It’s been a long time since I’ve had the trifecta of Gruppo Campari bitters on my bar, but I’m proud to say that I finally have a bottle each of Campari, Cynar, and Aperol standing at the ready.  With my lovely bottle of Rhum J.M I was planning on going straight to the Sargasso (see below), but I was sidetracked when I saw a cocktail that actually called for Zwack, one of my pet liqueurs.

Zwack is the export version of Unicum, which was marketed as “Unicum Next” when I was in Hungary.  While I never got to like Unicum while I was there, I also scorned Unicum Next as “for tourists”, as if I were somehow not one.  If my memory is to be trusted,  it was actually pretty similar to a Fernet-style amaro.  Bitter, thick, not very sweet, and with a pronounced camphor note.  I’ve never seen actual Unicum for sale in the US, which is too bad, as I suspect I’d now really enjoy it.  Zwack is much less bitter and much more sweet, with a slightly sour, burnt-orange taste.  I’m a sucker for any cocktail that uses it.

Danube (Cocktail Virgin Slut):

  • 2 oz Punt e Mes (sub Carpano Antica with a dash of Campari)
  • 1/2 oz Zwack
  • 1/2 oz overproof rye (Old Potrero 18th-Century)
  • 1/2 small pinch of salt (what the hell is a 1/2 pinch?)
    Stir without ice, to dissolve salt, then add ice, stir, and strain into a cocktail glass.  Garnish with a lemon twist.

Nice but not lifechanging.  A good one for the Roommate, who likes drinks with salty or savory notes, and for adding to the happily swelling file of low(ish) proof cocktails.  Always nice to add to that arsenal.

Sargasso (Washington Post):

  • 2 oz aged rhum agricole (Rhum J.M Elevé sous Bois)
  • 3/4 oz sweet sherry (Lustau Dry Oloroso + dash simple syrup)
  • 1/2 oz Aperol
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
    Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with an orange peel.

Can the Sargasso be thought of, loosely, as a Negroni variation?  Or do its proportions, so far from the classic 1-1-1, push it too far away from that august beverage, and make it something more like a Manhattan variation?  Does it matter?  I ask only because, besides the inimitable Trident, I usually find Negroni variations only middling.  Agavoni (and the name!)/Rositas?  Fine for a change.  Boulevardier or Old Pal?  Sure, once in a while.  All of them, though, seem like mere callbacks to the Negroni.  Variations for the sake of variation, whose charm quickly fades, leaving one to cast a longing gaze at the Plymouth bottle, sighing “what might have been!”

The Sargasso isn’t like that.  The Sargasso dates back to the beginning of my rhum agricole mania, when I had the good fortune to have a bottle of both Rhum Neisson and a bottle of Aperol (both hard to come by in DC at that time) on my shelf, a circumstance which has, to this date, not recurred.  Since most bars in the Midwest and rural Northeast don’t commonly keep these ingredients (or even a decent sherry) around, I hadn’t had the chance to go back and see if my love for the Sargasso was merely the folly of youth or something deeper and more profound, likely to surface unexpectedly and piercingly at unpredictable times, when I thought I had settled down happily with a dependable Manhattan or an unchallenging Daiquiri.

The Sargasso is good.  The grassy flavors of rhum agricole add interest much like tequila does in similar tequila-Campari pairings, but the sugary backbone of the rhum ties in much better to the sherry.  The light, mildly bitter Aperol fades in with orange peel as the burnt sugar is dying out and finishes with a bitter, dry note that does not cloy.  Just a really enjoyable cocktail.