Purists will disagree, but I like my Manhattans perfect – not made to an exact recipe, or served without flaws, but made with a mix of sweet and dry vermouth. The dry vermouth – in this case, Noilly Prat – seems to complement the spicy hit of rye whiskey (Canadian Club), and the small amount of sweet vermouth (Martini Rosso) adds the roundness the cocktail is known for. A few drops of Abbott’s bitters to add a pleasant spicy, vanilla-ish dimension, and that’s it. Just perfect, in every way. I add one maraschino cocktail cherry, and one that’s had some bitters added to the syrup in the jar to darken it a little more. Another option is a slice of orange peel, but the cherries seemed nicely retro this time.
Proportions (using a jigger/pony measure):
1 jigger of whiskey
1 pony of dry & sweet vermouth
4 drops bitters.
Glass: Small, or 3oz, Martini glass.
Shake until ice cold & strain into the glass. Garnish with a cocktail cherry.
Historical footnote: The Manhattan is named after the club where the drink was first mixed in 1874. The Manhattan Club’s bartender was asked to create a drink for a party. The party, in honour of a politician named Samuel Tilden, was hosted Jennie Jerome – who went on to become Lady Randolph Churchill, and mother of Winston Churchill.
I received a copy of Brad Thomas Parsons brilliant book, Bitters, for a recent birthday. Besides being a thorough history of this often-overlooked cocktail ingredient, Mr Parsons also includes several recipes to try at home. Naturally, I had to try one for myself, so settled on his signature recipe: BTP House bitters.
Over the last last week I have visited various herbalists in London to stock up on the ingredients, which has been fascinating in itself. The herbalist at Neal’s Yard was very interested in the items as I was buying – not least because the quassia chips (Quassia amara) are apparently an unusual purchase due to their incredible bitterness, so coupled with the gentian root (Gentiana lutea) also on the list – she was wondering what I could be making. When I told her the story of the Bitters book, she was delighted to share advice about extracting the properties from the herbs, and how they might treat common stomach ailments when the recipe was finished. She also directed me to London’s oldest herbalist, Baldwin’s to pick up the final few items – cassia bark (Cinnamomum aromaticum) and vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) as they were out of stock. Again, when the Baldwin’s herbalist discovered what I was making, he insisted in opening a new pack of vanilla to get the freshest pod available to infuse properly. So, even if my recipe isn’t a success, I have discovered a whole new subject in herbalism.
The biggest problem in making the bitters, here in the UK at least, is the strong alcohol required for the extraction to work. Most UK spirits are sold at 40% ABV (alcohol by volume), and stronger spirits are difficult to come by. I was directed to look for Polish Rectified Spirits among our Polish community in London, and the Neal’s Yard herbalist recommended I start making herbal tonics, as this would allow me to register for the purchase of the pure medicinal alcohol required for their extractions.
In the end, I discovered a closer solution to home – a quantity of strong Cretan tsikoudia (aka tsipouro, or just ‘raki’) I had brought back from holidays on the island. Well-made tsikoudia is very pleasant as a digestif, so I thought it would make a good base for my first bitters batch. It is also a pretty strong spirit – not in the realm of Everclear perhaps – but certainly strong enough for my needs. And the bottle I had at home had a pleasantly herby scent (the spirit changes depending on the distiller, and wide varieties of flavour exist across the island and even village-to-village).
Last night, I mixed up the ingredients in a preserving jar, and already the aroma they give off is incredibly tantalizing. The ingredients in this batch are: orange peel (dried and fresh), sour cherries, cassia, quassia, cloves, cinnamon, walnut leaf, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon & gentian – but if you want the proportions, you need to read Mr Parson’s book.
More information in around two weeks, when the alcohol will have extracted all of the good things from the herb, spice & fruit mix in the jar.
Spirits are the basics of any cocktail bar, and the question is how many do you need? The answer depends on one’s tastes, and the drinks needed to be made.
A quick inventory of my cupboard shows the following stock:
Smirnoff, Blue label Gin
Bombay Sapphire, 90 proof Bourbon
Bulleit, 90 proof Vermouth
Martini Rosso Cachaça
Pitù White Rum
Rebellion Dark rum
The Glenrothes, select reserve
Tullibardine, 10 year old
Balvenie Double Wood, 12 year old
Tallisker, 10 year old Rye
Canadian Club, 6 year old Tequila El Jimador
Plus various liqueurs (Kahlua, Triple Sec, Cointreau) and various others (home made lemon and cranberry vodkas, spiced rum and so on).
The story of bitters, the complex flavouring ingredients added only by drops to a cocktail, are as long as the history of cocktails themselves. Brands have come and gone over the years (check out the long-running search for Abbott bitters if you would like to see just how far drink fans will go), but I do believe that decent bitters lift an ordinary mixed drink into the proper cocktail category. I think that can be proved by mixing a couple of simple Martinis – to one, add a few drops of Fee’s Orange Bitters, then compare. The citrus hit from the Fee’s draws the combination of gin and vermouth together in a way the plain Martini lacks.
But where do you start? The obvious place is a single bottle of the classic Angostura Bitters. After that, a bottle of Fee’s Orange Bitters are a good addition to the cabinet, and then you can start adding the extra flavours and styles.
Visit a decent shop, and the amount of bar equipment is vast. But there are only a few things you really need, aside from alcohol:
Shaker. It is possible mix a cocktail in a jar or a jug, but since presentation is part of the pleasure, everyone should own at least one decent shaker. You’ll find plenty of opinion divided on the Cobbler versus the Boston shaker. The difference? The Cobbler is the classic three-part shaker with the body, strainer and cap. Bar aficionados dislike the built-in strainer as it clogs with ice too easily, but a classic stainless steel Cobbler looks good in your cocktail kit. The Boston is the glass and steel two-part combination that professional bar people seem to prefer – probably because the customer can see the drink being mixed as they shake. You can also use the glass part for stirred drinks, without it chilling in the hands as much as the base of the Cobbler.
Occasionally, one also comes across a third type – the French shaker – which is pretty much just a Cobbler without the strainer top. It is apparently gaining popularity in the US.
Measure. Accurate measure are important if you want to mix drinks consistently. A good barperson can pour by counting, using a pouring top, but for the rest of us, a drink measure is invaluable. The simplest is the double-ended type: the larger cup holds around 50ml (a jigger) and the smaller, 25ml (a pony). The problem with these is that as you flip them over to use the ends, you get drips of the previous measure everywhere – better to buy a pair of small measures, if you can.
Bar Spoon. Simply, a long spoon for stirring drinks. Real bar spoons have a spiral handle that allows you to rotate them between the fingers, as a stirred drink should be treated gently. Any long-handled spoon will do, but I would avoid the cheaper spoons that have a spike under a rubber cap. I assume these are to get olives or cherries out of jars, but the cap seems to disappear all too readily. Likewise, versions exist with a flat plate on the end, presumably to be used as a muddler; really, they are too lightweight to be used for this.
Strainer. To use a Boston or French shaker, a strainer is essential. The Hawthorn type is the bar standard – a pierced plate with a number of prongs that allows is to be rested flat on the rim of the shaker. A spiral spring around the edge of the plate filters out the coarser lumps of ice or fruit, but allows some small pieces through.
Muddler. To get the flavours out of some ingredients, like citrus zest in the Old Fashioned, they need to be crushed to release their oils and juices in the glass. A heavy spoon would do this, but the best tool is a muddler, which is simply a short length of a thick wooden dowel, somewhat like a miniature baseball bat. Available in various lengths, one around the 8″ (or 200mm) mark seems to be the most useful.
Paring knife. Garnishes are a big part of a drink’s presentation, and cocktails like the Old-fashioned really benefit from a large slice of orange peel being spritzed over their surface. To prepare slices like this, you need a good, sharp knife – either with a straight or curved blade. The brand I prefer most for this is Opinel: the blades are just the right length, and sharpen beautifully.