People have a peculiar talent for making booze out of almost anything. In Asia, snake whiskey -- also, scorpion, toad and centipede, to name but a few others -- will put hair on your chest. To get a legal high, you can drink Agwa de Bolivia, made from coca leaves and approved by the USDA. And just recently, in West Dorset, the Black Cow Dairy started producing the world's first pure milk vodka from its grass-fed stock. In contrast Cynar, an artichoke-based amaro, or bitter liqueur, from Italy, sounds positively normal.
To be clear, while the artichoke is a key ingredient in Cynar (and gives the liqueur its Latin name of Cynara), it is only one of 13 herbal plant components that give this spirit its distinctly bitter yet aromatic flavor. That herbal bitterness not only makes Cynar an ideal after-dinner digestif -- although drinking it straight is an acquired taste for most Americans -- but also lends itself to myriad mixing possibilities. The concentrated character of Cynar has made it a bartender's go-to for complex, intensely flavored cocktails. Here are four bars whose cocktails demonstrate how L.A. bartenders are riffing on classics, and making up some of their own.
4. Bitter Red at Hudson House
Redondo Beach has its own Cynar cocktail in the Bitter Red, which finds its home at Hudson House, where some very dynamic stuff is happening behind the bar. For co-owner Brooke Williamson, who has loved Cynar since her first introduction to it, what started as an experiment in flavors quickly became a restaurant favorite.
"I love bitter cocktails, and finding ways to impart bitterness in different ways, but with balance," Williamson explains of the impetus behind the drink. "I felt like the combination of the blood orange, Cynar and bourbon made total sense in an Old Fashioned kind of way." The overall combination here is simultaneously invigorating and laid-back. 514 N. Pacific Coast Highway, Redondo Beach; (310)798-9183.
3. Warm Fuzzies at The Wallace
The Wallace's bartender Holly Zack created the Warm Fuzzies -- a flip combining Cynar, rum and cognac with egg, lemon and simple syrup -- as a nightcap that could be drunk not only to aid the digestion but also to stand in for dessert.
"Because Cynar is so darkly bittersweet, it complements the dark molasses from the Jamaican Blackwell rum really well. But I didn't want the drink to be too heavy or cloying, so I chose cognac to balance both of those flavors out," says Zack. "I think both brandy and rum support the rich consistency of flips, while still allowing for their spirituous characteristics to shine through." 3833 Main St., Culver City; (310) 202-6400.
2. Bitter Giuseppe at Corner Door
The Corner Door may be a neighborhood joint, but its cocktails, meted out with thoughtful skill by bartender Beau Dubois, make it a worthy destination. Simple and elegant, Dubois's Bitter Giuseppe combines four distinctly flavored spirits -- bourbon, blended scotch, Cynar and Benedictine (another herbal liqueur) -- to create a serious and potent stirred cocktail.
Dubois created the cocktail for chef Giuseppe Tentori in 2011, who noted that he was a fan of both Cynar and bitter drinks in general, so naming it after the chef seemed only fitting. While there's another Bitter Giuseppe cocktail out there (from Stephen Cole of Barrelhouse Flat), it's a more low-alcohol tipple, rather than Dubois's carefully crafted powerhouse. The Corner Door's cocktail is a contemplative drink, not to be rushed, but savored for every distinct herbal note. 12477 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City; (310)313-5810.
1. Cynar Julep at Eveleigh
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Earlier this year at the cocktail event Art Beyond the Glass, bartender Dave Kupchinsky batched up his Cynar Julep recipe (gloriously nothing more than Cynar, grapefruit, mint and cane sugar) and poured it over cracked ice to make the most original snow cone ever. Currently, you can sip the grown-up version of the cocktail at Eveleigh's brunch. This drink highlights Cynar's surprising ability to stand in for other spirits, although Kupchinsky is the first to admit that the Cynar is no substitute for the bourbon in a traditional julep.
Eveleigh also makes a Manhattan variation, called the Song of Solomon, with Willet 4-year 110 proof rye, Cynar, maraschino, dry vermouth and celery bitters -- which is a riff on the Bensonhurst cocktail created by former Milk & Honey bartender Chad Solomon. Why the popularity of Cynar? Kupchinsky sums it up: "I like to use Cynar because the herbs that are used add a nice accent to some of our more seasonal produce-driven drinks, and an herby layer to our more booze-forward cocktails. Also, its bitterness adds a nice snap and dry finish on your palate." Works for us. 8752 Sunset Blvd., WeHo; (424) 239-1630.
Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book "Gin: A Global History." Email her at email@example.com. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.