When Stephanie asked me to write a post about drinking bitters while bitter, I wasn’t insulted. It would be irresponsible of me at this point to alienate the few friends I’ve retained by taking offense when they recognize the personality I’ve so assiduously built for myself. And obviously, it was meant to be taken lightly, a wink to my grumpish tendencies rather than a pointed, passive-aggressive warning that I’d better perk the fuck up, already. So it didn’t bother me.
Like I said, being bitter isn’t really an issue for me, and so I kind of figured I’d half-ass this one, which is maybe a bad sign or like, a lack of commitment, to be punting already on this thing I agreed to do, but whatever, it’s not like I need anything else in my life to feel like even more of a chore. And I can always stand to do more drinking. The problem arose when I actually set out to do the research on this topic (read: go get a drink) and realized that I’d gotten myself into a bit of a pickle. See, as grumpy and mean as I am on a daily basis, that’s me sober. Or hung-over. Whatever. But I’m actually a good drunk—happy, freewheeling, giggly, everything a women is supposed to be except I don’t really get all that slutty—and have, in point of fact, been using this quality to survive social situations for years now. I tend to be ever so slightly socially anxious on top of my natural cantankerousness, and booze takes those edges right off. I’m not saying I can’t socialize without alcohol, but—I’m not going to say I can’t socialize without alcohol, if you’d just get off my back about it already.
So, shit, right? Here I’m supposed to be trying a couple of different drinks involving bitters and writing about them from the perspective of a naturally crotchety person, or whatever, and I’m confronted with the reality that drinking makes me happy. It’s a fucking paradox, is what it is. Neither can live while the other survives.
Luckily, I live in Portland, where it’s really easy for someone like me (an intolerant, perfectionist conformist) to stack the bitterness deck in my favor. I headed to a bar that I’ve avoided my entire time living in the neighborhood, precisely because I knew it would tick me off. With dark wood, fancy cocktails, a vegan menu and an American Spirits-friendly patio, this place is a hipster haven, with a heavy dash of bro. I invited my sister, who often makes me feel bad about myself because her work and social life is so superior to mine, to reinforce my bitterness barricades. All of the bartenders had on suspenders and trucker caps, and one of the patrons wore a wedding dress. I was furious.
Never having had bitters, I ordered the cocktail on the menu that contained the most of it. No sense wading in when you can cannonball. It was called “Paper Wings” and contained Bombay Sapphire, Amaro Nonino, yellow chartreuse, with angostura and barrel aged bitters, served up. It cost $10. (Note: does the Sauce have an expense account? It should have an expense account.) My sister got something that sounded better and was cheaper than mine, so everything was going according to plan. While we waited I tried to take a picture of the woman in the wedding dress.
When the bartender brought our drinks, I almost felt bad that I had guaranteed myself such a terrible experience. Here I was, fully prepared to get nothing positive at all from this experiment, sacrificing a potentially lovely little champagne saucer cocktail to my pique and a vague blogging directive. Was this how I wanted to live my life? Was this what freedom meant?
And then I tasted it. Here are the notes I took on my phone, verbatim:
“Tastes like the junk drawer in the kitchen”
“Tastes like an old man’s pocket”
“Like walking through the perfume section of Macy’s with your mouth open”
“Secret to drinking: throw back over your tongue, breathe heavily through nose a few times until intensity dissipates. Ignore burning on tongue/back of throat.”
|My face after swallowing. That expression is called "grimace."|
My sister (whose drink was delicious, that cow) went through a bitters phase over the summer—just long enough, she said, to place the flavor as “antique tablecloth”—and then moved on. Tasting mine, we agreed that it was JUST. TOO. MUCH. Ultimately, the name, at least, was perfect—more than anything, the cocktail tasted like chewing the perfume tester strips that you end up with in your pocket after a day at the mall, all twisted and moth-winged. I couldn’t finish it. (Seriously. Expense account.)
So after I recovered, I was just going to write about that whole terrible experience, but then I thought about it and realized I wasn’t being totally fair. Yes, it was important not to lose my expected natural bitterness when experimenting with bitters, but that didn’t mean I had to achieve peak bittering before even tasting those bitters. I didn’t need to be steeped in bitterness, so to speak. I resolved to try again, aiming for a slightly more even keel of peevishness. This time I went to my favorite neighborhood bar—but went when I knew a bartender who frustrated me would be working. I knew I could ask her to make me a drink to order—but also knew it would be expensive. And I went right before accompanying my boyfriend to watch the Cardinals play the NLCS series—and the Cardinals make everyone just a little bit bitter. I explained my predicament to the bartender, who, after she topped off her iced coffee and changed the song on the sound system, decided to make me a Long Hello.
Invented recently by a New York bartender but named after some prog rock album from the ‘70s (sure, whatever), its creator intended it to be the perfect drink for toasting newlyweds at an autumn ceremony. I find both weddings and fall generate just about the perfect amount of bitter in me, so I gave her the go-ahead. And it was, like many things in my grumpy life, actually better than I expected. At the beginning, I mainly tasted the champagne, but as the cocktail warmed up, the deeper flavors started to emerge. The bitters themselves were more a scent than anything else—a whiff of the dried prom corsage you stored away in your childhood closet. Bittersweet.
The Long Hello
3/4 ounce apple brandy (preferably Clear Creek)
3/4 ounce St. Germain elderflower liqueur
1 dash Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel–Aged Bitters or Fee Brothers Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters
Champagne (or dry sparkling wine)
Garnish: freshly grated nutmeg
Combine apple brandy, elderflower liqueur and bitters in a mixing glass.
Add ice and stir until chilled.
Strain into a chilled coupe glass or Champagne flute and top off with Champagne.
Garnish with grated nutmeg.