After a first round of drinks inspired by destinations in North and Central America, I moved across the Atlantic to Europe. It wasn’t so long ago that I avoided Continental cocktails. I’ll never forget how a friend once ordered a dry gin martini at a famous café in Paris. I winced, knowing that nothing good could come of such a request. She received a glass of Martini & Rossi white vermouth, on ice. Back then, I kept to wine.
In recent years, wonderful cocktail scenes have blossomed everywhere from Madrid to Warsaw. On my recent trip to the Czech Republic, for example, I discovered several world-class bars helmed by mixologists who would be a credit to any establishment in London or New York. In Italy, too, it wasn’t difficult to find bars with exciting cocktail menus. And France, not one to let other countries get ahead when it comes to anything food- or drink-related, has developed into a first-rate cocktail country.
Like wines, cocktails can give us a taste of a country, bringing us back to a memorable moment or whetting our appetite for a future visit. It was a great pleasure to mix up these drinks and test the recipes, while reminiscing about some of my favorite European destinations.
If you, like me, could use a little escape right now, turn off the news and pick up your cocktail shaker.
France produces numerous beautiful spirits and liqueurs, and one of my favorites is Calvados, the marvelous apple brandy made in Normandy. Good Calvados can be expensive, however, so I purchased a “fine Calvados,” the youngest and least expensive style. But if your budget allows, by all means, go for an older one, which will make an obvious difference in a cocktail that includes so few ingredients.
You could make this drink with sweet vermouth (ideally a French brand, of course). But for a more unique cocktail, consider buying a bottle of Byrrh instead. This delightful aperitif tastes like port at the start, but the inclusion of quinine gives it a surprising freshness. Used instead of sweet vermouth, it adds a charming and unexpected layer of brightness to Manhattans, as well as to this cocktail, which I’ll name after the town of Caen, the Manhattan of the Calvados region.
2 parts Calvados
1 part Byrrh
3 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes orange bitters
Orange twist (optional)
Luxardo Maraschino cherry (optional)
Add all ingredients to a shaker or cocktail pitcher with ice. Stir for at least one minute, and strain into a coupe or lowball glass. Garnish with a fragrant orange twist, a sweet Luxardo Maraschino cherry, or not at all. The cocktail has a ciderlike tartness along with red berry notes and a lift of eucalyptus on the finish.
Florence, Italy, is considered the birthplace of the Negroni, one of my all-time favorite cocktails. It is as simple to make as it is delicious, although some misconceptions about its composition seem to be proliferating. A classic Negroni combines gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, in equal parts. You can also swap out the Campari for an alternative bitter liqueur. Amari are very fashionable nowadays; indeed, Rome’s Hotel de la Ville has a bar dedicated to them. I asked the bartender there to recommend an amaro as a digestif one evening, and he poured me a warming glass of Amaro CioCiaro. Used in a Negroni, it adds a comforting note of orange peel, in addition to the necessary bitter herbaceousness.
Pricey Carpano Antica Formula vermouth is a darling of mixologists at the moment. I quite like its rich depth, but I prefer the bouncier and less expensive Cocchi Americano vermouth, both in Negronis and Manhattans. Whatever brand you choose, it’s vital to use fresh vermouth, because it’s mostly wine. At the very least, store vermouth in the refrigerator after using a vacuum pump to remove the air from the bottle. Vermouth that has been opened and left on the shelf for weeks (or heaven forbid, years) will taste flat and add little to your cocktail.
1 part gin
1 part Campari
1 part Cocchi Americano
Orange twist (optional)
Combine the ingredients in a shaker or cocktail pitcher with ice and stir for a minute — shaking it gives the cocktail the wrong texture. I like to pour my Negronis atop large spheres of ice in lowball glasses, but you can use smaller ice cubes, or if you plan on drinking quickly, no ice at all. Garnish with an aromatic orange twist (or not).
For something a little more unique, consider aging a batch of Negronis. Mix together the ingredients and store in the fridge in a glass container for at least a couple of weeks. The resulting beverage will taste especially smooth and well integrated. (I got the idea from the bar at the Hotel Vilòn in Rome, which offers aged Negronis in a crystal decanter.)
Even though this list already includes an Italian drink, I wanted to make a toast to Venice. We recently lost one of the world’s great hoteliers, Natale Rusconi, who presided over the incomparable Belmond Hotel Cipriani. The gracious atmosphere he fostered at that iconic resort on the tip of Giudecca was nothing less than remarkable, and the world will be dimmer without his hospitality.
The cocktail most associated with Venice is the Bellini, but I can’t be bothered to make one. The drink sounds simple — white peach purée and Prosecco — but it requires a ridiculous amount of effort to make properly. The peaches must be peeled and then grated by hand. If you try to use a food processer to make the purée, you’ll aerate the peach pulp too much, and your Prosecco will froth all over the place when you combine it with the peach.
I developed a much easier version using white nectarines; their smooth skin requires no peeling as opposed to peaches. And in order to avoid hand-grating the fruit, I substitute vodka for froth-prone Prosecco. Nectarines will soon be in season, and when they are, this will be the first cocktail I make.
2 white nectarines, pitted and sliced
1½ ounces vodka
½ ounce orange liqueur (Grand Marnier, Cointreau or Triple Sec)
Cut the nectarines into slices and drop them in a blender (no grating required). Add in approximately the same volume of ice cubes as fruit to the blender. Assuming you have average-sized nectarines, measure out a total of one ounce of alcohol per fruit. For two people, use two white nectarines, 1½ ounces of vodka and ½ ounce of orange liqueur. Do not substitute yellow nectarines for white. The latter are more aromatic, and they turn this cocktail a very pretty pink color.
Blend the ingredients until smooth and serve in Champagne flutes.
Earlier this year, I had the fortune to visit Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, the hometown of Becherovka. This bittersweet herbal spirit has enticing notes of cinnamon, clove and orange peel, giving a classic Beton cocktail (Becherovka and tonic) a Christmasy appeal.
But Becherovka, which is exported to the United States, works in a range of cocktails. Right now, I enjoy using it in a modified Bijou instead of (more expensive) green Chartreuse. The latter has a more subtle flavor profile, however, so it’s necessary to adjust the proportions accordingly. I like the following, which brings me right back to my relaxing stay in Becherovka’s birthplace.
3 parts gin
2 parts blanc or bianco vermouth
1 part Becherovka Original
2 or 3 dashes orange bitters
Orange twist (optional)
Combine the above ingredients in a large shaker or cocktail pitcher with plenty of ice. (Note that the blanc or bianco vermouth is white but it is sweeter than dry vermouth.) Stir for at least a minute, which ensures that the cocktail will be well integrated and smooth. Garnish with a fragrant orange twist, or simply serve unadorned. The result has the flavor notes of Becherovka enlivened by the gin’s bright juniper. The vermouth comes to the fore during the round, dry finish. This complex cocktail is surprisingly easy to drink considering its strength — exercise caution.