I’m sentimental in my head. I say head because I’m less emotionally sentimental and more intellectually sentimental, meaning that I hold on to things because I feel like I’m supposed to. This often means I find myself with collections of stuff that sometimes seem to stick around simply because it’s already stuck around.
Enter The West of Brooklyn, a drink that is now pushing its 6th consecutive year on my cocktail menus.
It certainly wasn’t planned that way and if you had asked me five years ago what drink of mine I’d still be making half a decade later it wouldn’t have been this one. I was young(er) and getting super into bespoke cocktails and was currently working my way through the Neighborhood Series and thought, “I want in on that.”
The Neighborhood Series was lineup of drinks from the Milk & Honey family and friends in New York that gave us some modern classics like the Cobble Hill, The Green Point, and the Red Hook. All of these drinks grew out of one simple fact: The Brooklyn Cocktail is terrible.
The classic Brooklyn Cocktail was first printed in 1910 in Jack’s Manual and is often modernly interpreted as:
2 oz Rye Whiskey (Preferably a Bottled-In-Bond)
.5 oz Dry Vermouth
.25 oz Maraschino
.25 oz Amer Picon
Looking at this you can see that it’s not the Brooklyn’s Fault that it’s terrible. Today we’re missing a vital ingredient: old school Amer Picon.
Amer Picon is a classic bitter orange French liqueur that also has notes of gentian, cinchona, and quinine that is no longer available in the States. But even if you were to get your hands on a bottle of it from France the recipe was changed in the 1970’s reducing the proof and making it sweeter. This means it doesn’t make the same drink. I’ve been fortunate to have classic Amer Picon and a classic Brooklyn thank to Andrew Willet over at Elemental Mixology and it’s a damn tasty drink. And for what it’s worth Andrew believes that CioCiaro makes a Brooklyn that more closely matches the classic.
Looking at this family of drinks and personally loving stirred drinks that add a subtle element of citrus or fruit I set about to add my own Neighborhood Cocktail.
At the time I was just getting started at Areal a mere block from the Pacific Ocean and was living in Venice Beach. I had moved West instead of to NYC where I would have more than likely settled in Brooklyn so before I started I already had a name: The West of Brooklyn. It was only later that I realized that Manhattan is also ‘West of Brooklyn’ but I will retroactively take credit for being that clever.
My base was clearly going to be Rittenhouse BIB Rye but knowing I was never going to get my hands on pre-70s Picon I looked for a more readily available substitute. Bigalett’s China-China had just hit the market so I pulled out a bottle of that and started mixing. I was enamored of Blanc Vermouth at the time so that joined the Bigalett and being in California and also being rather disparaging of maraschino, I looked around for a orange liqueur and ended up with a bottle of Solerno Blood Orange and thought, “That’ll do.”
That pretty much sums up my mentality about this whole drink with this first pass. I didn’t put enough thought into it. It looked like this:
2 oz Rittenhouse BIB Rye
.5 oz Bigalett China-China
.25 oz Blanc Vermouth
.25 oz Solerno Blood Orange
Stir. Served up with a Lemon Zest.
It ended up being a bit of an aggressively blunt instrument but it went on the menu and people seemed to enjoy it. It fit the bitter and stirred category and I let it be. I replaced it on the next printed menu but we had a cocktail board in the bar at Areal with drawings for every drink and our artist had been so pleased with her artwork that she wanted to leave it on the wall. I shrugged and gave it no thought.
People would continue to order the drink but it wasn’t until I had a customer come in and tell me that he had been in several times over the past months just for the drink because he liked it so much that I realized I had been making the drink for two years. I felt like I should revisit it.
I found the Bigallet was completely taking over the drink, but any attempt to dial it down just caused it to be lost. So I went back to the drawing board looking for a Grand Bitters to take its place and I started playing with the Clementi China Antica. The Clemanti focuses more on the bitter quinine notes without the orange which turned out to be perfect for the drink since I was adding the orange notes with the Solerno. But again any attempt to use less than a half ounce caused it to be lost when butting heads with the power of Rittenhouse so the drink remained a blunt instrument, albeit a drier more whiskey-focused one.
I left it at that an ended up leaving that bar. I honestly thought that would be the end of the drink. But as we were doing R&D for my first menu at Faith and Flower my friend Ryan Wainwright and I were doing an event at Seven Grand LA celebrating the Manhattan and lo and behold the drink came up. The night was being sponsored by Buffalo Trace and Sazerac Rye and suddenly the drink clicked.
In the years since I first got into the LA bar scene Sazerac Rye was highly allocated so trying to use it in a featured menu drink was a touchy proposition and that mentality stuck with me even as the rye became more available. Sazerac is a lighter, less aggressive rye than Rittenhouse with more of a green apple spice, and edges that bleed into ripe fruit. Switching out Sazerac allowed me to dial down the Clemanti Antica and bring up the blanc vermouth making it more true to its family of drinks while leaving it elegant, with a white pepper spice tied with a subtle fruit that has a perceived sweetness before drying on the palette. It now looked like:
2 oz Sazerac Rye Whiskey
.5 oz Dolin Blanc Vermouth
.25 oz Clemanti China Antica
.25 oz Solerno Blood Orange
Stir with ice. Strain into a Nic and Nora glass with a lemon zest.
The drink perfectly fit the summer time Manhattan vibe we were looking for the menu and it was resurrected. And as I sit here doing R&D for the Fall/Winter menu it finally looks like the drink will truly come off the menu for the first time in five years. Until I change it again…