Lush Life

To be a lush chef, does not mean to drink in excess - this can result in scary fires and bad dishes. A lush chef is one who enjoys gourmet cooking/baking, often with fresh ingredients and the smart use of one's home bar. If there happens to be half a bottle of beer, a glass of wine, or a sip of brandy left over...well, one cannot be wasteful. I give you permission to imbibe.

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The Lush Chef
Twitter: @thelushchef Provenance: Santa Monica Dish: Coq au Vin Spirit: Whiskey Wine: Malbec Beer: Hefeweizen Farmer's Market: Santa Monica on Main Street
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Nov 17, 2011

Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All

An Old Fashioned isn't an Old Fashioned unless you add one key ingredient— bitters, and namely Angostura.  That distinctive bottle with the oversize label and the yellow cap happens to be one of the oldest remaining bitters around. Peychaud's, a key ingredient for the famous Sazerac, and Fee Brothers have also been making bitters since the early days.

I'm fascinated by America's cocktail history, so when I heard that a new book was coming out in November that traced the just the history of bitters...well...I geeked out and placed my advance order.  Brad Thomas Parsons' Bitters - A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All neatly (is that a cocktail joke? nah) traces the history of this potent libation, its death after Prohibition and its resurgence with the vintage cocktail movement.  It's humorous, informative and a quick read.  Go buy it NOW.  In addition, Brad lists reputable both large and small-batch companies that are making bitters today (Bitter Truth, Miracle Mile Bitters, Bittermens) and where to find them, as well as various stores/websites to purchase the ingredients to start making your own.  There are about a dozen basic recipes to follow that are tested and true, and which lay the foundation for future experimentation.  A whole list of both classic and modern cocktails which showcase the beauty of bitters are also included.  And best of all, there are recipes for cooking and baking with bitters— my little Lush Chef heart just skipped a beat.

So what are bitters, exactly?  It's basically high-proof alcohol (think 100 or 101 proof vodka or bourbon) that is infused with herbs, spices, roots and barks.  The roots and barks are what impart a somewhat bitter flavor, but when balanced with various spices (cloves, cinnamon, cardamom), dried fruit peels (oranges, lemons, apples, pears) and herbs, the result is wonderfully aromatic and tasty.  Just a few dashes or drops can transform a drink or add that certain something that's missing from a cocktail.  It can take a drink from ordinary to extraordinary. 

Bitters were extremely popular in pre-Prohibition days because of their medicinal properties to soothe upset stomachs, fevers, headaches and palpitations.  While the claims that bitters were a "cure-all" are truly outrageous, they do perform some of their medicinal duties.  They're perfect as a digestif— just put a few dashes in some soda water after a big dinner or take a tsp of it if you're really desperate.  Because bitters were billed as medicine, they managed to escape Prohibition regulations for a little bit, but the Feds wised up when America's fine citizens kept getting drunk off of their high-proof "medicine."

With the resurgence of anything vintage cocktail-related, came the return of bitters.  Mixologists were scouring old cocktail recipe books and kept running across obscure bitter flavors that were no longer available on the market.  Some enterprising bartenders and libation enthusiasts either tracked down old bitters recipes or would purchase ancient bottles of bitters that had a few drops left so they could reverse-engineer the recipe.  And thus, the bitters boom began.  I'm incredibly fortunate to live in a city that has a strong cocktail culture that geeks out over its history and also places value on the artisanal food/cocktail movement, so I've been able to sample unusual flavors that go beyond the typical orange and Angostura-like notes, such as celery, rhubarb, chocolate & chili and more.

I find it fascinating that so much flavor can be packed into just one little drop of alcohol.  I've already started making my first batch (coffee-pecan) and I can't wait to share my bitters-making adventure with all of my readers.  And I already have a ton of little dropper bottles ready for filling so I can share with my Lush Chef Taste Testers and mixologist friends.  So the journey begins...