“When they send for you, you go in alive, you come out dead, and it’s your best friend that does it.”
– Benjamin ‘Lefty’ Ruggiero, “Donnie Brasco”
The Left Hand cocktail can be described a couple different ways. It’s my understanding that Sam Ross, the creator of the drink, described it as the confluence of two classics – the Manhattan and the Negroni. It closely resembles the Right Hand cocktail, created by fellow bartender Michael McIlroy, which itself is based on a Boulevardier. Where the Boulevardier uses bourbon, the Right Hand employs aged rum along with a couple dashes of chocolate mole bitters for shits and giggles. The Left Hand is bourbon based, so essentially, this is a Boulevardier tweaked with chocolate mole bitters. When I think Manhattan, I think rye whiskey – not bourbon – so I’m not sold on the Manhattan-Negroni mashup comparison.
Furthering the “Italy meets New York” theme, the cocktail is named after Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero, an American-Italian wise guy Mafia-type from the movie Donnie Brasco who is played by everyone’s favorite over-the-top, overacting Hollywood Star, Alfredo Pacino. In the movie, Lefty is an over-the-hill hit man that suffers from regret and indignation over his career progress, or lack thereof. Lefty meets this Donnie Brasco character and takes a real shining to him. He starts treating him like his surrogate son (he doesn’t really like his actual son). Donnie reciprocates this fondness, but the thing is – spoiler alert! – Donnie’s an undercover FBI agent! Gadzooks! So when it’s revealed that the guy that Lefty had vouched for and taken under his wing – the guy that Lefty brought into the midst of the crime family – was in fact a Federal Agent, Donnie is left holding the bag and marked for death by bossman, Philip Rastelli. Oh, that’s gotta sting.
The movie is based on a true story of the real Benjamin Ruggiero, who was a soldier in the Bonanno crime fam and infamous for his friendship and mentorship of FBI undercover agent, Joseph “Donnie Brasco” Pistone. Ruggiero was an old school Cosa Nostra mobster who allegedly murdered some 26 people. When arrested, Ruggiero refused to talk, or as they say in mobspeak, “break Omertà”.
I wonder if anyone will break the bartender code of silence and call a spade a spade – this cocktail is a Boulevardier with chocolate bitters. Meh, whatever – let’s drink.
- 2 oz. Booker’s Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- ¾ oz. Carpano Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth
- ¾ oz. Campari
- 2 dashes (squirts?) Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters
Add all of the ingredients into your mixing glass complete with a full compliment of ice. Stir for 30 seconds or so and strain into a chilled cocktail glass of your choosing. Garnish with marasca or brandied cherry. Quickly spin around to see what treachery is transpiring behind you. Nervously sip cocktail and await arrest and/or mafia vengeance.
Sam Ross’ recipe calls for the excellent Elijah Craig 12 yo; however, I like my Boulevardiers Left Hands with a nice, high-proof bourbon for some extra kick. If you don’t have Booker’s or Baker’s, Knob Creek’s single barrel offering is likewise splendid. Also, it’s come to my attention that the original recipe specified Bittermens Sweet Chocolate bitters, which was a one-off product that was made accidentally when making the mole bitters. It’s unclear to me what the flavour differences between the two were; but the Mole version that is available works just fine.
Momma mia, that’s a spicy meatball. Loads of spice and pepper up front. The cinnamon and dried fruit flavours of the bourbon, vermouth and bitters meld beautifully. Booker’s has a bitter orange flavour in the back that goes well with Campari’s bittersweet chinotto orange notes. The oak flavours from the bourbon, Christmas cake-like flavours of the vermouth, chocolate flavour of the bitters also work wonderfully and balance against Campari’s bitter quinine bite. And did I mention the alcohol punch? Awesome. I could do without the cherry garnish personally, but I guess that’s what ties in the alleged Manhattan lineage.
Ruggiero earned his nickname “Lefty” from tossing dice left-handed while playing craps. The Left Hand cocktail isn’t much of a gamble – it’s a sure win.