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The Great Pennsylvania Bitters Shortage of 2009

December 31, 2009

Small-town Pennsylvania has had some bad breaks.  There was the great Johnstown flood.  And then of course all the steel mills shut down.  I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, the great bitters shortage of 2009 really pales in comparison.

But dammit, when it’s December 30th and you are hell-bent on making champagne cocktails for New Year’s Eve on the farm, it’s a big freaking deal.

I think it’s safe to say that Pennsylvania’s liquor laws are even more draconian than New York’s.  All liquor sales are controlled by the state.  If you want wine or liquor you need to go to a state store.  State stores are closed on Election Day.

If you are one of those people who opposes Federal regulation and prefers things to be handled by the states, let me submit to you the example of Pennsylvania.  Pennsylvania is out of aromatic cocktail bitters.  That’s right.  The whole state is out.

And here’s the punchline: they’ve been out of bitters for six weeks!  At least that’s what several people at local state stores have told me.

What? How is that even possible?

But I was told not to panic, because local supermarkets carry bitters too.  Except they don’t.  They are are also out.

After a bit of calling around, I was advised to skip the larger supermarkets.  The best chance for actually finding a bottle of bitters was to find a smaller less busy market.  Even there I had no luck.  Thankfully on the other side of town my mother-in-law procured one of the last remaining bottles of the stuff in the state.

Which is good, because we already had assembled the other necessary ingredients for the cocktail: mixing “Champagne,” mixing brandy and sugar cubes.

This whole project was my brother-in-law’s idea.  But admittedly I am looking forward to having the cocktails later today.  It’s a simple preparation.  Soak the sugar cube with bitters, add an ounce of brandy, and fill the champagne flute with bubbly.

I understand the idea that a good cocktail is only as good as its ingredients.  In theory that means the better ingredients you use, the better the finished drink.  But I enjoy good champagne on its own, and I have a difficult time adulterating something that is so well made.

This leads me to seek out ingredients that are good enough to drink on their own, but not so good that I blanch at the thought of using them for mixed drinks.

My go-to mixing “Champagne” is Chateau Ste. Michelle Brut sparkling wine.  It’s a fine sparkler with a delicate bubble structure that give it a surprisingly creamy mouthfeel for a wine that generally costs less than $10 a bottle.

For brandy, my experience making stuffing for Thanksgiving proved the value of Raynal.  I don’t have my library on the road, but F. Paul Pacult agreed that it’s a fine spirit, and an amazing value given its quality.

Now we are all set to bring in the New Year.  Beyond beer, wine and cocktails, we have enough pork and sauerkraut to make this a very lucky year indeed.

Have a happy new year, and may next year be even better than the last.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. mirdreams permalink
    December 31, 2009 12:54 pm

    What kind of bitters would you recommend for this, if you were in a place where there was more than one kind (or one bottle)?

    • December 31, 2009 1:39 pm

      For this I would go with the Angostura bitters. I have seen some recipes calling for Peychaud’s bitters. But while I do like anise, I’m not a big fan of the flavor in sparkling wine. Which is why despite being a lover of absinthe, Hemingway, and the name “Death in the Afternoon” for a cocktail, I still don’t care for the drink.

      • mirdreams permalink
        December 31, 2009 1:57 pm

        Those I can get at PChops so good deal. I’ve been meaning to try bitters.

  2. Caroline permalink
    January 1, 2010 1:02 pm

    The shortage of Angustura bitters is actually a sad story regarding recession hit Trinidad and Tobago where they are produced. Ingredients shortage and management issues have halted production temporarily and bars in the US are seizing up what little bitters are left on the market. You’re lucky to find them in the stores at all for now, but a few smaller markets have dusty bottles here and there. There are lots of other great biiters, like the Fey line and Stirrings, but nothing that compares at all to Angustura!

  3. MiMi permalink
    January 15, 2010 4:38 pm

    I’m just catching up on my reading, so this is late. It is my understanding that there is a serious shortage of bitters everywhere.

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