Tag Archive | "bitters"

Forget Your Sickly Sweet Cosmo — Shake Things Up with ‘Savory Cocktails’

One of the lingering horrors of “Sex and the City” is the nasty infection of overly sweet cocktails that has spread to bar menus practically everywhere you turn. If it isn’t the cosmopolitan, it’s some candy-coated appletini or a frozen margarita with so much sweet-and-sour mix in it that you can’t taste the lime or even the tequila.

The Dog's Nose

The Dog’s Nose

That’s why Greg Henry’s “Savory Cocktails” (Ulysses Press, $16.95) sounded so appealing when I first heard about it. Then I opened the book and started to study. “Cocktails are becoming more sophisticated and taking a distinctly savory turn,” he writes. “Today’s bartenders are reaching for unexpected ingredients and employing culinary techniques such as infusions and purées to expand and sometimes challenge the palate. … Innovative ingredients and modern techniques create new categories of beverages, because there comes a point in life when sweet, pink drinks just don’t keep you coming back to the bar.”

After taking you through the equipment you need for a good home bar, food writer and photographer Henry settles into a discussion of techniques, syrups (yes,  sweeteners such as Rhubarb Rosemary Syrup or Habanero Agave Syrup are used for balance in drinks) and bitters. He offers a refreshing take on shrubs, “old-fashioned drinking vinegars,” as he calls them, which mix sweet and tart. (If you’re curious about shrubs, try the locally made ones that Cathy Tarasovic and Cynthia Guido have for sale at the Quarry Farmers and Ranchers Market on Sundays; then take your favorites and start creating your own cocktails with them.)

Then comes the real fun, the recipes. Papa Hemingway’s Daiquiri is far stronger and less sweet than the original, using grapefruit juice in the mix, while the Green Gargoyle mixes tequila, jalapeño, cilantro and lime with an entire tablespoon of pink salt into one fiery glass of refreshment. Imagine a brunch with Black Pepper Oyster Shooters or a Bloody Mary made with a serrano-infused tomato juice.

Savory_Cocktails-front.inddThe drinks are broken down into categories, such as sour, herbal, spicy, bitter and smoky as well as the mouth-filling umami. There are also chapters on rich and strong drinks, which include a few classics. You may find yourself playing a little with Henry’s recipes. I like my martini, for example, a lot drier than his 4:1 ratio of gin to vermouth (and, yes, a martini is made with gin — that drink you may be thinking of is a vodka martini.) Try a good 6:1 or even without vermouth, if you like yours dry. Go for a 3:1, if you want it fruitier.

There is one problem with “Savory Cocktails,” though, and it’s fairly common among most cocktail books: Some of the ingredients are esoteric, to say the least. So, you may have to make a shopping of list including the likes of Bittermens Orchard Street Celery Shrub, Chartruese, Bittercube blackstrap molasses bitters or St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, before you can drink the likes of a To Hell with Spain No. 2 or a Celery Shrub Cocktail.

But you never know what people will find on hand. For The Dog’s Nose, a gin cocktail based on a reference in Dickens’ “The Pickwick Papers,” the recipe calls for a bottle of porter and porcini mushroom powder. I had the powder, but I had to go buy the beer. Go figure. (By the way, I was glad I tried this libation at home as it seemed exceptionally potent to me.)

You can also get as fancy or as fun as you’d like with the recipes. The outline for the Aperol Tequila Swizzle calls for salt, so I served it with a block of Himalayan pink salt perched on top of the glass. That meant the sipper could grate his own to taste.

I can’t tell you how glad I am to have found a cocktail or three that use salt, instead of sugar, to add flavor. For that alone, Henry’s “Savory Cocktails” is worth a look. There’s even a Black Salt cocktail that I will try soon. I’ve got the black salt, the rye, the coffee liqueur and the egg white; I just need to stock up on Fernet-Branca.

Aperol Tequila Swizzle

Aperol Tequila Swizzle

Aperol Tequila Swizzle

2 ounces tequila blanco
1 ounce Aperol
2 or 3 dashed grapefruit bitters
2 to 3 ounces club soda
1 pinch coarse salt
1 grapefruit twist, as garnish

Fill a wine goblet or highball glass with medium ice cubes; add the tequila, Aperol and bitters. Use a swizzle stick or straw to stir the ingredients until just blended. Top with club soda and a pinch of salt; stir gently and garnish with a grapefrui twist. Serve with the swizzle stick or straw.

Makes 1 cocktail.

From “Savory Cocktails” by Greg Henry

The Dog’s Nose

3 ounces dry gin
1 cup traditional-style porter, at room temperature
1 tiny pinch porcini mushroom powder or crystalline MSG powder
Freshly grated nutmeg, as garnish

Pour the gin into a 10- to 14-ounce glass. Add the porter and allow the head to develop somewhat, then sprinkl on the mushroom powder. Garnish with nutmeg.

Makes 1 cocktail.

From “Savory Cocktails” by Greg Henry


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What’s Hot: Fee Brothers Rhubarb Bitters

When Joe Fee was in town earlier this year for the first San Antonio Cocktail Conference, the topic of conversation naturally turned to bitters. His family’s company, Fee Brothers, has been making bitters for four generations. In recent years, a number of flavored variations hit the market — mint, grapefruit, peach — and they’re all good. But the one version not to miss is rhubarb, which the label describes as follows: “Using flavors available in 1800s America, Fee Brothers developed Rhubarb Bitters for that authentic historical taste.”

The aroma harkens back to the past with a pleasant floral quality mixed with a strong sense of both cherry candy and maraschino cherries. Tart, delicious rhubarb mixed with bitter spices come in when you taste the bitters alone. Both fragrance and flavor suggest it would be great with bourbon or rye in cocktails as well as gin and even tequila. I tried it in a variation of the classic Old Fashioned called the Old Smashioned, which featured blackberries and a touch of orange flavor (see recipe below).

Don’t stop with the cocktails, though. Bitters add a welcome complexity to cooking as well. I tried the rhubarb bitters in a marinade for squash before throwing them on the grill. I could also see adding a dash or two to a vinaigrette to give it some life.

Just remember, when you use bitters, try a dash first and then build up to your desired flavor level. They are strong, and too much can be overwhelming.

Fee Brothers Rhubarb Bitters can be found at Twin Liquors on U.S. 281 south of Bitters Road. The price is $5.99. All bitters should keep for as long as you own the bottle.

The Old Smashioned

The Old Smashioned

1-2 drops orange blossom water
3-4 blackberries, to taste
1-3 dashes Fee Brothers Rhubarb Bitters
1/2 teaspoon agave nectar, or more to taste

Rinse your cocktail glass with a drop or two of orange blossom water.

In a cocktail shaker, muddle blackberries. Add bourbon to taste, a dash of rhubarb bitters and the agave nectar with ice. Shake and pour into glass (you can strain the berry seeds, if you choose). Add more rhubarb bitters to taste. Garnish with a sprig of mint.

Makes 1 cocktail.

Adapted from


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Cocktail Conference Shakes It Up for a Good Cause

Rob Gourley of San Antonio makes a Philly Smash with rye, lime, Averna, simple syrup, berries and mezcal at the Esquire Tavern.

By the time the last drop of vodka had been poured, the last cube of ice chipped and the last mint garnish bruised, the inaugural San Antonio Cocktail Conference could be classified a success.

Adrian Sarabia of San Antonio uses Ranger Creek White in his White and Red.

The four-day event, which included everything from what could affectionately be dubbed “booze cruises” along the river to Sunday brunch, attracted hundreds. Several of the seminars, on topic ranging from ice to making cocktails at home, sold out, all offering the promise of a great future for the event.

The best news of all was the event, planned as a fundraiser for the San Antonio charity HeartGift, raised enough money to pay for the costs associated with the heart surgeries of two children from countries where the proper treatment is either unavailable or inaccessible. The surgical fees are donated by the doctors, but there are costs associated with flying the children in and taking care for them during their recuperation.

Houston Eaves of Austin makes a 3-Piece Suit with Fernet, Campari and Punt e Mes.

Saturday brought a cocktail competition in which more than 30 contestants had to prepare an original cocktail that was judged on taste, presentation and execution. The grand prize winner was John Lermayer from the Florida Room in Miami, followed by Jake Corney of Bohanan’s, which is where the contest was held, and Charles Shelton of Austin.

Lermayer named his winning cocktail Have a Heart and promised HeartGift executive director Cathy Siegel that he would be donating some of his winnings to the charity.

Saturday evening brought a crowd of cocktail lovers to the Esquire Tavern. Along the longest bar in Texas, mixologists whipped up specialty drinks that featured drinks such as Texas spirits, including Ranger Creek White and Tito’s Vodka as well as absinthe, mezcal, the Italian vermouth Punt e Mes, and digestifs such as Averna and Campari. Spray cans of bitters were also used by several to finish off their cocktails.

Wonderful flavors, all, and a great reason to raise a toast to a successful launch of the San Antonio Cocktail Conference.


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For the Fee Brothers, Bitters Are Better

Joe Fee holds a bottle of Fee Brothers Black Walnut Bitters.

It seemed inevitable that bitters would make a comeback. After too many years of ultra-sweet “Sex in the City”-induced cosmopolitans, a great many cocktail lovers are suffering from sugar shock.

Bitters offer a blessed balancing act, using herbs to temper a sweetness in some cocktails that all too often is cloying. It also is used as a digestif, said to settle the stomach. But the big plus of bitters is the way they add live and a greater depth of flavors to your cocktail.

Few people could be more excited about this interest than Joe Fee, whose family founded Fee Brothers four generations ago. The Rochester, N.Y.-based company makes a series of cocktail mixes, cordial syrups, brines and coffee flavors, but it is known to many for its vast array of bitters, which come in flavors, from cherry to mint.

Fee, who is in town for the inaugural San Antonio Cocktail Conference, knows that the resurgence of interest in old-fashioned, handcrafted cocktails has also boosted a renewed interest in bitters. And he’s here to spread of the gospel of what they can add to cocktails and cooking alike.

Lovers of cocktail recipe books, both old and new, know that many a libations writer cautions against using too much bitters in a drink. It’s good advice when you’re starting out and don’t know your own tastes, but it also helps to sample your drink and adjust the bitters until you get the desired result. It’s like adding salt and pepper to food. Some recipes call for more than a dash of salt. And there are cocktails that call for up to an ounce of bitters, Fee says.

“Everyone’s tastes are different,” he says.

The company’s top seller is Old Fashion Bitters, which Fee says is the equal of Angosturra, another well-known bitters, and a necessary ingredient in a Manhattan. It’s followed closely by orange bitters, a dash of which can make a dry martini even more perfect. Other flavors include peach, lemon, grapefruit, rhubarb and whiskey barrel-aged. This March, a gin barrel-aged orange bitters will be introduced.

But Joe Fee is more interested at the moment in another new addition: black walnut bitters, a flavor he developed himself. His sister, Ellen, who usually is in charge of development, took a pass because she’s allergic to walnuts.

One taste of the black walnut bitters is filled with a pleasing nuttiness as well as a spicy tone, a touch of cinnamon and, of course, vanilla, which Fee calls “the salt of the flavor world.” Add a dash or two to a good bourbon or tequila for added dimension, he recommends, or use it at a tiki party in everything from rum pineapple drinks  to tropically flavored food, especially pork dishes.

Each bottle of Fee Brothers bitters, which can be found at Spec’s and Twin Liquors among other local stores, comes hand-wrapped in paper, which gives the product a personal touch. It also makes the bottle look a little like Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. But the paper prevents the flavors from fading.  Bitters will never go bad, no matter how old the bottle is, Fee says, because of the alcohol in it.

The San Antonio Cocktail Conference continues through Sunday. For information, click here.

The following are a few cocktail recipes that use bitters:

Carte Blanche

3 cucumber wheels
1 1/2 parts Hendrick’s Gin, a cucumber gin
1/2 part fresh lime juice
1/2 part simple syrup
2 healthy dashes orange bitters
Brut sparkling wine

In a mixing glass, muddle two cucumber wheels. Add  gin, lime juice, simple syrup, bitters and ice. Shake well and double strain into a cocktail glass. Top with sparkling wine and garnish with the final cucumber.

Makes 1 cocktail.

Adapted from Hendrick’s Gin

Champagne Cocktail

1 lump sugar
Dash of Fee’s Old Fashion Bitters
2 ounces brut sparkling wine

Soak sugar cube with bitters. Place cube in champagne flute. Fill with sparkling wine. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

Makes 1 cocktail.


Come Again

1 teaspoon Fee’s Peach Bitters
1 1/2 ounces gin

Shake bitters and gin with ice. Strain into a 3-ounce cocktail glass. Garnish with 2 mint sprigs.

Makes 1 cocktail.



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Griffin to Go: Drink in Some Mardi Gras Spirit

The cover of the book says it all: “Famous New Orleans Drinks (And How to Mix ‘Em).”

Well, almost all. This gem from one Stanley Clisby Arthur was first printed in 1937, a few years before the introduction of the Hurricane by Pat O’Brien, whose name still graces a chain of bars, including one on the River Walk.

But don’t let that deter you from searching out this slender volume, because it is a treasure trove of facts and stories behind the potent potables that dominated the Big Easy, and many a Southern bar, during the era. It’s little wonder the book is still in print today.

My copy, given to me by dear friends who understand the joys of a well-mixed cocktail and a well-spun story, is from the book’s fourth printing, which was in April 1941. The country was still months away from the second world war at that time, and some areas were only beginning to emerge from the Great Depression.

Though Prohibition had ended only a few years before, Arthur proudly hails his city as “the home of civilized drinking” for more than a century.

He doesn’t stop there: “The flowing bowl and the adept mixing of what went in it has constituted as high an art in this Creole city as the incomparable cooking for which it is famed.”

To prove his point, Arthur offers recipes for drinks that are still shaken, stirred and layered at many a New Orleans haunt, including the Sazerac, the Absinthe Frappé, Ramos Gin Fizz and Planter’s Punch.

“The quality of mixed drinks as served in New Orleans has always appealed to the sophisticated taste,” Arthur writes. “It was here that your most modern of American beverages, the cocktail, first came into being and was given its jaunty name.”

Etymological stories are of particular interest to the author. The term “julep,” for example, dates as far back as 1400 A.D., he writes, “long before we ever heard of the Southern States of these United States, where the julep is popularly supposed to be indigenous.”

But Arthur doesn’t stop there. He goes on to give advice about how to make a julep that will keep you smiling: “Don’t use rye whiskey in making a julep. If you do use whiskey, let it be Bourbon, which serves its highest purpose when it becomes a component part of that prince of all thirst-quenchers known as the Mint Julep.” As a Kentuckian who honors the derby each May, I heartily concur.

I also love the fact that so much of the lore remains up-to-date more than 70 years after the book’s initial publication. Take this passage on one of the Latin Quarter’s still-popular nightspots: “Of all the ancient buildings in New Orleans’ famed Vieux Carré, none has been more glorified in story and picture than a square, plastered-brick building at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville streets, known as the Old Absinthe House.”

The building, erected in 1806, was originally used for importing, then bartering foodstuffs and tobacco. Over the course of its history, it became a grocery, a boot shop, and, in 1846, “a coffee-house, as saloons were then called.”

Today, you can taste a cocktail made with real absinthe there.

Absinthe, or actually something called “absinthe substitute” (which I would take to be Herbsaint, Pernod or a similarly anise-flavored alcohol), is a key ingredient in the Sazerac recipe included in the book. But it wasn’t always part of the mix. And Arthur is more than happy to offer the evolution of a drink, when he can. Especially when the drink in question is considered “the best known of all New Orleans cocktails.”

The original recipe called for Peychaud’s bitters, which were created in New Orleans by a druggist named Antoine Amédée Peychaud. It remains a key ingredient today; not so the alcohol it was meant to complement. It seems brandy was a little too European for American tastes, so rye whiskey elbowed its way into the mix. With that change came the addition of absinthe.

“But this history delving is dry stuff,” Arthur notes, “so let’s sample a genuine Sazerac.”


A Genuine Sazerac

1 lump sugar
3 drops Peychaud’s bitters
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 jigger rye whiskey
1 dash absinthe substitute
1 slice lemon peel

[amazon-product]0882891324[/amazon-product]To mix a Sazerac requires two heavy-bottomed, 3 1/2-ounce bar glasses. One is filled with cracked ice and allowed to chill. In the other a lump of sugar is placed with just enough water to moisten it. The saturated loaf of sugar is then crushed with a barspoon. Add a few drops of Peychaud’s bitters, a dash of Angostura, a jigger of rye whiskey, for while Bourbon may do for a julep, it just won’t do for a real Sazerac. To the glass containing sugar, bitters and rye, add several lumps of ice and stir. Never use a shaker! Empty the first glass of its ice, dash in several drops of absinthe … enough will cling to the glass to give the needed flavor. Strain into this glass the whiskey mixture, twist a piece of lemon peel over it for the needed zest of that small drop of oil thus extracted from the peel, but do not commit the sacrilege of dropping the peel into the drink. Some bartenders put a cherry in a Sazerac; very pretty but not necessary.

M-m-m-m-m! Let’s have another!

From “Famous New Orleans Drinks (And How to Mix ‘Em)” by Stanley Clisby Arthur

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Hey, Barkeep! Can You Make a Kachumber Kooler?

BarkeepI love cocktail books. I hate cocktail books.

I love the pictures of all the crazy drinks with their swizzle sticks loaded with pomegranate seeds, fresh rose petals or cherry blossom garnishes. And I usually find one or two recipes worth shaking up.

But at the same time, who has even half of the ingredients mentioned in most of the recipes? I mean items like elderflower liqueur, Velvet Faernum (a clove-spiced liqueur), bottled ginger juice (not ginger beer or ale, mind you) and passion fruit liqueur?

Yet all of those items are key to some of the recipes in “Mix Shake Stir” (Little Brown, $29.99), a glossy, collection of mixed drink recipes from Danny Meyer’s New York restaurants, which include the lauded Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park.

For the Turf Race, to cite just one recipe, the bartender is asked to mix 3 1/2 ounces gin, preferably Hendrick’s; 1/2 ounce maraschino liqueur, preferably Luxardo; 1/2 ounce absinthe, preferably Lucid; and 1 generous dash of orange bitters (not Angostura).

All of these ideas are grouped under the laughable subtitle “Cocktails for the Home Bar.” Whose home? Certainly not Meyer’s patrons, people with Manhattan apartment so tiny that the book would take up too much space, not to mention the volume of bottles of pear cream liqueur, drunken cranberries, Campari cocktail mix, cardamom syrup, rosemary-infused pear nectar, verjus,  and ginger-infused rye. I have a fairly well-stocked bar and I don’t have room for any of these.

Still, I did enjoy sipping my way through a few recipes. The few I found that weren’t too sweet, mind you. Cocktails, like very other drink nowadays, have gotten too sweet in recent years. Blame the cosmo-crazed women on “Sex in the City” or the sugar-coated American palate, but it’s hard to find a drink that isn’t sickeningly sweet. I can’t even order a margarita in San Antonio any more without asking first if it has been polluted with some sort of sweet-and-sour mix, syrup or sugar infusion.

One elixir called Hang Time mixed together muddled thyme with citrus-infused vodka and lime juice to great effect. Well, the printed recipe did call for sugar, but it was more refreshing without it.

The same is true of the Thai Basil Bliss, which gets enough sweetness from fresh pineapple that, in my opinion, makes the addition of simple syrup cloying and superfluous. To make the drink, muddle 4 basil leaves and 4 (1-inch) pineapple cubes in a shaker. Add ice. Then pour in 2 ounces silver tequila, 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice and an optional splash of sparkling wine. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a basil leaf. (Sweeten with syrup, if you must.)

Another plus of the book is a collection of bar snack recipes, from Five-Spice Cashews to Grilled Watermelon With Heirloom Tomatoes. Here’s a recipe for Dried Cherry, Bacon and Pecan Mix that the book promises is a great match with the somewhat fussy Modern Old-Fashioned, also below.

Dried Cherry, Bacon and Pecan Mix

Candied Bacon:

3 slices thick-cut applewood or other wood-smoked bacon
1/4 cup lightly packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 pound pecan pieces, divided use
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 large egg white, lightly beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup dried cherries or cranberries
1/4 cup chopped candied orange peel, optional

For the bacon: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lay the bacon on a rimmed baking sheet and bake, rotating the pan after 10 minutes, until the bacon starts to crisp, about 15 minutes. Drain off any fat from the pan. In a small bowl, stir together the brown sugar, cayenne and cloves. Sprinkle the mixture on the bacon, return to the oven, and bake until the bacon is very crisp and the sugar mixture is bubbling, about 5 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a cutting board and let cool. Leave the oven on.

In a saucepan over high heat, combine 1/2 pound of pecans, sugar and water. Cook, stirring often, until the sugar melts and thickens to a syrup, 6-8 minutes. At this point, stir constantly until the sugar syrup crystallizes and is sandy, 3-5 minutes longer. Pour onto another baking sheet and let cool.

In a bowl, stir together the egg white, salt and cloves. Add the remaining pecans, toss to coat and spread on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until lightly toasted, about 5 minutes. Let cool.

Cut the bacon into 1/2-inch pieces. In a bowl, toss together the bacon, praline, toasted pecans, cherries and orange peel, if using, and serve. The nut mix, without bacon, can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.

Makes about 5 cups.

Adapted from “Mix Shake Stir: Cocktails for the Home Bar”

The Modern Old-Fashioned

4 dried cherries, divided use
1 1/2 ounces Poire William or other pear liqueur, divided use
5 slices ripe but firm red Bosc pear
Splash of fresh lemon juice
2 ounces bourbon, preferably Michter’s
1/2 ounce simple syrup
Dash of Angostura bitters

[amazon-product]0316045128[/amazon-product]In a small bowl, soak 3 of the cherries in 1/2 ounce of the pear liqueur until plump. Thread the cherries onto a small skewer and set aside. Fill a rocks glass with ice. Muddle 4 of the pear slices, the remaining dried cherry and the lemon juice in a cocktail shaker. Add ice, then the bourbon, the remaining 1 ounce pear liqueur, the simple syrup and the bitters, and shake vigorously. Strain into the glass, garnish with the skewered cherries and the remaining pear slice and serve.

Makes 1 drink.

From “Mix Shake Stir: Cocktails for the Home Bar”

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