Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: The Liberal
As idealistic searchers of the hallowed halls of the bibulous arts, we endure the bane of bad drinks with good names. When I unearth a cocktail that tastes great, has a great name, and hasn’t been written about ad infinitum, I scream “WOO HOO” and do a Steve Balmer dance (but only in my head). Thus, sadly, the Suburban, La Negressa Blonde and the Bosom Caresser failed to make the cut...Here we have the Liberal, and I must say I’m thrilled to admit this bleeding heart to the cocktail club.
-- Ted Haigh
Your author of this series is an unabashed liberal, formerly toiled in the heart of American political campaigns and remains an enthusiastic political junkie and proud member of the Democratic Party. In the past, has made the error of engaging guests at various bars in political “discourse.” It is part of the bartenders’ code that is best remembered by those behind the stick: Avoid politics and religion. But, as Election Day approaches, and as Murray Stenson is still laid up, it is time to look at The Liberal Cocktail, a drink that dates from 1895 and that has probably been poured by Murray more than anyone else in the United States.
There is one serious problem with The Liberal—most people can’t make it, at least not right away, but if you are lucky enough to be in position to obtain a very difficult to source product, you can serve these next Tuesday. If not, some foresight will allow you to serve them on Inauguration Day, either as a celebratory cocktail or as a vessel in which to drown your sorrows.
Old Books, (Nearly) Extinct Ingredients
The Liberal seems to first appear in Gabe Kapler’s 1895 edition, Modern American Drinks. At first glance, it appears to be a straightforward riff on The Manhattan, with a rye whiskey base mixed in equal parts with a French bitter, Amer Picon in place of the vermouth. That said, the Liberal evolved rather quickly, with Sweet Vermouth being added back and orange bitters being used to supplement the punch of the Picon by 1914.
Amer Picon is a pain in the ass. It is somewhat similar in profile to the bitter Italian Amaros, with a pronounced bitter orange flavor lingering over a base that is redolent of unsweetened baking chocolate. It is commonly added to cheap Euro Lagers to add flavor and body, and Beer Picon is a great afternoon refresher. It also features prominently in the delicious Picon Punch, a drink that still has great prominence in areas of the United States with significant Basque enclaves, epically around Bakersfield, California.
In the Liberal, the rye plays the melody and the Picon and orange bitters lay down the bass line. It anchors the drink, and various substitutes can be used, but none of them are as satisfying as the real thing.
The problem is that the real thing is (sort of) extinct. Amer Picon is now owned in France by the Diageo Corporation, a multi-national spirits conglomerate who also control countless other labels (Johnny Walker, Jose Cuervo, Don Julio, Bushmills, Tanqueray, J&B, Ketel 1, and on and on). Diageo, despite clamoring from American bartenders, doesn’t export the stuff to the United States. Moreover, the modern product is not the same as the stuff that would’ve been around in 1895, as the proof was cut in half sometime in the 1970s, creating a vastly different product.
If you are lucky enough to live in California, Torani (the people who make those flavored coffee syrups), produce a product called Torani Amer , produced at 78 proof, that is widely used in and around Bakersfield for Picon Punch and relatively easy to obtain throughout the state (and via shipping, where allowed).
But Torani refuses to sell the product anywhere outside of California, despite the persistence of certain bartenders who may or may not email them every six months asking for it. In any case, the Torani is not an exact replica of Amer Picon; it is less orangey and more vegetal, but recent tasting reports indicate that they may have changed up their formula to be closer to Picon’s profile, and if you can find it, you can use it here, though the results will not be as pleasing.
But until Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz decides to find someone to produce a real replica, we’re going to have to make our own if we want to experience The Liberal as it is meant to be served. The best and most widely used, homemade version comes from Seattle bartender Jamie Boudreau, who by all accounts has pretty much nailed the recipe. It is not a quick task, but it is worth the effort, and having Amer Boudreau around the house or bar allows you to tackle a number of great cocktails besides The Liberal as well as quaff an easy and refreshing Beer Picon on a hot day. It’s worth it.
A Note on Ingredients: The Whiskey
This is no time to be shy with your whiskey. You’re mixing in strongly flavored ingredients, and you need a rough and ready rye as your base. The Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond is the best, easily available product to use, but choose something over 90 proof and preferably at 100.
Why the Evolution?
It’s not clear why the Liberal evolved from a 50-50 rye-Picon mixture to one where the Picon is cut way back and Sweet Vermouth and orange bitters have muscled in, but by the publication of Jack Straub’s Drinks in 1914, the Picon is only used in dashes, while the vermouth carries the modifying load. Straub’s version is pleasant, but if we’re going to go through all the trouble of mixing up a homemade batch of the stuff or source it from abroad, we’re going to damn well use it a sight more than Straub calls for.
That said, the original formula is nice, but very, very stout. Using some vermouth can work quite well indeed and makes for a nice cocktail. The trick is balance.
A Note on Ingredients: The Sweet Vermouth
If you go the vermouth route, this is not a cocktail for your restrained French stuff. As good as Dolin and Noily Pratt can be, the bold whiskey and the strongly flavored Amer Picon need vermouth with some backbone.
Go Italian, and if you can swing it, go Carpano Antica. It’s expensive, but it’s the gold standard for Italian Vermouths and makes a Manhattan that will blow your doors off. If you can’t swing the Antica, Cochi Vermouth di Torino is great here too.
A Note on Difficulty
This is not the easiest drink in the world to sample. Getting your hands on the Amer Picon or the Torani Amer is next to impossible for most people. Making the Amer Boudreau is a labor of love. But it is a fantastic, booze forward, elegant aperitif that is well worth the trouble.
If you don’t want to go through the trouble, and you’re lucky enough to live in a city that has the kind of bars that research old books and recreate old ingredients, they should be happy to mix one of these up for you. And, like the Last Word, this cocktail was largely brought back into prominence by Murray Stenson in Seattle, who is the kind of barkeep who has regulars who smuggle him bottles from abroad for use at work.
Of course, if your boss travels to France for film festivals, he might be induced to bring you back some of the French stuff. Stop by my place on Tuesday; I’ll be mixing up Liberals as the returns come in.
The Liberal (Gabe Kapler, 1895)
1 ½ oz Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Rye Whiskey
1 ½ oz Amer Boudreau
1 Dash Simple Syrup (2-1)
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with cracked ice. Stir until very cold and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a swath of lemon peel.
The Liberal (Ted Haigh, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, Deluxe Ed)
¾ oz Wild Turkey Straight Rye Whiskey
¾ oz Carpano Antica Vermouth
3 dashes Torani Amer
1 generous dash orange bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with cracked ice. Stir until very cold and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a cocktail cherry. (NB, Haigh is wrong here. Use a lemon peel, the oils are very nice in this drink.)
The Liberal (Adapted by Bill Norris)
1 ½ oz Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Rye Whiskey
¾ oz Amer Boudreau or 1 oz Amer Picon
¾ oz Carpano Antica Vermouth
2 dash Angostura Orange Bitters (3 if using Amer Picon)
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with cracked ice. Stir until very cold and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a swath of lemon peel, flaming the oils over the glass.
Amer Boudreau (Jamie Boudreau)
1 bottle Amaro Ramazzotti
2 ½ cups orange tincture*
2 oz Stirrings Blood Orange bitters
1 Cup Plus 4.5 oz Evian
Place all ingredients into a container and stir. Allow ingredients to get to know each other for at least one week. Filter and bottle. Keep excess refrigerated.
Take any size jar, and fill it half way with dried orange peel.
Fill remainder of jar with high-proof vodka (I use Smirnoff Blue Label).
Let sit for one to two months.
Strain and filter.
To shorten infusion time, shake three times a day and infuse for three to six weeks high proof vodka extracts more flavor, so if possible, use Everclear and infuse for three weeks, then, after filtering, add water to bring down the proof.
[NB: Six weeks seems excessive to me, and I would advise using 100 proof vodka over Everclear for flavor reasons. Dried Orange peels can be purchased here, or you can simply use a wide vegetable peeler to remove the peels from your oranges, avoiding the pith, and lay them on a cookie sheet in a gas oven that is turned off for 24 hours or so. Or, I suppose, if climate allows, sun dry them they way they do in Curacao.]