Literary Libations

It’s a good time of year for two of my favorite things: having a high-quality cocktail and taking the time to relax and read a good book. So this year I’d thought I’d explore the area where literature and libations connect, and share a few distilled spirits named in honor of some of my favorite authors.

Robert Burns Single Malt Scotch Whisky: Named for Scotland’s most famous poet, the Robert Burns Single Malt Scotch Whisky is produced by the Isle of Arran Distillery.  The distillery’s website describes the whisky’s appearance as resembling “Ayrshire sunshine,” a reference to Ayrshire, the poet’s place of birth, which is just across the Firth of Clyde (a 14–mile wide inlet of the Atlantic Ocean) from the island of Arran.

This delightful whisky—redolent of apples, vanilla, apricot, honeysuckle, and smoke—is good just about any time you might fancy a dram; however, there is no excuse not to have a glass or two on Burns Night. Burns Night (also known as Robbie Burns Day) is an annual celebration of the poet’s January 25th birthday. The holiday is often marked with a Burns dinner featuring Scotch whisky, poetry recitations, bagpipers, and a main dish of haggis (as noted in Burns’ famous poem, “Address to a Haggis”).

Here is a quote on the joys of whisky from Robert Burns (“John Barkeycorn” is a term for whisky):

  • “Inspiring bold John Barleycorn! What dangers thou canst make us scorn! Wi’ tippeny [tuppenny ale], we fear nae evil; Wi’ usquabae [whisky], we’ll face the devil!”—Robert Burns (1759–1796), Tam o’ Shanter

Dorothy Parker Gin: Dorothy Parker gin is produced by Brooklyn’s New York Distilling Company. Dorothy Parker Gin is named for New York City’s witty, wise-cracking poet, critic, and short-story author, best-known as a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table. Dorothy reveled in her martinis and as such, she seems to be the perfect character to be honored on the label of a bottle of gin.

According to their website, Dorothy Parker American Gin is flavored with “a blend of traditional and contemporary botanicals including juniper and elderberries, citrus, cinnamon, and hibiscus.” They’ve even created a cocktail known as “The Acerbic Mrs. Parker” that combines the gin with fresh lemon juice, hibiscus syrup, and orange liqueur.

Here is the quote that makes Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) the ideal candidate for having a gin named after her:

  • “I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three I’m under the table, after four I’m under my host.” ―Dorothy Parker, The Collected Dorothy Parker

Photo of James Joyce (Public Domain)

 James Joyce No. 15 Single Malt Irish Whiskey: James Joyce No. 15 Single Malt Irish Whiskey, named after Ireland’s famed novelist, short story write, and poet—best known for Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the short story collection Dubliners—is a bit of a unicorn bottle. It’s a private label, limited edition (only 15 barrels) Irish whiskey produced by Bushmills Distillery and bottled in 2016 for the James Joyce House in Dublin. (It was also priced at 250 Euros, at least on the internet). The name of the whiskey honors the address—No. 15 Usher’s Island—of the famous “House of the Dead,” featured in Dubliners.

I haven’t had the opportunity to taste this rare spirit, however, according to the website of the L. Mulligan Whisky Shop, it has flavors of fruit (citrus, grapefruit, green apple), spice (cinnamon), and chocolate, with a bit of tannin and wood on the finish.

Here’s a quote from James Joyce that will have any whiskey aficionado reaching for a glass:

  • “The light music of whisky falling into glasses made an agreeable interlude.” ― James Joyce (1882–1941), Dubliners

Do you have any favorite spirits named after an author?

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

Crafty Cocktails: The Staycation/Aviation

Classic Aviation Cocktail

It’s no secret that folks in the wine and spirits industry tend to travel a bit, and the anh (adorable new husband) and I are no exception. Having just returned from a trip to the Pacific Northwest followed by a 3-week drive halfway across the United States (via weirdly silent-driving-freakish-hybrid rental car) and with the memory of a disastrous trip to Asia (Beijing hospital, Hong Kong emergency room) fresh in our minds, when we recently found ourselves with a long weekend free of work obligations, we decided to stay the h*** home.

As we live in Austin, Texas, there’s no shortage of cool and fascinating things to do around town. We started off with Friday night dinner at Fonda San Miguel, complete with authentic Paloma cocktails, and planned a trip to Genius Liquids distillery on Saturday afternoon. Before I go into details about Genius Liquids, let me just say: if you live in Texas, go visit them. If you like gin, be on the lookout for Genius Gin. This stuff lives up to its name.

To start off our tour, we were met at the door of the tiny distillery by Mike Groener, our brilliant host and one of the owners. He showed us around their facility, complete with a Kentucky-made pot still and shiny copper column still. We were invited to stick our noses in the maceration tanks where neutral spirits take their first step to becoming Genius Gin by soaking with giant “tea bags” of botanicals, and played a sniff-and-guess game with orange peel, cardamom, juniper, and cubeb berries.

All throughout our stay, we tasted through a range of gins, including “regular strength” Genius Gin (47% abv), Navy Strength Genius Gin (57% abv), an absolutely delightful Oaked Genius Gin (50% abv), and the amazingly richly-flavored-yet-somehow-light Old Highborn Texas Dry Gin (50% abv). My favorite was the “regular” version, while Shields preferred the Old Highborn, so we bought one of each.

At the beginning of our tasting, Mike asked us about our preferences in gins and cocktails, and I had mentioned Hendrick’s Gin and the Aviation Cocktail as favorites. Based on my answers Mike predicted that that the “regular” Genius Gin was the best choice for me and as it turns out, he was correct. He also mentioned that it would be an excellent choice for use in an Aviation Cocktail and that got me to thinking…

The Aviation Cocktail is a pre-prohibition cocktail, first mentioned in print by New York bartender Hugo Ensslin in his 1916 book, “Recipes for Mixed Drinks.” The basic recipe is 2 parts gin, 1 part lemon juice, a few dashes of maraschino cherry liqueur, and a few dashes of crème de violette. I assume the name “Aviation” refers to the light blue(ish), purple(ish), clear-sunset-sky(ish) color of the drink.

I feel that the standard recipe needs a bit of sweetness, and I also have my ingrained preferences for liqueurs, so I have always used this formula for the Aviation Cocktail: 2 parts gin, 1 part Luxardo Marsachino, 1 part Creme d’Yvette, 1 part lemon juice, and ½ part simple syrup. My mixing instructions read, “Place in a shaker with crushed ice and toss about like a jet plane in a thunder storm. Strain and enjoy the calming effects.” Imho, it’s delicious.

For the Genius Gin, I wanted to come up with something unique—and I had the perfect ingredient: a brand new bottle of Sacred Rosehip Cup. This is a modern, bittersweet liqueur produced by Ian Hart at his microdistillery—located in his family home in Highgate, North London. Sacred Rosehip Cup is flavored with rosehips, rhubarb, and ginger (among other things). Hart bills it as a “less bitter alternative to Campari” so (shades of Negronis danced in my head) and I thought it would make a great mixer with gin.

Here’s what I came up with: I call it the Staycation/Aviation Cocktail (with a tip of the hat to Hugo Ensslin):

Staycation/Aviation Cocktail (Austin Style)

  • 2 parts Genius Gin
  • 1 part Sacred Rosehip Cup Liqueur
  • 1 part Lemon Juice
  • 1 Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
  • ½ part Simple Syrup
  • Place in a shaker with crushed ice and shake. Strain into a fancy glass, garnish with a (real) Maraschino cherry, and stay the hell home.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

The Long Pour: Sidra de Asturias

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Apple cider and Perry (pear ciders) hold a dear spot in many European cultures: Normandy and Brittany are known for cider as well as apple brandy, the West Country of England prides itself on their unfiltered “scrumpy” cider, and a trip to Ireland is incomplete without a taste of Magners.

Spain is considered to have the longest continuous cider culture in Europe. Spain’s cider (sidra) production is centered in the regions of Asturias and Basque Country, located in the northern part of the country. The climate, cooled by ocean breezes and with decidedly more rainfall than much of the rest of Spain, makes for the ideal growing conditions for apples.

Asturias makes 80% of Spanish cider, produced by more than a hundred small producers with the help of over 250 growers. Sidra de Asturias was awarded denominación de origen (DO) status in 2003. According to the DO guidelines, the cider must be made exclusively with cider apples of specified varieties grown within the Principality of Asturias, and produced under strict quality controls.

There are currently three styles of sidra allowed to be produced under the Sidra de Asturias DO. They are:

  • Sidra Natural (Natural Cider): Natural cider is produced from any of the 22 approved cider apple varieties. The process begins with the harvest, grinding, and pressing of the apples to create juice. Next, the juice is allowed to ferment—typically in stainless steel, or perhaps in large chestnut barrels. The newly-fermented cider is then allowed to rest for a few months, after which it is typically decanted to remove some sediment. Sidra natural is fermented to near dryness and is unfiltered. Sidra natural benefits from a “long pour.”
  • Nueva Expresión (New Expression Cider): New expression cider is produced in a manner similar to natural cider; the difference being that new expression cider is filtered and stabilized before being bottled.
  • Sidra Natural Espumosa (Natural Sparkling Cider): Sparkling cider may be produced via the tank method or by a second fermentation in the bottle. These ciders are also fermented to dryness and can be classified as “brut” in style.

Sidra natural and other artisanal Spanish ciders benefit from aeration just before drinking; this helps to bring out the inherent complexities of the beverage as well as release some dissolved gas. This has given rise to a few colorful traditions, such as serving cider via a “long pour” with the bottle raised high above the server’s head, while the glass is held at arm’s reach below. This is termed escanciar la sidra, or “throwing the cider.”

Race of the pouring of sidra de Asturias in the town of Gijon

The long pour is serious stuff for sidra enthusiasts, and there are certain rules to achieving the perfect long pour. For starters, the glass is held with the thumb and forefinger, with the middle finger supporting the bottom of the glass (and the ring and pinky finger tucked away in the palm of the hand). The arm holding the glass must be stretched down straight with the glass held at the center of the body. The arm holding the bottle must be stretched straight and high above the head. When the bottle is tipped and the cider is poured, the stream of cider must find the glass while the glass stays still. It’s the responsibility of the cider-pourer to ensure that the cider foams.

The next time you are in Austurias, you’ll want to seek out a sidrería (cider house). It’s possible that your friendly neighborhood sidrería will serve nothing but cider, but it is also possible that they may serve a few pintxos and maybe even other types of drinks. If you visit in January, you can participate in the beginning of the txotx (pronounced “choach”) season. During txotx season, cider is served directly from the large wooden cask—actually, it is allowed to ‘shoot” in a very thin stream straight out of the barrel—while thirsty bar patrons take turns “catching” the cider in their glasses (held out at arm’s length).  Asturias sounds like a good place to be.

Well-known brands of Sidra de Asturias include J.R. Cabueñes, Herminio, Cortina, and Castañón.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

The Limone and Liquore of Sorrento

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Hugging the coastline just across the bay (and accessible by ferry) from Naples is the town of Sorrento. Sorrento is many-a-person’s touristy dream destination, and in real life it does not disappoint. While you are in Sorrento, be sure and tour the Duomo (Cathedral), visit the old town, drink coffee in the Piazza Tasso, take a day trip to the island of Capri, and drive along the coast to Amalfi. You can’t miss any of it.

Another thing you can’t miss in Sorrento is lemons. You can eat and drink lemons—as in lemon cake, spaghetti al limon, lemon gelato, and bruschetta rubbed with lemon, all washed down with limoncello (or lemonade for the kids). Italians will have a lemon slice dipped in sugar (peel and all) for a snack. Next, you can take a stroll through the lemon trees, planted in terraced groves, thriving in the tufo and limestone soil and abundant sunshine—as they have for centuries. And while shopping for souvenirs, stroll into a ceramics studio and find a big bowl or a pitcher decorated with pictures of lemons. You’ll want to remember these lemons for a long time.

The lemons grown in Sorrento are so unique that they have been award Protected Geographical Indicaton (Indicazione Geografica Protetta/IGP) status by the European Union, complete with a consortium (the Consorzio di Tutela del Limone di Sorrento IGP) to protect, promote, and market the Limone di Sorrento. According to the consortium’s guidelines, in order to qualify as a Limone di Sorrento IGP, the lemons must have the following attributes:

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    They are a “local ecotype” of the common lemon, aka Lemon of Massa, “Massese,” or “Oval of Sorrento”

  • They are grown in a geographically-delineated area of the Sorrento Peninsula that includes the districts of Massa Lubrense, Meta, Piano di Sorrento, Sant’Agnello, Sorrento, Vico Equense, and Capri.
  • They must be elliptical in shape with medium-large dimensions (weight not less than 85 grams [3 ounces]).
  • They must have a medium-thick peel and a citrine (pale-to-golden) yellow color over at least 50% of the surface.
  • They must be rich in essential oils and very fragrant, “very juicy” and with straw-colored yellow pulp.
  • The juice, characterized by an elevated acidity, must be rich in vitamin C and mineral salts.

To an American eye Limone di Sorrento might look kind of pale and funky…but these lemons are not chemically treated, colored, or dipped in wax. They are the real deal, they look natural, and they are a much sweeter lemon than those that most Americans are used to. While it’s a bit of a stretch, many people note that Limone di Sorrento are more like Meyer Lemons than the “supermarket” lemons (known as Eureka Lemons or Lisbon Lemons) that we get in the US.

And then there is the local limoncello. As a tourist in Italy, you are certain to remember the first time you had limoncello. Perhaps it was at an aperitivo (the Italian version of “happy hour” to stretch the definition a bit) or after a meal at a restaurant. Wherever or whenever it was, I am sure you will remember it.

Photo of Sorrento’s Marina Grande by Cutiekatie via Wikimedia

The limoncello produced in Sorrento has been awarded an IGP as well, known officially as Liquore di Limone di Sorrento IGP. The technical standards for Liquore di Limone di Sorrento include the following guidelines:

  • It must contain a minimum of 30% alcohol by volume.
  • It must be produced from a base of neutral spirits via by maceration with the peels of Limone di Sorrento IGP for a minimum of 48 hours.
  • It should be between 20% and 35% sugar by volume.
  • It must be produced within the Limone di Sorrento IGP cultivation zone.
  • It must contain a minimum of 250 g (by weight) of Limone di Sorrento PGI fruit or juice per liter of liquor.
  • No other colorings or flavorings (other than Sorrento Lemons) are allowed (but ascorbic acid may be added as a stabilizer).
  • It must be citrine yellow in color, and may be clear or opalescent.
  • The aroma and flavor must be characteristic of the Limone di Sorrento IGP.

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All of that is a bit heavy on the “technical” but doesn’t it still sound delicious? I’m thinking tonight is a good night for Pollo al Limone (as true Limone di Sorrento are hard to find outside of Italy, I’ll settle for using the recipe provided by the consorzio but substitute Meyer lemons [don’t hate me]) followed by some lemon cookies dipped in Liquore di Limone di Sorrento. Luckily, a true Liquore di Limone di Sorrento IGP can—these days—be found in good old Austin, Texas.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

The Playboy and the Electric Car

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The playboy and the electric car…it’s an odd title, I’m aware. And kudos to you for even clicking on it, as it admittedly tells you very little about the story which is to follow, which is actually about Cynar.

Cynar—pronounced CHEE-nar—is an Italian amari (bitter liqueur) that is probably only known to true cocktail aficionados and CSS students. For you liquor store archeologists, it’s the big green bottle with an artichoke on the label. (Yes, an artichoke.)

Before we get into the actual story I’m burning to tell you, let’s get this out of the way: Cynar is an acquired taste. It’s not the prettiest bottle on the shelf—and it’s competing with beautiful bottles bearing pictures of rose petals, wild raspberries, and baskets of wildflowers from Provence. Also, if you glance at the bottle quickly, you might think that the C-y-n-a stands for cyanide. I’d understand if you would prefer to walk on by.

Then there’s the flavor. It has a short burst of sweetness and quickly becomes intensely bitter and very, very herbal—this followed by a vegetal flavor that you might recognize as asparagus, but will describe as artichoke because you saw the picture on the bottle. You might think that you’ve never tasted anything like it before, but then you remember the Dr. Brown’s celery soda you once bought by mistake.

Keep in mind, however, that an acquired taste is just that—it must be acquired. Remember your first taste of hoppy beer, Stilton cheese, or octopus-on-a-stick? You might not have adored it at first, but you got used to it until you started to crave it. Trust me, Cynar will be the same, and its legendary ability to calm your stomach (like many digestives) is a real thing.

The story of Cynar (and the playboy and the electric car) begins in 1952. About that time, a Venetian entrepreneur named Angelo Dalle Molle created and began to distribute Cynar, his artichoke-flavored liqueur. Rumor has it that he chose the artichoke due to its aphrodisiac properties. The story continues (with a wink and a nod) that the love-potion formulation must have worked pretty well, as the creator was a well-known and successful man-about-town, fathering six children with six different women and—at the age of 80—marrying his secretary who was 40 years younger than he.

Numerous references point to the veracity of this story, and as far as I am concerned, that’s a pretty good story. I love a good tale of love, lust, and longevity. And there’s a happy ending as well: Cynar became popular very quickly, and in 1976 Dalle Molle sold the formula to Bols (a Dutch brand famous for many spirits and liqueurs) and became a wealthy man. Many years later, well into his 90’s, he passed away peacefully—and left his young bride a fortune of over 30 million euros.

But there’s another side to the Venetian playboy of Cynar. In addition to being a businessman, he is remembered for being a patron of the arts and a utopian philanthropist. Let me explain: utopian—in the  sense that he believed in the possibility of an ideal (or, at least, better) world and philanthropist—meaning he was generous with his time and money, using both in the service of mankind.

He also had a technological/scientific side—he’s been called a true “Renaissance Man,” and in his case, it’s believable. Dalle Molle was an early adopter of information technology and believed that technology should be used to improve the quality of human life. In order to accomplish this goal, he established the Fondation Dalle Molle pour la Qualité de la Vie (Dalle Molle Foundation for the Quality of Life). The foundation is still awarding grants and prizes for projects that “encourage and promote research which allows people to benefit from science and technology and to improve quality of life.”

Through this foundation he created and funded several research institutes, including the Istituto Dalle Molle di Studi Semantici e Cognitivi (Dalle Molle Institute for Semantic and Cognitive Studies), which was established for the purpose of conducting research into languages, linguistics, and automated translation. Another project is the Istituto Dalle Molle di Studi sull’Intelligenza Artificiale (Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence Research), founded with the goal of applying artificial intelligence to the quality of life.

Dalle Molle was very concerned about pollution, and at yet another project, the Centro Studi della Barbariga, he oversaw the design and production of over 200 electric cars. These cars were put to use as taxi cabs, vans, and as an ambulance. Seven of these cars are now in the collection of the Museo dell’automobile in the city of Vicenza.

Angelo Dalle Molle’s work lives on, and you can learn more about about his life—as both a playboy and a creator of electric cars—on the website of the Dalle Molle Foundation for the Quality of Life.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

Cassis: the Town, the Wine, the Liqueur

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What do you mean by cassis?

It’s a question I have heard quite often—usually at wine tastings, when someone with a nose in a glass of Cabernet claims it as one of the wine’s aromas. Several others in the group may nod in approval at the spotting of a black currant jam- or Cassis liqueur-like aroma in the glass. Others have never heard of it—and thus, the question at hand.

Cassis is actually many things—a seaside resort town in Provence, a French AOC wine-producing region dominated by white wine, and a black currant-flavored liqueur produced in many parts of the world, but particularly famous in Dijon. Read on for a bit more information on the many faces of Cassis!

Cassis—the Town: If you happen to find yourself on the Mediterranean Coast, perhaps in the Provencal town of Marseille, and if you drive south on coastal route highway 559 for about 15 miles, you’ll end up in the seaside resort of Cassis.  The waterfront of Cassis is a picturesque fishing port lined with cafes and restaurants, making it both a wonderful place to stroll as well as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Provence. While there, you can take the petit train touristique around the town, walk along the waterfront, or grab a boat tour to the impressive calanques (narrow, very steep rocky inlets found along the Mediterranean coast).

The town of Cassis

The town of Cassis

The town is snuggled at the foot of Cap Canaille–a 1,293-foot (394 m) high seaside cliff (the highest in France).  The very picturesque Route de Crêtes (Corniche des Crêtes) runs over the top of the cliff, linking Cassis with the nearby towns while offering stunning views of the cliffs, the sea, and the towns in between.

If you’d like to find the sunniest part of the town, follow the signs to La Cheminee du Roi Rene (King Rene’s Fireplace)—a sun-drenched area at the junction of the two water-side walkways known a s the  Quai Jean-Jacques Barthélémy and the Quai des Baux.

Cassis—the Wine: Red, white, and rosé wines are produced in the Cassis AOC. The reds and rosés, typical for the area, are based on Grenache, Cinsault, and Mourvèdre with a smattering of other red grapes allowed in the mix. The white wines, of which the area is rightfully quite proud, are based on Marsanne (30–80%) and Clairette. Other allowed white grape varieties include Bourboulenc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pascal Blanc, Ugni Blanc, and Terret Blanc.

The Cassis AOC is unique in rosé-heavy Provence in that white wines dominate its production; in fact, three out of every four bottles of Cassis AOC is a white wine. These wines are known for their aromas of citrus, white flowers, pears, and honey along with a touch of minerality. Generally fresh, dry, and medium-bodied, these wines are delightful when young, but may also improve in the bottle for 2 to 5 years. Not surprisingly, they pair perfectly with Mediterranean fish dishes as well as dishes made with tomatoes, olives, and herbs.

Cassis—the Liqueur:  Crème de Cassis is a sweet, dark red liqueur flavored with black currants (sometimes known as cassis fruit). It is quite famous as an ingredient in the Kir cocktail—white wine (ideally Burgundy Aligoté) and crème de cassis—as well as its fancier cousin, the Kir Royale (ideally made with champagne). As with many things in life, you can get an inexpensive version of generic cassis at just about any corner liquor store and be done with it (try it on ice cream or in a Pompier cocktail [3 parts dry white vermouth, 1 part crème de cassis, served tall over ice with soda]).

On the other hand, there is the good stuff: Europe has five PGI versions of cassis, including those that hail from Bourgogne (France), Dijon (France), Saintonge  (France), Dauphiné (France), and Beaufort (Luxembourg). Of these, the original—and most say the best—is the Crème de Cassis de Dijon.

Sweet, fruit-flavored beverages were made in many places around Europe in the eighteenth century. These were often referred to ratafias and generally made with fortified wine or unfermented grape juice flavored with a variety of berries (and sometimes produced with a spirit base as well).

True crème de cassis began to be produced in Dijon in 1841 by a gentleman name Auguste-Denis Lagoute. Lagoute was a fan of the sweet ratafias but wanted to produce a beverage of a higher quality using local fruit. He began by soaking black currants, which grew in abundance around Dijon, in oak barrels along with high-proof spirits and beet sugar. Soon the family’s brand of crème de cassis, Lejay (named after the son-in-law), was wildly popular, particularly when served over ice with a splash of vermouth de Chambery, and later, when served as a Kir along with the white wine of the region. Lejay is still produced, and is one of the few producers approved to use the PGI of Crème de Cassis de Dijon.

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The PGI for Crème de Cassis de Dijon was first approved in 1923. The regulations specify that the finished product contain at least 400 grams of beet sugar per liter (cane sugar is not permitted).The specific type of black currant is not defined, but in general there are two varieties of high-quality black currants: Noir de Bourgogne (known for its aromatics) and Black Down (considered to be a rounder, smoother, and sweeter variety).

The finest Crème de Cassis is described as having aromas of black currants, cherries, and plums; a rich, velvety texture; intense, fruity flavor; and a sweet taste balanced with a bit of an acidic “snap.” Sounds good to me!

References/for further information:

 The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

 

The Genius of Gentius

Gentiana Acaulis photo by Ramin Nakisa via Wikimedia Commons

Gentiana Acaulis photo by Ramin Nakisa via Wikimedia Commons

If you are a fan of the Aperol Spritz (or Suze and Soda on the rocks), you might not know it, but you are a fan of Gentian. Gentian is a flowering plant that grows wild in the mountains of Europe, particularly the Vosges, the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Massif Central.

Gentian (Gentianaceae) may have yellow, white, blue, or varied-color flowers. The dried root of the gentian plant has a variety of culinary and medicinal uses and is often used as a flavoring agent for bittered wines and spirits–including Campari, Suze, Aperol, Bonal, Fernet, and various brands of cocktail bitters and vermouth.  Gentian root is highly aromatic and adds a range of sweet aromatics as well as a bitter taste to an aromatized wine or a spirit amari.

In addition to the range of gentian-infused amari on the market, gentian liqueurs have a following of their own. Gentian liqueurs originated in the historical French region of Auvergne, which is now part of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. This is a mountainous region of central France where gentian grows wild. In these parts, gentian liqueur is traditionally served as an aperitif, over ice and with a wedge of lemon.

Photo of Salers Gentiane via Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

Photo of Salers Gentiane via Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

Salers, a bright-yellow-colored liqueur, is considered to be the oldest producer in the area, having started production in 1885. Other brands still produced in the region include Avèze (formerly known as Auvergne), Chantelune, and Gentiane Couderc.

In addition to its role in beverages, gentian root is used in herbal medicine to treat fever, muscle spasms, and digestive problems. This is despite the fact that most scientific studies have shown little to no actual effect on these conditions other than a placebo effect. However, it is widely accepted–in many cultures, east and west–that bittering agents and the taste component of bitter can increase gastric secretions and therefore aid digestion. Just witness the long tradition of “tonics” and digestives made with bittering agents, which might include your own habit of calming a rumbling stomach with a shot of Fernet (it works for me). We might just have to call this debate a draw.

Gentian is named after King Gentius, who ruled as the last Illyrian King (a kingdom near present-day Montenegro that later became part of the Roman Empire) from 181 to 168 BCE. It is believed that Gentius discovered the medicinal and flavoring value of the plant and encouraged its use. Several ancient writings, including those from Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides, allude to the fact that gentian was used for a variety of medicinal purposes during Roman times, including as an antidote to poison and in the dressing of wounds.

King Gentius of Illyria, designed in Photoshop by Hyllier, via Wikimedia Commons

King Gentius of Illyria, designed in Photoshop by Hyllier, via Wikimedia Commons

Here is a partial list of well-known beverages that contain gentian. See the “for more information” links for even more:

  • Amère Sauvage
  • Angostura Bitters
  • Appenzeller
  • Aperol
  • Averna
  • Bonal
  • Campari
  • Cinzano Bianco Vermouth
  • Fernet-Branca
  • Peychaud’s Bitters
  • Picon
  • Salers
  • Suze
  • Underberg
  • Unicum

References/for more information:

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P.S. Of course, to get a hit of gentian, you could always have a Negroni Cocktail–that’s always a good idea!

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net