When a bitter liqueur helps your palate mature …

That’s amaro!

(Okay, that was bad. Sorry. Here’s hoping I won’t be assaulted by the ghost of Dean Martin.)

I’m usually not one to toot my own horn too much, but I think it’s a credit to my stamina (and my liver) that my hangover on Friday morning, July 18, was not nearly as catastrophic as it could (or should) have been. Six Scotches, ten gins, four wee gin cocktails, nine brandies, three wee brandy cocktails, three wee cocktails, then five HUMU-HUMU-MONGOUS tropical cocktails at the Tiki dinner the night before; then as Wesly mentioned, after that I visited the Partida / Plymouth / St. Germain suite on the 9th floor, then my friend Eric Alperin of The Doheny handed me one more drink … and that’s when my brain shut down. The next day I marveled at Seamus’ and Rick’s excellent posts on the dinner, and especially wondered how Seamus was able to pull off such a great post right after the dinner. (I was more occupied with the daunting task of walking.)

So, to continue with the pokiest and longest-running Tales of the Cocktail recaps of any cocktail blogger out there …

We slept through the media breakfast at Brennan’s and managed to rouse our carcasses (“Quiet darling, your Auntie Mame is hung”) to get to one of the most-anticipated seminars of my schedule: “Amore Amari: A Very Bitter History of Bitter Spirits in Apertif Service and Cocktails,” presented by Averna, Campari and The Bitter Truth. Wesly and I have been mad for bitters for years, obsessively collecting as many varieties as we could (including our best score ever — three pristine, full 18-ounce bottles of Abbott’s Bitters), and over the past year or so have become amaro fanatics as well — the bitterer the better.

Hostetter's Stomach Bitters ad, 19th Century

Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz led the panel and began by talking about the history of bitters in cocktails, and how up until the beginning of the 19th century bitters were truly strictly medicinal, and medical miracles were attributed to their regular use. Our favorite of the historical ads that they showed were for Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters, the makers of which exhorted you to “Renew Vigor and Make Life Worth Living!” Hostetter’s also helped you “renew your life-giving blood currents” and took care of your dyspepsia, malaria, indigestion, fever and ague, nervousness, kidney, bladder and bowel disease, neuralgia, rheumatism, menstrual cramps and hysteria. While I can’t vouch for most of those claims, bitters then and now are great for indigestion and overindulgence, and many of us have but a few teaspoons of Angostura in soda water to settle our tummies.

Eric also reviewed several of the primary styles and components of bitter liqueurs. Wormwood-based bitters, in addition to absinthe, include relatively mild examples such as vermouth, which comes from wermut, the German word for wormwood, plus some massively and wonderfully bitter concoctions such as Gorki List from Serbia. (My good friend Dule, from Belgrade who now lives in Zurich, loves the stuff and always keeps a bottle on hand “to test the mettle of my guests.” You’ll be able to test your own mettle soon; Eric plans to bring Gorki List to the States later this year.)

Gentian-based bitters, which have an almost horseradish-like bitterroot flavor without the burn, include Suze from France and Averna from Sicily, and gentian is also an ingredient in most aromatic cocktail bitters such as Angostura. Cinchona bark, from which we get quinine, is the bitter agent in tonic water as well as in quinquinas, aperitif wines like Lillet, Dubonnet and bitters such as Amer Picon. Citrus bitters are sought for their flavor, aroma and sweetness as well as the bitter components. They make very popular amari (Campari, to name the most popular, and it’s “younger brother” Aperol), as well as beloved cocktail bitters such as the wealth of orange bitters we’re able to enjoy now from Fee’s, Regans’, The Bitter Truth, Hermes and the wonderful new Angostura Orange Bitters.

LeNell Smothers also spoke about her massive collection of bitters at her shop in Brooklyn (and I’m preparing a frighteningly large order for her), and Stephan Berg of the wonderful new bittersmakers The Bitter Truth came from Germany to speak of his products and also regale us with some wonderful history of Angostura and Abbott’s Bitters.

We also had three terrific cocktails:

Les Voûtes

1-1/2 ounces Rittenhouse Rye 100 proof
1/2 ounce Martini & Rossi Rosso Vermouth
1/2 ounce yellow Chartreuse
1 splash Clear Creek kirschwasser
2 dashes The Bitter Truth Orange BItters

Stir over ice many times over, strain into chilled cocktail glass.

This is a lovely Manhattan variation, and shows what can be achieved with just a small amount of an aromatic herbal liqueur, changing the character of the drink completely. Yellow Chartreuse plays with other ingredients a bit more readily than the green, which has such a unique and assertive flavor that it tends to dominate if not carefully balanced. The kirsch gives it a bit of cherry flavor while keeping it dry, and the orange bitters tie everything together beautifully.

Negroni Transalpina

2 ounces Martini & Rossi Rosso Vermouth
1 ounce Plymouth Gin
1 ounce Campari
2 dashes The Bitter Truth Orange BItters
1 teaspoon apricot eau de vie

Shake first four ingredients with ice, strain into a cocktail glass and float the eau de vie.

This Negroni variation is heavier on the vermouth (we like the variation called the Cinnabar Negroni, which doubles the Campari), and a bit of dry apricot brandy (the lovely Marillien that Eric’s Haus Alpenz imports) also adding fruit flavor without the potential of overly cloying sweetness from too much liqueur. This reminds me of a drier, more bitter Martinez.

La Cola Nostra

1-1/2 ounces Pampero Anniversario Rum
1 ounce Averna
1/4 ounce St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram
1 ounce Bubbly Brut Cuvée
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce Fee Brothers Rock Candy Syrup

Shake and strain.

A Daiquiri variation, again demonstrating that a little liqueur can go a long way flavorwise. Here we have only 1/4 ounce of Eric’s new product, St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram, and it lends great character and spice to the drink. The Averna gives it a lovely bitter component, with the sparkling wine lightening it all up. Funny name too, but you do get a sense of kola nut flavor (itself a very bitter ingredient, if you’ve ever tasted one on its own) in this mixture of flavors with the most well-known Sicilian amaro.

As great as this all was, perhaps the best part was at the very end, when we were invited to come up if we were interested in tasting some of the myriad stash of bitters they’d brought, including … vintage 19th century Boker’s Bitters, the bitters used to make the first Manhattan cocktail. (If we’re interested? Ya think?) Stephan placed one precious drop on my hand and I tasted … and wow. Wow wow wow. Amazing body and spice and depth of flavor, baking spices like cinnamon and clove and ginger and all kinds of strange and wonderful things and YUM. It reminded me of Abbott’s, but without the elements you get from the barrel aging in the latter. It still tasted terrific, and I wish Stephan had had enough to make us all Rittenhouse Manhattans with it. We got more tastes from LeNell and Eric, and as Jay Hepburn put it, “I have the wonderful aroma of 10 different bitters on my hands.”

I’d be happy to smell like that (and taste all those wonderful tastes) every day!