Valentine might as well be the patron saint of prix fixe menus, restaurant stress, and trying to get busy on two stomachs full of béarnaise sauce. While ordering a pizza on Super Bowl Sunday may mean long wait times, and cooking a perfect Thanksgiving turkey may spell disaster, neither chore compares to the hurdle of going out to eat on Valentine’s Day. So why not take a page from those other celebrations of epicurean indulgence? Why not eat (or in this case, drink) at home?
Whether Valentine’s Day was initially popularized in order to root out the traditions of a pagan holiday (aren’t they all?), or by Chaucer as a backdrop for his Parliament of Foules, today’s frustrations revolve around an event long ago absconded with by moneymakers at the expense of your romance, your time, and your hard-earned cash.
Odds are you already have half a bottle each of whiskey and gin sitting around, so all you’ll need is Sweet Vermouth, Campari, Mezcal, an orange, and a spoon.
One of the guiding principles of mixology is achieving balance, which is why so many drinks are built around templates, to be filled with spirits, bittering agents, and sweeteners. The Negroni is the perfect example.
“The same thing that’s said about sex and pizza can also be said about the Negroni,” says Andy Boggs, Cocktail Director at Portland, Oregon’s Trifecta, Ken Forkish’s new take on the old Gastro pub theme. “Even when it’s bad, its still pretty good. It’s a simple drink that almost anyone can make; but complex enough to be intensely personalized based on the choice of spirits and the proportions of those spirits in relation to each other.”
Clocking in at one ounce Gin, one ounce Sweet Vermouth, and one ounce Campari, it’s balanced and complex, bracing and sweet. Stir these three gently in a mixing glass with ice, and strain into a double rocks glass or tumbler, then cut a swath of orange peel with just a little pith behind it, and express the oils over your glass, rubbing the skin side around the rim. Twist the peel and drop it in for a garnish, or feel free to discard it—if you can see (and smell) the orange oils sitting atop your concoction, its work is done.
A standard Negroni, however, might feel too summery, or perhaps too derivative, for a cold weather special occasion. In that case, swap your ounce of gin for one and a half ounces of bourbon, which makes a Boulevardier. House Spirits Distillery’s Burnside Bourbon has wonderfully smooth banana notes that round out the Campari’s sometimes harsh bitter qualities. Really want to get professional? Take a lighter to the skin side of your orange twist, and express the oils through the flame. We drink with our eyes first, and our noses second, and this trick adds a flare and smoky depth that is sure to impress in every sense.
Round three is the showstopper but it’s no trickier than its predecessors. Simply trade out Bourbon for Mezcal, and return to your original one: one: one proportions. Del Maguey Vida is the most cost effective choice on the Mezcal market. Throw in a dash of Orange Bitters if you’ve got them, and remember the lighter trick.
The final, and perhaps most important, ingredient in any of these drinks is ice: there’s no reason for your cubes to be any more pedestrian than your libations. Snag a large rocks tray (try www.cocktailkingdom.com), or do it yourself: just fill a few water balloons to “artfully large rock” size, tie them off, and throw them in the freezer. Snip the balloon bits away on the day of your home-bar soft opening, and store them in your ice cube tray for easy access.
Need a little food to soak up all that liquored homemade goodness? We’ve already addressed the aches and pains of going out, but swapping them for the headache of a complex meal and a messy kitchen is hardly a perfect solution. Stick with the home-bar theme, and grab the fixings for a gourmet tavern board the day before. The key here, again, is balance. Get a hard cheese and a soft (a Stilton and a Manchego, for instance), some similarly varied spicy and sweeter charcuterie, and a pint of antipasti, or decent olives (Castelvetranos are mild and buttery, perfect alongside formidable cheeses and salty cured meats). Tack on a baguette, some quality mustard, and a swath of nice, floral honey, and you’re set.
Remember, the key to having a good time is not stressing out. What could be more leisurely than a few drinks and a bite or two with someone you care about?
Negroni: www.drinkingamerica.com and www.foodrepublic.com
Liquor Lineup: www.flemingsbond.com
Campari poster: http://theodorehammond.files.wordpress.com/
Burnside Bourbon: www.eastsidedistilling.com
Cheese Board: www.tripadvisor.com