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Two friends with a shared love for Classic Cocktails, paying homage to the pre-prohibition era. We do parties!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Life is Better with Bitters

These words were spoken to me by a kind stranger while standing in line at a New Seasons Market in Portland; unlike here at home, a broad selection of Fee's and Angostura Bitters are available in grocery stores. I was picking up a bottle of Fee's Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters when the gentleman looked at me and shared the kind phrase. I then went on to share with him that I was in the process of collecting the ingredients to make my own bitters.

The basic to building a batch of bitters is putting together three basic components - a bittering agent, a spice tincture, and a flavouring tincture. Generally, the components to these agents can be quite difficult to find, but I was stoked to come across a bevy of amazing dried herbs while working in Portland. On Hawthorne street, there is a quaint little joint called The Herbe Shoppe. With very helpful staff, I was able to procure wormwood, licorice root, quassia chips, gentian root, calamus, and cinnamon chip. I purchased about an ounce and a half of each, which appears to take me a long way. It all added up to about $15 for the lot, which made this surprising find even better.

To keep it simple, I wanted to follow the Boker's Bitter Recipe, but the ingredients are impossible to find (Catechu...no where). But it did call for the gentian root, calamus, quassia, and cardamom, so I figured I could go from there. I wanted to go with some orange flavouring, but figured, as it was my first go at it, to keep it to just the bitter blend.

I broke it down into 3 small batches that I would blend together after two weeks of maceration.

First, the bittering blend:

Wormwood is a herbaceous plant, and is famous for being a key ingredient in Absinthe, but has also been used as a bittering agent in vermouths and meads. For this recipe, I used 1 teaspoon.

gentian root

Gentian is the 4th ingredient you'll find in Angostura bitters, and is a commonly used digestive aid. For this recipe, I used 1/4 teaspoon


Calamus has been an item of trade in many cultures for thousands of years. Calamus has been used medicinally for a wide variety of ailments, and its smell makes calamus essential oil valued in the perfume industry. In Britain the plant was also cut for use as a sweet smelling floor covering for the packed earth floors of medieval dwellings and churches. In Egypt, it was thought to be an aphrodisiac. For this recipe, I used 1 teaspoon

quassia chips

Born in Brazil, quassia amara is the most bitter substance in nature, so, naturally, it belongs in a batch of bitters! For this recipe, I went with 1 teaspoon.

Secondly, the Spice Tincture
licorice root

 Licorice root, originating in Europe and Asia, is not related to anise, star anise, or fennel, but is a strong licorice component in its own right, and used broadly as a solid flavouring. For this recipe, I used 1/2 a teaspoon

coriander seed

Coriander is commonly used in cooking, and are is a key component in middle eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. You can find the seeds in Garam Masala and Indian curry. Here, I used 1 teaspoon.

fennel seeds

Fennel is a highly aromatic and flavourful herb. Containing anethole, it is a positive medicinal aid for eyes and the intestinal tract (something in common there?). I used 1/2 a teaspoon.

And finally, The Cinnamon Clove Tincture


Ah, cloves. This Indonesian spice is a very common flavour agent in many cuisines around the world. They are also used in Djarums (the clove cigarette of Indonesia) as well as an incense in India and China. For the bitters, I used 1 teaspoon.

Cinnamon Chips

Cinnamon has been known from remote antiquity. It was imported to Egypt as early as 2000 BCE. Its history is long, and probably warranting its own story. It was regarded fit for a monarch and even a god. For me, 2 teaspoons of these chips were the perfect flavouring addition for my first batch of bitters.

Each of these combinations was put into a mason jar with overproof vodka. I opted for the vodka as I wanted the flavours to speak for themselves and not be impacted by, say, an overproof rum.

Of course, everyone needs a Bitter Making Helper Hobbit!

everyone needs a helper!

Finally, after two weeks, and shaking each jar once each day, the bitters were ready to be combined and strained. Thankfully, my Krups Moka Brew coffee maker fit the job.
straining through my Krups Moka Brew coffee pot
Then, they get bottled! I thought the bitters would be darker, but I am quite happy with how they turned out. They certainly are bitter and so far are a fine additive to an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan!

Bottled! A bit lighter in colour than I had imagined
So, that is my first batch. I am hoping to get another batch up and running. I hope to do an Orange bitter and a rhubarb bitter. Cheers!

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Richmond Gimlet

photo: T.J McLachlan
 It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.

"Will you have lime juice or lemon squash?" Macomber asked.

"I'll have a gimlet," Robert Wilson told him.
"I'll have a gimlet, too. I need something," Macomber's wife said.

"I suppose it's the thing to do," Macomber agreed. "Tell him to make three gimlets."

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, Ernest Hemingway (1936)

This conversation occured shortly after the group in the story returned from an eventful lion-hunting safari. A great short story, and worth the read (and please, forgive this continued indulgence of mine when describing cocktails and linking them to Ernest Hemingway. You just cannot believe how linked these two fantastic entities are).

"I'll have a gimlet, too. I need something." For some reason, that sentiment is a wonderful way to approach this fine cocktail. The Gimlet - traditionally a Gin and Lime Juice cocktail, does not seem like a drink that packs a punch, or would be a fitting reprieve from a life-changing lion hunting experience, but do not kid yourself - it is. And its name may be an indicator to its strength. There are two main historical references for the name, Gimlet.

First, and seemingly the most obvious reference, is to the hand tool used to drill small holes, named the gimlet. This tool is used for drilling small holes in wood without splitting the wood. Any tool that works like this but is larger is usually referred to as an auger. The name gimlet, here, could be referring to the sharp, penetrating and piercing effect the Gimlet has on the person enjoying it.

The second reference is to Surgeon General Sir Thomas D. Gimlette, who served in the British Royal Navy from 1879 to 1913. It is said that he introducted this drink as a means for those around him to prevent scurvy by drinking lime juice (The history and relationship between Gin and remedial activity is long and entwined, and probably deserving of its own post).

Whatever the history, The Gimlet is a classic, and one that is open to interpretation. At The Volstead Act Craft Cocktail Service, we were happy to tackle Jeffrey Morgenthaler's variation of the Gimlet, which he developed in Eugene, Oregon - The Richmond Gimlet. You can read Jeffrey's posting on it at his website: Jeffrey Morgenthaler.

The recipe for the Richmond Gimlet goes as follows: 2 oz Tanqueray No. 10 gin, 1 oz fresh lime juice, 1 oz simple syrup, large sprig mint. We decided to mix things up just a touch more and did a cucumber-infused simple syrup, which elevated the refreshing nature of this cocktail.

At our first gig, this was the drink of the night. We were clapping mint like crazy. No doubt the folks at the party appreciated the balance of flavours (mint, cucumber, lime and Gin are a great combination) and no doubt a few felt the piercing effects of the Richmond Gimlet!