What's with That Onion?, or the Curious Case of the Missing Bitters

I am a big martini fan. A big part of that is the gin--I do love gin. But I also love vermouth. When I was in France I would often have a glass of dry vermouth to accompany my meals in lieu of wine. So when you put those two ingredients together, it is not surprising that I am going to like it. A smidge of orange bitters and the zing of fresh lemon oils--it is a winning combination. But this simple drink has brought about so much controversy. What is the perfect martini? I don't really believe there is one--I like what I like, you like what you like. For posterity, I like my martinis really wet, or really old-fashioned depending on your definitions, with a gin to dry vermouth ratio of 3 to 1 or even 2 to 1 sometimes. I guess that some might consider this close to the original martini recipes, but to me it's more important that I enjoy it than its pedigree.

And while the martini is perhaps the fussiest of three-element cocktails, I never would have guessed that a gibson could also be controversial. I always just assumed that once you swap out the twist or olive for a cocktail onion, BAM! you had a gibson. I use the martini ratio I enjoy, and that is the end of the story. But this is not so.* The controversy comes from the unlikeliest place--the bitters. When some of the first "dry" gin cocktails were entering the cocktail vernacular in the late 1800s, almost all of them included orange bitters. The first recipe I could find for the gibson, published in Boothby's World's Drinks and How to Mix Them (1908), absolutely prohibits the inclusion of bitters. Nothing is mentioned about the garnish at all. In fact in some recipes coming out the 1910s, a citrus garnish is preferred. Thus, originally a gibson was not a martini differentiated by garnish but instead by the absence of bitters. In a way it makes more sense--change an ingredient, change the cocktail. Garnishes do not count. Food for thought--could it be that the modern extra dry martini should not be called a martini at all, but an extra dry gibson?

So to celebrate this fact, here is one of my preferred "martinis," complete with onion garnish, perfect for a warm summer evening. Hell, it works on a cool summer evening as well. When choosing cocktail onions for a garnish, make sure you find ones that are crisp; many have mushy texture that will not do work in a chilled cocktail.

Not a Gibson (Martini with an Onion)

2 ounces gin
1 ounce dry vermouth
1 dash orange bitters

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into an chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a cocktail onion or two.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Halcyon gin, Dolin dry vermouth, Angostura orange bitters, and Sable & Rosenfield's tipsy onions.

* A big thank you to Wendy Miller for inspiring me to research what differentiates a gibson from a martini.


Taming Kummel: Angel's Tears and Army of Shadows

For years Kummel represented one of the larger gaps in my knowledge. On that day when I finally tasted it, I knew that I needed to learn more, but finding one proved difficult. Kummel in general is rare, and those that were available weren't all that impressive. Even here in Seattle, where the Kummel classics the Allies Cocktail and the Epicurean are pretty popular didn't help to solve this problem. Privatization helped the bars gain access to obscure products, while the consumer continues to struggle.

A strange ingredient, Kummel is simultaneously savory and sweet and usually features such complex flavors as anise and caraway. Not all kummels are the same, however. Gilka is more understated and caraway dominant, while the Combier kummel is bursting with cumin. Yes, I said cumin. But it is that cumin that makes it strange and challenging. Caraway and anise are not all that uncommon in the spirit world: Brennivin and all manner of aquavits contain some manner of both. But cumin is another story altogether.

The question quickly changed from where can I get it to how do I use it? Once I bought some, it just sat in my bar cabinet waiting to be opened. The months passed and nothing happened. But I have never let a bottle of booze get the best of me, so I started asking around. And I discovered there is nothing to fear. In some ways, it is best to think of it as yet another savory strongly flavored element that should be used with care, but used nonetheless.

Sweet Vermouth/Quinquina
It seems that sweet vermouth and other quinquinas are a good solution for the problems stronger flavors create. From celery bitters to absinthe, sweet vermouth and its cousins have continued to surprise me with their ability to tame the beasty ingredients. Here is just one example I came across:

Angel's Tears (recipe by Connor O'Brien)

2 ounces rum
1/2 ounce Byrrh
1 tsp Kummel
1 dash Angostura bitters

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Note on Ingrediets: Connor's recipe calls for Byrrh and El Dorado 15. I was out of Byrrh so I substituted Punt e Mes. I also used Combier Kummel.

Ctirus has always been a perfect vehicle for strong flavors. With just one look at the daquiri, it becomes apparent. Add a dash of celery bitters--refreshing and delicious. Add a dash of absinthe, a delightful variation. Even a dash of savory kummel works just fine. Lime juice has the incredible power to mitigate other strong elements and even more than one at a time. Maybe it's because lime is just so tough to begin with. Ben Perri's Army of Shadows definitely shows how citrus can harness the more extreme side of Kummel and allow it to play nice with others.

Army of Shadows (recipe by Ben Perri)

1 1/2 ounces aquavit
1/2 ounce lime juice
1/2 ounce Kummel
1/4 ounce orgeat
1/4 ounce Islay scotch

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Note on Ingredients: I used Arbeg scotch, Small Hands Food orgeat, Linie aquavit and Krogstad aquavit, and Combier Kummel.