On Saturday I opened my door to get the mail and found a mysterious package.  I don’t know about anyone else, but getting unexpected presents in the mail has always been a tiny fantasy of mine.  The return address, that of my uncle in Portland, OR, was surprising; we were last in the same place, I believe, at my brother’s bar mitzvah, in 2003.  I had no idea what the package could be; the Girlfriend audibly hoped for surprise liquor.  I’m pleased to report she was right.

Inside the best care package I’ve ever received were three bottles of Scrappy’s Bitters, a brand of bitters that requires some ingenuity to obtain here in the desolate midwest.  And a very nice note from my aunt and uncle complimenting me on this very blog, and encouraging me to make some drinks with these lovely new ingredients.  They sent me Lavender, Chocolate, and Grapefruit bitters, and having tried all of them, I’m pleased to report that they are delicious.

I don’t know if these were in the mail before my several-month disappearance from updates, but I’m pleased to report that, having temporarily given up the mantle of cheese-writer at Serious Eats, I’m a little more able to write about my own spiritous adventures.  And what better way to really get back into it than with new ingredients?  Here are three drinks, two of which are fully original, which showcase the new additions to my ever-expanding bitters family.

All of the bitters are beautifully simple.  Each tastes, on its own, of nothing so much as its namesake ingredient.  This is a refreshing change from the Fee Bros. Grapefruit Bitters, which are overtly artificial.  I worried that the Chocolate Bitters would be redundant to the Bittermens’ Xocolatl Mole Bitters, but the Scrappy’s Chocolate are a pure, sweet (yet still bitter) chocolate flavor with a hint of vanilla, while the Xocolatl Mole Bitters are a more complex blend of smoke, spice, mustiness, and bitter chocolate.  I could actually see using both in the same drink, especially with tequila.  Finally, the Lavender Bitters are a nice combination of lavender and vanilla; no surprises at all, no fancy trickery.  Just a great way to incorporate an herb I don’t bother growing into my cocktails.

Lavender Bee’s Knees

  • 1 1/2 oz dry gin (Plymouth)
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • 1/2 oz honey
  • 2-3 dashes Lavender Bitters (Scrappy’s)
    Shake well with ice, strain into a cocktail glass.  Garnish with a sprig of lavender if you’ve got one (I hadn’t).

Lavender seems like a natural match for gin, and there is a neat recipe in Art of the Bar for a lavender-honey Sidecar.  This was the easiest of these three cocktails to come up with – it’s simple and delicious, and probably a good drink for any non-cocktailian friends.  Complex without being intimidating, the lemon juice makes this a great hot-weather cocktail.  I’d actually like to try using the Lavender Bitters in a cocktail with wood-aged spirits, or possibly with an amaro.  I think they could offer some really interesting complexity.  And I’m sure eventually I’ll give in and make a St. Germain and Lavender Bitters variation on an Aviation, which should prove suitably – monstrously – floral.

The West Side Park

  • 1 1/2 oz rye (Thomas Handy’s Sazerac Rye)
  • 3/4 oz dry vermouth (Noilly Prat)
  • 3/4 oz St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
  • 2-4 dashes Grapefruit Bitters (Scrappy’s)
    Stir all ingredients well with ice.  Strain into a cocktail glass.  Garnish with a thick swathe of lemon peel.

This is my way of getting into the whole mess of Broolyn variations spawned in recent years by the Red Hook, a number of which Jay at Oh Gosh! has recently documented.  I’ve often noticed that drinks made with St. Germain can end up with a grapefruit-y taste regardless of ingredients, and that, combined with a funkiness reminiscent of maraschino liqueur, made it a perfect candidate for a “Borough” variation.  This is more or less a riff on a Red Hook, crossed with the dry vermouth twist from a Brooklyn.  West Side Park is the neighborhood, a little more than a stone’s throw across the Hudson, where the Girlfriend and I live in Champaign.  It’s a nice enough place, and a nice enough name for a nice enough cocktail.

The Carry Nation

  • 1 1/2 oz kirschwasser (Clear Creek)
  • 3/4 oz lemon juice
  • 1/4 oz Armagnac
  • 1/4 oz Cherry Heering
  • 4 dashes chocolate bitters (Scrappy’s)
    Shake well with ice.  Strain into a cocktail glass, garnish with a brandied cherry.

My favorite drinks with chocolate usually combine it with citrus: the Commodore, the 20th Century, the Remember the Alamo.  I wanted to go the same direction, but I needed a drink where I wouldn’t just be subbing Chocolate Bitters and sugar for creme de cacao.  For some reason the chocolate undertones of Cherry Heering came to mind.  With cherry in mind, I went for kirsch in order to dial back the sweetness, and just a bit of Armagnac (Spanish brandy would probably be fine) to add a wood-aged note (wood-aged kirsch would be cool – Clear Creek, call me).  I couldn’t decide between lemon (seemed more natural) and lime (made sense because of the Jack Rose) so I went with my first instinct.

Carry (Carrie) Nation?  She was a bulldog (minus the lipstick): Prohibition’s most colorful proponent.  Armed with a hatchet, she personally destroyed over 30 legally operating saloons and bars in order to illustrate the evils of strong drink (perhaps she would’ve calmed down with a dose of the soothing balm).  Wikipedia puts it best, here:

She is particularly noted for promoting her viewpoint through vandalism.

Like Jack Rose, she was a colorful criminal of the early 20th century, and I’ve always thought her restless spirit deserved a cocktail named after her.

Of these three, this is maybe my second favorite, but I tend to like spiritous drinks, so the West Side Park was a shoo-in.  I really liked the dry chocolate and cherry flavors, with just enough sweetness to balance the lemon.  Altogether a really excellent cocktail, if a little on the contrived side.