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Cocktail of the Week: The “Saladito,” The Varnish, Los Angeles

The Varnish doesn’t have a signature cocktail.

You don’t need to when you’re arguably the most important cocktail bar of the decade or so old speakeasy- craft cocktail movement. It seems as if this hidden, but very well known Downtown Los Angeles and its chief mixologist Eric Alperin are to cocktail “best of” lists and awards what Meryl Streep is to the Oscars: they are always nominated and almost always win.

Things are no different again this year. The Varnish is one of four finalists for this week’s Tales of the Cocktail Awards in New Orleans (nobody ever drinks in that city…), in many ways the Oscars or James Beard Awards for the cocktail world. While the entire bar is up for World’s Best Cocktail Bar, Alperin is also one of four finalists for the premier American bartender.

"Saladito" on the right

“Saladito” on the right

With these expectations, wouldn’t you expect nothing short of drinking magnificence when you’re standing at The Varnish’s sparkling glass bottle backed bar or sitting snugly in one of the wood paneled vintage booths in the dark as night speakeasy room? You won’t be disappointed. The hype is fulfilled. At the same time, if you’re looking for the “wow factor” so in vogue these days (think The Bazaar, The Aviary, Booker & Dax…), this isn’t your place. Sip your high quality beverage and don’t be too loud. There aren’t any sideshow frills coming your way. Only the perfect Gin & Tonic, maybe with a slight evolution.

The background history and the quirks of The Varnish are very well documented. There might even be a Hollywood screenplay in the works about the rise of cocktails in America and the rise of Skid Row’s Sixth Street because of The Varnish (I’m only guessing about this).


Negroni Week Finale: A Pair From Hinoki & The Bird

On this final night of May and final night of Negroni Week, why not conclude with a pair of winning Negroni variations from the restaurant reviewed on this site today, Hinoki & The Bird? After all, bar director Sam Ross and chef/owner David Myers have concocted a menu that includes a whole category of Negronis.

You can get the traditional Classic Negroni, or a “White Negroni” with Amère Sauvage replacing Campari and no hard spirit involved.

Kingston Negroni

Kingston Negroni

What you really want is the “Kingston Negroni,” a powerhouse adaptation with the deep caramel depth of the funky dark Smith + Cross Jamaican Rum in place of Gin. Gran Classico adds more sweetness and syrupy texture, replacing Campari. An orange twist adds a subtle citrus levity and a glacier size single rock makes this heftier cocktail refreshing.

Or, consider the “Harajuku,” far more starely and elegant than the Tokyo neighborhood its named after. Here, the spirit is Hakushu Single Malt Whiskey, then there is Gran Classico again, and Maurin Quina for the sweet element, all finished by a few drops of chocolate bitters. That last part breaks the 1:1:1 magic ratio of Negronis. I won’t be too strict on the rule since it’s a sterling drink.

Gordon's Cup; Harajuku Cocktail

Gordon’s Cup; Harajuku Cocktail

These are two excellent choices for closing out the week-long Negroni celebration on an innovative note. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the Classic Negroni either. You just can’t lose when it’s Negroni Week.

Negroni Week Thursday: The Power of Punt e Mes

Thirsty Thursday of Negroni Week brings the power of Punt e Mes to the table.

What in the world is Punt e Mes? Does it have to with football special teams or rowing in British terms?

Punt e Mes is a common substitute for sweet vermouth in cocktails, both Negroni inspired and not. It’s a hazelnut colored Italian sweet vermouth that has more spice and herbal flair than the very syrupy traditional sweet vermouth, being a particular nice addition to the even more vehemently herbal and spicy Campari.

For your Negroni variation tonight, you can of course simply follow the 1:1:1 ratio of a Negroni with Gin, Campari, and Punt e Mes instead of sweet vermouth.


Or, how about some more Mezcal? Yes, I know this website has lots of Mezcal recommendations, but it’s hard to beat the stellar smoky agave based spirit. Try the “Mezcal Amores,” a mystical love letter Negroni variation, courtesy of Seattle’s Jay Kuehner. (more…)

Negroni Week: Aged, On Tap, or the Boulevardier

Negroni Week continues with an experimental Wednesday if you will. You’ve made the Negroni as smoky as Kansas City BBQ and made it molto Italiano by replacing sweet vermouth and Gin with Cynar and Fernet Branca.

Now let’s head to the lab/ barrel room.

Of the many liquids Portland, Oregon is known for excelling at (rain, coffee, craft beer, Pinot Noir…), it is also a city with a top flight cocktail scene. Pretending to be a cocktail history scholar, you can pinpoint the Portland cocktail emergence to one drink project by one bartender at one bar. That would be the Barrel Aged Negroni by Jeffrey Morgenthaler at Clyde Common. The ingredients are no different than your standard 1:1:1 Negroni, just as the Count himself would have drank in Florence some 90 years ago.

Except Morgenthaler took a page from the spirits playbook, employing the aging method and barrels that many high-end distillers use to enhance their spirits. Morgenthaler’s Negroni is standard with Campari, Beefeater Gin and Cinzano sweet vermouth. However, before being stirred, the trio gets aged two months in Tuthilltown Whiskey barrels to achieve a taste as crisp as autumn, smooth as Fred Astaire.

"Boulevardier" at Cyrus

“Boulevardier” at Cyrus

It’s a revelation, trust me. The concept born a few years ago has now exploded and bartenders from Singapore to Dublin now are aging cocktails and brewers have followed suit aging their beers in used spirit barrels, so now it is UNcommon for a brewery not to have some form of a Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Russian Stout in its lineup.

Yet few, if any of these barrel aged drinks have achieved the refined elegance of the Clyde Common Barrel Aged Negroni. It is as much a part of Portland’s DNA today as Lewis and Clark or the Rose Garden. (more…)

It’s Negroni Week! Start with the Bottecchia

It’s that time of year again!

No, I’m not referring to the fact that with Memorial Day yesterday the summer grilling season is (un)officially upon us.

Our friendly bartenders across the country who are as obsessed with the Negroni as I am have officially deemed this final week of May as Negroni Week. Why not? Every week is Negroni Week for me, alternating between tinkering with the tried and true formula, and simply enjoying the classic 1:1:1 ratio of Campari, sweet vermouth, and Gin. It’s as simple and consistent as cocktails get.

The drink’s somewhat nebulous history dates back to the 1920’s when Count Camillo Negroni was a regular at the Bar Casoni in Florence. The Count enjoyed his Americanos very much (Campari and sweet vermouth topped with soda water), but one day he asked for a stiffer Americano with Gin replacing the soda water.

Barrel Aged Negroni at Clyde Common, Portland

Barrel Aged Negroni at Clyde Common, Portland

And the legend was born. Except, the Negroni itself can mean all sorts of things besides the classic cocktail that the Count ordered in Florence and was brought to America by Americans who frequented the popular Bar Casoni. (more…)