"Bitter" Late Than Never
Join world-renowned author and mixologist Gary Regan as he tracks down the best "bitter" serves in the world.
Ted Haigh, aka Dr. Cocktail, author of Vintage Spirits and Cocktails, once told me that when bartenders first started adding bitters to mixed drinks, it was like adding Pepto-Bismol, or some other over-the-counter stomach remedy, to a cocktail.
To explain Dr. Cocktail’s analogy, the first bitters ever created were made for use in medicine, not as flavor enhancers for the drinking class.
But as we move forward in the 21st Century we find ourselves asking the question—who was the first bright spark that dashed a few drops into a cocktail?
I sure as heck would like to know.
Bring it On
Bartenders all over the world seem to be vying for the title of "Mad Scientist behind the Bar" when it comes to using ingredients that might make our forbearers balk.
In recent years I’ve seen drink recipes that called for Vegemite (the Australian yeast-based spread with a bold beef-broth flavor), squid ink, marshmallows, cotton candy and truffle oil to name but a few. There are also lots of drinks made with spirits that have been infused with bacon, herbs, peanut butter and even leather.
What’s my personal take on this sort of thing? Bring it on, I say. Bring it on.
Let’s face it, not all of your outlandish drinks will work but that’s just the way of the world. After all we never know what’s going to work unless we give it a try, right?
The "Bitter" Truth
Let’s take a look at some of the drinks that do work, despite their weird and wonderful recipes. Not many of these are strange enough to turn heads, it’s true, but they are innovative cocktails being served at fabulous bars all over the world.
When American bartender Payman Bahmani was working at the Library Bar in Cyprus last year, he came up with a new way to make a Dirty Vodka Martini Cocktail that wasn’t as in-your-face as the regular versions.
How did he do this?
He fat-washed his Vodka with extra-virgin olive oil. Payman was worried the delicate olive oil flavor wouldn't come through but it did. He went on to add a little salt and some Spanish Sherry to his Not So Dirty Martini Cocktail, resulting in a very fine drink, indeed.
*Olive Oil infused Vodka
- 8.5 oz. Vodka
- 2 oz. extra-virgin olive oi
Combine olive oil and vodka in a jar and cover.
Allow to infuse for five hours at room temperature, then freeze for another two hours.
Remove frozen fat that has risen to the top and fine strain through a coffee filter to capture any residual olive oil.
Not So Dirty Martini Cocktail
- 2.25 oz. olive-oil-infused Vodka
- .75 oz. Amontillado Sherry
- Large pinch sea salt
Stir over ice and strain into a chilled coupe.
In the UK, there are two mixologists using unusual ingredients that I’d like to call out. The first is Michael Stringer, who works with Black Leaf Events. He likes to add some Guinness West Indies Porter to a drink that he calls The West Indies Pearter.
And we all know, Porter isn’t an easy product to incorporate into a fashionable cocktail.
However, Michael shows us how to nail it and his ingredients come together in harmony—they’re loud enough to drown out the whole orchestra!
West Indies Pearter
- .75 oz. BULLEIT ’95 Rye Frontier Whiskey
- 1.75 oz. GUINNESS West Indies Porter
- .25 oz. Monin cinnamon syrup
- .25 oz. fresh lemon juice
- 1 tsp. Pear Cognac/Liqueur
- 2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
- 1 pear slice
- 1 cinnamon stick
Build all the ingredients except the GUINNESS in a handled, ½-pint glass over cubed ice and stir briefly.
Float the GUINNESS on top of the drink and add the garnishes.
The other top-mixologist in the UK who likes to surprise us over and over again is none other than Salvatore Calabrese, straight from the Salvatore bar.
Known by millions as "The Maestro", Salvatore never stops thinking of new ways to approach the craft of the bartender.
What did he do this time?
He invented a new style of Negroni cocktail. To put his own stamp on the drink, he made espresso using Sweet Vermouth instead of water and with the resultant coffee-flavored Vermouth he made the drink he dubbed "Negroni Svegliato" (a“woken-up” Negroni).
I know of nobody else on earth that could have come up with this!
Rum and Tequila
It’s only recently that I’ve noticed salt being used in cocktails and mixed drinks. Both Jay Khan, who works at The Blck Brd in Hong Kong S.A.R. China, and Eric Giger, from The Neighborhood bar in San Diego, dissolve their salt in water before using it as an ingredient and they swear that this raises the bar, as it were.
They say the saline helps to suppress some of the bitter flavors and also helps brighten the drink slightly. And Eric whose signature Jalisco Stroll cocktail is a simple mix of Tequila, Dry Vermouth, Herbal Liqueur and saline solution; he says that, “the salt in the cocktail mellows the bitterness of the Herbal Liqueur and enhances the sweet notes of the Tequila, bringing a nice balance between bitter and sweet.”
Me? I’ll probably stick to the basics when it comes to cocktail development but I’ll be standing on the sidelines cheering all the bartenders who are brave enough to experiment with the unknown when it comes to cocktails.
But you might be braver than I, and if that’s the case, my advice is “Go to it!”
Gaz Regan can be found behind the bar at the Dead Rabbit from time to time. To keep up-to-date with him, check out his social media pages @gazregan and Gary Regan on Facebook.
(*One standard drink contains 0.6 fluid ounces of alcohol)
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