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The Bitter Truth

Bitter Truth

I was thinking of having a Sazerac tonight, but sadly am lacking a bottle of rye currently.  While a little saddened by this fact, it did make me think of Dale de Groff’s wonderful personal take on the Sazerac from his book The Essential Cocktail (a fantastic book that you should probably have in your library, or nestled between bottles on your bar).  In his twist on this classic cocktail, he mixes equal parts rye and cognac, which is actually a half step between the original recipe that called for cognac only, and the modern rye based drink.  That got me to thinking about fixing an original brandy-based Sazerac, as I had a bottle of cognac at hand.  Certainly, it’ll be a sweeter drink than the rye based version, and while I’m not opposed to that, I started thinking about how I could balance that sweetness out, as well as how it work if I decided to forgo the absinthe.

My first thought on the latter was not very well, honestly.  So, what to do?  Well, if we take the absinthe out of the equation, do we still have something solid to go with?  So we’re now looking at brandy, a combination of bitters and sugar, with some citrus as a garnish.  Okay, that’s certainly workable, but we still have a drink that’s going to trend towards the sweet, without a balancing flavor, and I wasn’t in the mood for something too sweet.

And then I saw the bottle of Cynar, sitting behind the brandy.  Cynar is an Italian bitter liqueur made from various herbs and plants, chief amongst them being the artichoke.  I know what you’re thinking; an artichoke liqueur, that sounds ghastly.  Believe me, I was of the same opinion when I first heard of it.  But Cynar is a wonderfully bitter, and boy do I mean bitter, apéritif, and is an excellent way of imparting bitterness to a drink without adding a lot of complicated flavors that will overpower things.  That said, it would certainly do well to counteract the sweetness of cognac, and serve to give a focal point to this cocktail: bitterness.  With the extra bitterness from the Cynar, replacing the lemon twist called for in the Sazerac with a bit of orange peel seemed a decent thought, as I know from one of my favorite cocktails coined by a good friend makes good use of pairing orange and Cynar.

So, in the end I wound up with the following in my glass, and I have to say I’m well pleased with the delightfully bitter drink.

  • 2 parts cognac
  • 0.5 parts Cynar
  • 3 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
  • 3 dashes of Fee Brother’s Old Fashioned bitters
  • 1 bar spoon sugar
  • a large orange peel

To start off, I combined the bitters and sugar in an old-fashioned glass and started to mix them into a thin paste.  I then added the Cynar and continued to stir until I had a nice homogenous solution of bitters, liqueur and sugar.  I then added the cognac and a single large piece of orange peel and stirred for a few seconds more before adding a single large piece of ice.

For those that haven’t played with Peychaud’s bitters, this wonderful gentian based bitters created by the estimable New Orleans by way of Haiti apothecary, Antoine Amédée Peychaud carries with it hints of cherry and anise, and is sweeter than many typical bitters.  Combining this with the rich, spicy, cinnamon tinged Old Fashioned bitters from the good people of Fee Brothers, brings some nice, complex flavors to this drink.  The predominant note is bitter, a result of the aforementioned bitters, but primarily from the Cynar.  The sugar and cognac give a sweet finish  in the mouth that outlasts the bitterness that hits the front of your tongue.  The orange gives a brightness to the drink, and plays very well with the warm spicy notes from the Fee Brothers Old Fashioned bitters.

A note on the ice: I have four different types of ice trays / molds that I use, from tiny cubes all the way up to large spheres that nearly fill an old-fashioned glass.  For this drink I chose to use the largest option, the massive sphere, for a couple of reasons.  First and foremost, the larger piece of ice and its increased surface area means it’s slower to melt, which is critical for this drink.  This is a sipping cocktail, and if I used smaller pieces of ice, before I was halfway through it, my drink would be tragically watered down.  Secondly, using a larger hunk of ice also means a more moderately cooled drink.  Again, smaller ice would have chilled the drink more over time, and the bitterness and subtle flavors of the bitters would have been lost in the cold.

Jack Rackham

Jack Rackham

I don’t play with rum terribly often, aside from the occasional Dark and Stormy, or when my darling wife asks for a rum drink, though I suppose I should.  This number came about from wanting to do something with black pepper and orange flavors, and when I was scanning over the bar, my eyes fell on the bottle of Pyrat XO rum, and that was that.

After a bit of fiddling, the final proportions for the drink came out as:

  • 1.5 parts Pyrat XO rum
  • 0.5 parts Grand Marnier
  • 6 dashes of Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Bitters
  • 5 grinds of fresh pepper
  • The juice of 1 small orange wedge

All ingredients were shaken hard with ice, then strained through a fine sieve (to catch the ground pepper), and served over a single large piece of ice, and garnished with a small piece of orange peel.


If you haven’t had Pyrat XO, it’s a rum offering from the good people at Patrón.  It’s a rich, deep amber color, and carries a decently palpable orange note, and some characteristics that remind of nothing so much as cognac.  It’s an aged rum, and while it is the youngest of the Pyrat family of spirits, this makes the XO a smooth, flavorful, and sweet (while not cloying) rum that is perfectly fine being sipped on straight or on the rocks.

As I said, I wanted to play with orange flavors, so the Pyrat seemed a solid choice.  To add to that, and play up the cognac-like characteristics, I went with Grand Marnier for the orange liqueur.  While I thought these flavors would work well together, I found I had a terribly sweet drink on my hands already.  Add to that even the small bit of fresh orange juice, and this drink was really at risk.  By upping the rum from 1 part to 1.5, and doubling the bitters from 3 to 6 dashes and giving a couple more grinds of pepper, I ended up with something I quite liked.  There is an undeniable taste of orange, but it focuses more on the bitter orange peel side than the sugary sweet.  The excellent Fee Brothers Old Fashioned bitters helps with this, as well as highlighting the black pepper, and make that bite a little more complex.

So, there you have it.  The Jack Rackham; a drink perhaps the old captain himself could have enjoyed sipping on while watching the rolling of the sea.