Making Every Bottle Count

 

3 cocktails

 

With the state of the world turning every night into date night at home—and holiday entertaining limited to cocktail hour on Zoom—it’s a good time to take stock of the bottles we keep in our home bars. After all, if we’re forced to fend for ourselves, we ought to give ourselves a fighting chance to mix up something amazing.

Thing is, most people can’t, won’t, don’t maintain robust home bars. For good reason. While the idea of collecting an army of gins, whiskeys, tequilas and specialty liquors to deploy at the end of a hard day is alluring, for most of us it just isn’t practical.

That’s why when I set out to write my new cocktail book—Shake Strain Done—my goal was to develop recipes that use as few bottles as possible, yet deliver deep nuance and flavor. It works because the recipes combine the liquors with flavorful ingredients most of us already have on hand. Spice cabinet and pantry staples, for example.

 

The other reason it works is that every bottle I use has to earn its keep. The world is awash in amazing specialty liquors. But to earn a place at my bar—and in my book—it needs to be a workhorse, something I turn to over and again.

Bourbon, gin, vodka, white rum, tequila blanco and other core liquors are obvious choices. But once you get into the secondary liquors, that’s when the tough choices start. And that’s where flavor matters. A lot.

For my bar—and my book—ginger and orange liqueurs were no-brainers. They contribute distinct flavors that brighten cocktails while adding a gentle sweetness.

The same is true for one liqueur you may not have heard of, but that I always keep in my bar—Licor 43. The simple name—derived from the number of ingredients that goes into it—doesn’t do justice to the depth of flavor this Spanish liqueur brings to the bar.

I learned about it a few years ago from a baker friend, who uses it to spike frostings and cupcake batter. Mildly citrusy and sweet, Licor 43 sports deep vanilla notes with hints of spice. It’s a unique combination I’ve not found in other liqueurs. Most importantly, the flavors are clean and bright. Too often, sweet liqueurs are cloying, their real flavor lost behind all the sugar.

I particularly like the versatility of Licor 43. It plays as well with fruit and lighter spirits—I use it to add complexity to a wine and gin mixture spiked with orange and grapefruit juices—as it does whiskey—a splash of Licor 43 is perfect with a blend of bourbon and fresh apple cider.

I don’t like sweetening cocktails simply for the sake of adding sugar. This goes back to my belief that every bottle—and every ingredient—needs to earn its keep. So whenever possible, I try to use sweeteners that add flavor as well as sweetness. This is where liqueurs such as ginger, orange and Licor 43 really shine.

It also is fun to play with how those liqueurs—used in place of sugar—can change classic cocktails. An Old Fashioned, for example. Try 3 ounces bourbon or rye, a dash of aromatic bitters and ¼ ounce ginger or orange liqueur. Amazing. Now try it with ¼ ounce Licor 43. It’s a shockingly good update to a basic cocktail.

And if you really want an over-the-top good cocktail, pair them with coffee. All work, but Licor 43 is particularly good. The sweet vanilla spice is great played against the bitterness of the coffee. To get you started—and give you a good reason to add a couple bottles to your bar—I’ve included three of my favorites – an Espresso Martini, a Celtic Coffee (my version of an Irish Coffee) and the playfully delicious Sassy Midnight Monkey.

Espresso Martini
Espresso Martini

This take on the classic Espresso Martini uses Licor 43 to deliver gentle vanilla spice notes, which pair perfectly with the bitter espresso. As ever, it’s all about balance. Ample pours of vodka, coffee liqueur and espresso are key; the pinch of salt highlights the delicious natural bitterness of the espresso. Don’t be tempted to add sugar— it will mask the flavors of the other ingredients. The Kahlúa and Licor 43 have all the sweetness you need.

 

2½ ounces vodka

2 ounces brewed espresso, cooled

1½ ounces Kahlúa

½ ounce Licor 43

6 to 10 grains kosher salt

Ice cubes

 

In a cocktail shaker, combine the vodka, espresso, Kahlúa, Licor 43 and salt. Shake with ice cubes. Strain into a coupe or cocktail glass.

Celtic Coffee
Celtic Coffee

No mere Irish Coffee here. This warm and creamy concoction is tarted up to help you handle blustery weather no matter which part of the Isles you are on. The combination of Irish whiskey (the standard) and scotch gives this cocktail depth, particularly when paired with espresso rather than the usual coffee. Part of what makes this cocktail amazing is that the cream—blended with vanilla spice Licor 43—is whisked only until thickened, not whipped. Whipped cream just gets in the way. Thickened cream melds with the drink, slipping down your throat all too easily. It’s a trick I learned at Swift, a bar in London, masters of the classic Irish coffee.

 

Note: Wait to make the espresso until it is called for in the recipe; this ensures it’s warm when served.

 

2 ounces heavy cream

½ ounce Licor 43, divided

2 ounces Irish whiskey

½ ounce scotch

6 to 10 grains kosher salt

3 ounces brewed espresso

1 whole coffee bean

 

In a small bowl, whisk the cream and ¼ ounce of the Licor 43 until thickened but not whipped. This should take 1½ to 2 minutes. Refrigerate until needed.

 

In a wine glass, stir together the Irish whiskey, scotch, salt and the remaining ¼ ounce Licor 43. Prepare the espresso, then add to the wine glass. Spoon the thickened cream over the whiskey-espresso mixture. Use a wand-style grater or nutmeg grater to grate the coffee bean over the cream.

Sassy midnight monkey
Sassy Midnight Monkey

This is one of those cocktails that doesn’t sound like it will work. But it does. Deliciously so. Espresso, frozen banana, chili powder, vodka and vanilla-forward Licor 43? Don’t think about it. Just surrender to it. This monkey is creamy, rich and just a little sassy.

 

2-inch chunk frozen banana

2 ounces brewed and cooled espresso

2 ounces vodka

½ ounce Licor 43

¼ ounce Benedictine liqueur

Pinch chili powder

6 to 10 granules kosher salt

½ cup ice cubes

1 whole coffee bean

 

In a blender combine the banand, espresso, vodka, Licor 43, Benedictine, chili powder, salt and ½ cup ice cubes. Blend until smooth. Serve in a cocktail glass. Grate a coffee bean over the finished cocktail.

 

 

You can order Licor 43 for home delivery via ReserveBar here.

 

JM Hirsch author photo
J.M. Hirsch is a James Beard Award-winning food and travel writer. He is editorial director of Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street.