Right Hand / Left Hand

I picked up a bottle of the ever-so exotically named Xocolatl Mole Bitters today, a cacao and cinnamon based cocktail bitter which is a staple of a number of Central American influenced cocktails.

Xocolatl Mole is named for the Aztec word xocolātl (meaning “bitter water”) which became known in the English-speaking world as chocolate; and mole (or mōlli), a traditional form of Mexican sauce.  As you would expect, therefore, the bitters have a strong flavour of spiced chocolate with prominent cinnamon and chili notes.

A sploosh or two of Xocolatl Mole is a key ingredient in a number of recipes; the most famous of which is the Right Hand, a rum-based Negroni or Boulevardier variant, which is given distinctive chocolate notes by the bitters.

The Right Hand appears to be a recent invention and is credited to Michael McIlroy, bartender at New York’s twin bars Milk and Honey and Little Branch, as recently as 2007.

  1. Add a large measure of aged rum to a mixing glass of ice.
  2. Add a measure of sweet vermouth, Campari and two splooshes of Xocolatl Mole bitters.
  3. Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass.

The most popular variant of the Right Hand is the Left Hand, which is made with bourbon in place of rum, and a lemon or orange variant of either can be made by including a sploosh or two of the respective bitters and a twist of peel.

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Vieux Carré

Photo courtesy of directorebeccer, some rights reserved.

The Vieux Carré, literally “old square”, is named after the French district of New Orleans where it was invented, by barman Walter Bergeron, in 1938.  Bergeron was working at the Hotel Monteleone, a spectacular Beaux-Arts style hotel, now famous for its rotating Carousel Bar.  Although the Vieux Carré pre-dates the revolving bar, something about its name or story always puts me in mind of the fun fair.

A close cousin of both the Sazerac and the Manhattan, the Vieux Carré is naturally one of my favourites and one of the few times you will see me reaching for a bottle of brandy.  The cocktail uses Benedictine as a sweet base, then combines rye whiskey and cognac, and can be served with an absinthe rinse to create a Louisiane.

To make your Vieux Carré:

  1. Take an old fashioned glass and add half a teaspoon of Benedictine, a dash of Peychaud’s, Angostura and any other bitters that takes your fancy.
  2. Add equal parts rye, cognac and sweet vermouth.
  3. Add ice and stir.
  4. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

Variations include the use of dry vermouth instead of sweet, the aforementioned absinthe rinse, and alterations to the balance of rye, cognac and vermouth.

The Bitter Truth

Technically a cocktail isn’t a cocktail without a dash of bitters.  Without the bitters, your bittered sling is just, well, a sling.  Bitters emerged from the apothecary shops of Venezuela and New Orleans, originally conceived as a cure for stomach maladies and other ailments and it wasn’t long til the fine men of the Royal Navy were adding a dash of bitters to their gin to produce the medicinal Pink Gin.

Now a dash of bitters is a pre-requisite of nearly every drink you’d care to mention.  So if every barman needs a bottle of bitters to hand, where to begin?

Angostura is the best-known brand, and you’ll find a bottle of this curiously mis-labelled concoction on the back bar of every drinking establishment you enter.  Named for the town of Angostura in Venezuela, these are the original cocktail bitters and as good a starting point as any. Originally made as an antimalarial for the independence fighters of 1821, Angostura’s main notes are of cinnamon and cloves and it works well in almost any cocktail, and also, allegedly as a cure for hiccups.

Beyond Angostura, Peychaud’s bitters emerged from New Orleans in around 1840.  This blend is lighter and sweeter than its Venezuelan cousin, and was originally mixed with brandy to act as a stomach tonic.  Now it is more famous for its crucial involvement in the Sazerac.  Its nutty vanilla and anise flavour means it is ideally crafted to bring out the liquorice flavour of absinthe.

Further along the scale we begin to enter the wonderful world of flavoured bitters.  These form the rank and file of tiny apothecarial bottles you find on the shelves of the finest cocktail bars.  Many are home-made, but many more come from a number of resurgent bitters manufacturers.  The third most important bitters style is orange, useful for any citrus based drink.  Other flavours for greater experimentation include rhubarb, cherry, peach, lemon, creole, chocolate, celery and dandelion & burdock.

You will find these and more at Fee Brothers, The Bitter Truth and Dr Adam Elmegirab.

Harking back to the golden age when travel was a luxury and every air passenger had access to a well-stocked all inclusive bar, young bitter upstarts, The Bitter Truth have also packaged up a marvelous taster tin of their fine aromatic delights.

Of course, let’s not pretend there’s any chance of getting a tin of these wee beauties past airport security these days, but still, let’s close our eyes and transport ourselves back to the magical era of transport for just a few minutes.

The tin contains 20ml bottles of the Celery, Orange, Creole, Old Time Aromatic and Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters along with a recipe card which gives a little background and a recommendation for each brew.

Old Time Aromatic Bitters – A strong combination of cinnamon and gingerbread gives way to a hint of aniseed, and is recommended for the Manhattan.

Orange Bitters – A bitter orange and nutmeg concoction which the fine gents at The Bitter Truth recommend for your Dry Martini.

Creole Bitters – The classic Peychaud’s nose of bitter sweet aniseed emenates from this bottle, and the recommendation is that you add it to the Improved Brandy cocktail (Brandy, Absinthe, bitters and sugar).

Celery Bitters – Powerful celery and ginger notes dominate this brew, and the suggestion is that this should replace celery salt in your next Bloody Mary.

Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters – The closest match to Angostura, these have a rich fruity nose with an air of cinnamon.  A fine tribute to the legend, Jerry Thomas, and ideal for your Old Fashioned.

A grand addition to any home bar, these wee gems open up a world of possibility for your cocktail concoctions.  Travel the world of fine drinking without leaving your sofa.

Whiskey Sour

The Whiskey Sour is another venerable whiskey based drink with a disputed past and a wealth of variations.  Whilst its sharp initial strike of lemon juice can be off-putting to some, it really comes in to its own as an after dinner drink on your summer holidays, and with a slight leniency that reads lemon juice as water, it still fits with our four key ingredient principle.

The sours are a whole family of early cocktails that predate their oft-confused but by no mean close relations the Sourz.  Sours are categorised, perhaps unsurprisingly by their use of a sour juice (lemon or lime) instead of the water of our traditional Bittered Slings, and other famous sours include the Margarita (tequila, triple sec and lime), Sidecar (brandy, triple sec and lemon) and Daiquiri (rum, sugar and lime).

The legend of the Whiskey Sour takes us back to the then Peruvian, now Chilean port town of Iquique in 1872 where Elliot Stubb an English sailor decided to jump ship and open a bar.  Stubb experimented with a range of local ingredients and settled on a most agreeable range of aperitifs based around the limon di Pica which he added to any liquor he had to hand.  After adding a liberal splash of whiskey and a strong dose of sugar to his limon one day, Stubb hit upon a delicious sweet and tart concoction which he dubbed the Whiskey Sour.

As is usual among drinks of a late Victorian vintage, the official recipe (should such a thing exist) is subject to intense debate.  In the absence of Elliot Stubb’s limon di Pica though, the classic method is as follows:

  1. Shake a large measure of whiskey, the juice of a lemon, a tablespoon of sugar syrup, half an egg white and four dashes of bitters with ice.
  2. To get the frothiest results, shake first with ice (twenty seconds) and then dry shake (without ice) for ten seconds.
  3. Strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice and garnish with a twist of lemon peel.

One of the key variants of this recipe is to omit the egg white, which is only recommended if you find yourself in a Whiskey Sour emergency (who hasn’t?), or if you’re like me and can’t be expected to separate an egg white at a crowded cocktail party, or don’t expect to need a whole bottle of egg white in your fridge.  Ultimately however, the drink is much the poorer for the absence of egg white, so this is strictly to be approved for emergency use only.

A far better variant can be obtained by using camomile infused bourbon for a Camomile Sour.