I was at Benchmark last night (in Park Slope), enjoying a terrific birthday dinner for a friend and some cocktails. I’d previously been to Benchmark a few months prior and, at the time, was pleasantly surprised by their Manhattan and the barrel-aged Negroni that was their special of the day. And, in expectation of even more cocktail goodness, I took a look at their menu in advance to scope out the options. You can check it out for yourself here.
Of particular interest were The Notorious TEQ (Milagro Reposado, Amère Nouvelle, Agavero, Crème Yvette, Molé Bitters, Habanero Shrub) and the Up In Smoke (Black Grouse Scotch, Mezcal, Honey Syrup, Lemon Fernet Amaro Float). Unfortunately, both were pretty disappointing.
The problem? Well, The Notorious TEQ tasted like a souped-up margarita, despite having no citrus in the ingredient list. I really struggled to taste any of the Creme Yvette, Mole Bitters or Habanero Shrubb, which was really a bummer since you so rarely see Creme Yvette outside of Aviation-type drinks to begin with. On top of all this, I assumed it would be a stirred, possibly served up drink, and while I didn’t keep a close enough eye on the bartender while making it, it felt much more like a plain old shaken sour. Boo.
Given how sweet the drink was, I really wish I knew the proportions used (and if some lime juice slipped in the mix somewhere). Personally, given the ingredients the right balance seems like it ought to be:
- 1.5oz Reposado
- .5oz Amere Nouvelle
- Barspoon (1/8th oz) Agavero
- Barspoon (1/8th oz) Creme Yvette
- 1 dash Mole
- 1 dash Habanero Shrubb
Honestly though, it may simply be ingredient overload. 4 ingredients + 2 different bitters is a lot going on and very few drinks can pull it off without making you really struggle to taste all the flavors. I’m lacking the Amere Nouvelle and Agavero to recreate this, but maybe I’ll give something similar a try later this week.
As for the Up In Smoke, my oh my was my heart broken. A peaty blended scotch and mezcal sound like they should make a great base, but as with The Notorious TEQ, the taste of citrus dominated. Once again, it was not clear from the ingredient list that there was lemon in here, but it most certainly was. Between that and the honey, all the boldness and challenge of the peat/smoke was lost, resulting in something that reminded me much more of a cold hot toddy. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a bad drink, but it certainly misses out on the potential of what could’ve been.
Despite liking both peaty scotch and mezcal, the two are very hard to get to play nicely. A peaty scotch often has a salty, brine like element to it, whereas mezcal has more earth and, sometimes even a bit of a floral/fruit thing going on. With the Fernet float on top, it really just confuses all the flavors and rather than letting any of those profiles shine (peat, agave-smoke, mint-bitter), you just get the intensity of the citrus and the sweetness of the honey.
Reformulating this one, I’d have gone with:
- 1oz Black Grouse
- .5oz Mezcal
- .75oz Punt e Mes
- Barspoon (1/8th oz) PX Sherry
- Lemon Twist
I’ve made a lot of changes here, replacing the Honey Syrup with PX Sherry, adding Punt e Mes to bridge the gap between the spirit and the accent flavors, and swapping out the lemon juice for a twist.
After The Notorious TEQ and the Up In Smoke (terribly cliche name, by the way. I’d have gone for something like Secondhand Smoker personally), I decided to try their 2-month barrel-aged cocktail of the evening, The Root of All Evil (Bourbon, Curcao, Fernet and… something else, I forget).
Usually, barrel-aging rounds out the flavors of a drink and adds really nice woody notes to whatever the flavor composition is. As I’ve learned on my own though, it can also heighten sweetness and allow very strong flavors (such as amari) to steamroll everything else. Such was the case for The Root of All Evil. The mint of the Fernet kidnapped the sweetness of the Bourbon and the Curacao and basically intensified that less-than-pleasant mouthwash taste of Fernet.
Fernet has gone from horrendous bitter-child to chic bartender’s handshake to golden boy, but it seems that venues are beginning to overdo it a bit. As with all intense spirits, Fernet needs to be matched in intensity. Personally, I believe the more “savory” spirits (Rye, Aquavit) are a better match for Fernet than Bourbon or Aged Rum, and when you add barrel-aging to the mix this is especially true.
At the end of the day, I realize my tastes have also just changed dramatically from where they were a year ago. It takes an extremely well executed drink for me to be able to tolerate more than a half ounce of citrus and I find way too many places go overboard on ingredients in lieu of actually balancing their cocktails. And while I didn’t have a great cocktail experience at Benchmark this time, their food was indeed stellar, as usual, so certainly not all was lost.