As the national interest in cocktails and the standard of quality in bars increase, it's created a market that allows for the revival of and access to unique handcrafted spirits. Most of the growth has been with the larger categories like whisk(e)y, vodka, gin, and tequila, but supporting spirits have had their share, too, with vermouth and liqueurs seeing new brands for the first time in decades.
One of the newest and most intriguing arrivals is Gran Classico Bitter Liqueur, imported by Tempus Fugit out of Petaluma. Gran Classico is a Bitter of Turin, an aperitif liqueur with a recipe derived from the original created in Italy sometime in the 1860s. If the style doesn't sound familiar, the other brand in the category should: Campari, which just turned 150 years old.
The differences between the two are significant. Besides the color (Gran Classico has none added) and the ABV (Campari is 24 percent alcohol by volume, Gran Classico 28 percent), the principal distinction is Gran Classico's intensity and depth of flavor. Not that Campari is a slouch, but it's hard to do large volume and retain the complexity you get from small-batch production.
Tempus Fugit owners John Troia and Peter Schaf stumbled across the product while on a trip to Switzerland for their absinthe business. Needing to give their palates a break from tasting, they were handed a glass of handcrafted Gran Classico and were immediately impressed (as we were in a tasting).
"The brand is owned entirely by us and we are using the original recipe from a small distillery in Switzerland that's been making it for almost 100 years in mainly regional distribution," Troia says.
The aperitif is an infusion of numerous herbs and roots, including bitter orange peel, gentian, rhubarb, germander leaf, and other aromatics. The most distinctive part of the recipe is the inclusion of wormwood, a botanical that was illegal in spirits from 1912 until 2007. (Commonly associated with absinthe, the addition of wormwood provides an extra layer of herbal bitterness that lingers, delightfully, after the gentian fades. It's important to point out that wormwood-steeped spirits won't make you hallucinate; frankly, there are safer, cheaper, and more effective ways to do that than by drinking several bottles of liquor in a single sitting. Although it does have anti-parasitic properties, we suggest going to the doctor if you suspect you might have worms.)Gran Classico works well in Negronis and alone with soda, but is best represented in a cocktail created by Comstock Saloon's Jonny Raglin as a barkeeper's whimsy request (recipe below).
Gran Classico has a suggested retail of $34 for a 750ml bottle. Find it here at K&L, Cask, John Walker Wines and Spirits, Plumpjack, and the Jug Shop. To give it a taste in a cocktail, stop by 15 Romolo, Nopa, Comstock, the Alembic, Presidio Social Club, Heaven's Dog, and Slanted Door.
Jonny Raglin's Unnamed Cocktail
3 parts bourbon
2 parts dry vermouth (blanc)
1 part Gran Classico Bitter Liqueur
Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain and pour into an old fashioned glass with a few large cubes of ice. Garnish with a flamed orange peel and enjoy.