James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

In Drinking, as in Life, End With Bad Wordplay

In Drinking, as in Life, End With Bad Wordplay

This week, illustrator Daisy Dee is sharing dispatches from a week spent drinking in New Orleans during Tales of the Cocktail.

Single Malt Whisky at the Pharmacy Museum, 1 pm

My dress is heavy and dripping.

I’m scheduled to fly out in three hours and New Orleans (in typical fashion) wants to send me off with a drink and a downpour.

As I walk to my final seminar at the iconic New Orleans Pharmacy Museum in the Quarter, the sky erupts into a casual thunderstorm. Growing up in places that vacillate violently between weather patterns, I learned to always carry with me a tiny umbrella to shield me from intense sun and moderate rain. It’s more of a safety blanket than a functional umbrella, and when the rain turns torrential, it struggles pathetically to divert the deluge. When I arrive at the museum, I am only slightly drier than I would have been with no protection at all, and I’m dripping excessively onto the floor. Actually, most of us are. The rain stops as soon as we are all safely inside, of course.

The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum on Chartres is a beautiful and deeply historic space. The original storefront was the first accredited American pharmacy, run by Luis J. Dufilo, Jr., the first to pass the pharmacist’s licensing exam, in 1804. The museum is designed to look like an apothecary from that time, with bottles containing medicinal herbs and tonics lining every wall. There are pharmaceutical relics on display, illustrating the evolution of modern medicine with informative placards discussing the uses of leeches and ether.

There couldn’t be a more suitable location to have a seminar on Auchentoshan and bitters. Bitters were originally developed medicinally as a digestive aid, and to this day are a common (especially among bartenders) treatment for an assortment of maladies. Today’s workshop is run by Robin Nance, national Auchentoshan brand ambassador, and Tobin Ludwig of Hella Bitters. We start with a sparkling, slightly bitter single-malt cocktail. Tobin presents the history and methods surrounding the development of bitters, explaining how some bitters are created using a mixture of dry spices and aromatics steeped in a strong spirit, as one would make tea, but others are made using tinctures (a single ingredient extracted into an alcohol base) that are then blended into a final product.

Robin then explains to us the history of Auchentoshan single malt scotch. Unlike most distilleries in Scotland, which tend to be more remote, Auchentoshan was built near Glasgow. Despite being quite an old distillery—it was founded in the 1800s—their attitude towards making whisky embraces the experimental rather than emphasizing tradition. Due to their practice of triple distillation (an uncommon process in Scotch), Auchentoshan’s final spirit comes out of the still at 81% ABV (162 proof). Triple distilling strips away some of the heavier grain elements from the distillate, leaving a whisky that is lighter and more delicate.

It would make the perfect base for bitters, but unfortunately, due to shipping laws, it wouldn’t feasible. Instead, we use Auchentoshan American Oak as our base.

This workshop utilizes the tincture method of creating bitters. Using tinctures and adding to a base spirit by measured amounts is instantly gratifying. You can taste and predict what an ingredient will add to your recipe (as long as you don’t blow out your tastebuds on the bird’s eye Thai chili tincture). All of the flavors are broken down into categories like bitter, spice, fruit, floral. We take notes on our recipes and fiddle with the bottles, tasting and exchanging sweet almond and allspice tinctures.

I decide to focus on my favorite spice, cardamom, and build a bitters recipe around that core, adding some Madagascar vanilla, cassia, allspice, ginger and sweet orange for a chai effect, with a base of angelica root and some black pepper for spice and bitterness. It’s a nice mixture, warming with a bitterness like artichoke that makes my mouth water. But I ask others to taste it as well, as I went a little hard on that bird’s eye chili.

It’s time for me to head to the airport, and I have no idea what title to write on the label, but when in doubt, go with terrible wordplay:

“You’re not my cardamom!”

And with that, I’m ready to go home.

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