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Drink of the Week: Bitter Branch

Bitter BranchHere's a nice cocktail to drink while curled up next to the fireplace. It's big and bold, salty and sweet, and a little bitter too. You could say it's everything but sour. It comes by way of Marvel Bar's Pip Hanson and appears in both The American Cocktail book and Northstar Cocktails. During the colder, darker months, it's hard not to get excited about cocktails like this one. It's also pretty easy to make for how complex it tastes, and it uses an ingredient we've never featured on Summit Sips until now.

The unusual ingredient is Nocino (no-CHEE-no), a dark Italian walnut flavored liqueur made from unripe green walnuts. The flavor is sweet, luscious and deeply nutty, but often still high in alcohol. We were first introduced to it a couple years back at the Bradstreet Crafthouse where it plays prominently in their Black Walnut Old Fashioned, a cocktail that uses the liqueur in place of sugar for their twist on the popular classic. One brand that is getting easier to find is Nux Alpina which comes from Austria. There's also Toschi Vignola Nocino, or their Nocello which is made from walnuts and hazelnuts. In northern Italy, nocino is often a homemade ingredient. Green walnuts are soaked in alcohol which is later mixed with simple syrup. The high-proof liqueur turns black in the process and sometimes spices are added to enhance the flavor. We haven't made it ourselves (our bottle will probably last a long time) but a recipe was published a while back by Imbibe Magazine. Whether you use Nux Alpina, a homemade nocino, or a nocello, they will all work equal magic in this drink.

Bitter BranchBitter Branch by Pip Hanson
3 oz rye
1 oz Cynar
.5 oz nocino (or nocello)
1 dash salt water

Combine rye, Cynar, nocino and salt water in a mixing glass, stir with ice, then strain into a chilled rocks glass. Garnish with an orange twist and a candied walnut.

Notes:
To make the salt water, combine 2 Tbs sea salt into a 1/2 cup boiling water, stirring till dissolved and chill, or follow instructions here.

We last used a salt solution in the the Night of the Hunter cocktail to create the illusion of salty caramel. This time, the salt helps develop the complex flavors in the ingredients and brings them all together. It's definitely a sipper, but one that gets better as you go. The bitterness isn't the dominate flavor, but as the name kindly suggests, the Cynar does carry through. Research has shown that salt can actually counteract bitter flavors in a drink, but a full ounce of amaro is a lot to overcome. We tried doubling the amount of salt solution, and although this further enhances the flavor of the drink, it still retains a somewhat bitter finish. That's not necessarily a bad thing!

You'll definitely want to freeze your rocks glass for this. It's a sipper that deserves to be savored, but it doesn't have to get warm in the process. Ample dilution is also important. As written, the recipe is a full four and a half ounces before adding ice which is a big drink by classic definitions. We cracked six 1-inch cubes of ice for stirring and just barely took the edge off. You want some bite, but make sure you adequately chill the cocktail with plenty of ice and lots of stirring. You may want to scale the proportions back a little if all you want to do is try this out, but be sure you are getting a nice proportion of water into the cocktail either way.

We skipped the candied walnuts and went with just a pigtail orange twist garnish. On the nose, the orange comes through as it should even before the first sip. As it hits the tongue, the salt is there, seasoning the rye and the sweet walnuts followed by the soft bitterness and herbal complexity from the Cynar. If you are a Manhattan fan or you love a spirit driven cocktail, this is for you, but be prepared for an assault of flavor. You will definitely taste the rye whiskey in this drink. We used Templeton, but Pip Hanson suggests Rittenhouse. Actually, this cocktail has already evolved into something at Marvel Bar called the Oakenshield which appeared on their menu for a time. We assume the name is a reference to Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the Company of Dwarves in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. This updated version swaps a mildly smokey Scotch for the rye and the effect is so delicious we probably should have made it the Drink of the Week. So, scratch the recipe above and sub Scotch whisky instead of rye. The Drink of the Week is the Oakenshield. Gandalf approves.

20 comments to Drink of the Week: Bitter Branch

  • Paul

    Hello ! First I have to say that you maintain the best mixology website I have ever encountered. There are many wonderful recipies you have made available to people like myself. I made the real pomegrenade grenadine a few weeks ago, and it turned out super. There are some kinds of spirits that are hard to get by here in Sweden where I live, as there is an alcohol monopoly here, but the state run Systembolaget offers a wide range of spirits even though. Yellow Chartreuse is one that I still have to find ( I might have to go to Denmark to buy some ). Regarding Cynar I was wondering if you think it would be possible to substitute it with Aperol ? Is there a big difference in character between the two ?

    With best regards,

    Paul

    • Paul,
      Thanks for the kind words! I am glad the grenadine is working for you. Also, although we love yellow Chartreuse, don't feel too bad about not finding it. You aren't missing too much if you can get the green.

      Regarding Cynar, I wouldn't recommend substituting Aperol in this drink. It might make a delicious variation, but it will be a very different flavor. I think of Aperol as a sweeter, less bitter version of Campari. Both are bitter, but also fruity, whereas Cynar is very herbal. Do you have access to any other dark herbal Italian amaro? Another way to go would be to use a big Italian vermouth like Put e Mes, Cocchi di Torino or even Carpano Antica and maybe add a little Aperol or Campari to increase the bitterness. Doing that might actually get closer to the flavor profile than using straight Aperol.

      Unfortunately, Cynar has a pretty unique flavor that is hard to replicate. It's often just the right balance of bitter, sweet and herbal for creating slightly bitter variations of cocktails that normally use sweet vermouth. It's one of the reasons I enjoy using it because it is so flexible and not likely to overpower a drink. The Bitter Branch is already sweet, so if you must use Aperol, use less of it and add some sweet vermouth. Whatever you do, please let us know your results. Half the fun is getting creative within the constraints of your own inventory and you might come up with a variation that's better than the original!

  • Paul

    Hi Randy ! Thanks for your reply. The bitter Amaros I can find are:
    Amaro Montenegro 23%
    Amaro Ramazzotti 30%
    Amaro Averna 29%
    Quintessentia 35%
    Braulio 21%

    In vermouths they have both
    Antica Formula ( Fratelli Branca )16,5%
    and Punt e Mes 16%

    So could you make the drinks containing yellow Chartreuse with the green one instead ? I understand the flavor wouldn't be the same, but maybe similar at least.

    • Quintessenia is probably Nonino? lovely stuff, but not very bitter at all. Actually, Ramazzotti is also only mildly bitter as are some of the others you mentioned. All of them would be interesting subs that I would try before Aperol. Frankly, they are all different from one another. Punt e Mes is definitely worth a go. I love it because it's a vermouth with a noticeable bitterness that also has a chocolate element that might take this drink to another level.

      As for Chartreuse, any self-respecting cocktail geek will have both green and yellow, and yes, the flavors are slightly different, but they are close enough that if a recipe calls for yellow, you can often get away with green if you cut back a little on the portion. Green is stronger, yellow is sweeter and always makes me think I am detecting honey flavors. It's nice to finally track down a bottle of yellow, but when you do it may be somewhat anti-climactic since it only appears in a few recipes. I try to highlight several here if only to justify the trouble and expense of finding it.

  • Paul

    Hi again Randy ! I ordered some Toschi Nocello, which was very sweet, and definitely had a nutty flavor, but it was light in color compared to what the Nocino looks like in pictures, and you could detect hazelnuts as well as walnuts. Do you think this works in this drink as well, or should I seek out a bottle of Nocino, which you only seem to be able to purchase directly from Italy ?
    I'm also wondering how much salt water solution a dash would be ?

    • Paul, the recipe as it appears in books says you can use nocino or nocello. Either will work. I happened to have Nux Alpina which is nocino but I think hazelnuts would add another delicious dimension to this drink.

      A dash is usually about 12 drops but can vary depending on how full the dasher bottle is. Most of us embrace the imprecision of the dash measurement. This drink can handle it if you add a few drops more or less of the salt solution. Adjust to how you like it.

  • Paul

    Hi again Randy ! How do you make tohose neat curly lemon and orange zest swirls ? Do you boil them in a sugar solution and twist them around a chopstick to dry or ? Mine just don't come out that curly with a zest iron.

  • Paul

    Hello ! I haven't come around to making The Bitter Branch yet, but I have aquired a bottle of Nocello and a bottle of Nocillo-which I reckon is the same stuff as Nocino, a walnut liqueur which is 38%. I wonder which one to use, because I think the result will be quite different. The Nocello is sweet and nutty ( 24%), while the Nocillo which I tried a little of by itself today is walnutty, but not very sweet,rather a bit tart, and very complex as opposed to the syrupy Nocello, which is also much lighter. It might be good with some sweetness to balance the rest of the ingredients in this drink. Nocillo - Nocello, just a letter's difference, but just as different as strawberries and blueberries.

    • Paul, you might have guessed my response: try it both ways! Mine was made using nocino, so it would be nice to compare notes, but I'd like to know how both of your products work out.

      With such a long build-up to finally making this cocktail, I hope you won't be disappointed. ;-)

  • Paul

    Hi again ! I'm just wondering what volume you would give a dash, Is 0.25 oz ( 0.8 ml)a good starting point. In the Night of the Hunter you were very specific ( 30 drops .

    I am also wondering how much a bar spoon contains?

    I've tried a drink called Irish Dew today, which was good. You mix 3cl of Tullamore Dew ( which I didn't have so I used Talisker, which was just as good- I believe ), 2cl cold Sumatra gayo coffee-which I couldn't find so I used Yirgacheffe beans, which probably works just as well, and 1cl Heering Coffee Liquore, with ice in a glass. Then in a shaker you mix 4cl of heavy cream, 1cl of Aperol and 1cl of vanilla syrup ( 1,2dl of sugar, 1/2 a dl of water, and one scraped out vanilla bean, which cooks together and then cools ). Shake vigorously so the mix gets creamy and then pour over the drink in the glass. It was a bit like a desert.

    • Paul,
      First, the dash:
      A dash is far less than .25 oz. Unfortunately, the dash may have a formal definition that is very specific SOMEWHERE, but in practice, it is highly variable. It largely depends on the bottle, the opening, and how full it is. For instance most commercial bitters come in dasher "woozy" bottles with a plastic limiter under the cap, Fee Bros. bottles have a larger hole in in that part whereas with Angostura, it's smaller. In either case, a dash is simply the amount of liquid that comes out when you turn such bottles upside down as you give them a single shake. What happens is the bottle squirts a little bit of its contents before a vacuum effect stops it. Your shake action has the liquid bouncing back after the dash is dispensed allowing air to enter the hole. If you continue with another shake, another dash comes out.

      To make matters worse (or rather, more imprecise) the amount of liquid that exits the bottle changes if the bottle is full or nearly empty. A full bottle allows a smaller amount to exit.

      For some of us, dashing bitters is part of what makes each cocktail somewhat unique. One may have a little more, one a little less. As much as we strive to achieve perfect balance of flavor, sometimes a little imprecision is OK. For others, getting an exact amount is important. I like to put all of my bitters into eyedropper bottles. This allows me to dispense by the drop which can be very important for ingredients like orange flower water. However, I use the dropper bottles because I want to save space in my cabinet and store the larger bitters bottles elsewhere. Most references to the dash in terms of drops places the amount somewhere between 5 and 12 drops.

      Since so much depends on technique, the bottle and the quantity in the bottle, I suggest you do some tests. Dash as you normally would with a dasher bottle into your smallest jigger and count how many dashes it takes to fill to a known measurement. At least then you will have some idea how much liquid this is.

    • As for the bar spoon, they are all different. I read somewhere that some are 1/8th oz, or slightly less than a teaspoon. Here again, if a recipe specifies a bar spoon, it's assumed that there is some level of imprecision in such a quantity. Either it doesn't matter too much for that ingredient, or there is also the fact that if you are mixing the cocktail you should also be tasting the result in case it requires more or less of something. One thing I will say is that even with this kind of reference, it's best to know YOUR equipment for when something specific comes up. Do some tests with your jigger and find out how much volume your bar spoon holds so you know where you stand.

    • Finally, regarding the recipe, it sounds tasty, but I would offer a few comments on your substitutions and how they would affect the outcome. First, Tullamore Dew is an Irish whiskey. You used Talisker which is Scotch. While the Scotch whisky might be very tasty and a worthy substitute that makes a good drink, it's important to recognize that Scotch is a different product. In fact, this drink's name is Irish Dew--a clear reference to both the origin of the base spirit and the brand. If you were going to sub the whiskey, it should at least be Irish like Jameson, or Redbreast. Using a Scotch could possibly introduce unintended flavors such as peat and smoke--common among Scotches, but not Irish whiskey. Irish usually has a lighter flavor than Scotch. Still, your version might be still be delicious!

      As a coffee bean roaster myself, I can tell you that Yirgacheffe is one of my favorites. However, depending on the roast, that bean usually has a crisp citrus and floral flavor in the cup, whereas Sumatra can often carry funky foresty notes--a difference that is quite clear and obvious in a side-by-side. Of course, a dark roast on any bean will obliterate these origin nuances, but I would think that if the recipe is specifically calling out a Sumatra, it's probably a medium to lighter roast with lots of body and plenty of origin flavors--otherwise, why call it out? If it didn't matter, you could just use Folger's and call it good.

      Aperol and vanilla syrup is very interesting and gives me an idea to try an experiment, though it's going to be sweet. In fact, this whole cocktail strikes me as a dessert--which you pointed out.

      I don't normally get excited about drinks with cream, though there are a few exceptions. This one seems a little complicated--I don't usually have cold coffee around when making cocktails. Vanilla syrup isn't one of my standbys either since I could just as easily grab some Liquor 43 or Navan. Still, with the Holidays coming, you may have hit upon a great drink to prepare for party guests!

  • Paul

    I finally tried my first Bitter Branch on Monday this week, and it had a very strong but complex and interesting flavor with the 76 proof Nocillo, and I really liked it. Not very sweet, a little bitter and the walnut licquore really carried through. I don't know for sure if I should try it with Nocello- it might spoil a really good drink, or ....well, I'll be back.

    • No doubt, it's a strong drink with flavors that are not for everyone. Your efforts to reproduce it over the past weeks are admirable. Keep playing with the ingredients too. That's what it is all about!

  • Paul

    By the way, what a fantastic web site you are running Randy. Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year !

    • Paul, I appreciate your kind words. I am happy write about my experience in hopes that others like you are able to enjoy some explorations of your own. I am really glad you are not just reading, but taking extra time to post comments, ask questions and share your results. Happy New Year and thanks for reading!

  • Paul

    I have now tried The Bitter Branch with both Nocillo and Nocello, and I definitely´think that Nocillo creates a better mix, with a better flavor. The Nocello is not so powerful when it comes to the nutty aroma, but more sweet.

    I tried a good warm drink yesterday called Apple Dew. It contains 1 Tablespoon of lemon juice, 1 Tablespoon of orange juice, 1 Tablespoon of maple syrup, 1 dl of cloudy apple juice and .75dl of Tullamore Dew. You heat it on the stove and serve it warm. Really good when it is 0F outside.

  • […] is somewhat difficult to describe. Immediately, we thought of cola or herbal amaro drinks like the Bitter Branch and knew we wanted to try it with whiskey. We chose Irish whiskey to support the jam rather than […]

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