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Embracing Bitters


Our fascination with classic cocktails has grown in recent years, and with it has come a return to the way drinks were made back when people took the time to craft something by hand. We’ve seen a return to the use of egg whites, for example, to give a frothy head to drinks such as whiskey sours and pisco sours.

Dale DeGroff appears behind the bar at Soho Wine and Martini Bar

Dale DeGroff appears behind the bar at Soho Wine and Martini Bar

In the past four or five years, the interest in bitters has skyrocketed. Go into just about any liquor store and you’ll find bottle after bottle of bitters boasting flavors of celery (made for a bloody Mary), cherry (for Manhattans or old-fashioneds), grapefruit (for salty dogs) and mint (for a more righteous julep). Sure, the old standby aromatic bitters, Angostura and Peychauds, are on the shelf, and they still sell for anywhere from $5 to $10 a bottle, but mainy places are starting to stock more exotic mixtures with price tags in the $20 or range or more.

But what are these mysterious elixirs in their bottles, which are occasionally covered in paper wrapping? They are often alcoholic liquids flavored with a host of concentrated botanicals and aromatic herbs, most of which are predominantly bitter. Ingredients could include gentian root, orange peel, cinchona bark, cardamom, eucalyptus, coffee, you name it. Their purpose in the cocktail world is to provide balance to a drink so that it isn’t cloyingly sweet. Think about the indefinable touch in a Sazerac that keeps the licorice flavor of the absinthe in check or the trace of orange bitters that enlivens a real martini.

The seminar at Soho (Photo: James Goulden)

The seminar at Soho (Photo: James Goulden)

Brad Thomas Parsons has written the exhaustive “Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes and Formulas” for those who must know every last detail about bitters in cocktail history and want to try making their own at home. Bonnie Walker and I lassoed a recipe for barbecue bitters from Bohanan’s Heather Nañez to include in our own “Barbecue Lover’s Texas.”

Dale DeGroff, known as “King Cocktail” and the author of “The Essential Cocktail,” offered a dash or two of his perspective on bitters recently during a Manhattans seminar presented at the Soho Wine and Martini Bar on Crockett Street. The cocktail chronicler produces his own version of these aromatic gems, Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters. And it was one of five that participants got to taste in a series of Manhattans that had been made with George Dickel Rye.

Manhattans all in a row

Manhattans all in a row

While leading the tasting, DeGroff also offered a little history on the subject. Bitters were part of the first printed definition of a cocktail, he said. It dates back to a newspaper article from 1806. That’s when someone told the Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, N.Y., that a cocktail was a stimulating mixture of “spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.”

But they date back further than that. Actually, they’ve been around since the late 17th century, he said. Stoughton’s Bitters were first produced in England in 1690 and were that country’s second patented medicine in 1712. The original recipe from Jerry Thomas and Pierre Lacour included 8 pounds of gentian root, 1/2 ounce red saunders wood or cochineal, 6 pounds of orange peel, 1 1/2 pounds of Virginia snake root and 1/2 ounce American saffron, among other ingredients. Ten gallons of distilled spirits were added to the mix before it aged. Now, that’s medicine.

"King Cocktail" Dale DeGroff

“King Cocktail” Dale DeGroff

Bitters returned after Prohibition ended. Cole Porter mentioned them in the 1940 torch song, “Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please”:

     Leave out the cherry,
     Leave out the bitters,
     Leave out the orange.
     Just make it a straight rye.

But a funny thing happened to American tastes. Somewhere in the last 50 years or so, we surrendered our taste buds to syrupy sodas and other sugary confections. In doing so, we lost our appreciation for all things bitter. Or, as DeGroff said, “We have in our DNA an aversion to bitter things.”

So, for far too long, that bottle of bitters, which never goes bad if it has an alcohol base, was relegated to the back of the bar. Bartenders even took to joking: “What’s going to last longer, my bottle of bitters or my marriage?”

The Manhattan

The Manhattan (Photo: James Goulden)

No two bitters are alike, and each will influence the final flavor of your cocktail in a unique way, just as the profile of your whiskey, bourbon or rye will affect your Manhattan. So, do you prefer a bitter and fruity blend, such as the one attributed to Jerry Thomas that has been revived for modern cocktail drinkers? Or the classic, herbal profile of Angostura Bitters? You’ll have to conduct your own taste test. First, sniff and taste a tiny amount of the bitters by itself. What do you taste? Clove? Ginger? Cinnamon? Cola? All of the above? Then shake a drop or two into your drink and notice the changes that result.

Some people, DrGroff said, are so taken with the flavors of their favorite bitters that they’ll pour an ounce or so into an ice-filled glass and finish it off with mineral water or club soda. The end result is a digestif along the lines of a Campari, a bitter liqueur from Italy that’s often served with soda.

By the way, the name Angostura comes from a city in Venezuela, where the formula was developed in 1824. The distinctive bottle with its oversized label is perfect in such classic cocktails as the Horse’s Neck, Rob Roy, Singapore Sling or the Esmeralda, a winning blend of tequila, lime juice, honey and bitters that deserves to be resurrected. So versatile is Angostura bitters that one satisfied Amazon customer claimed they’re an effective mosquito repellant.

Luis Villegas with his winning Manhattan.

Luis Villegas with his winning Manhattan. (Photo: James Goulden)

You can take your bitters out of the bar and into the kitchen. In his book, Parsons suggests using them in everything from chicken wings to a topping for broiled grapefruit. I have used a dash or two in cherry and rhubarb pies to add a kick to the flavor. Just remember to start off slowly. The flavors are intense, so one dash may be all you need in the beginning. Your bottle will not go empty anytime soon. Or as DeGroff joked, if he ever goes into business again, it’ll be to produce something that people consume in quantities greater than a dash or two at a time.

After the seminar, three bartenders presented their own Manhattans to DeGroff and a representative of George Dickel Rye in a competition to see who could put the best spin on the classic. In the end, Luis Villegas of Houston, who consults at Costa Pacifica on Loop 1604, took the top prize for his variation, which he named “Come and Taste It!” Here’s his recipe:

Luis Villegas’ “Come and Taste It!” Manhattan

3/4 ounce George Dickel Rye
1/4 ounce Carpano Antica
1/4 ounce
Margerum Amaro
1 dash Angostura Bitters
Blood orange extra-virgin olive oil
George Dickel-infused Cherry

Stir rye, Carpano Antica, amaro, bitters and oil in an ice-filled glass. Strain into chilled coupe. Garnish with George Dickel-infused cherry.

Makes 1 cocktail.

From Luis Villegas

 

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Classic Cocktails: Have Your Whiskey Sour Two Ways


For years, the whiskey sour was a simple confection made of fresh lemon juice, syrup, an egg white and, of course, whiskey.

A whiskey sour without the egg white, with a cherry.

A whiskey sour without the egg white, with a cherry.

But when the cocktail fell out of vogue in the late 1960s, processed mixes began appearing as a way of simplifying matters for people too busy to squeeze a lemon. No matter that most of the sweet-and-sour concoctions on the market tasted only of sweet — with a strident chemical aftertaste.

Salmonella fears surrounding eggs led to the elimination of egg whites in cocktails and not just in the whiskey sour.

Soon, a century of tradition disappeared. And with it went once-popular drinks, such as the Ramos gin fizz, the round robin and the bourbon flip.

But the rise in popularity of hand-crafted cocktails has brought back the whiskey sour of the 1870s. There’s now a National Whiskey Sour Day, which was observed Aug. 25. But expectations are greater than ever.

People want a high-quality whiskey, no matter if you want a bourbon, an Irish whiskey or a rye, depending on your tastes.

Jake Corney, head bartender at Bohanan’s, 219 E. Houston St., prefers to use a bourbon that’s been aged in heavily charred barrels, such as Woodford Reserve Double Oaked. “You want a good, solid, spicy bourbon. Nothing too sweet,” he says.

Jeret Peña of the Brooklynite, 516 Brooklyn Ave., prefers rye, and you’ll see a vast assortment of them in his bar.

The Brooklynite's whiskey sour, made with an egg white.

The Brooklynite’s whiskey sour, made with an egg white.

“It’s like everything else I love, it’s misunderstood,” he says. “I love the spice element that is associated with rye.  The proper rye can cut through certain flavor profiles.”

Some still avoid the egg white but will squeeze the lemon fresh. The choice is yours.

“I am all about simplicity when making cocktails at home,” Peña says, adding that if you want to use egg whites and are leery about it, you could buy a carton of pasteurized egg whites. (Read the label first to make sure you’re only getting egg whites and no preservatives.)

Here are two variations on the whiskey sour. The first is the classic recipe, the second a playful variation on the original that adds more fruit juice but eliminates the egg white., which adds texture to the drink, Corney says.

It also helps to know your audience before you make the drink. Dale DeGroff, also known as “King Cocktail,” points out in “The Essential Cocktail: The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks,” that the British want their whiskey sours to be sour while Americans want a sweeter drink, which may explain why many added maraschino cherries to the mix. You may want to start with less syrup and build it up to suit your taste.

Classic Whiskey Sour

This is the traditional way a whiskey sour was made before the advent of sweet-and-sour mixes and artificial lemon, Corney says.

2 ounces bourbon
3/4 ounce simple syrup
3/4 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 egg white
Bitters, your choice

In a dry shaker (without ice), add bourbon, syrup, lime juice and egg white and shake vigorously. Then add ice and continue to shake vigorously until chilled. Pour into a cocktail glass. Top with 3-4 drops (not dashes) of bitters and make a swirl effect on the egg foam, if desired; otherwise, use a heavy single dash of the bitters of your choice. Carney prefers Angosturra for this drink. Serve.

Makes 1 cocktail.

From Jake Corney, Bohanan’s

Kilbeggan Secret Sour

Kilbeggan Secret Sour

Kilbeggan Secret Sour

This variation on the classic, from Joaquin Simo, head mixologist at Pouring Ribbons in New York, uses a touch of grapefruit juice and a dash of orange bitters to add to the sour tang of the drink.

1 ½ parts Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey
1 ½ parts club soda
¾ part dry vermouth
¾ part simple syrup
½ part fresh lemon juice
½ part fresh grapefruit juice
1 dash orange bitters
Lemon peel, for garnish

Combine whiskey, club soda, vermouth, syrup, lemon juice, grapefruit juice and orange bitters in a mixing glass over ice and shake. Strain into a Collins glass with ice. Garnish with a lemon peel.

Makes 1 cocktail.

From Joaquin Simo, Pouring Ribbon/Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey

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Classic Cocktails: Make a Mojito on National Rum Day


August 16 is National Rum Day, which is as good a reason as any to brush up on your mojito making.

The mojito

The mojito

“In Cuba, the mojito is a farmers’ drink (as compared to the more sophisticated urban drinks, daiquiris and El Presidentes),” writes Dale DeGroff in “The Essential Cocktail: The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks” (Clarskon Potter Publishers, $35). “Havana was once a primary source of U.S. slaves, and it is not a stretch to imagine plantation owners and slave traders enjoying a few juleps on the expansive porches of southern plantations; the mojito may have been inspired by the southern julep.”

The King of Cocktails, as DeGroff is known, goes on to say that the drink became readily available in Cuba once ice became plentiful. But it didn’t reach U.S. soil until the 1960s.

Since then, it has been changed almost as much as the margarita, with people added everything from blood orange juice to green tea to fresh cranberries, not to mention increasing amounts of sugar.

Plus, some bartenders use so much mint that the drink has become practically unrecognizable. Worse, according to DeGroff, is that the profusion of mint makes the drink “overly herbal and often bitter. In Cuba, the mojito is not even shaken — the mint is simply bruised in the bottom of the glass to release some flavor — and the drink is kept simple and easy, an adult limeade.”

What kind of rum is best? DeGroff prefers the silver Bacardi for mixed drinks such as this because it helps “keep the flavors simple and straightforward to produce a clean, limy, minty cocktail.”

So, take your mojito back to its basics and taste what this classic is really all about.

Mojito

2 sprigs of tender, young mint
1 ounce simple syrup
3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
1 1/2 ounces white rum
2 dashes of Angostura bitters (optional)
1 1/2 ounces club soda

In the bottom of a highball glass, bruise the leaves from 1 of the mint sprigs with the simple syrup and the lime juice. Add ice. Add the rum and bitters, if using; top with no more than 1 1/2 ounces of club soda and stir. Garnish with the second sprig of mint.

Makes 1 cocktail.

From “The Essential Cocktail: The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks” by Dale DeGroff

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Raise a Toast to San Antonio with a Rio Blanco


Dale DeGroff writes out the recipe for a Rio Blanco while JoAnn Boone enjoys a sip of her cocktail.

In the cocktail world, few shine quite as brightly as Dale DeGroff, who is also known in the industry and to his fans as “King Cocktail.”

So, the chance to have the king create a special drink in your honor is an opportunity few cocktail lovers could pass up.

JoAnn Boone, president and CEO of Rio San Antonio Cruises, won the coveted honor in the auction that helped launch last week’s second annual San Antonio Cocktail Conference and served as a benefit for HeartGift, the charity that helps children from around the world get the heart surgeries they need.

On Saturday, Boone and DeGroff arranged some time in the upstairs bar at Bohanan’s Prime Steaks and Seafood, 219 E. Houston St., to create the cocktail, which will flow out of San Antonio and onto bar menus across the world for the month of February.

First, DeGroff had to discover some flavors or a cocktail style that Boone prefers before starting to mix. One of Boone’s requirements was that the end result wasn’t too sweet.

Then, with the goal of balance before him, DeGroff began mixing liquids like a chemist in a lab before landing on a concoction that featured tequila and Sauternes with a dash of his own pimento bitters and a sliver of jalapeño for an added kick.

But what would this potion be called?

A few of those watching suggested the drink have JoAnn’s name in it, but none of the suggestions struck either DeGroff or her as having the right sound. Both liked the idea of using the word “Rio,” however, which conjures tropical images while making a direct connotation to Boone’s barge service and to the city of San Antonio itself. Blanco was finally settled on as the rest of the name because a blanco tequila was used.

As part of the auction package, the Rio Blanco will be served in February at at bars around the world. Beyond Bohanan’s, local places featuring the drink include the Esquire Tavern and SoHo. Meanwhile, world-celebrated bars Middlebranch, Milk & Honey, Employees Only and Clover Club in New York City as well as Everleigh in Melbourne, Australia, will showcase it.

“We welcome tourists from around the world every day,” Boone said. “With Rio Blanco, we’re now sharing a piece of the Rio with cocktails fans from here to Australia and hope to have them join us for a cruise in San Antonio soon.”

The Rio Blanco

Rio Blanco

2 pieces jalapeño skin (one 1 inch long, the other 2 inches long)
1 1/2 ounces Dulce Vida Blanco Tequila
1/2 ounce Sauternes
Dash of Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters (see note)
1/4 ounce lemon juice

Use a vegetable peeler and peel a 1-inch and a 2-inch strip of skin off a jalapeño, making sure not to get any seeds or membrane on the pepper slices. Set aside.

In an ice-filled shaker (preferably using Kold-Draft ice), add tequila, Sauternes, dash of bitters, lemon juice and the 1-inch jalapeno slice. Shake until cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the 2-inch slice of jalapeño.

Note: To order Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters, click here.

Makes 1 cocktail.

From Dale DeGroff

 

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