"What makes Cocchi more intriguing to craft bartenders is what it's not: Lillet."
While some food and drink trends are obvious—that whole bacon thing and the comfort food revival—others seem to come out of nowhere. Currently, a product enjoying its star turn in the craft-cocktail spotlight is an until-recently obscure Italian aperitif wine called Cocchi Aperitivo Americano.
Cocchi (pronounced "COKE-ey", not "COACH-ey") Americano has made itself comfortable in craft-cocktail bars across the country since its wide-scale release in mid-2010.
Largely unheard of only a year ago, and still a boutique novelty in the cities where it has popped up, Cocchi has nevertheless turned the heads of scores of bartenders and thousands of curious drinkers in just a few short months, sparking stories in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post.
So what's the deal?
Cocchi Aperitivo Americano is an Italian aperitif wine that debuted in 1891. Based on a foundation of Moscato di Asti, the wine is fortified and then flavored with cinchona bark, along with citrus peel, spices and other botanicals. Cinchona bark is the original source of quinine, and this substance gives Cocchi a bitter bite and places the wine in the category of chinati, Italian cousins of French quinquinas such as Dubonnet and St. Raphael. Introduced in the mid-1800s, quinquinas and chinati were originally designed to combat malaria; in the decades that followed, drinkers developed a taste for the herbal complexity and dry bitterness found in these wines, characteristics that also act as appetite stimulants, earning chinati and quinquinas a reputation as prized aperitifs.
Cocchi Americano is crisp and citrusy with a delicate bitter edge, but what makes Cocchi more intriguing to craft bartenders is what it's not: Lillet. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the most popular quinquinas was Kina Lillet, produced in France and utilized in a number of cocktail recipes until the mid-1900s.
Lillet is still in production, and is a lovely aperitif wine, but a reformulation in 1986 removed the product's quinine bite (along with the quinine-related "Kina" from the name), in the process altering the flavor characteristics Lillet delivered when mixed in a cocktail.
Several years ago, before Cocchi's widespread reappearance, research by bartenders, writers and bloggers suggested that Cocchi Americano had a flavor and character nearly identical to that of pre-reformulation Kina Lillet. As a result, since Cocchi's reappearance in the U.S., bartenders have given it a run in classic cocktails originally made with Kina Lillet, such as the Corpse Reviver #2 and the Vesper, a martini relative that debuted as a James Bond original in Casino Royale.
I still quite enjoy contemporary Lillet, but Cocchi Americano gives many of these classics new life, with the bitter element playing an effective counterpoint to the other flavors in the drink. But there's no need to break out the cocktail shaker; Cocchi is excellent as a simple aperitif, poured over ice with a splash of club soda and a slice of orange.
I'll feature a recipe on Friday that can be made with either Lillet or Cocchi, so you can see the difference for yourself, but in the meantime: have you come across Cocchi Americano in your favorite bars? How have you tried it?