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Straight up tasting

I've started treating cocktail ingredients like cooking ingredients--if it's something new to me or my stash I make a point to taste it by itself as a means to create a more clear flavor reference. I guess this seems obvious, but it hasn't always occurred to me with cocktail ingredients. I have also never been a neat booze drinker, so I've only just started catching up on those lessons.

Do you do this?

Among other recents--Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, which tastes WEIRD. Like indescribably weird and like nothing else I've ever tasted. Not like cherry. Maybe like sugary stinky socks. Anyone got anything better than that to describe it? It actually kind of gags me even though I've had and enjoyed a couple of cocktails that used it. Now that I know the flavor I wonder if I'll still like it used in a drink.

Also, Peychaud's bitters vs. Angostura. If these weren't both called bitters, I would not put them together in that category. They are night and day different.

Also on my to buy/taste list is Cynar, an absinthe comparison, and an Amaretto other than DiSaronno.

So many flavors, so little time to drink!

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  1. IMO a much better amaretto than DiSaronno is Lazzaroni. I've also heard good things about Luxardo but have never tried it.

    That said there are certain liqueuers that are meant to be used in small amounts in cocktails that are difficult to enjoy straight, Some of these are amari, maraschino, fernet branca, floral liqueurs such as St Germaine (though there are some amari I don't mind straight.)

    1 Reply
    1. re: ncyankee101

      I don't know how popular amaretto is nowadays, but I recall it being quite so in the 70s-80s. I agree with your assessment on Lazzaroni. With that said, I still have the bottle I picked up - in the 80s. What to do?

      St Germaine is one of my favorite liqueurs. I use it a lot in prosecco but mostly in fruit salads and light desserts.

    2. Having some extra time on my hands last summer I dabbled around looking for some interesting new cordials. St. Germain is really interesting, derived from elderberry flowers of all things. Cherry Heering I like. Ditto Chambord.

      I also experimented to find my own favorite chocolate cocktail. Found that a combo of Godiva (or mozart), Chambord, kahlua and a hint of frangelico or butterscotch liqueur is pretty awesome.... a chocolate raspberry indulgence.

      There were alot of dogs in this tasting: Benedictine, B&B, Drambuie, Jagermeister, and many others I forget.

      20 Replies
      1. re: TombstoneShadow

        Drambuie a dog? I love Drambuie. It is a little on the sweet side but it is what got me interested in Scotch, my first true liquor love affair.

        1. re: TombstoneShadow

          I'm gonna stand up for Benedictine, too. It is an important herbal ingredient in classic and modern cocktails. And Jagermeister might have a frat-boy rap, but before that masterpiece of marketing, it was and is an interesting German "amaro" (If an amaro can be German.)

          There is no liqueur, other than amari and aperitifs that I personally would drink straight. But I value many of them -- particularly the herbal and bitter ones. Plus orange peel liqueurs are important, too.

          I have Luxardo and it is indeed much better than di Saronno, but at the end of the day, how often are you going to use what amounts to almond extract liqueur? Good orgeat is much more interesting.

          1. re: TombstoneShadow

            Add me on to those who disagree with you, on many levels. Drambuie and Benedictine are two of the best, if not the two best, liqueurs in the world. While I don't do shots of Jagermeister, it is an excellent, well made, digestif type liqueur.

            1. re: JMF

              Add me, too -- though Benedictine is a bit too sweet for me, which is why I prefer B&B. That said, I have both . . . .

              1. re: zin1953

                I agree on the B&B being preferably for drinking straight or on the rocks. But like Benedictine for cocktails.

              2. re: JMF

                JMF - have you had the 15 year Drambuie? Is it worth the premium price?

                1. re: ncyankee101

                  I have both here in front of me right now. The 15 is less sweet, more Scotch comes through, it's a bit bitter and hot. Also it lost the depth and complexity of the regular. I prefer the regular Drambuie. by a large margin.

                  1. re: JMF

                    Thanks, I have been tempted a couple times but resisted because of the $50+ pricetag.

                2. re: JMF

                  lol, they may be the "best", I just don't think they taste particularly good. If you twist my arm I'll have one but there's such a long list out ahead of them for my tastes.

                  1. re: JMF

                    I've received word, as a Manhattan lover, that I need to try a B&B Manhattan. Benedictine in place of vermouth---comments?
                    I do not currently have Benedictine in my cabinet but it might get moved to the top of my weird stuff list if someone can vouch for the B&B Manhattan.

                    1. re: splatgirl

                      I don't think, if you're a Manhattan lover, subbing the Benedictine for 100% of the vermouth is going to satisfy you. It will become a drink all about the Benedictine, which might taste good, but it's not going to be a Manhattan.

                      That said, I regularly dose my Manhattans with a very small amount of Benedictine, which I think works really well. It adds a certain smoothness and a bit of spiciness. (I originally got the idea from a Trader Vic drink called "The Preakness," although I believe that drink calls for Scotch.) The ratio I use is:

                      - 2oz rye
                      - 3/4oz vermouth
                      - 1/4oz Benedictine
                      - 2d bitters

                      1. re: davis_sq_pro

                        I agree, Benedictine would take over if used in the amounts to replace vermouth. Also agree than 1/4 oz Benedictine in a basic Manhattan is great. I use Benedictine in many cocktails, but never more than 3/4 oz, and usually 1/4-1/2 oz. In small amounts it adds herbal and honey notes, and adds body to the mouthfeel.

                      2. re: splatgirl

                        Just want to say that B&B is Benedictine mixed with brandy, Much dryer and less sweet than Benedictine. Also less herbal flavor.

                        1. re: JMF

                          Thanks to both of you! I am SO in.
                          Angostura, Peychauds or other with Benedictine? For regular Manhattans, I am currently in a two dashes Angostura, one dash Peychauds phase...

                          1. re: splatgirl

                            Angostura goes very well with just about everything -- definitely including Benedictine. For me it's the best choice for a Manhattan. No reason to mess with perfection.

                            I think Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel Aged can also add something nice to a Manhattan; it has a cinnamon note that complements sweet vermouth really well. (Peychaud's has a bit of the same, but that particular element is much more intense in the Fee Bros WBA.)

                          2. re: JMF

                            Reporting back on the Benedictine Manhattan: big thumbs up.
                            I went with my default Makers Mark, Dolin sweet, Benedictine, Angostura, a twist of lemon 2:1/2:1/2.
                            This ends up sweeter than I prefer secondary to the Benedictine being quite sweet--as you all have said--but I did really enjoy the extra hit of spice/herbal. A very thin slice of lemon as garnish instead of the twist, or even a couple of drops of lemon juice would have brought it closer to balanced for me.

                            Tonight I'll try one with Benedictine and dry vermouth instead of sweet.

                            I did notice the B&B on the shelf, JMF. When I read your post originally I thought you were referring to the drink named B&B designating the ingredients Benedictine and brandy, but I get it now. I think the recommendation was intended to mean Benedictine and Bourbon rather than the B&B liqueur, but I will have to clarify I guess!

                            1. re: splatgirl

                              Maker's is on the sweet/mellow side as-is. I think instead of switching to dry vermouth -- which doesn't tend to pair very well with whiskey -- you'll be happier with a more robust Bourbon. Or, better yet, a rye. Failing that switch, just drop the percentage of (sweet) vermouth a bit further.

                              1. re: splatgirl

                                When substituting, try to keep the sugar balance as a primary objective, unless you intentionally decide to change that. Since Benedictine is much sweeter than sweet vermouth, if you were happy with 2:1, then I'd try something like 2:1/2:1/4. That would be about the same sweetness.

                                I also like DSP's dry vermouth idea. You could try 2:1/3:1/3:1/3 (sweet, dry, benedictine) to come out at about the same sweetness.

                                You are coming across one of the great problems of mixing with liqueurs. Many are so sweet that by the time you have the flavor intensity you want, you have too much sugar, which then needs to be balanced with acid, which then makes it a different sort of drink.


                        2. re: TombstoneShadow

                          You must have had some old, weird Benedictine and Drambuie. They're both really wonderful.

                        3. St. Germain I have been enjoying for a couple of years in various cocktails. I can't say that I'd want to drink it straight, but at least it tastes nice. Overpowering but nice. I wish it were less sweet. It's one that needs a lot of acid to balance yet I don't always want a citrus-y drink. That makes me wonder what it would be like with bitters...?

                          The Luxardo fail got me wondering even more about Cheery Herring which I have not tried. Have you tried both to know how they compare, TombstoneShadow?

                          Benedictine--do tell. Why a dog? It's on that's on my list.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: splatgirl

                            i'm going by memory but benedictine struck me as herbal or vegetal in character? It just wasn't interesting. Had it long ago and recall liking it ... "but that was then". Kinda ditto for Amaretto. Btw amaretto and frangelico I much prefer the frangelico.

                            CH isn't great but I can sip a shot or two now and then w/ no probl... not sure how it compares to Luxardo.... I suspect it might be less sweet as Marschino sounds like a candied cherry flavor?

                            Maybe I have a sweeter tooth than u b/c I do like St-G straight, what cocktail(s) are u putting it in??

                            1. re: TombstoneShadow

                              Luxardo Maraschino liqueur tastes nothing like those fake, neon, maraschino cherries.

                          2. Yes, Maraschino Liqueur tastes nothing like cherry. Now that you know what it tastes like, you'll be able to pick it out in cocktails. There are a great many wonderful ingredients -- this among them -- that I would not enjoy straight. I love Caesar dressing, but I don't eat anchovy paste straight.

                            Skip the Amaretto, though.

                            www.kindredcocktails.com | Craft + Collect + Concoct + Categorize + Community

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: EvergreenDan

                              I'm with you -- and thinking in particular of Campari -- nasty and foul and bitter by itself -- nearly addictive when it's mixed. (I'll drink it with soda, but I adore it in orange or grapefruit juice)

                            2. "I've started treating cocktail ingredients like cooking ingredients--if it's something new to me or my stash I make a point to taste it by itself as a means to create a more clear flavor reference. I guess this seems obvious, but it hasn't always occurred to me with cocktail ingredients."

                              I prefer most spirits neat, but I, similarly, would never use any ingredient in a drink or a dish that I hadn't tasted first.

                              1. Must be something in the air in the Italian Alps and Dolomites. I love Cynar there when relaxing after a day on the slopes. And here in the states it is closer to cough syrup.

                                The bar we stopped in every afternoon had 5 shelves holding about 10 bottles each of apertifs, liquors, and grappa. We got through more than half. And where I discovered Cynar.

                                Latest find was $40 in Milwaukee on the shelf.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                                  The altitude!

                                  So were the orders just "make me something that uses X"?

                                  I feel a weird nostalgic pull from Cynar. I grew up in So.Cal and to this day artichokes are one of my most beloved foods.

                                2. One cocktail ingredient I would NOT recommend tasting neat is orange flower water. I got my first bottle a couple nights ago, took a tiny sip neat - ugh, might as well swig dish soap.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: ncyankee101

                                    Yes, that and rose water... Best way to nose/taste them is as you would cocktail bitters. First place a few drops in your palm, then rub hands together, then shake to dry. Then cup hands and smell. Then place a single drop on the back of your hand and lick that.

                                    1. re: JMF

                                      These are both cooking ingredients, too. It's amazing how in a recipe, either can go from magical to disgusting in the space of a drop or two.

                                  2. Based on the bitter liqueurs tangent on the "what are you drinking tonight" thread:
                                    Punt e Mes vs. Campari, two different bitter+ sweet

                                    Campari: smells like wet drywall or chalk. Taste is assertively bitter and syrupy sweet and not much else. Undertones remind me of cheap grain alcohol and chemicals, although maybe thats more my thinking about the red dye than tasting it.

                                    Punt e Mes: smells like prunes. Quite bitter, but less assertively so. Citrus-y. Slightly less sweet and less alcohol burn at the back of the palate. More refined and much more going on, flavor-wise. Exactly what you'd expect from something described as a bitter vermouth.

                                    Next, to compare these to Cynar. Any other suggestions for bitter liqueurs?

                                    14 Replies
                                    1. re: splatgirl

                                      Most folks don't drink Campari straight -- most mix it with *something* - try it with orange or grapefruit juice, like the Europeans do.

                                      1. re: sunshine842

                                        "Straight up tasting", the point being to create a flavor reference and understanding of the liquor or liqueur as an ingredient.

                                        1. re: splatgirl

                                          Kind of like drinking vinegar or oil or a spoonful of salt to me, but as you wish.

                                          But after that small initial taste, mix it with something - it won't taste harsh or chemical (because it isn't, actually -- I understand that's what you taste -- but if you research it, it really isn't)

                                          1. re: sunshine842

                                            Do you not taste new-to-you food ingredients raw/plain? I cook without recipes most of the time. How would I know what do do with things? --I'm thinking my first season or two of CSA, here, when I got things like tatsoi and kohlrabi for the first time.

                                            Cocktail ingredients are no different, at least not to me. Sure, I can follow a recipe, but the horizions are much broader and to me, much more fun when I have a flavor encyclopedia in my head.

                                            1. re: splatgirl

                                              Concentrated ingredients aren't like your CSA vegetables.

                                              If you tasted unsweetened baking chocolate straight up, you'd expect your batch of brownies to taste like mud.

                                              If you tasted fish sauce straight up, you'd expect your curry to taste like a sewage treatment plant.

                                              Neither of these is true, at least for my brownies and curries. And my Negronis don't smell of wet drywall or chalk.

                                              1. re: davis_sq_pro

                                                I disagree. It's not about expectation, and it doesn' take a genius to figure out that straight Campari (or baking chocolate) might not be as tasty as that plus other stuff. That doesn't mean the experience isn't useful and informative.

                                                You wouldn't make a Manhattan with $150 a bottle bourbon but you know why you wouldn't use that bourbon in a mixed drink because you've tasted it plain. In some cases you also know that a splash of water in that bourbon makes it even better, again because you've got a mental reference of the straight spirit to compare it to.
                                                Just because a spirit (or food ingredient) isn't typically enjoyed straight doesn't mean understanding it in that state isn't useful, aka the whole point of the thread.

                                                FWIW, I routinely taste both baking chocolate and fish sauce raw, as the need for more information or a renewed reference presents itself.

                                                1. re: splatgirl

                                                  Am I the only one here who drinks Campari neat? I think if anything the sweetness comes through more when it's not mixed with anything, where in a cocktail the bitterness kind of punches through everything else.

                                                  I pretty much always try a new product on its own before mixing it with something, though it might just be a teaspoonful. Tried this with Campari a few years back and my mouth almost died, so I'm not sure how useful it was.

                                                  I think the important thing is that there are a lot of cocktail ingredients that taste different when used in small amounts in cocktails than they do on their own, since mixing does more than just add flavors on top of each other. Absinthe comes to mind as an example: trying a dash of undiluted absinthe doesn't really give me any sense of what a dash of absinthe tastes like in a Sazerac or a Corpse Reviver #2. So I feel like certain cocktails can sometimes be a more valuable reference point than just the taste of the ingredients on their own.

                                                  1. re: A_Gonzalez

                                                    NOW THAT I'VE TRIED IT, I can completely understand drinking Campari neat and I agree with your observations about the sweet/bitter balance. Sometimes a little bit of something super intense is exactly what I desire.
                                                    I found it wasn't really all that different, intensity-wise, than Punt e Mes, which, from what I understand, is typically enjoyed neat.

                                                  2. re: splatgirl

                                                    but straight Campari and baking chocolate are so vastly different IN something than they are on their own, that their flavor profile is almost (not entirely) irrelevant.

                                                    No way would I take a swig of vanilla extract....but I add it to lots of things as I cook.

                                                    Of course I taste fruits and vegetables -- but there are things (like vanilla and vinegar and Campari and baking chocolate) that I don't need to gag on to be able to tell that I need to mix them with something else.

                                              2. re: splatgirl

                                                If something is really potent straight, you could cut it with something neutral such as vodka or club soda and still get a good sense of the taste. I like to do that with bitters.

                                                1. re: ncyankee101

                                                  Vanilla extract comes to mind....pretty awful stuff straight; fantastic when added to something else.

                                                2. re: splatgirl

                                                  Some things like Campari need to be mixed with something to dilute them so you can actually taste them because they are so strong they overwhelm your taste buds.

                                                  1. re: JMF

                                                    Campari and Orange juice is a good mix in the Summer, with or without ice.

                                                    Drambuie: The first time I had it was on a very cold flight out of Teheran. The crew had problems getting the aircraft cabin heated after take-off. Leaving Iranian airspace, the FA asked if I want a little Drambuie with coffee to warm up.