Archive for Tales of the Cocktail

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!)


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.

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.