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Call Me Mr. Bitter

May 20, 2009

What if you went to a restaurant, you read over the menu, you found a dish that looked good, you ordered it, and when you took a bite you realized it was missing something.  You think about it, and quickly realize, “The chef used no seasoning.”

Then what if you went around to other restaurants, and you had the same problem all over town?

This is the sad situation of bars these days.  And it’s not just in Albany.  Sure there are good bars that keep aromatic cocktail bitters in stock, but an alarming number do not.  It is absolutely the equivalent of a restaurant that does not use seasonings in the kitchen.

Let’s go back a bit.

There is much debate about the origins of the cocktail.  But many sources suggest the earliest cocktails were combinations of spirits mixed with bitters.

They are the secret ingredients.  They give a drink complexity and depth.  They give a cocktail a subtle flavor that you can notice but might not be able to quite put your finger on.  They are the satiny ribbon that ties up the base spirits in the glass into their bow.

Whiskey and vermouth are just “whiskey and vermouth.”  But whiskey, vermouth and bitters is a Manhattan.  Even a classic Martini calls for a dash of orange bitters (although you will always find naysayers who insist otherwise).  Then there are some drinks that use more than one or two dashes of the stuff.

My in-laws live in rural Pennsylvania.  This is the first time I mention them, but they will come up a lot.  They live on 40 acres about three hours from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.  They are not fussy about food like I am.  So I sometimes use them as my test subjects to get an average person’s opinion on a matter of taste.

Bitters are used by the dash.  And when I was explaining their use to my father-in-law it naturally sounded like snobbish tomfoolery.  I could see his argument.  How can a small dash from this bottle really make a significant difference in a drink that is full of 80 proof spirits?

Accepting the challenge, I made two identical Manhattans.  The first contained 2 oz. Maker’s Mark, 1 oz. Martini and Rossi sweet vermouth, 1 dash Angostura bitters, 1 drop Fee’s orange bitters.  The other omitted the bitters.  I STIRRED them both equally over ice and strained them into identical chilled glasses.

These were prepared in a separate room and presented blindly to a thoughtful and curious subject.  After tasting each, the subject identified he first had noticed a difference and second had determined a favorite.  The favorite was the properly made drink.  Naturally.  Once again, my in-laws come through.

Today with the classic cocktail movement gaining momentum, the availability of bitters has reached an unprecedented level.  Yet I still have difficulty finding them here in Albany.

Apparently we have some bizarre laws on the books.  My current understanding is that wine and spirits can only be sold in liquor stores.  Supermarkets are allowed to sell beer and mixers.  Liquor stores on the other hand are prohibited from selling mixers.  Got that?  Could you imagine the chaos that would be visited upon New York if wine and spirit stores were permitted to sell orange juice?

Anyhow.  Some genius decided that bitters – despite Angostura being bottled at 90-proof – are mixers and not spirits in their own right.  So liquor stores can’t sell them, but grocery stores can.

Sadly, grocery stores couldn’t give a flying fart about classic cocktails.  And to date, I have yet to find Fee’s orange bitters, Peychaud’s bitters, or even Angostura’s new line of orange bitters on shelves anywhere in the area.

Luckily, I have not been afraid to take matters into my own hands.  But that’s another story.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2009 10:43 am

    NY likes to pretend it’s still oddly puritanical. I’d blame Giuliani, but the problems extend way beyond him.

    I was delighted when I was in Portland, Oregon to see *shock* liquors and mixers in the same shop. On the other hand, you couldn’t buy wine and liquor in the same store, but you could get wine and beer at the grocery store and even at a gas station/convenience shop.

  2. James Bonb permalink
    May 20, 2009 9:19 pm

    Did you say stirred? Not shaken? A MARTINI??!!??

    What’s up with that?

  3. May 21, 2009 3:26 pm

    I really don’t understand how bitters are classified as a mixer, too. However, the good folks at All Star were quick to school me on the deal with bitters. Still, I’ve also been on the hunt for Peychaud’s – found any?

    • May 26, 2009 11:34 pm

      I am excited to report that I have found Peychaud’s bitters!

      They are now available at the FUSSYlittleSTORE in the bitters section.

      Given the strange laws of our state, I was wondering if there would be a problem shipping a mixer. So I ordered some myself. While the product has yet to arrive, the order went through fine, and I am cautiously optimistic everything will go according to plan.

  4. Carol Maxwell permalink
    July 28, 2009 2:11 am

    I too am mystified by the strange NY state laws about selling spirits, wine and liquor. A few months ago, I was searching out higher-quality bitters in Saratoga Springs and visited Purdy’s – absolutely the best store in the area for wine and liquor. They told me that they only had the “garden variety” bitters, but that they had heard of a place in Johnstown (northwest of Albany) that sold Fee Bros. bitters. Johnstown is a bit of a hike, but I intend to take a field trip to check out this store. After looking around, it appears that the store in question is De Mi’s, on Main Street in Johnstown. Obviously more complicated than mail order, but I feel an unexplainable compulsion to visit this store, and see perhaps what other little gems they have for sale…

  5. Richie from Nisky permalink
    June 9, 2010 10:45 am

    It’s not just in Albany that there is a lack of bitters in so-called “well stocked bars”, it is everywhere, I’m afraid. I chalk it up to the “younger” generation drinking things like Cosmopolitans, Mojitos, and Long Island Iced Tea. As a Manhattan drinker, I can tell you that I have only found competent (read: having bitters)bars and bartenders in upscale steakhouses, both here and in the New York metro area, including Long Island. With last year’s world-wide disapperance of Angostura bitters, I resorted to purchasing an assortment of bitters through Love the blog, BTW.

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