubes, Cracked ice
Glassware: Rocks glass or cocktail glass
Spirits: Genever (recommended: Bols)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Absinthe (recommended: Pernod, St. George, Herbsaint), Maraschino liqueur (recommended: Luxardo), Demerara syrup or simple syrup
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Bitters (recommended: Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter, Angostura), Lemon twist

HOW TO

Using a vegetable peeler or a sharp knife, cut a strip of lemon peel to make:

1 lemon twist

Don’t include too much of the bitter white pith, if any.

In a mixing glass about one-third full with ice cubes and cracked ice, add:

2 dashes bitters
1/4 oz demerara or turbinado syrup (2:1)
1
barspoon maraschino
1/2 
barspoon absinthe
2
oz genever

Stir briskly to blend and chill. Holding the twist with the outside facing down over a rocks (or cocktail) glass, pinch to express lemon oil into the glass and brush lightly around the glass exterior. Reserve the twist for a garnish.

Double-strain the drink (to catch small bits of ice) into the prepared, chilled glass. Garnish with the lemon zest either resting atop the glass or dropped in.