What Bitters and Russian Roulette Have in Common
This week we turn our attention to the shelf on the bar where we keep the weird and wonderful collection of small bottles that occupy what we think of as the spice rack of our bar. The big bottles almost always get the spotlight. Not this week. For the next few days, the bitters bottles take front and center. Our guide on this tour of the bitters shelf is Mark Bitterman’s (apparently that’s his given name) Field Guide to Bitters and Amari. As we always say when we do one of these book reviews, we hope that our little taste compels you to read the whole thing for yourself; it’s a particularly helpful guide if you want to make your own bitters, or have a bitters by bitters guide of what the difference is among all those little bottles you can buy. For a general introduction to bitters and this week focused on them, take a look at Monday’s post.
Today, we talk about evolutionary biology, poison, and what they have to do with bitters.
Here’s how the story goes. We believe this completely accurately describes how natural selection works. While this isn’t the case for all plants, some plants prefer not to be eaten by human beings. To express their preference, they became poisonous; that is, if humans eat them, we become sick or even die. Humans prefer not to die; so as a warning system, we developed a dislike for how these poisonous plants taste, a class of flavor we call ‘bitterness.’ Some other plants, though they are not in fact poisonous, noticed how we avoid bitter poisons, and they thought it would be clever to mimic just the bitter part, giving us the flavor of poison without the actual consequences of it. Over time, we figured out that we didn’t always get sick or die when we tasted something bitter. Some bitter things are benign, others downright beneficial. We came to call beneficial bitter things medicinal; there’s a surprising number of them.
There may be future moves in the evolutionary chess match between us and bitter plants, but for now the state of things is that any given bitter plant might kill us, make us sick, be just fine, or actually make us feel better. Besides having a predilection for self-preservation, we’re an extremely curious species. That means that when we taste anything bitter, it excites us and heightens our senses; we’re very interested in knowing whether we’ll die or feel better. Bitters, therefore, are a kind of thrill ride. We love it and we’re afraid at the same time. It makes us quite aware of what we’re tasting, both the bitters themselves and everything going into our mouths at the same time. That’s what makes bitters so effective. When they’re in a drink, we’re paying more attention, both to them and to everything else we’re consuming. Nothing makes you savor the flavors you’re consuming quite like an atavistic consideration of whether you’re about to feel better or die.
I Am Love Cocktail Recipe
In a move that’s sure to win our hearts, Bitterman gives a large number of variations of bitters-heavy variations on classic drinks, using the standard proportions but swapping the ingredients. Here’s a maraschino and lavender variation on a martini. It’s dry, bitter, floral, and the farthest thing we can imagine from a poison.
- 2 1/2 oz dry gin–Bitterman suggests Tanqueray; we used Bombay Sapphire and felt just fine about it. A mass market premium gin is definitely the right move here.
- 3/4 oz maraschino liqueur
- 2 dashes lavender bitters–we used both Scrappy’s lavender and Wigle’s rosemary lavender, and enjoyed them both. As you might expect, Scrappy’s had more of a cleanly floral taste, while Wigle was slightly spicy, a bit more bitter, and a little herbal.
- 6 drops of rosewater
- Luxardo cherry, for garnish
- Combine all the liquid ingredients in a mixing glass.
- Fill the glass with ice up to the level of the liquid.
- Stir until the ice has noticeably melted.
- Strain into a cocktail glass.