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.

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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.

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

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(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.

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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:

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ANGOSTURA SOUR
(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:

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PEYCHAUD’S SWIZZLE

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:

JERRY THOMAS’ OWN DECANTER BITTERS

(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”:

THE TOM BOMB

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.

Belch.

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.

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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.

6 Responses to “Tales of the Cocktail: The Emperor’s New Bitters”

  1. Tony Harion said:

    Jul 30, 11 at 1:18 am

    Amazing post Chuck!! Felt like I was there again!

    A big mistake on my part was not picking up a bottle of water on my way in, but that was quickly solved after the second taste.

    On Sunday we were at Cure for the Rematch talking about this seminar when all of a sudden a very strong chocolate taste took over the place .I couldn’t help to scream “There! Smell it! See! That’s what I was talking about! Someone has a bottle of the Mozart stuff here!” Sure enough a guy had a bottle inside his closed backpack near us. Fragrant stuff! Can’t wait to get my hands on some of it.

    And I thought I took good notes during this one.. Foolish me.. Thank you!

  2. Tony Harion said:

    Jul 30, 11 at 1:20 am

    OH! a quote worth mentioning from that night at cure:

    “It’s like viagra, but for girls”

  3. Mike S. said:

    Aug 08, 11 at 6:04 pm

    Chuck! Emergency! Please help!

    Your thoughts on the correct pronunciation of Peychaud’s? Emphasis on first or second syllable? Silent or audible “D” at the end? I’ve always gone with emphasis on first syllable and audible “D”: PAY-showd. But now I’m wondering if I’ve been screwing it up all these years. Is it PAY-show? pay-SHOWD? pay-SHOW?

    This is critical because we’ve just named our new puppy “Peychaud” and it’s sparked a raging debate amongst our friends (many of whom are native NOLA) about how his name should be pronounced. We were confident about it until *that* hot mess started up!

    Many thanks,

    Mike

  4. Chuck said:

    Aug 08, 11 at 7:53 pm

    It is “PAY-show,” and this comes from Phil Greene, a direct descendant of Antoine Amédee Peychaud himself. QED!

  5. Mike S. said:

    Aug 08, 11 at 8:14 pm

    That settles it for me. I’m a big fan of the notion that people get to dictate how their own names are pronounced, even when their names become the trademark for very famous products (witness Porsche). Thanks!

    (N.B. there seems to be some…confusion? sloppiness?…on that final “D,” at least when referring to the bitters. In McMillian’s definitive NOLA.com video on the Sazerac, I could swear he pronounces it “PAY-show’s” at 0:49 when referring M. Peychaud’s shop, and “PAY-showd” at 1:46 when referring to the bitters themselves. Still, I’m happy to bow to M. Greene and his family dictate, PAY-show it is!)

  6. Layne said:

    Aug 26, 11 at 6:02 am

    Hi Chuck and Wes,
    My name is Layne Mosler, and I’m the editor at Rama Food, a new digital food tour company.
    I’m not sure if you got my email, but I love your blog and wonder if you’d be interested in writing a tour for our iPhone app? If you’d like to send me an email – layne@crimsonbamboo.com – I’d be glad to tell you more.
    Cheers and happy eating,
    Layne
    PS – No, I’m not going to ask you to write for free!