What it is

Late-breaking telexes from the craft spirit front by Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails, columnist for Imbibe, and designated drinker for The Atlantic magazine.

  • And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails
    And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails
    by Wayne Curtis

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Entries in bitters (5)


When bitters bottles were better

We’re amid a cocktail bitters revival, of course, but what's missing? This: modern makers of bitters haven't caught up in the bottle department. At left is an image clipped from a 1922 edition of the magazine Antiques, depicting bitters bottles from the 1860s.

On the far left is an Indian princess with Brown's Celebrated Indian Herb Bitters. Third from the left is Dr. Fisch's Bitters, which may not comes as a surprise. The other bottles, or “freak flasks” as they're referred to in the article, are shaped like log cabins, a corn cob, and a "Toby," or one of those mugs modeled after a sodden man wearing a tri-cornered hat.

Aside from the fine quirkiness, think how much easier it would be for bartenders to grab the bitters they need at a glance rather than hunching over and squinting at all those identically labeled eye-dropper bottles on the rack. Bring 'em back!


Thirty-eight-year-old aged bitters?

This was a contender for a "press release I didn't finish reading," but I thought it deserved some commentary.

"Master of Malt have launched their own cocktail bitters which have been aged in a 38 year old Glen Grant cask! The bitters have been specially created with authentic, rare ingredients sought from all over the world before being painstakingly blended together using a unique array of artisanal techniques."

This is actually a masterful bit of PR flackery from a noted British spirits retailer — it combines deception with vapidness, and does so with a flourish. Aspiring writers of press releases should study and learn from this. (You can read the whole release here.)

To start with: a 38-year-old cask is a dead cask. It is a barrel that has ceased to be. It's expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late cask. It's bereft of life, it rests in peace. All the goodness has been leached out of it, and it was probably gone three decades ago. Even an exclamation point won't bring it back. You might as well age the bitters in a stainless steel vat.

Granted, if whiskey had been stored in it for most of that 38 years, the bitters would pick up a nice whisky note. But the bitters makers don't even say how long it's been aged in their 38-year-old barrel. Maybe 24 hours? Maybe a week? Who knows?

It's a masterful sleight of hand in flackery since the bitters hitch a ride on a well-known fondness for age when it comes to Scotch, but without any actual aging itself. Allow me to tip my hat with my own exclamation point!

The rest of the paragraph is a tour de force in the saying of nothing. Specially created? Authentic, rare ingredients from all over the world? (That pretty much defines most aromatic bitters.) And then it reaches a crescendo, proclaiming a product that's "painstakingly blended together using a unique array of artisanal techniques." One can all but imagine the master blender amid his laborious stirring, his tongue poking out of his mouth in intense concentration.

Of course, the marketing of spirits has long been a rich field for vacant puffery to fool and confuse the masses (witness Bacardi's issuance of an affidavit a half-century ago claiming it had invented the rum and Coke). But, really. If you're trying to sell to the cocktail geek contingent — and who else is interested in obscure bitters? — you should learn to speak their language.


Up against the wall, infuser

Among the tenents of Slow Cocktails are these: Using homemade ingredients in cocktails is good. Adding local flavor to cocktails is good. Taking care and time in making something delicious to drink is good.

And, apparently, illegal in California, at least if you’re a bar owner.

The San Francisco Chronicle's Demian Bulwa reported yesterday something that had been known locally for a while: the state was launching a crackdown on bars selling house-made infusions — that is, say, steeping blackberries or pears in vodka for a few days, and using that in a cocktail. It's called rectifying, and it’s illegal without a special permits since (the state claims) this poses a threat to public health. Because, as is well known, pathogens thrive in 80 proof alcohol.

Bourbon and Branch has pulled some drinks off their list as a result, as have a few other bars.

From the story:

The state says it is trying to make sure consumers aren't sickened by a drink and ensure they know what they're swallowing. But many cocktail purveyors see a post-Prohibition law originally aimed at bad hooch rather than gourmet gimlets, with no modern purpose except ginning up fines.

The bartenders guild is preparing to fight it, as is John Hinman, one of San Francisco's top liquor license attorneys. He said ABC is misreading the law and making a meaningless distinction between cocktails that sit for a few minutes and those that stew for hours."

As Camper English points out over at Alcademics, the stepped-up enforcement also makes housemade bitters illegal.

The SF article is well worth checking out, although some clarifications and corrections on details may be forthcoming. Also worth reading are some of the 300 or so comments (as of this writing), some informed, most not. (This sort of thing always seems to bring out  Dittoheads eager to comment on any matter involving government oversight, particularly if they can use the phrase “nanny state.”)

Among them:

“Infused drinks at bars are not a problem. Massive sales of fortified wine and malt liquor at leading grocery stores and neighborhood corner markets IS a problem - but let's be clear: ABC doesn't care about public health and alcoholism - just ensuring as much tax revenue as possible.” — Cargocult

"The state says it is trying to make sure consumers aren't sickened by a drink..." because alcohol alone could never cause one to vomit all over their former friend's car.”  — Zimz

“Do you really want to drink a home-made infusion that could contain goodness knows what chemicals as a result of in-bottle reactions while it sits on a hot shelf under the lights? Bar tenders know how to mix drinks and they should stick to mixing, not brewing glorified moonshine. They are not chemists able to test their hooch to check it complies with health rules.” — Pipspeak

“Lefty, later-day San Franciscans so anxious to allow the government to regulate (and, sooner or later, tax and fine) virtually everything are suddenly miffed when their snooty, over-priced, 'artisan' beverages come under scrutiny. You reap what you sow.” — Hillngully

“They should be closing the corner liquor stores in the poor neighborhoods that cater to chronic alcoholics, not bars that serve up fancy infused vodka.” — Lyonking

“SO I FINALLY GOT THE FULL STORY: I just spoke with Oakland's ABC office. THEY were much more knowledgeable than the SF office. ANYWAY, no bar is able to get a rectifier's license. This article was either poorly written, or the reporter wasn't given the full information from ABC. Rectifier's licenses are ONLY available to wholesalers, and they would have to manufacture & bottle the product and then SELL that product to a bar.” — amsf94122

“Everytime you infuse a drink, or allow a bar to infuse a drink and don't report it...the terrorists win...” — Bryce_Byerly

But, no, really, I’m curious: does anyone know anyone, or has anyone ever heard of anyone, who has been sickened by an infused spirit? And are other states starting to crack down on infused liquors as well, or so far is this limited to California?

First it was egg whites. Now infusions. Can the flaming cocktail be far behind?


The National Angostura Reserve: 15.5 million bottles 

The news about the looming shortage of Angostura bitters has yet to provoke a reaction like that of Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, in which a panicked citizenry rampaged down the streets screaming. This is mysterious to me since the shortage, unlike the Welles invasion, is apparently real. This crisis has arisen due to changes in Angostura’s ownership, cashflow problems, production stoppages, and whatnot. You can read about it here, here, and here.

This is not the first time an Angostura shortage has threatened civilization as we know it. In 1944, German U-boats targeting cargo ships in the Caribbean and on trans-Atlantic routes led to an Angostura drought throughout Europe. When Ernest Hemingway left Cuba to report on the war, he filled a suitcase with “innumerable two-ounce bottles of Angostura bitters” to address the situation, a humanitarian mission for which Hemingway has not been adequately recognized. 

My guess is that panic has been muted to date in part because everyone knows how much Angostua actually still exists in the world in the form of untapped reserves. These reserves include bottles with yellowing labels in the back of your aged parent’s liquor cabinet, others sticking up from behind the spices at your aunt’s house, and the many thousands of bottles (hundreds of thousands?) on college campuses purchased by students who thought it would be cool to drink Manhtattans, but quickly realized their callow taste buds couldn’t yet handle anything more assertive than Bud Light.

Just how big are these reserves?

I have attempted to calculate the amount. Here are the assumptions on which my calculations are based:

  • Number of households in US based on US census data: 105 million (Source: U.S. Census figures)
  • Percentage of Americans who drink alcohol: 64%  (Source: 2006 survey.)
  • Percentage of these alcohol-consuming households with a bottle of Angostura bitters on hand: 30% (Source: wild ass guess.)
  • Percentage of these with a second bottle of Angostura in another cabinet which they’d forgotten about sometime during the Clinton administration: 10% (Source: wilder ass guess.)
  • Bottle size: 4 ounces (Source: my liquor cabinet.)
  • Percentage of Angostura bitters remaining in each bottle: 70% (Source: average of the three bottles uncovered in my liquor cabinet, and, no, you can’t have one.)

Factoring all this in, I come up with an Angostura National Reserve of 15.5 million untapped bottles hidden in cabinets and cupboards around the nation.

People of America: There is no need to panic.

What we are faced with is simply a matter of logistics, of moving supply to meet demand. An ambitious collection drive would do it,  modeled after the scrap metal drives of World War II, which effectively mitigated the steel shortage.

I urge bartenders in the major cities to set up collection bins at their places of employ, and encourage patrons to bring in their old Angostura bottles to help us get through this time of need. Those who participate would be rewarded with a nice Manhattan.

Buck up, drinker.

We can do it.


A very bitter book

What took so long?

With the resurrgence in cocktail bitters in the last few years, I figured that someone would eventually write a book on the topic. Yet none seemed forthcoming. Then this cropped up in the Publisher's Marketplace newsletter, which covers book deals:

Brad Thomas Parsons' BITTERS, the history and mystery of how this concentrated alcoholic infusion of aromatic plant roots, bark, herbs, spices, and fruit was first used as a tonic to remedy ills, but has since gone on to be an essential element in quality cocktails, along with more than 100 recipes for homemade bitters and classic and contemporary cocktails using them, to Aaron Wehner at Ten Speed Press, for publication in Fall 2011.

I've never met Brad, but I gather he's an editor at Amazon in Seattle, which is a good place to get well acquainted with cocktails, and I know Ten Speed Press puts out some beautiful books. Bitters has a rich and colorful history — any story that brings together Simón Bolivar, early cocktail history, gastrointestinal distress, and Trinidad offers a potential home run — and I hope Parsons hits it. I just wish we didn't have to wait two years to find out.