Man. Every time I think humankind has created every form of cocktail bitters imaginable, someone goes and proves me wrong. New bitters brands just keep coming, some with unusual flavors and others with delicious variations on classic styles. I’m working my way through the growing cornucopia of cocktail bitters, sampling the wares of upstart bitterers to let you know which bottles are worth buying.
The offerings I’ve reviewed here demonstrate the creativity of today’s producers of bitters. From your traditional cherry and orange bitters to more esoteric styles such as hop and fig, here are several bottles to seek out (and a couple that are skippable).
I seem to have forgotten to mention it here, but Carrie Allen of the Washington Post called me up recently to discuss the past, present, and future of shrubs. We talked a bit about the book (she enjoys it! neener neener, she’s seen it and you haven’t!) and discussed why shrubs are good to drink, either as a non-boozy treat or as a boozy one.
The conversation was fun, and her piece, which ran last week, captures my voice well, so I’m really delighted with it. Check it out here!
My posting frequency at SE has slipped to about twice a month these days, because BUSY. Anyway, here’s my latest.
We who love rum are very lucky people. It’s a category of spirits that offers many wonderful values—bottles that taste like they should cost way more than they actually do. You can very easily find great rums, both white and dark, under $20, and today, I’ll introduce you to a few of my favorites.
The dudes at Hella Bitter have been busy dudes. They’ve designed a cool looking kit that you–yes, YOU–can use for the purpose of making bitters at home. In this kit, you’d find two infusion blends–a citrus spice blend and an aromatic blend–plus infusion jars, dropper bottles, a funnel, and a mesh strainer.
This might not be the thing for diehard bitterheads; most of you probably already make your own shit already anyway. But it would be a great gift for someone just getting into cocktails, or if you yourself are just getting into cocktails, it would be a great self-gift to give yourself for being such an awesome self.
One I’m particularly happy with…
If you’re considering writing a cocktail book, you’ve probably already started doing some research about how the process usually works. You probably already know, for example, that you should start by writing a book proposal. You then take the proposal to an agent (or two or three or ten) and shop it around. The agent, if he or she loves your proposal, will take it to a publisher (or three or ten) and negotiate your advance and residuals and so on. You’ll sign a contract, and then, at some point in this crazy process, you’ll have to sit down and actually write the thing. You’ll get a little money and eventually, you’ll see your book listed at Amazon and Powell’s.
That’s how it goes, say the experts. But let me tell you a funny story….
Incidentally, I have a LOT more to say about this entire process to date, so expect to see more, either here or at SE.
If you ever visit the Wild Turkey distillery, do yourself a favor and arrive from the east. As you approach the distillery, U.S. Route 62 descends a hill through lush green woods, passes over a quarry on the banks of the Kentucky River, and takes a sharp left before riding the Blackburn Bridge over the river. As you approach the bridge, you can see buildings on a ridge in the near distance. These are warehouses and distillery buildings at Wild Turkey. Just beyond the highway bridge stands the remains of a railroad bridge, 283 feet above the river. The rail bridge is now out of service, but it formerly carried freight and passengers on what became the Norfolk Southern Railway, connecting all the Southern states. Passenger traffic ended in the 1930s, and freight stopped traversing the bridge about 50 years later, but for a time, the bridge carried grain into the Wild Turkey plant and finished bourbon back out.
I visited a couple of weeks ago. The purpose was twofold. Wild Turkey is opening a beautiful new visitors’ center, with stunning views of the river and its bluffs. The center itself is made of wood and glass, as you’d probably expect from a bourbon distillery. I failed to get a good exterior shot of the building, but it’s described as a cathedral to bourbon, and as you view the soaring ceilings, you’d probably agree.
In the tasting room is a large copper still that spans both floors of the visitors center, pulled out of production when the old distillery was torn down.
As impressive as all that is, though, the other reason for the visit is even better. 2014 marks master distiller Jimmy Russell’s 60th year at Wild Turkey. Can you imagine spending 60 years in one place? Jimmy can, and even after 60, he has no plans to retire.
Our visit ended with a cocktail reception, to launch the visitors center and pay homage to Jimmy. Among the VIPs were Kentucky governor Steve Beshear and brand reps and master distillers from other bourbon plants, including Four Roses, Heaven Hill, and Woodford. The bourbon industry is pretty tight, and less personally competitive than you’d expect, so a guy like Jimmy has fans at rival distilleries. Jimmy’s family were there. His son Eddie is his right hand at Wild Turkey, even though Eddie only has 33 years tenure there and is still a relative novice compared to Dad. Jimmy’s other offspring were there, along with his grandkids and a few great-grandkids.
I felt honored being among his family and friends on such a great occasion. I’ve always loved Wild Turkey 101; it might be my favorite American whiskey. Being there for this celebration was a real treat.
We took a lengthy tour of the distillery. Those notes and photos will follow in another post.
BARTENDERS, listen up.
This year’s Global Peter F Heering Sling Award is ramping up. The contest starts April 22, and here are the details…
First, start with the Singapore Sling. You know the one: gin, Cherry Heering, lemon juice, a hint of sugar, and a splash of soda. Doctor it up, and make your own interpretation of it. The drink must include Cherry Heering – no homemade syrups or other infusions are allowed.
Name the drink and take its picture. For a gold star, include the Heering bottle in the picture.
Starting April 22, you’ll be able to enter the drink at Heering.com, or on the company’s Facebook page. Registration ends May 25. One winner per country will be announced in early June. The quarter-finals will take place on Facebook, where the public will vote for their favorites. Then a jury will select 15 semi-finalists, who will receive a tablet computer.
The semi-finals will take place in London in mid-August. Five finalists will then move on to Berlin in early October. All finalists will receive a trip to Berlin for the finals. The winner gets 500 euros, a fancy cocktail shaker, and the adulation of the masses.
Help Kickstart a cool project out of Atlanta, Georgia. Missy and Kristin Koefod are trying to launch a company to sell bitters, shrubs, syrups, tinctures, tonics, and other cocktail mixers, and they need your help. With 4 days to go, they’re at $5,770 pledged toward their $7,500 goal. Please help them get over the top!
A few highlights and personal notes from my press trip to Mexico to see Olmeca Altos tequila being distilled.
Monday, March 24:
Got up at 5:30am to meet a car outside the apartment at 6:15 to head to LaGuardia. After getting through security, I grabbed breakfast and settled in to wait for boarding. After I ate, I checked in with Jen. She told me the boy missed me, so I talked to him via FaceTime. It was my first trip away from the kids, so it was hard.
Landed at Houston Intercontinental. Named for a painter who was a third-rate despot, or maybe for his father. Not sure. Had a long layover here, so I wound up at Third Bar, in Terminal B. Decent fried-oyster po-boy. Microbrew from some local place, pretty good. Outlets underneath the bar for recharging phones and laptops? Brilliant. Good work, Third Bar. Have no idea when I’ll ever fly through Houston again, but I’ll look you up. I got yer digits.
Guadalajara. Flew in over mountains, lush valleys, massive lakes. Could tell just from the air that it was going to be a geographically stunning place. The airport is Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla International Airport, named for a leader of the Mexican War for Independence. Seems they know how to name an airport. We had an airport named for a leader of the American War for Independence. We renamed it for an actor who was a third-rate despot. So much for patriotism.
Nicely modern airport, more so than, ohhhhhhhhhh, LaGuardia. Customs and Immigration was smooth, quick, and friendly. Swapped dollars for pesos, grabbed my luggage, and met my group. We took a van ride to Arandas, home to the Pernod facility that makes Olmec Altos tequila, checked into the hotel, got cleaned up, had a couple of drinks, and went to dinner.
Tuesday, March 25:
Breakfast, and then van ride to distillery. I had seen something in a very early email from the trip organizers, mentioning something about a quad-bike trip to the agave fields. I assumed we’d bike a short distance to a nearby field. Nope. We took a two-hour scenic trip through Jalisco, across paved roads, gravel, cobblestone, dirt, dust, and mud. At one point, the convoy slowed because two guys up front nearly hit a cow who crossed the road. Dogs, most of them friendly, chased us a few times. We biked past a couple of fires burning in the brush right alongside the road. I took a turn without enough caution and nearly crashed into a tree. The worst, though, was near the end, when the wind kicked up hard enough to drive white dust into our eyes, blinding us even though we all wore safety goggles.
Lunch in the agave fields: tacos, grilled meats and cactus, chicarones, enchiladas. And Palomas, lots of Palomas. All done up in the Mexican way. In America, you ask for a Paloma and you get tequila, grapefruit juice (squeezed in front of you!), lime, sugar, a hint of salt, club soda. In Mexico, they use Squirt, tequila, a splash of lime, and pinch of salt. I like that version better, and not just because grapefruit fucks up my statins.
Back to distillery, and then to hotel for a long shower to scrub off the road dust. Then dinner. Place is called Taqueria Don Chepe. Inside two garage bays, nondescript, full of local families sharing platters of food. Amazing tacos, just stunning.
Wednesday, March 26:
Distillery tour. I’ve already written it up here. Lunch out, and then depart Arandas to return to Guadalajara. Long afternoon of resting, and then dinner and drinks.
Thursday, March 27:
Walking tour of Tlaquepaque, with a chill, charming open-air shopping plaza full of antique stores, boutiques, and galleries. The area is known for pottery and blown glass, but I got Jen a beautiful silver necklace, and for Mirabelle I bought a lovely hand-sewn shirt and skirt. (Julian got a toy-airplane set from the airport.)
We also toured a farmer’s market inside an old parking garage, where Altos’s brand ambassador, Daniel Warrilow, bought produce for a cocktail seminar later that afternoon. We left Tlaquepaque and went to a separate hotel, where the organizers had rented out the pool bar for the afternoon, so we could learn to make cocktails. I’ll have more on those cocktails in a later post.
Our last dinner in Mexico was at a place called i Latina Restaurante, serving Thai-Mexican fusion. Good lord. I mean, you might think that fusion is played out, and I might think that fusion is played out, but there’s nothing about i Latina that’s played out. The food was phenomenal, possibly the best of the trip. I had a Tuna and Scallop Tartare that was just amazing. On a very meat-heavy trip, to have such delicate seafood was a treat.
Friday, March 28:
I’ll have a longer post up later, with some personal reflections on what was a very delightful trip. But for now, highlights from my trip to Mexico are up at Serious Eats.
Please read it and click through the slideshow!
Note from the Author: On a recent press trip hosted by Olmeca Altos Tequila, I toured the Destileria Colonial de Jalisco to see firsthand how tequila is made.
The Los Altos highlands of Jalisco are known for their iron-rich red soil and high altitude: we’re talking about 7,000 feet above sea level. (Take that, Mile High City!) This is where Olmeca Altos tequila is produced, in Arandas, about two hours east of Guadalajara. The distillery, Destileria Colonial de Jalisco, is fairly modern, having opened in 1997 to handle production of Patron, which, thanks to a business dispute, was only briefly produced at this plant.