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Bitter

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1217687514/gallery_29805_1195_5301.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">by Chris Amirault

Last month, my wife and I devoted three days in Hua Hin, a town on the eastern coast of Thailand, to walking the beach, exploring the rambling markets, and hiking up hills to beachfront temples. Unfortunately, the tropical flavor of those days had a bitter edge: fearing fraud, our banks froze our accounts when we tried to withdraw money at the Bangkok airport. After two weekend days arguing with automated phone systems, we finally reached a human who permitted us to withdraw funds.

Relieved, even chuffed, we headed into town for a celebratory drink. Since much of Hua Hin had quieted down, we headed for the expat bar strip, a two-block stretch frequented by westerners seeking something other than pad thai and wave-lapped sands. Though prostitution is illegal, Thai bars serve as de facto brothels, and farangs pay to drink pricey libations with the house girls or ladyboys then pay more for off-site leisure activities.

Seeking other sorts of leisure, we chose the emptiest bar and sat down at a table just off the street. Across the way, two girls that looked just a couple years older than our tween daughter sat, enervated and bored, eyeing the sporadic low-season traffic, while three ruddy South Africans cheered on a besotted chum tormenting a bicycle taxi driver.

I grabbed my wife's hand, trying to squeeze out a smile. "Time for a drink?" I asked.

"I'm fine," she said. Watching Hua Hin's quasi-covert sex industry from the sidelines was okay with her, but she had no desire to lubricate it.

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Harry Craddock, legendary bartender and author of The Savoy Cocktail Book, famously declared the one and proper way to drink a cocktail: "quickly, while it's still laughing at you." Usually, I think he's damned right. Having found my way to cocktails after years of enjoying scotch neat with a wee dram of water, I know the difference between nursing a tasty room temperature drink for a good long while, and watching a crisp, cold one go downhill as it warms in a beading glass.

Of course, sometimes Craddock's assumption is wrong. Sometimes cocktails don't laugh. Sometimes they scowl.

Craddock, no doubt, prepared his share of scowling cocktails. Indeed, in one night, he may well have prepared several rounds of cocktails that scowled more fiercely than any others in the 20th century. As the webtender wiki documents, in 1927 the Marion Star told a brief, poignant tale about when Harry met Prohibition:

<blockQUOTE>The last legal cocktail in America is reputed to have been mixed at the old Holland House on Fifth Avenue by a Harry Craddock. Word drifts back from London that Craddock is now frosting the shakers at the Savoy. He took a boat the next morning pouting and has never returned.</blockQUOTE>In Imbibe!, his book on Jerry Thomas, Craddock's 19th century forebear, cocktail historian Dave Wondrich ends his introduction by celebrating the craft in which one makes "a few cents worth of whiskey, sugar, and frozen water into a glimpse of a better world." Perhaps it's old fashioned to speculate that, with a few dashes of Angostura thrown in, that whiskey, sugar, and frozen water gave Craddock a glimpse of a bitter world.

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Most discussions of bitters focus both on Angostura bitters, the familiar potion that any self-respecting bar in the world surely must have, and on Peychuad's bitters, the peculiar red concoction from that peculiar red city, New Orleans, that is reputed by some to be the critical element in the first cocktail, the Sazerac. Like all drinking (hi)stories, this claim is dubious: most cocktail historians such as Dale DeGroff place the first cocktail far earlier, more than two decades before Antoine Amedee Peychaud hung a shingle and started selling his health tonics.

However, all agree that watered, sugared hooch with a bit of bitters is the trunk from which the cocktail tree grows. In 1806, Harry Crosswell, editor and writer of the Hudson NY Balance and Columbian Repository, wrote what Wondrich calls a "snarky little item" referencing 25 glasses containing "cock-tail." Responding to a letter asking what the heck that meant, Crosswell explains:

<blockQUOTE>Cock-tail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters -- it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head.</blockQUOTE>Rendering heart stout and head fuddled, bitters are the smoldering doyennes of the cocktail world. They're more nuanced and sophisticated than you realize (and, frankly, than you are), they're made of mysterious ingredients (including a few poisons), and they're a hell of a lot tastier than those sweet things you're eyeing at the end of the stick. However, save for Gary Regan, most authors of recent cocktail books treat bitters the way Benjamin treated Mrs. Robinson, so potent and complicating that the entire affair just needs to be kept mum. Listen to Regan's exulting description of bitters, in the key "Foundations of the Bar" chapter from his Joy of Mixology:

<blockQUOTE>Of all the items in this chapter, bitters are the most important . . . Two drops of bitters added to a Lemon Drop cocktail will drastically alter the drink, giving it an added dimension. Most customers won't even know there are bitters in the drink, but most will be able to discern that this cocktail stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of Lemon Drops.</blockQUOTE>If, like me, you read "Katharine Ross" for "Lemon Drop" and "Anne Bancroft" for "Lemon Drop with a few drops of bitters," then you've graduated.

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A few drops of bitters can both enliven and balance an otherwise pallid libation. Half an ounce or more of bitters is another thing entirely. 19th-century Italians seem in particular to have mastered the craft of producing tipples of hair-raising bitterness. Fernet Branca, a synethesthetic beverage that tastes astoundingly brown, is often credited with cultivating post-prandial digestive calm; I'm convinced the effect is created by the erasure of every other flavor in your mouth.

Other effects are less physical and more emotional. I've often wondered if Craddock tossed back a warm Negroni before clutching his coat below his chin and boarding the boat to Britain. It's unlikely, though, since Craddock left for London at least a decade or two before the Negroni, made with equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Italian bitters, appeared in print. You've got to love the story, though: Count Negroni ambles into a bar in Florence, orders an Americano with no soda and extra gin, and gets the keeper to toss an orange twist for good measure, the citrus oil spilled across a bitter sea of booze. For existential clarity, you need order nothing else.

Both the Negroni and the Americano depend on one Italian bitters in particular, the dense, 60-ingredient apertif invented by Gaspare Campari that bears his name. Campari does not create what the cocktail press calls a "gateway drink," save for a few notable exceptions like the Jasmine, Paul Harrington's grapefruity concoction of gin, Cointreau, Campari, and lemon juice. Indeed, if more than a drop gets near a drink, most people just think the result tastes appalling. The fact that the classic formula obtains its characteristic hue from the female cochineal, an insect that resembles a wax-covered tick, well, that doesn't help either.

But when a brutally bitter drink is just what you need, Campari is a scowling Virgil to your weary Dante.

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I walked back to the bar and began the process of getting the drink I needed. Pointing, I walked the bartender through each step: equal parts Gordon's gin, Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth ("Please open that new bottle, if you don't mind"), Campari, stir with ice, and strain into a glass with more fresh ice.

As I sat down, my wife nodded toward my drink, hoping with her eyes that I'd quaff it quickly. Behind us, two Brits discussed which Bangkok clubs allowed blow jobs right at the bar, obviating the need for departure fees. Across the way, the taxi driver struggled to pedal the lurching South African down the street. If there was potential for joy in Hua Hin that night, it wasn't for us.

Some drinks can indeed fuddle the head, but others can chart a course through moments of unbearable understanding, if only one knows to order them. I grabbed my camera and took two quick snaps, seeking to capture the Campari red of my Negroni against the red of our table's plastic rose. Then I threw back the drink, and, the bitter crimson tonic filling my mouth, walked with my wife out into the velvet air.

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Those hellbent on drinking the darkest, bitterest concoctions will enjoy this hybrid of the Trident and the Negroni. It uses Danish caraway-speckled Aalborg aquavit and the Italian apertif Cynar, which contains among its dozens of ingredients our favorite prickly thistle, the artichoke. If Trent Reznor lacks a favorite cocktail, someone should pass this along.

Black Trident

1 oz Campari

1 oz aquavit (Aalborg)

1 oz Cynar

Stir with cracked ice and strain into a chilled glass. If you insist on a glimmer of hope, twist an orange peel over the top, rub it on the rim, and drop it in.

More balanced and less bleak tipplers seeking a layered bitters drink may enjoy this one based on the Toronto Cocktail:

Corktown Cocktail

2 oz rye (Rittenhouse 100, if you've got it)

1/4 oz Cointreau

1/4 oz Fernet Branca

1/4 2:1 demerara syrup

dash orange bitters (Regan's No. 6 is good here)

dash Angostura bitters

Stir and strain -- and since you're capitulating with the Cointreau, you certainly should twist, rim, and drop an orange peel.

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Chris Amirault (aka, well, chrisamirault) is Director of Operations, eG Forums. He also runs a preschool and teaches in Providence, RI.

Photo by the author.

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The nervous Benjamin, prepared for adultery by carrying his toothbrush in a paper bag, and the worldly, confident Mrs. R. sit for a moment in the hotel bar. He lifts a meek finger toward a passing waiter, who ignores him.

She speaks firmly, “Waiter, Eye will have a martini.”

With all this bitterness and the Mrs. R. connections---a Manhattan would have completed the orbit of that particular metaphor, but the film-makers missed their chance.

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Indeed... Campari and the other bitters of the world are so... cinematic. They're like classic Italian cinema... they're good... if they're to your taste and you're in the mood for them. They're out of the ordinary, they're somewhat serious, they're complex... and the average American would run away from them muttering about crazy foreigners.


Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

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Listen to Regan's exulting description of bitters, in the key "Foundations of the Bar" chapter from his Joy of Mixology:

<blockQUOTE>Of all the items in this chapter, bitters are the most important . . . Two drops of bitters added to a Lemon Drop cocktail will drastically alter the drink, giving it an added dimension. Most customers won't even know there are bitters in the drink, but most will be able to discern that this cocktail stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of Lemon Drops.</blockQUOTE>If, like me, you read "Katharine Ross" for "Lemon Drop" and "Anne Bancroft" for "Lemon Drop with a few drops of bitters," then you've graduated.

Along the same lines, a bitter whiff of juniper can give the simple Cosmo enough depth to make it interesting:

1-1/2 oz gin

1 oz triple sec

1/2 oz lime juice

1 or 2 dashes cranberry juice

Dash orange bitters

I hereby propose this, which I think we should call the Anne Bancroft, for your Real-World Cocktail Menu.


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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racheld and cdh: great points about cinema and bitters. Surely la dolce vita requires Campari....

Dave, what a rotten time to run out of cranberry juice. And I think that the Anne Bancroft is a much better name than the Kramer.


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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As mentioned here, bitters fans will want to try the Goodnight, Chris, a creation of Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli of Eastern Standard in Boston, an "equal parts" drink if you don't count the orange bitters.

1 oz rye (Tom uses Thomas Handy; I settle for Rittenhouse BIB)

1 oz yellow Chartreuse (he breaks out the VEP; I just use some older stuff)

1 oz Fernet Branca

dash orange bitters (he's got Angostura; I dash in a half-Regan, half-Fee's mix)

Stir and serve over ice with an orange twist.

If I could have a drink named after me (this wasn't at all), this'd do splendidly. It scowls less as the ice melts.


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Cinematic Bitters:

Fellini's incomparable film, Nights of Cabiria.

Cabiria's Oscar scopes her out at the vaudeville show, waits for her to exit, and then asks her to have a drink.

Fernet Branca.

And Oscar turns out to be a very bitter drink, indeed.

Genius.


I like to bake nice things. And then I eat them. Then I can bake some more.

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For some reason I hadn't seen this before today and it provoked a strong memory when my wife and I and 3 year old were in Rio for Carnival in 1967 (courtesy of the US Army and NJ Air National Guard) and hyper-super-inflation caused all the banks to shut. No money and in those days no ATM's.

Back to food: I had prepaid for our hotel and the last morning of our stay I rose to go running and found our breakfast on front of the door, the hotel completely shuttered - with a sign outside saying they went broke, would the last person close the front door (the electricity was already cut).

Carnival was fun though and the beef extraordinary.


John Talbott

blog John Talbott's Paris

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