Bitters and Bittered

bittersCocktail bitters reside in a class by themselves. Essentially, cocktail bitters are aromatics and flavoring extracts that have been macerated in neutral spirits. Cocktail bitters are so intensely concentrated as not to be considered potable on their own—or, as the official phrasing has it, “Not for singular consumption.”

 

Most cocktail bitters are botanicals in a neutral spirit base, although, while uncommon, it is possible to produce bitters with a glycerin base. In the United States, cocktail bitters are considered “food extracts” and are therefore regulated by the Food and Drug Administration rather than by the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB) or other alcohol-regulating agencies. Thus, they have wider distribution than wines and spirits, including in most food and grocery stores.

 

Cocktail bitters began, much like many other spirit groups, as medicinal and restorative tonics created by infusing botanicals in alcohol in order to extract their (presumed or actual) health benefits. One of the most prevalent forms of bittering agents used was Peruvian cinchona bark, also called quinine, which became popular as part of the potions used to treat malaria and tropical fevers. Other common bittering botanicals were used as well, and many are still in use today, such as caffeine, hops, gentian, and burdock root, as well as many other forms of herbs, roots, leaves, barks, and spices.

 

Flowering Gentian

Flowering Gentian

Some of these medicinal elixirs were favored as refreshing beverages, while others remained in highly concentrated form as tonics. In many cases, the tonics came to be used to flavor other beverages, as in the gin and tonic, pink gins, and other such drinks, where a dash of bittering agents was called for to liven the drink. Bitters were so much a part of beverage culture that the earliest definition of a cocktail included a bittering agent. To be exact, the definition, formulated in 1806, listed “spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitter.”

 

Outside of FDA regulations regarding use of certain approved foodstuffs, there is no limit or regulation on what may constitute a recipe for cocktail bitters; thus, much is left up to the discretion and whim of the creator. Cocktail bitters have found a new popularity, and there are many unique, creative products on the market today. Two of the most “classic” brands are Angostura Bitters and Peychaud’s Bitters: 

 

Angostura Bitters: The most well-known of the cocktail bitters began with the House of Angostura. Angostura Bitters were created as a medical concoction in 1824 by Dr. Johann Siegert, a doctor in Simón Bolivar’s Venezuelan army. It was named after the town of Angostura (later, Ciudad Bolivar), although, oddly enough, the recipe did not contain the local angostura bark as an ingredient, even though other bitters did. The House of Angostura later relocated to Port of Spain

Photo of “Angostura bitters 003" by Gryffindor

Photo of “Angostura bitters 003″ by Gryffindor

in Trinidad, where it resides today. The company also owns and operates rum distilleries on the island, both for the Angostura brand and by general contract for several others. Readily recognizable with its bright yellow cap and oversize paper label, Angostura is easily the world’s dominant brand of bitters.

 

Peychaud’s Bitters: Peychaud’s Bitters were invented by the Haitian Creole Antoine Amédée

Peychaud in his apothecary shop in New Orleans, circa 1830. The concoction was originally designed to go in his powerful spirit libations said to be served in dainty eggcups known by the French term coquetiers (a possible explanation for the origin of our term “cocktail”). This is a savory, exotic style of bitters with highly lifted aromatics. Peychaud’s Bitters are an integral part of the original recipe for the Sazerac cocktail.

 

As a pleasant side effect of the current cocktail renaissance, the bitters market is exploding with

artisan and local versions of cocktail bitters, with more entering the market each day. Fee Brothers, Regan’s #6 Orange Bitters, Bittermen’s, the Bitter Truth, Bittercube, Basement Bitters, and Bar Keep Bitters are among the many artisan-produced bitters available today. A plethora of flavors are also being produced; one can find bitters based on fennel, lavender, grapefruit, rhubarb, dandelion, molé, pineapple, apple, curry, and Jamaican jerk seasoning.

 

The creativity for bitters, it seems, knows no bounds.

Cocktail bitters, bittered spirits, vermouth, quinquinas, and Americanos are all topics that receive new and expanded coverage in our 2015 edition of the Certified Specialist of Spirits Study Guide…due out by January!

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The Bartender’s Handshake

Fig 10-7 different brands of fernetThe beverage world abounds with spirit amari (bittered spirits), which may be classified as aperitifs, which are generally served in diluted forms as cocktails to stimulate the appetite, or as digestifs, which are often served in more concentrated forms to enhance digestion after a meal.

These amari contain botanicals with carminative properties intended to lessen gastric discomfort after rich meals. Just ask a bartender, a wine student, or a serious foodie you will hear them tell you its true: they work! Botanicals known for their carminative properties include angelica, aniseed, basil, caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, ginger, hops, nutmeg, parsley, and sage.

One of the most popular Spirit amari is Fernet Branca. Fernet Branca was invented in Milan in 1845 by Bernardino Branca. It soon became famous worldwide and led to the founding of the Fratelli Branca Distillery.

Archives of the Boston Public Library

Archives of the Boston Public Library

Fernet has recently become quite popular in the United States as both a beverage and a hangover cure, but its popularity long precedes the craft cocktail scene. So popular is it among industry professionals that a shot of Fernet Branca has been called the “bartender’s handshake.”

In Prohibition-era San Francisco, fernet was legally consumed on the grounds of being “medicinal.” San Franciscans still drink it—over 30% of the fernet consumed throughout the entire United States is consumed in San Francisco.

Argentina consumes more fernet than any other nation. The beverage’s popularity is reflected in the fact that a leading  Cuarteto (an upbeat, popular dance-hall music genre) song is “Fernet con Cola.” 

The secret recipe for Fernet Branca is reportedly known by only one person, Niccolò Branca, the current president of the Fratelli Branca Distillery. It is said that Niccolò personally measures out the flavorings for each production run.

Fernet ValleyThe Branca brand, while definitely one of the better-known, is not the only producer of fernet. Fernet is actually a type of herbal-based bitter that is made by other producers, as well. Many Italian companies, including Luxardo, Cinzano, and Martini & Rossi, produce fernet. Fernet is produced internationally, as well, such as in Mexico, where the popular Fernet-Vallet is made.

Each brand of fernet has its own secret combination of herbs and botanicals. However, a good fernet is likely to include myrrh and saffron, both known for their “disgestivo” and antioxidant properties. Other ingredients rumored to be included are linden, galangal, peppermint oil, sage, bay leaves, gentian root, St. John’s wort, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, and bitter orange.

Fernet Branca, as well as other versions of Italian spirit armai, French spirit amer, and various types of vermouth, quinquina, and americano that will be covered in the new 2015 edition of the Certified Specialist of Spirits study guide…to be released in January, 2015!

Post authored by Jane A. Nickles, CSS, CWE – your SWE Blog Administrator: jnickles@societyofwineeducators.org

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We are live at Pearson Vue Testing Centers!

Pearson is aliveAfter months of preparation, SWE is pleased to announce that our CSS and CSW Exams are ready, published, and awaiting candidates at Pearson Testing Centers worldwide!

Candidates have begun receiving their authorization emails and can now make appointments for the CSS and CWE exams at the testing center of their choice. The first exams are scheduled for 9:00 am on Monday, May 5th. (I have an appointment for the CSW Exam on Wednesday, May 7th at 10:00 am, at a Pearson Vue Testing Center two miles from my house – I’d better start studying now.)

With each new purchase of a CSS or CSW Exam through the SWE website, candidates will receive an “authorization to test” email from Pearson Vue. Candidates may then use this letter, and the “Candidate ID number” it contains, to make an appointment at a Pearson Vue Center for their exam. If you have previously purchased your exam, and would like to test at Pearson, please email Ben Coffelt of the SWE Home Office and he will arrange to have the information sent to you.

Click here for the SWE “Landing Page” on Pearson Vue’s website.  You’ll find all the information you need to locate a testing center near year, make an appointment, and prepare for your exam on SWE’s landing page.

Click here for a step-by-step visual guide to How to sign up for a Pearson Vue Exam-SWE .

If you have any questions or comments concerning the CSS and CSW Exams at Pearson Vue Testing Centers, please contact Jane A. Nickles, our Director of Education, at jnickles@societyofwineeducators.org.

Good luck with your studies!

May 2014 SWEbinars!

May SWEbinarsWe are very excited to announce our May 2014 SWEbinars, as we continue our monthly sessions designed for test preparation for both CSS and CSW students! These events are free, and open to the public.

CSS Session on Tequila: Our first session will be Friday, May 2 noon (central) and will feature Gary Spadafore, CSS, CWE, covering Tequila (Chapter 7 in the CSS Study Guide)!

CSW Sessions on French Wines: We will also continue our SWEbinar series on “How to Pass the CSW” with two sessions led by Jane Nickles, CSS, CWE.  May’s sessions will cover The Wines of France (Chapter 9 in the CSW Study Guide) – or, more specifically, “How to Study the Wines of France.” Our CSW sessions will be held on Wednesday, May 14th 10:00 am (central) and Friday, May 23rd at Noon (central).  Please note that Miss Jane has a handout for this session, so if you plan on attending and would like one, please send her an email at: jnickles@societyofwineeducators.org

For more information, as well as login instructions and links to the online classrooms, please visit out SWEbinar website at:  http://winewitandwisdomswe.com/swebinars-2/swebinars/

If you have any questions about SWEbinars, or would like to be sent a reminder email the day of a session, please email our Director of Education, Jane A. Nickles, at jnickles@societyofwineeducators.org

See you online!

SWEbinars Get Spirited!

whiskeyBy popular demand!

Here’s one for the cocktail crowd! Starting in April we will be offering Spirits SWEbinars designed for CSS (Certified Specialist of Spirits) Exam prep.  These sessions, covering  the material in the CSS Study guide and beyond, will be of interest to any spirits professional, mixologist,  wine lover, wine professional, or spirits enthusiast!

Our first “Spirited SWEbinar” will be offered on April 11, 2014 at 12 noon (central time). The topic will be Whisky (Chapter 4 in the CSS Study Guide).

We are pleased and honored to have Barry Wiss, CSS, CWE as our presenter for this session.  Barry is the Vice President of Trade Relations for Trinchero Family Estates and serves as the Second Vice President on SWE’s Board of Directors.

We’ll also be continuing with our CSW review sessions, and offering other Spirited SWEbinars in the future – click here for more information on our SWEbinars!

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“Dr. Zwack, das ist ein Unicum!”

zwackProduced in Budapest, Hungary; Unicum is a bold, bitter liqueur created using over 40 different botanicals. Unicum was invented in 1790 by Dr. József Zwack, Royal Physician to the Hungarian Court, in order to settle the stomach of Emperor Joseph II, then the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary.

The beverage is said to have received its name when Emperor Joseph proclaimed, “Dr. Zwack, das ist ein Unicum!” meaning the drink was “rather unique!”

In 1840, the Doctor’s son, József Junior, founded J. Zwack & Partners, the first Hungarian liqueur manufacturer. Soon, J. Zwack & Partners was one of the leading distilleries in Eastern Europe, producing over 200 varieties of spirits and liqueurs and exporting them all over the world.  The distillery was handed down through the generations of the family and successfully operated until the facility was completely destroyed during World War II.

After the war, in 1948, the distillery was seized from the Zwack family and nationalized by the Communist regime.  János and Péter Zwack, the grandson and great-grandson of the founder, escaped the country with the original Zwack recipe.  Another grandson, Béla, remained behind to give the regime a “fake” Zwack recipe and became a regular factory worker.

Zwack PosterMeanwhile, János and Péter migrated to the United States and settled in the Bronx.  Péter worked diligently in the liquor trade and entered into an agreement with the Jim Beam Company to produce and distribute products under the Zwack name.

In 1988, one year before the fall of the communist regime, Péter returned to Hungary in 1988 and repurchased the Zwack production facility from the state.  By 1990, the production of the original Zwack formula and many other products resumed in Budapest.

The Zwack Company has since recovered its position as the leading distillery of Eastern Europe and is now run by the sixth generation of the Zwack family.

Click here to visit the Zwack Website

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Post authored by Jane A. Nickles, CWE – your SWE Blog Administrator – jnickles@societyofwineeducators.org

Cash and Prizes: Recap Quiz for December 2013

Wine Tasting Red Wine Glass Happy New Year from SWE!!!

To celebrate the new year, we are offering a special prize for this month’s recap quiz….a FREE sitting of the CSW or CSS Exam, including a Study Guide.

Questions for the recap quiz come exclusively from the educational material posted to Wine, Wit, and Wisdom for the month. This month’s quiz has 10 questions that cover the topics and information included in our posts for the month of December 2013.

To refresh your memory, our posts for the month of December were:

  • Wine Book Review – “The Nose” by James Conaway (December 5)
  • The Legacy of Peter Jahant (December 8)
  • The Egg Nog Riots of 1826 (December 10)
  • Coda di Volpe – The Tail of the Fox (December 14)
  • The Ice Wine Fiasco of 2011 (December 19)
  • Cheers to the Kir Royale! (December 24)
  • U.S. Distillery License #1 (December 28)

scantronEveryone who takes and passes the quiz with 100% of the questions correct by January 10, 2014 (midnight CST) will have their names put into a drawing for the prize! You can take the quiz over and over again if you like…it’s all about the education!

The winner will be notified via email on January 11.

Click here for a link to the quiz.

If you have any questions, contact us at:  jnickles@societyofwineeducators.org .

Update:  Congratualtions to Denise H. of Nashville, Tennessee who won our Recap Quiz Contest for December!  Denise is new to the study of wine, but is going to take the CSW Exam in June!! Good luck, and congrats!

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Vodka, Meet Oak

starkaHere’s something that sounds new:  Oak-Aged Vodka! Sure enough, cutting-edge spirits producers such as Absolut, Adnams, and Bendistillery are producing Oak-Aged Vodkas that are flying off the shelves. However, like so many things, it seems to be a case of “everything old is new again!”

Starka, perhaps the “original” Oak-Aged Vodka, has been produced in Poland and Lithuania since at least the 15th century, when the region was known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  By the 1800’s, Starka was the favorite potent drink of area, beloved by both the gentry and the commonfolk alike.

Tradition held that upon the birth of a child, the father of the house would place a large quantity of homemade sprits into an empty oak barrel, seal the barrel with beeswax and bury it in the ground, where it aged until the child’s wedding day.

By the late 1800’s, various companies in the area, which by this time was divided into Imperial Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, began to mass produce Oak-Aged Vodka.  The vodka became widely known as Starka;  a term that  referred to the aging process and, alternatively, meant “old woman!”

StarkaStarka production continued after World War I, which ended foreign rule over both Poland and Lithuania, and all throughout the post-World War II era when Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union.  During this time, liquor production in Poland was nationalized, but production of Starka, mostly as a high-end export product, continued uninterrupted.

Currently, only Polish Starka is considered “true Starka.” It is now produced by only one Polish Company,  Polmos Szczecin. Polmos Szczecin Starka is produced from natural Rye Vodka aged in oak barrels with a small addition of apple leaves and lime leaves.  The product is offered in various age classes ranging from 5 years to over 50 years old.  Their oldest product dates back to 1947.  In addition, there are a number of companies in Lithuania, Bulgaria, Russia, and Latvia producing what is considered to be “Starka-style Vodka” produced mainly from neutral spirits and herbal tinctures.

As for the modern era, Oak-Aged Vodka seems to be catching on.  The well-known Swedish Vodka producer Absolut has recently launched an oak-aged product called “Absolut Amber,” named after the color the vodka takes on due to oak influence.  According to their website, Absolut Amber is aged in a combination of French, Hungarian, and American (ex-Bourbon) barrels for about six months. The aged vodka is then blended with “macerated spirits” (spirits soaked in wood chips) so that it touches a total of 8 types of wood before being bottled.  Absolut Amber is slowly making its way to the American market; it has been launched into the U.S. but is currently only available at airports.

Various reviews on the Absolut Website use the following words to describe Absolut Amber:  “rich, mellow, oaky flavor, smooth, vanilla, coconut, deep amber color, smoky aroma, spicy, allspice, dried orange peel.”  One reviewer said it was “not quite like a whisky but a step above vodka.” Very interesting!

What is even more interesting to me is the very creative array of Amber-based cocktails to be found on the Absolut Amber Website, such as the “Absolut Amber Nectar” which combines the spirit with apple juice, honey, and a twist of orange.

Other distilleries are producing oak-aged vodkas as well. Adnams Distillery in the U.K. produces a “North Cove Oak Aged Vodka.” The Adnams  Distillery product is made from barley-based vodka and is aged in a mixture of French and American Oak.  Alas, it does not seem to be available in the U.S.

Closer to home, the Bendistillery in Oregon ages its Crater Lake Vodka “briefly in New American Oak.” This gives the vodka a “spring water character” and a bit of vanilla-nutmeg spiciness. Click here  for a list of stores that carry Crater Lake Vodka in the U.S.

Vodka, meet oak – its 1525 all over again!

For more information:

Polmos Szczecin

Absolute Amber

Adnam’s North Cove Oak-Aged Vodka

Bendistillery

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Post authored by Jane A. Nickles, CSW…your SWE Blog Administrator jnickles@societyofwineeducators.org

 

Best Selling Spirits in the World: 2013 Edition

What is the world drinkingThanks to  the good folks at Drinks International, we have a new ranking of the best-selling spirits brands in the world.  The products are fascinating…even a well-studied student of the Certified Specialist of Spirits Program might be surprised as to what people are drinking arouond the world.

Here is a list of the top-ten selling spirits in the world, with a bit of commentary for the curious:

1. Jinro Soju – There’s no mistake – Jinro Soju, produced in South Korea, is the best-selling spirit in the world.  In 2012, this clear, fresh soju sold 65.3 million 9-liter cases…that’s more than double the sales the of the product currently holding on to the number two spot.

2.  Emperador Brandy – Emperador Brandy, produced in the Philippines, has just about quadrupled its sales in the last few years.  Many people attribute this to a wildly successful advertising scheme that features images of success, affluence, and sophistication.

Tanduay_silver_LR3.  Smirnoff Vodka – Originally produced in the late 1890’s in Moscow, Smirnoff is now produced in several different countries, including the United States.

4.  Lotte Liquor BG Soju – Another South Korean Soju, Lotte Liquor BG Soju goes by the name “Chum-churum” in Korea.  The name means “like the first time” (“pure”) in Korean. As you can probably imagine, Lotte Liquor and Jinro are “arch rivals” in the  huge market for Soju.

5.  Ginebra San Miguel Gin – Produced in the Philippines, Ginebra San Miguel Gin is a “Dutch Style” gin made from a sugarcane spirit base and (of course) flavored with juniper.

6.  Bacardi Rum – Originally founded in Cuba but now known mostly for its flagship, crystal-clear Puerto Rican rum, Barcardi Rum is produced by the world’s largest privately-held, family-run liquor company in the world.

7.  Tanduay Asian Rum – Produced in the Philipines, Tanduay bills itself as “the original Asian Rum” and is made from sugarcane that can be traced back to “ancestral, wild canes” of sugar.

Whisky8.  McDowell’s No. 1 Whisky – A product of India, McDowell’s is marketed as a “Scotch-style Whisky,” meaning that the product is made from 100% grain (as opposed to some Indian whiskies, that are made partially or primarily from molasses.)

9.  Johnnie Walker Scotch Whisky – Originally known as Walker’s Kilmarnock Whisky, the Johnnie Walker brand was originally sold by John “Johnnie” Walker in his grocery store in Ayrshire, Scotland. The Johnnie Walker brand is now owned by Diageo.

10.  Pirassununga 51 Cachaça – Pirassununga 51 Cachaça is the market leader in Brazil for this popular liquor distilled from fermented sugar-cane juice.  Brazil’s national cocktail – the Capirinha, made with cachaça, sugar and lime – is beloved by Brazil’s 180 million people, and is growing on the rest of the world as well!  

You can download a full copy of the full report on the Drinks International Website…just click here!