Although there are few spirits, if any, that I will refuse to drink at any given time of the year, there is an undeniable resonance between spirits and the seasons. There’s nothing like a smoky Islay scotch on a cold winter night, or a Gin and Tonic for a languid summer afternoon. Between bourbon’s soft warmth and the Kentucky Derby at the beginning of May, spring is bourbon season. Despite my love for the Derby’s famous julep, it is far from the only warm-weather cocktail that showcases bourbon’s strengths - so here are three more options designed to ease us all into summertime.
#1: The Monte Cassino
Originally made with rye, the Monte Cassino is a complex, shaken cocktail that tastes equally natural when made with bourbon. Bourbon brings proof, warmth, and structure that is in turn supported by the herbal complexity of yellow Chartreuse and the honeyed spice of Benedictine, while the brightness of lemon adds a welcome lift. Damon Dyer, originally of New York’s Louis 649, created this cocktail using equal parts rye, Benedictine, yellow Chartreuse and lemon – with bourbon, a higher ratio of bourbon is needed for balance. In a nod to the original, choose a bourbon with a rye-heavy mashbill (one in which the ‘recipe’ includes rye as the major ingredient, following corn), such as Knob Creek - although any good bourbon will certainly do.
1-1/4 oz. Bourbon
¾ oz Yellow Chartreuse
¾ oz. Benedictine
¾ oz. Lemon Juice
Combine the ingredients over ice in a cocktail shaker, shake vigorously for at least 45 seconds, and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
#2: The Whisky Sour
There is nothing like a proper, classic Sour made with egg white. When shaken, the egg adds a lovely ethereal texture that nothing can replace - not even the many synthetic substitutes invented in the ‘70s and which some bars sadly still use today. This versatile recipe is for a classic Sour, and you can substitute the bourbon for any spirit you love, from Scotch to the every-popular Amaretto.
2 oz Bourbon
White of one large egg (3/4 -1oz is good)
¾ oz citrus juice (half lemon, half lime is best)
3/8 oz simple syrup
Pour all the ingredients into a shaker over ice and shake very hard. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a Maraschino cherry (preferably a ‘true’ maraschino, like the Fabbri, Luxardo, or Toschi brands – if you’ve yet to experience them, they are revelatory). As the legendary bartender Harry Craddock said, drink it while “it is still laughing at you.”
#3: The Bourbon Improved Cocktail
While the origins of both the word “cocktail” and the composition of the first drink to carry that name are hotly debated, the May 13th, 1806 edition of a New York paper called The Balance and Columbian Repository defined a cocktail as a particular style of drink: “stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” By the end of the century, the word cocktail had grown beyond that definition to describe a wide variety of mixed drinks. The original style had fallen out of favor, becoming known by the name we still recognize today – the Old-Fashioned.
The first bartender’s bible, Jerry Thomas’ The Bar-Tender’s Guide, listed several updated takes on the Old-Fashioned in the late 1880s, the best of which was simply called the Improved Whiskey Cocktail. The Improved added two ingredients, Absinthe and Maraschino, to amp up the classic. Absinthe, the beautifully violent anise, fennel, and wormwood spirit which gained such ill-repute that it was banned in most of Europe, gives the drink a refreshing quality; while the maraschino, distilled from the fruit and stones of wild marasca cherries, adds a funky complexity that elevates and livens up the old classic. Given the popularity of Bourbon, Absinthe and Maraschino today, what better way to celebrate the 199th anniversary of the cocktail this May?
2 oz Bourbon
¼ oz simple syrup
1 tsp Maraschino Liqueur
½ tsp. Absinthe (I use Kubler)
2 dashes Aromatic Bitters
Stir all the ingredients over ice in a mixing or pint glass, then strain over a large ice cube into a rocks or Old-Fashioned glass. Garnish with orange or lemon rind, squeezed over the drink to express its fragrant oils. Cheers!