How To Make A Left Hand
NYC bartender Sam Ross has created an astonishing number of modern classics during his career, and if the Paper Plane, Penicillin, and the Kentucky Maid are among his greatest hits, the Left Hand is more of a deep cut — not as well known, but just as worthy of airplay. This warming blend of bourbon, Campari, sweet vermouth, and chocolate bitters bears a spec and profile similar to that of a Boulevardier, but the bitters bring complex notes of mole spices, cacao, and cinnamon into the mix.
Ross created the Left Hand in 2007 at the late Sasha Petraske’s Milk & Honey bar in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. (Ross now runs Attaboy in the space, along with longtime colleague, business partner, and fellow M&H alum, Michael McIlroy.) Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters had just hit the market at the time and Ross took the product for a spin in what he describes as “a love child between a Negroni and a Manhattan.” The Left Hand is a part of a series of “Hand” cocktails that came out of Milk & Honey, all which include Campari, sweet vermouth, and chocolate bitters on top of a rotating base of spirits. In Petraske’s 2016 book “Regarding Cocktails,” Ross is quoted as saying “Sasha reserved his compliments for only a few drinks, but this was one of our cocktails in the ‘Hand’ series that he loved.” There’s also the Tres Hands, which employs a split base of tequila and mezcal; the Smoking Hand, which has a split base of Highland Scotch and Islay Scotch, and the Right Hand, a rum-fueled riff created by McIlroy.
The Left Hand gets its name from a yacht that played a role in FBI agent Joseph Pistone’s infiltration of the Bonanno crime family in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Pistone, who posed as a jewel thief named Donnie Brasco, got involved with the family’s affairs by befriending Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero, a then-soldier for the Bonannos. Ruggiero, who got his nickname from tossing dice left-handed when gambling, took Pistone under his wing and trained him in the Bonanno ways, though Pistone managed to avoid committing any violent crimes throughout his operation.
One day, when the two were in Miami Beach, Ruggiero was reading a Time Magazine piece about a recent FBI sting in which a federally owned yacht called “the Left Hand” was used to entertain corrupt U.S. congressmen. The boat — pictured in the article — was the same yacht that Pistone had provided for a party several months prior, and sure enough, Ruggiero recognized it. “My life was on the line right there, with how I handled this,” Pistone recalls in his 1997 book “Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia.” Nonetheless, Pistone managed to keep his true identity under wraps, and convinced his superior that he had no idea of the boat or its owner’s relation to the FBI. In the end, Pistone’s work ultimately led to over 200 indictments and 100 convictions of mafia members. The 1997 film “Donnie Brasco” starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino recounts the Pistone-Ruggiero saga.
Not only does the cocktail’s name pay homage to this tale, its build — a blend of Italian and American ingredients — does, too. Ross recommends using Carpano Antica Italian sweet vermouth, which is lauded for its bold flavor. As for the bourbon, any well-rounded, mid-tier bottle will suffice, but feel free to experiment with higher-end offerings as well.