Monday, February 23, 2009

(Bols +) Bitters Makes it Better, part III

...they really do (and frankly, always have) from the birth of the spirited drink called "cocktail" onward into the present day. This was the essential theme of a recent seminar; one of four being organized by the fantastic folks of Lucas Bols Genever in conjunction with Stephan Berg of The Bitter Truth. In its' pre-opening hours, Julie Reiner's beautiful Clover Club played host to several dozen of the NY/Metro area's finest spirits and cocktail professionals (so why they let me in I will never guess).

To give you some rough idea, cocktail authorities like Dale DeGroff & David Wondrich, Mud Puddle Book's Greg Boehm (with charming assistant Christina in-tow), USBG-NY President Jonathan Pogash and quality bartenders like Giuseppe Gonzalez, Jim Meehan, Joaquin Simo, Thomas Waugh, Alex Day & Don Lee rubbed shoulders and pressed palms with all manner of industry folks; including bloggers like fellow CSOWG member Erik Ellestad, Paul Zablocki, Chantal Martineau and little old me. They even invited the media!

Upon arrival, the attendees were met with a lovely spread of nibbles paired with a classic Brandy Cocktail, expertly-prepared by Brian Miller (whose presence rounded out the appearance of nearly all of Death & Co.'s barstaff) and the Clover Club staff. Throughout the event, both were hard at work; operating at an efficient, if understandably-frantic, pace from the establishment's rear bar. Bols representatives Debbie Rizzo and Tal Nadari were great sports, working the room with ease, welcoming each attendee (even me) with enthusiastic smiles and performing (in my case, much-appreciated) introductions all-around. After a bit of mingling and conversation, the presentation began, with Mr. Nadari taking the stage to introduce the topic: the influence of bitters in classic cocktails, and the eminently-qualified speaker, Stephan Berg...

The topic covered a great deal of fascinating history, beginning with a brief explanation of just what bitters are before delving into their early development and almost-universal use as cure-all's, medicines & tonics in the days where medical care was less than reliable. It turns out, thousands of regional types of bitters - often produced, as Mr. Berg stated, by 'local grannies' - abounded, with the better examples becoming gradually-popularized by apothecary shops. Amusingly, many of these establishments often purchased bitters unlabeled & then applied their own descriptors to. Such commercialized efforts, in conjunction with the 19th century spread of saloons, gave rise to proprietary brands. Names like Siegert's (what would become, following protracted litigation, Angostura), Hostetter's & Drake's Plantation bitters (among dozens, if not hundreds, of others) started becoming quite popular as a result.

As the presentation continued, it covered the growth (and eventual decline) of the saloon, and with it the advent of the cocktail - which relied on various kinds of bitters to give the spirited beverage distinction from other drinks of the period. Emphasis was placed on the work of Jerry Thomas, and the "Golden Age" of the cocktail which it ushered in. Throughout, David Wondrich graciously supplied additional tidbits of information to supliment Mr. Berg's lecture or confirm a point made by the same.
To...punctuate the discussion, every few slides or so, a fresh cocktail of classical origin would be skillfully-prepared & distributed to the audience. In total nine (!) libations were paradaded forth - a feat which made for quite a merry (if somewhat cluttered) bar. A few of the notables among these included selections culled from J. Thomas, Harry Johnson, William Boothby & William Schmidt, like these little beauties (from the last & first authors, respectivly):

While Gin was not the base for every cocktail served, several points arose in the presentation about many of the classic recipes one finds in the old guides & books. In many cases when "Gin" is specified, it is actually "Holland Gin" or the Genever style which is meant, rather than the more modernly-prefered Dry/London Dry styles. In fact, circa 1850 (right around the time of many of these recipes' creation), quantities of imported Genever gins outnumbered those of Dry styles almost 300 to 1! When sampling cocktails from such texts utilizing the later style, results (as they were for me in several cases) are disappointing, or at least a question of "what's so great about this"? However, when a Genever style is used in cocktail recipes of the era, you can really get a feel for the incredible genius many of the great bartenders of old clearly posessed.

On a similarly-spirited note, observe the presence of Curacao in so many of the earliest cocktails - always in very small quantities & paired with an aromatic bitters like Boker's. Yet this practice fades somewhat around the same time Orange bitters (such as the 1883 brand L. Jung & Wulff) began appearing in cocktail recipes. The reasoning for this is simple - prior to approximately 1880, there was no such thing as an Orange bitters to provide the citrus complexity which the combination of Curacao and aromatic bitters created!

Other points of considerable interest included the effects of the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906 and Prohibition on bitters (& the cocktails they were constituents of). To make a short story of it, both events were catastrophic for many of the varieties which so many recipes of the time utilized. Brands like Abbott's, Boker's (so often misspelled as "Bogart's") & Stoughton's were either driven out of business immediately by the 1906 Act or crippled by weak positioning, marketing or demand following Repeal.

In closing, Mr. Berg spoke briefly about the Bitter Truth line as well as some of the characteristics and components of bitters in general. He was quite gracious in answering questions, stating that the only information he would not disclose would be the recipes for any of his bitters. Fair enough. He did however, bring a number of tincture bottles (in addition to the full line of Bitter Truth products) filled with samples of various rare extracts & an actual sample of the long-defunct Boker's bitters! They were, quite frankly, delicious.

Similarly, when questions about TBT's (limited release) of Jerry Thomas' Decanter bitters arose, a sample of Virginia Snakeroot (which would have been included in the original c. 1862 product) extract - generously supplied by David Wondrich - was passed around for (cautious) inspection! This was accompanied by a sample of the different (non-toxic) strain of Snakeroot which TBT apparently substitutes into their own version of The Professor's housemade bitters...

All in all the event was a positively-fantastic experience, full of interesting facts and interesting discussions - all over classic (& delicious) drinks!

Cheers & Thanks... Stephan Berg for the terrific show, Debbie Rizzo & Tal Nadari, as well as the CSOWG for enabling me to attend. Likewise, many thanks to Erik and Paul for introducing me to so many new faces as well as to Brian Miller & the whole Clover Club gang for their spectacular work with all those drinks!

Other Folks' Reports:

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