The Anarchist + Calisay(a).
In my idle moments I enjoy paging through ancient cocktail books (or reprints thereof) for interest, information or inspiration. To be honest there’s not a great deal of the latter as 100+ years ago things were pretty spartan in terms of ingredients in cocktailworld. Upwards of 80% of pre-WW2 cocktails are some combination of spirit, vermouth and bitters, with the odd dash of liqueur. And when it comes to liqueurs most of the time the choice is Curaçao. It’s a bit puzzling as there were certainly plenty of liqueurs bouncing around Europe at the time but I can only imagine that most were consumed locally and never made it to London, Paris or USA where most of the cocktail culture was flowering. And why did Curaçao make the jump coming, as it did, from a tiny Caribbean* island? Who knows? Where we do find other liqueurs it gets even weirder: WTF are Hercules and Calisaya that are called for in a few cocktail books from the pre-prohibition era? This puzzle lay unsolved by me until recently when while scrolling through the liqueur section of an online supplier I noticed something called Calisay. Could this be the strange liqueur I thought long extinct? Obviously I ordered some and also dug a little deeper. The internet was not particularly helpful with different sources claiming it was Italian, Spanish or extinct and then recreated in the USA. Well my bottle says “Legitimo licor desde 1854”, has medals from around 1900, it is very, very made in España and Difford’s Guide concurs** so I reckon we’ll just have to go with that. The US product may be quite different for all I know so please keep that in mind. The missing ‘a’ on the end remains a mystery to me. But you want to know what this is made of right? Well Calisay(a) is a liqueur based on chinchona (aka quininne) which is familiar to us from Indian tonic water. In this form it is delivered in a brandy base and heavily sweetened which gives it a pretty powerful bittersweet character. To me Calisay is to chinchona as Suze is to gentian. I quickly put some to use in the cocktails from my 1900 cocktail manual reprint but found the results pretty unappealing. One is a 50/50 mix of Calisaya and whisky and the other one part Calisaya to two of Plymouth gin. Both are completely dominated by the massive hits of chinchona and sugar which means that either Calisay of old was far milder, palates were sweeter (evidence points the other way) or these were just pretty poor unbalanced recipes. That means we’re gonna have to go freestylin’ – which suits me just fine. It transpires that Calisay/a is a challenging product to work with having a peculiar, if addictive, flavour. The sweetened chinchona is very dominant so a light hand is needed and I found myself dialing that component down quite a long way until I found the right balance. The recipe I finally arrived at pays homage to the common ingredients of 100+ years ago whilst adjusting it to more modern tastes. It also honours some of those who fought Fascism in Spain in the dark years from 1936-1939.
2oz / 60ml of Irish whiskey (I tried a few but Jameson is just fine).
0.5oz / 30ml Italian vermouth (I used Punt e Mes).
0.25oz / 7.5ml Calisay.
2 dashes Bogart’s bitters (or another aromatic bitters).
Stir with ice and strain over a big block of ice and add a swathe of orange peel.
Toast Spain’s bold experiment.
NOTE: If you can’t get your hands on any Calisay you could try any Italian amaro with China in the name (pronounced “keena” which is Italian for quininne) which may be somewhat similar. You best chances of getting some Calisay are in Spain. If you live in the Netherlands, Belgium of Germany you can order it here.
*Ok, technically Antillian rather than Caribbean but let’s not split hairs.
**Their guide shows an older bottle but clearly the same product.