The Hard Stuff: Cocktail balance

By LUKE O'NEIL  |  February 4, 2013

Manny Gonzales

For bartenders, a cocktail's balance is everything. They want the right ratio, with spirit base, water, sugar, and secondary ingredients all working in harmony. But sometimes you want to get your dome twisted sideways by a cocktail that's hard to approach; you're not even sure whether you like it, but you keep coming back for another sip to find out.

Everyone's threshold is different, of course, so I asked a few bartenders what they'd offer if I asked for such a cocktail. Unsurprisingly, a few of the suggestions were influenced by the boundary-pushing Beta Cocktails, a 2011 book by two New Orleans bartenders. Ran Duan of Woburn's Sichuan Garden — a suburban spot with a surprisingly forward-thinking cocktail program — riffed off their bitters-as-base concept for his Anton's Demise, made with two ounces of Peychaud's bitters, one ounce of passion-fruit syrup, one-half ounce of lime juice, and one-half ounce of Campari, with an allspice rim. (Want a real hair-raiser? He's also in the midst of barrel-aging Wuliangye, the popular Chinese grain spirit, which is extremely abrasive on its own, with a "gasoline-pineapple" profile, he says. The barrel-aging takes it down a notch.)

But back to that idea of non-potable bitters as a base. At Backbar, Alex Homans has been playing with another Beta recipe called the Fatigue, which takes equal parts Jack Daniel's, Maraschino, and Angostura bitters. He's using mezcal, St. Germain, and Angostura instead. "It's really weird," he says. "The Angostura doesn't overly bitter the drink so much, but you get a lot of flavors from it that you might not get using it drop by drop — a lot of cinnamon, a lot of wood. It's pretty cool, if you've never really tasted Angostura like that, to get a new perspective."

For further dalliances on the edge, Homans suggests a cocktail I wrote about here recently, the Diamondback, made with equal parts bonded Rittenhouse, bonded applejack, and green Chartreuse. Try it unwaterized if you're looking for a "pretty serious kick in the pants," he says. "It tastes really good, but it's going to ruin your night."

Speaking of ruining your night, he also mentioned a cocktail that Tyler Wang served me at No. 9 Park, the Sin Agua, a riff on the Jerry Thomas classic the Brandy Scaffa that's made with one and a half ounces of Milagro tequila, one ounce of Manzanilla sherry, and one-half ounce of Velvet Falernum with a caramelized Angostura spray; it's served at room temperature without any water or ice, as the name implies. The potent blend of spiced heat put me on my ass. Wang also recommends An Epic and a Limerick, a house cocktail made with one and a half ounces each of Cynar and Bonal Gentiane, one-half ounce of Wray & Nephew overproof rum, and a Thai chili tincture, stirred over a chocolate ice cube and a pinch of salt. "As it melts it gets a funky chocolate confectionary note," Wang says. "It's a really fun drink; you don't know if you like it."

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