Thursday, May 15, 2008

Experimenting with Baker's Bitters

As I was fixing up my homemade Amer Picon a couple months back, I noticed that on the same sheet that bore the recipe for said amaro (given to me by a worker at LeNell's) there was a recipe for an orange bitters by Charles H. Baker, Jr., the author of the well-known (among cocktail people, anyway) "The Gentleman's Companion." It didn't look so hard, so I decided to give it a shot.

The first stop involved soaking in grain alcohol (I used vodka) for 15 days: chopped up dried orange peel, and 1/2 drachm ("Drachm"?! Jesus Christ! Had to look that one up!) each of cardamom, caraway and coriander seeds. After 15 days, I poured off the spirits through a cheese cloth and sealed them again. I then took the seeds and peel, put them in pan, muddled them a bit, covered them with boiling water and simmered for five minutes. The whole mixture was then bottled and set for two days. I then drained it off and added it to the spirits. Burnt sugar was added for color. The whole shebang was then filtered an extra time and allowed to sit until it was clear.

I tried it. Smelled good. Tasted good. I was amazed how relatively easy it was to make bitters. I always imagined the stuff impossibly complicated. (The really good ones probably are.) I'm told this was the recipe that Gary Regan used as the base for his orange bitters. Trying Baker's bitters next to Regan's and the Fee Brothers orange bitters, I realized it was a bit simplistic. Both of the others had more depth; Regan's was more bitter and herbal, while Fee's highlighted the bright orange flavor. But Baker's was pleasant. The cardamom comes through strongly, and the potion had a light touch.

I then wondered what to do with the stuff. Were there some old recipes that called specifically for it? I consulted St. John Frizell, a NYC bartender and writer who will be presenting a seminar on Baker at this years Tales of the Cocktail. When he gave me the obvious answer—use them in any drink that calls for orange bitters—I realized how dumb my question one.

I gave Baker's bitter three tries. Once in a Martini, served the old-fashioned way, when it's thought that orange bitters were part of the drink. Then as part of a Pegu Club. And finally as a component of a Bourbon Crusta. All three worked splendidly, and I really felt the delicate flavor of the bitters was an asset, complimenting each drink like a gentle grace note. I was quite pleased.

I also realized how much improved my mixing skills were after taking the B.A.R. course two weeks back.

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