Some cocktails are so pretty you have to hesitate a moment to properly appreciate them.
At the Bit House Saloon they know how to make several of those, carefully composed and beautifully constructed, appealing to the visual senses long before they make it to the lips. The Bit House is a fascinating place, a wicked sharp blend of an old-time saloon, a great place to meet and greet, and a top-notch bar, with perhaps one of the finest bar crews ever assembled in Cocktail Town.
One of my all-time favorite cocktails is the Last Word, a damn-near-perfect combination of gin, Chartreuse, lime juice and maraschino liqueur. Lately, several of my bartender acquaintances have been instructing me by creating different versions and variations on the Last Word, and one that has caught my fancy is the “Mezcal Last Word”, with the simple substitution of mezcal for gin. It is a remarkable drink, with the earthier, herbal/vegetal and slightly smoky character of mezcal…preferably del Maguey Vida Mezcal…vying with the sharper herbal spice of Chartreuse.
When I asked for something along the lines of a Last Word with mezcal, Bit House bartender and philosopher Nick Cifuni chirped, “Sure thing!” and moved away to begin assembling the drink. Then he hesitated, stepped back to me and said “Have you ever had a Division Bell? It’s similar to a Last Word, and has mezcal in it, but it also calls for Aperol.”
“I like it so far,” said I. “But what’s the mezcal?
“Well, that would be del Maguey Vida.”
A move from the Mezcal Last Word to the Division Bell seemed a natural progression, and would provide valuable information for my investigation of the Word in all its manifestations.
“Go for it, Nick!”
A few seconds later the coupe glass arrived in front of me, just as pretty as could be, a soft, pastel color glowing in the candlelight, an eye-catching, soothing, and promising cantaloupe/creamsicle/orange.
The Division Bell was created at Mayahuel restaurant by Philip Ward, with mezcal subbing for gin and Aperol replacing Chartreuse. This is kind of cool to fans of the cocktail, because Philip Ward is also the bartender who, in a spin off from The Last Word, created The Final Ward—wherein he subbed rye whiskey for the gin! Ward is now sharing time between New York and Los Angeles., two of the epicenters of the cocktail world, and who knows what he’s coming up with there.
The four parts of the Division Bell are worth paying attention to, since they play equal parts in the success of the drink.
Del Maguey Vida (maguey is the umbrella name in Oaxaca for the agave plant, and Vida is life) is a rustic, earthy and full-bodied mezcal with aromas of dried herbs and a tantalizing layer of woodsmoke. Del Maguey Vida—actually, its full name is Vida Single Village San Luis del Rey—is one of several Del Maguey single-village mezcals, each outstanding and representative of specific terroir and technique; the Vida is their ‘entry level’ blend, ideal for mixing in cocktails.
Aperol is a wildly popular all-around aperitif in Europe, and is gaining popularity quickly here in the U.S. It is classified as a bitter—an amaro—but is low in alcohol, relatively mild and balanced with sugar to soften the bitter orange tang. Think of it as a lighter, less bitter, more gentle version of Campari; bitter orange, but not as bitter.
Go to any university town in Europe…say Padua in northeastern Italy, where Aperol originated…and you’ll find clumps of students clustered around café tables solving the problems of the world over Aperol Spritzes. Or go to Piazza San Marco in Venice, where you’ll see many of the fashionable people sitting at table, listening to the music, watching the other people, and sipping those same Aperol Spritzes. Aperol looks a bit like a neon-orange soda, and when club soda, or lemon juice, or fizzy prosecco is added makes a marvelous low-alcohol refresher.
Luxardo Maraschino is another old-world favorite, a luscious liqueur of cherry fruit macerated in neutral spirits and focused on the pure cherry aroma and silky texture. Maraschino is perhaps most famous is the Hemingway Daiquiri, purportedly created for Hemingway by the bartender at El Floridita in Cuba. The Hemingway Daiquiri is a superb twist on a basic daiquiri (white rum, lime juice, a bit of sugar) with fresh grapefruit juice added and finished with a splash of the Maraschino cherry liqueur, both for an extra dimension of fruit and a balancing bit of sugar. Hemingway relished them so much, he customarily ordered them two drinks at a time; which subsequently became known as Papa Dobles.
Mix these three ingredients, add the necessary lime juice and ice, shake, then strain into the glass, and you have that lovely radiant cantaloupe/translucent pumpkin color that needs no embellishment or garnish, but if you must, you can add a strip of grapefruit peel: The Division Bell.
The Division Bell is essentially a nicely balanced mezcal sour, where the earthy and herbal agave spirit takes the forefront, is balanced with the tart lime juice acidity, with the bitter orange of the Aperol and the soft cherry sweetness of Maraska cherry liqueur dancing in counterpoint.
The addition of the Aperol adds an extra dimension—that of bitter oranges, which is welcome—but also changes the level of sugar sweetness, so the Division Bell is slightly less sour, slightly sweeter than the original Last Word or the Mezcal Last Word. And when the complexity scale is considered, Aperol simply can’t compare with the magnificence of Chartreuse. Aperol is bittersweet orange; Chartreuse is a concoction of bewildering and utterly enticing complexity.
The Division Bell is an intriguing variation, to be sure. My personal predilections would lead me to experimenting even further—say replacing the Aperol with the slightly more biting and bitter Cappelletti aperitif, still less assertive than Campari would be, but giving more force and less sweetness than the Aperol. And that gorgeous color would change with the Cappelletti too, from cantaloupe to a bright rose petal, perhaps?
Or wait! How about a splash of Dolin Véritable Génépy des Alpes??? That could be excellent. Dolin Génépy, from the same company that creates Dolin Vermouth de Chambery AOC, produces their liqueur from the same alpine slopes that Chartreuse uses for their botanicals. Some folks call it a “baby Chartreuse” (but it isn’t), because it also contains the artemisium absinthium plant that features in both Chartreuse and absinthe.. That could add just the right touch!
I’ll have a talk with Nick Cifuni next time I am in Bit House to see if that works. Which shouldn’t be long.