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.
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.
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