Montmartre is a hill (the butte Montmartre) which is 130 meters high, giving its name to the surrounding district, in the north of Paris in the 18th arrondissement, a part of the Right Bank. [Wikipedia]
A few years ago I was staring at the lovely bottle creme de cassis in our liquor cabinet I’d hand-carried home from Paris and thinking what a shame it is that I don’t like Kir Royales all that much.
Kir Royales (Kirs Royale?) are fine. It’s just that if the Champagne or sparkling wine is good enough, I don’t want to ruin it with sweet black currant flavors, and if it isn’t good enough, sweet black currant flavors aren’t going to help much. Another worthy option is to use it in a Rouge Gorge–add a dollop of creme de cassis to a glass of red table wine that needs some help. But here again, same problem.
I decided it was time to develop a new cocktail that would take the creme de cassis out of the back of the cabinet and put it on proud display. My starting point was a sweet Manhattan: bourbon, sweet red vermouth, Angostura bitters (or as our friend Jane calls them, “Agnostic bitters”), and a maraschino cherry. A lovely drink.
My concept was to substitute creme de cassis for the sweet red vermouth, but the combination of sticky cassis and sweet bourbon is just too much–I knew that without needing to taste it. My solution: rye! An under-appreciated cousin of bourbon, rye is basically the same stuff, but it’s made with a bigger proportion of rye than corn or other grains. If you don’t like members of the brown liquor family, you’ll think rye tastes the same as bourbon, but if you do like them and are paying attention, rye has a much brighter taste. The perfect foil for cloying cassis, I thought.
I kept the dash of Agnostic bitters, and I added a dash of West Indian Orange Bitters, again for brightness in contrast to the cassis.
But now the dilemma: what to do about the maraschino cherry? In early versions of the Montmartre, I attempted to keep them, but they’re a hideous color, and they taste as artificial as they look. They were horribly outclassed by the cassis.
I tried a few variations on the citrus theme, but they were all too bright, losing the specialness of the cassis and burying the subtle brightness of the rye.
Eventually I hit upon the ideal garnish: sour cherries. Whole Foods sells a brand called Zergütt that are, despite the name, pretty good. However, their syrup is too sweet and thick. My solution? Pour off about half the syrup (save it for Old Fashioneds–trust me on this), replace it with rye, and stick it back in the fridge for at least a few days. Use a splash of this rye/juice in the cocktail, too.
So here it is, the final draft. This has become a favorite at our house and also at our friend Jane’s house. Jane’s much better about writing things down, so every so often when I forget a detail on one of my cocktails, I call her to ask. With thanks to Jane for her service as cocktail archivist, here is:
- Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with crushed ice.
- Add an 8-to-1 ratio of rye whiskey and creme de cassis, i.e. 4 shots rye to 1/2 shot cassis. If you like your drinks sweeter, go 4-to-1.
- Add a dash each of Angostura bitters and West Indian Orange Bitters.
- Garnish martini glasses with three sour cherries soaked in half the syrup and half rye.
- Splash a little of the rye/syrup from the cherries into the cocktail shaker.
- Shake well and strain into the cocktail glasses.
Blood Orange bitters or Regan’s Orange Bitters are worthy substitutes for the West Indian Orange Bitters, but there is no substitute for the Angostura Bitters, which are essential.
Many people would tell you cocktails should be mixed with large, hard, super-cold cubes of ice. They are right in many cases. Harder, larger, colder ice gives you a colder cocktail with less water diluting the spirits. However, some drinks benefit from some ice-melt, and in my opinion, the Manhattan family and the martini family are two such categories. Both gin and whisky can keep their flavors buttoned-up, and adding a small amount of water unbuttons their shirts and reveals glorious cleavage and alluring scents.
“Bruising” is the term some people use, and although it sounds pejorative, bruising is in some cases exactly what the liquor needs. When you add a few drops of water to the room-temperature spirit and you see oily swirling reactions taking place, what’s happening is that certain oils and esters are being disturbed, releasing their aromas (thus flavors) to your noise and tongue. Scotch whisky afficionados intentionally add a very few drops of “branch water” to their single malts for this very reason.
For the Montmartre in particular, using crushed ice accomplishes several things: it increases the surface area of ice available to the liquid, thus cooling it faster or further; it increases the melting and dilution, thinning the potentially goopy texture of the creme de cassis; and it reveals the subtle flavor dimensions of the rye whiskey.