Love Potions: The Romance of the Classics

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno
February 2014

Restaurant

According to Cosmo’s February 2011 coverage, “The 20 Sexiest Cocktails to Sip On” include drinks like The Strawberry Kiss, Remember Last Summer, and Amore Vietato, or Forbidden Love, the latter two playing coy host to the wiles of Absolut Vanilla. Now, that’s three years out of date, so we can only assume Cosmo no longer supports consumption of drinks like The Chocolate Lover’s Margarita (#2 on the list), made with three parts chocolate milk, one part tequila, one part Daiquiri mix, and, presumably, many more parts reckless abandon. 

Not that we don’t have a little room in our hearts for bad cocktail choices (and the mornings after filled with Chocolate Lover’s regret). But by now the greater bartending world is savvy: Valentine’s Day, and generally romantic, drinks don’t have to be saccharine, cocoa-dusted, or even close to the red spectrum. They just have to be cocktails, faithfully embracing the world of fragrant tinctures, floral gins, robust bitters, silky spirits, fruity aperitifs, and all manner of variously perfected ingredients at their fingertips. Yes, overwrought sugar-bombs have their place—bachelorette parties—but there’s really nothing more romantic than a simple, well-balanced, classic cocktail, which is the closest thing to a true love potion we know of.

Just ask Michael Anderson at the St. Charles Exchange in Louisville, Kentucky. Anderson mixes with a style to match the elegant historicism of the setting. Mixing with other spirits in bourbon country is hard enough—“if you can’t speak bourbon in this city, you’re going nowhere”—but Anderson’s a master of spirits. And not only did he get us to swoon without any pink or bubbles, he did it with things like mezcal, gin, and tequila, all the while keeping a greater emphasis on balance, and a stern hand with sugar. “Sugar is a tool; it’s part of a balance. If you build a cocktail around sugar, rather than using sugar to build a cocktail, that’s not necessarily going to be a recipe for success.”

La Sangre y la Playa- Herradura Reposado, Punt es Mes, Blood Orange Juice, Luxardo Amaretto, Cherry Heering, and Vida del Maguey Mezcal Spray

La Sangre y la Playa- Herradura Reposado, Punt es Mes, Blood Orange Juice, Luxardo Amaretto, Cherry Heering, and Vida del Maguey Mezcal Spray

PASTE CAPTION

La Sangre y la Playa- Herradura Reposado, Punt es Mes, Blood Orange Juice, Luxardo Amaretto, Cherry Heering, and Vida del Maguey Mezcal Spray

20th Century- Tanqueray Malacca Gin, Crème de Cacao, Kina l'Avion d'Or Quinquina, and Lemon Juice

20th Century- Tanqueray Malacca Gin, Crème de Cacao, Kina l'Avion d'Or Quinquina, and Lemon Juice

20th Century- Tanqueray Malacca Gin, Crème de Cacao, Kina l'Avion d'Or Quinquina, and Lemon Juice

20th Century- Tanqueray Malacca Gin, Crème de Cacao, Kina l'Avion d'Or Quinquina, and Lemon Juice

Mixologist Michael Anderson of St. Charles Exchange – Louisville, KY

Mixologist Michael Anderson of St. Charles Exchange – Louisville, KY

Mixologist Michael Anderson of St. Charles Exchange – Louisville, KY

Mixologist Michael Anderson of St. Charles Exchange – Louisville, KY

For Anderson, the recipe for a romantic cocktail has more to do with essential characteristics, like texture and aromatics. “The perception of a cocktail for me is really basic on the palate. The more complex things you’re able to do are aromatic,” which is why the finishing spritz of Del Maguey Vida mezcal in Anderson’s El Sangre y La Playa is the key. Literally translated as The Blood and the Beach, the drink is Anderson’s agave-ed homage to the original Blood and Sand, a russet Scotch meets orange juice meets Cherry  Heering concoction named for a movie about a Spanish bullfighter (who finds love, then success, then finds more love, then loses the first love and success, and eventually loses the second love as well, and finally dies…Happy Valentine’s Day).  Anderson subs in Herradura Reposado tequila for the Scotch, with additional tweaks like winter-specific blood orange juice and Luxardo Amaretto. “The addition of Amaretto completely changes the cocktail,” Anderson says, but it’s that final misting of mezcal—softly smoky aromatics lingering on top—that acts like the final seduction, creating playful contrast between initial aromatic impressions and what’s in the glass.

If aromatics are the final flourish of Anderson’s El Sangre, it’s texture that draws you in to his version of the 20th Century, which, effectively and on purpose, is not his version. “The recipe that we’re using is the closest to the original, the best we’re able to do in regards to making that drink,” says Anderson. In this case, he practices the art of loving something by leaving it be. With just the tiniest tweak, he’s recreating an unexpectedly successful 1937 combination of gin, lemon juice, French aperitif wine, and crème de cacao—a masterwork in cocktail balance. “I love this cocktail—everything about it,” says Anderson, who’s also an ardent and unapologetic gin lover. “It’s not too sweet, has great texture, and the quality of the cacao and vanilla they use [in the Tempus Fugit crème de cacao]—it’s the best stuff there is.”

The fact that the 20th Century offers up a requisite dose of chocolate in the company of herbaceous gin and a bitter, floral aperitif is a Valentine’s coincidence, like eating two of the same Russell Stover’s chocolates in a row—ideally not those orange ones. The romance of the drink is in how harmoniously the ingredients intermingle, which Anderson says actually pivots on the acid. “There has to be a lot of acidity up front, and you can accomplish that with lemon juice,” says Anderson, who uses a lower acid Kina in place of more commonly employed Lillet Blanc. With the viscosity and body of the crème de cacao and Kina, and the sweeter citrus of the wetter style Tanqueray Malacca gin, “super fresh, cold lemon juice” is essential, acting almost like a girdle for so much lushness. The end result is a drink that practically glides onto the palate.

Anderson isn’t expecting to make as many classic cocktails for Valentine’s Day as he’ll pour Champagne—“there’s definitely gonna be some pink bubbles” (Cosmo may have a better sense for what’s demanded than we realize). But from a bartender’s perspective, the holiday will be important for him logistically. “It’ll be a learning experience,” he says, reasonably more realistic than romantic. “We’ll probably batch some, giving us more time to make sure the drink is Instagram-worthy.” Happy Valentine’s Day. 

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