Dish

Going in blind

6-dish-liquor

Trying something new can be a taste adventure

Sometimes when I’m choosing a bottle of something new for this column,
it’s difficult. Other times, though, the choice makes itself. When I was
browsing the shelves at Bin 104 recently, I came across a very mysterious
bottle. Tallish, skinny and dark medicine-bottle green, it sported a sticker
on its front that said Mirto dell’Isola di Sardegna and a sticker on its back
that explained the bottle’s contents—entirely in Italian. When I asked
the clerk what this strange liqueur was, she said, “I think it’s lingonberry,
but I’m not sure.” Curiosity got the better of me, and I bought the bottle
blind.

Too impatient to research before opening the bottle, I embarked on a taste
test as soon as I got home, pouring the dull, dark purply-red liqueur over
ice. A first sniff of its scent didn’t put me off. It smells earthy and
planty, with just a touch of sweetness and a eucalyptus-like aroma.
Definitely not lingonberry. The liqueur tastes lighter than it smells, with a
honeyed sweetness and a hint of the bitterness promised by its scent.
After tasting mirto neat, I started to do my research. I found out that the
“Isola di Sardegna” on the label is the Italian island of Sardinia, where
myrtle plants grow abundantly. These bushy plants form the base of mirto
liqueur. Red mirto is made from the berries of the myrtle plant, and white
mirto is made from its leaves and is thus more bitter, though this is an
intellectual point because the only store in the city that sells mirto only
carries the red kind. I have an aunt who lived in Sardinia, and she
illuminated mirto further for me. It is a national drink for Sardinians, and
every household has a bottle.

Mirto is made through a simple process in which the myrtle berries are
macerated in alcohol until they give up all their flavour, a process that
takes up to six months. The mixture is strained and then sweetened, usually
with honey, before it is bottled. That’s why, although I’ve never seen a
myrtle berry in my life, I can now say that I have a pretty good idea of how
they taste. Mirto is most often served cool (refrigerated—do not put
this liqueur in the freezer; its low alcohol content means it might freeze
solid) as an aperitif or digestif. Its refreshing plant-like taste is offset
by its sweetness, and it is only 20 percent alcohol, so it’s easy to
sip.

However, mirto’s herbal sweetness makes an interesting touch in drinks. Try
it instead of vermouth with gin or vodka in a martini. Toss a shot of it into
lemonade for a summery drink that will keep your mind off the cold
temperatures. Or play with its more bitter notes by mixing it with another
Italian liqueur, bitter Campari, for a drink that resembles one of my
favourite drinks, a negroni. And remember that it never hurts to try
something new. V

Recipe


Mirto Martini

This is very similar to a classic martini. Just substitute mirto for the dry
vermouth. The difference is that mirto is sweeter than vermouth, but its
herbal notes take vermouth’s place very nicely. Try this with gin or vodka
(though I prefer the gin).

1 1/2 oz gin or vodka
1/2 oz mirto liqueur

Combine gin/vodka and mirto in a glass-filled cocktail shaker. Shake to
combine, then strain into a martini glass and serve.


Mirto Negroni

In this drink mirto’s sweetness is balanced with the bitterness of Campari.
If you’d like a bit more sweetness, try adding another spoonful of
mirto.

2 oz gin
1/2 oz dry vermouth
1/2 oz Campari
2 teaspoons mirto

Combine all ingredients over ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake, then strain
into a cocktail glass and serve (with a twist of orange if you like). V

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