This is my new favorite Cynar drink. No, I'm not certain I had an old favorite Cynar drink, but whatever it was, this drink far surpasses it.
Though a great bar needs a great menu, I find that a great bartender can riff beyond it, recalling recipes you haven't heard of, and developing a sense of a guest's palate—whether they're a regular visitor or not. Chad Arnholt of San Francisco's Trick Dog is exactly that kind of great bartender. I love the bar's new menu, especially the tequila-Gran-Classico-coconut combo served in a ceramic pineapple, but when Chad's behind the bar, I tend to ignore those fancy record pages. Sometimes I order "bitter and sour," sometimes I order "sour with gin," and the other night, I just said, "bitter". I thought about saying "brown and bitter," since it was a cool, cloudy evening, but maybe the clouds spoke for me.
The drink that showed up was this: Cynar and sweet vermouth, a little lemon juice and orange bitters, salt on top of the ice. The combination is rich, at times sweet and others lightly tart and sometimes tongue-curlingly bitter. I love that there's no big base spirit in the mix: while I bet it could work with, say, bourbon, this cocktail doesn't need the heavy booze. The combination of bitter liqueur and bittersweet vermouth is more than enough flavor for one drink, and it helps both to shine. A twist of lemon peel draws out the bitter finish, while the salt—as Kevin Liu taught us recently—seems to make things sweet and bright.
"Do you know the book Beta Cocktails?" Chad asked, quick not to take credit for a drink that he didn't invent. The recipe seems to have started out with Stephen Cole (now of Chicago's Barrelhouse Flat, a bar we've spent a little bit of time in.) He called it the Bitter Giuseppe. That recipe shows up in Beta Cocktails, calling for caramelly Carpano Antica as the sweet side of the mix. But one of the guys behind that book, Kirk Estopinal of New Orleans's Cure, took it further, ramping up the bitterness with Punt e Mes, and adding a little salt, which was stirred and dissolved into the drink to counter the bitterness. Estopinal's version, called The Search for Delicious, has two ounces of Cynar and six dashes of orange bitters: I tried that way at home, and it didn't quite hit the spot for me the way the drink had at Trick Dog.
It turns out that Chad's proportions are slightly different, and since the ingredients are so intense, that slight variation matters. A little less Cynar and a little more Punt e Mes tempers the sweetness and richness a little. The salt sits on top of the ice, sometimes floating to your lips for a flash of flavor.