Evan Zimmerman is the beverage manager and sometimes bartender at The Woodsman Tavern in Portland, Oregon, and he has a mantra: "Adjusted classics, elegant and understated." Open for barely a month, Zimmerman and his staff at The Woodsman are already adjusting one such classic, a rye-and-Campari number called the Old Pal, by first steeping the Campari in heat-blasted cedar wood chips. Apropos of all that is good and right with the universe, Mr. Zimmerman calls his forestry-forward cocktail the "Hunting Vest."
Profiled here for Serious Eats by Paul Clarke, your standard Old Pal calls for rye-or-bourbon, dry vermouth, and Campari, stirred and strained into a chilled glass and served with a twist. Zimmerman, who made a name for himself in Portland cocktail circles at Laurelhurst Market, arranges his take on the Old Pal with Old Overholt rye, French dry vermouth, the tiniest addition of Fino sherry, and Campari left to mingle for a fortnight in a mason jar full of blowtorched wood.
That bit about the torched wood chips is the drink's hook, obviously, and is likely the reason why the Hunting Vest (and it is only "Hunting Vest", not "The Hunting Vest", making it something like the Talking Heads of cocktails) appears at the top of Mr. Zimmerman's drink menu. There's surely no lack of titular genius and sartorial providence to the drink's name, given The Woodsman Tavern's urban hunt club vibe and the preponderance of flannel at most bars in Portland, including this one. Yet this drink is no gimmick. "Cedar-steeped Campari" reads a little crazy on the cocktail list—but in practice, the Hunting Vest is approachable and understated, indeed elegant, coming in at an even par with Zimmerman's mantra.
"I had cedar lying around, and I'm a little crazy about Campari," he tells me, and he's not joking about the Campari. It comes up again and again throughout our conversation, during which he says things like "I pretty much only drink Campari", a statement I cannot verify with authority but have been given little reason to doubt (he seems to harbor a near-Zissouian level of reverence for the stuff). The idea of calming Campari down with cedar is a direct dig on Jeffrey Morgenthaler, a barman at Portland's Clyde Common, who is in Mr. Zimmerman's peer group of exciting Portland bartenders and is revered by him (and many others) for popularizing the practice of barrel-aging cocktails.
Zimmerman's own take on wood working is more of the backyard barn variety. After first using a handheld pyrotechnic device to scorch the dried cedar planks to a "#4 char"—a figure based on some sort of whiskey barrel char scale, described to me by Mr. Zimmerman himself—he chips the now-black wood into smaller pieces and places them inside a one quart mason jar. There is no exact measurement: simply jam in as much burnt wood possible, so long as you can still fasten the lid afterwards. Then fill the jar up with Campari and go make other, equally fascinating cocktails for the next two weeks.
Mr. Zimmerman insists that charring the wood is essential, because the process, in his words, "brings volatile oils to the surface and then caramelizes them." It also imparts some truly nasty looking carbon sludge to the bottom of the first transfer bottle, which is why it's important to strain the still-ashy liquid through a cheesecloth not once, not twice, but thrice. What results is a gracious take on the spirit. As if catching Campari mid-yawn, the apertif's signature bitterness is gently lessened, with sweet citrus undertones brought to the fore.
Stirred and served up in a champagne coupe, the "Hunting Vest" is Campari-forward and Campari-tinted, yet you can taste every last ingredient in its tone bank: understated bass from the Old Overholt (selected for its unobtrusive ability to play well with others), sweet-soft hints of melon from the Fino sherry, dry vermouth's familiar divaricate glint of neutrality and complexity, and the mellow, dimmed, wood-steeped Campari itself. Initial aromatics from a lemon twist give way to olfactory balance, and it's only a twist, not a garnish, done to release essential oils and run with a deft hand around the rim of the coupe. Balance is the pursuit. It is a rye-and-Campari cocktail somehow dominated by neither rye nor Campari, and the effect is quite comfortable.
Since you're wondering, you can only just pull out distinct cedar flavors in a finished Hunting Vest. There's maybe a touch of smoke to remind you that your Campari has been out walking in the woods, or the slightest elemental tinge of char on the tongue, but isolating individual flavors is not really what this cocktail is about. You taste the cedar-steeping most in the undercurrent of mellow ease that so perfectly suits this drink, itself so perfectly suited to this particular new bar, The Woodsman Tavern, in a city where "mellow ease" may as well be translated to Latin and adopted as the municipal motto.
Here, we'll do it for you: "mitia otium."