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Blend Your Way to a Better Red Bitter

In pursuit of perfection, sometimes no one brand of bitters, Curaçao or vermouth will do.

Red Bitters Blends

In pursuit of a specific flavor profile not achieved by any one rum, tiki legend Don the Beachcomber famously mixed multiple bottles together, stating: “What one rum can’t do, three rums can.” Today’s bartenders are taking that philosophy a step further by mixing not just their own rums and other core spirits, but building bespoke Curaçao blends, house vermouths and more.

At Chicago’s tropical-inspired Lost Lake, it’s no surprise that co-owner Paul McGee would use multiple rums in his drinks, in keeping with tiki tradition. “I don’t think we use [only] one spirit for any of our drinks over there,” he says.

But when he opened Lonesome Rose, a Tex-Mex concept in Logan Square in 2017, he expanded on the idea. The house Margarita, which calls on just one expression of tequila, relies on an orange liqueur blend made up of equal parts Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao and Combier. McGee also splits the sweetener between agave and cane syrup (though you’d never know it from looking at the menu, which simply lists “Curaçao” and “agave nectar”).

McGee says his background in tiki has little to do with the decision to split various elements of the recipe. “It was about what worked best for the drink,” he says. While he favors the Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao in many tropical drinks, he felt it was “a little too rounded and brandy-heavy” for a Margarita, so he mixed it with Combier, which he finds to be more neutral, but still bright. “It was really interesting to take this other approach and say, how can we make this the best Margarita?”

Though made famous by Don the Beachcomber, blending spirits together began long before the advent of the tiki movement. Often, in the pre-Prohibition era, saloon-keepers would marry together dregs of bottles for the sake of economy. In his 2015 book Drinking the Devil’s Acre (which contains several “superior” spirits blends—elaborate mixes that are practically cocktails in their own right), San Francisco bar-owner Duggan McDonnell points to the earliest books compiled for saloon-keepers as evidence of this practice:

“Some of these books, such as… Cocktail Boothby’s American Bar-Tender, provided recipes on how to re-create certain spirits and to fake popular brands and products for when the saloon was out of stock or, frankly, didn’t care to spend the money,” he writes. “The exercise was to combine disparate elements to match the look and taste of gin, Cognac, whiskey, and so on, for cheap.”

Today, bartenders are likely operating according to different motivations, ranging from building a unique offering that guests can’t find anywhere else to borderline-OCD perfectionism.

At Brookyn’s Clover Club, partner and head bartender Tom Macy makes his Corpse Reviver No. 2 using a split of two aperitif wines, Lillet Blanc and Cocchi Americano. “With cocktails you’ll often have two options of something,” he explains of his choice, “and you’ll say—what happens if I mix them together? Often—not always—but often it works great.” In this case, the lighter, drier Lillet was a perfect foil for the more bitter, robust Cocchi. “One of my favorite tricks is to find a middle ground.”

This isn’t the only blend at Clover Club, Macy adds. Julie Reiner’s “house vermouth” mixes bitter Punt e Mes with “more even-keeled” Cinzano: “together they’re a balanced, interesting vermouth.” Reiner’s strawberry Negroni variation likewise involves a Campari-Aperol split. At Misi in Brooklyn, they too use a red bitter blend, specifically one designed to work as well in a Negroni as it does in a spritz, blending together three different red bitter liqueurs alongside a small dose of Suze.

For Justin Lavenue, co-owner and operator of The Roosevelt Room in Austin, Texas, how the blend plays in a finished cocktail is an important factor in deciding whether the practice is worth it. The Roosevelt Room’s house sweet vermouth, for example, a blend of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Punt e Mes and Carpano Antica works well in a Negroni where its individual components might not.

“In a Negroni, which already has Campari, Punt e Mes can seem overly bitter, and a super-sweet vermouth like Carpano has a tendency to overpower things by itself,” says Lavenue. “Cocchi can [also] be very sweet—and your Negroni comes off as somewhat out of balance. In our opinion, with the house blend vermouth, it becomes the perfect Negroni.”

Lavenue feels strongly about this concept, to the point where he has multiple house blends, including a house triple sec (Cointreau and Combier, “plus a dash of orange bitters for complexity,”); a rum blend for tiki drinks; a blend of two Leopold Brothers gins for the Roosevelt House Martini; and a house allspice dram (equal parts St. Elizabeth’s and Hamilton’s pimento dram).

Which raises the question: Is it possible to take the practice of house blends too far? Perhaps, but that doesn’t stop a pie-in-the-sky discussion with Lavenue about the feasibility of creating a baroque Lion’s Tail made wholly from blended ingredients. He ticks off the key components in the classic version: “Citrus blends have been around forever,” he says, “and you could blend bourbon, rye and little Scotch together.” Add to that a blended sweetener (as McGee uses, above), a bitters mix and, of course, the Roosevelt Room’s house allspice. It wouldn’t be a hot mess?

“No,” he says, “it could be amazing.”

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