Gypsy Kitchens: The Yerevan

Here's a cocktail for a strange city and a wonderful liquor. Ararat brandy deserves to be drunk more. Yerevan deserves a cocktail. This one is pretty simple.
Yerevan is the thirteenth capital of Armenia, only recently becoming important at all. In soviet times the population boomed, growing from thirty thousand in 1900 to about a million people in 1991, the year Armenia became independent.
It's a funny place - as gritty and sleazy as one would imagine, with crumbling USSR facades and dozens of strip clubs. At the same time, though, it's probably the most cosmopolitan capital in the Caucasus, with influences from all over the world. We had decent sushi one afternoon, upscale lebanese at one dinner, french-influenced trout another night.
The Yerevan skyline with the double peaks of Mount Ararat in the distance.
But the thing that struck us about Yerevan was the cocktail culture.
For Americans, Europe can feel shockingly devoid of good drinks. Sure, there's great wine some places, delicious beer, local spirits. And there are plenty of places with a cocktail menu on hand. But bartenders here aren't used to mixing anything. Outside of a few bars in a few big capitals, Europe's mixed drinks are terrible. Take it from us. We've pretty much given up.
But in Yerevan, that's not the case. We halfheartedly went to a mexican restaurant (called "Cactus" - how unpromising!) that was supposed to have a good bar. We expected margaritas, of course, but didn't expect the bartender to carefully stir a Beefeater martini. It would be hard to count how many times we've ordered a gin martini and received a glass of Martini & Rossi.
In New York, maybe this drink wouldn't have been all that special. But considering where we are, it was magical. Think of this: the last good, European martini of the trip was in another surprising place, Košice Slovakia. That's deep in Eastern Europe - and about one thousand five hundred miles west of Yerevan.
So, what to mix to create a drink for Yerevan? The obvious base was Ararat brandy (let's not call it cognac), which has a lot of oak but also a nice balance. The second ingredient could have been a number of things, but we have a very limited home bar at the moment (we have to carry it), and something local seemed appropriate.
Armenia's two great fruit contributions to the world are the cherry and the apricot - both originated here. There's even cherry Oghee, a homemade vodka - but that tends to run at about 60 to 70% alcohol, which would have singed the brandy's flavor.
Even though it's foreign, the pomegranate is probably more popular, and the locals produce a liquor from it that's a better compliment for brandy. Pomegranate wine is bracingly tart, dry and almost without sweetness. A small measure goes a long way.
We found a tiny, souvenir-sized bottle of it (no point in buying more). After an initial trial, adding sweet vermouth in addition seemed like a good idea, to bolster the sugar and mellowness. It was barely heated in our room - ice wasn't necessary.
Our version was good, with an almost smoky note and lots of complex herb flavors. It's tart and refreshing, not overly sweet, a great winter drink. We settled on two parts brandy, one part pomegranate wine, one part sweet vermouth, stirred in a glass. Very similar to a brandy perfect manhattan.
In America, where pomegranate wine is difficult to find, consider making a normal brandy manhattan, adding a few drops of that syrupy "Pom" stuff, looking out the window and thinking about an arid, distant land on the south slopes of the Caucasus.
(Also - and we didn't think of this until too late - garnish with an apricot)
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