Still Bitter—Tales of the Cocktail 2011

Bitters were the big buzz at Tales of the Cocktail 2008, the first one I attended. I was researching an article on absinthe (pdf); its reappearance and place in New Orleans drinking history.

Bitters were back this year, although they probably never went away. “The Emperor’s New Bitters” was the Thursday afternoon seminar I attended that was conducted by Jacob Briars, Sebastian Reaborn and Francesco Lafranconi. Since I did a poor job of keeping track of who said what during the seminar, I’m just going to attribute everything to “the presenter(s).” It was a sellout crowd; over 200 people came to hear the presenters describe the history behind the various bitters available today. Added bonus: was the presenters’ views on which liquors mix well with each bitter, which ones they don’t go with and surprise uses for each.

Samples lined up for "The Emporer's New Bitters" seminar at Tales of the Cocktail 2011.

Samples lined up for "The Emporer's New Bitters" seminar at Tales of the Cocktail 2011.

Cocktail bitters are highly concentrated extracts made from botanical flavoring agents–herbs, spices, flowers and/or fruits. Gentian is a common ingredient as, the presenters noted, it has one of the highest bittering concentrations. Bitters not only add their own flavor profile to a drink, they enhance and carry the drink’s other flavors, said the presenters. Bitters stimulate the salivary glands, which in turn stimulate the digestive system. In Italy, beverages containing bitter compounds are traditionally taken 20 min. to one-half hour of a meal. These apéritifs and digesifs include Campari and Fernet (different brands available) and vermouths like Punt e Mes and can be ingredients in many other classic mixed drinks.

[The] cock-tail, then, is a stimulating liquor composed of sugar, water, spirits and bitters—it is vulgarly called a ‘bittered sling.’

This quote from an 1806 New York state newspaper is the first written definition of “cocktail” and illustrates a couple of points. The first steals the jelly right out of NOLA’s doughnut by negating the legend of Amedee Peychaud’s invention of the cocktail. The lore is that, in the 1830s, Peychaud served bitters and brandy and sugar in little cups called coquetiers, and the Americans bastardized that word to “cocktail,” ergo, the cocktail was invented by Amedee Peychaud in New Orleans. Now, Peychaud’s bitters (a family recipe brought to New Orleans by his father, a San Domingan refugee, in 1795 are still around) and his concoction, with in the 1870s, rye whiskey substituted for brandy and absinthe added, are enjoyed as the Sazerac cocktail. That Peychaud’s bitters and cocktail idea are still around is a marvel of history and NOLA culture, but, alas, it’s not as romantic as being able to say the cocktail was purely a New Orleans invention.

Sidenote: It seemed like a dig to me, and I could be wrong, but one of the presenters showed a photo of himself in front of Cohen & Sons (see previous post) saying something to the effect of, “Only in New Orleans would one of the greatest bars in history be turned into an antique gun store!” That’s not an exact quote, but it still seemed like a dig and shows a lack of research. Cohen’s ancestors started the business at 437 Royal St. in 1898, so it’s been an “antique gun store” and New Orleans landmark for a lot longer than it was ever Peychaud’s apothecary shop, and it’s been a worthy successor to Peychaud for that long-standing retail location.

The second, and more pertinent point about the quote from the seminar’s perspective, is that the cocktail and the ingredient “bitters” are intertwined, i.e., it is the addition of bitters to a mixture containing spirits makes that mixture a cocktail. The moderator pointed out an important fact; back then, bitters were medicines and it was the addition of spirits to bitters that made the bitters palatable. A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down, so to speak.

The Bitter and the…Bitterer

The grandaddy of cocktail bitters is the Angostura brand of aromatic bitters, which was formulated in the 1820s, although throughout the 1800s in American bars, one was more likely to find Bokers or Stoughton, but both brands extinct. Regarding Angostura, ”There is not a bar in the world that doesn’t have a bottle and if it doesn’t have a bottle, it’s not a bar,” said the presenter, commenting on the ubiquity of the brand. The presenter said they go well with whiskies, rum and lime but not cognac, and to give it a try in coffee and Coca-Cola.

Surprisingly good was one of the cocktails we sampled, the Angostura Sour, a concoction made by the fine folks at Cure in New Orleans. Rather than the bitters being added a few drops at a time to spirits as a flavoring agent, the bitters are the base of the drink, 1 1/2 ounces of Angostura bitters, to be precise. It turns out the bitters are 90 proof. Lime juice, sugar syrup and an egg white rounded out the drink.

The once-extinct Boker’s bitters have been reversed-engineered and resurrected, thanks to a Scottish bar man, “Dr.” Adam Elmegirab. My notes indicate presenter’s comments of “insanely bitter on first taste. Aroma, Christmas pudding, orange, cinnamon, cardoman.”

They were ga-ga over Bob’s Bitters recreation of another extinct brand from the late 1800s, Abbotts. Described as “completely gorgeous” but hard to find in the U.S. due to an ingredient, the Tonka Bean. The bitters are available on the internet but expensive, about $40 for 100 ml. Great for Manhattans, bad with tequila, surprisingly good by itself on ice with a little sugar.

I have to say that one of the bitters we sampled I found to be just too much on its own. Bittermens (no apostrophe, dammit! says the moderator) is a company that is set on creating new cocktail bitter varieties, rather than recreate or reverse engineer old ones. On first taste, their Hopped Grapefruit Bitterstasted bright and strong, grapefruity as advertised, but quickly the taste turned bitter to the point of reminding me only of regurgitated bile. That’s nasty, I know. I wouldn’t rule them out for an addition to a drink, but wouldn’t recommend trying them straight. My presenter’s notes say, “Great with Tequila or Mescal, bad with dark spirits, surprisingly good with beer or ginger beer.”

The Biter Truth bitter makers mentioned in the last post are making a version of Jerry Thomas’ bitter recipe contained in his 1862 Bar-Tender’s Guide. One ingredient left out of that recipe, we learned, was the snake root. Some fuddy-duddy bureaucrat somewhere along the line discovered snake root can cause liver failure, as if anyone who drinks enough to make their own bitters from an 1862 recipe would really care. We were not given, unfortunately, a sample of The Bitter Truth’s Creole bitters so I can’t say whether they’d be a great alternative to Peychaud’s or not.

We did spend a little time on Peychaud bitters and were treated to a sample of a Peychaud Swizzle, a drink with an ounce of Peychaud bitters as it base (with Cognac, pineapple puree and juice along with some of those Jerry Thomas bitters. As a bitters-based cocktail, I didn’t like it as much as the Angostura Sour. I think it was the pineapple more than anything, though, so could be a fave with some tweaking with the fruit element.

We also covered Fee Brother’s Whiskey Barrel Aromatic Bitters. Very powerful, noted the moderator, and aged in Woodford Reserve Bourbon barrels. Goes well with Bourbon, of course and dark rum and are surpriseing good with chocolate and lemon.

Overall this was a great seminar. Like most of Tales of the Cocktail, it was geared toward bar industry professionals but had a lot of great info for enthusiasts. As the presenters pointed out, while bartenders can’t, as a practical matter, make their own Tequilas, gins and whiskeys, they can make their own bitters to add a personal touch to their repertoire.





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