Bartender’s Notebook: Bar Rosso’s Kenny Cohrs showcases the versatility of Aperol

For months, I’d heard about Bar Rosso’s Kenny Cohrs. Whenever I talked to a bartender around town, his name seemed to come up – and not without a touch of envy, given that Cohrs’ corner of the local cocktail world is part of the sleek, modern Rosso restaurant, on the seventh floor of Hotel Sorella. Everyone seemed to refer to him as “the king of Aperol.”

When I finally sit down at Cohrs’ bar, he is indeed eager to enlighten me about this aperitif. It’s the front end of a Tuesday-evening happy hour, and Cohrs is prepared, an impressive spread already laid out as I approach. Multiple glasses are filled with ice, chilling. Cohrs had readied two tasting pours each of Aperol and its cousin Campari.

“The Aperol spirit was started in Italy in 1919, almost a hundred years ago,” Cohrs says as I bring the cordial glass to my nose. “It’s a completely different formula and recipe than Campari, but back in the ’90s, it was purchased by Campari company and now is part of their portfolio. To compare the two right next to each other is really kind of fun, I think.”

Aperol is lighter than the grapefruit-red Campari, its color closer to a bright Valencia orange. Its scent delivers sunny, citrus-forward notes – next to it, Campari smells like bug spray and looks about as toxic. On its own, Aperol is feather-light – a dainty, airy liqueur with an unassuming sweetness.

“I wanted you to try them together,” Cohrs says, “because I think Aperol is highly overlooked by a lot of folks. Folks who love Campari don’t want to veer away from that, and folks who fear Campari because of the nature of it – its sweet and bitter profile – don’t want to have anything to do with it. But coming in at 11 percent ABV [alcohol by volume] – half of Campari [ABV] – Aperol is very different. Because of its low ABV, that makes it easy to put in things without overpowering a cocktail.”

As he tells me this, Cohrs works up a pretty cocktail in a wineglass: an Aperol Spritz – prosecco, Aperol and club soda. It’s fizzy, crisp and utterly drinkable, an improvement on sparkling wine. This is “just something to sip on,” Cohrs says as I slurp it down, abandoning all weeknight restraint, not to say grace.

The Spritz is just a warmup. Cohrs prepares an original cocktail called the Gondolier, a drink he says he perfected years ago at a different bar. (Cohrs has been at Bar Rosso since last November, shortly after the space opened.)

“I’ve had really good success with this cocktail, and it’s one that I still make at home for myself,” Cohrs says as he combines Aperol, gin, lemon juice and bitters in a shaker. “I named it the Gondolier to kind of give a nod to Italy in general but also to the traditional Negroni – which is essentially what this is, but with some slight adjustments.”

Those adjustments make Cohrs’ drink more complex than a Negroni (Campari, gin and sweet vermouth). He serves this concoction up, in an attractive coupe glass, and flames an orange rind over it. I take in the scent of the toasted citrus, which translates to flavors like cinnamon and cardamom in my mouth. It’s smooth, sweet, delicious.

But I am not yet satisfied. Cohrs is an innovator, so he deserves a curveball now and then.

“What if I wanted Aperol and something strange?” I ask Cohrs. “Maybe Aperol and Mezcal?”

Cohrs smiles. “Absolutely,” he says.

He hardly pauses to think as he pulls down Del Maguey Vida Mezcal – “incredible brand, an excellent, approachable, entry-level variety,” he assures me – and begins mixing. He stirs in Aperol, Curaçao and traditional Angostura bitters over ice, tasting as he goes. At one point, he decides the proportions aren’t to his liking, and he begins again. Once satisfied, he strains the fusion into a rocks glass and garnishes it with a lime wheel. He names this drink “the Spoiler Alert” and slides it toward me.

The color is a deep ruby red – a hue so rich I’m sure there is a lipstick for it. Cohrs’ work is elegant. The Spoiler Alert’s ingredients are equally measured, with the Mezcal’s smoke subdued by the bitters and lightened by the orange and rhubarb components of the Aperol. It’s a flawless sipping cocktail – not that I bother with sipping.

1 oz. Aperol
1 oz. gin
1/2 oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1/2 oz. simple syrup
Two dashes Thee Brothers Whiskey Barrel bitters

Cohrs: “Shake that with ice and pour into a chilled coupe glass. I flamed the orange, just to caramelize it and get the oils to come out of the rind.”

1 oz. Aperol
1 oz. Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
1 oz. Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao
Two dashes Angostura bitters

Cohrs: “Stir, strain and serve neat. Garnish with an orange zest.”

Categories: Dining, Music