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Thursday Roundup: Essentials for the Basic Home Bar

Thursday Roundup: Essentials for the Basic Home Bar

You find yourself entranced by the sheer beauty of the cocktail above. You’re just dying to know how to make it at home. When you do you want it to be absolutely perfect… Sound familiar? It certainly does to me. I live it everyday because I’ve got the cocktail bug. Maybe you have it too. I can spend hours perusing recipes, reading about spirits, and trying to come up with things on my own. I love sitting at a bar where it’s abundantly clear that the bartender has an incredible passion for making

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Peychaud’s Bitters: A taste of New Orleans that’s essential to your home bar.

Peychaud’s Bitters: A taste of New Orleans that’s essential to your home bar.

In terms of building your home bar, there are 3 different bitters that are definitely must-haves. Yesterday we talked about orange bitters, which fall into both the lifting and the binding categories (as defined by Death & Co in NYC). This means that they can elevate and brighten the flavors in a cocktail, as well as bring together disparate ingredients into a more harmonious whole. The second of the 3 essentials is Peychaud’s, which were binding bitters created in the early 19th century by Antoine Amédée Peychaud, a New Orleans Apothecary owner who claimed that his bitters could cure any digestive ailment. Eventually he began mixing them into drinks that he made for his friends containing brandy, bitters, sugar, and water. This is a guy after my own heart! His drink became the basis for the Sazerac which is one of the most famous classic cocktails of all time, and the one which is most often associated with Peychaud’s bitters. Like many other aspects of the craft cocktail world, Peychaud’s is gaining popularity once again as modern bartenders discover innovative ways to use its complex and aromatic flavor in their drinks.

The taste profile of Peychaud’s is described as containing elements of licorice, saffron, citrus peel, vanilla, nuts, anise, cherry, nutmeg, clove, and caramel, among others. Does that seem like a lot going on to you? It does to me too. My personal impression is that the anise/licorice flavor is definitely front and center, followed by a bit of fruit and finishing up with some cloves and nutmeg. The drink that I chose to make to help us gain an understanding of Peychaud’s was not the Sazerac, but a modern cocktail from Death & Co. called Light and Day. When I looked at the recipe for this drink I found the combination of ingredients to be a bit unusual. Gin and maraschino liqueur work well together in many cocktails, but Yellow Chartreuse is more typically paired with darker spirits, and lemon and lime are normally gin’s go-to dance partners, not orange. I was very intrigued and I assumed that the Peychaud’s was going to play a major role in bringing these different elements together. I made the drink without the bitters first, just as I did yesterday. When I tasted it I was hit by the Chartreuse first, and then the gin. There was a bit of harshness and I felt like the Maraschino liqueur and the orange juice were almost completely lost. All of the elements were there but they tasted broken apart and out of proportion to one another. I added the 4 dashes of Peychaud’s (which is a decent amount) and the same miracle that happened with yesterday’s Elder Fashion occurred again today. Suddenly I had a cocktail in front of me. Chartreuse is not a shy spirit, but it was now reined in so that it could play nicely with the gin. The Maraschino liqueur came through with a subtle sweetness and the orange juice suddenly made perfect sense. In addition to binding the ingredients together in this drink, and smoothing it out, the Peychaud’s also contributed its own spicy anise and citrus flavor, which elevated the drink even further.

Once again, I can’t stress enough that the best way to begin to understand what a particular ingredient brings to the table is to taste the drink without it first. This seems to work exceptionally well with bitters because they play such a specific role in bringing cocktails into balance. When a recipe calls for them and they are absent, it becomes very clear that the drink is missing something. You can certainly take my word for it but if you can experience it firsthand it’s even better!

Light and Day from Alex Day, Death & Co. New York

2 oz Plymouth Gin
½ oz Yellow Chartreuse
¼ oz Maraschino liqueur (I used Luxardo)
¼ oz orange juice
4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters*

Place all the ingredients into a mixing glass and fill ⅔ full with ice. Stir using a long-handled bar spoon for 30-45 seconds or until vey cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. No garnish. Enjoy!

*Death & Co. makes their house Peychaud’s bitters from 2 parts Peychaud’s and 1 part Bitter Truth Creole bitters. Again, another intriguing combination to try.

The Bitter Truth about – you guessed it – bitters!!

The Bitter Truth about – you guessed it – bitters!!

I have to confess that when I first became interested in making cocktails at home, I really had no idea what bitters actually were. I remember thinking that the bottles were very cool, and using them made me feel like some sort of an old-time chemist or pharmacist mixing potions. Or better still, an apothecary, like the one in Romeo and Juliet. For the most part, I viewed bitters as just another ingredient in the drink’s recipe. If I wanted to make an Old-Fashioned then I needed 2 dashes of Aromatic bitters, so I made sure that I had a bottle on hand. It wasn’t until I began to entertain the idea of creating my own cocktails that I wanted to understand more about what their exact role really was.

Most bitters are created by using alcohol to extract flavors from a blend of spices, herbs, and other aromatic botanicals that were originally developed for medicinal purposes. Two of the original brands, Peychaud’s and Angostura, claimed to fight every manner of digestive ailments from something as mild as an upset stomach to something as serious as dysentery. By the mid-nineteenth century, they found their way into bars and began appearing in mixed drinks, still claiming medicinal value. So your Old-Fashioned would not only taste good, it would cure whatever ailed you in more ways than one! In more recent years the production of bitters has skyrocketed in direct proportion to the revival of craft cocktail bars, where it is not uncommon for there to be dozens of different bottles on hand.

Death & Co. in New York classifies bitters into two categories, a distinction that has really helped me to gain an understanding of their function. In the first category are the lifting bitters, which usually have a simple taste profile of 1 or 2 ingredients, and whose role is to enhance and “brighten” other similar flavors in a drink. Binding bitters, on the other hand, are more complex and help to bring together different elements into a more harmonious whole, bringing balance to cocktails. Orange bitters fall into both categories and this prompted me to make the Elder Fashion from the Death & Co. book because it contains only 3 ingredients: Plymouth gin, St. Germain, and orange bitters.

I made the drink without the bitters at first and I found that I had trouble tasting the St. Germain. The gin seemed overwhelming both in flavor and in alcohol content, which was odd since Plymouth is so mild in taste and has a lower ABV than most other gins. When I added in the bitters, the difference was profound. The first thing I noticed was that the taste of the St. Germain moved forward and became more prominent. The Plymouth seemed softer in flavor and in alcohol content, and the texture of cocktail was much smoother. There was an overall sense of harmony; this was suddenly a totally different drink! What amazed me the most was that I tasted only a hint of orange. It had more to do with how the bitters’ flavor enhanced the floral notes of the St. Germain and the citrus notes of the gin, and made the cocktail feel more balanced. This was the perfect way to really understand the impact that the bitters had on the drink and I would encourage you to try it this same way at home.

Elder Fashion (from Phil Ward, Death & Co. NYC)

2 oz Plymouth Gin
½ oz St. Germain
2 dashes orange bitters*
1 grapefruit twist for garnishing

Place all the ingredients in a mixing glass and fill 2/3 full with ice. Stir 30-45 seconds with a long-handled barspoon. Strain using a julep strainer into an Old-Fashioned glass over 1 large cube. Garnish with the grapefruit twist. Enjoy!

*Death & Co. uses equal parts of Fee Brothers West Indian Orange, Regan’s Orange, and Angostura Orange for their house orange bitters. I used the Fee Brothers because it was what I had on hand, but I’m intrigued by this combination and I will definitely be trying it in the near future!