Archive for July, 2010

A Shot of Jacob Briars and Sebastian Reaburn

Posted in Amari, Bartenders, Bitters, Tales of the Cocktail with tags , , , on July 28, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

A Tales of the Cocktail Follow-up

Last week at Tales of the Cocktail 2010 (already last week?) I was able to attend quite a number of excellent seminars and tastings. However the one I was most excited about in the run up was A Shot of the Black Stuff on amari and bitters. I love amari and have been really keen to improve my knowledge of their history and provenance. Some of you might remember that this was one of the seminars which I previewed before TOTC. Since the primary presenter, Jacob Briars, failed to respond to any of my email inquiries, I had to get creative which really means I just made up most of what I wrote. I was however right about one thing: this was an excellent and informative seminar and for people wanting to learn more about drinking bitters, a great and tasty introduction.

The Origin of Bitters

According to Messrs. Briars and Reaburn most all bitters as we know them today (and by extension, many aperitivi, but that’s another seminar about which I will write later) started as medicines.1 The formulation of these medicines was based on the work of the polymath Paracelsus during the 16th century, based in turn on theories of health and disease originating with Hippocrates in the 5th century BCE. The idea, which was probably not new at the time, was that ‘evil’ could be used to expel ‘evil’ and restore balance in the body. A bitter medicine, therefore, would be taken to help someone suffering from an excess of bile (AKA choleric humor), which has a bitter taste. Yum!

Briars and Reaburn were quick to point out the following:

1- Most of these medicines were totally useless.

2- Even if these medicines contained herbs today known to contain beneficial compounds, they were either not prepared in an effective manner and/or used in sufficient quantities to matter.

3- Some of these medicines contained herbs which we know are NOT very good for you.

In fact, a 19th century slang term for someone useless and apathetic was “a Stoughton bottle,” a reference to Stoughton’s bitters, generally considered good for nothing.

Despite all of this, the practice of consuming bitters as medicine continued through the 19th century right up to 1906 when the United States passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, effectively bringing it to an end.

[1] – If I understood Briars and Reaburn correctly, Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, which was invented in 1786, represents a departure from this narrative. It was created in Italy as a means by which wine could be made more stable for transport (or to mask the taste of poorer wines; you choose). While not particularly bitter in itself, Carpano contains some of the same herbs that would have been found in contemporary medicines, including wormwood, known in Germany as Wermuth, from which the name vermouth was derived.

What happens next?

Briars and Reaburn now make two assertions about the development of bitters as we know them today from their roots as medicine.

First, and some what astounding to me, what the idea that in the United Stated during the 19th century it becomes common for people consuming bitters to mask the awful flavor of these medicines with whiskey and sugar. Sounds familiar? We know that cocktails began life as ‘morning after’ tonics so this hardly seems that far fetched.2 Over time these medicinal (or drinking) bitters would have changed to become the accent flavorings we use by the dash in modern cocktails. (Sodas, originally compounded by a pharmacist, are the other means by which the flavors of medicines could be made more palatable, ultimately without the alcohol or even the medicine, i.e. soft drinks.)

Second, in Europe, bitters get taken in another direction. First, by becoming better formulated it becomes possible to consume them (more or less) directly. Second, so-called drinking bitters become associated with food as a class of beverage to complement a meal. Those formulated to stimulate an appetite become aperitivi, such as vermouth and the quinas, to be enjoyed before a meal. Those designed to aid digestion, become digestivi and amari, to be drunk after eating.

[2] – Two things puzzle me about this assertion: first, most of these bitters contained a godawful lot of alcohol already, their most effective ingredient, so mixing them with even more alcohol to mask their flavor seems odd. Second, we would expect to find drink recipes from the time which called for significant amounts of bitters. I am not aware of these.

Enough history already! What did you get to taste?

Carpano Antica Formula vermouth
Averna amaro
Luxardo Albano amaro (distinctly more bitter than the Averna)
The Bitter Truth Elixier (not yet available in the US)
Fernet Branca
Braulio amaro (an alpino style amaro)

There was also a horrible homemade bitters of some sort from Mr. Reaburn, which I seem to recall contained mouthwash, followed by a sample of a horrible Reishi mushroom slurry, possibly by Mr. Briars.

What my words can’t convey…

To say that this seminar was “presented” by Jacob Briars and Sebastian Reaburn is to undersell what was in no small measure a great bit of entertainment. I would have needed a video camera to properly capture it. If I am ever asked to give a seminar, and one day I hope I am, I know how high the bar has been set and by whom. (I better start working on my Kiwi accent now!)

(Sorry the picture isn’t better!)

TOTC 2010: Off the Hook in So Many Ways

Posted in Bartenders, Cocktails, Left Coast Libations, Musings with tags , , , on July 25, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

So I had promised myself that, armed with media badge and a new camera, I’d be blogging every evening from Tales of the Cocktail. That was a good idea but not much more. I did manage to tweet a fair amount, however, which left a kind of breadcrumb trail by which some of my time here could be accounted for. I suppose the good news is that I managed to take notes (and photos) at all the sessions I attended and that now, with my head beginning to clear I’ll be able to post some post-TOTC reports and reviews. Things to look forward to include a dive into the realm of amari, investigations into the origin of proof (both over and under), and how Buffalo Trace plans on crafting a perfect American whiskey.

But in the meantime…here are a few snaps to tide you over.

My Garage…My Warehouse

Posted in Left Coast Libations, Musings with tags , on July 9, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

There’s an awful lot you wind up taking on when you decide to publish your own book. For example, once you get your books printed, you need to figure out where to store them all. Thank heavens for a large garage and a very understanding GF.

The Eggpire Strikes Back: A Tales of the Cocktail Seminar Preview

Posted in Cocktails, Tales of the Cocktail with tags , on July 5, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

The renaissance of pre-prohibition cocktails has, as we know, also meant a resurgence of interest in many “old-timey” ingredients and techniques. I’m thinking that it’s possible that no single reclaimed ingredient has been as mainstreamed as much as the egg, both in the form of whites, which contribute body and a lovely crown of lather, or when used whole, to make a creamy flip or nog. In the San Francisco bay area I would say most bars with a respectable bar program will offer at least one egg white-based cocktail.

The question may reasonably be asked, however, whether we’ve yet brought the egg completely into the modern mixological lexicon. Are there secrets yet for us to uncover? And what of the chemistry and physics involved: would knowing more about what’s inside the shell help use make better egg cocktails? Those inclined to delve more deeply into these and other ‘egg-centric’ questions would be well advised to a) get themselves to New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail 2010, b) stay until Sunday July 25th and c) attend the seminar entitled “The Eggpire Strikes Back” moderated by Timo Janse with panelists Andrew Nicholls and Henrick Hammer. The seminar runs from 12:30 to 2:00 PM.

I exchanged a few emails with Timo to find out more about what he’s got planned for his seminar. I think one of the topics that will be of most particular interest to bartenders is the matter of storage. If you work in a bar that’s part of a restaurant then it’s very likely that the eggs to which you have access will always be fresh and handled properly by the kitchen staff. If, however, you are directly responsible for purchasing, storing and handling the eggs at your bar, then the practices which Timo and company intend to review will be most useful.

I also asked Timo about the inspiration for this seminar. He says that since he’s been working with eggs at door 74 (where he tends bar in Amsterdam) he’s found it to be an ingredient around which there much confusion and which, consequentially, many people fear. He felt it was his “duty to spread the word” and to defend this beautiful product of nature.

Timo was also kind enough to share a recipe for an egg-based cocktail about which he’s particularly excited right now. It’s an original creation, clearly intended for dessert!

Crème Brûlée

2 ounces Meukow vanilla cognac
1 whole egg
3/4 ounce Mulata Elisir de Ron (*)
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce Homemade pineapple syrup (**)
2 dashes Fee Bros. Whiskey Barrel Aged bitters
1 barspoon super fine sugar

Shake all ingredients except the sugar over ice.
Strain into a ceramic cup.
Sprinkle the sugar over the top of the cocktail.
Caramelize the sugar using a kitchen torch.

* – Timo tells me this is a creamy rum-based caramel flavored liqueur. Unfortunately, it’s not available in the US. There are two possible substitutes: Dulseda dulce de leche liqueur from Argentina (imported by Diageo) and Bailey’s caramel. For a rather different effect you could also try Godiva caramel liqueur, though this contains chocolate.

** – Timo did not provide a recipe for pineapple syrup. If you are inclined to make this yourself, there are several recipes available on the web. The one from Imbibe (link) looks very easy—though I have not tested it myself. Otherwise you could try to find Small Hand Food’s pineapple gum (which I recommend) or the product made by Monin, which contains no corn syrup.

Amaro, and Amaro, and…Amaro

Posted in Amari, Bitters with tags , on July 2, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

So here’s my third post involving amari in almost as many days.

For the past few weeks I’ve been corresponding with one of my readers, Lucio Tucci, a bartender living in Treviglio, near Bergamo, Italy. After reading my last post on mixing with Nardini amaro, he sent me a link to a site in Italy dedicated to amari. I thought I’d share that link with all of you. Appropriately enough, the site is called “Amari” and the URL is:

http://www.amariamari.com/

Though the site is completely in Italian—you can use bablefish to get it crudely translated—it’s totally worth exploring. Among other things you’ll find a list of common amari brands and producers, typical amari ingredients (and their purpose), and a collection of vintage poster art, though all you get are thumbnails of them. There’s even a set of amari recipes, though in bablefish translation they aren’t particularly easy to follow. Sadly, it obvious that the site hasn’t gotten much love from it’s creators in a few years. Still worth a visit.

Lucio also sent me a booklet from Nardini on their various products, including their amari. I’m trying to find out if it’s OK to post it on my site for you to download. Once I get that figured out, I’ll update this post.

Thanks to Lucio! Mille grazie per tutto il amari!

Negroni + Amaro = Negromaro

Posted in Amari, Bitters, Cocktails, Spirits News with tags , , , on July 1, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

The past few months have seen a plethora of new products on the market. Some have been long anticipated, like Crème Yvette from Ron Cooper or Cocchi Americano, the Kina Lillet surrogate which has now been re-introduced in the U.S. by Eric Seed and Haus Alpenz. There’s also Gran Classico bitter, from Tempus Fugit, which provides us with an alternative to Campari without the food coloring, and Amaro Montenegro, absent for several years from US shelves after its importer was bought by Frexinet. Still to come is Maker’s 46, just barely creeping into some markets (or so I hear), a new (clear!) violet liqueur from Tempus Fugit, plus whatever surprises might await us in New Orleans. (I know of at least one!) Frankly, I expect to be playing catch up for the rest of the summer.

Gran Classico vs. Campari

Last week I bought a bottle of Gran Classico which has started showing up on the shelves of liquors stores and bars all over town. I sampled it last year during SF Cocktail Week, first neat and then in the form of a Negroni, made with Voyager gin and Carpano Antica Formula vermouth. That cocktail was amazing and, well, it set a standard for what a Negroni could (and should) be. I’d been craving a chance to have another ever since.

There is going to be a tendency for people in the cocktail business who stress the importance of natural flavors and traditional (non-industrial) processes to simply embrace Gran Classico (which contains no added colorants) as a de-facto replacement for Campari (a product made on a much vaster scale). However, in the interest of fairness and for my own education, I thought a little A-B comparison would be in order.

I would normally do a comparison between spirits blind but the difference in color between the Gran Classico and Campari is so startling as to make such precautions pointless: the Gran Classico is medium-amber in color while the Campari is intensely red. (For some reason it made me think of red M&Ms, the color of which is definitely NOT natural.) The Gran Classico is also far more viscous and syrupy in appearance than Campari and the nose is less intensely bitter, more muted. Campari, I now realize, really smells bitter and dusty! I dunno: that could be a good thing when it comes to mixing with it.

The viscosity I detected in the glass follows straight through into the mouthfeel of the Gran Classico. There are several layers to the flavor including bright vanilla notes, marmalade and wormwood. Surprisingly, it finishes pretty sweet. The Campari also leaves you with a sugary finish, but its flavor is far less complex overall, dare I say unidimensional.

Which do I prefer? Oh, the Gran Classico is a far more attractive and nuanced product. It would seem to be a better starting place for any cocktail that calls for Campari and probably Aperol. My only lingering doubt is whether, by the time it’s mixed with other ingredients, its superior attributes will still stand out. That’s something that’s going to merit some more investigation.

A new amari standard

The same day I obtained the Gran Classico, I also purchased a bottle of the Bortolo Nardini amaro, inspired by an upcoming seminar on bitter spirits at Tales of the Cocktail (A Shot of the Black Stuff). I had tried a number of the Nardini products before: the lemony, if somewhat sweet, Acqua di Cedro and the almost indescribable Tagliatella. But not the amaro. I am so glad I did! Much as I LOVE the Amaro Montenegro (which is like drinking flowers), the Nardini set my new standard for what an amaro could be: layers of licorice, vanilla, orange peel, cola, and a hint of lavender.

(Damn. I have to stop writing and pour myself a glass right now. Wait. OK. Ah! Better!)

Together with these two new lovely purchases, I gathered my bottle of Carpano Antica Formula vermouth and my bottle of Beefeater 24 (generously gifted to me by the folks at Pernod-Ricard) and set myself to the task of making some cocktails.

And this is what I did…

Negroni (classic proportions)

1 oz. Beefeater 24
1 oz. Carpano Antica Formula vermouth [try 3/4 carpano instead]
1 oz. Gran Classico bitter

Stir over ice for 30 seconds.
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Garnish with a long thin lemon peel strip, tied into a knot.

As delicious as I remember it! Gran Classico bitter has won a permanent place in my home bar. You’ll note however, that I swapped Beefeater 24 for the Voyager gin. After some consideration, I felt that the Voyager, with its citrus peel/sweet tea nose and soft finish, would be lost under all the vermouth and bitter. B24, lemony and creamy in the nose as it is, is still a juniper-forward product that asserts itself more intensely on the palate. I felt it would balance better against the other ingredients.

Now, do you recall I mentioned that the Gran Classico was pretty syrupy and had a distinct sugary finish? Well, I definitely saw that play through into the Negroni as made using the traditional proportions above. I’ve seen the exact same thing with Negronis made with Campari. For this reason many bartenders cut back the proportions of the vermouth and bitters, to dry the cocktail out. I suppose this reflects as much on the modern cocktail palate as anything else. The Negroni recipe on the back of the Gran Classico bottle makes just such an adjustment. Recently I’ve even had a Negroni made with Dolin blanc in place of the sweet vermouth, an accident best as I can tell. That becomes a different cocktail all together, quite enjoyable in it’s own way, like most everything else made with Dolin blanc!

The last time I tinkered with this aspect of the Negroni, I replaced half of the Campari with Amaro Nonino. That was pretty damn tasty but it just didn’t seem to go far enough. Inspired by that lovely bottle of Nardini amaro, I decided to ‘go darker’ yet, resulting in the following formulation:

Negromaro (or Nardini Negroni)

1 oz. Beefeater 24
1 oz. Bartolo Nardini amaro
3/4 oz. Carpano Antica Formula vermouth

At this point, the Negroni has been pretty well transformed into something new. The amaro lends distinct dark notes to the mixture, in particular the flavor of sweet licorice (not to be ever confused with anise), but is itself now tamed by being paired with gin and vermouth. Damn satisfying.

OK, I better stop here or I’m never going to finish this ambling blog post. Salute!

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