The Stinger is aptly named cocktail—a few too many can sting in the morning. It is a sweet, smooth and potent cocktail and though it may not be complicated to make it is hard to perfect. The brandy element to this two-ingredient cocktail is easy, use whichever cognac or brandy suites your taste or budget. The real problem is finding a good crème de menthe. Most of the ones on the market are a one-dimensional product, sweet and minty with little else. The leads to the question: how do we make a better creme de menthe?
Most commercial mint flavoured liqueurs are artificial syrups, tasting of sweetened menthol and alcohol burn. That may be fine for some, but with the modern cocktail revolution we should do a better job and elevate every cocktail we craft, especially when adding to cognac. The simplicity of crème liqueurs makes it easy to create, requiring slightly more effort than simple syrup.
The history of Crème de Menthe goes far back into history. The Art of Distillation (London Distiller), by John French in 1667, has a recipe for Mint Water, which is the base for mint liqueurs. “Take strong proof spirit 10 gallons, Spear-Mint dry 3 pound, Anniseeds best 1 pound, distil them into strong proof spirit, dulcifie with white sugar 5 pounds.” [sic]
Jerry Thomas included a recipe in his 1862 book “How to Mix Drinks” and included spearmint and lemon peel in his method. The recipe in The Manufacture of Liquors and Preserves; by Brevans, J. de (1893) uses peppermint, balm (hyssop), sage, cinnamon, orris, and ginger. The peppermint makes up 86% of the recipe while the additional ingredients contribute less than 14% of the flavour. Many recipes throughout history include other compounds to enhance the character of the liqueur, and if we want to make an exceptional product, we should too.
Creme de Menthe Recipe (1893)
600 grams Peppermint
40 grams Balm (Lemon balm)
10 grams Sage
20 grams Cinnamon Ceylon
10 grams Florentine orris root
15 gram Ginger
5 L Alcohol (80°)
2.250 Kg White Sugar
Water to 10 L
To create the liqueur, we need three key ingredients; alcohol, essential oils and simple syrup. You could use vodka or neutral grain spirit for the alcohol portion, but this is a great opportunity to amplify the flavour of your cocktail. If you are perfecting the Stinger, try an unaged grape-based spirit like pisco, a marc or aguardiente to compliment the brandy flavour. You could even use Metaxa or Hennessy cognac if you wanted.
Next, we need some quality mint essential oil and simple syrup. Peppermint seems to be the modern favourite, but spearmint has been used as well. Peppermint is primarily composed of menthol (35% to 50%), menthone (15%), menthofuran (10%), 1,8-cineole (eucalyptus aroma) (6%), menthyl acetate (5%), and limonene (citrus aroma) (2%).[^2] The majority of those compounds have that characteristic candy cane flavour and cooling sensation. Spearmints primary flavour comes from carvone (50%) (minty licorice aroma) and cis-carveol (25%), followed by limonene (5%), 1,8 cineol (4%), and smaller amounts of other carvone related compounds.[^3] The choice is yours, and you can blend the two for a more complex flavour profile. I prefer the flavour of spearmint but like the cooling sensation of peppermint. That means a starting point of 50/50.
A few extra essential oils can give the liqueur some depth. Hyssop is an excellent choice; it is in the mint family but more floral and zesty with a pleasant subtle bitterness. That sounds like something an experimental bartender would use as an ingredient. It should add a touch of brightness to our Stinger. Lemon would work—lemon and cognac go well, as per the Sidecar, and the combination of mint and lemon plus hyssop makes a fantastic creme to menthe with depth. You could even try the herb lemon balm or incorporate anise which is a complimentary flavour to mint.
If you want to get experimental, try sweet birch or a few drops of wintergreen, though not too much otherwise it will taste like root beer. I add one drop to the recipe. Once we have our homemade creme de menthe, we can apply it to any other cocktail requiring it.
One of the appeals of mint liqueur is the green colour, and a cocktail like a Grasshopper wouldn’t be the same. The commercial world uses artificial colouring, but if you want a more natural option most bright green plants (grass, spinach, etc.) will give up there green tinted chlorophyl in a strong alcohol solution. A natural green tincture will never achieve the intensity of artificial colours.
If you are a “fresh is best” person and insist on using freshly picked herbs, some of the recipes from the 1800s described making an essence using the flowers of the mint plant as well as the leaves. This could add some interesting elements to your creme de menthe. Be warned that steeped mint versions will eventually turn brown—not a big deal in a Stinger, but maybe in a Grasshopper. You will need lots of mint; luckily if you grow your own, it grows like a weed.
As for mint varieties, there are many for flavour experiments. Jim Westerfield was a mint breeder who created dozens of patented varieties. I can attest to using Jim’s Fruit Mint in a Mint Julep, it produces a superior drink. Mint varieties include Cotton Candy™, Berries & Cream, Margarita and Hillary’s Sweet Lemon—said to be Jim’s favourite. Each variety can add something unique. Much of the named aroma in these varieties is subtle but present. You can capture more aroma from the flowers and the flowers work best in infusions and syrups, but not so well muddled in drinks, though they make a great garnish. Any minty herb, like Yerba buena (Clinopodium douglasii), Nepitella, French Banana or chocolate mint will add subtle variations to your DIY creme de menthe. Experimentation is the key.
If you want to up your game, even more, remove the sugar and substitute in local honey. Then you take this “Miel de Menthe”, not to be confused with the specialty honey collected from the nectar of mint flowers, and use it in a cocktail like minty Drambuie.
If you’ve eschewed creme de menthe cocktails because you found the quality of commercial products lacking, now you have another option. The are dozens of vintage recipes that incorporate this minty liqueur and some of them, like the Fallen Angel, may equal the creativity of their name with a better do-it-yourself product. Many cocktails use mint effectively, the Mojito and Mint Julep for example, and having a quality creme de menthe on hand can be a creative boon for anyone wanting to make cool refreshing drinks.
: Gum arabic helps to emulsify the essential oils into the liqueur, it isn’t necessary but can be helpful. Also, it adds body to the drink helping to give it a silky mouthfeel.