Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Shot of the Black Stuff - Seminar Review

On Thursday July 22nd Jacob Briars and Sebastian Reaburn hosted an invigorating seminar about the world of Amari and Bitters at Tales of the Cocktail. Mr. Briars, from New Zealand, introduced himself as a child of hippies who still has yet to even take an aspirin. He relies on herbal remedies for all his medicinal needs. And that is of course, where bitters got their start, as an herbal medicinal tonic that could cure many ills. That being said, Mr. Reaburn, From Australia, introduced to his own "Koala Tonic" and promised it could cure everything from impotence to cancer. Knowing a bit about the history of these "Snake Oil" salesmen, I declined to taste his tonic, which ended up being a noxious mixture of Listerine, gin, Cough syrup and other nasty ingredients.

This delightful introduction encapsulated the long and complicated history of amaro and bitters in our cocktail kingdom. The free market ran wild with these bitters in the 17th-19th century and what was essentially a good product, became hazardous and even deadly in the wrong hands. All this ended quite suddenly in the United States with the passing of the Pure Food and Drugs act in 1906, putting an end to false and outrageous claims and to many bitters manufacturers. In 1919 Prohibition in the US put the final nail in the bitters coffin and only now, nearly a
century later are bitters making a comeback.

But the sweet Amari have always been with us and thrived in Europe during all this time. And in our tasting glasses before us were samples from 6 different kinds of Amari that could be identified by their main source of flavor; Peels, Spices, Herbs, Fruits and Vegetables, and Flowers. But many use all of these ingredients. Most Amari contain at least 15 different ingredients and sometimes more than 50! And Rhubarb seems to be the golden thread that can be found in almost all of them!

Here are my tasting notes from the 6 glasses of deliciousness that were put before me:

  • Carpano: Raisin, bitter, herbal. This is my favorite sweet vermouth to put in a Manhattan do I recognized it right away. I could drink this on the rocks.
  • Averna: Citrus, sweeter and minty fresh. On a second tasting a lot of coffee notes came out too. This Amaro was created in Sicily in 1868. This is what my Great Great Grandfather Gullo probably drank before he got a boat to come to New York.
  • Luxardo Amaro: Spicy, cardamon and even more spicy on the second tasting. This Amaro is from Northern Italy and would be great with coffee. I am going to try to work this into a coffee cocktail at Fort Defiance.
  • The Bitter Truth Elixir: Very yum, with cinnamon,sage, rhubarb and lemon verbena. Full with amazing balance with a light sweet menthol touch. Created by Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauk in 2009, this is the newest amaro we tasted. Its is produced by Dolin in France and uses between 20-50 herbs. See? Bitters makers still keep secrets! In fact, they are having trouble getting this distributed in the US due to the name; too similar to medicine! They will try to get it passed again under the name Elixer.
  • Fernet Branca: Menthol burn! Saffron, peppermint. This darling of the bartender community has been blowing up the scene lately. Fernet was once recommended for "Woman's Complaints". Really? It could keep the toilet seat down and would call you the next day? Nice. I was going to create a cocktail for Tales called the Gold Bond using the Fernet Mentha.
  • Braulio: Sweet, mellow, chamomile, lavender. This beautiful creation is nearly impossible to get in the United States. Created in Bormio, Valtellina by Francesco Peloni, this Amaro uses traditional herbs and flowers sourced from the Stelvio National Park. They have beautiful names like Meadowsweet, gentien, saxifrage and tea mountain flower. Sipping this just put me on a pastoral Italian mountainside. LeSigh!

We were also treated to a homemade concoction that Jacob Brairs swears by; a Reish Mushroom bitter. Mr. Reaburn called it, "I Can't Believe its Not Truffle Bitter". Mr. Briars says that, when prepared correctly, this little mushroom is an anti-inflamitory cancer and choleterol fighting antioxidant that can also keep you revitalized and regular. To keep it palatable he uses Reish Mushroom extract, Mushroom puree, vodka (It delivers the key ingredients better than water or sugar) and cinnamon. It was not bad. But I was happy to follow it with a fresh beet juice cocktail. See?! Cocktails can be good for you! Just don't listen to the salesman with the thick Aussie accent!

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