Chuck Taggart is a dedicated amateur cocktailian and radio host in Los Angeles. He publishes The Gumbo Pages.
That’s amaro!(Okay, that was bad. Sorry. Here’s hoping I won’t be assaulted by the ghost of Dean Martin.)I’m skipping ahead to Friday and the wonderful seminar on bitter liqueurs, due to the fact that Thursday was a bit of a blur. Shall we catch up a bit first?Not that it was a bad day by any means; it was a great day, and quite memorable (the parts of it I remember, at least). Four fantastic seminars and events — Paul Pacult’s “How to Taste Like a Professional;” Juniperlooza with Ryan Magarian, Simon Ford and Desmond Payne, Beefeater’s master distiller; Cognac and Armagnac with Debra Argen and Edward Nesta; and finally the Cocktail Hour, with at least 30 different cocktails on offer. Eventually, once I reconstruct the day, I’ll talk about everything I learned that day. Right now I’m just trying to recover from it all.Six single malt Scotches, 12 gins, four gin cocktails, 10 Cognacs, Armagnacs and Spanish brandies, four brandy cocktails, three or four more cocktails at the Cocktail Hour event (and the singular pleasure of watching David Wondrich beat the crap out of a big chunk of ice), then perhaps New Orleans’ finest and spiciest Bloody Mary at Attiki Bar and Grill next door to the Bienville House, and then off to the Tiki Spirited Dinner by Chef Chris DeBarr and mixologists Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and Wayne Curtis, and the four absolutely delicious and highly intoxicating rum cocktails they offered. After that I visited the Partida / Plymouth / St. Germain suite on the 9th floor, then Eric Alperin of The Doheny handed me one more drink … and that’s when my brain shut down.I really enjoyed Seamus’ and Rick’s posts on the dinner, and especially wondered how Seamus was able to pull off such a great post right after the dinner. (I was more occupied with the daunting task of walking.)We slept through the breakfast at Brennan’s and managed to rouse our carcasses (“Quiet darling, your Auntie Mame is hung”) to get to one of the most-anticipated seminars of my schedule: “Amore Amari: A Very Bitter History of Bitter Spirits in Apertif Service and Cocktails,” presented by Averna, Campari and The Bitter Truth. Wesly and I have been mad for bitters for years, obsessively collecting as many varieties as we could (including our best score ever — three pristine 18-ounce bottles of Abbott’s Bitters), and over the past year or so have become amaro fanatics as well — the bitterer the better.Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz led the panel and began by talking about the history of bitters in cocktails, and how up until the beginning of the 19th century bitters were truly strictly medicinal, and medical miracles were attributed to their regular use. Our favorite of the historical ads that they showed were for Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters, the makers of which exhorted you to “Renew Vigor and Make Life Worth Living!” Hostetter’s also helped you “renew your life-giving blood currents” and took care of your dyspepsia, malaria, indigestion, fever and ague, nervousness, kidney, bladder and bowel disease, neuralgia, rheumatism, menstrual cramps and hysteria. While I can’t vouch for most of those claims, bitters then and now are great for indigestion and overindulgence, and many of us have but a few teaspoons of Angostura in soda water to settle our tummies.Eric also reviewed several of the primary styles and components of bitter liqueurs. Wormwood-based bitters, in addition to absinthe, include relatively mild examples such as vermouth, which comes from wermut, the German word for wormwood, plus some massively and wonderfully bitter concoctions such as Gorki List from Serbia. (One good friend from Belgrade who now lives in Zurich loves the stuff and always keeps a bottle on hand “to test the mettle of my guests.” You’ll be able to test your own mettle soon; Eric plans to bring Gorki List to the States later this year.)Gentian-based bitters, which have an almost horseradish-like bitterroot flavor without the burn, include Suze from France and Averna from Sicily, and gentian is also an ingredient in most aromatic cocktail bitters such as Angostura. Cinchona bark, from which we get quinine, is the bitter agent in tonic water as well as in quinquinas, aperitif wines like Lillet, Dubonnet and bitters such as Amer Picon. Citrus bitters are sought for their flavor, aroma and sweetness as well as the bitter components. They make very popular amari (Campari, to name the most popular, and it’s “younger brother” Aperol), as well as beloved cocktail bitters such as the wealth of orange bitters we’re able to enjoy now from Fee’s, Regans’, The Bitter Truth, Hermes and the wonderful new Angostura Orange Bitters.LeNell Smothers also spoke about her massive collection of bitters at her shop in Brooklyn (and I’m preparing a frighteningly large order for her), and Stephan Berg of the wonderful new bittersmakers The Bitter Truth came from Germany to speak of his products and also regale us with some wonderful history of Angostura and Abbott’s Bitters.We also had three terrific cocktails:
Les Voûtes1-1/2 ounces Rittenhouse Rye 100 proof1/2 ounce Martini & Rossi Rosso Vermouth1/2 ounce yellow Chartreuse1 splash Clear Creek kirschwasser2 dashes The Bitter Truth Orange BIttersStir over ice many times over, strain into chilled cocktail glass.
Negroni Transalpina2 ounces Martini & Rossi Rosso Vermouth1 ounce Plymouth Gin1 ounce Campari2 dashes The Bitter Truth Orange BItters1 teaspoon apricot eau de vieShake first four ingredients with ice, strain into a cocktail glass andfloat the eau de vie.
La Cola Nostra1-1/2 ounces Pampero Anniversario Rum1 ounce Averna1/4 ounce St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram1 ounce Bubbly Brut Cuvée3/4 ounce fresh lime juice1/2 ounce Fee Brothers Rock Candy SyrupShake and strain.
As great as this all was, perhaps the best part was at the very end, when we were invited to come up if we were interested in tasting some of the myriad stash of bitters they’d brought, including … vintage 19th century Boker’s Bitters, the bitters used to make the first Manhattan cocktail. (If we’re interested? Ya think?) Stephan placed one precious drop on my hand and I tasted … and wow. Wow wow wow. Amazing body and spice and depth of flavor, baking spices like cinnamon and clove and ginger and yum. It reminded me of Abbott’s, but without the elements you get from the barrel aging in the latter. It still tasted terrific, and I wish Stephan had had enough to make us all Rittenhouse Manhattans with it. We got more tastes from LeNell and Eric, and as Jay Hepburn put it, “I have the wonderful aroma of 10 different bitters on my hands.”I’d be happy to smell like that (and taste all those wonderful tastes) every day!