How to Do the Cynar Manhattan Variation – Robb Report

I vividly remember the worst thing I have ever tasted. It was May 2008 and I was at my first bartending job, an Italian restaurant in Cambridge, MA called La Groceria.

La Groceria had been there since 1971. Family neighborhood restaurant, sticky plastic menus, microwave lava cake, you know the type. After nearly four decades, it was finally closing, and we were rummaging through old cupboards, unearthing crisp, long-forgotten liquors buried in the dust, when a colleague produced a half-empty old bottle of something thick and black. The label wasn’t helpful – just a bit of Italian, the word ‘Cynar’ and, a bit discouragingly, a large photograph of an artichoke. The owner didn’t know, except he couldn’t remember a time before he was there. He said he had probably been there “for at least 25 years”.

Obviously, my colleague and I challenged ourselves to take a picture. I accepted the challenge, if I remember correctly, once the purse hit $5. I poured in half a dose, the liquid staining the inside of the glass like used motor oil, and for a moment I wondered if it was going to kill me. I then raised a toast to life, to Italy and to the noble artichoke, and I took the hit.

Many years later, working in fancy cocktail bars and selling my guests on the virtues of that wonderful Italian amaro called Cynar (“Chee-nar”), I think back a lot to that moment. I love Cynar now. It’s often called “artichoke liqueur,” and yes, artichoke is one of 13 plants and herbs used in its production, but it doesn’t taste like artichokes. This old bottle had been ravaged by time and tasted dirty and metallic and had a bitterness that curdled in the mouth for several minutes, but a normal taste of Cynar, that of a bottle that did not have unearthed from a marinara-speckled 1980s time capsule, is delicious – vigorously bitter, yes, but also with citrus and vanilla and impressive depth. An acquired taste, sure, but it’s also one of the most versatile cocktail ingredients in our liquid arsenal.

You can do anything with Cynar. You can mix it with apple brandy for the taste of autumn. You can use it as the base of a cocktail, like with the Bitter Giuseppe. Or you can take inspiration from the bottom of the bottle and do what they call a “Cynar Manhattan”, but what, behind the cocktail bars, we all know as a Little Italy.

The Little Italy is a Manhattan twist created by Audrey Saunders in 2005 and featured on the opening menu of her groundbreaking New York cocktail bar, Pegu Club. Just like a Manhattan, it’s rye whiskey and sweet vermouth, but where a Manhattan would have some hints of aromatic bitters, the Little Italy uses Cynar instead.

It was an aggressive choice. It seems normal at the pedestrian point today, but in 2005, when bitterness was less accepted in alcohol culture, it was a shot across the bow. If the Old square is a Manhattan with southern charm, Little Italy is a Manhattan with New York “charm”, the one who bangs his palm on the hood of your car and shouts “hey I’m walkin’ here!” The fragrant, bright baking spice of Angostura Bitters is replaced by the deep earth of Cynar whose bitterness brings a constant low hum, like the sound of an engine in an airplane. In the world of Manhattan variations, it’s a serious, grassy, ​​bitter, boozy choice and a worthy choice after a big meal on a cold night.

Unless, of course, your bottle of Cynar has been half-opened since the first Reagan administration, in which case, personally, I would pass.

Little Italy

Add ingredients to a mixing glass, stir over ice for 10-20 seconds and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry or two.


Photo: Courtesy of Heaven Hill

Rye: I like a bunch of rye styles for this, but the ones that were more evenly delicious in a variety of different vermouths were the 95% or 100% Indiana or Canadian ryes, like Dickel Rye, Bulleit Rye, or Redemption . For Kentucky-style ryes – your Rittenhouse or Wild Turkey 101 – the only vermouth I liked with was Martini & Rossi. Others made a lopsided or weird cocktail or both

Sweet vermouth: I’m still so naughty with Martini & Rossi, just want to say again that Rittenhouse with Martini & Rossi makes delicious Little Italy. The Cynar absorbs the branchy herbaceousness of the vermouth well and makes the whole project both flavorful and bright. Saunders was a notorious perfectionist, and I couldn’t deduce for sure what her favorite vermouth was here, but the best clue we have is a video of her husband Robert Hess, who uses Rittenhouse and Martini & Rossi.

For me, personally, it was close, but I think my favorite version of this drink is with the MGP 95% Rye and the light and soaring Dolin Rouge Vermouth. The richer vermouths – Cocchi, Carpano, etc. – surprisingly collided with Cynar and Rye, while Dolin (and Martini & Rossi for that matter) departed and let Rye and Cynar play together for better effect.

Cynar: Cynar is bottled at 16.5% so is just on the low proof edge where time can spoil it. Now that I know Cynar very well, I wish I could try that old bottle again, but despite my grim description above, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Stick to the current decade and you should be fine.