"A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…"
It turns out that Mary Poppins wasn't full of s%$@ when she chirped those immortal words. And while she probably wasn't trying to get the Banks' kids to drink quinine either, that spoonful of sugar concept gave birth to a whole category of elixirs, starting in the mid-1800s, designed to mask that malaria-fighting substance's bitterness with sugar, herbs and fruits. Quinquinas or chinati, as they're called in Italian, are aperitifs made with the bark of the Amazonian cinchona tree, and they're steadily re-gaining a foothold here in the States with the introduction of a number of products, including Bonal Gentiane-Quina, Cocchi Americano and Vergano's "Luli" and "Americano" chinati.
No, there isn't a malaria epidemic in Poughkeepsie that you haven't heard about. The growing interest in quiquinas has nothing to do with their medicinal qualities; it's just another chapter in the cocktail renaissance that made the aughts bearable. What the geekiest of barkeeps discovered as they were reviving classic cocktail recipes was that to mix a proper Corpse Reviver #2 or Vesper without Kina Lillet, the biting, quinine-laced version of the famed aperitif, was like pedaling a bike with flat tires. You could do it, but something definitely wasn't right.
The incredible Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz, who is responsible for returning other rare spirits to market such as Crème de Violette and Batavia Arrack, recognized the deficit and began importing Bonal Gentiane-Quina ($18.99), which has been made in France since 1865. A Mistelle-based infusion of bitter gentian and cinchona combined with a secret blend of herbs from the Grand Chartreuse Mountains, Bonal's tamarind, Tootsie Roll and espresso-like character makes it a delicious substitution for red vermouth in the Negroni and a more-than-adequate substitute for Kina Lillet in the Corpse Reviver #2. At L'Ermitage Restaurant in Beverly Hills, bar manager Alex mixes a stir spoon of it into a "Whisketo" with two ounces of Bourbon and a stir spoon of Luxardo Maraschino, all prepared like a Sazerac and finished neat with a lemon or orange twist. And when you're not looking for a drink to bring you back from the dead (or the zombie-like depths of a hangover), the Bonal can be enjoyed neat or with a twist as a party-starting aperitif.
Cocchi "Americano" Chinato ($18.99), also imported by Seed, is the je ne sais quoi, that can make sense of the Vesper, a martini popularized by James Bond and responsible for all the "shaken not stirred" references in modern cocktail culture. Long a staple in Asti, Italy, Cocchi has been made using the same recipe of fruits, spices, cinchona, gentian and citrus on a Moscato d'Asti base since 1891. It can also be used in the Corpse Reviver #2 (try the recipe on the back of the bottle), but drinks beautifully on the rocks with just a splash of soda to jump start its aromatic fireworks.
In addition to the two offerings from Haus Alpenz, we also recently brought in the two chinati from Italy's Vergano (via Farm Imports) that are delightful aperitivos, though a bit more intense than the Aperol-inspired Spritz I wrote about last week. These are made by Mauro Vergano, a chemist by trade who tinkered around with making chinati in his spare time. After 20 years, his homebrews are like the Porsche Panamera of chinati, refined, elegant and precise. The Vergano "Luli" Moscato ($46.99) starts with Moscato d'Asti from Alessandra and Gianluigi Bera of Bera Vittorio & Figli and suffuses it with quinine, orange rind, wormwood and sugar, along with a mysterious mix of herbs and spices. Sweet orange, ginger and celery notes dominate this chinato, which Jon Bonne of the San Francisco Chronicle describes as bursting "with notes of orange, clove, bitter herbs, Meyer lemons and hay, with more sweetness and bite than vermouth and a subtle lingering bitterness."
The Vergano "Americano" Chinato ($39.99) is a little less bitter than the Luli, and would be a good segue from milder aperitvos like Aperol to more bitter amari. It has a plum color and bouquet of tamarind, strong coffee and sour cherries. Slightly tannic upfront, but peppery and slightly sweet on the mid-palate, the American finishes with homey clove and nutmeg spice. Try it straight, in a Spritz, with just a little bit of orange zest on the rocks, or try Oregon bartender Jeffery Morgenthaler's "The Beauty Beneath," where the Americano plays with a little rum and Cointreau.
If you're still a bit skeptical, or think all these quinquinas and chinati are just a bitter pill, come taste them for yourself at our Hollywood store TOMORROW. Our spirits buyer David Othenin-Girard will be on hand pouring these, as well as the new Dolin and Sutton Vermouths, Lillet Blanc and the Carpano Antica used in Friday's Master Cherry Cocktail. Only $5! From 5:30-7:30pm.