Byrrh, a fortified wine once unavailable in the U.S., shines in the Marianne cocktail, a riff on our cherished Manhattan.
Several years ago, while pouring through Vincent Gasnier’s Drinks, a gorgeously photographed and curated tome of alcoholic beverages throughout the world, Paul stumbled upon a minuscule entry for a fortified wine called Byrrh.
Byrrh is produced in Roussillion, in the far south of France. It is red wine treated with quinine . . . and herbs. The mixture is matured for three years before bottling.
You will either love or hate this distinctive apéritif—its combination of sweet flavors and bitter finish is unique. Serve it either at room temperature or slightly chilled.
So many things in these two succinct paragraphs intrigue: “matured for three years,” “love or hate,” “unique.” Also, the name itself. Byrrh looks like the word myrrh (frankincense and gold’s biblical sibling), so Paul decides, in rhyming solidarity, to pronounce it brrr, as if shivering from a chill in the air. After doing a little sleuthing, he discovers that Byrrh (actually pronounced beer—how’s that for confusion!) is unavailable in the U.S. Like a child confronted with the unobtainable, he is stung by the bee of acquisitiveness and that bee will remain buzzing around his bonnet for the next six years until Byrrh finds its way to these shores (thanks to Pernod Ricard).
Byrrh is categorized as an amère (bitter), specifically a quinquina, a fortified wine that contains the herb quinine, which was added to wines as an effective malaria prevention. Invented in 1866 in the Eastern Pyrénées, Byrrh’s popularity grew steadily after poster competitions were launched in 1903 to promote the brand, and were continued throughout the early part of that century. By 1935, Byrrh achieved the position as the number one apéritif in France.
Cut to a few years later, Paul is trying to come up with a name for a cocktail he created for his mom. In doing so, he googles “Marianne Cocktail” to see if her name is already taken. Lo and behold, it is. And one of its ingredients is Byrrh! (Foiled again.)
Scouring old cocktail books can be an entertaining but often frustrating endeavor if a spirit is unavailable. Take for instance David A. Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. Ever since Mud Puddle Books republished it, we had been meaning to get a copy, so when we finally did, we looked through the Manhattan section only to rediscover the Marianne cocktail. But this time, we were in luck. The bee that was busily buzzing in Paul’s bonnet would be laid to rest; Byrrh was being sold at Astor Wines & Spirits.
We’ve played with several spirits brands in making the Marianne cocktail, and find that following the recipe below will make you look at the Manhattan in an entirely new light. Akin to what we now would call a Perfect Manhattan (Embury called it a Medium Manhattan), the Marianne cocktail replaces sweet vermouth with Byrrh. But before you make the cocktail, you should take a sip of this enticing quinquina. It’s sweeter than most vermouths because it contains mistelle, a syrup made from mixing neutral spirits with partially fermented grape must. You can taste the lusciousness of the fruit. Enjoy.
(adapted by Cocktail Buzz)
2 ounces rye (try Bulleit or Templeton)
1/2 ounce Byrrh
1/2 ounce dry vermouth (try Noilly Prat)
1 dash Angostura bitters
Stir in ice for 30 seconds. Strain into chilled cocktail glass or coupe. Garnish with a maraschino or brandied cherry.
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If you like the taste of Byrrh, you may love the Rye Byrrh, which reverses the potency of the spirits in the Marianne. It’s lighter, and on the rocks. Perfect for a casual cocktail party. Serve with bacon-wrapped dates.
(adapted by Cocktail Buzz)
2 ounces Byrrh
3/4 ounce rye (try Bulleit or Templeton)
1/2 ounce dry vermouth
lemon twist, as garnish
Stir in ice for 15 seconds and strain into ice-filled rocks glass. Express twist over glass and toss in.
photo © Steve Schul, Cocktail Buzz