Bitter from the Start: Rediscovering the Japanese Cocktail

Ever since I stumbled on heavily bittered cocktails, I have been hooked. I do very much love bitters. Not only am I known for ordering my soda and bitters with extra bitters, but also for sending said drink back  because it's not opaque enough. Orange juice, lemonades and even soups and fruit compotes are not safe. I  have coerced strangers into accenting their 7 and 7s with a dash or two of Angostura--much to their delight I might add. For me, this almost obsession with bitters all started with the Alabazam. When I first read about it on Jamie Boudreau's blog a few years ago, I was instantly intrigued. And while that cocktail's teaspoon of Angostura bitters pales in comparison to such heavily bittered drinks as the Trinidad Sour and the Stormy Mai Tai, with their whopping ounce and ounce-and-a-half pours of Angostura, respectively, it certainly was the drink that set the stage. Leo Engel first published the recipe for the Alabazam in a time when cocktails called for at most three to four dashes of bitters. Imagine my surprise when I tripped over a cocktail that predates the Alabazam and includes a still impressive half teaspoon of bitters.

It's not what you think. This isn't some often overlooked cocktail that I discovered in the pages of an obscure tome. Not at all. The Japanese cocktail is pretty well known, even if the most recognizable contemporary recipes drastically revise the amount of bitters. First published in Jerry Thomas's Bartender's Guide in 1865, the Japanese cocktail heavily resembles the old-fashioned, comprising a healthy slug of brandy, a sweetener, bitters and lemon peel. It has also been one of my go-to cocktails. The recipe is practically etched in my brain and has been for years--or so I thought. What I never recognized was that the Japanese I knew and loved started out as perhaps the heavily bittered cocktail of its day.

Japanese Cocktail (Jerry Thomas 1865)

1 table-spoonful of orgeat syrup
1/2 tea-spoonful of [Boker's]* bitters
1 wine-glass of brandy [2 ounces]
1 or 2 pieces of lemon peel

Fill the tumbler one third with ice, and stir well with a spoon. [Strain into a chilled cocktail glass or old-fashioned glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.]

Notes on Ingredients: I used Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac and B.J. Reynolds orgeat.

* Original recipe carries a typo, Bogart's for Boker's.

While it is hard to know exactly what happened in the intervening years, by the 1887 edition of Jerry Thomas's guide the recipe had already been altered, severely decreasing the amount of bitters. By 1916, the recipe no longer called specifically for Boker's bitters as it had fallen out of production some time in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Certainly, it would be difficult to fashion an 1862 Japanese cocktail without Boker's. Angostura became the natural second choice. However, as Angostura and Boker's bitters are  both considered aromatic style bitters, they are certainly not the same animal. Boker's bitters is less concentrated than Angostura as well as more mellow. Thus, a smaller amount of Angostura can balance out the orgeat. In the years when Boker's was unavailable this all made perfect sense. But what happened between 1862 and 1887 to warrant the change? While this may remain a mystery, perhaps it is time to reconsider the original recipe.

Last year I became enamored with the idea of increasing the amount of bitters in classic cocktail recipes. I had recently acquired several new bottles of digestive bitters and I was keen to play. Considering that the contemporary recipe for the Japanese cocktail calls for such a scant amount of bitters, it just seemed like the perfect candidate. How interesting to find out that after all this time the Japanese was initially envisioned to withstand more bitters. While the extra Boker's bitters does create a more intense experience, the resulting cocktail still tastes very much like a Japanese cocktail, albeit less sweet. Sometimes,history is full of pleasant surprises.


Crossing a Gimlet with a Gin and Tonic: A Spring Endeavor

I love gimlets in the sunshine. Especially in those early days of spring when the sun first dares to makes its way out from behind the clouds, when the cherry blossoms pepper the tree-lined streets. As usual when the temperatures start to climb and the drizzle stops, my craving for brown and bitter goes on hiatus and gin takes center stage. Instead I find myself delving into more bright, refreshing tastes. It happens every year like clockwork. I sit in front of those first martinis, daiquiris, and corpse revivers and can almost feel winter dissipate. While those drinks are all quite lovely and dear to my heart, nothing compares to a properly made gimlet--a two-ingredient cocktail that is just so simple and perfect.

As I sat at home drinking a gimlet on one of those sunny days, feeling the cool breeze waft in past the sheer curtains, I started thinking about gin and tonics. To many, that would be the quintessential  two-ingredient cocktail that is perfect for spring, summer  and many points in between. Gimlets and G&Ts have much in common. Both rely on the wonderfully crisp flavors of the specific gin to provide the foundation. This choice will characterize the entire drink. I prefer navy-strength London Dry gins for this reason with their heavy juniper notes and fuller flavor that can fully stand up the lime cordial. 

The tough part is matching the other flavors with the gin. Though limes play an important role in both drinks, a gimlet hinges on those flavors. Since a gimlet recipe calls for lime cordial, not juice, the flavors aren't as easy to match up. For instance, using a lime oleo saccharum to prepare the cordial will provide floral accents in addition the traditional lime flavor. Thus, unforeseen complications can arise when attempting to pair the gin with the cordial. Limes in gin and tonics are paramount, but they do not create the same types of issues. In a G&T the way that the herbal tonic water interacts with the botanics of the gin can make or break the drink. The choice of tonic water equally as important as the choice of gin. Unfortunately, for years that is what ruined gin and tonics for me--ghastly tonic.

For years I thought I hated gin, but in reality it was the tonic. Over the years, I have discovered that not all tonics are gross. Though few and far between, some artisanal tonic water is actually delicious, even on its own. About a year ago my good friend Sonja and I were lamenting the shortcomings of G&Ts. She too was exploring some of the newer products that were available. In the end, she went a step further and made her own tonic syrup. It makes quite a delicious tonic water, though on its own it is bitter, as it should be. With a generous splash of club soda, gin and tonics were transformed far beyond what I had expected. 

So as I sat in the afternoon sunshine, feeling that still-present chill, with the ideas of spring and gin swirling through my head, I wondered what would happen if I added a bit of tonic syrup to my gimlet. Just a little to invite some of that bitter quinine to the party and dry out the cordial. The result was better than I imagined. The gimlet retained its refreshing herbaceous qualities, but the complexity it gained made it quite irresistible.

G&T Gimlet

2 ounces gin
1/2 ounce lime cordial
1 bar spoon quinine syrup

Shake ingredients until bone-chilling cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Perry's Tot, a navy strength gin made in Brooklyn, NY, homemade lime cordial, and Sonja's quinine syrup.

Further note on quinine syrup: Sonja used the tonic water recipe that she found on Jeffrey Morgenthaler's site. However, there are commercial quinine syrups on the market, though I have not tried either one. Other recipes for tonic syrup are also available online, including one from Imbibe magazine.