Friday, February 20, 2009

Bols Genever hosts seminar about bitters

Feb. 17

The folks at Bols were holding a seminar of sorts on classic cocktails at Julie Reiner's Clover Club. I actually had the day off with a pretty long weekend, so the middle-of-the-day timing wasn't too worrisome for me. However, after a three-day run of sleeping in late and indulging in late night horror movie watching sessions, I was stumbling, bleary-eyed, up to Clover Club. Half-asleep, I almost did not recognizing Dave Wondrich when I got to the door until I was practically walking right into him.

I squinted like a mole creature in the natural light as I started to make out familiar faces like Jim Meehan, Naren Young and Giuseppe Gonzalez. It was nice seeing folks I usually see after dark during daylight hours. I even got to see some people I hadn't seen in a while, such as writer Chantal Martineau and Washington D.C. bartender Gina Chersevani.

After a bit of noshing and hobnobbing, Tal Nadari, vice president of marketing for Lucas Bols Spirits U.S.A., as well as a former member of The Fabulous Shaker Boys, urged everyone to grab a seat.

In a twist on a product event, Bols was hosting a themed seminar not exactly about their genever product, but on topics regarding classic cocktail making. It still worked, since genever, or Holland gin, is called for in old cocktail recipes.

In his introduction, Tal said that reaction the product, since its relaunch last year, has been great.

In a sense, this event seemed like Bols' nod not only to the classic cocktail recipes that effectively use genever, but also to the bartenders of today for their interest in the product. At the same time, helping to keep genever on everyone's mind as an ingredient that can be worked with in future creations. According to Tal, this was the first of four different seminars. Others would also highlight topics such as the difference between American and European classics.

As Tal said, "Do we know everything? No, or at least I hope not."

Stephan Berg, bartender, bar history buff/collector of bar miscellanea and one of the founders of The Bitter Truth, acted as guest speaker on the topic of bitters.

Tal Nadari encouraged those in attendance to ask questions throughout the talk, since it wasn't meant to be a stuffy lecture.

Armed with a slide show presentation, Stephan launched into the topic of bitters.

Bitters first came to the Americas with settlers who depended on the items to provide herbal and homeopathic treatment in a climate that wasn't necessarily rife with the best of medical care. Bitters didn't start out as something associated with alcohol. In fact, for those of you who know bitters or even cocktail history, Siegert's Aromatic Bitters was first created for medicinal use by Simon Bolivar's troops and Peychaud's was created by an apothecary.

Stephan explained that bitters were added to alcoholic beverages to provide depth and improve the taste of alcohol because good-quality spirits were not widely available in the 19th century. People also realized that these bitters added flavor and complexity. At the same time, the so-called medicinal properties assigned to bitters lent cocktails a healthy benefit, especially when you consider that cocktails back in the day were enjoyed more as a morning or daytime beverage.

Berg drew from his collection of old cocktail books and paraphernalia. His slideshow showed a listing of advertisements for numerous imported and domestic bitters bottles that came in a myriad of shapes and designs. Stephan explained that while most people nowadays would think of the shaker as a symbol for the bartender, in the past, it was the bitters bottle, showing the importance of bitters in classic cocktails.

Stephan highlighted nine different cocktails recipes out of the pages of history, and everyone attending got a chance to sample the cocktails. Holland's Pride, a recipe from William Schmidt's 1892 recipe collection, The Flowing Bowl, is a recipe that not only calls for bitters, but for Holland gni as well ("A mixing glass 2/3 full of ice, 3 dashes of gum, 2 dashes of bitters, 1 dash of absinthe, 2/3 of Holland gin, 1/3 of vino vermouth. stir well, strain and serve.").

Stephan said that in the past, he didn't understand the appeal of some of the old recipes because he used the more dry gin of today which is hotter, and juniper-heavy when compared to the sweet and more malty flavors of genever. This Dutch style of gin once ruled the world, but as people's tastes changed, the drier English gni started gaining ground.

And it was true, you could taste the difference in these older cocktails. Even though they were boozy, stirred elixirs, it had a murky, cryptic sweetness to it different from the type of almost bright sweet you see in cocktails that have citrus or fruit. The shift in flavor profile was particularly evident in the series of cocktails we got to try that showed the evolution of the martini.

We looked at and tried an early Manhattan Cocktail, as well as the Martinez Cocktail. It was the total exact opposite of dry. It was totally wet. Like splash into your mouth wet. It was sweet and spicy in an almost tactile way.
Manhattan Cocktail, No. 1
1 pony French vermouth
1/2 pony whisky
3 or 4 dashes Angostura bitters
3 dashes gum syrup

Manhattan Cocktail, No. 2
2 dashes Curacoa
2 " Angostura bitters
1/2 wine-glass whisky
1/2 " Italian vermouth
Fine ice,; stir well and strain into a cocktail
from "Modern Bartenders' Guide", OH Byron, 1884

The Martinez Cocktail is made the same way as the Manhattan, but with gin substituting whisky.

While some folks look at the Martini as that sort of quintessential dry cocktail, looking at an early Martini recipe from Harry Johnson's 1900 "Bartenders' Manual," the recipe isn't so cut and, ahem, dry.

Fill the glass up with ice;
2 or 3 dashes of gum syrup (be careful in not using too much);
2 or 3 dashes of bitters (Boker's genuine only);
1 dash of curacao or absinthe, if required;
1/2 wine glass of old Tom gin;
1/2 wine glass of vermouth
Stir up well with a spoon; strain it into a fancy cocktail glass; put in a cherry or a medium-sized olive, if required; and squeeze a piece of lemon peel on top, and serve.

Even in a formula that might seem more familiar to today's dry martini fans, bitters still played a part:
Marguerite Cocktail
1 dash of orange bitter
2/3 Plymouth gin
1/2 French vermouth
"Stuart's Fancy Drinks and how to mix them", 1896

Interestingly enough, Stephan pointed out that the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906 served a heavy blow to the bitters market. Before 1906, any sort of remedies were sold under the generic term of "patent medicine", regardless of how dubious or questionable the product's medicinal properties were. However, post Pure Food and Drug Act, companies could no longer falsely advertise. Unfortunately, bitter had also been marketed as medicinal products, causing trouble for a lot of brands. And of course, Prohibition also played a part in dampening the bitters market.

Then simply changes in tastes and trends also pushed bitters further away from cocktails. Though with classic cocktails coming back, people are once again going back to bitters as well as recreating those long lost in the mists of time. That's how Stephan got into the bitters business. As a bartender in Germany, there was a lack of bitters, as well as other cocktail ingredients such as orange flower water, necessary to recreate recipes.

Stephan said that now, Ramos Gin Fizzes were very popular in Germany. As soon as those words left his mouth, a groan went up from the bartenders in the room. Though the Ramos Gin Fizz is quite delicious, to create perfectly takes some amount of energy, nevermind having to make several.

"Remind me never to go to Germany," I heard Joaquin Simo quip next to me.

"You mean, never to go work in Germany," Alex Day added.

But Stephan assured everyone that it's not as bad as it sounds. With the volume of orders made for the Ramos Gin Fizz, shakers of the stuff could be made and handed off to different bartenders for additional shaking, making the process not too painful.

Afterwards, I officially met Erik Ellestad. I only kinda e-knew him up until that point, so it was cool to say hi. I also asked Thomas Waugh about brunch service at Clover Club, since he's the lone barman during those hours. Thomas mentioned his sort of Asian twist on the Bloody Mary that calls for ingredients like fish sauce, soy sauce and wasabi. I've decided to make March Brunch Month, so I think I should stop by there for some of that.