The Magyar Old-Fashioned
I just finished rereading David Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. It's one of the more highly regarded tomes in cocktail geek land. It's also out of print and sells for outrageous sums at eBay. I somehow managed to get my copy--a paperback edition--from an Australian eBay seller a couple years ago for a far more reasonable cost . Maybe the overseas location scared off the other bidders, the poor schmucks. I think I paid about thirteen bucks or so including shipping from Oz. At the time I'd seen copies sell for over $50 on a regular basis so to say that I was geeked when that auction ended is true according to a couple definitions of the word.
Anyway, at one point in the book Embury mentions that brandy and Unicum* go well together. He doesn't offer any drink recipes that include Unicum but as I have a dusty bottle of the stuff from a friend who spent a few years in Hungary I thought I'd rescue it from the Cupboard of Misfit Booze and put Mr. Embury to the test. Forgive my immodesty but I think I hit a home run in my first at bat:
The Magyar Old-Fashioned
2.5 oz brandy (or cognac or armagnac)
.25 oz Unicum bitters
.25 oz simple syrup
Build in rocks glass. Stir. Add large ice cubes to fill. Lemon twist.
Unicum is no shrinking violet flavor-wise so you may want to use it exactly like Angostura or other non-potable bitters and add just a dash or two or you could increase the simple syrup to around a half-ounce. That might help to take the edge off it a bit. For me, though, I'm pretty damn happy with my recipe as it stands. It's hardly mixological genius on par with the work of, say, the brilliant Alberta Straub** but I think it's a nice solid example of how new drinks can be created based on the frameworks of old ones.
I made three of these over the course of the pre-holiday weekend and used three different brandies. The first was made with E&J VSOP brandy. Very nice. The modest quarter-ounce of Unicum grabs the brandy by the lapels and gives it a good shake but the sweetness of the brandy and the simple syrup (2:1 turbinado) balance the pungent herbal bitterness of the Unicum quite well.
For round two I used Chateau de Laubade Bas Armagnac VSOP. I don't know much about armagnac (or cognac for that matter) but I can say that I think Wine Enthusiast is right in calling this a best buy at $25. I like it a lot on it's own and it made for a better drink. That it's a little drier than the E&J, I think, allowed for the Unicum to come through a little more forcefully. While this was noticeably better than the E&J version I wouldn't say it was significantly better.
On Sunday I made another. This time I used Chalfonte VSOP cognac and I was surprised to find that this is the version I liked the best. It could be that it's a more perfect match with the Unicum or that a couple days time had dulled the memory of the previous two drinks or it could be that I was just that much more accustomed to the peculiar flavor of the Unicum. Regardless, the Chalfonte Magyar O-F was quite delicious and, as the Chalfonte is a very modestly-priced cognac I couldn't be more pleased.
*Unicum is a Hungarian bitter herbal liqueur kinda like Jägermeister. Both are almost exclusively drunk straight in their home country where they're considered aids to digestion after dinner (digestifs, if you'll pardon my French) and both are commonly recommended as hangover cures the morning after. Unlike Jägermeister, though, the only college students doing shots of Unicum are in Hungary. It's not exactly something you sip and savor. If I remember correctly it's pretty much a down-the-hatch deal even in Hungary and that's where they actually like the stuff. I imagine the number of people who like it the first time they try it is pretty small.
What does it taste like? Unfortunately, I'll have to cop out. It's said to be made with over forty herbs and I simply don't have the palate to describe it. Also, frankly, I've only managed to drink it straight a couple of times. Stephan Berg at The Bitters Blog has said that Unicum's predominant flavor is cardamom. I'll have to take his word for it.
** Check out the current issue of Imbibe magazine (Nov/Dec 2006) for an article on Alberta. Following the link actually gets you a preview of it. In a future post I'll have to tell the story of the evening the galfriend and I spent sampling a sizable number of Alberta's very original and very delicious cocktails at the Orbit Room (1900 Market St., San Francisco). She's an amazing bartender and an exceedingly charming and funny woman. In the Imbibe piece she mentions that she's thinking of moving to Chicago and opening a bar. That would be amazingly kick-ass.