Loving the liqueur

Olaf Harmel has little truck with the term mixologist — though it’s actually an old one revived. “You’d have to know too much `to justify it`” says the soft-spoken bartender at Mon Ami, the tiny lounge tucked away behind Mon’s Thai on Broadway. Harmel, who came to spirits from a wine background, says he’s constantly learning about new products, with Fernet Branca (the bitter Italian digestif made from 24 herbs) being a recent discovery.

“The category `of spirits` I like least is vodka,” he admits, “but I want to see my selection of cordials grow exponentially.” As if to justify the need, he brings three cherry-based products to the bar. 

And the differences are amazing. The Luxardo Maraschino liqueur that Harmel considers a staple is floral with notes of cherry pit; the Croatian-distilled Maraska Wishniak, made from wild sour cherries, conjures up chocolate; and the Cherry Kijafa (a cherry-based wine from Denmark) is fresh and very striking.

“I’m not traditional by any means,” Harmel says. “Old recipes are good, but the modern palate has changed ...” 

Yet everything old is often new again. Take a gin that Harmel is particularly fond of, Old Tom. Popular in the 18th century, it was sweeter than the London dry version we know today, and it eventually fell out of favor and production. But interest in classic cocktails has revived to the point that Christopher Hayman, whose great-grandfather created Beefeater Gin, has brought it back under the label Hayman’s Old Tom Gin. It can be hard to get, and Harmel was out of it the night I asked for a Martinez. The drink dates back to at least the 1887 version of a bartender’s guide and originally used Old Tom, along with sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and bitters. It’s a heavy concoction by today’s standards, so many bartenders, Harmel included, back off on the vermouth to focus more on the gin (he substituted Martin Miller’s, another slightly sweet London dry) and maraschino. The result was a very pleasant drink that featured the floral gin and hit the palate lightly with a little cherry pit on the end.  

Gin was again in focus one afternoon when I asked Harmel to create a drink to launch this new column. This time his pick was Junípero, distilled by Anchor Steam in San Francisco. As the name suggests, juniper berries, a classic ingredient, are front and center, and Harmel plays to them with one of the tricks in his arsenal: flavored simple syrups. Lavender and apple are some of the flavorings he uses, but in this case the syrup gets a shot of those same juniper berries. (You can do this at home: take 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, and a couple of tablespoons of juniper berries, boil until the mix is just slightly syrupy, let cool and put in refrigerator at least overnight.) Chartreuse, one of the four ingredients Harmel says he can’t do without (maraschino, Cointreau, and Falernum, a Jamaican  liqueur with strong notes of clove and allspice, are the others) also was called into service.  

“Too lemony,” he thought upon tasting the concoction with a finger held over the end of a straw — a process he uses to test all drinks before they go out. So he recalibrated. Here’s the result: 

For Olivia 

1 shot Junípero Gin

¼ oz. green Chartreuse

¼ oz. juniper-berry syrup

A “touch” of lemon juice

A “swish” of Pernod Absinthe

A lemon-peel twist 

Pour a splash of absinthe into a chilled martini glass, swirl and discard. Combine all remaining ingredients but the peel in a cocktail shaker with cracked ice. Shake for a few seconds. Strain into glass and garnish with the lemon twist. 

If you want to know who Olivia is, by the way, you’ll have to ask Harmel yourself — possibly over a tequila cocktail of the moment. (He did one for us with maraschino and Falernum.) In any case, I hope she likes her namesake creation. I did.