It may seem absurd to say, but artichoke liqueur is just not for everyone. Cynar (pronounced something like "chee-nar") is an Italian bitter digestivo that boasts 13 different botanicals but really rests on one vegetable: the artichoke. Unless you're an old Italian woman—in which you case you don't blink at ordering a Cynar and soda—then your first impression is undoubtedly: gross. Who in their right mind would use artichokes in a drink?
I'm adventurous, but since taste one I've never truly enjoyed drinking Cynar on its own, despite enjoying many other bitter digestivos. Yet, with a little exploration, I've found that Cynar is among the most versatile of bitters, seamlessly blending with other bitters and spirits. In fact, I realize I'm among the last to see how wonderful this spirit can be in cocktails. (I should definitely give credit where credit is due: despite many examples of using bitter liquors as a base, the definitive movement for this came in Rogue Cocktails, a book created by bartenders Kirk Estopinal and Maksym Pazuniak in the summer of 2009.)
My first breakthrough was an unlikely combination. I saw Cynar, Campari, and Fernet Branca sitting on the shelf and thought to myself that there is no way that I could combine all three in a cocktail. Each one is so distinct: Campari is well known, but, for those new to Fernet Branca, it's a densely flavored spirit that includes saffron, bay leaves and peppermint oil. You could call these with Cynar the "super group" of Italian bitter digestivos.
After tasting the three together in different combinations, I realized each one had a complementary thread—the bitter orange of Campari melded well with the minty, eucalyptus-like flavor of Fernet and the creamy texture of Cynar, finishing with warm spice notes and an intense bitterness. Rather then clashing, they played together well, muting the harsher aspects of each and accentuating the qualities I liked.
Nevertheless, there was still the abiding bitterness that needed reigning in. I used juice from Cara Cara oranges, a sweeter version of the navel orange with a pink color and sweet pink grapefruit-like flavor, and added lemon juice and simple syrup made from turbinado sugar. I used grilled orange slices and chocolate mint as a garnish, and dubbed it the Three Bitters Cocktail. Cue "Feel Like Making Love" when you pour this drink, because it starts soft and delivers a powerful chorus.
Not stopping there, I loaded up my shaker for another round, this time using Cynar and dark rum. I dubbed this the Cynar Daiquiri, with lemon juice and simple syrup. Refreshing, delicious, and powerful.
Adam Bernbach, the mixologist for Proof , found similar success by blending Cynar, Chinato, maple syrup, cream, and egg yolk in The Shiner cocktail, and below are many more examples of Cynar in cocktails. Virginia-based bartender and sommelier Todd Thrasher, and Team USA recently won the 42BELOW Cocktail World Cup in New Zealand with the improbably named "I Have Too Much Thyme on My Hands at This Point in My Life." I recommend grabbing a bottle of Cynar and trying your own hand at an artichoke cocktail.
Other recipes and drink resources:
The Trident Cocktail
The Art of Choke
I Have Too Much Thyme on My Hands at This Point in My Life