Much to the chagrin of our parents, Will and I have also come to love classic cocktails. OK, so maybe we loved them a bit too well in our early 20s, but I like to think that early enthusiasm has developed into a healthy connoisseurship. But aside from the usual bitters examples - Jagermeister, Fernet Branca, Angostura - I was completely unaware of the history and importance of bitters. Before and during prohibition, dozens of varieties were available in the U.S., but once the drinking ban was lifted, most bitters companies turned to the more profitable business of distilling whiskey and gin.
In addition to being a necessary element in classic drinks like the Manhattan, the Champagne Cocktail, and the Old Fashioned, bitters add an unidentifiable pep to almost any cocktail. They also function as both an aperitif and a digestive and, mixed with ginger ale or soda water, work wonders to settle an upset stomach.
Though less common today, a number of traditional recipes still exist, a fact that recently drove me to Tenzing Momo, an online apothecary and tarot card dispensary based in Seattle, WA. From them I purchased gentian, wild cherry bark, quassia, and cassia. I'm still not sure what most of these ingredients are, but I'm fairly certain that I purchased them legally. I plan to concoct a traditional aromatic bitters, and a less traditional cherry vanilla bitters developed by Jeff Hollinger here in San Francisco. Bitters can be created using any number of high proof alcohols, but both my recipes call for 100 proof rye whiskey.
The concoctions will take several weeks to brew, so this will be the first of three entries on the subject. In the meantime, I'll be posting additional notes on rye whiskeys and cocktails.
7/8/07 Update: Will recently located another online source for herbs. They carry all of the ingredients I needed for my bitters recipes and many other interesting items - including wormwood (is there absinthe in my future?)! Best of all, their products are organic, wild harvested, or grown without chemicals. This will be my future source for herbal ingredients. The company is called Mountain Rose Herbs and you can find them online here.