Behind every good cocktail is at least one good story. These stories can be used by loquacious bartenders to entertain and hold the attention of thirsty bar guests awaiting their first sip. The stories can be historical, fictional or technical. The purpose of this column is to provide a genealogy of, and relate the stories behind some of my favorite local cocktails. The first case study is one near and dear to me: “Did you just call me Coltrane?” from Sister Bar. Near, in that it’s stirred, poured and drunk two doors down from Alibi HQ. Dear, in that it’s the first cocktail I created for Sister’s bar program.
This one is basically a jasmine tea infused riff on the classic cocktail, the Boulevardier. The Boulevardier is widely credited to Harry McElhone, the proprietor of the eponymously named Harry’s New York Bar, Paris 1927. It’s namesake was a popular Parisian literary magazine famous for publishing American expatriates. Originally comprised of equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth and Bourbon, the Boulevardier is stirred with ice, and either strained up or on the rocks, and garnished with a lemon twist. Astute (and gin-soaked) readers will notice that the recipe is basically a Negroni, substituting whiskey for gin. This story now hops down the Negroni rabbit hole.
The Negroni’s history is quite contentious and convoluted. Some claim it came from Senegal, but most agree it originated in Florence, Italy at the Caffè Casoni in 1919. Legend has it that one Count Camillo Negroni (again, his nobility is contested by others in the Famiglia Negroni) ordered a custom Americano cocktail. The Americano is a Campari, sweet vermouth cocktail, lightened up with a large splash of soda water (itself a sodafied version of its predecessor cocktail, the Milano-Torino). “Count” Negroni, fresh from a trip to the Wild West of America as a rodeo clown(!), wanted a more spirited cocktail, and asked for the taming soda water to be replaced by a more feral gin. A star was born.
Negronis are currently living in the cocktail limelight, the brightest point of which is next month’s bacchanal celebration that is Negroni Week (June 6-12), a seven-day long toast to all cocktails containing the boozy, bittersweet triumvirate. Given its current celebrity status, any self-respecting cocktail list has at least one iteration of this spirit-forward classic, which brings us back to Sister Bar’s “Did you just call me Coltrane.”
The name is an allusion to a line in Wes Anderson’s, “The Royal Tenenbaums,” but basically a cinematic pretense to have a cocktail whose nickname is “The Coltrane.” This version sees two parts jasmine tea-infused Old Overholt Rye, one part Campari and one part Spanish sweet vermouth, stirred with ice to dilute, strained over a big rock, and garnished with a nice, round orange twist. It’s equally balanced between the spicy punch of American rye whiskey, the stark bitterness of Campari, and the round, herbal sweetness of the vermouth. The jasmine provides a fourth, floral aspect that accompanies all components seamlessly from initial sip to long, dry finish. For a cocktail with such a complex history and profile, it’s surprisingly easy going.
This is just one of countless riffs on the classic trinity that Count Negroni “discovered” almost a century ago, some of the best of which one can find in Albuquerque. Try Julian Martinez’ Churchill, the Artichoke Cafe’s decidedly drier, British take that features Earl Grey-infused gin and dry white port. Trey Cole and company at Scalo center theirs on Carpano Antica, one of the more brooding and powerful sweet vermouths. Feel free to substitute good dark rum, smoky mezcal or scotch to make your own contribution to classic cocktailia. Remember to garnish with a twist, and entertain your guests with a story or two while stirring away.