With the return of Last Call, our goal is to highlight the craft of thoughtful, innovative cocktails created by local bartenders and mixologists. Our first drink, the Bitter Apple, comes from Long Road Distillers’ first-ever “Taking the Long Road Cocktail Competition,” which challenged local bartenders to create a premium libation with Long Road spirits. Maureen Di Virgilio from The Green Well in Grand Rapids walked us through her winning recipe.
The Bitter Apple, the winning drink in Long Road Distillers’ recent "Taking the Long Road" cocktail competition, is a tall drink with a short list of ingredients. While the recipe might be simple, the flavor profile is meant to be deceptively complex.
Based on a traditional Polish concoction which combines bison grass vodka with apple juice and lots of ice, the cocktail comprises certain tasting notes from the original — resiny, grassy, floral and tart — but makes use of local ingredients to provide a fresh and contemporary twist.
While jotting down ideas for the Long Road competition, I found myself wanting to showcase the distillery’s vodka. Made from red winter wheat sourced locally from Pilot Malt House in Byron Center, it's unique among Michigan vodkas and stands out from most American-made vodkas in general. A full body and distinct flavor express a sense of terroir that is challenging but gratifying to integrate into cocktails.
The next step fell into place during a homebrewing class out at Gravel Bottom Brewery in Ada. Preparing an oatmeal stout under the tutelage of beer guru Ben Darcie, my classmate and I were constantly reminded to smell the brew as it developed. Experiencing how the beer's aromas changed through the addition of malt, hops and yeast was an engaging olfactory experience that I was inspired to mirror in a cocktail. On top of that, creating a bridge between beer and cocktails is a win-win move when it comes to West Michigan imbibers.
I purchased a packet of pellets and set to work on an infusion with Fuggle hops, a traditional English varietal that produces floral, grassy aromas. Hop pellets are affordable and available at any brewing supply store (O'Connor's, Gravel Bottom and Siciliano's are all great local purveyors). My intent was to keep Long Road’s vodka with all of its remarkable texture and character as the base spirit, and then accent the drink with a small amount of the hop-struck version.
The most serious struggle was probably over whether to use fresh or store-bought apple juice. I'm a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" type when it comes to the classics, and enjoy the easily accessible sweetness of good old Martinelli's apple juice (for a lower-maintenance version of the drink, pick some up at Martha's Vineyard). The decision lay again with aromatic power, as the freshly-made juice was far more fragrant.
A few finishing touches tied everything together and also elevated the drink to competition-worthy status. Fee Bros. Rhubarb Bitters enhanced the tartness of the fresh apple juice, and large, rough diamonds of dense, hand-carved ice provided the proper amount of chill and dilution. I chose to start with a large ice block, which I scored, cut down into more manageable chunks, and, using an extremely sharp knife, shaped and faceted once the ice had tempered.
How to Make a Bitter Apple
2 oz. Long Road vodka
.25 oz. hop-infused Long Road vodka
4 oz. fresh apple juice
4 dashes Fee Bros. Rhubarb Bitters
In a chilled collins glass, place 1 or 2 large, dense ice cubes. Add vodka, hop vodka, apple juice and bitters; stir gently for a few rotations. No garnish.
2 cups Long Road Vodka
One 1-oz. package Fuggle hop pellets
In a small sauce pot, heat vodka for 10 minutes over low heat (don’t boil). Add hop pellets and allow to infuse for 30 minutes. Remove and fine strain.
Fresh Apple Juice
3 Pink Lady apples
1 Honeycrisp apple
Try to use as much of the apple as possible to retain the maximum amount of flavor. Leave the skin on, for example, and instead of coring the apple, try cutting it in half and scooping the seeds out with a tomato corer. Depending on the size and capabilities of the juicer you have available, cut the apples into manageable pieces and juice away. Skim the foamy residue from the top. Strain.
Note: For a beautiful, clarified final product like I used in the competition cocktail, you just need a coffee filter, a fine-mesh strainer and a little patience. Set the strainer over a bowl and line it with the coffee filter, then pour the juice into the filter. Walk away and browse your suggestions on Netflix. Return after a short documentary.
Creating the Proper Ice
There are plenty of molds available that would produce excellent ice for this drink and are a lot safer than carving your own. Choose a highball or collins ice mold, either spherical or rectangular. These options will produce appropriately-sized, slow-melting ice.