Archive for the Bitters Category

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!)


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:

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!

Amo Amari: A Tales of the Cocktail Seminar Preview

Posted in Amari, Bitters, Tales of the Cocktail with tags , , on June 26, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Update: I’ve just learned that the Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck (previously on SNS) from The Bitter Truth will also be speaking at this seminar. This is happening in conjunction with the US release of their hotly anticipated Creole bitters. Sazeracs for everyone!

Sooner or later, as one navigates their way through the bestiary of flavors that can found on the shelves of well-stocked liquor stores, one eventually encounters bottles which contain bitter spirits. These can take several guises: lighter aperitivi such as Campari or Aperol (and now Gran Classico), their heavier bodied cousins, the amari, taken religiously after dinner in countless European villages, and, of course, the aromatic bitters, essential components of “The Cocktail,” generally consumed in dash and barspoon quantities only [*]. Acolytes of bitters are truly blessed by the possibilities this varied array of products provides to them—whether mixing or looking for a shot. For others (heathens though they be) bitter spirits rank in flavor only slightly better than a slug of NyQuil taken for an evil cold. We forgive these souls their trespass and, honestly, are just as glad to save the all black stuff for ourselves. Amen.

A Seminar Guaranteed to Leave a Bitter Taste in One’s Mouth…

For those who might not as yet have formed a strong opinion on the matter of bitter spirits, or, for those who, like myself, feel compelled to try every bitter they can get their hands on, I am pleased to recommend Jacob Briar’s seminar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail entitled: A Shot of the Black Stuff – Amazing Amaros and Brilliant Bitters to be held on Thursday, July 22nd at 3:30 in the afternoon. As a member in good standing of The Bitter Brotherhood [**], I have been sworn to utmost secrecy and so cannot divulge too many details about this seminar. OK. That was a lie. I actually can’t tell you anything because Jacob hasn’t told me. Yes, it’s going to be THAT good and THAT entertaining! Whether those who eschew bitters upon entering will leave converted to the faith, however, I cannot say. As your mother might have said, regarding the leafy green vegetables remaining on your dinner plate: “It couldn’t hurt to try.”

[*] – We’ve certainly all had a bitters-heavy cocktail at this point. Bah! I encourage any serious fan of Fernet to pop the shaker top off a bottle of Angostura and pour themselves a full ounce of the stuff and down it. It will change your life! The serious bitter goodness in that little bottle deserves this kind of treatment more often. Kudos to Daniel Hyatt for showing me the way.

[**] – There is no such organization.

Look What’s Back In Town…

Posted in Bitters, Spirits News with tags , on April 3, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

I was going to let the photo speak for itself but it occurred to me that I might at least make a small suggestion. If you haven’t yet tried a straight shot of Angostura and if you are a lover of things bitter, like Fernet, you owe it to yourself to pop the shaker off your yellow-topped bottle, pour yourself a full ounce of the pride of Trinidad & Tobago and toast to its triumphant return to retail. Cheers!

A Brief Encounter with Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck from The Bitter Truth

Posted in Bitters, Spirits News with tags , on March 15, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Last week I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck from The Bitter Truth in Germany, who were visiting San Francisco as part of a nationwide promotion tour. Folks in the cocktail scene will be quite familiar with their outstanding and up until recently hard to find line of cocktail bitters. Stephan and Alex have recently completed a distribution deal with Domaine Select Wine Estates which means their products will now be more widely and consistently available in the US. The first shipments destined for stores on the west coast are now arriving. I met up with Stephan and Alex at Cask last Thursday afternoon and then again the following evening at Bourbon & Branch where they were guest bartending in Russell’s Room. Here are a few notes from those meetings.


Unsurprisingly, both Stephan and Alexander started out as bartenders. Stephan began his work making bitters while still working behind the stick, partially in response to the lack of product available outside of the United States. (Aside: This conversation made me quite aware of how, in many ways, we here in the US take our access to cocktail bitters, commercial and artisanal, somewhat for granted. The world looks quite a bit different across the Atlantic and the Pacific.) When Stephan met Alexander in the final rounds of a big cocktail competition, the idea of The Bitter Truth was formed. Their first products were an orange bitters and an “Old Time” aromatic bitters (somewhat ala Angostura).

Early access…

Bottles of TBT products have been showing up sporadically in the US for the past three or so years when they were brought back from Germany by visiting cocktailans or when purchased directly via the TBT web store. In some cases these web purchases were made by liquor stores, such as Cask in San Francisco, who then marked them up and resold them. Regardless of how the product found its way here, it was hard to come by and dear.

Last year TBT announced that they would be producing bitters from recipes created by Avery Glasser of Bittermen’s. Glasser had tried to make a go of having his cult products, a grapefruit and a chocolate bitters, made here in the US but ultimately decided on a deal with TBT. That was good news and bad news for us here in the US. Good because these great bitters would now be commercially available and bad because they’d have to be brought in from Germany, priced in Euros.

The entire landscape changed in the fall of 2009 when TBT announced a US distribution deal with Domain Select. Both the original TBT product line and the Bittermen’s would be available commencing in early 2010.

About bringing bitters into the US…

Stephan decided to bring the TBT bitters into US as a spirit and not as a flavoring (food). This makes it much easier to get necessary approvals from various US regulatory agencies and for distributors to handle to product. However, it does mean the bitters can only be sold only in stores with retail liquor permits. In some markets this is a critical distinction. In NYC, for example, this means stores without liquor resale permits will not be able to sell TBT products. (Conversely, as I learned last year, liquor stores in NYC cannot sell bitters like Fee’s because they are considered to be food.)

Comments on pricing and value…

Stephan said that most artisanal bitters on the market today are generally way underpriced. He thinks this a result of trying to match the price point established by the market leader, Angostura, and doesn’t reflect the real costs involved in making these products. He suspects that Angostura must make almost nothing on a bottle of bitters after taking into account shipping and import duties. This might be OK for a company that produces bitters on the scale of Angostura but he also imagines some of the price is offset by their rum business. [Aside: As many people know, Angostura has found itself caught in some financial problems and there hasn’t been any product made or imported into the US for well over a year. When I asked Stephan about this it was clear he understood the opportunity this represented to him as he entered into the US market.]

Today, TBT bitters are more expensive than pretty much anything else on the market. Stephan feels his price is reasonable given the quality and complexity of the product and it will ensure he doesn’t wind up going bankrupt. Folks who’ve been following this story for a while should also note that the bottle being sold in the US contains an additional 50 ml. more than the original bottles.

What’s Next?

[Photo by Jay Hepburn]

A new TBT bitters has just been made available in Germany and will be on its way to the US soon. These are the Creole bitters, based on a recipe developed after sampling pre-prohibition Peychaud’s. (Yes, some of this is still floating about.) After getting a chance to taste this new product, both ‘neat’ and in a Sazerac, I predict this is going to give (artificially colored) Peychaud’s a run for its money. (Note: The development of Creole bitters by TBT was something of a practical decision since Peychaud’s has horrible distribution outside of US. The fact that it may prove to be superior to Peychaud’s will be interesting, to say the least. A product to keep an eye on.)

We should also start to see the sloe gin, a product that’s been available in Germany for a while, sometime before the end of the year.

Looking down the road, Stephan thinks he may make a Boker’s bitters. He says he has an old bottle from the beginning of the 20th century to use for reference. The recipe will be a little different than original because that used Virgina Snakeroot (which is both poisonous and apparently endangered). He says he already knows how to work around that. He would like to package this in a custom made bottle with a period style label.

[Sorry there are no photos of Misters Berg and Hauck during their visit. My camera was acting up at Bourbon & Branch.]

Bitter Lessons

Posted in Bitters, Home Made Ingredients with tags , on May 31, 2009 by Mr. Manhattan

Evaluating Bittering Agents

Before I actually finish the crazy orange chocolate bitters I wrote about a while back I decided it would be worthwhile to familiarize myself with the flavor profiles of the three most commonly used bittering agents: cinchona bark, gentian root and quassia wood. Recipes for making aromatic bitters generally specify using one, two or even all three of these but they don’t talk about what qualities each brings to the mixture. I figured the easiest way to figure that out was to do a little taste testing of my own.

Three Bittering Agents

Making Preparations

The first thing I did was to create a simple tincture of three agents by themselves. Each was made the same way: 5 gm was weighed and put into 50 ml of 150 proof Everclear and left for approximately 15 days. I left the agent in whatever “natural” form it came in when I purchased it from my local herb store – e.g. the cinchona was in large chunks, the quassia in chips and the gentian in short sections of root.

Taste Testing

Once the tinctures were done, I evaluated them for color, nose and taste. Tasting was done two ways. First undiluted by putting a single drop of the tincture on the back of my hand and then licking it. Second by putting 5 drops into an ounce of filtered water at room temperature. Here are the notes:


– Color: deep copper brown-red
– Nose: earthy/sweet notes; faint cola/vanilla scent
– Taste (pure): earthy and surprisingly sweet (enough to mask the heat of the alcohol). A little drying on the palate but w/o a particularly bitter finish.
– Taste (diluted): very similar to the straight tincture with the sweetness showing up as a very mild almost nutty aftertaste.

Cinchona: bark and tincture


– Color: pale yellow
– Nose: slight woody notes, a little smoky-sweet. vaguely like licorice. Also a little bit of turpentine.
– Taste (pure): bitter but not intensely so with a hint of the sweet notes one finds in licorice.
– Taste (diluted): bitterness comes a little forward tasted this way and the sweetness is almost gone.

Quassia: wood and tincture


– Color: dark amber
– Nose: earthy/clay notes; slightly vegetal.
– Taste (pure): Intensely bitter with a very long bitter finish. The flavor of single drop persists for several minutes.
– Taste (diluted): The bitterness was even more expressed when I diluted it in water. Rather amazing.

Gentian: roots and tincture


Of the the three agents I tasted, I found the cinchona and the quassia the most appealing and complex. I am sure to try using both of these when I finish my bitters. I was particularly surprised by the cinchona, which I expected to express some of the tartness I experience when I drink tonic water. Instead I found that it showed an unexpected sweetness which stood up nicely to the heat of the Everclear. And as far at the gentian goes, I’d say the only reason to add it would be to “pump” the overall sensation of bitterness without introducing a new flavoring element.

What next?

A few days ago I filtered my chocolate orange bitters, removing the cacao nibs and the fresh orange peel I had added a few weeks back. I decided what they needed next was a dose of cinnamon, so I added a few quills and am now monitoring the flavor every day to gauge the effect. (I must say, by the way, they are really tasting pretty good at this point.) Once the cinnamon level is where I want it to be, I’ll pull that out and make a few test mixtures using my cinchona and quassia tinctures. Almost done….maybe.

[CODA: I would very much like to acknowledge Jamie Boudreau’s blog post on how to make bitters from April of last year. Reading it convinced me that my bitter components testing would be a worthwhile exercise.]