Mixology Monday does bitters.
Welcome to my tiny corner of the web Mixology Monday fans. I've followed M2 since its inception but this will be my first as a participant. I've been keeping a low profile since I started this blog a mere week or so ago. I wasn't quite sure how I felt about joining the cocktail blognoscenti but it turns out that outing myself as a cocktail geek was fairly painless. Sure, nobody's been watching so far but, really, if M2 is what brought you here I don't imagine you're here to cast aspersions. And if you are, well, let he who is not a cocktail geek cast the first stone.
Now, on to the topic at hand: bitters. Bitters are a largely forgotten part of the cocktail world despite their immense importance. I've seen the role of bitters in cocktails compared to the role of salt in cooking and I think that's particularly apt*. In cooking, for example, salt is often called for in recipes in which a salty flavor isn't required or desired. Most cookie recipes call for a small amount of salt, right? Nobody wants a salty cookie and, thankfully, that's not salt’s role in a cookie recipe. What the salt does is to somehow make the other ingredients taste better, in fact, to taste more like themselves. Cocktail bitters play essentially the same role in cocktail recipes.
It depends on the type and amount of bitters used in cocktail recipe, of course, but as a rule bitters serve to bring the other ingredients together and/or to somehow emphasize a certain aspect of the drink. In a Manhattan, for example, I can't say that I pay conscious attention to the flavor of the Angostura bitters in the drink but it's a fact I've never been wrong when I've taken a Manhattan back to the bartender and asked if he had added bitters. There's just something about the addition of a couple dashes of bitters that makes it easy for me to notice when they're absent. Whiskey and vermouth go well together but they simply go together better when with a couple dashes of bitters added.
The good news is that bitters are making a comeback. Angostura bitters remain the best known and easiest to find (even if too many bartenders never heard of 'em) but its no longer impossible to find Peychaud's bitters and, can you believe it, we're living in a time when two--TWO!--companies are making orange bitters in the United States. This is down from the dozens available in the early 20th century but it's two more than existed just a few years ago. That's progress, friends.
So, assuming you have more than Angostura on hand, what can you do with the other types of bitters? One suggestion I'll make is the Fancy Gin Cocktail and it can be made with either Angostura or Peychaud's. This is a matter of personal preference, of course, but I've tried both and for me it's an easy choice. Using Angostura makes for a fine drink but using Peychaud's makes this one of my very favorites. Here's the recipe for the Old Fashioned Gin Cocktail. The Fancy Gin Cocktail is a slight variation.
Old Fashioned Gin Cocktail (Esquire Drinks Database)
½ tsp sugar (or one lump)
2 dashes bitters (Peychaud’s or Angostura)
1 tsp H2O
2 oz gin (Jonge, or “young” genever if available)
Dissolve sugar in a rocks glass with the water and bitters. Muddle until sugar dissolves. Add gin, stir well, and add 2 large ice cubes. Let it sit for a couple minutes before drinking.
First, skip the "dissolve sugar..." part. Use about a teaspoon of simple syrup and save yourself the hassle. I've been using a syrup made with two parts Demerara sugar to one part water. Next, note that this one calls for genever or genever gin, the Dutch style of gin sometimes also called Dutch or Holland gin. I’m aware of only two brands currently available in the U.S., Zuidam and Boomsma. I have a bottle of the Zuidam. I can’t tell you how it compares to other genevers but it’s really terrific.
Here’s some info from a Zuidam press release:
"For the Zuidam Genever Gin, we start with a whiskey-like base, and add the botanicals in one distillation,” explains Patrick van Zuidam. “For our Genever we use juniper, licorice root, vanilla, aniseed and marjoram. Zuidam Genever is more refined than most Genevers. It is elegant and provides a very different gin taste that is decidedly sweeter, yet still refreshing, with a malty undertone. Unlike some Genevers, Zuidam Genever Gin is crystal clear.”Sound interesting? Here are a couple variations on the Old Fashioned Gin Cocktail (also from Esquire):
Fancy Gin Cocktail
Same as above but with one additional step. Take a big lemon twist, squeeze it over the glass and rub it around the rim. The twist adds a little tartness that makes a very good drink a great drink. If you have a lemon in the house use it.
Improved Gin Cocktail
2 oz gin (pref. Jonge, or "young", genever, eg. Zuidam)
½ to 1 tsp simple syrup (made 2:1 w/demerara sugar)
½ to 1 tsp liqueur (G.Marnier, Maraschino or Cointreau)
2 dashes bitters
1 dash absinthe (or substitute a pastis such as Pernod or Herbsaint)
Add all to lot of cracked ice in a shaker. Stir vigorously & strain into chilled glass. Squeeze a big lemon twist over the glass and rub it around the rim.
David Wondrich, the excellent writer on booze for Esquire and the author of all the material at the Esquire Drinks Database, put out a fine book in 2005. In it he included a revised version of the above recipe which he called the Improved Holland Gin Cocktail. The stuff in bold is what he changed or preferences he specified in the book (and/or on-line in the eGullet and DrinkBoy cocktail forums) and that's how I made this. I prefer the Fancy but this one is also very good. I haven't tried it yet with Grand Marnier or Cointreau but I'm curious if using either would change my mind.
*It turns out that Robert "Drinkboy" Hess reprises some of his thoughts on this in his newest piece at The Spirit World. Check it out.