Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Wise Manhattan Cocktail

While this compendium of cocktails is not intended to be a forum for home-invented drinks, there are a few exceptions: the Night Tripper, the Bucking Bronco, the Shangri-La, the Dirty Cur, the Elmwood Sour, and the Whittemore Sipper.

To that short list of bespoke drinks I add one more: The Wise Manhattan. This is a good one, I promise -- if you can find the proper ingredients (which I urge you to do). 

First, lay your hands on some Riga Black Balsam bitters. It comes in a fetching ceramic bottle and has an alcohol content of 45%. To date, I have not really found a good use for these bitters, acquired under duress at one eccentrically curated liquor store. Here is how they are described by the company JSC Latvijas balzamson on their website:
Riga Black Balsam opens a whole world of sensations with its 24 ingredients. Subtle hints of linden blossom, birch bud, valerian root, raspberry, bilberry, and ginger as well as touches of nutmeg and black peppercorn tease the palate and come alive in the glass. 
Now -- with this cocktail -- the fate of my lone bottle of Riga Black Balsam bitters is sealed.

You'll also need to get hold of some walnut liqueur (noix in France, nocino in Italy, nüsse or nüssenschnaps in Austria and Germany). It is made from steeping unripe, green walnuts in a spirit. It is black, sticky, and bitter. The only brand I have used is Nux Alpina Walnut Liqueur, made by Austria's Distillerie Purkhart and described as "unique for its use of alpine botanicals and renowned for its balance and exceptionally smooth finish." While I am not generally the most outspoken fan of walnuts, I admit that this liqueur is quite tasty, and works well with bourbon.

The other necessary ingredient is sherry. Not a dry sherry (though I believe there are angles to be explored there) but Pedro Ximénez, or "PX," which is a rather sweet dessert wine. It has a compelling scent of raisins (or prunes) and molasses, and functions much as a sweet vermouth might in a regular Manhattan, providing the spicy whiskey with an underlying bed of candied dry fruit, burnt sugar, and mocha notes -- complementing the walnut liqueur quite favorably, and benefitting from the balancing herbal notes of the Riga Black Balsam bitters. I found a small bottle of 2013 Pedro Ximénez made by Alvear, about $25, without too much searching. It is beguiling on its own, but its flavors really add layers of nuance to this Manhattan-like cocktail.

Together, these three unusual ingredients -- sweet and bitter -- work marvelously with bourbon, creating a cocktail with a sultry depth. The drink evokes the tobacco and leather of a comfy old manor library with oriental rugs and crystal decanters. Or maybe that is just my fancy. I found burnt sugar, dried fruit (raisins and prunes), spices, and a subtle yet clear and pleasant walnut aftertaste. The sweet is balanced by the walnut and bitters, all of which enhance the bourbon (I used Johnny Drum, 101 proof and deliciously spicy). But in my limited connoisseurship, let it suffice to say it is satisfying, deep, and tasty.

So, why the "Wise" Manhattan?

It is thought that the walnut traces back to Persia. According to the site USA Walnuts, "Walnuts are one of the world’s oldest foods and have been cultivated for at least 2,000 years. These nutritious nuts have been linked to love and fertility throughout history and their reputation as an aphrodisiac dates back to ancient Greece and Rome." Sexy! There are a lot of fascinating details about walnuts and what they symbolize on the USA Walnuts site. You can also find some background on the symbolism of the walnut tree here.

1939, © Fritz Kahn
Quoted from USA Walnuts:
Walnuts were considered beneficial for any disease affecting the head since early on because a whole walnut and the walnut meat within the shell both resemble a wrinkled human brain. According to the Doctrine of Signatures, a 14th century medical theory that theorized that a plant’s shape suggested its curative properties, eating walnuts was believed to stimulate the intellect. Walnut husks were used in folk medicine for the scalp, and walnut shells were recommended for skull ailments. In floriography, the language of flowers, walnuts represent the intellect.
Moreover: "We discovered that students who consumed walnuts experienced improvement in critical thinking, specifically inferential reasoning," says Peter Pribis, Andrews University associate professor of nutrition and wellness, who led a study on the "Effects of Walnut Consumption on Cognitive Performance in Young Adults," published in the British Journal of Nutrition.

So, in other words, walnuts might make you wiser. This is nuts, you must think. Well, let's get to the recipe.

The Wise Manhattan

  • 3 oz bourbon
  • 1/2 oz Pedro Ximénez
  • 1/4 oz Nux Alpina Walnut Liqueur (or other walnut liqueur)
  • 1/2 barspoon Riga Black Balsam bitters (or to taste)
    (substitute Angostura if necessary, or Black Mission Fig bitters by Brooklyn Hemispherical)

Stir with ice in a mixing glass until very cold. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a cocktail cherry. Though they are expensive, I recommend using the Luxardo Maraschino cherries in syrup.

Now, raise the glass to your nose and take a deep whiff. Savor the aroma. Clink your glass, and bottoms up!

"I don't categorically hate nuts. I just don't like them in my mouth."