Grab a road soda and jump into my time machine. Buckle up … aaaaand, splendid, we’ve arrived in the English countryside, in the county of Wiltshire, near Bath not terrifically far from Wales. Have I mentioned it’s 1992? It is.
That resplendent fellow, wearing a perfectly disheveled cravat and opening the door to welcome us is Lord Shelburne. I say “us” because along with you and me are my good pals Hoppy and Joey (which I realize for the first time sounds as if I’m friends with a pair of kangaroos). That’s Lady Shelburne descending the curved stairs as Lord S pops some bubbly. That’s Joey issuing a subdued whistle in our ear and saying, “Man, the Lady surrrrre is a tall drink of water.” Now, this is us saying farewell after an amusing hour, Hoppy assuring Joey and me that our natural idiocy has truly amused the Lord and Lady. If they only knew.
We, that is, my marsupial friends and you and me, are eventually winding our way to the first Solheim Cup played in Europe, at Dalmahoy in Scotland. But before that, there are Old Courses to be played, drives to Dornoch to be made (listening to the same Tom Petty cassette the entire way) and proper meals to be enjoyed. We’ll be spending the night at Queenwood Lodge, a house on the Lord’s estate. Change into your dinner jacket and we’ll meet up for a whisky or two before we dine. On my way to meet you, I pass a bar setup in the house and notice a soda syphon, otherwise known as a seltzer bottle. It’s a nice touch.
Dinner is an event, with countless courses expertly prepared and paired with the precisely right wines. Hours after we start the meal its end approaches, but we really don’t want it to end, do we? As we contemplate an array of cheeses, the servers offer up digestifs, or digestivos, depending upon your preference for French or Italian after-dinner drinks. But, oh golly, what to choose! I don’t mean the cheese — you should try all of that. Regarding the drink options, however, I’m beyond uncertain because it’s 1992, and I am only 27. I’ve never dined like this before.
Fully half my life has passed since that evening, time that my tailor would assure you I’ve spent mostly eating and drinking. There is nothing I enjoy more than the marathon meal with people I like, love or barely know, yet I remain mystified when that wonderful little booze trolley shows up tableside at a fine restaurant. I recognize the obligatory single malt, brandy and port, but all of those other bottles remain a riddle to me — or at least they did before I made an early-afternoon trip to Italienne, my favorite restaurant in New York for three reasons. Those three reasons are named Jared Sippel (chef and proprietor), Kyle Storey (head bartender) and Timothy Brierley (head sommelier).
Kyle and Tim were working, I wasn’t, so I had a few glasses of wine while they coached me on what they call the amaro cart. When you’re at Italienne and Tim gently rolls the vehicle in your direction, it’s a sign of hospitality — don’t rush, stay awhile, laugh even longer. They call it the amaro cart because many of the bottles are filled with variations of Italian herbal liqueur — amaro. There is also grappa, a brandy made from what’s left of grapes after they are pressed to make wine — kind of the roadkill of after-dinner drinks. Grappa is a face-melter, stern stuff, a glass of which would suffice to remove all of the verdigris on the Statue of Liberty. Unless you’re a lunatic, you’ll want to drink grappa slowly and in small sips — but that’s the point.
It’s the amari, however, and their botanical French cousins such as chartreuse (naturally green liqueur dating back to at least the early 17th century), which actually do aid digestion. Grappa may help by rendering you incapable of moving from your chair, but the bitterness in the amari actually triggers digestive mechanics — you might think of them as intelligent drinking (if you’re grasping about for an oxymoron). There are all types of amaro. Among others there are sfumato, which features rhubarb among its components; Cynar, which incorporates artichokes; and, fernet, which defies description. Fernet-Branca is a favorite among those who serve up drinks for a living. Every amaro is unique, to some extent based on original family recipes.
As Tim poured me a small glass of fernet, my mind leaped for a microsecond back to that evening at Queenwood Lodge.* After we all enjoyed a few glasses of port, Joey slid himself into a cozy chair and tuned into a replay of a track meet telecast from Germany. He nodded off until he awoke in horror, staring into the business end of a soda syphon. I was a trigger-happy Moe, he was Curly. I let him have it all with one barrel. The perfect end to a perfect evening.
*You can still stay at Queenwood Lodge, or the new (since my time there) Bowood House & Spa. They have a nifty golf course, too, and overall, it’s a cool experience. Who knows, you might even see Lord and Lady Shelburne ambling about, although these days he’s the Marquess of Landsdowne.
Michael Corcoran has spent the entire second half of his life hoping for another perfect Three Stooges moment. In the meantime, he’s waiting for you at the nearest bar.
I wasn’t joking when I said grappa means business, but everything is worth trying once. Just like the rest of these.
1. Nonino Grappa I Vigneti Monovitigno Il Moscato
Try saying the name after each glass.
2. Fernet-Branca “People in the restaurant business drink this like it’s water. Or maybe they drink water like it’s Fernet- Branca,” says Kyle, head bartender at Italienne in New York. Fun fact: Kyle makes the best White Russian known to man — a Caucasian that the Dude would abide.
Is Mediterranean thistle bitter enough for you? That’s one of the herbs combined with artichoke.
Still made by monks! A final word from my man Tim at Italienne: “You’ll see amaro and Chartreuse in all sorts of cocktails these days, but that misses the point. Drink them by themselves for the truest experience.”
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