Monday, August 13, 2007
A Glass of Bitters
There are singular bars with singular drinking traditions through the 50 states, but I feel that I recently experienced one of the most peculiar and individual in the land.
I'm talking about Nelson's Hall, perhaps the leading business and certainly one of the only bars on Washington Island, a dollop of land found in Lake Michigan at the top of the Door County Peninsula. (It's in most atlases; go take a look.) The isle, home to the second oldest Icelandic settlement in the U.S., and to a few hundred souls, is still a fairly isolated place, reached only by ferry from Gill's Rock, Wisconsin.
Nelson's Hall was built in 1899 by Danish immigrant Tom Nelson. Tom was a nut for Angostura Bitters. He drank a pint a day, claiming it contributed greatly to his health and longevity. (He did live to 90.) But Nelson was a sly fox. When Prohibition came along, he earned a pharmacist's license, and managed to remain open by telling the Feds that all he was doing was dispensing bitters as a stomach tonic. Nelson's Hall never closed. It claims to be the only bar in the U.S. that remained open during Prohibtion. (I would dispute this. I know of a number of others who, through various forms of chicanery, managed to stay afloat, the famed McSorley's being one.)
Tom's inventive mind led to something called The Bitters Club. To join, one must visit Nelson's and down a shot of Angostura. A witnessing waitress then wets her thumb in the emptied shotglass and plants her print on a Bitters Club membership card, dating and signing it as well.
Because of this odd tradition, Nelson's sells a good deal of Angostura. It claims that (another dubious assertion) that it sells more Angostura Bitters than any establishment in the world. Could be, could be. But Angostura goes in a lot of drinks, and is used by bars that serve a lot more people each day than does Nelson's. Of course, nobody at those other bars drinks the stuff by the glass.