Recently we came across the recipe for the Black Lily, created by Kyle Ford as the official cocktail of the 2012 San Francisco Cocktail Week. At first glance it seemed like an odd drink. A whole lot of Cointreau, a whole lot of Fernet Branca and not a whole lot of lime juice. For those of you who haven’t tried it, Fernet Branca is a bitter herbal liqueur from Italy. What is it with the Italians and bitter liqueurs? Anyhow, Fernet Branca is a very strongly flavored liqueur that gets a lot of its character from camphor and mint, so it is very much an acquired taste. We were expecting this drink to be interesting but not for everyone. What we discovered was something else. Read on to find out why we’re intrigued by it.
After mixing and tasting the drink, we were quite surprised at how light it was and how it had a really bright fresh orange flavor with the camphor from the Fernet Branca not being overpowering. We were quite curious as to where that was coming from. Cointreau is a lovely orange liqueur, but it doesn’t make us think of fresh orange juice. Was that coming from just the lime and Cointreau or was the Fernet Branca bringing something to the party that was making this drink more than the sum of it’s parts? So we endeavored to find out what each ingredient was bringing to the drink. We decided to mix each of the components in pairs to see what those tasted like and what each of them was contributing to the drink. Then we mixed the final drink to see how it compared. We also recently acquired a second kind of fernet. Of course we did, because how could you not have 2 fernets in your liquor cabinet? The first one is from Frateli Branca. The other one is from Luxardo. So we were also curious what the 2 different fernets would do.
Shake with ice, strain over ice and serve with an orange twist
Black Lily with Fernet Branca
- Nose: Orange, camphor, herbal undertones. Honey as it warms up.
- Palate: Sweet bright orange to start. More than expected (the thing that made us curious 🙂 ). Plus a little punch of the lime. Very bright. Bitter orange like orange peel, then camphor on the mid-palate, lots of mint on the finish. Sweetens up as it warms up. (Look for a future post on that). Almost a honey flavor to the sweetness as it gets warmer. Rich honey mouth feel.
Black Lily with Luxardo Fernet
- Nose: Camphor, cola, a little bit of orange
- Palate: Little bit of bitter orange on the start, then orris root, cola, horehound candy (think Ricola), camphor. Very resin-y. Subtle black tea notes and tanin-y feel on the mid-palate, clove on the finish. The orange is in the structure of the drink but is not in the fore. More bitter than the Fernet Branca. Also sweetens up as it warms up, but not nearly as much as with the Branca.
After trying everything together in the cocktails, we decided to try the ingredients in pairs in the same proportions as in the recipe, so we could try to understand what elements each brought to the flavor profile. We also wanted to take notes on the baseline flavors of the two fernets.
Cointreau + Lime
- Pretty much what you’d expect. Nice orange flavor of the Cointreau, acid from the lime juice with a bit of the perfume-y notes of the lime as well.
Fernet Branca + Lime
- Really bitter, like really bitter, and the camphor is very palate drying. More sour than you’d expect, close to straight lime juice. Mint is pulled to the fore.
Cointreau + Fernet Branca
- Pulls more of the orange peel/oil notes out. Sweet start & finish. Camphor-y mint flavor really makes the orange pop more.
As you can see each of the pairs are combining in interesting ways, but no one pair provides the unexpected bright orange flavor that the final drink has.
- Nose: very minty, camphor at the beginning moving into very sweet smelling honey/beeswax/pollen.
- Palate: sweet, mint, bitter.
- Nose: orris root, cola, camphor, little bit of clove.
- Palate: All of the notes from the nose, plus kind of pine-y. Drier and more bitter than the Branca.
Some of our favorite drinks are more than the sum of their parts, in that the final drink has more than just what we’d expect from the individual components. Being the nerds that we are, we like to figure out what each component brings to the drink. For the Black Lily, the camphor and the mint in the Fernet Branca pull out the orange peel notes whereas the lime pulls out the fresh orange taste. All three ingredients combined really make the Cointreau more orange-y than it is by itself. Each ingredient pulls out orange notes but it’s when they all come together that this drink really pops for us. Using the Luxardo, we found that this drink doesn’t feature nearly as much orange flavor. It’s a very nice version, but very different and definitely more of an acquired taste than the Fernet Branca version.
We hope that you enjoyed this foray into drink deconstruction. We find it very helpful to understand how the different components come together to make the final drink. It allows us to understand what each individual ingredient brings to the drink, and also informs our decisions on future recipes as we continue to better understand what works well together and why.