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Decoding the Craft: Your Handy Guide to Understanding Cocktail Menus

Decoding the Craft: Your Handy Guide to Understanding Cocktail Menus: David L. Reamer

David L. Reamer

Cocktails are back in a big way, and you need to get on board. But even if you know your Martinis from your Manhattans, a craft-cocktail menu can read like a foreign language. To help you navigate, here are 30 top terms you might come across that you need to know to be a good drinker. Cheers!

Absinthe: No, absinthe won’t make you hallucinate, but it will get you wasted. Anti-absinthe hysteria (funded mostly by the wine industry) led to the “Green Fairy” being banned in most countries in the early 1900s, but it’s been legal again in the States since 2007. The high-proof booze is infused with wormwood and other herbs and tastes very strongly of liquorice. Rinse a glass with absinthe and then make a rye Old Fashioned in it to get the New Orleans favorite Sazerac, or combine with Champagne in Ernest Hemingway’s favorite, the Death in the Afternoon.

Amaro: A type of Italian liqueur that’s syrupy-sweet and quite bitter, amaros were originally meant to be sipped after a meal to aid digestion. But bartenders today are using their unique tastes in a range of cocktails. Amaros come in many different varieties, each with its own distinctive flavor notes.

Aperol: An Italian liqueur flavored with orange peel, gentian, chinchona and other bitter ingredients, Aperol is basically Campari’s little brother: It’s lower-alcohol, less bitter and a more subdued red color. (In fact, the brand is actually owned by Campari.) Its most common cocktail is the Aperol Spritz, a brunch classic that’s a mix of Aperol, prosecco and club soda.

Applejack: Made by distilling apple cider, applejack has been popular in New England since it was a part of old England. America’s oldest operating distillery, New Jersey’s Laird & Company, has been making applejack since the early 18th century and received the United States’ first distilling permit in 1780. The best-known applejack cocktail is the Jack Rose, which mixes it with grenadine and lemon.

Armagnac: Just like cognac, armagnac is an aged grape brandy, except that it’s made in the Armagnac region of southwestern France. (Cognac comes from the Cognac region, which is about 200 miles to the north.) Since it’s not as well-known as cognac, bottles of fine armagnac offer some great value for the French-brandy fan.

GENE DANENHOWER

GENE DANENHOWER

Bitters: Concentrated tinctures of alcohol and various botanicals, bitters are like the salt and pepper of the bar—just a dash adds an irreplaceable something to many cocktails, most importantly the Old Fashioned (whiskey, sugar, water and bitters). Today, there’s an astounding variety of flavors of bitters on the market, ranging from chocolate to habanero, but the two classics are clove- and citrus-heavy Angostura and licorice-y Peychaud’s.

Bottled in bond: As a reaction to adulterated booze making people sick, Congress passed the Bottled-in-Bond Act in 1897. This government-supervised warehouses where distillers could age their product and guarantee that nobody had messed with it. (It also let them delay paying tax on their alcohol until after aging.) That’s still true today, but for the drinker, what bottled in bond means is that a whiskey is 100-proof, aged for at least four years and the product of a single season at a single distillery. Many bourbon and rye fans prefer bonded bottlings, which are seen as a more pure expression of a master distiller’s art.

Cachaça: Brazil’s national booze is this rum-like spirit made from fresh sugar cane juice. Muddle it with some lime chunks and sugar to get a Caipirinha, the drink you’ve had way too many of if you’ve ever been to Rio.

Campari: This old-school Italian aperitif is slightly sweet, very red and extremely bitter, which makes for wonderfully bracing cocktails that stimulate the appetite. Try a Negroni (gin, sweet vermouth and Campari) or an Americano (club soda, sweet vermouth and Campari) before your next meal to see what we mean.

Calvados: A barrel-aged apple brandy made in Normandy in northern France, calvados has long been drunk between courses of a large meal to settle the stomach. Bartenders are now incorporating it into cocktails, though the more expensive highly aged bottlings are best savored neat, like fine cognacs.

GENE DANENHOWER

GENE DANENHOWER

Chartreuse: Made by French monks from a secret recipe of 130 different plants, this liqueur is sweet, herbal and pungent—just a little bit is all you need. It comes in two varieties: Green Chartreuse is slightly higher in alcohol and more intensely flavored (and more expensive), and Yellow Chartreuse is a bit sweeter and milder. It’s commonly seen today in the recently popular Last Word cocktail, a mix of equal parts gin, Green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur and lime juice.

Creme de: There’s no cream involved here: “creme de [anything]” is a liqueur flavored with that thing, usually a fruit. Bone up on your French to translate, but common kinds include cassis (blackcurrant), pêche (peach), mûre (blackberry), menthe (mint) and cacao (chocolate).

Cointreau: Made in France from Caribbean bitter orange peels, Cointreau is a fancy brand of curaçao, an orange liqueur. Top-shelf Margaritas call for it, as does the Cosmopolitan.

Cynar: An amaro whose main flavoring is, of all things, artichoke. It tastes way less weird than it sounds: It’s bitter and sweet, with a definite vegetal edge, but it goes quite well with bourbon.

Falernum: A concentrated syrup flavored with citrus zest, ginger, almonds, clove and other spices, falernum comes in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions. It originates in the Caribbean, where it’s used in the oddly named but delicious Corn ‘n’ Oil, a mix of falernum and dark rum with a bit of lime and bitters. It also figures in lots of tiki cocktails, including the Zombie.

GENE DANENHOWER

GENE DANENHOWER

Fernet Branca: An amaro from Milan that’s intensely herbal and bitter (think Jagermeister on steroids). It can be tough to incorporate into a cocktail without overwhelming the other ingredients, but when done right, it’s sublime. Bartenders love the stuff straight—if you see someone order a shot, odds are good he or she slings drinks for a living. It’s also huge in Argentina, where they drink it mixed with Coca-Cola.

Genever: An ancestor of gin originally made in Holland. Genever is distilled from grain and then flavored with juniper, putting it somewhere between a whiskey and a gin. The Netherlands boasts lots of brands, but Bols is the most common one you’ll see in the US.

Gomme/gum syrup: A syrup made from sugar, water and gum Arabic, a thickener made of tree sap. It’s used to sweeten drinks just like simple syrup but also gives them a rich and viscous mouthfeel. Gomme syrup was common in the 19th century, which means the sleeve-gartered, mustachioed bartenders embracing everything 1890s love it too.

Malört: A Swedish liqueur popular in Chicago that’s unbelievably bitter. (Windy City denizens drink it more to prove their manhood than because it tastes good.) The Jeppson���s brand has been around since 1934 and is the most common, but local distilleries have also started creating their own versions recently.

Mezcal: Tequila must be made from one particular type of agave in specific parts of Mexico, but its wilder brother doesn’t like rules. Mezcal can be made from many different kinds of agave anywhere south of the border. Many are made using truly old-school methods like roasting the agave in earthen pits and distilling in clay pots, resulting in a smoky, intense flavor.

Neat: A shot of straight spirit (or possibly a cocktail), served at room temperature without ice.

Orgeat: A sweet syrup flavored with nuts (nearly always almonds), orgeat is indispensable for all sorts of tiki cocktails, including the famous Mai Tai (rum, orange liqueur, lime and orgeat—a real Mai Tai has no orange or pineapple juice in it). You might also see it in the seriously old-school Japanese Cocktail, a 19th-century concoction of brandy, orgeat and bitters.

Pickleback: A shot of whiskey (most often Jameson) paired with a shot of pickle brine. The combo sounds gross, but the salty and sour pickle juice and the caramelly whiskey really do go well together. The combo originated in Brooklyn but has since spread across the country.

Port: A sweet fortified wine made in specific parts of Portugal, port is most often drunk as a dessert wine. But in recent years, bartenders have started using it as a base for low-alcohol cocktails.

Rhum agricole: Most rum is made from molasses, a byproduct of processing sugar cane, but distilleries in Martinique and other French-Caribbean islands make theirs from fresh cane juice. The resulting rhum agricole is much grassier and funkier than a typical rum, similar in many ways to cachaça. Try it in the simple but powerful Ti’ Punch, a combo of mostly rum with a little lime juice and sugar cane syrup.

Sherry: Bartenders lately are going crazy for this fortified wine from the Jerez region of Spain. There are basically three different types, with wildly differing flavors: fino and manzanilla sherries are light and quite dry with a distinctive nutty flavor, amontillado and oloroso are a bit richer and darker, and Pedro Ximenez (or PX) is syrupy-thick and extremely sweet.

GENE DANENHOWER

GENE DANENHOWER

Simple syrup: It really is simple: a mix of equal parts sugar and water, used to sweeten drinks. Some recipes may also call for rich simple syrup, which is a mix of two parts sugar to one part water.

St-Germain: Though it’s only been around since 2007, this floral liqueur has rapidly become ubiquitous. It’s very sweet and flavored with tiny white elderflowers from France, which give it a delicate plum- or litchi-like flavor. It’s sometimes derided as “bartenders’ ketchup,” but they only use it so much because it pairs beautifully with pretty much anything (though its absolute best partner is Champagne).

Up: A drink strained into a coupe, Martini or cocktail glass and served without ice.

Vermouth: Named for the German word for “wormwood,” vermouth is a fortified wine flavored with various herbs (including wormwood, of course) and used in all kinds of old-timey cocktails. Pale-colored dry (or French, though not all dry vermouths are from France) vermouth is what you mix with gin for a Martini, and reddish-brown sweet (or Italian, though not all sweet vermouths are from Italy) vermouth is what you mix with whiskey for a Manhattan. (Interestingly, all vermouth starts out as white wine—the color comes from the herbs.)


Jason Horn is Playboy.com’s spirits columnist. He lives in Los Angeles and you can follow him on Twitter @messyepicure.


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