My father tried to get me something I really like for Christmas this year. He went out and bought me a big bottle of his favorite brandy. He was off a bit, but as we are both from Wisconsin, a bottle of Korbel brandy is not a bad guess if you can’t remember exactly which brown spirit is in someone’s glass and I appreciated the gesture. But no matter how much I appreciated the gesture, the sad fact of the matter was that I had 1.75 liters of a spirit that I didn’t really care for on hand and no idea what to do with it.
Fast forward to about a month or so ago. I had an idea: I wanted a Manhattan. This is not an unusual idea for me. If I’m not drinking my whiskey neat, this is the other way I drink it most often. The unusual part was that I wanted to try it with home made ingredients. I wanted to try making my own vermouth and my own bitters to see if it was worth the effort. I’ve been itching to try making my own bitters for a few years now and the vermouth? Well, the recipes I saw online called for brandy. So if this worked out, I’d have a use for that big bottle as well.
I found a recipe for a DIY vermouth on Serious Eats. It sounded easy enough to do, and it was. The only change I made was to add a bit of lemon zest to the mix because I thought it would pair nicely with the wine I was using and it did. The one thing that wine didn’t do though? Pair nicely with bourbon. Even with a high heat, low sweet bourbon, it made a Manhattan that was flabby and not tasty enough to be worth the effort. Unlike almost every other fortified wine I’ve tried though, I’d drink this one on it’s own. So there’s that. But as a use to get rid of that giant bottle? I’d be better off waiting for dad to visit.
I had a thought as I was making the vermouth. Sherry (one of the ingredients of the vermouth recipe I tried) is also a fortified wine. What if I put all the herbs, fruit peels and bittering agents into some sherry and let it sit in the fridge for a month or so? The answer, you get a very bitter, spicy sherry with hints of orange. But what if you then used a warm infusing technique to infuse more orange peel into more sherry and add that to the mix along with a little brandy? Well you get something very close to store bought. If you have a bunch of sherry on hand and don’t know what else to do with it, try this. The issue: it is so much like the store bought, that it seems a waste of sherry. You could make some fantastic sherry potatoes or even a sherry cake with that stuff. I mean Noilly Prat vermouth is only like six bucks here in Minnesota.
A little over a year ago, I bought a book on bitters by Brad Thomas Parsons, titled appropriately enough: Bitters. It’s a fantastic book, but I held off on making any of them because I wasn’t sure what I’d use them for. I have a bunch of bitters in my cabinet and I basically use the Angostura and the Angostura Orange. But this was a great excuse...err…opportunity to finally try one. Because I enjoy my manhattans with orange bitters, I chose to make the orange. The only change I made was in my choice of base spirit. The recipe called for high proof vodka. I knew this was going in manhattans, so I went with Old Granddad 114. Good call, it makes a fantastic bitters. The manhattan made with the Brad Thomas Parsons recipe was consistently chosen over the manhattan made using the Angostura Orange in a head to head match-up we had here at the house. And it didn’t matter what vermouth we used. It’s a little spicier and added a bit more definition to the drink. This recipe is a win.
So two of these worked out, one didn’t. One was worth the time and effort, two were not. What’s the take away? Have fun trying things. If I’d have tweaked an ingredient here or there in the vermouths, they may have been fantastic. If I’d have used a different sherry or a wine that paired with bourbon better, it could have made all the difference. We don’t experiment because what’s out there is bad, we experiment because it is fun and the fun is it’s own reward. And heck, sometimes, like in the case of the orange bitters, you get the fun of making and something that is better than what you already had. There’s the dream.
It may have taken almost a month to make these manhattans, but I now have a pint of orange bitters to use in manhattans for the next year, a spiced and fortified wine to drink over the next month or so and a way to use up excess sherry. That’s not so bad.