Cocktail history unofficially began when someone somewhere added bitters to his (or her, though unlikely) morning dram. But what exactly are bitters? We know the names. The ubiquitous Angostura. The classics, Regan's and Peychaud's. Brands such as the Bitter Truth, Bittermens, Scrappys and a host of others anchor the newer, more modern entries into the bitters catalogue. But what are they really, I mean, besides bitter? Usually, they consist of complex, unabashedly intense combinations of flavor where at least one element is just plain God-damned bitter--thus, the bittering agent. Quassia, Gentian, and Calamus are all examples of the extreme versions, though many other herbs are available that have varying strengths. Layered on top of these potent, sometimes even eye-watering flavors are the tasty elements one might actually like to encounter: grapefruit, orange, cloves, cinnamon, rhubarb, lavender, the list goes on and on and is expanded by the day. By combining a bittering agent with these more palatable flavors, you get bitters. And once you have tasted them straight, usually as a single drop or three, it is easy to understand why they are only used in dashes.
For a cocktail, bitters are transformative. In an Old Fashioned, the bitters add embellishment to slightly sweetened straight spirits. But over time as cocktails became more complicated, and a whole slew of ingredients were introduced to the barman's milieu, the role of bitters grew. No longer did bitters just add that zip of flavor to invigorate a glass of spirits and balance the sweetness. Indeed, they became the glue that pulled a drink together. One tiny dash could connect the dots among disparate ingredients and contribute a certain amount of depth. To boil it all down, bitters keep your taste buds in the game by keeping the whole experience interesting from first chilled sip to the last swig.
Somewhere along the line, though, bitters changed. Not by name or definition, but instead by what could be used as bitters. Dashes of other stongly flavored ingredients were soon finding their way into cocktails to "finish" them and ensure balance. Absinthe is probably the most widely acknowledged classic ingredient to be used this way, though it is not the only one. Considering absinthe's high proof--most of them historically clock in at around 130 proof--it is not surprising that both the strength and intense bitter wormwood flavor allowed absinthe to be used in dashes to excellent effect, just like bitters. Even in small amounts, it has enough flavor to stand out and compliment all sorts of unruly cocktail ingredients.
But absinthe isn't the only strong flavor that can be used this way. Green chartreuse, scotch, mezcal, and even Fernet Branca have all taken their turn as bitters. Whether these untraditional ingredients are added in dashes to the shaker or employed as aromatic rinses, contemporary bartenders have experimented with these flavors to add an extra dimension to an original cocktail or twist a classic.
For a long time I overlooked this phenomenon. Even as I read Gary Regan's article in the San Francisco Chronicle touting smoky scotch's new role, I barely batted an eyelash. But this was all pre-Meat Hook. While visiting Vancouver, Canada earlier this year that I was lucky enough to try this delicious play on the Red Hook at L'Abbatoir. It took an Ardbeg-laced Manhattan variation to really make me sit up and pay attention to the possibilities. By practicing restraint with such a bold flavor, a new experience is uncovered. It was amazing. Thankfully, the recipe was easy to find thanks to a Drinker's Peace, a Vancouver drinks blog.
Meat Hook (adapted from A Drinker's Peace, original created by Shaun Layton)
1 1/2 ounces rye
3/4 ounce Punt e Mes
1/3 ounce Islay scotch
1 teaspoon maraschino liqueur
Stir ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a brandied cherry.
Notes on Ingredients: I used Rittenhouse 100 proof, Ardbeg, and Maraska maraschino.