The Bitter Truth’s E**X**R Liqueur is somewhere between a sweet vermouth and an herbal liqueur. Despite being a product of the German marque, this product is only available in the US. More confusing still, it’s produced by Dolin, a French vermouth maker.
The marketing makes it sound pretty swanky and versatile:
E**X**R is a herbal liqueur that blurs the lines of conventional wisdom. Firmly rooted in the traditions of both classic sweet vermouths and alpine digestive tonics. Enjoy E**X**R in a pre-dinner Manhattan or Negroni or enjoy it neat after a rich meal to aid digestion. It’s as delicate as the finest vermouths with an alcohol content that allows it to defy oxidation and the need for refrigeration. It’s thoroughly intriguing and the most astounding new addition to the cocktailian arsenal.
Taken neat, the EXR (I’m already tired of typing the asterisks) strikes me as a low-octane Fernet. The alcohol is at only 30% and the bitterness is not as extreme. On the palate it’s smooth and sweet up front with a finish that becomes bitter and spicy. I struggle to comprehend how this is anything like a vermouth.
It’s harder to describe the aromas, but I would start with “not pleasant.” I find it quite reminiscent of the smell of a patch of last night’s urine sandwiched between two nut trucks in Manhattan on a cold winter day. The palate and the nose just don’t match for me for some reason.
I prefer my Fernet cold, and chilling the EXR does well to shut the unpleasant aromas down. Sadly, it also dulls some of the bitter herbal characteristics that I enjoy as well. If consuming this neat, room temperature is the way to go.
Berg & Hauck recommend it as a drop-in for sweet vermouth, and thus we start with a Negroni. The resulting drink is an interesting beast. A lot of nice smoke/coffee/chocolate flavors come out, but some of the bitterness and herbal complexity are lacking. The EXR overpowers the Gran Classico (not a trivial feat), and makes a drink just a hair too sweet for my taste. If I pretend for a second that Carpano Antica Formula does not exist, this is not a bad combination. The bitterness of the Gran Classico an the EXR mix nicely on the finish and the dirty nut cart aromas are gone – all that is left is a little bit of the piss scent. A flamed orange peel covers this up nicely. Campari/Aperol/Cynar, with somewhat less sweetness than the Gran Classico, make an even better pairing. In truth, this is a drink I would quite enjoy in a bar, but my canonical Negroni better suits my tastes.
The second best use for sweet vermouth is in a Manhattan. Thus, we proceed in that direction. I used my go-to recipe (4 parts rye, 1 part vermouth, a and a healthy dose of aromatic bitters). In this role, I could be convinced the EXR is a vermouth. It lends a caramel/chocolate/hazelnut character to the drink. The bitterness comes through and combines nicely with the spice of a good rye. The sacrifice is a bit of the character and complexity of the rye (Carpano is much better at taking a back seat), but as a variation, this is interesting. Given the bitterness, I will call this the After Dinner Manhattan, as it makes a nice digestif version of the drink. It’s a bit too aggressive to serve in the apéritif role.
There is probably a good use for this liqueur that I’ve yet to discover, and it’s likely not one of the classics. Gaz Regan combines it with rye, blood orange liqueur, and bitters. Fun to play with on a whim, but I don’t know that it’s worth seeking out.