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Dusty Bottle: Tyler Fry From Violet Hour Tackles Black Riga Balsam

By Paul Leddy in Food on Jul 7, 2014 8:30PM

Have you ever wondered whether some of those strange old bottles at the back of bars ever get used? We asked some of our favorite bartenders to create a drink with a bottle of spirits that seemingly never gets used in the home bar - the Dusty Bottle.

When a friend in Chicago handed Violet Hour bartender Tyler Fry a bottle of Riga Black Balsam, it was like he had been reacquainted with a long lost, bitter friend.

Fry originally came across the bottle from an adventurous liquor distributor when he was starting to work as a bartender in Omaha, Nebraska. “I was essentially a self-taught cocktail geek working his first gig,” Fry explains. “Omaha didn’t have access to half of the intriguing, esoteric spirits it does today, but [this} small, independent liquor distributor introduced me to this very curious herbal bitter liqueur.”

Riga Black Balsam is a 90 proof herbal liqueur that comes from Latvia. Like many historical liqueurs and bitters, Riga Black Balsam began with more medicinal applications in mind (it is said to be a good cold remedy and helps with digestive issues.)

“Riga Black Balsam definitely lives in the category of ‘über-bitters’. Fernet-Branca, by comparison, is eminently quaffable,” Fry says. "Black Balsam tastes like a fernet cross-bred with blackstrap molasses. Take some Unicum, add some Cruzan Blackstrap and maybe muddle a blackberry in there.”

"It definitely has some jammy fruit to it. It’s a fernet that I want to slather on my pancakes. The fruity quality is rather unique.”

In making a cocktail using Riga Black Balsam, Fry could have easily adapted a cocktail like a Toronto or Newark that traditionally would call for Fernet Branca as an enhancer. “I wanted to highlight this liqueur as a base, and not just the nuances that a small measure can inflect on the greater balance of a drink,” Fry describes. “I constrained myself to using a minimum of 1 ounce of Riga Black Balsam in this cocktail, and no other ingredient to supersede it.”

The cocktail that Fry came up with is called, “Mārtiņš Day” or Martini in Latvian. “The rye is just here for proof and drying power, it takes a back seat to the Balsam,” Fry explains. "The Dolin Blanc is a classic case of mirroring flavors: it seems a counter-intuitive choice to combine something so light, springy and floral with the intense, deep bass notes of Black Balsam, but it’s surprising how well the vermouth shines through and the cocktail would not be the same without it.”

The "Mārtiņš Day" Cocktail

1 ounce Riga Black Balsam
1 ounce Wild Turkey 101 Rye
1 ounce Dolin Blanc Vermouth
.125 ounce Lemon Juice
.125 ounce Demerara Syrup

Build in a mixing glass, stir, and strain over a single chunk of ice in a rocks glass.

Garnish with a sprig of mint with St. George absinthe dashed on the leaves.