Today we define “cocktail” as just about any drink that contains alcohol. A very broad descriptor and not necessarily correct, at least in a classic sense.
Back when cocktails were first being written about, the early 1800s, the term was applied to drinks that contained a distilled spirit, water, sugar and bitters. There was usually an additional taste and that was citrus, and often, even today, the sugar is added in the form of a sweet spirit, maybe it was the base spirit, or maybe with a piece of fruit.
Yet, even in those early days, bitters were the “secret” ingredient. Just about everything else about a drink is well known and widely available. The alcohol was readily available and labeled. Citrus and fruits were as close as the nearest stand, cart or market. Bitters was where the drink’s creator stood his (in those days it was nearly always a “him”) ground, holding the true secret of the drink so it could not be replicated by just anyone.
Heaven forbid Tom, Dick or Harry comes along and does a drink as well as the bartender. If you think that attitude is silly, ask any chef to share the true recipes of their self-created specialties. Maybe yes, likely no.
And so the aromatic and flavor mysteries of a great cocktail were often wrapped up in the bitters. This was further proven by the fact that many early bartenders and saloon keepers made their own bitters, never revealing what exotic ingredients were present in the little bottles of magic elixir.
The definition of bitters, according to Imbibe Magazine, are “concentrated tinctures combining herbs, spices and botanicals, such as cardamom, aniseed and dried orange peel, their flavors typically (but not always) expressed in high-proof alcohol, with a bracing bitterness from gentian, quassia bark, dandelion or wormwood.”
What the heck? Did you know that Angostura and Peychaud’s, two of the world’s leading brands of bitters, contain alcohol? About 45%. No wonder we love them so much. And no wonder the medical profession of the 1700 and 1800’s used bitters to reduce headaches, settle the stomach, resolve body aches, and enliven a depressed mood. No wonder.
Bitters never cured anything but they made you feel better about having the condition.
These two brands of bitters are primarily made in the Caribbean and the Peychaud family is from New Orleans. On certain islands are the base ingredients of herbs, spices and flowers used in the manufacture of bitters. The precise recipes for these bitters are known to only a few.
The role of bitters in a drink is to excite you. Bitters are the equivalent of foreplay. They appeal to both olfactory and palate-feel. Carry that analogy as far as whatever makes you happy.
The use of bitters is always sparing. It does not take much to get the aromatics moving in a most delightful direction. And on the palate the herbs and floral characteristics offer you a layered effect, taking the limited dimensions of the other ingredients to new places. (Okay, it’s about time now for you to get that sexual reference in the last paragraph off your mind.)
There are two categories of bitters, aromatic and citrus. Aromatic bitters work on that important sense, putting your nose in the proper mood to appreciate what your mouth is about to experience. Citrus bitters fell out of favor for many years in the past century, but are now making a major comeback, with modern cocktail writers, like Gary Regan, creating their own brands and featuring the pleasures of oranges, limes, and lemons.
New to the aromatic group is Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters. Dale, a great friend of New Orleans and known throughout the (cocktail) world as King Cocktail, partnered with New Orleanian Ted Breaux, of Lucid Absinthe fame, to concoct this bitters at the historic Combier distillery in Saumur, France, in the Loire.
You ask, “why pimento?” Dale answers, “Locked in the heart of this single berry is the essence of cinnamon, ginger, clove, and nutmeg.” I would simply have answered “why not?” but Dale is a much nicer guy than I.
Bitters today are enjoying a renaissance, much like the entire category of cocktails, and they are an important part of what is going on behind the bar. There are even cocktail aficionados who collect the many small-batch bitters being marketed today. And many lovers of cocktails even create their own bitters.
To my way of thinking that’s having way too much time on your hands, but heck, I do enjoy a well-crafted cocktail with several drops of the right bitters, so maybe I should merely applaud, and quit being a smart-aleck.
Drops in Power
We need to do something. And it has to be everything in our power. The Saints are not looking good, and just as importantly, they are not making us feel good.
The free-fall has to end. Since darn few of us are willing to suit up, and I doubt if that would help in any way, we should do what we can to show the guys that the WhoDat Nation has not lost the faith.
One of the things you can do is to drink and eat things that are black and gold. You know, like we do at Carnival. A true New Orleanian is someone who thinks the colors of purple, green and gold look well together, and is willing to eat foods with those colors.
In this case, a true Saints fan knows how outstanding Black and Gold looks together, and we should be willing to drink something in those colors. Whiskey Blue in the W Hotel on Poydras (maybe on the way to the Dome Sunday?) has created The Saint.
In a rocks glass with ice:
1 ½ oz. Anejo Tequila
Slowly add 1 ¼ Black Sambuca
The two spirits will separate on their own. I don’t know how. Specific gravity, I guess. Ask your science teacher. You will have a drink that is Black & Gold. It’s going to make a difference the rest of the season.