When I was in San Francisco last month, one of the cocktail bars I made a point of going to was Heaven’s Dog, an offshoot of The Slanted Door, a restaurant and bar that was recommended to me numerous times. The food at both establishments was fantastic (the Brussel’s sprouts appetizer, on both menus, is incredible—seriously), and both are known for carefully crafted cocktails.
At Heaven’s Dog, I tried the Bittered Sling ($10; in New York, this would have cost $14), which was armagnac, gum syrup, bitters and nutmeg, cooled by a big hand-cut ice chunk. This superb cocktail managed to preserve and then highlight the flavor of the armagnac (a little water and a sweetener can do wonders for straight spirits that way). The nutmeg added an unexpectedly complex dimension to this simple cocktail. It was one of the better drinks I had in San Francisco.
A “Sling” is a type of mixed drink that predates the cocktail, at least by name. Well-read cocktail enthusiasts know the story well. The first known definition of the term cocktail in print showed up in a New York state newspaper called The Balance, and Columbian Repository on Tuesday, May 13, 1806. It was in response to a letter from the week before, inquiring about the meaning of the word. The editor responded:
“As I make it a point, never to publish anything (under my editorial head) but which I can explain, I shall not hesitate to gratify the curiosity of my inquisitive correspondent: Cock tail, then is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters it is vulgarly called a bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else.”
“It is vulgarly called a bittered sling,” he wrote. A sling was basically liquor with a little bit of water and sometimes sugar; a cock-tail, a new variant on the mixture, was this with a dash of bitters. And observant readers will note that this is a lot like what we call an Old Fashioned today.
When I first searched online for evidence of this cocktail, I found that the Bittered Sling at Heaven’s Dog already had another fan. Adventures in Cocktails wrote about it about two weeks ago. (And that wasn’t the only one.)
I didn’t have any armagnac, but I did have a fresh bottle of cognac, so I made it like this:
.25oz. agave syrup
Two dashes Fee Brothers aromatic bitters
One big ball of ice
Fresh grated nutmeg
I used the proportions that Adventures in Cocktails used, but this drink is so simple that you hardly need a recipe. The only reason I opted for agave syrup instead of simple syrup is that I was too lazy to make some. Stir the drink with ice, don’t shake it. Just stir it long enough to make sure that it mixes well and gets good and cold.
You must use a big enough glass to get your nose in it. When you smell the grated nutmeg that should be either floating atop the drink or settled on the large piece of ice you put in the glass, it will mingle perfectly with the cognac or armagnac. The slightly sweetened brandy, with bitters, is transformed, like it’s supposed to be used this way.
The cognac I opted for was Pierre Ferrand Ambre, the best cognac for the money (around $39 a bottle but I found it on sale for $6 off), I’ve found. It has a uniquely nutty vanilla flavor and when I tasted it next to other brands, it compared favorably to cognacs more than twice the price. Some reviewers have detected nutmeg in the taste; I did not, but something about the flavor made me think that nutmeg would complement it well.
And for ice, I used this little Japanese spherical ice tray that makes 2-inch balls of ice. It’s perfect for a drink like this. A large ice chunk will keep the drink cold and won’t dilute it too quickly. Adventures in Cocktails suggested this pair of silicon trays that make 2-inch cubes; they’re a few bucks cheaper than my sphere tray.
And Adventures in Cocktails noted that this simple recipe would work well with rye, and I intend to try it. That is, a rye Old Fashioned with grated nutmeg.
There’s something very satisfying to me about simple cocktails, especially drinks like this that manage to taste so complex with so few ingredients.