Every classic cocktail has an origin story. There’s the yarn about Winston Churchill’s mother commissioning the recipe for what would become the Manhattan. There are competing tales about the first Sidecar. Here in Boston, the Ward 8 is thought to have emerged from a particular episode of 19th century backroom politics. Seldom do these stories hold up under scrutiny. Most have benefited from decades’ worth of boozy embellishment and exaggeration, while others are complete fabrications. Even the most plausible should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.
That’s what happens when a cocktail that was first made a century ago survives through modern times. The older the drink, the taller the tale. But unless you have a great grandfather who claims to have mixed up the first Singapore Sling, historical accuracy isn’t all that important. Colorful legends behind a drink’s conception add a little depth and character, but mostly serve as trivia to share with someone over a potent, well-made beverage.
That said, few legends of liquor are quite as compelling as the one behind Licor 43.
The story of this Spanish liqueur supposedly begins more than 2,000 years ago. In 209 B.C., the Romans captured the city of Quart Hadas – what we now know to be Cartagena, Spain. Amid their conquest, the invading army happened upon a gold-hued, aromatic liquor infused with local fruits and herbs. Despite taking a quick liking to the liquor, the Romans’ suspicions were aroused by its unique flavor, unknown ingredients, and rumors of its unusual properties; thus, they banned its production.
Unsurprisingly, the locals kept making the stuff anyway, but in secret; even less surprisingly, the Romans became increasingly enamored of it, and its popularity grew – if somewhat discreetly – among the Roman elite. They called it Licor Mirabilis – the “marvelous liqueur” – and eventually had it exported to other Mediterranean cities.
The recipe remained a tightly held secret that was passed down through many generations until 1924, when it was purchased by a Spanish family with the surname “Zamora.” They eventually rechristened the spirit “Cuarenta Y Tres,” or Licor 43. The name derives from the number of ingredients that constitute the liqueur, and apparently only three people – from three generations of the Zamora family – currently know the recipe.
Maybe you’re captivated by the story, or perhaps you’re more inclined to raise an eyebrow at historical plot holes being glossed over for the purposes of a modern marketing campaign. But again, the accuracy of a back story is much less important than the quality of its subject. And Licor 43, with its rich, amber hue, warm vanilla essence, and surprising notes of citrus, is worthy of a tale or two.
Licor 43 is still made in Cartagena today, and while the Zamora family doesn’t want anyone to know what’s in their product, they’d be appreciative if more people knew about their product. “Never heard of it” is the response I get whenever I mention this stuff to someone. Our ignorance is understandable; while the liqueur is not new to the U.S., the vast majority of its sales have historically been in Europe, with a particular concentration in Spain (obviously) and Germany. What’s more, the flavor profile of Licor 43 was thought to be challenging to mix with other ingredients; so even in bars that carried it, the bottles tended to collect dust on a back shelf.
All of that’s changing. Sales of Licor 43 are growing all over the world, with a landmark 500,000 cases being moved in 2011 (just to put the global market in perspective, Captain Morgan sold 10 million cases last year). And in 2012, the Zamora family partnered with W.J. Deutsch to improve distribution in the U.S. – where, as you might have noticed, specialty cocktails have become all the rage.
So how do you spread the word about an ancient liqueur that’s been shunned or forgotten by most bartenders? Easy. Gather up six of Boston’s top mixologists, give them some Licor 43, and ask them to do what they do best – create drinks. Oh, and just to make things…interesting? Put a little money on it.
That’s exactly what went down at the “Tonight’s Secret Ingredient” bartender contest, a cocktail death match hosted by Moksa Restaurant in Cambridge. The rules were simple – come up with a drink that incorporates Licor 43, submit it for the appraisal of the judging panel, and make a bunch of samples for a small but thirsty crowd of spectators. Winners get cash prizes and local bragging rights. Losers get their drinks thrown in their faces by disgusted judges and suffer the scathing taunts of their peers.
Before the throwdown got under way, attendees were treated to passed hors d’oeuvres and a couple of Licor 43-based drinks. First up was the Mini Beer – 1.5 ounces of Licor 43 in the world’s smallest beer stein, topped with a splash of heavy cream to mimic a foamy head. The result looks exactly as its name would imply – like a mini beer – but any similarity ended there. The sweetness and texture of the cream were perfectly suited to the vanilla flavor of the liqueur, making for a small but decadent liquid appetizer.
That was followed by the Key Lime Pie Martini, the name of which gave me a shivery flashback to the plague of pseudo-martinis that we had to endure a few years ago (I’m getting nauseous just thinking about the tiramisu martini I once sampled). It’s exactly the sort of drink I’d never order, let alone trumpet on my website, so I’m glad it was free – because it was sinfully good. The flavor was so eerily similar to actual key lime pie that I assumed there must be some hideous, bright green, chemically induced additive, but no. The drink was a fairly basic mix of Licor 43, vodka, half and half, and lime juice. I still can’t imagine asking a bartender for this, but if someone were to purchase one on my behalf, you know…I suppose I’d be OK with it.
As the crowd’s anticipation and inebriation swelled, the master of ceremonies announced that the contest was finally about to begin. The judges, Fred Yarm (author of Drink & Tell: A Boston Cocktail Book), Heather Kleinman (Executive Editor of DrinkSpirits.com), and Jerry Knight (Director of Marketing at Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits), took their places at a table on the stage. Their dour expressions cast a pall over the room; I would not want to be the bartender who served them an inferior drink.
The champions, meanwhile, were split into three groups of two opponents each – in other words, three mano a mano duels for the right to advance to the finals. The first two combatants paced anxiously behind the bar, each guarding their ingredients like a tiger protecting her young.
The first contestant was Taso Papatsoris from Casa B in Somerville. His drink, called Jardin Dorado, combined Licor 43 with gin, a Spanish sherry, Angostura bitters, and pimento bitters. It was a splendid cocktail. The gin provided a dry backdrop for the vanilla and citrus of the Licor 43 and the nutty flavor of the sherry. Garnished with an orchid, this may have been the most beautifully presented of all the evening’s drinks.
On the other end of the bar was Jason Kilgore of Catalyst in Cambridge. Whereas Taso’s drink had a light, floral essence, Jason’s “Three of a Perfect Pair” was heavier and more intense. This one mixed Licor 43 with gin, rye whiskey, freshly made rhubarb syrup, lemon juice, and a barspoon of Fernet Branca. I thought whiskey and gin sounded like a fearsome combo, but the vanilla notes softened the flavor, and the rhubarb syrup contributed an earthy sweetness.
Each bartender approached the stage and made his case to the judges, who sampled the concoctions and took some notes. And with that, Round 1 was officially in the books. Round 2 pitted Amber Schumaker, from Eastern Standard, against Oronde Popplewell, defending his home turf of Moksa.
As if the evening’s stakes weren’t high enough already, Amber had the added challenge of filling in at the last minute for Eastern Standard’s Kevin Martin. Though she was working with someone else’s recipe and had little time to prepare for battle, Amber rose to the occasion with the Verano Deseen – Licor 43, lime juice, Amaro Nonino, rye whiskey, and Regan’s orange bitters. The flavor of the rye and the sweetness of the Licor 43 were up front in this one. Beyond that, the Amaro gave the drink even more depth, while the lime and orange flavors ensured that the Verano Deseen lived up to its name – it translates to “Summer Wish.”
I asked Amber why she chose rye over bourbon, and she met my query with a stony glare. “You don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, son,” she growled.
Her opponent, Oronde, whipped up one of the stranger-looking cocktails of the evening. The Straw Ox combined Cachaça, Licor 43, strawberry vinegar, lemon juice, and simple syrup, and was topped with “Licor 43 Foam,” which looked like a glob of Cool Whip. I moved in to ask what it was, but Oronde’s eyes told me not to even bother.
With its pale violet glow and cryptic garnish, the cocktail was as intriguing in appearance as it was in taste, though there was a mild sourness that I didn’t care for.
As Amber and Oronde appealed to the judges, the Round 3 champions moved into place. Josh Taylor of West Bridge (which sounds like a town, or maybe a specialty furniture store, but is actually a cool-looking restaurant in Cambridge) created the aptly named Backyard Cocktail, a summery mix of Licor 43, rhubarb shrub, fresh strawberry and lime juices, and club soda.
Sam Gabrielli of Russell House Tavern countered with 43 Elephants, a drink that mixed Licor 43 with Amarula, Fernet Branca, an egg white, and Angostura bitters. If Josh’s Backyard Cocktail captured the flavors of summer, Sam’s evoked more of a wintry mood. Amarula, an African cream liqueur with hints of caramel, matched well with the vanilla notes in the Licor 43, and the egg white further enhanced the drink’s creamy texture.
Six up, six down; now it was up to the judges to decide who would continue in the tournament. Music played, guests mingled, and more Licor 43 Mini Beers and Key Lime Pie Martinis got passed around.
The frivolity of the crowd was in stark contrast to the savagery on the other side of the bar – jittery contestants snarling at one another, heaving appalling insults, and hurling accusations of ingredient tampering. Clearly, these people didn’t like each other.
Suddenly a hush fell over the room as the judges delivered their verdict – Sam Gabrielli, Oronde Popplewell, and Josh Taylor would advance to the finals, while the bell tolled for Taso, Amber, and Jason. The crowd erupted, a mix of delighted applause and hateful jeers. Before returning to the bar to make their drinks one more time, the three remaining warriors solemnly raised barspoons to their vanquished foes – a time-honored gesture of respect among those in the cocktail trade.
As the now restive crowd settled in for another grueling wait, the mood turned dark. Alliances shifted among the spectators, and loyalties were openly questioned. A woman approached me and asked if I was “Team Josh, Team Oronde, or Team Sam.” I laughed. She didn’t.
Whispered accusations of intimidation and bribery caused some to question the honor of the finalists. “The guy from Catalyst got screwed!” yelled the guy from Catalyst. The smoldering look on Amber’s face made me wonder whether her earlier knife/gunfight remark was a metaphor or a warning.
As the simmering hostility approached a full, violent boil, the microphone crackled with the voice of the emcee – the judges were ready to crown a winner.
Silence descended again upon the expectant crowd, punctuated occasionally by isolated gasps and muttered prayers. The bell tolled first for Sam, who ushered his 43 Elephants back to Russell House Tavern. It rang again for Moksa’s Oronde and his Straw Ox. That left Josh Taylor of West Bridge to raise his Backyard Cocktail in triumph amid a deafening ovation.
Josh’s victory was richly deserved. He got a handsome cash prize while those of us in attendance were treated to another round of his award-winning cocktail. And while all the drinks were impressive, I’d have to concur with the judges – this was the drink of the night. The vanilla of the Licor 43 paired beautifully with the strawberry juice, while the rhubarb shrub kept it from being overly sweet. The lime juice further brought out the citrus notes of the Licor 43, and the club soda introduced just the right amount of dryness. Positively refreshing, and ideal for a backyard barbecue on a hot summer day.
Victory belonged to Josh, but the night belonged to Licor 43. Whether this very old spirit will become the latest thing, I don’t know. Nor can I say whether its fascinating origin story is true (but if there really are only three people who know the recipe, I hope at least one of them has the good sense to jot it down at some point). But even if its history has merged with legend, the liqueur’s quality requires no exaggeration.
Nor does an event like this – even though I may have added a few teensy-weensy embellishments in my retelling. In truth, the night had the tone of a friendly competition, and not a drop of blood was spilled (that I know of). Personally, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to watch six cocktail experts at work. It was especially instructive to see the similarities and differences in how they approached a given ingredient, and each cocktail was distinct in its composition and presentation.
If you want to try your hand at making the winning drink, the recipe follows.
The Backyard Cocktail, crafted by Josh Taylor of West Bridge in Cambridge
1 1⁄2 oz Licor 43
3⁄4 oz Rhubarb Shrub
1⁄2 oz Fresh Strawberry Juice
1⁄2 oz Fresh Lime Juice
Combine the Licor 43, rhubarb shrub, strawberry juice, and lime juice and shake lightly. Strain into a highball glass over ice. Top with club soda and serve with a straw.
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