Have you ever walked into your favorite bar, scanned the shelves behind the bartender, and wondered what some of those bottles are?
Even a dedicated alcologist such as myself will sometimes find himself sitting at a bar, looking at a menu, and thinking, "Well, there's an ingredient I've never heard of."
I'm going to start taking an occasional look at new or otherwise obscure ingredients that are starting appear on craft-cocktail menus. Today I'll tackle three "new" ingredients from the world of apéritifs. They're new only in the sense that they're either entirely new to the U.S. market, or they're being reintroduced into the U.S. market after a decades-long absence. No Continental barfly of any standing would consider these three products "new," but since we're unfamiliar with them in the States, that's good enough for now.
Byrrh Grand Quinquina
Byrrh is a mild apéritif, based on red wine and flavored lightly with quinine and other ingredients, including coffee and bitter orange. The producers make a "mistelle" of unfermented grape juice and alcohol. The grape juice is naturally sweet, because its sugars are not allowed to ferment into alcohol, and the juice's sugars add sweetness to Byrrh. The mistelle is blended with red wine and the other flavoring ingredients.
The flavor profile of a quinquina can fall anywhere on a range from only mildly bitter to almost astringently bitter. Byrrh is a lightly bitter quinquina, closest in flavor to Dubonnet Rouge, but moderately more bitter and more herbally complex. Try it served over ice or in a classic Byrrh Cocktail.
Oh, and incidentally, it's pronounced like, well, "beer." So be careful when you ask your guests whether they want Byrrh on the rocks.
Salers Gentiane Apéritif
Salers is another venerable French apéritif, made from gentian root and white wine. The flavor is considerably more bitter than Byrrh, but the bitterness is balanced with sweetness from the wine and other botanical flavorings. You may find that Salers is a bit of an acquired taste. It has a bold flavor, with vegetal notes and a bit of a rooty finish.
Salers is delicious served over ice, or topped with soda, but it's also good in cocktails, such as the White Negroni from New York's Gin Palace.
Suze Saveur d'Autrefois
Like Salers, Suze is a gentian liqueur and has a bittersweet flavor, but the bitterness is a bit more subtle than it is in Salers. Suze has floral and citrus notes, and is a little sweeter than Salers, although not as sweet as, say, Lillet Blanc. In fact, if you're a Lillet drinker and you're looking for a little more complexity, Suze may be the way to go.
You might have seen the distinctive Suze label on the backbar of your favorite cocktail haven, but chances are your bartender smuggled it in; it's long been a favorite ingredient for bartenders to bring home from abroad. Suze just (officially) returned to the US market earlier this year—the importer is Domaine Select. Like Byrrh and Salers, Suze is good served alone on ice, or in cocktails, such as the Haymarket from NoMad in New York.
Have you tried these products in cocktails or on their own? What did you think? Are there any other new or lesser-known drink ingredients you'd like to know more about?