The Not-So-Bitter Truth about "The Bitter Truth" Mixology Workshop
This week I was invited by Libations Bar School owner Jesse Dean to attend “The Bitter Truth” Workshop, the latest installment in his series of “Drink This” classes for non-professionals who want to learn from a mixology pro. The classes are popular and spaces for the once-a-week course sold out when Groupon offered a discount on its site in March. Jesse, who recently started the first mixology and bartending school in DC proper, has teamed up with Keith Campbell-Rosen, owner of The Spice and Tea Exchange in Georgetown, where the workshops are held.
When I walked through the front door on Tuesday night, I was immediately greeted by Keith and offered a glass of wine. I checked in with Jesse, and then surveyed the aroma of herbs, spices, teas, and salts while we waited for the other attendees to arrive. After welcoming everyone with his high-energy presence, Jesse began with a brief history of bitters. He quipped that bitters are an evolutionary alarm signal sent to the brain that say, “this could kill you or this could be fun!” In the past, bitters were prescribed to treat an array of ailments, and it soon became common to throw a dash or two in a spirit or glass of wine, particularly following a meal. Out of this digestif, the cocktail was born.
Bitters are concentrated tinctures of herbs, spices or botanicals, their flavors typically expressed in high-proof alcohol (we used Everclear). As the name implies, bitters have a bitter or bittersweet flavor because one or more of its ingredients has a bittering agent. Most Americans are familiar with the commercially produced brand of bitters, Angostura, which is used toadd an extra kick to classic cocktails such as the Manhattan and Bahamas Rum Punch. Jesse encouraged us to try the bittering process at home, and reminded us that bitters are everywhere – think of dandelions in your backyard. We paired off into groups to create our own tinctures, and were instructed to only use 3 or 4 ingredients so as to not make an overpowering concoction. My group’s tincture included angelica root and cloves, but anything from dried orange peel to burnt mesquite wood can be used. Each group’s concoction will steep in a small, sealed container of Everclear for the next several weeks, at which point we will be invited back to sample our bitters at a cocktail party.
People often expect to knock back cocktails at these events (we had just a small straw sampling of bitters started at a previous class), so I walked away thinking that everyone could say they actually learned something. Jesse is championing the artisan side of cocktail making, and his work reflects everything that separates a true mixologist from a bartender. I’m fascinated by the growing trend of prohibition-style cocktails and cocktail clubs over the past several years. These delicious, carefully crafted cocktails are made with increasingly unusual and creative ingredients. It seems that mixologists and samplers alike show no signs of slowing down the exploration of the art of cocktail making. And bitters, once considered a necessity in bars but all forgotten until their recent comeback, are helping bring out the special qualities in these modern libations.
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