I know, I know. Valentine's Day! Ick. Heart-shaped boxes of chocolate lined with those weird paper doilies, a card that plays a song -- who does that, anyway? It's a strange holiday. Single people hate it or ignore it, happy old married couples don't need it, and anyone in a new, untested relationship approaches it with terror.
What's needed is a smaller, more thoughtful and more elegant gesture. I'm thinking a sexy red drink, one that you can make for your beloved or -- what the hell -- for your friends. Or just for yourself. One fabulous flaming red drink in the middle of winter. That is something I actually want to celebrate.
Sparkling wine. The easiest possible way to approach this is to pick up a bottle of a red sparkling wine. In Italy this is called lambrusco, which is the name of a red wine grape. It is only slightly fizzy and really lovely. It's available locally, as is Korbel Rouge, a California version that I very much like. If you enjoy both red wine and Champagne, definitely give this a try.
For something sweeter, pick up a bottle of raspberry liqueur and drop it in whatever (non-red) sparkling wine you're into. (Readers of this column know how much I like Portland-based Clear Creek Distillery's liqueurs, also available locally.) Might as well pick up some ice cream and put the rest of the liqueur to good use.
Oh, and by the way: Pink champagne is actually wonderful. Don't get the cheap stuff, but if it's pink and sparkling and costs north of 15 bucks, you're probably going to like it. A nice dry sparkling rosé gets its color because the red skins of the grape were allowed to spend a little time in contact with the wine. Only good things can come of that.
Campari and Aperol. Ever have a piece of candied orange peel? Did you like the citrusy bitterness of the rind? Then congratulations: You're a Campari drinker. Campari, and Aperol, its sweeter and lighter-colored cousin, are two bitter-but-wonderful Italian amaros made with citrus peel, gentian root, quinine and other mysterious herbs and spices. A Negroni is equal parts (let's call it one ounce each) Campari, sweet (red) vermouth and gin, shaken and served in a cocktail glass. One night at the Hotel Carter, I learned to love a variation they call a Ciao Bella, consisting of equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth, gin and red grapefruit juice, freshly squeezed, of course. Garnished with a citrus peel. Both brilliantly red and tasty.
Your Aperol cocktail is inspired by one I found on Aperol's website, and they got it from Phil Ward of Mayahuel, a tiny bar in New York's East Village devoted entirely to agave-based spirits. Phil is a genius. Mayahuel is a dark, mysterious and magical place. I would live there if living in a bar was somehow a respectable occupation and they would let me bring my chickens. Phil's drink, The Division Bell, featured cherry liqueur and mezcal instead of tequila, but the cherry liqueur I had on hand was more brown than red. So I swapped it out for some Campari and Cointreau to give it redness and sweetness, tweaked the quantities a little, and renamed it. It's really just a fancy red margarita.
The Crimson Agave
1 oz tequila (Or mezcal. Just make sure it has "100 percent agave" on the label)
1 oz Aperol
.5 oz Campari
.75 oz Cointreau or triple sec
.5 oz lime juice, freshly squeezed
Shake and serve in a cocktail glass. Adjust the proportions if you are so inclined. It's your drink, after all. Garnish with a grapefruit peel.
The Blood Orange Sidecar. Nothing says "Valentine's Day" like fruit the color of blood, right? As of this writing, they're still in season, so go get some.
1.5 oz cognac or brandy
.75 oz blood orange juice
.5 oz Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur (or another citrus liqueur like triple sec)
Dash of Angostura bitters
Thin slice of blood orange for garnish
Shake the first three ingredients over ice and strain into a cocktail glass. If you'd like it sweeter, add a bit more orange liqueur. Add a dash of bitters, garnish with orange. It could not possibly be a bad thing to make this with vodka or gin, but then you can't call it a Sidecar.
Anything with Pomegranates. Quick -- get some pomegranates before they go out of season. A small quantity of the juice -- enough for a couple of drinks -- can be made by pressing the pomegranate with one of those hand-held citrus squeezers.
Fresh pomegranate juice turns any clear cocktail a lovely rosy color. You hardly need a recipe, but here's one anyway. I made this up just for you. (OK, it's really just a variation on a Cosmopolitan.) I used St-Germain because it smells like flowers. Isn't that romantic? Hey -- that's what I'll call it!
Isn't It Romantic?
1.5 oz gin or vodka
.5 oz pomegranate juice (more to taste)
.25 oz St-Germain
Dash of orange bitters
1 strawberry slice for garnish
Shake over ice, serve in a cocktail glass, garnish with a slice of strawberry. What you do with the rest of the strawberries is your business. Have a nice night.