There's a great passage in the new Death & Co cocktail book that describes the process they use for vetting new additions to the menu. It's basically an interactive taste test with one bartender whipping up a new drink and all of the others making suggestions about proportions or ingredients. It helped us realize that perfecting a new recipe is often an iterative process, and settling on a final list of ingredients can be collaborative, but requires that one has access to (if not knowledge of) a vast array of possibilities. Sure, it's possible to hit incredible combinations right off the bat, but craft cocktail bars can even explore alternative brands allowing a recipe to be perfected to an extreme that most customers probably never realize—and it doesn't always lead to choices that are the most expensive or obscure.
Here's an agave recipe that caught our eye from the book. It's a drink by Joaquín Simó that he describes as a Oaxacan combination of the Last Word and the Paper Plane (which is the Aperol version of the Paper Airplane)—both are favorites in our house.
Naked and Famous by Joaquín Simó
.75 oz Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal
.75 oz Yellow Chartreuse
.75 oz Aperol
.75 oz lime juice
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled coupe. No garnish.
One of the delights of trying a cocktail like this in the bar that created it (or any decent craft cocktail bar) is the adherence to the recipe as written. As we described above, when you have access to a wide variety of ingredients, signature recipes can become very specifc, often with good reason. Slight variations in flavors among different brands can be important in a cocktail that is so complex. However, this presents a problem to the home mixologist. If you don't have the exact ingredients you either go out and buy them for the drink (a technique we recommend for expanding your cabinet inventory) or you must improvise and substitute with what you have. In this case, we subbed the base with the less expensive Del Maguey Vida mezcal because that's what we had.
The cocktail's creator might cry foul, claiming that using Vida instead of Chichicapa changes the flavor too much—and that's a fair argument. A lot of drinks fall apart when subbing a different base spirit. But, here it meant the difference between using another bottling from the same brand or not having the drink at all. While you could take subbing to the extreme and swap Aperol with Campari, Yellow Chartreuse with Green, or lime with lemon, you might as well admit at that point that you are making a similar but different cocktail. We are giving ourselves permission to use Vida mezcal and that's that.
And, despite our substitution it's still delicious. The mezcal definitely imparts its signature flavor that would, of course, be missing had we used tequila. You have to expect the smoky effect whenever a recipe calls for it, and recognize that with a substitution you should strive to reproduce such flavors as best you can. In this case, the base spirit hits your nose even before the first sip. Yet, this is quickly subdued by the Aperol and Chartreuse with a deceptive and floral sweetness that is herbal, orange, rhubarb and grapefruit all rolled together. The tart lime tastes slightly bitter as it completely squashes any idea that this is a sweet drink. What was complex and refreshing becomes dry on the tongue, begging another sip. We love this effect with the Paper Airplane cocktail and welcome it again here.
We wish we understood the meaning of the cocktail's name, as there is often a good story to explain such details. But it's not as important as pulling together the ingredients to make it. We have no immediate plans to visit New York, so we are happy to have the book to inspire us with great recipes even if they require an occasional substitution.