Ode to Bitters: Alabazam

You know that you are a confirmed cocktail geek--a state beyond that of mere cocktail enthusiast--when you hear yourself repeatedly saying, "You should add bitters to that." (I am sure Tracy can tell you the other warning signs, but this is my personal benchmark.) Any spirit and tonic, add bitters. Seven and Seven, add bitters. Club soda with a slice of lime, add bitters. They have become my go-to garnish! Bitters are wonderful and can enhance the other flavors in the glass like nothing else. In celebration of all things bitters, I will post recipes for cocktails that are all about the bitters, where the bitters gain standing as a real ingredient as opposed to being relegated to a trifling dash. So on with our quest to find drinks with heaping amounts of bitters.

The Alabazam is a drink that was rediscovered by Jamie Boudreau in late 2008 in response to a Mixology Monday where the theme was nineteenth-century cocktails. It was the original creation of Leo Engels, an American expatriate from New York City who tended bar at the Criterion's American Bar in London when it first opened. The recipe is collected in Engel's American and Other Drinks, published in 1878. And though Engel liberally lifted many drinks from Jerry Thomas's tome, How to Mix Drinks, this recipe seems to be an original. This drink has traveled the cocktail blogging circuit, but not a lot more has been introduced about the man behind this wonderful little tipple. (On a side note, William Schmidt, the Only William, also includes a drink by the name Alabazam in his book, The Flowing Bowl: What and When to Drink, published in 1891. His Alabazam, though remarkably similar, does not contain that one ingredient that sets Engel's drink apart, the aromatic bitters. His drink contains a jigger of brandy and 2 dashes of curacoa that have been stirred with a lemon/sugar mixture. )


1 1/2 ounces cognac
2 teaspoons Cointreau
1 teaspoon Angostura bitters
1 teaspoon simple syrup
1 teaspoon lemon juice

Shake ingredients in an ice-filled shaker. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

As you can see, those bitters make the drink quite a deep shade of red and it is almost opaque. It is incredibly luscious looking, kind of like liquid velvet. The Angostura's cloves dominate the aromas, though a hint of citrus is barely detectable through the fog of spice. A drink with an amazing nose is always a good sign, and the taste does not disappoint. The cloves surge through the other flavors almost threatening to blanket them completely. It is only with subsequent sips that the cognac, lemon and mild orange flavors appear. But as my mouth became accustomed to the effervescent taste of the bitters, I noticed the other flavors were layered on top, waiting to be unearthed. This drink is wickedly complex and challenging for the palate. I even thought I detected a slight taste of cherries that I think might have been yet another flavor that the bitters contributed. The texture is smooth, and perhaps is due to the copious amount of Angostura. (As we explore other heavily bittered cocktails, maybe this will come up again.) The drink is very dry at the end, another consequence of the bitters, and the cinnamon and clove flavors linger long after the swallow. All in all this is an awesome cocktail.



Back in the dark days of college, I drank whiskey sours. They were fast and easy, tart and sweet and boozy all at once. But they weren't really whiskey sours. Sure, there was whiskey, probably Jim Beam. And there was something sour and sweet, but it came from a packet and I for one have no idea what was in it. I shudder to even think on it now. Dark days indeed!

A change came in my own drinking habits around six or so years ago. It all began with an appreciation for fresh-sqeezed juices in a cocktail. It sounds oh so simple now. I also learned that simple syrup is really, well, simple to make. Whiskey sours were forever changed, but tasty as they were, they really didn't match up well against other sour drinks that had made it into the usual rotation--South Sides, French 75s, Daiquiris, Mojitos.  Until last summer, I don't think I had made or ordered a whiskey sour in over five years, and it might have been longer. But that was before I had made that one last jump to become a real cocktail enthusiast: I had to tackle the egg.

The Pink Lady was the first drink I ordered that included an egg white. It changed my mind about drinking cocktails containing eggs. It is safe to say it changed my mind about eggs in general, but that is a longer tale. Soon thereafter, I embarked on my own egg white adventure and made a whiskey sour. I shook that shaker without and with ice, and until my arms hurt. The conclusion was: Wow! Without the egg, the whiskey sour is refreshing and tasty. But what this drink gains from the egg white is an incredible velvety texture and this luscious foam. Everything I had previously thought about the whiskey sour changed.

A year has passed, and, even though they are a pain in the ass to make, egg white drinks are pretty common in my cocktail rotation. Whenever Tracy is making some homemade ice cream, which uses a lot of egg yolks, I am tasked with finding a use for the leftover whites. And in the summer, we have homemade ice cream as often as we can. Now the whiskey sour is one of my favorite egg white drinks, but during the summer we like to change things up and drink pisco sours. And boy should we be drinking these year-round.

Pisco Sour

2 ounces pisco
3/4 ounce lemon juice (or lime)
3/4 - 1 ounce simple syrup (to taste)
1 egg white
several dashes Amargo Chuncho bitters (sub Angostura or other aromatic)

Shake all ingredients except bitters in long and hard, pehaps using the hawthorne strainer coil for assistance. Fill shaker with ice and shake for 10 second more or so. Strain into a chilled double old fashioned glass. Garnish foam with bitters. I used a toothpick to achieve the swirling effect. 

The aroma wafting from the glass full of bitters -- spicy and warm. There is also the slightest hint of the citrus that is lying in wait.  This drink is one that needs to be waded into. First you must pass through the creamy citrusy foam with the bitters' spice wafting in your nose. Then there is the velvety texture of the drink below, heavy with pisco and citrus. The dominance of the pisco mellows with each sip leaving you with a refreshing and smooth libation. You wouldn't think that egg drinks make such fine summer beverages, but they are richly textured, but not heavy. Though there is much debate over which citrus comprises the true pisco sour, the drink is equally good using lemon or lime juice, just different. Sometimes different variations can be equally pleasant regardless of a drink's historical authenticity. I just happened to have lemons in the house. The egg white helps bring the entire drink together, as the proportion of citrus to syrup might on its own seem altogether too tart. Pisco is the star of this cocktail and you will notice its spice and smokiness and on every sip.


July Fourth: Pimm's Cup

In Seattle, it is said that summer begins on July 5. And without fail, every year that I have lived here the Fourth of July, day of barbecues and picnics, sunburns and fireworks, has been wet and cold . . . and sometimes foggy. This year was no exception. But, just because it was cold and dreary outside, didn't mean we had to miss out on the festivities--just the heat and the sunshine and the barbecue. So regardless of what was happening on the other side of the window, homemade baked beans, grilled veggie burgers, homemade pickles and a big fresh mixed green salad still dominated our holiday menu. And even as we huddled under our blankets and watched movies, we were still drinking highballs.

We began the night with the quintessential highball, the Pimm's Cup. For me this drink usually signifies the beginning of spring, but as we didn't have much of a spring, it is heralding in the summer. It goes down easy and is refreshingly herbal. Pimm's is such an interesting spirit, and we are lucky to still have it around. I am sure that this drink is one of the reasons why.  Pimm's No. 1 actually is a product of a forgotten time--the time of the bottled cocktail. Both Pimm's and Rock and Rye began as medicinal remedies that were prebatched. Jerry Thomas includes recipes for shrubs in his Bartender's Guide from 1862. These concoctions were prepared, bottled and meant to be enjoyed later. Harry Craddock devotes an entire section of the Savoy Cocktail Book to prepared cocktails for bottling, though they number only four.

To me at least, Pimm's No. 1 has always stood out simply because it is still here. Originally invented in 1823, Pimm's is a mixture of gin, quinine and a secret blend of herbs. Over the years several other Pimm's products were produced, each based on a different base liquor. Unfortunately, many of them do not exist at all, and others are extremely rare. In some parts of the country the still-produced brandy-based Pimm's No. 3 is imported under the label Pimm's Winter Cup. As far as I know, Seattle isn't one of those places. But good old Pimm's No. 1 is still available in my liquor store, and this pleases me to no end.

Pimm's Cup (modified)

2 thin slices of cucumber
2 dashes Bitter Truth Celery Bitters
2 ounces Pimm's No. 1
Ginger Beer

 In a heavy-bottomed collins glass, muddle cucumber in celery bitters. Add ice and Pimm's and fill with ginger beer. Give it a quick stir, and add cucumber spear and seasonal berries (optional). Note: I usually add a bit more ginger beer after the stir to replenish the bubbles.

Now this is not the traditional recipe for a Pimm's Cup. For starters, we did not have any lemon-lime soda to really enjoy our British picnic classic. Second, usually there are no bitters or muddled cucumber, but I thought, what the hell? It sounded good and it was. I added blueberries because we had some and it added a nice contrasting flavor. If I had had any mint in the house I might've slapped some and dropped that in on top as well.