Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Acquired Taste: Homemade Bitters & Georgia Prizefight

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If there’s a flavor for whom appreciation only arrives with age, that flavor would be bitterness.

That’s not to say that most people become bitter with age; I would certainly hope not. Rather, I’m speaking about the flavor profile – astringent, sharp, piercing…shocking, even. And yet, so many of life’s more adult (and particularly liquid) pleasures – a well-brewed cup of coffee, the tannic finish on a glass of feisty red, the quinine snap of tonic water – are built if not focused on this unusual sensation.

All of the other tastes – sweet, sour, salty, umami – can be, and often are, appreciated from youth, and appreciated intuitively. Only bitter needs to be learned. It’s been surmised that the aversion to it seen early in life is a deep-ingrained evolutionary memory; the vast majority of poisonous fruits and vegetables found in the wild have a distinct bitterness to them. In short, a few cavemen died, everyone else learned to spit out bitter things, and the natural inbred appreciation and desire for such flavors was lost.

And what a tragedy that is! After all, there is nothing like bitterness to stimulate the appetite. The mouth draws in, saliva washes over the palate, the body begins to crave substance to fill the whole even then developing deep in the gut.

Few civilizations know this better than the Italians, who have turned the enjoyment of pre-dinner bitterness into an art form. Few things prepare the stomach for a feast better than a tall glass of Campari, or a short, fierce dram of Fernet-Branca, the latter of which many imbibe for the purpose after-dinner relief as well. And these, you see, are only two of hundreds of bitters and amari, a multitude of varieties that come in every color, flavor, and mouthfeel you can think of. Once you try a few, you become hooked – the search for the perfect pre-dinner glass can be a committed journey.

Even non-alcoholic examples abound, like Crodino, a sparkling bitter with a lovely orange hue; the friendly color of the glass betraying the deeply resonant lash of herbal intensity found in each swallow. But the truth of the matter is that your search doesn’t have to be restricted to commercial products; making your own is easy, affordable, and fun.

Let’s get to it.

Homemade Bitters

1 and 1/4 Cups Grain Alcohol or Vodka

10 Sichuan Peppercorns
2 inches of Ginger, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
Peel of 1/2 Orange
15 Black Peppercorns
1/2 stick Cinnamon

2 Tablespoons Light Brown Sugar

1/4 Cup Water

Start by preparing your ginger and orange peel.

Next, place the alcohol, Sichuan Peppercorns, Ginger, Orange Peel, Black Peppercorns, and Cinnamon in a mason jar. Seal the jar and place it in a cool, dark place for 24 to 48 hours.

After everything's had time to steep, add the Brown Sugar and Water into the jar. Shake vigorously to dissolve the sugar. Finally, strain your bitters from the contents of the jar, and bottle them.

That's it! This recipe is just one example – what I want you to take from this recipe is the pattern of elements. Every alcoholic bitter includes four elements; an alcohol base, flavoring agents (herbs, spices, zests, and the like), sugar (for balance), and water (for dilution).

This particulars bitters has tremendous flavor; the bright citrusy burst of traditional orange bitters, yes, but with a seriously bracing kick from the ginger, cinnamon, and peppercorns. The Sichuan Peppercorns, in particular, for those of you who haven't had the delight of cooking with them, provide not the hot fire of a habanero, but a numbing, intoxicating heat that leaves your lips tingling for an hour afterwards.

Anyway, this is just a basic idea -- as long as your bitters are, well, bitter, you can accentuate them with any spice, herb, fruit, meat...really, any flavor you can get your hands on. They're easy, fun, and will give your home bar a dash of originality and flair.

Of course, having made bitters, I couldn't not make a cocktail! I decided to base it on the flavor of some fantastic peaches that I found -- this time of year, pretty much any farmer's market across the country will have some beautiful examples. And what goes better with peaches than bourbon? This would be a lovely libation, and, with the help of my bitters, one with a fresh, fanciful kick.

Georgia Prizefight

3 oz. Bourbon
1/2 oz. Homemade Orange-Pepper Bitters
1 Peach
1 tablespoon Brown Sugar


Gather your bourbon and your peach. Cut a thin wedge from your peach and set it aside.

Take your blender (we have a fantastic Cuisinart hand blender, one of the most useful things in our kitchen), slice up the rest of your peach, and, after adding the bourbon, the brown sugar, and the bitters, liquify the whole thing.

Strain any leftover pulp out from the blended liquid. Pour the strained cocktail into a shaker with lots of ice. Shake vigorously.

Finally, strain out the ice, pour your cocktail into a glass, and garnish with the remaining peach slice! The final product:

This is a tremendous cocktail -- ripe and lush from the fresh peach, resonant and full from the bourbon, and all tied together with the searing lash of the bitters. Get in the ring with it if you like, but watch out for the rope-a-dope.

That's all for now! My apologies that the posts have been so few and far between; law school keeps me more than a little occupied these days. I will keep updating the page of course, and on a semi-regular basis. After all, everyone needs a study break now and then. I'll see you all soon! I've got a wonderfully-indulgent first course just waiting up my sleeve.

Music: The Verve & Jay-Z: Bittersweet Dirt

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