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Tales of the Cocktail: The Emperor’s New Bitters

[This was cross-posted from the original post at Talesblog.com.]

The long line in which I waited to get into this sold-out seminar last Thursday was unsurprising. Bitters, as you’re undoubtedly aware, are a hot topic among bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts. We were hoping we’d taste things both new and old, and we weren’t disappointed. (As we waited and chatted amongst ourselves, we were offered tastes of … cupcake-flavored vodka. Ah, the diversity of Tales.)

Indeed, when I arrived at my seat and saw what was waiting for each of us I let out a somewhat subdued “Yay!” — several cups of bitters to taste (’cause it’s all about tasting stuff, folks). My only quibble might have been that there wasn’t a larger shot of each, but that’s because I’m weird about bitters. I just want ’em. I’m a bit greedy, I must shamefully confess.


I seem to have a lot of company, and it seems we’re all willing to pay through the nose for it. Seminar moderator Jacob Briars, global brand director for Leblon Cachaça and the 7th most famous bartender in New Zealand, noted that milliliter for milliliter, bitters were often more expensive than fine Cognacs. Indeed, when Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Boker’s Bitters replica was first released I of course had to have it immediately. Once shipping from the U.K. was figured into it my two 100ml bottles ended up costing me $52, or $195 for a 750ml bottle. Fortunately that product is much more readily available, but I’ve still paid upwards of $20 for small bottles of domestically-made small-batch bitters.


As expected, Jacob and his co-presenters Sebastian Reaburn and Francesco Lafranconi led an informative and very entertaining seminar.


(Ah, what happens when you start doing shots of bitters? Blurry pictures!)

Bitters in alcoholic beverages undoubtedly pre-date the famous first definition of the “cock-tail” as published in the Balance and Columbian Repository in Hudson, New York on May 13, 1806, to wit:

“Cock-tail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters; it is vulgarly called a bittered sling…”

Since that was unearthed many have boldly declared that in order for a drink to be a “true cocktail” it must have bitters in it, but Jacob pointed out that this isn’t really reflected by history. The cock-tail wasn’t defined by its bitters; the drink and its alcohol content only existed to mask the usually digusting flavor of the bitters, which were taken in the morning and were strictly and unironically medicinal. Bitters were used in cocktails solely to make the bitters drinkable.

The cocktail bitters we know today didn’t even exist in 1806, but bitters as medicine were widespread. What was going on with the ingredients in these bitters? What were the volatiles doing? What was the medicinal use?

Gentian was the most widely-used bittering ingredient, and it’s the bitterest of them all — a little goes a long way. The gentian plant has meter-long roots which must be harvested by hand, which makes it a rather expensive ingredient as well. Other bittering agents included quinine, wormwood and quassia, as well as myriad other ingredients that were including for supposed medicinal effect — digestive, anti-malarial, etc. — rather than flavor (despite the fact that some of these allegedly “medicinal” ingredients were sometimes quite toxic).

Aside from a number of snake-oily claims made about the medicinal value of bitters in those days there’s one effect we know they had then and have now — bitters are very good for your digestion. Bitter digestifs/digestivos taken about 20-30 minutes after dinner truly settle the stomach and aid in the digestion of your meal, as anyone who’s had a shot of Fernet Branca after an overindugent dinner knows very well. Bitter aperitifs/aperitivos taken before dinner stimulate the palate and the flow of saliva, which in turns stimuates the digestive system to prepare for the intake of food.

The digestive bitters was the most popular type of bitters sold during the bitters-as-medicine days, but the bitters that became cocktail essentials were those that embraced the flavors need by the budding bartenders but which could still lay claim to the medical traditions. Not a single bitters from that medicinal era has survived, however … save one — the mighty Angostura Bitters.


As we began learning about this venerable product, we were given quite a treat — Jacob and Sebastian had brought along several bottles of vintage Angostura bitters, including samples dating from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. I only go to taste one, the 70ish-year-old ’40s version, which tasted amazing — the bitterness was much more pronounced, perhaps due to oxidization and evaporation; it was recognizably Angostura but different from the modern product we’re used to. A bit stronger on the clove, perhaps. Jacob told us that all the bottles tasted completely different due primarily to varying rates of oxidation and evaporation, and one of them was “totally fucked” and undrinkable. This is one of the really magnificent things about Tales — with one taste of a special product you can step back into a time machine, and very few people get to do that.

Jacob ran through the basics of Angostura’s storied history — it was created originally as a health tonic by J.G.B. Siegert, a German doctor who had been appointed by Simón Bolívar to be Surgeon-General of the military hospital in town of Angostura, Venezuela in the early 1820s. The spices are macerated in a dark rum base and are heavy in gentian, cinnamon and cloves, all of which are proven digestive aids. Contrary to popular myth (and to the belief of many would-be imitators of Angostura Bitters throughout the latter part of the 19th Century, the product does NOT contain Angostura bark, but is named after the town in which its creator did his magic.

Continuously made and sold since 1824 (in Venezuela and then in Trinidad since 1875), Angostura is seen as the quintessential bitters, and is the most widely distributed cocktail ingredient in the world. It’s also quite profitable, and has been since the beginning. One reason for this is that Angostura were one of the first companies to vigorously protect their trademarks. In 1864 they sued another company who were making an “Angostura bitters,” made a bit further up the Orinoco River. They won this suit even though the impostor was actually making their bitters with Angostura bark; the original was awarded the patent for “Angostura” and “aromatic” due to their having used the brand for so long, and that it was named for its place of origin (even though the town of Angostura was renamed Cuidad Bolívar). Once they established their trademark, they took over the aromatic bitters world and still rule it today, although there’s a lot more small-scale competition than there once was.

We got the story of their oddly ill-fitting labels too — in a nutshell, they were in a hurry to get their product to a big competition, and two different people were in charge of ordering the bottles and the labels. Once they came together it was immediately apparent that the labels were too big, but it was too late to do anything about it so they were slapped onto the bottles anyway, the top sticking up nearly an inch above the bottle’s shoulder. Alas, they lost that competition, but the judges made sure to mention that they thought the packaging was brilliant.

Many years later an industrial design conference chose the Angostura bottle and label as one of the worst examples of product packaging in the 20th Century … but they were advised never to change it due to its now-iconic look. I concur.

The flavor of Angostura is unmistakable, deep and spicy and beautifully suited to many different styles of cocktails across the entire spectrum. The aroma is woody, predominant of clove and cinnamon and all those “Christmassy” brown spices. On the palate it’s quite bitter from the gentian but not unpleasantly so — seriously, do a shot of Ango sometime — continuing with Christmas cake, clove, citrus and sweet cinnamon.

For all the bitters we tasted the presenters also provided a list of things each bitters was particularly good with, bad with and some surprising combinations they thought worked beautifully. Unsurprisingly Ango is excellent with whiskies and rums, goes very well with lime, and I think with gin as well (remember the Pink Gin, just a good London dry with six or eight dashes of Ango). It doesn’t go well with Cognacs — even though they’re aged spirits the gentle fruit character of fine brandies tends to get overwhelmed. For surprises, try it on vanilla ice cream (I can already tell you this is fantastic), on grapefruit broiled with brown sugar, a few dashes in your coffee (which I have not tried) or in your Coca-Cola (which I have — at home our Coke Zero is never served without dashes of Ango) and … in a Piña Colada!

You can also use it as a base spirit for a cocktail (it’s 90 proof, after all) and it’s not difficult to balance. Our first sample cocktail was this one, which you can find at finer bars including Cure in New Orleans:


(from Charles H. Baker Jr.’s 1939 book, The Gentleman’s Companion; or, Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask)

1.5 ounces [45 ml] Angostura bitters (yes, you read that correctly)
1 ounce [30 ml] fresh lime juice
1 ounce [30 ml] gomme syrup
1 egg white

Combine all ingredients and shake vigorously without ice for about 20 seconds to froth up the egg white. Add ice and shake until delightfully cold. Strain into the sour-appropriate vessel of your choice, and optionally garnish with a lime peel.

Next came our beloved local favorite, Peychaud’s Bitters, an old family recipe brewed up by Antoine Amédée Peychaud in his Royal Street apothecary shop in the 1830s. (And no, he didn’t invent the cocktail, and the cocktail wasn’t named for a coquetier in which he served his nascent Sazerac brandy-and-bitters drinks. New Orleanians, I know we love a good story but please stop telling that one, because it’s bullshit, has been conclusively proven to be bullshit and telling it doesn’t do us any favors. Instead tell the one about how Huey Long brought his own bartender to New York to train the people there how to make Ramos Gin Fizzes; it’s a better story and mostly true.)  Essential to a Sazerac, these bright red bitters are quite different from Angostura, and until 10 or so years ago were the only other bitters you’d find other than Ango, and not far outside New Orleans at that (unless you were lucky enough to get your hands on what was probably the only remaining orange bitters being made by Fee’s, also hard to find back then).

Much lighter on the nose, with anise hitting you first, an a light cherry fruit note and a tiny whiff of cinnamon.  Jacob said he calls the smell “Old Absinthe House;” not having smelled the OAH recently, I can’t say myself. On the palate: more anise, cherry and cherry stones, sweet cinnamon and a very light bitterness. It’s quite an elegant product.

Peychaud’s is great with whisky, tequila, and Cognac; however, it’s bad with gin. (It seems to bring out the bitter elements of gin, and not the good kind of bitterness.) For the “Surprise me!” bit … Jacob said try it in vodka; a dash per inch brings out the grain. (Now that I’d be curious to try.) It’s also good Islay malts, he says, which didn’t surprise me.  I remember gaz regan saying a good while ago that he prefers Peychaud’s in his Rob Roys, and I’ve been enjoying them that way ever since.

[Also worth mentioning here is a product from The Bitter Truth that we didn’t get to taste this time, their amazing Creole Bitters, which has some similarities to Peychaud’s but is more bitter and complex, with a greater range of spices in the base. Superb in Sazeracs, Manhattans, Rob Roys or whatever you care to try it in.]

We got another cocktail with Peychaud’s as the base too:



1 ounce Peychaud’s bitters
1 ounce Cognac
1 ounce pineapple puree
Dash of absinthe
Dash of The Bitter Truth’s Jerry Thomas Decanter Bitters

Shake and strain over crushed ice. Insert swizzle stick and swizzle until the glass is frosty.

This was good, but for me the best-ever Peychaud’s-based cocktail by far is the Gunshop Fizz, by Kirk Estopinal of Cure and Maks Pazuniak, formerly of Cure. What an outstanding drink. The only thing that keeps me from slamming them all day all summer is that they’re somewhat labor-intensive (oh, and if I slammed them all day all summer I’d end up in rehab).

Next was a look at Fee Brothers, who’ve been around since 1863 (or 1864, depending on whether you read the company history or the date on the bottles) and have been making bitters since after Prohibition. After old brands like Gordon’s and Old House stopped making orange bitters they were the only game in town until Regans’ and the other modern brands started cropping up. They’re also very responsive to bartenders and their needs and are willing to create flavors as long as there’s some demand; this began back when Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh started bugging them to make a peach bitters several years ago.

Their best product is their aromatic bitters (which do actually use Angostura bark, and their heaviest and most foreward note is cinnamon) but even better are their Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters, a result of aging their “Old Fashioned Aromatic” bitters in used Woodford Reserve Bourbon barrels. Cloves, angostura bark, cinnamon, nutmeg, “chubby, chubbiness” as Jacob put it, richness and fatness on the tongue. Powerful and sweet on first drinking, but on the tongue the bitterness arrives late and kicks in the complexity. Really nice product.

Fee’s Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters are great with Bourbon and dark rum, bad with tequila or gin (unsurprisingly). For the “Surprise me!” … chocolate, and lemon!  Hmm.  A chocolate tart or flourless cake, or soda, or ganache, maybe a bit in a lemon curd or meringue pie.

Next we tasted (only one, sadly) from The Bitter Truth from Germany, one of my two favorite bitters companies these days. Started in 2006 by Stephan Berg and Alex Hauck, bartenders who had a very large collection of vintage bitters between them, their products flew out of the gate and very quickly knocked everyone on their arses with an outstanding aromatic bitters (a la Angostura) and an orange bitters.  Other flavors quickly followed, including, amazingly, one-off special flavors that theyd do for particular occasions. (I cherish my bottle of Bitter Truth Repeal Bitters, which I only use on December 5. They’ve done a tiny batch based on the botanicals of Beefeater 24 gin, and I understand their most recent special batch was made to commemorate a bar show in Europe.) Stephan and Alex are very secretive about their process and the exact combination of bittering agents, botanicals, herbs and spices that go into each product, and this seems to have served them well. No one else is approximating some of their flavors, including an outstanding celery bitters as well as the product we tasted … Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters.

If you’re reading this, I shouldn’t have to explain who Jerry Thomas was (and if you’re scratching your head, the Google is your friend). He had his own formula for bitters that he’d keep behind his bar, which went something like this:


(Bottle and serve in pony-glass.)
Take 1/4 pound of raisins.
2 ounces of cinnamon.
1 ounce of snake-root.
1 lemon and 1 orange cut in slices.
1 ounce of cloves.
1 ounce of allspice.
Fill decanter with Santa Cruz rum.

As fast as the bitters is used fill up again with rum.

Let me be the first to say … DO NOT MAKE THIS RECIPE! Why? Well, because Virginia snake-root — a bittering agent that also provided a rather nice spicy, woody, gingery flavor — is toxic and causes renal failure. (“But surely an ounce of it in a whole bottle of spirit, of which you’d only use a couple of dashes, couldn’t be that bad for you, could it?”, Dr. Cocktail once asked an organic chemist, who replied, “If it were me, I wouldn’t even take one drop.” Ohh-kay then.)

Needless to say when recreating this recipe Stephan and Alex found a substitute for snake-root (and what it is, they will not say), and they rounded out the original formula with angostura bark and a bit of citrus peel. I’m also more with the organic chemist when you look at Thomas’ instructions — not to dash into cocktails but to serve in a pony glass, a pony being one ounce. If you look through Thomas’ recipes he almost always specifies Boker’s bitters when he’s dashing aromatics into a cocktail — this bitters was meant to be slammed back by the bracing shot for medicinal use.

Of course, that’s not to say that you can’t dash it into cocktails, and it works really well that way (more on that momentarily).  We took shots of it though, ’cause that’s what The Professor wanted us to do.

Ohh, my … it is fantastically bitter! In fact, it was the bitterest product we’d tasted so far in the seminar. Cloves, wood and aromatic spices on the nose (that allspice really came through nicely), and on the palate lemon peel, dried fruit and brown spices, very dry and woody, and VERY bitter. The clove note is very heavy as in the original recipe, so much so that it actually numbs the tongue a bit.  This bitters is great in an Old Fashioned, and with genever; I like it in rum Old Fashioneds particularly. A bad combination would be in white spirits, which would get completely wiped out.  And for the “Surprise me!” … well, this was perhaps the biggest surprise of the day, and it was this “cocktail”:


1-1/2 ounces The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters
8 ounces Red Bull, chilled

Put the bitters in a shotglass and the Red Bull in a mug. Drop the shotglass in and chug, just like every dopey frat boy has ever chugged a Jäger Bomb.


Now … I hate Red Bull. Therefore, I hate Jäger Bombs.  However, this concoction which was presented by Jacob to Stephan with great glee, was apparently not bad.  Not bad at all, in fact. The flavors worked, and the extreme bitterness of the bitters balanced out the massive, tooth-cracking glucose sweetness of the Red Bull.  “It almost makes Red Bull taste good!” cried Jacob!  We didn’t get to try one of these ourselves (for which I was somewhat relieved), but I might just maybe try it one day (if I were already very drunk).

Next was “Dr.” Adam Elmegirab’s Boker’s Bitters, which began production on a very small scale by the eponymous Aberdeen bartender in 2009 (his doctorate being self-awarded, apparently).  Adam based his bitters on old published recipes for Boker’s — there were a few floating around — from tastes of several vintage Boker’s bottles, and largely based it on the 1883 recipe using quassia bark, calamus root, catechu, orange peel, and cardamom. The botanicals steeped in grain alcohol, then cut with Scottish spring water after 2 weeks.

On the nose we got Christmas pudding, orange, cinnamon, and cardamom. Then we tasted … and holy bejeebies! This was by far the bitterest bitters of the day! Extremely difficult to sip straight, but I got complex flavors of wood, eucalyptus, bitter almonds and fruit stones plus those deep, lovely spices amidst the insane bitterness. This is powerful stuff.

Adam’s Boker’s Bitters are excellent in a Martinez, dashed into barrel proof spirits or  genever, or in any cocktail from Jerry Thomas’s (or one of said cocktail’s descendants) that originally called for them. For example, I must say that the Willett Rye Manhattan (2 year, 57.6% abv) with Cinzano Rosso and 3 dashes of Boker’s I’m sipping as I write is exquisite. I wouldn’t use it in anything delicate, as this bitters will kick the living crap out of it, and remember that great idea of dashing Angostura into your coffee? Bad idea with Boker’s; the bitterness will leap up orders of magnitude and possibly implode your head.

Jacob said his big “Surprise me!” with this one was … a Mai Tai! Not the first thing that’d pop into my head, surely, but I’d definitely give it a try.  He said it also works well with orgeat, which is unsurprising, given the bitter almond and fruit stone notes I picked up.  Try it in a Japanese cocktail, which actually called for the original Boker’s bitters in the recipe Jerry Thomas published in 1862. Go wild with this stuff — the incredible length of flavor will carry other flavors along with it.

Next we got to be perhaps the first people in the United States to try Bob’s Bitters, from New Zealand. The small-batch company was founded in 2005 by Robert Petrie — not the former head writer for “The Alan Brady Show,” but a “notoriously shy pastry chef” (as Jacob described him) from the Dorchester Hotel in London. He’d done a lot of spirit- and liqueur-based work for the hotel’s kitchen and bar, including recreating his own version of the long-lost pommelo-and-honey liqueur Forbidden Fruit, as well as creating a line of cocktail bitters.  The bitters tended to be one-note flavors — chocolate, lavender, cardamom, coriander, licorice, etc. — with a solid bitter base, until he and his partner Jake Burger got the idea to recreate one of the great lost aromatic bitters of all time.’

Abbott’s Bitters were made in Baltimore, Maryland from 1872 until around 1950. The product is almost completely forgotten except for lucky cocktail fanatics who’ve tasted vintage bottles. The pre-World War II version is the superior; from what I remember learning from Ted Haigh the bitters were reformulated with a lower proof when production resumed after the war, and the product never found its footing again. Although Abbott’s did advertise itself as “Abbott’s Angostura Bitters” during some of the latter 19th Century, it was NOT Angostura and did not contain angostura bark. The “Angostura” was dropped from the product name after squawking from the actual trademark holder.

I’ve been lucky enough to taste it from several different batches, and to acquire a small supply of my own. The flavor is incredible, and without a doubt the best Manhattan you’ll ever have in all your born days will be an Abbott’s Manhattan. So of course, everyone who’s tasted it but not acquired vintage bottles has wanted to recreate it. That’s the fantastic thing about bitters — we as bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts cannot make our own Scotch or tequila, but we damn well can make our own bitters.

Although we knew a few ingredients from being listed on the label — gentian, cardamom, cloves, the usual suspects — there was something special and elusive about the unique flavor of Abbott’s. People tried — everything from “mix half Angostura with half Fee’s Old Fashioned bitters” (which was fine on its own but didn’t really work) to multiple experiments with various tinctures — but nothing really came close. Then a gentleman named Kevin, a perfumer and cocktail enthusiast who went by the handle of “PerfumeKev” on Robert Hess’ old DrinkBoy forum on MSN and its successor, The Chanticleer Society, took a sample of vintage Abbott’s and ran it through a gas chromatograph, a formidable piece of equipment “used in analytic chemistry for separating and analysing compounds that can be vaporized without decomposition.” Among other flavor compounds in Abbott’s, Kevin revealed the magic ingredient, the thing that gave Abbott’s its unique flavor. And that ingredient was … (Chairman Kaga cries “Kyo no tema … KORE DESU!”, tears off the cloth and unveils with a flourish …) TONKA BEAN!

Wait, what the hell’s a tonka bean? Dipteryx odorata — aha, we get a hint of it’s aromatic properties just from the Latin name — which contains a chemical called coumarin. That chemical is primarily responsible for its amazing aroma, and it’s the same chemical that contributes marvelous aromas and flavors to bison grass, used to make Żubrówka, the amazing Polish vodka. Tonka is prized by perfumers for its aroma, and by bitters makers and pastry chefs for its amazing flavor, which is reminiscent of cinnamon, vanilla, almonds, cloves, and … something else, je ne sais quoi.

Brilliant! Now we can make Abbott’s again! Well, not so fast … coumarin was apparently shown to cause liver damage in rodents if you feed them a hundred times more than they could possibly ever eat in one day, and coumarin also contains a chemical used to manufacture the well-known blood thinner Coumadin, although coumarin itself is not a blood thinner. Based on this bit of highly unlikely potential damage, our intrepid Food and Drug Administration has banned it for food additive use because of the coumarin content.

Let’s forget for a minute that there’s just as much coumarin in cassia cinnamon and, for instance, that if you consume three or four tablespoons of ground nutmeg you will get spectacularly high … and that these spices are perfectly legal. Until we can convince the government otherwise (and there are several efforts afoot right now to do just that), we’re going to have to do without our magical tonka bean to make bitters, for commercial sale at least. It’s perfectly legal to buy tonka beans, and some folks like John Deragon have begun their own Abbott’s experiments using them as the key flavoring ingredient.

However, Bob and Jake weren’t subject to such doting nannylike laws, and they worked diligently to produce an Abbott’s replica … which is what we tasted.

Although sadly completely illegal for sale in the U.S. at the moment, it is still an extraordinary product, aged for 6 months in toasted oak barrels (the original Abbott’s was the only bitters on the market at the time that were barrel-aged). The flavor was redolent with nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, cardamom, lavender, mallow, spearmint, and our old friend the tonka bean. They’d be fantastic in a Manhattan, and Jacob noted they’d be lousy with tequila. For a surprise use, he suggested trying them neat, like an amaro with a dash of sugar and a slice of orange over ice.

How did they compare to the vintage Abbott’s I’ve tasted? Well, let’s keep in mind Jacob’s advice about not trying to base a recreation of vintage bitters on one bottle, given that all those different bottles of Ango tasted completely different. However, I’ve tasted vintage Abbott’s from at least four different batches, all of which were reasonably similar, so I’m pretty familiar with the flavor profile. Bob’s Bitters were delicious, but didn’t quite taste like the Abbott’s I know. There was much more of a floral note, with pronounced elements of spearmint in the background, and I thought the tonka could have been a bit stronger. That said, I can’t wait to get my hands on a bottle of these, via … um, whatever means. Bob and Jake have done an extraordinary job.

Reeling from this, we moved on to the American bitters-making company that’s doing some of the most exciting work in the business — Bittermens (with no apostrophe, dammit!), founded in 2007 by Avery and Janet Glasser as experiments in their San Francisco kitchen, and now produced commercially in Brooklyn. Theirs is a completely modern approach to bitters-making, without attempting to recreate historical recipes. Their first product was the amazing Xocolatl Mole Bitters, using cacao as the primary flavor with a broad range of spices similar to what’s used in the exquisite Mexican mole negro sauce. They followed this with a bitters called ‘Elemakule Tiki Bitters, formulated for tropical and tiki-style drinks, and Boston Bittahs (heh, they’re in the yaahd not too faah from the caah), a summery citrus and chamomile blend, plus a few more and more still on the way.

The one we tasted was the latest incarnation of their initial experiments in producing a grapefruit bitters, Hopped Grapefruit Bitters. Organic grapefruit peel and oil, fruity Palisade hops, cinchona bark, gentian, cardamom and other ingredients are macerated in neutral grain spirit to make this bitters, which was fantastic. On the nose you get strong grapefruit and cardamom, and there was one offered aroma note of “irie” (“It smells like pot!”). On the palate bitter grapefruit and a bit of grapefruit pith, hops, crisp dryness, and even a note of the French gentian liqueur Suze. Jacob recommended these highly in tequila and mezcal drinks, and in a gin & tonic. Not so good would be the dark spirits of pretty much any variety, and for this one’s big surprise … beer! Not so much of a surprise, really; he said Hopped Grapefruit Bitters are amazing in a shandy gaff — half beer, half ginger beer, with a slice of grapefruit and several dashes of the bitters on top. I’m making that on the next hot Saturday.

Our last domestic producer before the grand finale was Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters, which I hadn’t heard of until the seminar. The project started as a venture between Brooklyn bartender Mark Buettler and Jason Rowan, one of his bar regulars. After a fair bit of experimentation with bitters they were inspired by a visit to Eau de Vie bar in Sydney, Australia to come up with a name and start marketing them. Their approach is a classic bitter base with “farmer’s market” top-note flavorings. The portfolio includes strawberry, peach, sriracha (!!), Meyer lemon, rhubarb and black Mission fig, plus the one we tasted — Blueberry Bitters. Farmer’s market organic blueberries, gentian, cardamom, cinnamon and other flavorings sit in the bitter base for a week, then are filtered and bottled. I’d heard about other people making homemade blueberry bitters but hadn’t tried any of them, so I was eager for this quaff. There was woody cinnamon and dry oakiness in the aroma; on the palate sweet blueberries and blueberry pie. I could do shots of this one too.

Excellent with American whiskey, vodka and sloe gin, Jacob said; bad with tequila and some gins (the New Western ones would seem to work better then really junipery London Drys) For the “Surprise me!” … fruit salad (not so surprising), or add several dashes to the top of a Ramos Gin Fizz. Now that I can see; I fondly remember the Ramos I had in Audrey Saunders and Tony Conigliaro’s aroma seminar a few years ago, with four drops of cardamom tincture placed on the head, plus the lovely violette-drizzled Ramos John Coltharp made for me a Seven Grand a few years back as well. All their flavors sounded so wonderful that I will, of course, have to have them all. Sigh. You like bitters? There goes your money, honey.

The cruel death blow was saved for last, a product unavailable in the United States with no importation plans yet in sight. Mozart Chocolate Bitters, from Austria.


This new bitters is produced by Mozart Distillerie GmbH, the people who make another product I’ve been coveting, Mozart Dry Chocolate Spirit. Using a proprietary low-temperature extraction process they’ve actually figured out how to distill chocolate; they say the clear spirit is “directly gained from the untreated raw materials cacao and vanilla.” It’s not a liqueur either, it’s a spirit — actual hooch. The flavor is said to be distinctly chocolate, dry, complex and bittersweet. I cannot wait to try this on its own.

I did try it as part of the bitters, though — the production of Mozart Chocolate Bitters is done with cacao nibs and vanilla with a bit of nutmeg and clove, macerated in the dry chocolate spirit. Some might say it’s technically not a bitters, because it contains no typical bittering agents like gentian or cinchona. To that Jacob said, “Balls! It takes all the bitterness from the chocolate!!” Amazingly enough, the inherent bitterness of the cacao is all that’s needed to make this a true bitters (and if you forget how bitter unsweetened chocolate really is, take a bite of some sometime). That bit of news was astonishing and delightful and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on that bottle.

This stuff was so delightful that we just laughed as we tasted it, and the comments were funny too — the aroma was variously described as Valrhona chocolate, Cocoa Pops, and chocolate magic! The taste — bitter chocolate, spices, and more magic! The perfume that it left behind on my hand was intoxicating; we all must have looked like idiots, walking around smelling the backs of our hands all day. Had I lingered a bit longer with the bottle I might have rubbed a drop behind each ear, too. (Sexeh!) This bitters was a revelation, and I sincerely hope we can get it over here before too much longer.

And then, alas, the clock ran out, although we could have tasted bitters all day, and there were many more nascent companies we didn’t have time to get to — Bar Keep Bitters, made by Monrovia, Calfornia-based Modern Spirits (current flavors: Swedish Herb, Lavender Spice and Baked Apple); Bitter End Bitters from Santa Fe, New Mexico (current flavors: Jamaican Jerk, Memphis Barbecue, Mexican Mole, Moroccan and Thai, all containing a tongue-searing amount of chile); and the next most exciting entry to the U.S. bitters market, Miracle Mile Bitters from my adopted home of Los Angeles. Even though they haven’t ramped up to full commercial production just yet (they’ll also be made at the Modern Spirits facility) I’ve gone absolutely bonkers over all the samples I’ve tasted, and they’re already a fixture in L.A. bars — Chocolate-Chili, Yuzu, Castilian, Sour Cherry, Orange, Peach, Gingerbread and the amazing aromatic variety called “Forbidden Bitters,” because its initial formula contained an ingredient that’s not currently allowed in bitters, but when it is … well, I think this one will eventually win the Abbott’s replica contest hands-down. I’ve tasted things.

Exhausted after reading that? I’m certainly exhausted after writing it, and you can guess how our tongues were singing and heads were spinning after this seminar, yet we could have kept going for hours. Bitters are exciting, and anybody who says something silly like “Why would I want some thing bitter in my drink?” might as well be asking “Why would anyone want more than salt and pepper in my spice rack?” Through bitters we’re heading into our future while rediscovering our past — in the 1860s the proliferation of bitters was like the proliferation of vodka in L.A. in the 1990s, and now it’s happening again as even more and more bitters are coming out all the time. From a long, dry time when the only bitters you’d find would be dusty bottles of Angostura at the grocery store and a yellowed-label bottle which sat untouched for decades behind some bars, now we have a bitters explosion, a huge palette from which bartenders and mixologists can build layers of flavor.

Life is good.

Tales of the Cocktail: Around the World by (Brass) Rail

[This is cross posted from the original post at Talesblog.com.]

I wish my high school history classes had been a tenth as fun as this one.


Historian-of-booze David Wondrich and guru of all thinks tropical and drinkable Jeff “Beachbum” Berry led us on a survey of the global reach of America’s greatest ambassador to the world at large — the cocktail (and the julep, cobbler, smash, daisy, etc.). It was one of those classes where there’s so much information coming forth that after a few minutes not only can you not even begin to write it all down, it’s a struggle to remember everything. You just have to sit back, let it wash over you, enjoy and laugh and let whatever bits of it stick with you as you practically marinate in history. 


There’s a popular myth that’s been promulgated for years that the spread of the American cocktail and the American bar was due to Prohibition. “Horse puckey,” Dave said, only he didn’t, he said something pithier. It had already been a global phenomenon for generations. In fact, American cocktail making and culture began to spread almost immediately after it began to coalesce at home in the mid-1800s, and within fifty years had spread to nearly every corner of the globe. Almost any country that wasn’t too far off the beaten path had an “American Bar,” and sometimes the beaten path extended very far indeed. In the 1890s there was an American bar in Punta Arenas, Patagonia. “That’s practically the end of the earth, and you could get a Manhattan cocktail there.  There are parts of Kansas now where I can’t get that,” said Wondrich.

People came to the States from myriad places where their drinking choices were limited by tradition, lack of ingredients, what have you. The light came on in their eyes, though, when a simple glass of sherry (perfectly nice on its own) was transformed by the addition of sugar, citrus, shaved ice and fruit decorations into a luscious sherry cobbler. Writers and poets extolled our drinks’ virtues and sang their praises, and before long everyone wanted bars like this where they lived.

By this point you could get an American-style cocktail almost anywhere in the world, and chances are it’d be pretty damn good. American bartenders hadn’t quite made it around the world in force just yet, though — that’s where Prohibition came in — so you’d often get local variations which weren’t always necessariliy a good thing. Bringing in local traditions and ingredients is fine, but Wondrich said some of these bars were like an insect that had been eaten by a spider, “which sucked all the insides out and left only the shell.”

One difference that snuck into American-style bars which continues here in America is a point that makes Dave bristle.  “Look at any old pictures of pre-Prohibition American bars, especially those in the late 1800s. What don’t you see? … Barstools! There were no barstools in proper American bars!” Barstools were an import from Germany, apparently, and Dave finds them the ruination of the spirit of the American bar.  “Think about it,” he said. “When you’re standing at the bar, unless you happen to be chatting with the bartender, you’re leaning on it, facing the side or the rear, interacting with the people around you. Nowadays in bars you see only the backs of people on barstools, a phalanx of backs that’s a barrier between you and the bar, and lots of them sit there all night — screw you buddy, I’ve got mine, get yours!” Although I’m as lazy as the next guy, if not more so, and enjoy warming my barstool, I do see his point.  And how that I think of it, two of my very favorite bars — The Varnish in Los Angeles and Bar 1886 in Pasadena — have no barstools. But I digress.

After describing the lengths to which our drinks found the corners of the globe (including two fairly notorious bars opened at opposite ends of the Panama Canal by Mayme Kelley and Max Bilgray, who once named a horrid-looking cocktail after famed evangelist Aimee Semple Macpherson after he spotted her in his joint), Jeff Berry took over and we spent a considerable amount of time looking at one particular drinking destination where the American Bar single-handedly sparked a national tourist industry — Havana, Cuba. It was a fairly sleepy town where not a lot of Americans visited, and then the Volstead Act passed, bringing the Noble Experiment of Prohibition to the entire country.  And look … there, a mere 90 miles from our shores, was a potential haven of drinking. Plentiful drinking, stacks of liquor and some pretty damn good bartenders, too.

“Have one in Havana!” became the rallying cry for tourists, and one enterprising Spaniard by the name of Jose Abial y Ortega opened what became the number one tourist destination for Americans in Cuba — Sloppy Joe’s Bar.



Many American tourists came to Havana, went straight to Sloppy Joe’s, much to the annoyance of some people who thought the reason to visit a country is to see a country.  See Cuba, see more of Havana … for God’s sake, see what else is on the street besides this bar! “Sloppy Joe’s is not Cuba,” snarled one contemporary travel writer. Charles H. Baker Jr, writer for Town & Country, Gourmet and other food and travel magazines as well as the book The Gentleman’s Companion: Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask had a different view of drink-oriented tourists who frequented the place: “Sneer all they please as Sloppy Joe’s, the fact still remains that there are as good, and better, and more varied cocktails suitable to our somewhat exacting taste than at any spot in Cuba.” So there.

Jeff even brought along a bottle of Sloppy Joe’s own house label rum (empty, sadly) — they stocked amazing 30-year-old rums which were apparently extraordinary. 


There was also a signature cocktail at the bar, the first one of which was served free to every guest:


2 ounces pineapple juice
1 ounce Cognac
1 ounce ruby Port
Dash of orange curaçao
Dash of grenadine

Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail coupe.

It’s quite a lovely drink, actually.

In the 1930s Ernest Hemingway, who drank copiously in Cuba, first at Sloppy Joe’s and later at what became his preferred spot, El Floridita, advised his friend Joe Russell, a speakeasy owner, on a new name for his joint, once named the Blind Pig and then the Silver Slipper.  “What about Sloppy Joe’s?” he suggested (perhaps as a raised finger to his former regular watering hole, as one speculation went). It was his name, after all. Joe thought it was a good idea, and it stuck — much to the chagrin of the owners of the real Sloppy Joe’s in Havana, who found their fame overtaken by the Key West impostor.

Alas, the original Sloppy Joe’s is no longer with us, although the Cuban government, in the interests of encouraging tourism, is busily restoring the bar to its former glory, or at least a semblance of such. Work is proceeding slowly, and will be finished … one day.  The Key West Sloppy Joe’s is still there, though. “If you’re ever in Key West,” went the advice, “do not go to this bar. Worst frakking Daiquiri I’ve ever had.” Only he didn’t say frakking.

Long live the American Bar.

Tales of the Cocktail: Colonial-Era Cocktails

[This is a repost from the original post on Talesblog.com.]


Fire, red-hot metal, smoke and sizzle — now that’s my kind of seminar! (More in a bit.)

And oh, the punch! We do love our punch, and punch is undergoing quite the revival these days, now that we remember how to do it properly. Punch lost its cachet for a while, thanks to an image of frumpy old ladies with porcelain cups, followed by the frat boys’ version of cheap booze dumped into a garbage can, and that bizarrely violent “Hawaiian punch” guy certainly didn’t help.  Punch is back though, from its 17th and 18th Century origins, but what about the other drinks of the era? How about recreating that style?


“Nobody looks good in breeches, stockings, a frock coat and a three-cornered hat,” said our presenter Wayne Curtis. “Really, who ever thought that looked good? Nowadays it’s a great way to get beaten up in a bar.”

Punch is indeed back, and we’re learning and enjoying the basic flavor profile of punch — “one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak, plus spice” — but why aren’t we seeing more colonial-era drinks returning to our modern drinking? Well, it could be that colonial-era flavor profile — “sweet, sweet, sweet and sweet,” as Wayne put it. The drinks were also sweetened in ways we might find a bit unusual today. People at the time didn’t have a lot of access to white refined sugar and used what they had on hand — honey and molasses, but also apple juice, maple sap, dark hard cones of loaf sugar and even dried pumpkin, called for in many recipes of the era due to its native sugar content. We might not want to drink exactly what they drank in those days, but we can certainly modernize them and use elements from them to more suit contemporary palates.

They drank a wide variety of booze back then too. A Swedish traveler and writer named Israel Acrelius kept a meticulous list of every spiritous potable he came across in the colonies at the time:


That’s quite a bar crawl, although we might not necessarily like it all.

Wayne took us through some really tasty modern versions of what our forefathers drank 200+ years ago, starting with a lovely Pineapple Syllabub, which I can see myself having for breakfast in the morning:


It’s a fairly gentle morning drink a hybrid imported from abroad along with New World materials at hand.  It’s an incredibly old style of drink as well, dating back to the 15th century.  Wayne read us an early recipe: “To one bottle of red or white wine, ale or cider, sweeten and grate in nutmeg. Hold under a cow and milk it until a fine froth is on top.”

Well, we had a hard time getting the cow up in the elevator, so our modern version was made with pineapple-infused Cruzan rum, cream, and lemon zest. Yum.

I’ve enjoyed  modern versions of the Stone Fence, but this one was a bit more like the so-named drink of old. The colonials basically drank it as a spirits-fortified apple cider; today’s version was made with Cruzan blackstrap rum, St. Elizabeth’s allspice dram for a bit of spicy complexity, Woodpecker hard cider, and a bit of vinegar for acidity. (Vinegar was a common souring agent used in lieu of citrus, which was unavailable to colonial folks most of the year.)


Spruce sap/resin was very popular in 19th century — spruce gum was one of the more popular chews of the time, with a flavor so long-lasting that a writer of the era said you could chew it half the day, then pass it on to a friend and let him chew it for a while. (Ahem. Very glad I live in the 21st Century.) 

Calibogus was a typical spruce-based drink of the era, which at the time was a spruce beer fortified with rum. Today’s version was made with Cruzan single barrel rum, fresh lime juice (not a typical historic ingredient), Layman’s spruce beer extract, Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur for a little bit more of that flavor of the forest, plus a bit of molasses syrup & soda.  Delicious and (to our contemporary palates) pretty unusual.

Aha! But! What about the fire and glowing iron?

About an hour into the seminar we were ready.  Wayne had a reproduction of an 18th century loggerhead made — an iron implement about three feet long, with a small hook on one end and a ball on the end somewhere between a tennis ball and golf ball in size.  Someone apparently had the grand idea that this should be moved into the bar to heat up drinks. (Well, why not? Go figure.)

What Wayne had been saving for us was a Colonial-era Flip, which bears pretty much zero resemblance to what we think of as a flip today (a drink shaken with spirits and a whole egg). Flips in the 1700s were brown ale, rhum and molasses, heated up by plunging a hot loggerhead into the pitcher.  It wasn’t just a way to heat it up quickly, though — the red-hot loggerhead had some other amazing effects on the mixture.  It almost immediately builds up a huge, frothy head, burns the grains, hops and the barley of the ale, caramelizes the molasses and really blends the flavors and changes the taste profile in a way you wouldn’t get by just heating it up on the stove. (Martin Cate once tried using a charcoal starter, and that really didn’t work.)

Here’s how it’s done (tri-cornered hat optional):


Wayne prepared the drink by pouring two bottles of dark ale (Bass Newcastle, in this case), 4 ounces of molasses and 8 ounces Cruzan aged rum. Then … the plunge!


Man … that was good. The sharp tang of the molasses that bothers some people was really nicely tempered, making a deep, rich flavor with developed sweetness from the caramelization.  I could really get used to this drink. Unfortunately, living in either New Orleans or Los Angeles a piping hot drink isn’t going to be terribly appropriate most times of the year … but hell, I’ll enjoy it during the two weeks that it’s actually cold.

Of course, during the question and answer session I was curious as to whether there was any direct evolution from this style of colonial flip with the drink to which we now refer as a flip, spirits shaken with whole egg. “You sir,” Wayne replied, “have just destroyed three days of my life!” Actually, the serious answer was … who knows? The only relation, it seems, is the name, and sometime in the mid-1800s the name was appropriated for the egg-bearing drink. Ah well, the reality might be unsatisfying but it’s good to know.  I’ll do whatever I can to get Wayne those three days back.

And man, that flip was good.


Tales of the Cocktail: Setting up your in-house soda program

[This is cross-posted from the original post at Talesblog.com.]

“The entire soda market is dominated by one or two huge corporations,” said Darcy O’Neil during today’s soda program seminar. “I think it would be great if we could get more sodas created by bartenders in our bars,” said his co-presenter Andrew Nicholls.

Absolutely right.

Don’t buy little bottles, don’t use the hose guns … control what you do and keep the quality high by making your own soda and using soda chargers. This is handy for your home use as well as instituting a professional soda program in a bar or restaurant, which was the focus of Andrew and Darcy’s fascinating seminar today — we learned a lot, including a pile of chemistry.

The two main things to remember when making soda — CHILL YOUR WATER and BOIL YOUR WATER. Sounds a bit contradictory, doesn’t it? There are solid reasons for it though, right out of chemistry. Warm or room-temperature doesn’t carbonate well at all, you may have noticed; if you put tepid water in your soda siphon and charge it, all that carbon dioxide will just whoosh right out, leaving your water rather flat. The solubility of CO2 in water increases dramatically the lower the water temperature is — the closest to freezing point the better.

But boiling it? Why would we do that? Because dissolved air in water takes up four times the room that carbon dioxide would — make more room in the water and more CO2 will have room to remain behind and create sparkle. Bring your water to a boil, fill your soda siphon (preferably a metal one), let it cool and stick it in the fridge for at least 24 hours, preferably 48. Your water will sparkle beautifully and retain that sparkle.

Don’t over-pressurize your water, but using two chargers in a standard one-quart or one-liter siphon would create the ideal pressure for more robust carbonation. That tingle on your tongue works physiologically on multiple levels, bringing aroma up the back of your throat and into your olfactory system, plus that tingle on your tongue can get quite addictive, not unlike how folks get addicted to very spicy food. Endorphins being released in your brain is a very good thing.

The growing trend is for bars to ditch their horrid soda guns and start making their own soda, tonic waters etc. in-house, but it can go far beyond that. For instance, in old cocktail books we see fizzy drinks calling for Apollinaris water, a particular mineral water which added a lot of character to the drink as well as fizz. Who knew that you can make your own Apollonaris water by adding 23g sodium bicarbonate, 11.5g sodium sulphate, 8.8g sodium chloride, 7.6g magnesium carbonate and 1g calcium carbonate to 5 gallons of water and carbonating it?

We were reminded in the seminar that mineral salts found in mineral waters enhance flavor, which is why mineral waters work so well with food, and carbonated ones even more so, as the carbon dioxide enhances flavor as well, as do the bubbles which bring the aroma up to your nose, both outside and up the back of your throat. This is why people have enjoyed soda for so many years, and why flat soda is singularly unappealing.

Our cocktail example was delicious and instructive on multiple levels, with a house-made syrup added to cream, egg and fizzy mineral water to create an amazing, multi-layered flavor.

(featured in Fix the Pumps, by Darcy O’Neil)

2 ounces zozia syrup
1/2 ounce heavy cream
1 whole egg
Soda water

Prepare as a standard egg fizz — vigorously shake first three ingredients, strain into a tall ice-filled glass and top with soda water.

Zozia Syrup
3/4 tsp lemon essence
1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
15 drops Angostura bitters
15 drops absinthe essence (Herbsaint was added to taste in this version)
3/4 tsp citric acid solution
1 qt simple syrup (or gum syrup, preferably)
Caramel coloring (sufficient)

The chemistry was fascinating here, as the vanilla worked well with the abisnthe flavors, and the lemon essence provided wonderful aroma but very little flavor until the acid was added in the form of citric acid (or acid phosphate in similar syrup and cocktail formulae), and then the flavor just popped right out.

Andrew went on to discuss working with taste, texture, flavor and aroma in conjunction with mineral salts in soda water to create unique flavors, and this could have gone on all weekend. Tying in with Darcy’s excellent book on the history of the soda fountain, Fix the Pumps, and his forthcoming seminar with David Wondrich on the oft-crossed line between bartender and soda jerk, all this shows us what wide-ranging opportunities we have to improve the drinking experience in our bars by taking control of soda and integrating it thoroughly into cocktail programs.


So where y’all wanna eat? (This one goes to eleven!)

[This is crossposted from Talesblog.com — my annual post about where to enjoy fine food and drink while at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.]

“Oh yeah, we’re going to New Orleans for Tales this year! I hear the food’s good!” (Well … yeah.)

I thought it only proper to continue the four-year series of posts I’ve been writing about places to eat and drink in my hometown as you descend upon it for Tales, but first a few logistical notes …

In case you haven’t noticed the weather forecast, scattered thunderstorms began in New Orleans last week and are expected to continue through the beginning of Tales. I’ve seen forecasts that show daily thunderstorms the entire week, but the local forecast on nola.com shows good weather Thursday through Sunday. As one always does when one comes to New Orleans, though, bring your umbrella and don’t lose it, ’cause you’re likely to need it.

Also there’s apparently still some construction going on around the Carousel Bar in the Monteleone Hotel, drinking central for many folks staying in the hotel for Tales. Not to worry, the Carousel Bar itself is open but as of this weekend the piano bar behind it was not, as it’s under construction; it’s being joined with part of the restaurant space behind it to create a larger bar space. They’ll be opening up windows on the street-side of the new space, which will be terrific. According to Diana Schwam of Frommers.com, one of our esteemed local advisers, apparently there were windows when the building was first built, which makes sense; now they are going through 3-foot walls to re-use them. I love the reclamation of history! The plan was for the project to be finished before Tales, so we’ll see what happens by Wednesday.

Now, eating and drinking! First of all, my previous advice stands. If you’re a newbie to Tales or a veteran who needs a refresher course, check out my posts from 2010, 2009 and 2008. All the advice in the previous post from Steve and Paul is good too. (And may I add … Cochon, Cochon, Cochon! Do it!) Shall I tempt you a bit more? Here are a few scenes from my most recent meal at Cochon, a couple of months ago:

Some crispy-fried pork belly, perhaps?

Fried rabbit livers with pepper jelly? (They also do the dish with chicken livers.)

Braised pork cheeks with fava beans and spoonbread? Yeah, like they said, get thee to Cochon.

Don’t forget Cochon Butcher next door for quick, casual dining or grabbing a magnificently porky or other meaty sandwich to go. You also might want to grab some charcuterie to bring home with you if your trip isn’t too long.

My foremost new recommendation this year is one of the newer spots in the Quarter, one we’d heard a lot about and checked out during Jazzfest this year — Sylvain, at 625 Chartres St., about a seven minute walk from the Monteleone. Sylvain is housed in a historic building, a 3-story carriage house built by Don Andres Almonaster y Roxas when the province of Luisiana was held by Spain, and you get a feel of that history when you walk in. The gorgeously appointed room is dominated by a beautiful copper-surfaced bar, behind which are an array of spirits and a cocktail list (with influences from Death & Co. in New York) that will make you very happy indeed. I’m not sure how often they change their coctkail menu, but on our last visit in late April we enjoyed a Dutch Afro (a Negroni variation with Bols Genever, Aperol, Carpano, Regans’ orange bitters), a Final Word (a Bulleit rye, fresh lemon, Luxardo Maraschino, green Chartreuse), a lovely Maker’s 46 Manhattan, and a Death Co. import called the Pressure Drop (Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Amaro Meletti, Dolin Dry Vermouth, pear eau de vie, Angostura bitters). Happiness ensued. Murf Reeves, the head bartender, is very dedicated to the craft of spirits and cocktail and will undoubtely be happy to see you. (Incidentally, you can also catch Murf on the air, hosting the New Orleans Music Show every Monday morning from 11am to 2pm Central Time on WWOZ, locally at 90.7 FM and on the web at wwoz.org.)

The chicken liver crostini were insanely good, as were the pan-fried pork shoulder, the roasted pork po-boy (oh my), pappardelle Bolognese (fresh house-made pasta, of course) and braised beef cheeks (tender as all get out and profoundly beefy). The Sylvain Burger is also outstanding if you’ve got a craving for a big, sloppy, perfectly medium-rare burger (and I often do). A new and tasty-looking sandwich addition is the “Chick-Syl-Vain,” a buttermilk-fried chicken breast with house-made pickles which I suspect will beat the hell out of what you’d get at that chain that’s closed on Sundays.

All this plus supremely friendly staff, great atmosphere, beautiful courtyard and a live-in ghost. As is the case with many French Quarter buildings, they say that 625 Chartres is haunted … well, maybe. The supposed spectral resident is Aunt Rose, a madam who ran a brothel in the early part of the 20th Century and who once owned and lived in the building. By the account I heard she’s quite benevolent, however, and the staff take good care of her — every night a fresh Sazerac is made for her and left as an offering on a high shelf behind the bar (which is awesome). It seems to get consumed every night, but by whom? The actual ghost of Aunt Rose? A sneaky bartender? Who can really say? If I were behind the stick there I’m not sure I’d steal a ghost’s cocktail, though, if I knew what was good for me. I do so love this place, and can’t wait to get back. Don’t miss Sylvain, and raise a toast to Aunt Rose while you’re there.

I want to emphasize last year’s recommendation for the marvelous Chef John Besh-owned Italian restaurant Domenica, in the Roosevelt Hotel. Just a quick walk from the Quarter into the CBD, I consider it to be the finest Italian restaurant in town; in fact, local food writer and critic Tom Fitzmorris notes that the average diner might not recognize 80% of the dishes on the menu if he or she hasn’t been to Italy. The menu is marvelous — every single morsel I’ve had here has been delicious, especially all the house-made salumi and other charcuterie. Chef Besh and executive chef Alon Shaya go all out in this department, raising their own pigs and dry-curing all the salumi and hams for the weeks and months needed for each variety. What I’d like to feature this time is the amazing pizza, easily the best in the city and perhaps the best I’ve ever had. They have a custom-made pizza oven, fired by both pecan wood and gas with a rotating platter inside for even cooking. My favorites are the Bolzano (roast pork shoulder, fennel, bacon and sweet onions), Prosciutto with bufala mozzarella, tomato and arugula, Gorgonzola with pecans and speck (like a smoked prosciutto) and Bacon with fontina cheese and yard egg. Best of all, pizza happy hour is every day from 3pm to 6pm — all pizzas, beers, well cocktails and wines by the glass are 50% off. A late afternoon or very early evening pizza that will beat all pizzas you’ve ever had? Yes, you should.

The Bolzano Pizza at Domenica

In all my visits home over the last several years I’m not sure how I managed to miss going to Bar Tonique … maybe it’s because I don’t know anyone who works there, and I had a tendency to visit my bartender friends at other places. This is a loss for me, and one I intend to remedy this week. As those of you who’ve imbibed there already know, they’re very serious about their cocktails; “[j]ust because you are at a neighborhood watering-hole doesn’t mean that you have to settle for a sub-par cocktail,” they say. This neighborhood is the edge of the Quarter heading toward the Tremé and directly across the street from Louis Armstrong Park, Bar Tonique have a very impressive cocktail program. Their lengthy menu of classics includes the venerable Widow’s Kiss (which I’ve never seen on any other bar’s menu), Last Word, Southside and Corpse Reviver No. 2, and several intriguing originals such as the locally-named St. Claude (Old New Orleans Cajun Spice Rum, lemon and maraschino) and the Bitter Harvest (Berhheim’s Wheat Whiskey, Averna, allspice dram and bitters). Walking distance from your hotel, so walk on over and have a drink or three. Meauxbar, which I covered year before last, would be a logical pre- or post-Tonique destination for food.

A new spot I’m eager to try is Patrick’s Bar Vin at 730 Bienville St. Those of you who are longtime New Orleans diners will remember the wonderful maitre d’ at The Bistro at Maison de Ville, Patrick van Hoorebeek. Everyone knew him as the consummate host, a man who knew his customers yet was able to quickly determine the needs of new customers and out-of-towners, a lover of wine with a deep knowledge of the subject, and the King of the Krewe of Cork, among other things. During the Bistro’s long closure and hiatus following Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood, Patrick moved around town a bit, at the now-closed Peristyle, the Rib Room and finally at Restaurant August. He’s finally settled down in his own place, which will of course feature a wide variety of wines as the star of the show. There’ll be a list of signature cocktails as well, most wine-based or featuring vermouths, aromatized wines or quinquinas, and chef Agnes Billet will be offering a menu of small plates “typical of traditional French wine bars and cafes: endive salad, French onion soup, charcuterie and cheese selections,” according to the Times-Picayune. The more time spent in Patrick’s company the better, so please do visit him, sample the plates, have a cocktail if you like … but you’ll make him happy if you take a bit of time out of this gigantic cocktail festival to enjoy a nice glass of wine.

If you’ve missed out on cabbing or taking the St. Charles Ave. streetcar down to the Riverbend to eat at the legendary Camellia Grill, you’re now in luck — they’ve just opened a new branch in the French Quarter at 540 Chartres St., right off the corner of Toulouse. It looks almost exactly like the Riverbend original, with the same menu and same old-school service. They open at 7am for breakfast (not that any of you will be up that early, unless you’ve been up all night) and best of all, they stay open late — 1am on weeknights, 3am on Friday and Saturday. Just what you need to soak up all that booze …

A Pecan Waffle with syrup and butter …

One of their famous omelettes that are about the size of a rolled-up newspaper (this one is my favorite since high school — a potato, onion and cheese omelette) …

Or a slice of chocolate pecan pie à la mode? You can actually do all three (if you have someone with a wheelbarrow to help you get out). There are myriad sandwiches on the menu as well, great burgers, daily specials including red beans ‘n rice on Mondays and more — like the chocolate freeze, don’t forget that.

Diana also told me about a new find of hers which I have yet to try — Somethin’ Else Café at 620 Conti Street. It’s not a must-do attraction — basic American breakfast & lunches, melets, burgers, salads, po-boys, etc. But it’s tasty and hearty and a convenient walk from the Monteleone, it seems to be well-regarded and they’re also open late — Sunday through Wednesday until 10pm, Thursday ’til 12 midnight and Friday-Saturday until 3am. We figure their killer big-ass biscuits with boudin balls and eggs (or pulled pork, or traditional gravy or various other things) would do well to soak up a bellyful of booze the night before or a hangover the morning after.

I know that many Talesgoers tend to stick around within walking distance of the hotels, within the Quarter and the Marigny, which makes a certain amount of sense — you’d really have to be irresponsibly crazy to rent a car while you’re attending a five-day drinking festival — and some people don’t want to deal with cabs. That’s okay, there’s certainly plenty to do within walking distance of Tales. Those who don’t mind hopping in a cab (affordable; the city’s not that big) will be rewarded handsomely, though. I know some of y’all are going to see the Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf Bar tonight — if you think you’ll get to the neighborhood early enough call the amazing Boucherie at (504) 862-5514, 8815 Jeannette St. about 4 blocks from the Maple Leaf. It’s a cozy, friendly restaurant, nestled in a former Uptown home and began its life as a purple food truck parking outside music venues like Tipitina’s before they found a more permanent home. They serve “contemporary Southern cuisine” with a Louisiana twist, and our last meal there was spectacular. Start off sharing some boudin balls (spicy Cajun pork and rice sausage, removed from the casing, rolled into balls, breaded and deep-fried) or hand-cut French fries with garlic butter and topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, or …

Steamed Mussels with Collard Greens and Grits Crackers (this one’s more like a French dish with a Southern twist) …

Blackened Shrimp on Grits Cake with Warm House-Made Bacon Vinaigrette … oh my.

Pulled Pork Cake with Potato Confit and Purple Cabbage Cole Slaw, which was rich and porky and balanced with the crispy, vinegary slaw. The dish you’ll be served will be in focus too, unlike my lousy photograph which was taken after a fair number of cocktails and glasses of wine.

There’s also a fantastic scallop preparation which changes constantly; I remember at least one person at our table saying that it was the best scallops they’d ever had, perfectly seared on the outside and perfectly cooked inside. The current menu lists the preparation as Applewood Smoked Scallops with a Low Country Red Risotto, Pickled Green Tomatoes and Cucumbers; the one shown below that we had had a spicy aïoli and was atop corn flapjacks.

Enjoy Boucherie if you can, and your continued business will greatly help the restaurant and its chef/owner Nathaniel Zimet, who was shot and seriously wounded in an attempted robbery about two months ago. He’s recovering well and his crew is doing a great job keeping the restaurant going but he’s got a lot of medical bills to pay, so go eat his food!

For more casual dining there are two new spots open in the neighborhood — Cowbell and TruBurger, the latter being a brand-new venture by Chef Aaron Burgau of the well-known local restaurant Patois. TruBurger is a burger joint as its name implies, although Cowbell’s menu is a bit more varied with items such as grilled fish tacos and lime grilled chicken. Both are casual, and according to Diana well worth a try and ideal for your pre-Rebirthing.

I’m sure many of you will be cabbing it up to the Freret neighborhood for a visit to Cure, the cocktail nerd and craft bartender’s local nirvana. Cure has pretty much singlehandedly sparked a rebirth of that neighborhood, and many more establishments are popping up all the time. Cure has a terrific small plates menu to enjoy with your drinks, but there are several other walking-distance options: Ancora Pizzeria & Salumeria at 4508 Freret for authentic Neopolitan pizza (with the gorgeous imported oven to prove it), and from what I’ve heard really terrific salumi. Next door is High Hat Café, offering home-cooked New Orleans and Southern-style food (think catfish, pork chops, and specials like crawfish étouffée or chicken-fried steak), very much a neighborhood joint but with high-quality food. The chef-owner’s resumé is mostly in fine dining, and has worked in kitchens in Manhattan and Memphis. Chef Adolfo Garcia of Rio Mar, a Mano and La Boca is partner in both Ancora and High Hat, an additional assurance of great food.

That, plus three other years’ worth of posts ought to keep you busy. Remember, bring loose pants when you dine in New Orleans, take your time (you should be built for comfort, not for speed) and just don’t bother getting on the scale when you get home. Those extra pounds are, as a wise man once said, a small price to pay for such pleasure.