Building a Better Corpse Reviver #2
Updated: Oct 16, 2022
You must have seen this one coming. How could a fortified wine-obsessed bartender launch a blog named “Corpse Revived” and NOT do a cocktail comparison of the classic Corpse Reviver #2 wherein he tries every quinquina and Americano on the US market? It's a perfect way to celebrate the upcoming one year anniversary of this blog's launch and close out 2020.
I'm a huge fan of the Corpse Reviver #2 and any excuse to obsess over the interplay of fortified wines in cocktails is one I'll gladly take.
The “category” of Corpse Reviver cocktails is made of drinks whose original purpose was quite literally to cure one of a hangover. I put category in quotation marks because aside from the notion these drinks are supposed to be “pick me ups” by design, there is no universal recipe, template, serve, or ingredients tying them together in any cohesive, standardized way.
Of the Corpse Reviver #1, Harry Craddock wrote in The Savoy Cocktail Book:
“To be taken before 11 a.m., or whenever steam and energy are needed.”
That's certainly an interesting prescription for a brandy-based Manhattan variant. I wouldn't consider it a morning pick-me-up, at least not by today's standards.
On the other hand, the Corpse Reviver #2 is a bright, citrus-driven vehicle for a cocktail that practically demands it be consumed quickly. To drive this point home, on the following page, along with the recipe for the Corpse Reviver #2, Craddock warns:
“Four of these taken in swift succession will unrevive the corpse again.”
Corpse Reviver #2 (contemporary recipe)
.75 oz London Dry Gin
.75 oz Kina Lillet
.75 oz Cointreau
.75 oz Lemon Juice
1 dash Absinthe
There are dozens of Corpse Revivers in the cocktail canon, but none are as iconic as the equal parts mix of London Dry Gin, quinine-bittered fortified wine, orange liqueur, and lemon juice seasoned with absinthe. Done right, it's a quaffable, relatively low-proof sour so bright it really does shock you back to life with each sip. But without a thoughtful approach, you could wind up with a tepid, thin, indistinctly citrusy coupe of cocktail flavored water.
Heart of the Corpse: Hair of the Dog
The first thing I'd like to point out about Craddock's cocktail is the volume. The published recipe called for four “1/4 wineglass” portions of each of the ingredients. A wineglass is equivalent to a 2 oz pour by today's standards. This means the original cocktail only called for a half ounce of each ingredient. This is in line with the “corpse reviver” intention of the drink itself – it is not meant to get one drunk or even buzzed, but rather to provide a little boost, most likely after a night of heavy drinking.
To standardize the Corpse Reviver #2 for evening consumption, the cocktail was going to have to get a wee bit bigger to better fill a coupe.
Contemporary recipes usually call for .75 oz of each ingredient. The 33% bump in volume from 2 oz to 3 oz of pre-diluted ingredients is substantial, but the cocktail maintains its structure even if it sits longer than it should. I find recipes that call for 1 oz of each ingredient very quickly make for flaccid, watery disappointments before the final sip. We'll get to why that is a bit later.
The heart of this cocktail is low proof. Using more than .75 oz of each ingredient crosses into standard-proof sour or daisy territory. Keep in mind a high-quality orange liqueur will often be as strong as gin.
Regardless of its volume, a Corpse Reviver #2 should always be tart and bracing, held together by a balance of sweet and sour citrus components on a foundation of citrusy gin and high-acid, bitter fortified wine. Its foundation is bright with very little in the way of warming baking spices. Dangerously refreshing, though falsely invigorating. Familiar, but not quite comforting. Mildly inebriating, but never debilitating...until you hit your fourth, of course.
Breaking Down the Corpse
The Corpse Reviver #2 spec hasn't changed much since its initial publication, having mostly held up to the scrutiny, rejiggerings, and reinterpretations of many classics. If you order a Corpse Reviver #2 at any well-stocked bar in the world, you'll more than likely get the classic equal parts London Dry Gin, orange liqueur (likely still Cointreau to this day), fresh lemon juice, and Kina Lillet.
But wait, Kina Lillet hasn't existed since 1985! Lillet Blanc is actually a relatively new formulation of the original Kina Lillet but with less alcohol, less sugar, and significantly less bitter quinine. This doesn't stop the majority of bartenders from continuing to use Lillet Blanc in their Corpse Reviver #2s, though the last 10-15 years have seen Cocchi Americano rise in popularity as the default substitute for the original Kina Lillet.
You can probably imagine where this is going.
As with any cocktail, there are always variables when choosing what products to put in your mixing tin/glass. My focus will always be on the fortified wine, but to truly judge how individual ingredients work in a cocktail you need an understanding of every component.
There are six components of a Corpse Reviver #2 and three of those have a wide variance in their respective categories. Keeping all of these factors in mind is important when both choosing ingredients and preparing them.
London Dry Gin
While base spirit is often a critical factor in cocktails, the Corpse Reviver #2 is a forgiving template. Since gin is the punchiest ingredient and more or less acts as the backbone, the higher the proof, the better. Choose with a pronounced juniper note and preferably a good amount of citrus.
Something bottled at minimal proof with a relatively mild profile like Gordon's will provide a more neutral canvas than say, Beefeater, and could even potentially be lost to the other ingredients (which is completely acceptable for this drink).
That said, I haven't found a gin that didn't work in this cocktail – from spicy Tanqueray to Hendrick's lavender flavored Midsummer's Solstice.
The Corpse Reviver #2 calls for an aromatized, fortified wine bittered with cinchona bark or, more specifically, the quinine extracted from said bark. Quinquina and its comparable Italian counterpart Americano form a broad category that can be broken down into two main subsections: light and dark. The Corpse Reviver #2 calls for the light (blanc, bianco) style, though I believe some of the darker, red wine based quinquina and Americano work just as well.
Kina Lillet (as called for in the original recipe) no longer exists, but there are a number of quinquina and Americano on the market to substitute. You can (and should!) refer to my Quinquina & Americano tasting guide for a rundown of the category with full tasting notes.
More often than not, Lillet Blanc is the default quinquina despite the fact the recipe changed 35 years ago. Cocchi Americano Bianco is most commonly substituted. As the Corsican Mattei Cap Corse finds wider distribution, I'm seeing it on menus more and more. Still, Kina L'Aero D'Or is considered the closest approximation to the original Kina Lillet. It's also nearly twice the price of the previous mentions and difficult to find at that.
You can't have a Corpse Reviver #2 without an orange liqueur, but depending on your fortified wine selection, defaulting to Cointreau may not always be the best way to get the orange in your glass.
Cointreau is a Triple Sec, a French orange liqueur originally differentiated from traditional curacao by its low sugar content, hence the translation of “triple sec” to “triple dry.” The “triple” is a misnomer with no actual definition - it actually has more sugar (250 g/l) than my preferred default orange liqueur, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao (200 g/l).
Cointreau is made using a blend of both sweet and bitter oranges and fortified with neutral spirit for an uninhibited orange experience. Sweet and bright both on the nose and palate, it remains the gold standard for orange liqueur. Combier, Marie Brizard, Giffard, Lejay, and even Patron make similar products.
Meanwhile, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao was formulated to be a historical approximation of traditional dry curacao, an orange liqueur made specifically from bitter curacao oranges. It is fortified with some neutral grape spirit as well as aged Cognac, making for a richer, more confectionary, and ultimately more complex orange experience. Grand Marnier, Gran Gala, and even Cointreau (Cointreau Noir) produce similar Cognac-fortified curacao style products, though they are all sweeter.
As long as it is freshly squeezed, you can't mess up this component of the drink. It is worth noting that every individual piece of fruit will be different. Some will be sweeter and less acidic (or vice versa), some will be milder all around, some will have some sulphuric funk.
One of the ways cocktail bars aim for consistency is to juice a batch of lemons and blend the juice for a uniform flavor. This eliminates the need to rejigger to compensate for the citrus variable.
This ingredient is an accent and should never be the star of the show. Craddock's recipe calls for a modest dash – enough to notice its absence, not so much its presence.
I prefer Craddock's method of shaking the absinthe with the other ingredients rather than pouring the cocktail into an absinthe-rinsed glass. Combine the absinthe with the other ingredients in the tin will fully incorporate it.
If the aromatic is what you're after, I recommend misting the absinthe over the top of the cocktail with an atomizer, rather than rinsing the glass itself.
Drinks with low washlines like Sazeracs benefit from rinsed glasses because once the cocktail is poured, there is still exposed glass with rinsed absinthe providing an aromatic. Rinsing a coupe and then pouring a cocktail into it which mostly fills the glass doesn't leave much, if any, of the absinthe rinse on the glass. At that point it is no longer an aromatic, but rather a poorly incorporated ingredient.
As for style of absinthe, I say go with your preferred producer. As long as it's high proof and contains plenty of anise and fennel, you're all set. Any quality absinthe will work, as will Herbsaint. Heck, even pastis and arak can get the job done if you're unable to procure any absinthe. We're talking about a few drops going into the cocktail, you don't need to stress this component too much.
Water is the real hero in every cocktail - it tempers, lengthens, and marries the other ingredients. Not enough water and the harsh edges of your spirits and citrus will come across as rough and astringent, but too much of it and you over-dilute the cocktail, making for a thin, disappointing glass of gin-spiked lemonade. Dilution from ice melt can be anywhere from 20% to 30% of what makes it into the finished cocktail.
Before we really begin to talk about dilution, we need to look at the water content and proof of two of our ingredients.
Citrus juice is mostly water. In most sours, the amount of citrus vs. other ingredients is a 1:3.6 ratio whereas, in a Corpse Reviver #2, it's 1:3. This means there is a higher concentration of juice and, consequently, water.
With regard to spirits, higher ABV (alcohol by volume) means more alcohol content and therefor less water in the bottle. When a bottle of gin says it is 47% ABV, that means that 47% of that bottle is alcohol and the rest is (usually) just water and maybe trace amounts of congeners. Some spirits like Old Tom gin and many commercial rums, as well as liqueurs and fortified wines, will have additional sugar added. You can now see how low proof, low sugar fortified wines are another huge source of “water content”.
All of this should be taken into consideration since shaking adds water to your cocktail via ice melt. Since you are starting with a lot of water content in these base ingredients, you want to introduce less water when you shake. Introducing too much water will destroy the texture and mouthfeel of the cocktail.
A Note on Aeration
Mouthfeel in cocktails comes from a number of sources and the Corpse Reviver #2 finds its structure from the following three: sugar, spirit, and aeration. There's very little spirit going into the tin which makes the sugar a more important balancing factor. Ignoring the negligible amount of sugar in lemon juice, the majority of the sugar will be derived from the orange liqueur and fortified wine. Depending on the combination of those two ingredients, greater importance will then be placed on aeration to achieve a satisfying mouthfeel.
A Note on Garnish
The Corpse Reviver #2 doesn't call for a garnish. It doesn't technically need one and the original intent of the drink was to be a small nip to get you going, not a multi-sensory experience to savor. The most common garnishes I've encountered over the years have been lemon twists and orange twists, absinthe mists, and the occasional cherry.
I believe citrus twists on shaken cocktails served up in a coupe are usually unnecessary. Cocktails served this way are intended to be consumed quickly while they are cold and before they literally fall apart (juice separates over time and you will see defined layers in the coupe). Aesthetics aside, the functional purpose of a citrus twist is to provide an aromatic. More often than not a simple expression of oil from a small bit of citrus peel, often referred to as a “coin,” are all such drinks require.
That said, lemon, orange, or grapefruit oil expressed over a freshly-shaken Corpse Reviver #2 can potentially elevate it and tie all of the citrus components together.
I recommend you pair your citrus peel to your fortified wine and compliment rather than echo. Lemon works best with more confectionary quinquina while orange can balance the lemon notes out from brighter quinquina. If you already have an orange liqueur and an orange-heavy fortified wine such as Cocchi Americano Bianco, you don't need even more orange oil going over the top. Instead, try grapefruit to bring out the wormwood in the Cocchi or lemon to cut some of the sweet orange notes. Again, none of this is necessary, so it's all personal preference.
Misting absinthe over the top of the cocktail is another nice aromatic, especially since I don't think the Corpse Reviver #2 actually needs additional citrus on the nose - after all, it's lemon juice and orange liqueur with citrusy London Dry gin and acidic fortified wine. If you can't get some citrus aromatics from that, you've done something wrong.
A cherry generally has no place in this drink, though I suppose it is hard to argue against a skewered Maraschino cherry with an expressed lemon twist to echo the quinquina in a Maruin Quina Corpse Reviver #2.
Third Times the Charm
Enough about the concept of the cocktail, let's start drinking! With all of the potential combinations of gin, orange liqueur, and fortified wines out there, there's plenty of delicious fun to be had.
For the most part, the only real point of contention among bartenders is whether to reach for Lillet Blanc or Cocchi Americano Bianco. Lillet Blanc is the world's most recognizable and widely distributed quinquina and Cocchi Americano is often considered a “better” (read: more versatile) alternative. But isn't Tempus Fugit's Kina L'Aero D'Or supposed to be most historically accurate to Kina Lillet at the time?
What about the orange liqueur? Cointreau remains the global standard, but I often find myself reaching for Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao when mixing. Is PF too dry when used in combination with drier quinquina like Lillet Blanc?
I performed my first Corpse Reviver #2 tasting just over a year ago but made two critical mistakes.
The first was not procuring a bottle of Kina L'Aero D'Or for the tasting to run the full gamut of light quinquina and Americano.
The second was using only one orange liqueur: Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao. This is typically the only orange liqueur I stock at home as I find it the most versatile bottle for a variety of cocktail styles. Unfortunately, it's not always the best option for this drink depending on the choice of fortified wine so I thought the second tasting should include both a neutral spirit triple sec like Cointreau as well as a cognac-based curacao.
My second tasting included Kina L'Aero D'Or and Grand Marnier along with Cointreau and Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao. Including Grand Marnier proved a waste of time and product. It rarely worked well (unless you love caramel-flavored Corpse Reviver #2s) and when it did work it made for a lesser version of the same cocktail made with Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao.
The final issue arose after the second tasting.
Early on I made the erroneous assumption that a Corpse Reviver #2 could, or rather, should only be made with a lighter, white wine-based quinquina. Out of curiosity, I shook one up with Byrrh and found not only was it delicious, but it completely captured the spirit of the cocktail, regardless of color or wine base.
I then realized I would have to do the entire tasting over for a third time, this time including every quinquina & Americano on the U.S. market against two definitive styles of orange liqueur: a triple sec and a curacao.
Show Me What You're Working With
I chose the affordable, underrated Broker's London Dry Gin as the gin base. At 47% ABV, it packs a heck of a punch and lays a strong foundation for the rest of the ingredients. It contains all the quintessential botanicals you'd expect in a London Dry Gin: plenty of juniper, lots of citrus, some root herbs, and a little bit of confectionary cinnamon. It also has a rich, oily body to provide structure in a cocktail with a lot of water content between the fortified wine, lemon juice, and ice melt.
For the first two tastings I used not only Broker's, but I tried the more common Beefeater (US 47% ABV bottling) with identical results. I also tried Tanqueray which generally made for less interesting versions of the Broker's & Beefeater versions. By the time of my third tasting, Beefeater's 47% ABV had been reduced to 44% in my market (NYC) so I used Broker's exclusively.
Again, the choice of gin doesn't matter a ton in this cocktail. Some of the best Corpse Reviver #2s I've ever had were made with Gordon's London Dry Gin...though to be fair the punchier 43% ABV bottling found throughout Asia is much better than the 40% ABV (US) or the 37.5% ABV (UK) bottling.
Side note: in the UK, the strongest ingredient in a Corpse Reviver #2 may very well actually be the orange liqueur, not the gin! Another reminder that this is a lower proof cocktail.
Every quinquina and Americano available in the US market had a role in this tasting. I won't take up space with tasting notes for each of the 12 bottles, but instead urge you to visit my Tasting Guide to Quinquina & Americano for a full breakdown of the category and detailed tasting notes.
As for the orange liqueur, I finally settled on Cointreau and Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao. For straight-forward sweet orange flavor, the Cointreau represents the best of orange liqueurs fortified with neutral spirit (triple sec). The Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao represents more confectionary, cognac-based orange liqueurs (curacao). I find these two bottles to be exceptional offerings and representations of their respective categories, and two of the best orange liqueurs on the market.
The lemon juice was always blended from several lemons for uniformity. Pernod was the absinthe of choice. Most importantly, I shook all of the cocktails with large format ice for maximum body and controlled dilution. Nothing ruins this drink quicker than over-dilution. More on this later.
Tasting Notes and Data
First, I needed to sort the cocktails into two categories: those that worked and those that didn't. Each version paired a different quinquina or Americano with Cointreau and Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao. I tasted those against each other and comparable quinquina in the category. This provided a solid baseline.
That data was placed on the following chart to get a quick takeaway. A + denotes a successful pairing of fortified wine and orange liqueur, a – indicates an unsuccessful pairing, and a +/- is good, but with significant faults.
From there, I conducted follow-up tastings to compare and contrast different expressions against each other to settle the final rankings.
Rather than ranking the top five, as a nod to Harry Craddock, I narrowed it down to the top four.
1. Tempus Fugit Kina L'Aero D'Or & Cointreau
2. Cocchi Americano & Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
3. Tempus Fugit Kina L'Aero D'Or & Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
4. Lillet Blanc & Cointreau
And the winner is...
Corpse Reviver #2 (2020 Corpse Revived Champion)
.75 oz London Dry Gin
.75 oz Lemon Juice
.75 oz Cointreau
.75 oz Tempus Fugit Kina L'Aero D'Or
1 dash absinthe
If the global golden standard of Lillet and Cointreau is a slap in the face, Kina L'Aero D'Or and Cointreau is a Mortal Kombat style bone-shattering punch in the jaw. This one could revive just about anything.
Here are the full rankings and abbreviated tasting notes for each combination of fortified wine and orange liqueur from favorite to least favorite. Aside from the obvious worked/didn't work and with the exception of the top 5, the exact rankings are personal preference. For example, I don't necessarily think Maurin Quina & Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao make for a prime example of a traditional Corpse Reviver #2, but rather a very successful, non-traditional version of it.
Feel free to skip ahead to the section on the ethos and methodology of how to build the best Corpse Reviver #2.
1. Tempus Fugit Kina L'Aero D'Or & Cointreau – Not only is this technically the closest to the original Corpse Reviver #2, but it's also the most delicious. One of the most bitter expressions of the Corpse Reviver #2 with the Kina L'Aero D'Or taking center stage. A fantastic example of the cocktail, punchy yet nuanced. Stays bright and bracing from beginning to end.
2. Cocchi Americano Bianco & Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao – Delicious. Perfectly balanced from start to finish. One of the more confectionary examples with lots of cinnamon and orange at play. Plays similarly to the Kina L'Aero D'Or & Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao combo, but milder all around.
3. Tempus Fugit Kina L'Aero D'Or & Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao – Similar tasting notes to the Kina/Cointreau combination, but not quite as tasty. Orange and vanilla play against gentian and grapefruit (wormwood). Takes a minute or two to balance itself out as the drier Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao finds its footing, but the rest of the ride a perfect interplay of each ingredient.
4. Lillet Blanc & Cointreau – The contemporary standard combination of quinquina and Cointreau makes for a cocktail that is instantly familiar and recognizable, even if it doesn't make for the best version of the cocktail. Delicious and balanced upfront with the Lillet acting almost uncharacteristically assertive. Unfortunately, the Lillet shows its true colors as the drink sits and it falls flat. Thankfully, you should be nearly done with the cocktail at this point.
5. Mattei Cap Corse Rouge & Cointreau – A real surprise. Tastes very similar to the Lillet Blanc version, but at the point in time where the Lillet really shines, the Cap Corse Rouge is content to play support. Nice dusty gentian on the finish provides bite all the way through.
6. Cocchi Americano Bianco & Cointreau – Quite tasty, but a tad sweeter and more confectionary than the top 5. Lots of cinnamon and orange, almost too much. The orange notes echo like a funhouse mirror, but not in a bad way. Sits really well, falling into balance over time.
7. Maurin Quina & Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao – This is where the list becomes a tad more subjective. This is not a perfect example of a Corpse Reviver #2, but it's one of my favorite versions just as a cocktail. First, it's very confectionary. It reminds me of Black Forest Cake with the Maurin Quina's cherry and Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao's Cognac providing chocolate and subtle baking spice. Maurin Quina also provides an underlying almond note which along with the cherry and orange, brings some 90's Amaretto Sour vibes.
8. Cocchi Americano Rosa & Cointreau – Really nicely balanced from start to finish. The Cocchi Rosa skews things toward the non-traditional and threads strawberry and cinnamon through the ride. It still makes for a delicious cocktail that doesn't actually stray too far from expectations.
9. Dubonnet Rouge & Cointreau – A surprisingly true expression of Corpse Reviver #2. Some gentian on the finish plays against the tannic black tea and currant of the Dubonnet. It leaves a bit of red fruit on the palate, but not so much to alienate fans of the standard expression.
10. Byrrh & Cointreau – A nice Corpse Reviver #2 with red fruit. Everything is in balance and the Byrrh and Cointreau are complimentary. It keeps itself together as it sits, though it does lose some of its attack over time.
11. Mattei Cap Corse Rouge & Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao – Good, but not great. While it starts nearly just as good as the Cap Corse Rouge & Cointreau version, the Pierre Ferrand proves a bit too dry which skews things toward the astringent on the finish. Unfortunately, even as it sits, it never fully gels.
12. Lillet Blanc & Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao – The curacao punches through with a tad too much orange and vanilla. Compared to the Lillet Blanc/Cointreau expression, it's softer and rounder with less attack. Doesn't sit super well as the lemon and Lillet throw things off balance.
13. Mattei Cap Corse Blanc & Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao – The cedrat flavor works much better with the Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao than it does with Cointreau. Makes for a fine cocktail, but one of the least interesting expressions using a blanc quinquina.
14. Cocchi Americano Rosa & Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao – A good cocktail that tastes absolutely nothing like a Corpse Reviver #2. Goes from fruity to savory, but the savoriness is bright rather than rich or unctious. There's a bewildering strawberry, banana, and faint celery thing that happens throughout the journey, but it isn't as off-putting as that reads. Overall good, but hard to recommend as a Corpse Reviver #2.
15. Byrrh & Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao – A tad too bitter. The curacao actually throws things out of balance, though not in a bad way? It gets better as it warms and the baking spices and sugar come through. It gets 99% of the way there and then seems to just give up.
16. Mattei Cap Corse Blanc & Cointreau – I want to like this one more than I do, but it's just too much citrus between the cedrat-heavy quinquina, lemon juice, and orange Cointreau. It's too tart and not super interesting beyond the over top citrus notes.
17. Maurin Quina & Cointreau – Tart and bitter upfront. I don't know how, but the whole thing turns into grapefruit juice. It's tasty, but it doesn't taste anything like a Corpse Reviver #2 and it barely tastes like a cocktail at all. The absinthe is completely lost. Comes together as it sits and the Cointreau warms things up. I like it, but it's not a great example of the cocktail. Falls apart toward the end.
18. Lillet Rouge & Cointreau – As to be expected, it's a Merlot-spiked Corpse Reviver #2. Unfortunately, nothing pops and the whole thing is too smooth and mellow. Harmonious, but nothing stands out. I'm not mad at it, just disappointed. Strangely, it tastes like a Cosmopolitan as it warms.
DNR (DO NOT RECOMMEND/DO NOT RESUSCITATE)
19. Dubonnet Rouge & Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaco – Starts off alright, if not exciting. Falls apart pretty quickly becoming disjointed. A bit thin and astringent overall. Only gets worse as it sits.
20. Lillet Rouge & Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao – Similar to the Lillet Rouge/Cointreau combo, but worse. Not enough sugar to hold the cocktail together. Over time the astringency fades as the curacao warms things up, but I still wouldn't recommend it.
21. Lillet Rose & Cointreau – Indistinctly citrusy and kind of boring. It's way too thin and tart, but the extra sugar in the Cointreau keeps things from becoming overly astringent. I love Lillet Rose, but struggle as I did, I could find little redemption for this combination. At least it resembles a Corpse Reviver #2, whereas the Lillet Rose/Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao combo is off doing its own thing.
22. Lillet Rose & Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao – Astringent and hard to recognize as a Corpse Reviver #2. Everything interesting about the Lillet Rose is completely destroyed by the curacao. As it warms it tastes more like a Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao sour or even a Sidecar than a Corpse Reviver #2. Too much orange and vanilla.
23. Bonal & Cointreau – A little too tart, bordering on astringent. The most interesting parts of the Bonal are lost - it's all citrus and nothing else. Eventually, it gets very grapefruity as the Bona's quinine and gentian settle in and take over. The Cointreau tries to balance things as it warms, but it's too little too late.
24. Bonal & Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao – The flavors never line up right. You taste each ingredient in succession rather than as a whole cohesive cocktail. Astringent. The finish is all curacao.
Building a Better Corpse
This particular equal parts template is damn near dummy-proof. Most combinations worked, even if they were a bit flawed, making it kind of hard to mix a truly bad Corpse Reviver #2. This is a testament to the drink itself and offers insight into why it has remained unchanged after nearly 100 years.
There also seems to be a direct correlation between how successful each version is and the sugar content found in the fortified wine and orange liqueur: the more, the better. Many of my concerns about the thin texture of this cocktail are rectified with a little sugar to provide body and structure.
I highly recommend stepping outside of the historical comfort bubble provided by Harry Craddock 100 years ago and experimenting with the numerous quinquinas and Americano wines available on the market today. Here are my suggestions for building a great Corpse Reviver #2.
Orange You Glad
This tasting confirmed my own suspicions of personal brand bias. The fact I've defaulted to Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao over the last several years has been a combination of personal taste and the confines of my bar programs (Cointreau is significantly more expensive than Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao). As I've developed my palate I've grown to question my preferences and learn the subtleties of objectivity and subjectivity.
In the case of the Corpse Reviver #2, Cointreau mostly outperforms and outclasses Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao. This makes sense from a historical lens as Craddock specifically calls for Cointreau (a triple sec) rather than a curacao, but is relatively controversial to a generation of bartenders who found love at first sip with the Maison Ferrand/Dave Wondrich collaboration.
That said, some of the very best versions of the Corpse Reviver #2 used Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao. At the same time, the worst versions of the drink also used Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao.
The two biggest factors for your orange liqueur are its sugar content and fortifying spirit. As a rule of thumb, more sugar makes for a better cocktail (to a point, obviously). The sugar will provide not only a satisfying texture, but will balance the astringent citrus and bitter quinine found in quinquinas and Americano. None of these expressions should taste sweet, but should remain tart even if they're fruity or confectionary.
Cointreau is so successful because it has just enough sugar to tie together just about any fortified wine you may use. On the other hand, the drier Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao was best paired with quinquinas & Americano with a fair amount of sugar or with flavor profiles containing lots of fruit or baking spice.
Curacao style orange liqueurs with cognac (Pierre Ferrand, Grand Marnier) work better with richer fortified wines like Cocchi Americano Bianco, while sometimes that spirit base clashed with lighter quinquina like Lillet Blanc. Cointreau and other triple sec style orange liqueurs with a neutral spirit base work better with those lighter fortified wines because there are simply less complex flavors to muddy things.
When reaching for Cointreau, you're probably going to make a good, maybe even a great cocktail. If using Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, refer to the above chart to determine which fortified wines to pair it with as you could either create one of the best or the worst examples of a Corpse Reviver #2.
Grand Marnier never made for a better cocktail than Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, so I can only assume comparable Cognac-based orange liqueurs like Gran Gala or Cointreau Noir would perform similarly.
One word of advice: use a full-strength orange liqueur if possible. 80 proof (40% ABV) is recommended and as with any fruit liqueur, go for the highest quality you can find. Different producers use different oranges, sweeteners, and base spirits, so let that guide you. A Corpse Reviver #2 made with the US bottling of Dekuyper or Llord's Triple Sec will never be as good as one made with Cointreau, Combier, or Marie Brizzard.
Fortified Wine Pairing
While most people may start building a Corpse Reviver #2 with their fortified wine first, you must keep in mind the orange liqueur could clash with your selection. You may want to reference individual combination tasting notes to ensure you're building the cocktail you actually want. Some combinations will surprisingly taste exactly as a Corpse Reviver #2 should (Mattei Cap Corse Rouge & Cointreau) while some will take on a personality of their own (Maurin Quina & Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao).
Tempus Fugit Kina L'Aero D'Or, Cocchi Americano Bianco, and Mattei Cap Corse Rouge are the most versatile fortified wines for this cocktail. The first two make perfect sense, but the Cap Corse Rouge is a bit of a shocker. Despite preconceptions about its color, in a blind taste test it matches the profile of a Corpse Reviver #2 perfectly.
If you start with any of the above three bottles, it won't matter what orange liqueur you use because you're going to get a great cocktail. The Kina L'Aero D'Or is unbelievably assertive with tons of quinine and wormwood, but it plays well just about everything. It's the most bitter in the entire category so it cuts through the sweetness of any orange liqueur. There's also a fair amount of sugar in the Kina L'Aero D'Or to balance that bitterness so it lifts drier orange liqueurs like Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao.
Cocchi Americano Bianco performs very similarly, but is slightly less bitter and a bit more confectionary. It's plenty bitter thanks to an added wormwood bite, and at 210 g/l of sugar you'd better believe it bolsters the traditionally thin Corpse Reviver #2.
Strangely enough, Mattei Cap Corse Blanc doesn't work nearly as well as Cap Corse Rouge. Cap Corse Blanc brings a lot of very unique, interesting flavors to the mix, but doesn't quite harmonize with everything else as the subtle umami notes fall in and out of sync with the other ingredients. Despite preconceptions about color categorization, the Rouge makes for an instantly recognizable expression of a Corpse Reviver #2.
Lillet Rose and Bonal: don't waste your time. Lillet Rose doesn't have enough sugar to hang in this drink, throwing the entire balance off toward the thin and astringent. Lillet Rose is one of my favorite fortified wines in existence, but at a mere 70 g/l sugar, it's the driest expression and, consequently, doesn't hold up to the other ingredients.
As for Bonal, I've found that shaken, sour style cocktails that aren't workshopped around this gentian-heavy quinquina tend to fall flat. In the case of the Corpse Reviver #2, it is inoffensive at best and at worst makes for a disjointed cocktail. This also continues to reaffirm that Bonal rarely, if ever, seems to work in shaken sour style cocktails.
Ice Ice Baby
This cocktail is relatively low proof with a lot of water content. This is notable because alcohol has a lower freezing point than water. That means the less booze in a cocktail, or the lower its overall proof, the faster it will get to its freezing point.
For example, a well-shaken Gimlet will be a colder drink than a Corpse Reviver #2 because there's more gin in the cocktail and that gin has the capacity to get much colder than the other ingredients in the tin on account of its proof. If you build and shake both drinks at the same time, the Corpse Reviver #2 will get to it's lowest temperature much quicker than the Gimlet, requiring the boozier Gimlet to be shaken longer to get to the same temperature.
This means a Corpse Reviver #2 will get colder faster than your typical sour and it explains the low overall volume of the cocktail. In addition to less liquid going into the tin to start, there's less ice melt and dilution because the cocktail got to temperature faster than you would expect, meaning it stopped diluting sooner than a full-strength cocktail.
Herein lies the trickiest part of this cocktail. Dilution MUST be controlled. Shaking with small, “soft” or “wet” ice (e.g. store-bought ice or home freezer dispensers) is the easiest way to over-dilute the cocktail and an over-diluted cocktail has no texture because it is too watered down to retain any satisfying structure. Additionally, using lots of smaller ice cubes destroys aeration in the tin, which makes for a less effective shake overall.
I believe the key to building the best Corpse Reviver lies in shaking with large format ice to ensure minimal dilution and maximum aeration. By large format, I mean the type of ice you'd normally pour your Old Fashioneds over. 2” x 2” or 2.5” x 2.5” blocks are ideal. You can add one or two standard 1” x 1” cubes to accelerate your dilution as shaking with large ice requires a lot more work to simultaneously chill, dilute, and aerate properly. In the end its always worth it to shake with large ice and this is often a reason why cocktails taste better at a great bar with a thoughtful, attentive bartender.
It can take some work to figure out a comfortable technique when shaking with large ice, but however you choose to hold your tin, your goal should be to “roll” the large cube in the tin rather than launch it back and forth like a jackhammer. The latter can shatter your large ice, defeating the purpose of using the large cube. Some bars such as Dutch Kills apparently require their sours to be shaken with large format ice until it breaks, signalng the cocktail is ready to be strained and served.
When I shake I aim for what sounds like a steady galloping as the ice hits various points and I take care to avoid shattering the block. This rounds a block of ice as it rolls back and forth around the tin and the obtuse corners chip away and melt. It requires listening to and feeling the ice in the tin to gauge the readiness of a cocktail. It also requires more time and a bit more effort, but the results make for a perfectly aerated cocktail with minimal, perfectly controlled dilution every time.
You can see very clearly what this technique does to the ice in the tin. Rather than shattering and overdiluting, all dilution comes from tiny chips from the block which eventually turn that block into something closer to a sphere. This is important because one large ice cube will better aerate your drink, providing a satisfying texture for longer.
When you shake with lots of ice, you literally destroy the texture you've been working to build. Plus, really hard shakes create slush in the tin which require fine straining. This forces all those nice big bubbles you worked hard for through a tiny mesh sieve, popping them and instantly flattening the texture of the cocktail.
For years I thought I didn't like this cocktail because it was almost always shaken hard enough to fill a 5 ounce coupe, or worse, a 6 oz coupe. If you manage to make a 3 oz cocktail fill a 5 or 6 ounce glass to the top, 40% to 50% of the cocktail is flat water. I'm sorry, but that is an objectively bad ratio of water to cocktail for a drink with a proof this low.
The washline and overall volume of this cocktail should be lower than that of a standard sour, a good thing since it was made to be consumed relatively quickly, as all shaken drinks served up should be.
The Inevitable Saline Recommendation
Why are we still pretending salt doesn't make almost everything all humans consume taste better? The fact this is still considered a “bartender's secret weapon” is so silly it's become a meme.
It only takes a few drops of saline solution to make most cocktails anywhere from marginally to dramatically better. It makes the citrus taste better and rounds out the attack of harsher quinquinas. Come on, just do it.
A Final Word
In summation, Harry Craddock warned of quickly consuming four Corpse Reviver #2 cocktails in succession, but he never said anything about TWENTY FOUR.
Stay safe out there, y'all.