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New Bitters, the Return of Early Times, and Chilean Pisco at the Door

January 25, 2011 By: Jack Robertiello


I’ve already mentioned my top line trends for 2011 (see What's Your Drink in 2011?). But there are some other trends bubbling up that are worth mentioning:

Bitter Truth E**X**RPotable bitters. Italian amaros (Averna, Fernet) and other bitters (Aperol, Campari) have long been an integral if underappreciated part of the cocktail world. But bitters creativity until recently seemed limited to the creation of aromatic bitters, both new types and replica versions of long-gone brands (like Abbott’s). Now, bartenders, obsessed with the old but compelled to be first with the new, have an array of modern potable bitters to choose from. There’s Gran Classico, a Swiss reproduction of an old Italian recipe with a bright gentian and rhubarb quality, as if Campari were thickened and slightly oxidized, with a touch of orangey sweetness. The relative closeness to Campari has created a micro-trend in SF – the Gran Classico Negroni. Now the folks at the Bitter Truth, having made a place in bartenders’ hearts with their celery, creole, old time and Jerry Thomas aromatic bitters, have launched E**X**R, said to incorporate herbal aromas of mint, myrrh, sage and gentian as well as flavors of rhubarb and lemon. As the American craft movement takes off, it’s possible more are on the way.

Bourbon evolves. I was in Kentucky a few weeks ago to see what’s up with the new (or old, rather) Early Times, which will shortly be available not only as the Kentucky whiskey as it is now sold, but also once again as an authentic bourbon, as it is known on the international Early Timesmarket (whiskey smarties know the difference in these two can be found in the wood – bourbon must only be aged in new American oak, thanks to a Missouri timber baron of the 19th century, and ET Kentucky Whiskey is aged in used barrels.) Early Times 354 (the official Distilled Spirits Plant number for the original Early Times Distillery) as it will be known here, is pleasing, generous but not especially complex (nor, according to master distiller Chris Morris, was it designed to be). But its existence is one more sign that the Kentucky whiskey companies are looking for new ways to ride the wave of bars and bartenders who have helped push rye to the forefront, and rediscovered the pleasures of mixing with high-proof spirits. Are more to come? With the success of the various innovative lines – Heaven Hill’s Parker’s Heritage Selection, Buffalo Trace’s experimental range, even Brown-Forman’s annual one-off Woodford Reserve and Old Forrester Birthday Bourbon – and of some of the craft distillers’ whiskies, the answer is “You bet!”

Chile at the door. There are Chilean piscos in the U.S. market but they apparently haven’t benefited from the mini-boom the way those produced in Peru have. Peruvian producers have paid much more attention to the U.S. market, and the story they tell has won over many bartenders. Not only that, but bartenders like Duggan McDonnell, whose Campo de Encanto Peruvian pisco is doing well in the San Francisco market, have brought the spirit back from the edges of the drink scene, if not back to center stage. A recent visit to a number of Chilean producers convinced me of one thing: there are enough quality piscos produced in Chile to make an impact here, if the producers actually can manage to get their minds wrapped around the wacky U.S. market. And they’re definitely hoping to. The question is, will another wave of piscos grow the market or end up as a race to the bottom? Chileans can legally age their piscos, resulting in an interesting flavor range that is somewhere between aged rum and aged American brandy. But there are unaged and lightly aged varieties that also have qualities worth seeking out, if only the producers manage to commit to tackling the three-tier system and the shrinking distributor business. If they do, they can only help increase the market for what can be much more than a plain unaged brandy. Good luck to them.


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