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I must admit that by Revenge of the Nerds II my interest in the franchise was already waning. Revenge of the Nerds III was pushing its luck, and has anyone ever seen Revenge of the Nerds IV? I didn’t think so. Therefore, today’s installment will be my last post on cocktail nerdery. If you haven’t read the other two posts, they discuss the essentials of being a cocktail nerd, some of the lingo and finding information on blogs and message boards.
One of the truly defining characteristics of being a cocktail nerd is making your own ingredients—syrups, tinctures, cordials and—the granddaddy of them all—bitters. Bitters are essential to the cocktail, which, incidentally, was first defined in 1806 in a Hudson, New York newspaper called the Balance & Columbian Repository as containing spirits, water, sugar and bitters.
Bitters are herbs, spices and botanicals that have been macerated in alcohol or water to extract their essence. These ingredients generally gain a bitter component through long periods of maceration but also commonly contain bittering agents such as gentian root. Add to that a flavoring agent and sugar, and you have the makings of bitters. Use them in small doses to gain the desired effect, almost like adding a pinch of salt to food.
You’ve probably heard of Angostura Bitters but there are many different kinds: aromatic, orange, grapefruit, peach, mint, rhubarb and even celery. My brother, Tom Brown, of Cork, made Kitchen Fire Bitters that gained their name when he nearly lost his home. The bitters literally went up in flames. Well worth the stoke, I might add, as these aromatic bitters are particularly delicious.
Adam Bernbach of Proof and David Fritzler of Tryst have both let me try versions of their own chocolate bitters (although the new Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters are commercially available now and quite tasty at that). Todd Thrasher is one of the most prolific bitter-makers in the area, making hibiscus bitters along with a plethora of other flavors.
Count among chief bitter-makers and D.C. cocktail nerds, Dan Searing from the newly opened Room 11. His Dr. Kerr’s Highland Bitters and clementine bitters, the former a Scotch-based blend and the latter cribbed from the Art of the Drink, are among the finest in town.
To start you on the bitter path, make a pilgrimage to Room 11 and try some of Dan’s cocktails with homemade bitters. The Highland Bitters are great in a classic Rob Roy, and with their dry aromatic profile beautifully merge with Scotch-based cocktails and other smoky or spicy spirits and mixers.
“The clementine bitters are a great substitute for orange bitters,” says Searing, whom I spoke with yesterday about the subject. He has tried them in both the Dry Martini and Champagne Cocktail with much success.
The next step is to scour the blogs for recipes and invent your own. That’s what a true cocktail nerd would do, and you’ll be right at home. The District is full of nerds and the cocktail world is no different. Only, as Dan Searing remarked when I asked him if he minded being called a nerd, “A cocktail nerd is slightly cooler than its Dungeon & Dragons corollary since it involves drinking.” Point taken.