Stocking a liquor cabinet is serious business. Space can limit decisions as much as budget, so we have always aligned with the idea that you should buy cocktails, not random bottles of booze. In other words, start with a drink recipe that you love and build your cabinet that way—recipe by recipe. This is great, in theory, but the allure of Italian bitters often trumps restraint. If you're as big of a fan as we are, you may have amassed quite a collection—cocktail recipes or not—grabbing almost every amaro you can find. But if you are just starting out, it can be difficult to decide what to buy first. Many of us are familiar with Campari, if even just for the Negroni and the Americano, but as we explore others, how do we decide what to get next? Aperol is a logical extension, but what about the darker, herbal varieties? Surely these have flavors that can produce some very interesting drinks. The fact is, most bitter herbal liqueurs were originally meant to be consumed neat after a meal. It's no surprise then that one of the first bottles that often makes its way into cabinets is Averna. It's dark, bittersweet, and delicious. Although it's not as bitter as say, Campari which can be bracingly strong to the uninitiated despite an otherwise light flavor profile—Averna is thick, fruity and herbal—a smooth and reassuring gateway to an aromatic world of root and rind.
But, we aren't going to sip Averna. We are going to make a cocktail. If you do a few searches for recipes that call for it, you often find the Black Manhattan (a future exploit) and the Vertigo highball. Normally, we'd be drawn to the spirit-driven Manhattan riff every time, especially with an amaro in our tool chest. Sweet vermouth substitution is how we often use these ingredients. Yet, Duggan McDonnell's Vertigo cocktail seemed like an interesting alternative and perhaps a bit more appropriate for the onset of summer. Or so we thought.
Vertigo by Duggan McDonnell
2 oz Averna
.5 oz lemon juice
4 oz ginger ale
Build in a tall glass with ice and stir. Garnish with lime and lemon wheels.
It's basically a ginger highball with Averna acting as the base spirit. We like to make fun of ourselves when this happens, but using one drink recipe to characterize another is a twisted, self-referencing method that can be a fantastic (if somewhat annoying) way to learn. In this case, McDonnell is swapping Averna for the vodka in a Moscow Mule, or the rum in a Dark & Stormy, or the tequila in the El Diablo, or the Scotch in a Mamie Taylor—you get the idea. Or if you don't, check out these other cocktails and notice how they are all based upon the same basic formula, give or take the type of citrus used. It's like playing musical chairs with the base spirit. These are highballs because the basic recipe is elongated by adding a nonalcoholic mixer—in this case, ginger beer.
But, we have a small problem with the Vertigo: It's too sweet. Sure, one should always make drinks according to taste, and that sometimes requires balancing the sugar and the acid. Could we simply add more lemon? Yes, and that might help, but it's probably not the point. In this case, we believe we are meant to enjoy the sweetness in this drink just like we enjoy the full sweetness of Averna by itself. Yet, the other cocktails in this category work well because they rotate the strong ingredient—a spirit like rum or vodka—not by introducing a sweet element. Fans of the Vertigo: we get it, we just don't really like it, regardless of how wonderful and complex the Averna might be.
Behold: an original Summit Sips cocktail creation (disclaimer: based on the Vertigo by Duggan McDonnell). We give you, the Scottie Ferguson! Who? Scottie Ferguson. You know, the character Jimmy Stewart portrays in the Hitchcock film. Um? Vertigo? The movie? Sheesh.
Scottie Ferguson by Summit Sips
1 oz rum
1 oz Averna
1 oz lemon juice
.75 oz ginger syrup
3 oz seltzer
Add the rum, Averna, lemon juice and ginger syrup to a shaker. Add ice and shake to chill. Strain into a collins glass over a shard of ice. Top with seltzer and garnish with a lemon wheel. Float a bar spoonful of Averna.
Note that we are using ginger syrup and seltzer in lieu of ginger beer. We always make our own fresh ginger beer on the spot this way. If you don't want to make ginger syrup (that's a mistake by the way—you really should make some) you can always use a quality ginger beer instead of seltzer and skip adding the syrup. Homemade ginger beer doesn't make this a new cocktail, but the other changes do.
Ok, so what did we do with this drink? First, we upped the lemon juice. This helps balance the Averna and improves the flavor of the scratch ginger beer. We also used half the amount of Averna and brought in some rum. We picked a Barbados rum (Mount Gay Extra Old) mostly because the only white rum we had was Jamaican. The aged rum paired nicely with the Averna, bolstering its flavors without obscuring it or subtracting from it. Crucially, it did so without adding sugar. We probably could have used any white or amber rum with good results, and in hindsight, that Jamaican might have been amazing. The Averna float puts some of the aroma back on top.
What we have here is a like a Dark & Stormy, but one that is obviously transformed by the amaro. It's nicely balanced, but getting this right may depend on your choice of ginger beer or syrup. As always, you may need to adjust the lemon slightly to suit your taste. Whatever you do, just don't look down.