I was very much looking forward to Scot Mattox’s Bitters 101 seminar at SoBou in November. I’ve enjoyed Scot’s delicious cocktails at Restaurant Iris, where he used to be in charge of the bar, as well as various Museum of the American Cocktail events. They’ve always been creative, built with many handmade syrups and bitters that add delicious depth and character. Then I felt myself getting a cold. Sore throat, stuffy brain, slightly hoarse… I was not confident in my ability to absorb information and enjoy this discussion. But off I went.
Having just read Warren Bobrow’s book, Apothecary Cocktails, I was hopeful that the bitters would cure my nascent cold. All the herbs and fruits and ancient healing traditions that go into the bitters seemed promising. However, when I asked Scot about that he let me know that A) the FDA had created pretty strict rules for bitters and other alcoholic tonics boasting their healing properties, and B) you’re not really getting that much out of anything if you only use two -10 drops. He said he was personally much more interested in the taste of his bitters over their potential medicinal uses. There went my cure-all hopes.
This idea does bring up one of my favorite aspects of alcoholic history, though. In the days before modern medicine, everyone who had any sense (or supernatural understanding of plants) could make medicine from what they could find in nature. Herbs, roots, seeds, flowers, and veggies were all mixed together to create potions to treat just about everything people suffer from. At some point, some brilliant witch or “doctor” must have realized that preserving these mixtures in alcohol would not only make them keep longer, but would make them much more appetizing to the customer, and probably wouldn’t do any harm in helping them make a quick, if short lived, recovery. Most of the main commercial bitters on the market today had their start with an apothecary genius that made something that happened to also be delicious.
These bitters and tonics and cure-all potions were marketed heavily to the populace, and since there was no other medicine, they lapped it up. Even throughout the days of Temperance and Prohibition days, all the housewives and morally superior folks who pushed for the end of alcoholic drinks were still continuing to down their highly alcoholic tonics and bitters.
Eventually, bitters fell out of favor as the government started regulating their claims on healing powers and nobody knew how to mix drinks properly anymore. Fast forward to today, where there’s scarcely a flavor I can think of that doesn’t have it’s own bitters. And if you’re saying to yourself, well of course nobody has gumbo-flavored bitters, you’d be wrong. Scot Mattox and his newly launched company, El
Guapo Bitters, have already formulated the unique flavor profile of a traditional Louisiana gumbo into a bottle of very specially labeled bitters. This was just one of the many exciting discoveries I made throughout the discussion.
Having moved away from promising the world of healing to consumers, bitters are now basically liquid seasoning. Scot advocates using them not only in your drinks, but in your food as well. His distinctive flavors are inspired by his favorite cuisines and play into the hyper-localized trend we all seem to be enjoying these days. The Tex-Mex flavor, with strong notes of grapefruit and lime with a back of jalapeño and cumin, was one of my favorites. There’s also Chicory-Pecan, a rich, homey flavor that would be amazing in a cup of coffee. And of course, there was that Gumbo, composed of the mix of herbs, spices, and vegetables that make up a gumbo. Somehow he also got the depth of flavor that distinguishes a truly exceptional gumbo from a normal soup.
The bitters shone through the simple, straightforward flavors of the drinks, adding a depth of flavor and spice I would have been pretty well satisfied with the seminar at that point, but then Scot directed us to the back, where a wide variety of his handmade bitters bases were waiting for us to concoct our own. Feeling slightly like a tipsy chemist discovering a whole new element, I proceeded to dump everything
I could touch into my tiny, beautiful little jar. I got the last of the Tahitian Vanilla, so I decided I should go more Christmas-y. The cloves were my downfall. I was so excited, I poured liberally, forgetting just how ridiculously strong cloves are in any form. I really tried to save my bitters with cinnamon and lemon and even a dose of cucumber, but alas, my bitters are still strong enough to numb your tongue. I don’t think I would have made it very long as an apothecary… I’ll leave it to the professionals.
- 1 oz. light rum
- 1 oz. Dry Curacao
- 1 oz. Heavy Cream
- ½ oz. Simple Syrup
Several dashes of El Guapo Chicory-Pecan Bitters
Shake hard over ice and serve up with a scraping of nutmeg for garnish (or a couple drops of Kelsey’s own over-cloved bitters)