Build-A-Bar: A Byrrh by Any Other Name

First of all, a word on pronunciation. Ever since I requested a shot of "fur-neigh," I've made a habit of asking about pronunciation when ordering any new, especially foreign, ingredient. I've found that very few cocktail and spirit discussions bother with this, and while it's certainly not critical, mispronouncing anything can be a source of embarrassment.

Sometimes, the world of cocktails can seem like a realm of secret handshakes and secret knowledge, with those not in the know squarely on the outside. While that's not entirely true, and certainly not at anyplace worth drinking at, a little bit of knowledge goes a long way toward developing a comfort level. Toward that end, "Byrrh" is pronounced "beer," more or less. The finer inflections of pronunciation won't really matter, but saying "Burr" might get you the briefest of sideways glances. Now, on to things that actually matter.

Byrrh has been around since the late 1800s, when it was first produced from a base of Carignan and Grenache grapes, then blended with neutral spirits. The resulting mistelle (me stell) gets a fresh addition of dry red wines and chinchona bark (quinine), along with other flavorings kept closer to the Pernod vest, and is aged in barrels for three years.

Byrrh is mildly sweet, with winey notes coming through strongly, buoyed by darker, brandied flavors similar to a port or a Madeira. Dried fruits, like prunes, figs and raisins, provide a backbone, while hints of their fresher cousins offer plenty of lush high notes. The bitterness is mild, though noticeable, and a host of accompanying spicy flavors hint at coffee, citrus and chocolate. A pleasant hit of acidity helps keep things fresh, and prevents the natural sweetness from taking over.

Similar in character and composition to many aperitif wines and vermouths, Byrrh substitutes well in most situations that might call for a dark, sweet version. I've stirred it effectively into many a Manhattan, not to mention most of its similarly situated siblings. The bitterness works well with citrus, which also picks up the orange aromas lurking in the background, and has enough oomph to stand up to darker spirits. The molasses funk of an aged Jamaican rum makes a particularly nice pair.

For a classic take on Byrrh, I had to look no further than the back of the bottle. The Byrrh Special seems to have gotten its start in Harry Craddock's 1930 classic, The Savoy Cocktail Book. While the original calls for Tom gin, my bottle requested Plymouth, and I obliged.

Since I was already veering slightly from the historical course, I decided to go with a gut instinct and add my own little twist to the classic. Recently, I'd seen CNN's Kat Kinsman said some nice things about a drink she'd had at the Vesper in the Cosmopolitan in Vegas. The mention of "five spice" struck a chord just as I was whipping up a Byrrh Special, and the blend of spicy, sweet and herbal seemed like a perfect fit for Byrrh.

Five Spice Byrrh Special

  • 1.5 oz Byrrh
  • 1.5 oz Plymouth Gin
  • Pinch Five Spice (careful here)

Combine all ingredients over ice, stir and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon. Note that when I say be careful with the Five Spice, I mean it. The spice can quickly take over, dominating the other flavors and rendering the sweetness cloying.

For a truly solo effort, I went through a lot of different ideas. An all-aperitif cocktail, sweet and dry vermouth duking it out with Byrrh and Cocchi Americano, proved simultaneously too delicate and too brash, in odd ways. The aforementioned rum and Byrrh combination was pulling ahead, a cocktail coalescing around Byrrh, Smith and Cross and Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, and then Wes Anderson shifted me in a different direction.

As I've said before, the path to inspiration is not always expected. Nor does it necessarily have anything to do with the matter at hand. In this instance, it started with a name. By happenstance, it occurred to me at a very particular point in Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom that the film's title might make a swell name for a cocktail. Which cocktail was the only question. Fortunately, that scene provided me with a roundabout answer. Let's see if you can guess it.

Moonrise Kingdom

  • 2 oz Byrrh
  • 3/4 oz Rye
  • Bsp. Coffee Simple Syrup* (optional)
  • 3 oz Whole Milk

Combine all ingredients over ice and shake thoroughly. Double-strain into a Collins or Highball glass filled with ice, as needed for the drink to fill the glass. Frothy, mild and delicious, this Milk Punch variant lends a genteel character to the Byrrh. The bitterness fades to a whisper, while the more vibrant fruity elements come to the fore, bringing with them a sort of flowery perfume. This is not a strong drink, nor a particularly aggressive one, but I feel it aptly showcases the versatile character of Byrrh, and from a different angle than is typical.

*For my coffee syrup, I prepared a rich syrup by dissolving 2 cups of sugar in 1 cup of water over moderate heat. Once prepared, I added one cup of ground coffee, allowing it to steep for about five minutes, before straining it into a bottle. While I like the resulting drink, I feel it masks the Byrrh a bit, taking over the cocktail even in such small proportion. It's delicious, but strong.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall