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Unexpectedly Good Integrations In Life: Amazing Bitters-And-Booze Pairings That Make Life Worth Living

At Adeptia, integration is our mantra — and not just data. We’re interested in all the fascinating and complementary intersections life has to offer. Integration as a concept means committing to harmonies in all disciplines and crafts, and we believe it is crucial to be open to unexpected combinations that can surprise, delight, and improve our industries and our lives.

In that spirit (or perhaps spirits), know that surprise, delight and improvement can come from unexpected pairings in the liquor cabinet. Think of how some drink recipes can curl your tongue: “Yeah, you take four shots of tequila, a cup of milk, shave on some parmesan cheese, and …”

No, life’s too short, and some drink combinations will make it shorter. But combining some cocktail elements that at first might sound far-fetched can actually result in delicious fusions, with subtly appealing notes and nuances. So it is withfull measure bitters.

The name alone—full measure bitters—conjures up squinched, sour faces of disapproval. And indeed, if you were to drink some (though only some) bitters straight, that sour face you would wear. But mix those pungent drops with the right spirits, shake or stir, serve with a good garnish—plus some pizazz—and you have dance partners in your drink, ones that move in complementary directions with every sip.

What Are Bitters?

Unexpectedly Good Integrations: Bitters and BoozeBefore we get into how bitters can bring cocktails to vigorous life, let’s define them.Let’s see whats in bitters.

They are liquid extracts from a wide range of crushed, chopped or pulped sources: herbs, roots, flowers, fruit—even seeds and bark. Even before they are mixed with hootch, bitters themselves are the product of integrations: Many bitters contain combinations of (or sometimes just traces) of these ingredients. They are customarily—though not always—infused or tinctured in high-proof spirits (often vodka) to entice out their core character, so the bitters themselves do pack their own proof punch.

The use of bitters as digestifs, often consumed neat, goes way, way back—there’s evidence that some form of bitters were soothing troubled tummies as long ago as the Middle Ages. But it took a long while after that to realize that bitters could cooperate so well in a cocktail, to tune the belly and the brain. What better place for the idea for bitters and booze to blend than naughty New Orleans? Yet so scientific the source: A French Quarter pharmacist named Antoine Peychaud mixed up his own bitters batch in 1838, and his stuff is still a staple of classic cocktails everywhere.

New Orleans Naughtiness

We’ll keep New Orleans in the picture, because some of earliest known cocktails (including the renowned Sazerac) were created there under Peychaud’s apothecary assistance, employing his steady hand, French brandy and handmade bitters. Since there’s no end of fun in New Orleans, the city also came up with one of my very favorite drinks, the Vieux Carré, named for the French Quarter. Classically, it calls for these ingredients:

¾ ounce rye¾ ounce cognac¾ ounce sweet vermouthTeaspoon BenedictineDash of Peychaud’sDash of AngosturaLemon twist

The first couple of times I made these, I lacked the Benedictine. (Benedictine’s another old-timer: monks originally made the liqueur from 27 plants and spices in 1510.) So I substituted absinthe, which can deliver some of the herbal flavors of Benedictine, though not the sweetness, to the drink. But absinthe is so volatile that ½ teaspoon (or half that) is much better than a full measure. Powerful aromatic qualities are central to how bitters can transform a cocktail—sometimes a few drops suffice to open up and reveal a drink’s character.

What’s In the Pantry

This is the list of the bitters I have right now, with some notes:

  • Angostura – another old, versatile classic, the recipe for which, like for Benedictine, is a closely guarded secret. Great in Manhattans, my go-to favorite drink; I sometimes toss in a dash of a citrus bitters too
  • Meyer Lemon – high alcohol base in this one, but my other citrus-based ones below lack that; great in whiskey drinks (for that matter, rum too)
  • Rose Water – not a bitters, but a “botanical water,” a very subtle aromatic
  • West Indian Orange – nice in an Old Fashioned (my go-to second favorite) and other bourbon drinks
  • Grapefruit – good in gin and light rums
  • Fennel – a licorice-like quality, but good and boozy. Don’t use too much
  • Peychaud’s – a necessary classic; lighter than Angostura, with gentian root a central flavor source. Good in Manhattans, rum and tonics, maybe even as a hair tonic
  • Celery – perhaps surprisingly, good in gin (and a Bloody Mary)
  • Lavender – very aromatic; oddly, good in very small doses with gin/rum/whiskey
  • Absinthe – With its distilled brandy, not precisely a bitters, but with its herbal complexity, a very versatile, complex and heady potion
  • Small batch tonic – great for “homemade” gin and tonics and other drinks; quinine is the main bittering agent

And just in case you might want to have a bitterly good party, consider getting a small barrel and barreling your own cocktails. I have a 3-liter American oak barrel (medium char) in which I’ve barreled my best buddies, Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. Here you get to put your bitters in in bulk. After 4–6 weeks, the booze-plus-bitters takes on some nice mellowing from the oak—and you have cocktails you don’t even have to mix. Shake and serve!

What’s fun about having a range of bitters is that you can be the mad (or maybe drunken) scientist, and experiment with substances that add interesting and intriguingly compatible essences and flavor notes to drinks. Some people even like to try them in things like salad and ice cream. Some people, that is.

Make mine bitter. And thus, so sweet.

Tom Bentley is a business writer and editor, an essayist, and a fiction writer. (He does not play banjo.) He’s published hundreds of freelance pieces—ranging from first-person essays to travel pieces to more journalistic subjects—in newspapers, magazines, and online. You can see examples of his services, his published writing, and his lurid website confessions at The Write Word. His new book, Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See is now available at Amazon.

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