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The Drinks That Broke Bitters

Fifteen dashes of Angostura was just the beginning. How a team of rogue bartenders made jiggering bitters the norm.

The cocktail world—and cocktails themselves—turned upside down sometime around 2009. That’s roughly when a handful of pioneering mixologists threw out the bitters rule book. Instead of using aromatic bitters in the usual doses—a dash or two, to accent a drink—they promoted them to starring roles, pouring in anywhere from 10 dashes to two ounces of the concentrated aromatic flavoring.

Not coincidentally, 2009 was also the year Cure opened in New Orleans. Tired of the status quo—classic cocktail formulae for stirred and shaken cocktails, and straightforward, Mr. Potato Head twists on those recipes—two of its bartenders, Maks Pazuniak and Kirk Estopinal, self-published a thin volume called Rogue Cocktails. The recipes inside did, indeed, go rogue, calling on ingredients seldom used at the time, like the herbal Hungarian liqueur Unicum and the fermented red rice distillate Batavia Arrack; ungodly amounts of Cynar, Campari, Chartreuse, vermouth and amaro; and, most eye-catchingly, generous amounts of Angostura, Peychaud’s and other bitters.

That moment in time broke the drink-building mode, and cocktail bartenders have never looked back. When Pazuniak and Estopinal first uncovered the Angostura Sour—an unusual mix of one-and-a-half ounces of Angostura bitters, lime juice, sugar and egg white drawn from the work of mid-century cocktail writer Charles H. Baker Jr.—it was like nothing they’d ever seen, and it inspired the journey of discovery that led to Rogue Cocktails. Today, their fellow bartenders take such bitter-heavy drinks in stride, thanks largely to the duo’s revival of the concept in the late aughts. Below are five of the more prominent cocktails to spring out of that movement.

Trinidad Sour (2008)

The Trinidad Sour is perhaps the most famous, and widely served, of the modern cocktails that use aromatic bitters as a base—in this case one-and-a-half ounces of Angostura. The origin story is rather tortured, but credit is largely given to bartender Giuseppe González, and the drink is said to have emerged somewhat stealthily at Clover Club in Brooklyn. (González claims to have put it on the menu; owner Julie Reiner contests this, but nonetheless put it on the bar’s recent 10-year-anniversary menu.) The bitters are buttressed by rye, which gives the drink structure and kick; lemon juice, which adds needed acidity; and, critically, orgeat, which gives the drink a creamy, vaguely tiki-esque texture. Some throw in an egg white to add further body.

Gunshop Fizz (2009)

The Gunshop Fizz was the signature cocktail from the book Rogue Cocktails, and one that first caught the drinking public’s attention. In New Orleans, Peychaud’s Bitters is used primarily to complete Sazerac cocktails. Anywhere from one dash to 15 are tossed in, depending on the bar or bartender. The improbable Gunship Fizz uses a full two ounces of the stuff. It’s enough to make the same drink’s use of Sanbitter, a bright-red bitter Italian soda, seem almost dull. The rest of the drink includes lemon juice, simple syrup, strawberries, cucumbers and several twists of orange and grapefruit. It was a through-the-looking-glass take on the Pimm’s Cup recipe at Chicago’s Violet Hour, where Estopinal had worked. It’s still on the menu at Cure, but you’ll pay extra for it: $17, as opposed to the average $10–11. (Bitters ain’t cheap.)

The Red Light (2009)

A split base of genever and Grand Marnier is bound together by one third of an ounce of Underberg bitters in this Charles Joly invention. It first appeared on a menu at the Drawing Room, the Chicago cocktail bar where Joly made a name for himself, and was later published in Beta Cocktails. (The original full name of the drink was “Roxanne’s Red Light,” after the song by The Police.) “We were a couple years into the Drawing Room and starting to experiment more and more,” recalled Joly. “The menu had some fun and weird turns. I think that Bols was very, very new to the scene. We were excited for anything we could get our hands on that we weren’t familiar with.” That included the hard-to-find Underberg, which Joly secured from a tiny German wine importer. It was the only thing he bought from them. The trio make for a fruity, herbal, and soothing drink that has a vaguely yuletide feel about it. According to Joly, the heavy pour of Underberg keeps the drink “honest.”

Sawyer (2010)

On paper, Don Lee’s Sawyer reads like a Gin Sour where the bartender grew indecisive and nervous about bitters at the end, shaking in far too many dashes of far too many different bitters. The recipe calls for 14 dashes of Angostura, seven dashes of Peychaud’s and seven dashes of orange bitters. One always wonders about the reasoning behind super-precise bitters measurements like this. (Would 15 dashes of Ango truly sunder the cocktail?) But it’s hard to argue with the result. Lee first served it at Momofuku Ko, where he intended it as a digestif drink. The embarrassment of bitters certainly do their work as a stomach settler. The drink is named for Sawyer Dufresne, whose father, chef Wylie Dufresne, was one of Lee’s early mentors.

A Moment of Silence (2011)

This drink by Maks Pazuniak appeared in Beta Cocktails, the 2011 sequel to Rogue Cocktails. It sprung from the blueprint for the La Louisiane, a classic New Orleans rye drink. Pazuniak kept the traditional rye base but threw out most everything else, adding instead Marie Brizard Apry (an apricot liqueur), Amaro Averna, Laird’s Applejack and a half-ounce of Angostura bitters. “I wanted to bridge the bitters-as-a-base category that we were exploring at the time with something more rich and elegant than the Gunshop Fizz or Angostura Sour,” said Pazuniak. “While the La Louisiane is luscious and herbal, this variant really plays up the spice level with so much Angostura and obviously a heavy dose of fruit from the Apry.” It makes for an enjoyably bitter little glass of fruit punch. A barrel-aged version of the drink appeared on an early menu at Aviary in Chicago.

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