Given my propensity for acquiring and quaffing just about every type of aromatic or drinking bitters in existence (a propensity I’m sure more than a few of you share with me), there’s one particular Tales seminar that I’ve very much been looking forward to: “The Emperor’s New Bitters,” moderated by New Zealand bartender Jacob Briars and with panelists Sebastian Reaburn and late addition Francesco Lafranconi.
We have seen bitters seminars at Tales before, of course, and they’ve all been great, each with their own approach and their own surprises. I will never forget the wondrous drop of vintage 1880s Boker’s Bitters that I had the privilege of licking off the back of my hand a couple of years ago. What I wouldn’t have given for a vat of the priceless stuff. I can’t guarantee anything like that this year, but I can guarantee a fascinating session, lots of great discussion and wonderful things to taste.
I chatted with Jacob via email last week – here’s a bit of a preview of what’s coming up:
Did you ever in your wildest dreams think we’d have such a wealth of cocktail bitters available to us now? I remember when I first got into cocktails about 12 years ago I only had two, Angostura and Peychaud’s, and the latter I almost never saw outside of New Orleans.
I think it is a broader reflection of the growth of the cocktail craft – likewise did you ever expect to find rare mezcal in New Zealand or boutique Italian amari in New England? But it has been a welcome trend. For the markets where Sebastian and I are based – Australia and New Zealand – Angostura is a part of the biggest selling non-alcoholic drink in most bars and pubs, the Lemonade, Lime and Bitters, so we have never really known bartending without some kind of bitters on the back bar. But I have lost count of the number of Manhattans, Champagne Cocktails, or even more recently, Improved Gin Cocktails I have drunk that have been missing the bitters (any bitters) that I consider essential in making these drinks.
The much vaunted definition of the cocktail from 1806 has played a huge role in reminding bartenders of the role of bitters. I don’t necessarily consider bitters to be the missing link in ‘The Cocktail’ or even essential in all cocktails, but I am thrilled with experimentation of any kind in our industry. Bitters – whether home-made, boutique or large-scale – have proved to be an easy and delicious way that bartenders can stamp their mark on the cocktails they make. This could be whether a moustachioed be-vested bartender in a faux-speakeasy is making a guest a properly bittered Manhattan for the first time, or whether an innovative bartender is crafting something completely new and finding that bitters add the missing note of depth and richness. It is all a trend to be welcomed.
Are you a bitters fanatic yourself, and do you have a good-sized collection?
I wouldn’t say ‘fanatic’ but I do have a reasonable collection. I have a lot, from obscure one-offs (The Bitter Truth seem to produce one for nearly every major occasion, such as a lovely Berlin Bar Show Bitters) to bartenders’ bitters that I have collected on my travels. Sebastian and I also have a sizable collection of older bottles between us. In terms of how I use ‘bitters’ I perhaps have a more unusual approach than others who use them for making classic cocktails. I like including a spot of Angostura in my coffee, and love drinks that use bitters as a base, like Baker’s ‘Angostura Sour.’ Conversely I like swapping out the traditional cocktail bitters in cocktails and adding a splash or two of Fernet Branca or Zucca instead of the traditional Angostura, or Campari instead of orange bitters.
Do you see the field of cocktail bitters becoming oversaturated, or do you see more room for expansion and experimentation?
There is endless room for experimentation, and I think one of the compelling facets of the bitters trend has been the way that it has allowed bartenders to be a part of the ‘production’ of the ingredients of the cocktail renaissance, without needing to be a spirits producer. However, I do see several issues on the horizon. The most obvious is the various regulatory frameworks, particularly in the US. Inevitably it will become a question for the home-made and boutique producer that hopes to see their bitters used by bartenders – who is making these bitters, from what, and where? And also though there are now a lot of bitters, few of them are able to be used in a diverse range of drinks in the way that Angostura – because of its versatility, and its venerability – is used globally. That said, if you had asked bartenders 3 years ago if we needed more gin or tequila, or 5 years ago, if we needed more vodka, the default answer would have been no, and yet look at us today. So much like the spirits industry in general, I think that though the market may feel very busy, a good bitters brand with a unique point of difference and a compelling story will go from strength to strength. I am also curious to see whether the last decade’s relentless process of mergers and acquisitions in spirits will extend to bitters, tho I would probably hedge my bets both ways. Bitters are nowhere as cheap to make as yet another flavoured coconut liqueur spin-off, to choose one of many examples, but at the same time, it’s hard to imagine many classic cocktails being made without them in the future.
What are some of the more exciting directions you’ve been seeing in the new wave of cocktail bitters?
Obviously it is wonderful to have modern approximations of celery bitters or long-lost bitters like Abbott’s and Boker’s in the bar once more. But for me the really exciting change has been in the modern bitters created by people like Bittermens and Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters. While I don’t think that all the new-fangled bitters are excellent, I do think that broadly speaking, we have more great bitters available to us than ever before. There is a lot of temptation to look backwards, as if the best bitters were those from the days of Jerry Thomas (which is a broader problem with the drinks industry in general). But a lot of historical bitters weren’t very good, and in some cases were downright nasty, even toxic! So I think there is a broader ‘macro trend’ which is that generally speaking, most commercial bitters are getting better, and our guests are enjoying more bittered drinks too. And it is interesting to see products using unique flavours that would have been unthinkable in Jerry Thomas’s day. Whether all of these new offerings are really ‘bitters’ is a topic we’ll also address.
Will you have a few surprises for us in addition to products from the more well-known bitters makers?
The irony of such a niche topic as bitters is that anyone with an interest in bitters is by definition a tragic obsessive, so its very hard to find things that are both new and obscure. There are no ‘white labels’ that haven’t been encountered already, among commercial bitters of course. But we do hope to have a few products to taste and discuss that aren’t as common or as widely known as they should be, whether because they are unavailable in America, or just getting off the ground commercially.
What are some of the cocktails you’ll be featuring?
We’ll be making a couple of bitters-heavy drinks and also talking about the way in which bitters improves certain cocktails.
Anything else you might care to toss in?
If you are coming then don’t expect it to be too serious. Hopefully guests will come away with an understanding of bitters, their historical role in drinks (and cocktails) and how bitters are made, what drinks are best made with which bitters, and the future of bitters, as a product, and as an industry.
Wanna do a shot of Ango? :)
Love to! The best known cure for hiccups and a host of other ailments too.
I’m really looking forward to this one — I’m a huge bitters fanatic myself, and with you and Sebastian at the helm I think we’re going to have a blast.
Thank you, we have put a lot of work, research and tasting into it, and I hope to be able to open a few minds – on the both the side of the bitters skeptics and the bitters fanatics.
The session is sold out, unsurprisingly, but if you really want a spot check at reception to see if anyone’s cancelled. 1:00 – 2:30 PM, Thursday, July 21 in the Grand Ballroom South, The Royal Sonesta Hotel.
Hmm. You know, I think I’ll have a shot of Angostura right now.