He offered me a swig. It felt illicit and tasted delicious—tawny colored, sweet on the tongue, slightly bitter on the finish. Before this gets too mysterious and witch-doctor-y, I'll clarify that it was during the Tales of the Cocktail conference, and a man passing out liquor on the street was not totally out of place.
The liqueur was Gran Classico Bitter and Peter Schaf was on the street to drum up excitement among cocktail enthusiasts. Next week, Gran Classico will be released to the public. But the liqueur is hardly new. In the mid-1800s, in Turin, Italy, people were drinking what was then known as "Italian Bitters of Turin." A version of that original recipe was adapted for the red, bitter aperitif Campari. A Swiss distillery also bought the formula and for years produced it in small batches. Just a few years ago, John Troia, the director of Tempus Fugit, a Petaluma, California-based company that imports and represents high-end liqueurs and absinthes, took one sip of the Gran Classico and knew it was destined for more. "It was this dinosaur that had been hanging out in its own little market in Switzerland," Troia says. He partnered with the Swiss company to produce Gran Classico.
With 25 aromatic herbs and roots including rhubarb, hyssop, orange peel, gentian, and wormwood, Gran Classico is so complex that it’s hard to know exactly what you’re drinking. "It has a phenomenal number of layers to it," says Scott Beattie, a Bay Area mixologist and partner in H.M.S. Cocktails catering company. "Campari can be a bit sharp, which has a role in cocktail making, but Campari is not something I would drink on its own. Gran Classico doesn’t really need anything," Beattie explained.
Whether you sip it straight or mix it into a Negroni doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it’s finally available to a larger market. After meeting Peter Schaf, the mysterious man on the corner of Bourbon and Bienville who works with Tempus Fugit to create liqueurs, I hounded him, wanting to know when I could get my hands on some Gran Classico. It’s been a slow process for Tempus Fugit. Troia and Schaf spent months on the final formula and vintage packaging. Then they came under fire from the U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) for using wormwood, the root that posed so many problems for absinthe, and for printing both the words "liqueur" and "bitter" on the packaging (Campari does the same thing, so the TTB let it slide). Two months turned into eleven.
Meanwhile Schaf and Troia have done an admirable job of spreading the word in the mixologist world, and bartenders await what was a lost chapter in the history of bitters—the revival of an age-old product. "Peter (Schaf) and John (Troia) have this desire to make historic products but to also make history in the process, and I respect that. They have a great sense of style," says Jim Meehan of PDT in Manhattan. Can you taste style? I’m fairly certain you can.
John Troia also suggests this recipe:
Gran Classico Spritz
Makes 1 drink
Adapted from Tempus Fugit
11/2 ounces Gran Classico Bitter
6 ounces Prosecco or other fine sparkling wine
Splash of seltzer or soda water
Combine the Gran Classico, Prosecco, and seltzer or soda water in a tall glass with ice and garnish with an orange slice.