Tuesday, May 18, 2010

you idiot, we've all got swords

I have a lot of work backed up, but if I don't update the blog even when I'm busy, the blogs I have in mind back up indefinitely ... I have blogs on white whiskey, pistachio oil, and camelina oil that I've been meaning to get to all year, for instance.  And ramps and rhubarb will be at the end of their seasons by the time I tell you about them!

I really want to talk about bitter components of cocktails, so let's see if I can get that written.

First of all: bitterness is one of the most important elements of cocktails, as a class of beverages (I'm not saying it's the most important element of each cocktail individually).  The earliest cocktails were a spirit with the addition of a little sweetness and a little bit of bitters, and you can think of this as being like a steak seasoned with a little salt and pepper -- as opposed to a more elaborately prepared and sauced steak such as develops later, or a sandwich of processed reformed texturized meat product and Velveeta such as you're getting from that bottle of "margarita mix."

You can take any base spirit and make an Old-Fashioned, for instance.  Modern bars tend to make these wrongly, very wrongly, if they're not cocktail revival bars -- they add a bunch of fruit garnish and soda water.  Wisconsin has its own weird Old-Fashioned tradition using brandy (and again, I think soda water), which is probably best thought of as like the "biscuit" divide between England and the US, where one word is used for two very different things.

A real Old-Fashioned, without further descriptor, should start with a little sugar dissolved in a few dashes of bitters at the bottom of a rocks glass.  The bitters shouldn't be quite enough to dissolve the sugar; add a little ice water (a spoonful or less) to help out.  Follow that with a shot or two of bourbon.  That's it.  You can add an ice cube, but one way or the other it's going to be a small-looking drink.  That's because it's mostly whiskey, for heaven's sake.  You don't need a big glass full of whiskey.  I add a cherry sometimes -- a Montmorency or Balaton cherry that I've jarred with whiskey, sugar, absinthe, or maraschino.  No orange slices with plastic swords.

A tequila Old-Fashioned, brandy Old-Fashioned, applejack Old-Fashioned, even a gin Old-Fashioned, those all work just fine.  What's nice is that you can play around with what type of bitters you use, and these days you have a lot of options:


In a lot of ways, Chartreuse's Elixir Vegetal is the oldest form of bitters.  It dates from the early 1600s, and even the modified recipe in 1737 is older than any other bitters out there.  Elixir Vegetal is 142 proof (71% alcohol) and extremely fragrant -- a few drops make themselves known in your drink, and will even alter the character of a drink already containing Chartreuse.  It's wonderful stuff.  Elixir Vegetal served as the basis for Chartreuse liqueur later in the 18th century, which is weaker, lower in alcohol, and sweeter, and therefore suited to drinking in larger amounts.  This is essentially the relationship between bitters and potable bitters or amari (plural of amaro), which I'll work my way towards in a little minute.

Later bitters developed in the same commercial niche as Elixir Vegetal -- as the spice trade and the Age of Discovery/Colonial Era brought new ingredients to the market in quantity, making tinctures was a way to preserve and combine their flavors, while appealing to the Medieval mindset that said everything wrong with you could be cured with the right combination of roots and leaves.  Bitters were sold as nerve tonics, pep tonics, snake oil, and because most combinations of spices heavily concentrated in alcohol will help with hangovers and nausea, and because the placebo effect is assisted by sensory data like strong flavors, they worked well enough to stay in business before bartenders coopted the medicine show.  This is the same scene out of which sodapop developed, except that soda was also able to take advantage of refined sugar, which at the time was new, cheap, and revolutionary.  (The appearance of cheap refined sugar is as important to the story of how today's world of food originated as the appearance of the guitar and the radio are to the story of today's music.)

Today, bitters are, by law, considered too bitter to drink straight -- if the FDA rules that they're too palatable, they can't be sold as bitters and must be classed as liquor.  This is why in many states you can buy bitters at places without liquor licenses, like supermarkets.  Bitters are basically tinctures, using a high-proof spirit to extract flavors from herbs, spices, citrus rind, and some bittering agent or other (such as gentian, which is also used as the flavoring for Moxie; or cinchona bark, the source of quinine, which flavors tonic water and vermouth).  The default sort of bitters, when someone just says "add a dash of bitters," is Angostura aromatic bitters.  For a long, long time, Angostura was the only kind of bitters you could get if you didn't live in a part of the country where Peychaud's was distributed.

And to be honest, Angostura is fantastic.  If you had to pick only one bitters, it would be the one to pick, unless you make a shitload of Sazeracs.  Angostura is spicy and complex, and attempts to make homemade aromatic bitters ("aromatic bitters" is the generic term for bitters like Angostura) rarely live up to Angostura.  Furthermore, the bitters market exploded in the second half of the last decade, and is continuing to explode as we speak, but the aromatic bitters offered by small companies are in my experience never better than Angostura, and always more expensive.  Now, that doesn't mean they're not worth buying.  They may have a distinct difference that makes them handy, or may simply appeal to you more -- Fee Brothers makes an aromatic bitters that is aged in whiskey barrels, which is VERY nice, though pricey (and the quality has varied from year to year).  But for my bar, I go to those small companies not for their takes on aromatic bitters, but for bitters no one else offers.

But first, Peychaud's.  

When Prohibition hit, few bitters survived.  Imagine trying to keep A1 going during a worldwide decade-long ban on meat.  Cocktails as we know them have never caught on significantly outside of the United States, and the few 20th century cocktails of international origin tend to originate at expatriate bars -- or in the case of the Negroni and the Americano, they come out of the Italian tradition of drinking amari with wine or vermouth, which overlaps with but is not the same as the American cocktail genre.  So the one market for them suddenly closed down for ten years, and everybody had to find other jobs.  

There was plenty of demand for bootlegged whiskey and bathtub gin, but keeping bitters alive during Prohibition was just too hard.  Angostura made it, Peychaud's made it, and a couple of others might have but didn't make it much further -- because American drinking culture started to change, and before long bars were keeping a dusty bottle of Angostura on the shelf just for bartenders' stomachaches and the occasional Manhattan.

Peychaud's survived in New Orleans, though, because they're necessary for the Sazerac.  Peychaud's bitters are deep purplish-red, a little more viscous than Angostura, and taste more medicinal than spicy.  The bitterness is like when an uncoated aspirin starts to dissolve on your tongue.  But a little sugar dissolved in Peychaud's, in the bottom of a glass that's been "rinsed" with absinthe or Herbsaint (add a few drops of absinthe to the glass, swirl it around until it's coated the whole of the surface), becomes a Sazerac with the addition of a shot of rye whiskey and a twist of lemon, and the complexity of the rye with the huge number of botanicals in the Peychaud's and absinthe leads to an incredible drink.

Again, this is not your frozen margarita mix.  This is a strong drink with deep complicated flavor.  You do not do shots of this, just like dry-aged steak doesn't come in a paper bag from Krystal.  Quality drinking, drinking for big boys and girls, grown-up tippling, is not about hiding the liquor.

Peychaud's are generally difficult, next to impossible, to find outside of the United States, and because the cocktail revival has been a global phenomenon, there's been a demand for continental Sazeracs -- for which purpose the Bitter Truth has developed Creole Bitters, a Peychaud's riff.  Naturally, right now Creole Bitters aren't available in the US.  Wouldn't you know it.

Before Prohibition, there were all sorts of other kinds of bitters.  Celery bitters.  Peach bitters.  Orange bitters -- in fact, the Martini was originally a bittered drink, not this ridiculous bullshit "gin with a whisper of vermouth" that the 1960s popularized.  The Martini, using two to four parts gin to one part dry vermouth and a splash of orange bitters, is a descendant of the Martinez, which used equal parts Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth, with bitters and maraschino.  The Martini has wandered like some ragabond immortal through cocktail history, pushed around and blown back and forth by whatever the prevailing trends have been -- first a vermouth drink with maraschino and bitters, later a gin drink with just the bitters, soon enough a gin drink with damn near nothing else, and the next thing you know a goddamn glass of vodka tipsying some leisure suited car salesman at a fern bar, and eventually appletinis, chocolate martinis, and that damn margarita mix again, in a cocktail glass without salt, calling itself a cowboytini.  But then slowly it came back, and two of the important drinks of the cocktail revival have been the 50-50 (half gin, half vermouth) and the Earl Grey MarTEAni, using Earl Grey infused gin.

Orange bitters were the first bitters to be revived, by Gary Regan, who was doing this cocktail revival thing long before your local had that Aperol Flip with locally sourced rosemary syrup.  You can get them now from Fee's, from The Bitter Truth, from a lot of the smaller companies, and notably, from Angostura.  I like Regan's (which I'm used to, having had them for years before others were available) and Angostura's the best, but I've yet to have a bad bottle of orange bitters.

The bitters revival has led to all sorts of flavors of bitters -- mint bitters you could add to a julep or mojito (I don't know what else you'd do with them, mint is tricky), other citrus bitters (lemon, grapefruit, lime), chocolate-chile bitters (from multiple companies, at that), the celery bitters I've already talked about, lavender bitters, maple bitters, you name it.  I have some green walnut bitters I made myself, and have experimented with kola bitters (without notable success so far), and infused absinthe with Sichuan peppercorns and bitter orange peel to make an absinthe/bitters amalgam for absinthe-rinsed drinks.  The best way to try any of these out, I think, is in an Old-Fashioned -- though if you really want to experience a new bitters, using it as the base liquor is the way to go (in some variation of 1 oz bitters, 1 oz syrup, 1/2 to 3/4 oz lemon juice, 1/2 oz other liquor, the proportions of the Trinidad Sour).  This will definitely bring to light any flaws in the bitters' balance, however -- it's a testament to Angostura and Peychaud's that they can stand up to being consumed in that sort of quantity, despite not being formulated to do so.

But when you add that much syrup to bitters, you're basically making an amaro a la minute.  And that's a good transition ...


Amari traditionally come from Italy, where there are dozens of popular brands, most of which are rarely or never exported.  Campari is the best-known amaro, even though it isn't really one.  I don't know why it isn't one, I've just been told it isn't one.  I don't really care that it isn't one, for that matter: "potable bitters" is an unwieldy term, and so is "amari plus Campari," so I'm going to use "amaro" to mean "any bitter liqueur."  So there.

The amari can be consumed straight, unlike non-potable bitters.  They're generally -- generally! -- weaker than bitters, lower-proof, and have quite a lot of added sugar.  They're still too bitter for most people to drink straight, and for that matter too sweet to drink straight except in small sips.  The simplest way to drink them would be with club soda or white wine -- Campari with white wine is a Bicyclette, Campari with vermouth is an Americano.  Campari with Buffalo Rock southern spice ginger ale is just flat-out delicious, whatever you call it.

The Negroni, though, is better known: equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin.  It's an excellent drink, the one that introduced me to Campari, and it works pretty well for other amari -- certainly with Cynar and Aperol it works, with Averna somewhat less so.  It's one of the drinks I try out when I make homemade amari, to test the balance and flavors.  (To date I've made two amari: walnut-kola and rhubarb-orange.  I have a raspberry-grape idea in mind, but we'll see, we'll see.  It needs fox grapes and black raspberries, and maybe port.  Okay that's basically the idea, if you want to try it on your ownsome -- steep black raspberries and fox grapes in vodka, bitter the result with gentian or cinchona, season with spices and violets, add sugar and ruby port to taste.)

Now, if you look at the Negroni, you notice after a while that it is similarly proportioned to the Corpse Reviver #2, which is equal parts gin, Lillet Blanc, orange liqueur, and lemon juice, in an absinthe-rinsed glass.  The resemblance isn't immediately apparent, but if you want to craft your own balanced cocktails, you should think of things not only in their specifics but according to their class.  Gin isn't just gin, it's a base liquor.  That doesn't mean every gin drink will work as a rum drink, but it does mean that subbing rum for gin makes more sense than subbing vermouth for gin.


Amari are as sweet as liqueurs, and you can use them as the sweet element in drinks -- my many many drinks based around the proportions of the Shaddock (equal parts genever, Chartreuse, Aperol, lemon) rely on the potential interchangeability of amari and liqueurs, for instance.  Some liqueurs blend in well -- St Germain, Canton -- while others have a pronounced enough flavor that you want to be sure of compatibility (maraschino, creme de violette), and others are strong enough to take over subtler elements of the drink (Campari, allspice dram).

I don't like Cointreau, the go-to orange liqueur for most people, very much.  I suppose it's my general indifference to brandy again.  I use Creole Shrubb for the orange element in drinks calling for Cointreau, but lately I've run out of it and have been using Aperol -- which adds bitterness along with the sweet, but not an overwhelming amount of it.

But my point is, if you think of the Cointreau in a Corpse Reviver not just as Cointreau, not just as orange, but as sweet -- then the resemblance to a Negroni becomes clearer, and clearer still when you realize that Lillet Blanc and sweet vermouth are in the same class:

Fortified wines

"Fortified wines" are wines to which distilled liquor has been added in order to slow down aging by bringing up the alcohol content.  That description would include sherry, port, and marsala, but for cocktail purposes we're generally talking about the bittered fortified wines, of which vermouth (named for wormwood) is best known.  Vermouth isn't just fortified with alcohol, it's flavored with herbs and spices, including bittering agents.  There are multiple kinds of vermouth, but you're nearly always dealing with dry or French vermouth, and sweet or Italian vermouth.  You can certainly switch them out to create new drinks -- the Martinez becomes the Martini -- but they're not otherwise interchangeable.

They are in the same class, though, you dig, and they're not alone.

And by the way, fortified wines should be kept in your refrigerator.  Vermouth will go bad.  Everyone thinks it won't, but it's like the rancid nut conundrum: most Americans are so used to the taste of rancid nuts that they don't recognize them as rancid, and people are so used to the taste of vermouth that's been sitting in a cabinet for three years that they don't recognize that it doesn't taste the way it did when it was fresh.

Lillet is a French brand of bittered fortified wine, what the French call a quinquina -- meaning they use cinchona, aka quinine.  Until 1986, the Lillet to pay attention to was Kina Lillet, which is what James Bond used instead of vermouth in his "Vesper martini," and what the Corpse Reviver #2 used.  Kina Lillet was notably bitter.  Not like Campari, but more bitter than your standard vermouth.  Unfortunately, in 1986 -- the same year as New Coke -- Lillet reformulated its products for the "modern market" (which at the time was embracing margarita mix, "vodka martinis," etc), and Kina Lillet became Lillet Blanc.  Now, Lillet Blanc is still good.  But it's a lot less interesting than Kina apparently was.

You can't get Kina Lillet, but you can now get Cocchi Americano, which numerous people have compared to their stocks of original Kina Lillet.  It's available in the US as of this year.  It makes a noticeably better Corpse Reviver #2 than Lillet Blanc does.  The CR2 was already a great drink, but with Cocchi it's a fantastic drink.

Also in that photo?  Bonal, another new French offering as of 2010.  Bonal is gentian-based instead of quinine-based -- like Moxie wine.  Which brings us back to this "the Negroni looks like a Corpse Reviver #2" issue.

Ignore the absinthe in the CR2, and you're looking at equal parts gin, sweet, fortified wine, and lemon.  The Negroni is equal parts gin, sweet, and fortified wine.  Structurally, the difference is just the lemon and that absinthe rinse -- and while the absinthe rinse is critical for a CR2, we can ignore it for the purposes of building a new drink from the CR2's structure.

A drink of equal parts gin, Campari (sweet), Bonal (fortified wine), and lemon?  That's an excellent drink.  It's like a Negroni, but less sweet, since the Campari is now cut by a shot of lemon juice -- but because the Bonal brings more bitterness to the table than sweet vermouth does, you don't lose as much bitterness as you do sweetness, so you end up with something bracing, tart, very refreshing, great for summer.

All right.  I think that covers the basic layout of bitterness in cocktails.


  1. Absolutely marvelous post!
    I am progressing from whiskey tastings and beginning to dabble in "grown-up tippling." On that note, I am in the process of making a charred cedar bitters at home and found this post incredibly informative. Thanks!