Wedding Gift Booze Review: The Bitter Truth Aromatic Bitters

Before we delve into the final and long delayed installment in the Wedding Gift Booze Review series, let’s take a moment to talk about bitters. Though the recent cocktail revival has spurred a subsequent revival in use of bitters, it’s still an element of cocktail culture that is often overlooked. Produced through distillation and infusion of various flavors, bitters generally have a similar alcohol content by volume as most liquors. However, the intensity of flavor is such that most drink recipes call for no more than two or three dashes per cocktail.

The Bitter Truth, Angostura, Regan's, and Fee Brothers

The first bitters were invented in the early 1800s by Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, a German who served as Surgeon General under Bolivar in the fight to free Venezuela from Spanish control. Siegert originally developed the potent distillation as a medicine and it was marketed as such when the Doctor established his distillery in the port town of Angostura in 1830. To this day, Angostura is still the dominant brand and de facto choice for any recipe that calls for bitters.

So when did medicine make its way into cocktails? Conventional wisdom tells us that it happened in the early 1900s. In the early days of the cocktail, the primary function of a mixed drink was to serve as “hair of the dog” the morning after heavy drinking. Mixing fruit juices, sugar, and other ingredients with your booze helped to make it more palatable first thing in the morning and while you’re at it, why not add some medicinal bitters to help your headache and nausea? A century later, the medicinal properties of bitters have long been dismissed, but we can still appreciate a well-crafted Old Fashioned.

The Bitter Truth Aromatic Bitters are very similar to Angostura (which are also aromatic bitters, as opposed to orange, mint or other flavored bitters) though the flavor is slightly different. Both brands, on their own, have an herby, woody flavor to them. The flavor is not unlike sucking on a tea bag – in a good way. Tasted side by side though the difference between the two is marked and will affect the taste of your cocktails. While Angostura is overtly citrusy, The Bitter Truth has a more floral, botanical flavor to it.

I’d be hard pressed to say that one is better than the other. They’re different animals and will throw a different cast on the cocktails you make with them. At the very least, exploring these differences is a wonderful excuse to drink twice as many Manhattans.


For more on bitters:

IPTB articles tagged with “bitters”

The Bitter Truth website

Angostura website

Hella Bitter website

Fee Brothers website

The Boozehound’s Library: The Cocktails of the Ritz Paris

There’s a fair amount of discussion here on IPTB about “classic” cocktails as opposed to more modern concoctions. This discussion revolves around two main points, the first being modern cocktails’ complexity of construction (more ingredients and more often artificially flavored), and the second is the notion that a cocktail’s history, or pedigree if we want to sound snooty about it, has value. While the former point is debatable, the snooty side of that debate will find plenty of ammunition in The Cocktails of the Ritz Paris. Continue reading

Double Wedding Gift Booze Review: Leopold’s Gin and Dolin Dry Vermouth

May 21st, 2011 was a beautiful day. Friends and family came together in celebration of our love and commitment, yadda yadda yadda. May 21st was the day that two much loved guests placed in our care the components of what is easily the best Martini I have ever had.

Leopold's Gin and Dolin Vermouth

Leopold Brothers is a small batch distillery located in Denver Colorado, which produces several different spirits and liqueurs. Almost all of their products have won at least one award, and Leopold’s Gin is no slacker.

Many top-shelf gins shy away from the traditional juniper flavoring (see also: Hendrick’s, Bluecoat), particularly because low quality brands will use the juniper as a crutch. This is certainly not a bad trait; Hendrick’s and Bluecoat have their own unique flavor bouquets. In contrast to this strategy though, Leopold’s Gin has cultivated a fine balance of flavors that allows the juniper to take prominence, without overpowering the citrus and floral notes that fill out the palate.

Leopold Brothers doesn’t bother distinguishing itself as a unique or exotic gin. Instead it’s just a tremendously well-made gin, and that in itself is admirable.

Dolin Dry Vermouth

Often neglected, there’s a secret about vermouth that most people don’t know: it’s actually a fortified wine. Of course it’s not really a secret, but while a bartender might spend hundreds on the best gins, vermouth is very often overlooked. Though Martini & Rossi and Tribuno are the budget standards, these tend to have a flat, tinny flavor with a salty aftertaste. Dolin is the first vermouth I’ve had that actually tastes like wine. The flavor of Dolin Dry Vermouth is rich and floral with a tremendous depth and complexity, enough to make Dolin worth sipping on its own.

In fact, Shanna and I enjoyed Dolin so much that we jumped on an opportunity to pick up a bottle of their Blanc sweet vermouth while we were visiting family in Annapolis. (They also offer a red – or Rouge – sweet vermouth.) But there’s the problem: neither Leopold Brothers nor Dolin are offered in Pennsylvania liquor stores. And since the PA Liquor Control Board by law owns and operates all retail sales of liquor and wine in the state, it’s not just a matter of finding the right hole-in-the-wall shop. There is literally no legal way to purchase any Leopold Brothers spirits in the state of Pennsylvania, and Dolin vermouths have to be special ordered.

We’ll write more about the liquor and beer laws in Pennsylvania in the future, especially in the context of the newly-proposed legislation to change those laws. But for now suffice it to say that the last drops of our bottle of Leopold’s Gin, which went into two delicious Martinis, will be sorely missed until the next time our travels take us out of state.

Wedding Gift Booze Review: Root

Another one of the great gifts we got at our wedding was a bottle of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’s Root (thanks to Paul!) – a liqueur with all the things you love about root beer and more. Root is made in our home state of Pennsylvania, which is really beginning to pick up in the “unique alcohol” market as selling restrictions get looser (we hope) – other Philadelphian spirits include Blue Coat Gin, Vieux Carré Absinthe, Penn 1681 Vodka, and Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’s own Snap (ginger) and Rhuby (rhubarb) liqueurs.

This organic, syrupy concoction boasts a blend of 13 different ingredients that will strike the drinker as the alcoholic version of the true, original, birchy root tea. The history of root teas and sodas is as interesting as it is long, so we heartily recommend you look it up as you enjoy your Root cocktail of choice (there are many suggestions on their website, as well as a little booklet attached to each bottle). You might be wondering – what can I use this very specific liqueur with?

Although you can have it on the rocks to enjoy the complexity of its many notes, we suggest blending it with a high quality root beer, a whipped cream vodka, or even just club soda (and maybe even a cherry). But what we like the most is a good ROOT (beer) Float.

Root Float

Most of 1 bottle of a craft root beer (we used Virgil’s, but also recommend Trader Joe’s Vintage Root Beer)

3 oz of Root

A scoop of vanilla ice cream (we used soy and it worked out great, and let me tell you why – it’s not as hard as regular ice cream)

And top it off with splash of chocolate liqueur (we used Trader Vic’s) and a sprinkling of chocolate (we used Trader Joe’s new grinder of Sugar, Chocolate, and Coffee which you should run out and get)

Pour your frosty root beer of choice into a large glass (preferably also frosty), leaving enough room (about 1/4) for a scoop of ice cream and the 3 ounces of Root. Mix the soda and Root before plunking in your generous scoop of ice cream, which you should then give a SHORT drizzle of chocolate liqueur and put your confectionery sprinkles on top before it starts to melt. Grab a spoon and enjoy!

Wedding Gift Booze Review: (rī)1 Whiskey

Let’s begin this review with full disclosure. If I have learned anything from reading Kate Hopkins’ 99 Drams of Whiskey, it’s that there is still a whole world of whiskey appreciation that I haven’t yet begun to comprehend. More than any other beverage (with perhaps the exception of wine), whiskeys of all types are subjected to an immense scrutiny by a legion of devotees, professional tasters, and all-out snobs. I myself am new to whiskey and what I do know is largely academic, as opposed to experiential. However, sampling a spirit like (rī)1 (pronounced “rye one”), is an excellent step in anyone’s whiskey education.

(rī)1 Whiskey

These days, bourbon has almost exclusively claimed the market as “America’s whiskey,” though I know a fellow named Jack who’d like to argue that point. In reality though, this notion of bourbon as American heritage is a distinctly post-Prohibition concept. Before the 18th Amendment wiped out the (legal) whiskey business in 1917, rye was by far the most commonly produced and consumed whiskey in the United States, and had been since colonial times. It wasn’t until Prohibition ended in 1933 that bourbon distillers were able to pounce on a newly reopened market and establish a solid hold on American drinkers.

In recent years however, with the revitalization of the cocktail culture, rye whiskey has been finding its way back to store shelves and home bars. One of the most popular among these is (rī)1.  Priced at $45 for a standard 750mL bottle in PA Liquor stores, (rī)1 is the higher shelf alternative to brands like Jim Beam Rye or Wild Turkey Rye, before jumping off the deep end into $80 or even $100 territory.

Even watered for tasting, (rī)1 has a kick to it. It’s a blended whiskey, which itself is not unusual. Just about any whiskey you find that isn’t labeled as “straight” or “single malt” is almost certainly blended, though generally distillers will blend an un-aged or lightly aged grain alcohol into a well-aged whiskey. This saves a tremendous amount of money for the distiller as aging is expensive and lowers alcohol content. By contrast, however, (rī)1 is blended from several different ages of whiskeys, the youngest of which being four and a half years. The result of this process goes into the bottle at 92 proof.

But (rī)1′s kick doesn’t just come from its high proof. As far as whiskeys go, (rī)1 has a spicy, almost harsh flavor to it, which comes on very strong very fast. This then peters off into a long lingering finish that sits and tingles the tongue. Whiskey newcomers, and even seasoned bourbon drinkers, will have a lot to wrestle with when sampling (rī)1 for the first time. I know I did.

This spiciness, I’ve found, works tremendously well to balance an Old Fashioned. A sweeter bourbon can have a tendency to lose its flavor in the fruity mash that is the basis of this classic whiskey cocktail, but (rī)1’s bold flavor stands out and nicely punctuates each sip. In a similar vein, Shanna has taken to muddling peaches with honey and topping with (rī)1 and a few ice cubes.

Overall I was very impressed by (rī)1. It’s not for everyone, but that in itself can be a strength. Certainly on flavor it doesn’t compromise for wider appeal and that’s reflected in the price tag. For boozehounds of modest means, like Shanna and myself, this is not an everyday spirit. It does, however, make an excellent gift should you find yourself attending the wedding of a discerning drinker.

Read more Wedding Gift Booze Reviews.

The Boozehound’s Library: 99 Drams of Whiskey

Just like you come here to learn about booze, Shanna and I are constantly learning ourselves. I like to think that this is one of IPTB’s charms. We don’t rarely lecture about the rights and wrongs of cocktail culture. Instead, we’re exploring along with our readers, passing on knowledge and insight as we accumulate it.  Shanna and I are still students of boozology ourselves and we learn a tremendous amount from reading. (For our previous book review, check out The Cocktail Compendium.)

99 Drams of Whiskey by Kate Hopkins

One of the best-written and most informative books on spirits I have yet found is Kate Hopkins’ 99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist’s Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink. Hopkins is the food and drink blogger responsible for The Accidental Hedonist.  Lately, the designation “food blog” has become almost derogatory in a sea of amateurs posting photos of spaghetti, but Hopkins adds a refreshing dose of good ol’ common sense to a field and an industry that is too often caught up in itself. The Accidental Hedonist also boasts an extremely comprehensive “Guide to Beer.” For The AH’s guide to whiskey, however, you’ll have to log off for a while and pick up a real ink-on-paper book.

99 Drams of Whiskey is structured to interweave two stories.  One chronicles Hopkins’ international tour of distilleries as she tries to probe the spirit’s broad and at times cult-like appeal.  In parallel to this, we learn about the history of the drink itself. Alcohol has been a part of everyday life since the earliest days of civilization, but few drinks have influenced and been influenced by human history as profoundly as whiskey.  Especially in Ireland and Scotland, the history of whiskey is inextricable from the history of politics and colonialism.

Though some may yawn at the prospect of reading history, Hopkins’ writing is engaging, informative, and at times whimsical.  Much like we strive to do here at IPTB, her tone is never condescending.  Hopkins approaches the subject as a newcomer, without the pomp of a connoisseur. As she puts it,

What do you do with the folks who are simply crazy-obsessive about their drink? More than any other factor, it is these folks who make the whiskey world so intimidating to newcomers. If you ask a whiskey professional what’s the best way to enjoy the spirit, they’re most likely to respond: “Any way you like.” Ask a whiskey obsessive the same question, and you’re likely to get an answer regarding how much water is proper to add to a specific type of whiskey, and then a lot of detail about how much water to remove for each year that the whiskey has aged. For a newcomer to the spirit, this can be overwhelming.

Undoubtedly, the overall message of 99 Drams of Whiskey is this: whiskey is a drink to be enjoyed. If that means analyzing flavors and dissecting the process, then more power to you. But if you just want a nice tipple to enjoy in good company, then that’s how you should drink it. Whatever your goals are, 99 Drams of Whiskey is a fun read and an informative addition to any boozehound’s library.

Wedding Gift Booze Review: Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka

As we posted earlier in our article A Boozehound Wedding or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bar, Shanna and I recently tied the knot. The process of planning and executing all the details and expenses of a wedding is a wonderful experience that can bring you closer as a couple and make you glad you only have to go through this stressful, nerve-wracking trial once (hopefully).

Luckily for fabled bon vivants such as us (read: notoriously debaucherous), friends and family were kind enough to restock our home bar in the form of wedding gifts. As we delve into the Boozehounds’ rebirth, many of these bottles will be featured in our new six-part series: the Wedding Gift Booze Review.

Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka

First on our list, due to popular demand (read: one man’s persistent nagging), is Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka. Now, my disdain for flavored vodkas is well documented (see also: The Method), but I have made an effort to go into this review with an open mind. Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka comes to us well recommended, and Shanna, at least, doesn’t share my admittedly snobby perspective.

Firefly Distillery has been operating on Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina since 2008 and now offers six varieties of tea infused vodkas, and one sweet tea bourbon. According to their website, Firefly distills its vodkas four times and blends it with Louisiana sugar cane.

Most spirits are distilled only twice with the exception of Irish whiskey, which is triple distilled. Each time a spirit is distilled it becomes more concentrated and increases the alcohol content, with a double distilled product usually around 80-100 proof. I think that it is a testament to the volume of Louisiana sugar cane added to this spirit that after being distilled four times, the final product is still only 70 proof. And there lies the crux of my only criticism of Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka.

This spirit, in its attempt to lasso the novelty cocktail market, has wedged itself into an odd rut. Firefly is too sweet to be a liquor, but too strong to be a liqueur. To drink the spirit straight is like drinking sweet tea syrup. It tastes more like sweet tea than actual sweet tea does and the effect almost makes one feel a bit ill.

But here comes the part where I redeem this sad, mean review. Despite the spirit’s faults on its own, it actually does mix rather well. Now generally when mixing drinks you want to hit a nice balance so that flavors complement each other without overwhelming. Here though the primary goal is to drown the sugar and therefore tall drinks will be your best bet.

Mixing Firefly, we thought that simplicity was probably wise. This vodka has enough flavor to it that adding too much else will end up tasting muddled. We figured that a highball of Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka, lemon juice, and club soda would work quite neatly. (Full recipe to follow) And we were right.

Surprisingly, and perhaps to my mild chagrin, the result was very pleasant and refreshing. At a proper level of dilution it’s possible to actually taste the tea in the sweet tea. The result is a very nice drink for a hot summer evening. Precisely what Firefly Distillery is shooting for.

Firefly’s website also boasts an impressive list of suggested mixes, largely contributed by fans. An alarming number of these recipes, though, encourage you to add even more sugar to your drink, perhaps in bold defiance towards the looming specter of diabetes. However, one of these recipes we can endorse is the Mo-Tea-To, and we’ll post that shortly.

My overall assessment of Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka can be summed up as “better than expected.” Perhaps I am a bit of a reactionary against the Appletini crowd, and this has been something of a lesson to me. I maintain that flavored vodkas and overly sweet cocktails are a crutch for drinkers and bartenders alike, but I’ll at least make an effort to judge each drink on its own merits.

Barley Wine Ales

Veering away from the world of liquor and cocktails for a moment, a few evenings ago Shanna and I found ourselves perusing the recently appended beer section of our local Giant Eagle supermarket. These have been popping up in Giant Eagles lately, along with the much maligned wine vending machines. This is a significant step forward in Pennsylvania’s restrictive liquor laws, which have remained largely unchanged since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. But that’s a subject for another article.

The salient point here is that the few Giant Eagles that are now able to sell six-packs and single bottles of beer actually have a better selection than many traditional distributors. Unlike a distributor, Giant Eagle doesn’t have to invest in several cases of a product, which means they can risk offering micro brewed and niche beers that lack the wide appeal of more traditional brews. Thus Shanna and I were presented with our first opportunity to purchase barley wines.

Smuttynose and Southern Tier Barley Wines

Barley wine (also correct: barleywine, barleywine ale) is a particular style of beer which is generally only offered by smaller scale artisanal breweries. All beer is brewed from malted barley (with wheat beers brewed from a blend of barley and wheat), but the defining characteristic of barley wine is its high alcohol content. Most beer has an alcohol content of around 4-6% ABV. India Pale Ales generally sit at the higher end of that spectrum with 6-7% ABV. Barley wines, however, can range from 8-12% ABV. This puts them closer to the ABV range of most wines, hence the name.

This being our first experience with barley wine, Shanna and I chose two different brands so that we could compare the two. This, we hoped, would help us to distinguish which characteristics were unique to a specific brand and which were common to barley wines in general. We picked up a Smuttynose Barleywine Ale along with the robustly named Southern Tier Back Burner Imperial Barley Wine Style Ale. Both of these came in 22oz bottles; significantly larger than a traditional 12oz beer bottle, but not quite as large as a 750mL (or 25.4oz) standard wine bottle. Keeping in mind barley wine’s high alcohol content, one of these bottles is the perfect size to split between two people.

In the course of our tasting, what struck Shanna and I the most was the fact that barley wines in general don’t taste much different at all from other beers. In fact, the only marked difference is the extra alcohol content, which doesn’t present itself in the flavor of the barley wine the way it will in a liquor. This certainly plays a role in beer writer and historian Martyn Cornell’s assertion that barley wine, as a category of beer, is meaningless. On this point I’m not sure I agree with him, but it is easy to see his point.

The Smuttynose (10% ABV) we found to be fairly light in color and predominated by a hoppy flavor. In a blind test I would have confidently called it an IPA. When tasting, the hops hit the tongue sharply right away. They’re then joined by a smooth malt flavor. Unlike an IPA where the hops tend to overpower the malt entirely, here the two grains almost sit side by side on the palette. These two flavors step aside to allow a fruitiness to dominate the body, which transitions into a long, lingering finish which Shanna identifies with a toffee flavor. The burn of the hops underlines the whole experience until it’s the last flavor left on your tongue. Pairs well with hard salty cheeses like Manchego or Romano, and mild sweet fruits like pear.

If the Smuttynose is akin to an IPA, the Southern Tier (9.6% ABV) is more of a stout. Hops here are only barely perceptible, while dark roasted barley gives this barley wine a heavy, meaty flavor. If there is any flavor element that distinguishes barley wines from other beers, judging by these two examples it’s probably that the malt has a smoother, almost creamy character to it. Perhaps it was the influence of the first bottle, but this second selection didn’t seem to have quite as much complexity to it. The finish was short, and a bit bitter, but as far as stouts go, this barley wine holds its own. The roasted barley flavor wasn’t nearly as abrasive as some stouts can be. This paired well with more flavorful fruits like peaches, and though Shanna and I don’t eat beef I can see this going very nicely with a steak grilled medium rare.

By the time Shanna and I had finished off the two bottles we were, as Hemmingway would have deemed, good and tight. In the interest of science and thorough investigation we deemed it necessary to sample the two back-to-back. For casual enjoyment, however, I would not recommend more than one bottle for every two drinkers. An important part of boozehoundery is remembering to drink for appreciation, not intoxication.

So if you are fortunate enough to find yourself in a situation where you’re contemplating sampling a barley wine, remember to read labels. The flavors you’re likely to encounter are as varied as any brew on the shelf. But since barley wines are generally only offered by small breweries, that are passionate about their product and flavors, you’re almost guaranteed to pick up a quality drink.

If you have a favorite brand of barley wine, we’d like to know about it. Drop us a comment and let us know what you like, and how you prefer to enjoy it.

Hendrick’s Gin

Here at IPTB we make no secret of our partiality to a good gin. For a couple years now I’ve wanted to give Hendrick’s a try, but the almost $30 price tag for 750 ml of hooch has made me hesitant. Finally though, I could no longer resist the allure of that squat ugly bottle. Like so many others in the ancient boozehound tradition, I allowed the call of a good drink to override good sense, and from my first sip I knew I had made the right choice.

Hendrick’s refers to itself as “a gin made oddly,” and the description is apt. Hendrick’s is produced in small batches through a two-still process, which is likely what accounts for the price tag. Smaller batches means more control over the finished product, but it also means higher prices per volume. What’s really intriguing about this gin though is the flavoring. Gin is traditionally infused with juniper for its characteristic flavor. A lot of cheaper gins though will really lean on the juniper flavor to mask the low quality of their liquor. Hendrick’s actually downplays the juniper in favor of the unique combination of cucumber and rose petal infusions.

The result is a mild gin with a floral aroma. Most other gins will dominate the flavor of a drink, but Hendrick’s is a bit more reserved. Because of this, Hendrick’s is probably not the right gin for drinks with strong lemon or lime flavors like the Princeton Cocktail or the Bernardo. The Hendrick’s website does have a nice variety of cocktail suggestions, many of them created specifically to bring out the unique flavors of this odd gin. We’ll post the recipe for one of these, the Pink Victrola, later.

Of course one of the most important metrics for any gin is whether it makes a good Martini, pictured here with the Hendrick’s bottle. As you see, the Hendrick’s website suggests garnishing a Hendrick’s Martini with a slice of cucumber. Now usually I’m pretty strict on what garnish goes in my Martini, either a twist of lemon or three green olives (one olive is skimping, and two is bad luck), but Hendrick’s is so unusual already that I’m willing to bend on this one. As I noted before, this is a mild, dare I say delicate gin. Therefore you’ll want to make a Hendrick’s Martini very dry, as in Saharan.

Hendrick’s is one of those gins that reminds me why I got into amateur boozehoundery to begin with. This is a craft spirit in every sense of the word. This is a gin that substantially changes any drink that you make with it. It’s thanks to craft spirits like Hendrick’s that you can make yourself a Martini every night for a month and never have the same drink twice. And if you’re serious about quality cocktails, $30 for such an interesting and game changing liquor as Hendrick’s is well worth the investment.

For further reading, check out our general Gin article and our review of Bluecoat Gin.