kelly magyarics

washington, d.c.-based wine, spirits & lifestyle writer / wine educator

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It's always better with bitters

I spent an enjoyable (and enlightening) time last week at the Tabard Inn, where Chantal Tseng whipped up some delicious cocktails, and Derek Brown gave me a lesson in bitters. Derek carted his personal stash of bitters to the bar--both store bought ones from Fee Brothers, The Bitter Truth and Regan's, as well as homemade ones that he and his mixology friends whipped up, like smoked chocolate, holy mole and black strap sassafrass.

No, we didn't taste most of them, which would have rendered our palate numb and pretty much useless. Since bitters are all about the aromatics, we just put a few dashes in the palm of a hand, rubbed our hands together, and sniffed. It's amazing how potent they are, and how just a dash or two can change a cocktail from being one-dimensional to incredibly complex. I've added several kinds to my own bar at home (I really like Fee Brothers orange), and I'm really glad more and more mixologists are once again turning to these classic cocktail ingredients.

Chantal makes a mean Sazerac, the New Orleans standard made with Peychaud's bitters. You can watch her in action on this video. She throws and twirls the glass in the air to coat it with Absinthe, and uses a decent amount of lemon peel to add citrus flavor and more aromatics--heresy to some Sazerac fans, but I think it adds a beautiful brightness to a drink that otherwise may be a bit heavy for some. I'm not a whiskey fan, but I was digging it.

The other eye-opener for me was to taste a traditional martini--she made one with Beefeater--with a few drops of orange bitters added. Again, these bitters add a fresh brightness to the classic libation. Bitters are included in the original martini recipe, but somehow over the years they fell out of favor. I'll never look at the martini the same way again.

Go to The Tabard Inn on Thursday evenings to check our Chantal's featured concoctions--she's been known to pull inspiration from her well-marked copy of "Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails" (to which she referred last week to find with a recipe that used Parfait Amour, which she happened to have a bottle of. She whipped up the Jupiter cocktail.)

Derek Brown is the Sommelier at Komi Restaurant. You can also see him on WineTasteTV.