One of the great things about living in DC is that there is always a good excuse to go out imbibing. One of the perfect ways to do it, is to sign up for seminars with the Museum of the American Cocktail. The museum (MOAC), recently offered a very tantalizing opportunity I could not ignore, an introduction to Italian digestif and aperitif liqueurs/bitters and such and the cocktails you could use with them. Here anyone could come and understand the simple basics of all those odd sounding bottles that you see in the liquor store with weird names you probably have a hard time pronouncing. You could try their contents in the seminar (in a cocktail) without feeling embarrassed to buy a bottle that has the word "Aperol" on it, thinking that you're suppose to scrub your floors with it instead. (disclaimer don't buy it for that, drink it... trust me....)
The reality is these somewhat interesting sounding bottles have really great applications in some real simple drinks that anyone can make, and the seminar with the help of Gina Chersevani from PS7 you got to learn some basics and also how to make limoncello. (did I just quote wikipedia? for shame on me...)
Drinking digestifs, aperitifs and slugging down bottles of Vermouth seems to be a way of life in Italy. Much of that I read from Jason Wilson's book Boozehound as he pounced around the Italian countryside downing digestifs and bemoaning the lack of appreciation for these drinks in America. Cocktails in Italy are really not from the same mindset as they are in America, you just drink bitters and vermouth with a little bit of perhaps soda water and fruit, as common as grabbing a can of cola in the US. However, in America some of these ideas of drinking these spirits have crossed over here and been around for some time. Some things in life always translate well.
The evening first started off with a simple Bellini cocktail, but with a specific white peach puree from the Perfect Puree of Napa valley. Served in a champagne flute, it really did give a refreshing peach rind scent, and a feel of actually tasting peach fuzz. A Bellini is of course made with Prosecco, a type of Italian sparkling white wine. Next we moved to a very familiar cocktail which contains probably one of the easiest types of ingredients you could find and that is Campari, a glowing red/orange colored aperitivo.
Pictured on the left is a cocktail called the Americano (Campari, Vermouth, Soda water, lemon twist or orange wedge garnish). So far everything was familiar, and I was glancing around the room to see if anyone was going to notice the bitterness and perhaps wince a bit if they were not familiar with this drink. Campari is not really a strong alcohol drink it's ABV is only 25% (50 Proof), but just by itself it is quite bittersweet. In fact that was a familiar refrain from our host who was remarking that for some people (not all) that some of the things we would be tasting tonight you may not care for.
I'm actually a fan of these drinks but mostly in certain circumstances. I do associate them mostly with summer, and they are kind of lighter, but they are also really what their name sake implies.. they are drinks you have BEFORE or with a meal. A real great simple example is the grown up bolder brother of the Americano, a drink that has many variations called the Negroni. Equal parts gin, sweet red Italian vermouth, and Campari, it's a great palate cleanser and provides a good kick. Throw in some lemon peel/twist and you are good to go!
The Negroni is also a foundation for other cocktails mostly through the substitution of Campari. Take out the Campari... use green Chartreuse... and you have a Bijou a personal favorite of mine. Take out the Gin...keep the Campari... use a bourbon, and you have a drink I've never heard of called a Boulevardier. Bourbon? Did someone say bourbon! I have never actually heard of this drink and I currently have enough bourbon at home to make Kentucky embarrassed (or extremely proud). I think I am going to be making many Boulevardiers in the coming weeks... heck I am making one right now...
As my mind raced about which bourbon I should use first to go with this cocktail my concentration was broken as we were introduced to a guest bartender, Gina Chersevani. Dang it I am trying to think if Old Weller Antique or a more rye dominated bourbon would go with Campari! THIS IS IMPORTANT!! when suddenly a drink in a small plastic cup was placed in front of me which when that always happens, my mind suddenly calms down ... shuts up... and I say... oh hello lovely what do we have here?
It was quite obvious from it's large yellow color that this was none other than Limoncello a lemon style easy drinking liqueur. Limoncello is a real simple drink that is light, aromatic, and when made correctly, what I describe as lemon sunshine. This one was great. Upon tasting this I was asking myself how long has my bottle of Pallini in my freezer been sitting neglected and surrounded by frozen vegetables?
This however was not store purchased limoncello, this I soon discovered was homemade, and before I could think any faster a big giant tub was placed on our table which looked like a yellow aquarium, filled with yellow liquid and what appeared to be many dead Swedish yellow fish.
What it of course really was, as Gina explained, was the contents of how the limoncello was created. We were presented a recipe on how to make this ourselves, which in this form was lemon peel, steeped in vodka, and sometimes sweetened later with honey. It's a little more involved and not as simple as just that, but Gina with Italian flair and giant bravado took us through the steps of how to create this enjoyable drink. I was jealous of her lemon peeling skills, and I realized she was using more of a potato/vegetable type peeler and then telling us how to pull the fruit and not the peeler so you wouldn't get any pith. Pith... I hate that stuff and it is my cocktail nemesis. I always seem to get it and I realized that even just going to these seminars I always get some little 30 second tip from a presentation that makes my imbibing skills better. I was ready to pull out my potato peeler as soon as I got home and chuck my crappy channel knife into the garbage.
Gina is a blast to watch and listen to. She has that incredible Italian housewarming inviting charm, and gets excited about talking about cocktails. It's a romantic combination when you meet someone who is enthusiastic about creating drinks. Gina really does feel like the old high school classmate from way back that everybody knows and is friends with. She returns the favor without a big ego and with much affection.
Still Gina wasn't done. Our next cocktail was an Aperol Spritz or as Gina embellished vocally saying with perfect accent "Spu-ri-tza!" Suddenly I wasn't in DC anymore I felt like I was being transported to an Italian cafe somewhere. This was presented with a fresh bay leaf and rosemary (I still have lots of this around), and one of my all time favorite things in life..kumquats. Kumquats are a fruit that you eat WHOLE. A bowl of these was passed around which many curious on lookers didn't seem to know what to do with. You have to bravely just eat the thing SKIN and all because the skin is sweet, the fruit is really BITTER. It makes perfect sense to have these in a cocktail like this. I will admit though I could not get a taste for the Aperol in this drink but it's a great refresher! Aperol is as its makers claim, the #1 selling spirit in the country.
Gina still wasn't done. She came up with one of her own crafted drinks and we of course, were tortured drinking all this wonderful goodness. It was to showcase another spirit called Averna Amaro in a cocktail she called Latte di Cioccola ta di Basil. Upon pour my first reaction was it's almost like an Imperial Stout! Hooray Beer! Ok no not really, lets say milkshake for adults.
Composed of Averna, chocolate ice cream, whole milk, and basil ground up in a blender, its nose was strangely of malted ovaltine, subtle chocolate, and nice whiffs of fresh basil. This was a nice way to end the evening and probably the biggest hit of the night. I will admit though like the spritz, I couldn't get a sense of the base liqueur. However, luckily a bottle Averna was being passed around and Gina suggested for people to take a whiff (not a drink) of it.
Upon receiving the bottle and just glancing a nose off the cap which is usually not enough to really get a feel for it, it seemed like a mixture of molasses and chocolate. Very odd. However it was very tempting not to just grab the bottle and chug before passing it on to the next person which I am sure people would flip out if they saw me do it.
So once again, drinks in hand it was another evening of imbibing success. Heading out afterwords for dinner and drinks, I could only think of one thing after leaving the event unable to take the drink on my table home. Sometimes life is just bittersweet.