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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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 Originally made as an antimalarial for the independence fighters of 1821, Angostura’s main notes are of cinnamon and cloves and it works well in almost any cocktail, and also,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.

Old Fashioned

Photo by ReeseCLloyd, some rights reserved.

Legend has it that the Old Fashioned was one of the first cocktails ever created. The story is that it was conceived at The Pendennis Club, Louisville, Kentucky in the late nineteenth century, and having been popularised by local bourbon distiller Colonel (of course!) James Pepper, it was taken to New York to be enjoyed by such luminaries as Sterling Cooper’s own Don Draper.

There is much to support the Old Fashioned’s claim to be one of the oldest known cocktails. You will see from my Bittered Slings post that it neatly fits the early criteria of a bittered sling or cocktail, as it contains just the liquor (in this case whiskey), bitters, sugar and water (in this case frozen).

Whatever its vintage, however, the Old Fashioned is a punchy cocktail for those who hold no truck with paper umbrellas and sparklers getting in the way of their imbibement. The exact composition is something that enthusiasts can argue about for days. Does an Old Fashioned require rye or bourbon? A muddled orange? A cherry? The earliest known recipe (dating from 1895 no less) instructs:

Dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey-glass; add two dashes bitters, a small piece ice, a piece lemon-peel, one measure whiskey. Mix with small bar-spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass. – Kappeler (1895). Modern American Drinks: How to Mix and Serve All Kinds of Cups and Drinks.

Now aside from running the risk of poking your eye out with a bar spoon, this recipe neglects the now expected hint of orange. For that reason, my preferred method is as follows:

  1. Place a sugar cube (or a teaspoon of sugar syrup or sugar), three dashes of bitters and a dash of water in a mixing glass.
  2. Muddle (i.e. mush up) until the sugar dissolves and you are left with a syrupy paste. Don’t scrimp on the muddling, the sugar needs to be fully dissolved before the whiskey is added or it won’t bind properly.
  3. Add a two ice cubes and a measure of whiskey.
  4. Stir gently (thirty times).
  5. Repeat steps three and four.
  6. Strain into a rocks glass (also known as an od fashioned glass) with or without ice (your preference).
  7. Garnish with a twist of orange or lemon peel or a cherry.

Finally, by no means even consider adding soda water or *gasp* lemonade.

What you are left with is a small glass of pure cocktail history: spirits, sugar, water and bitters.