What Are Bitters? [+ Contest!]

Fee Brothers Bitters

Depending on the circles you run in, bitters could mean several things.  If you watch enough British movies, you’ll run across the phrase “a pint of bitter.” While unfamiliar to us in the colonies, this just refers to a pale ale.

The second bitter you may have heard of would be a digestive bitter, an after-dinner liqueur that tastes more bitter than sweet, which would include Campari (my favorite), Aperol, Fernet Branca, and many more. These tend to be drunk straight, on ice, or mixed in a cocktail. You can buy them in full-size bottles and they’re similar in alcohol content to a port or vermouth.

The bitters that I will mention most on this blog, though, are cocktail bitters. Cocktail bitters add subtle flavoring and aroma to cocktails by adding just a dash or even a drop. These come in small bottles – usually 4-10 ounces – and some have very high alcohol content (like 45%), but as they can’t be drunk straight, you can find them at Target and other retailers, as well as grocery stores. They’re good for cooking as well. Brands of cocktail bitters include Angostura (the most popular), Fee Brothers, Bitter Truth, or Peychaud’s. Angostura is known for it’s oversized label:

The smell of cocktail bitters ranges from medicinal to herbal to fruity, depending on the brand and the flavor. Angostura is available in aromatic and orange versions, Fee Brothers and others make celery, grapefruit, aged whiskey, chocolate, and many other flavors of bitters. A traditional Martini recipe is gin, vermouth, and a dash of orange bitters. Manhattans cannot be made properly without aromatic bitters. The flavor of bitters are subtle, but you will likely notice when they’re not used in a drink.

Get a bottle of bitters. Use it in your cocktails, of course, but try it in soda or mineral water as well.  To get you started, I’ve got a bitters giveaway for two lucky readers.  One will win a bottle of Angostura Orange bitters and one will receive a bottle of Fee Bros. Aromatic bitters.  Here’s how you can win:

  • 1.  You must be a resident of the United States.
  • 2.  Follow @simpledrinks on Twitter.
  • 3.  Click here and “Like” Simple Cocktails on Facebook.
  • 4.  Comment below.  Tell me your favorite cocktail.
  • 5.  Winners will be chosen at random on August 1, 2012.  I’ll contact them shortly after they win to get their shipping address. The contest is now closed.

GOOD LUCK!

Absinthe

Absinthe service

Absinthe was illegal throughout most of the world for the past 100 years, including the United States, because it was rumored that its primary ingredient, Grande Wormwood, caused insanity.  This turned out not to be true, and since  2007 (when the ban was lifted), several brands have been introduced in the U.S., spearheaded by Lucid Absinthe Superieure.

While absinthe can be used in cocktails like the Sazerac or Death in the Afternoon, it is normally just taken with cold water, poured through and absinthe spoon with a sugar cube on it.  I personally love absinthe, certainly because of its sordid history, but also because I like the dry, herbal, anise (black licorice) flavor.  Recommended ratios are 1 oz absinthe to 3-5 oz of water, as mixing with water is essential because of the high alcohol content absinthe has, which is  usually 65-75% ABV (nearly double the ABV of vodka).  Without the water, your tongue will numb and you won’t be able to enjoy the flavor.

Together with Lucid, I tried 3 new types of absinthe from Viridian Spirits and Jade Liqueurs: C.F. Berger, Jade 1901, and Espirit Edouard, all of which are recreations of 100-year-old recipes.  These will be available in the U.S. in limited quantities for an MSRP of $110 per bottle, and are distilled in France, like Lucid.

Viridian Spirits Absinthes

Every one of these three limited edition absinthes is outstanding, and it is difficult to choose a favorite. Any one in particular did not stand out more than another, but the three of them are all excellent and flavorful, and any would be a worthy addition to any absinthe-lover’s collection.

Special thanks to KegWorks for the Absinthe Accessories Starter Kit used in this review.  Buy yours here.

Vodka Flavors Gone Wild

I will admit that I can have a snobby attitude about some vodkas, particularly the strange new flavored ones that have appeared in the stores recently, going way beyond fruit flavors to marshmallow or whipped cream vodkas! These flavored vodkas have begun to outsell nearly everything in the liquor stores, so it seems appropriate to at least give them a try.

van gogh pbj, three olives smores, three olives loopy vodkas

I tried three flavors of vodkas: Van Gogh PB&J (peanut butter and jelly), Three Olives S’mores, and Three Olives Loopy (Fruit Loops). Three Olives brand is about $20 a bottle retail, and Van Gogh is priced slightly higher. At first whiff, every single one of these smells exactly as the labels suggest they would. I made some simple cocktails with them, some recommended by the manufacturers. From left to right, these are pictured below:

S’mores Cocktail

  • 2 oz Three Olives S’mores Vodka
  • 1 oz half and half
  • 3 drops Fee Bros. Aztec Chocolate Bitters

PB&J Cocktail

  • 1 oz Van Gogh PB&J Vodka
  • 1 oz grape juice
  • grape garnish

BOC (“Breakfast or Champions” or “Bowl of Cereal”?)

  • 1 oz Three Olives Loopy Vodka
  • 2 oz milk

van gogh pbj, three olives smores, three olives loopy vodkas cocktails

This was an interesting experience, and the flavors were surprisingly accurate. Loopy in particular tasted so much like a boozy version of  it’s cereal brother, it was scary. I think that S’mores would be the most flexible permanent addition to a home bar as it could be used in White Russians and other cocktails featuring coffee or chocolate. The flavor of S’mores was also the most subtle of the three.

This is certainly one of those “you’ve got to try this” experiences, and the fact that these exist and sell well is a commentary on the state of modern alcohol consumption, though I’m not sure what to make of it or what to conclude.

All three of these vodkas had very interesting flavors and there’s room for creativity in how to use these flavors in cocktails, but I imagine these will mostly be consumed with a very simple mixer, like “PB&J and Soda,” or “S’mores and Coke,” or something like that.

Pink Pigeon Rum

pink pigeon rum

Let your mind wander toward Africa…..then go east a little bit to the island of Madagascar (home of the famous animated zoo animals), then think east again a few hundred miles to Mauritius. That’s where Pink Pigeon Rum comes from, named for the rare bird from that same island.

Local sugar cane and Madagascar vanilla beans are used to distill it, so the rum has a very pronounced vanilla scent and flavor. It’s somewhere between a white rum and a spiced rum as it’s not too mild or too spiced.

The bottle is pitch black with white and pink trim, so I was curious if the rum itself would be pink when I poured it. It’s not – it’s a light amber color, and when sipped straight, it’s got a good vanilla scent but doesn’t have the lingering sweetness I usually associate with rum. It has a strong, good bite at the finish.

I started working on ideas for a cocktail that would work with this special rum. The distiller says Pink Pigeon will work great in traditional rum drinks like daiquiris or mojitos, but I ended up creating an orange-and-cream cocktail instead:

pink pigeon rum creamsicle cocktail

Pink Pigeon Creamsicle (by Greg Mays)

  • 1 1/2 oz Pink Pigeon rum
  • 1 oz orange juice
  • 1 oz triple sec (orange liqueur)
  • 1/2 oz half-and-half
  • Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass.
  • Garnish with a 1/4 orange wheel.

Pink Pigeon is a great rum and makes some outstanding drinks. It’s about $35 a bottle and it has the flavor and smoothness of other spirits in that price range. It’s very tasty, not too sweet, and is a really unique.

Don Quixote Bourbon and Gin

“Clear alcohol is for rich women on diets.” ~Ron Swanson

Don Quixote Distillery in Los Alamos is one of only 3 distilleries in New Mexico right now (Santa Fe and KGB are the others).  Don Quixote makes 5 spirits, some ports, several wines, and even vanilla extract.

Don Quixote Bourbon

Don Quixote Blue Corn bourbon is “the world’s only bourbon made from New Mexico blue corn” and there’s no other way to say this: it’s outstanding.  I prefer gin most of the time and generally don’t like whiskey much, but this is by far the best bourbon I’ve ever had.  The sourness I usually dislike in whiskey (is it the “malt”?) isn’t there, and when you swallow, it’s cool and fresh tasting with very little alcohol burn.  This bourbon is smooth and sweet and I’m not going to use it in cocktails because it tastes too good on its own.  This will be perfect in a frozen glass with just an orange peel in it.

Don Quixote Spirit de Santa Fe Gin

Don Quixote Distillery also makes two types of gin, and I tried the Spirit de Santa Fe Gin, with “natural botancials; including juniper, pinion, chamisa, sage, and rose hips.”

This gin surprised me.  It’s extremely aromatic, and has a unique “desert” quality to the flavor, I think maybe the sage stands out the most.  The issue I had with this gin was the fact that the alcohol overpowers the initial flavor of it, only to be followed by a big aromatic, botanical finish.  This really prevents it from being good for sipping straight, as it’s just not smooth enough, so I tried it in some cocktails.

A Gin Old Fashioned is one of my favorite drinks, so I mixed the Spirit de Santa Fe Gin with simple syrup, aromatic and orange bitters, a splash of club soda, and an orange and cherry garnish.  This is a cocktail where the aromatics of the bitters and fruit tend to be the first thing that hits you, but not with this gin – that aromatic-desert-pungency remains the primary smell and flavor, just like when you drink the gin straight.

I finally got the idea to try this gin as a substitute for tequila in a margarita, and because of that aromatic-desert-pungency, that combination worked pretty well.

Don Quixote Blue Corn Bourbon is available for $30 at the Don Quixote Store online, or you can buy it at the distillery in Los Alamos.  The gin is sold in half or full bottles for $20 and $30 and it’s certainly something to try because of its unique flavor, though it may not be for everyone.

Don Quixote Distillery and Winery

Genever: “Dutch Courage”

boomsma genever

Genever (or jenever), pronounced “YUH-nee-vur,” has it’s roots in the Dutch word for juniper, as that’s the primary botanical in it, similar to gin. Genever is the most popular spirit in the Netherlands. There are a few brands of genever available in the U.S.: Bols and Boomsma, and American-made “genever-style” Genevieve, but only one is currently distributed to New Mexico, and that’s Boomsma.

There are two types of Boomsma Genever, jonge and oude, and they’re very different from each other. Wikipedia summarizes it great: “Jonge genever has a neutral taste, like vodka, with a slight aroma of juniper. Oude genever has a smoother, very aromatic taste with malty flavours. Oude genever is sometimes aged in wood; its malty, woody and smoky flavours lend a resemblance to whiskey.”

I made the mistake of expecting genever to be like gin when I first opened the bottles. Like it says, there is a light aroma of juniper to the jonge genever, which I smelled when I first opened the bottle, but that was it. After tasting the jonge genever, it was very much like vodka, with a very faint hint of herbs. The oude tasted a lot like American whiskey, which was frankly pretty alarming for me as I’m normally not a fan of American whiskeys.

boomsma genever

Once I got over the fact that I was not dealing with gin (it took me 2 days), I made a Holland Martini with the jonge genever. It was really good, and unique enough that I’d recommend it as a herbal alternative to a vodka martini:

  • 2 oz jonge genever
  • 1/2 oz dry vermouth
  • olive garnish
  • stir, strain into a cocktail glass

I also found a recipe to use the oude genever in the Holland Razor Blade:

  • 2 oz oude genever
  • ¾ oz lemon juice
  • ¾ oz simple syrup
  • shake, strain into a cocktail glass
  • sprinkle a pinch of cayenne pepper over the top
holland razor blade cocktail

Surprisingly, the Holland Razor Blade was good and very easy to drink.  I didn’t like the taste of oude genever straight, but it worked really well in a cocktail, just like the jonge.

I would ultimately describe genever as a botanical/interesting alternative to vodka and whiskey, but not much of a gin alternative. As a bartender, genever is a great tool for some variety in your cocktails. As a gin lover, the jonge will give you an occasional alternate flavor to London Dry, but will not ultimately replace your Tanqueray.

Boomsma Oude and Jonge can both be found in Albuquerque at Jubilation Wine & Spirits.

Thrift Shop Book Score!

thrift shop cocktail books

I got some great cocktail books at the thrift shops today:

What, When, Where, and How to Drink (1955) by Richard L. Williams and David Myers for 25¢ (Amazon).

Old Mr. Boston De Luxe Official Bartender’s Guide by Mr. Boston for 25¢ (Amazon).

Tennessee Legend with a Pictorial of Old Bottles and Jugs by Jack Daniel’s Distillery for $1.99 (Amazon).

The Complete Bartender by Robyn M. Feller for $3.99 (newer edition from Amazon).

…and the score of the day: Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide (1972) by Trader Vic Bergeron for a whopping $3.49! half.com and Amazon are selling it for $30-300.

Don’t forget to look at thrift shops for your old-timey books and glassware.

Santa Fe Spirits Distillery Tour

santa fe spirits sign

I had the pleasure of taking the VIP tour at Santa Fe Spirits in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Santa Fe Spirits distills unaged Silver Coyote Whiskey, Expedition Vodka, and SF Spirits Apple Brandy.  They have been in business since Spring of 2011 and plans are in currently the works for gin and single malt whiskey, too.  On the day I went, I had the pleasure of meeting everyone: the owner Colin, their distiller Nick, and their all-around good guy Sean.

santa fe spirits distillery

Sean served as my tour guide and showed me the distilling equipment and warehouse.  Everything is distilled at least twice, with the vodka going through 6 cycles of distillation.  Malt is the basis for their whiskey and corn is the basis for their vodka and both are distilled very traditionally.

The first batch of Apple Brandy is sold out there at the distillery (though you may still be able to pick up a bottle at a New Mexico Trader Joe’s) and they were in the midst of aging batch #2.  It’s made in the traditional calvados style and the genesis of it was in Colin’s backyard apple orchard.

santa fe spirits tasting room

I did, however, have the opportunity to try Silver Coyote Whiskey and Expedition Vodka (both are great).  Sean is very knowledgable and between him and SF Spirits’ distiller Nick, I had all the information I could want.  Nick told me about their future plans for distilling gin and gave me tastes of some botanicals for that, too.

It’s important to note that their Silver Coyote Whiskey is unaged, which means it’s a clear whiskey, and very unique.  It tastes like whiskey for sure, but as Sean described it, a whiskey drinker may or may not like it, and folks who usually like clear spirits tend to like it quite a bit.  I agree as it’s the best whiskey I’ve had yet, and I’m a gin lover.

Sean also served me a bit of their barrel-aged Manhattan, which they can serve you when you go to Santa Fe Spirits for cocktails.  Bitters, sweet vermouth, and Silver Coyote in a little mini-barrel makes an outstanding cocktail and I made myself one at home, too, to make sure I was right about how good it was.

All in all, it’s a treat to visit SF Spirits, and the team there is stellar at what they do. I have found their whiskey and brandy at Trader Joe’s in Albuquerque and you can search nearby places to buy their products by clicking here.

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