What do French Aperitifs, River Boats and the Vietnam War Have in Common? Build-A-Bar: Bonal Gentiane-Quina

I know, I know. It's been awhile. I've been suffering from a bit of drinker's block, every attempt at creating something interesting ending in false start, disappointment or disaster. One particularly unpleasant effort -- involving root beer liqueur, rum and orange juice -- finally convinced me to put the shaker down and walk away.

It wasn't intended to be a permanent hiatus, or even a six-month sabbatical. It was intended to give me just enough distance to shake off the frustration-feedback loop I'd been locked in, and get back to business with a fresh outlook. I think it worked.

Over the course of my time off from Build-A-Bar, I've been drinking a lot. Mostly, I've been drinking things neat. Trying to wrap my head around a bottle from the ground up, thinking through its qualities and mentally picking appropriate companions, I've allowed myself the freedom to tinker, without the fear of failing. If I never tasted any of my mental creations, I couldn't reject them. The only flaw in this plan was that, if I never tasted any of my mental creations, I also couldn't perfect them. Bonal helped me change all that.

Over the past year or so, I've developed a strong affinity for bitters and aperitifs. Both categories feature unique and beguiling beverages whose array of flavors offer far more than most tipples. I think it may have been in reference to Bonal that I remember once reading that aperitifs are like "cocktails in a bottle." I've been drinking Bonal all sorts of ways lately. From a small, neat glass before dinner to a tumbler with ice and a twist to refresh me after a day at work, I've come to believe in ouvre l'appétit, as Bonal is often called.

Essentially sweet vermouth with a bunch of herbs and roots thrown in, Bonal starts off with the sticky sweetness of raisins and prunes. That's the mistelle base, a mixture of brandy and grape juice. A slightly astringent tug brings the sweetness in line, then gives way to a pleasantly bitter backbone, artifacts of the gentiane and quinine. Floral, herbal and grassy elements execute a sort of swirling dance, distracting you from the bitterness and allowing the fruit to come rushing back, less sweet this time, for the finish. It's an amazingly complex array of flavors, and one which lends itself to many applications.

My humble suggestion is to do as the French do, and as I've been doing for the past six months, and give Bonal a try all on its own. It's kind of amazing how much like a miked drink it is, particularly if you chill it with a few cubes of ice and decorate it with a wide strip of lemon peel. Frankly, I could drink Bonal like this endlessly and never feel as if I were missing out.

Of course, that's not really the point of this column. For other ideas, look to Bonal's cousin, sweet vermouth. Anywhere you'd use sweet vermouth, Bonal can step in for a fresh spin. Remember, it will add a shot of bitterness and some herbal punch, so bear that in mind and adjust accordingly.

Bonal plays nicely with a wide array of spirits, rye and gin being two of my favorite partners. Bonal's dark, fruity base loves the spicy sweetness of rye, and its botanical edge plays interesting counterpoint to gin's herbaceous tendencies. While I'm sure Bonal will feature in many winter cocktails, and rye will be right alongside it, gin and Bonal have been my go-to pair over the summer, whenever my appetite needs some stimulation.

Of my Bonal-based original cocktails, I like this combination of Gin, Bonal and Maraschino the best. I didn't put two and two together at the time, but this is almost like a twist on the Aviation, one of my all-time favorite cocktails. Here, the floral qualities of the Bonal stand in for the much sweeter Crème de Violette, with a punch of bitterness rounding things out for an intriguing, slightly more sophisticated (to me, at least) spin on the classic.

Fitzcarraldo Needs to Fly

1.5 oz Gin .75 oz Bonal .75 oz Lemon Bsp. Maraschino 2 Dashes Fees Aromatic Bitters

Add all ingredients to a shaker filled with ice. Shake until well chilled, and strain into a cocktail glass. For a garnish, a twist of lemon is nice. I've been thinking about using an aromatic herbal garnish to reinforce the herbals in the Bonal, with thyme as a front runner.

The drink is bracing, but with a strong backbone. It's subtly sweet, held in check by the lemon, and subtly bitter. Fees Aromatic Bitters work particularly well here, the slightly licorice and cola flavor echoing the backround roots in the Bonal.

Even as good as this drink is, though (and it's pretty damn good), Bonal still calls out to me to be enjoyed on its own terms, for its own merits. That flexibility, going deliciously from straight spirit to a wide array of cocktails, makes Bonal a great addition to any bar. It's also served as the key to my appetite, both for dinner and for Build-A-Bar.

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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