Friday, 5 October 2012

TOOLS OF THE TRADE: BITTERS BOTTLES



Bitters is rightfully one of the hottest subjects in cocktails today. After all, the difference between the poorly made drinks of yesterday and today’s flawless creations can be as simple as reintroducing the bitters to the recipe. To quote Robert “Drink Boy” Hess, bitters are to cocktails as salt is to soup.

A dash? More than a drop. Less than a splash.

Bitter medicinals have been produced for at least the past 5,000 years, appearing in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic healing practices. Bitters were produced by western physicians for nearly 500 years, before they were replaced by modern potions and relegated to the hokey world of the snake oil salesman, obscurity, or the dusty back corners of the liquor cabinet.
While bitters have been rediscovered and celebrated widely, no one seems to notice the bottles that contain them. Such a simple design: It is a vessel with a small opening at the top that dispenses a tiny measure of liquid. Containers of this sort have existed in one form or another for thousands of years.
The term “to dash”, which a 1600s dictionary defined as “to wet”, entered into common language about this time. However, the concept pre-dates the definition.

Primarily the bitters bottle is such a simple mechanism to limit the amount poured. Before the Industrial Revolution gave birth to mass production, many products were dearly cherished and thus only used sparingly. The dash made sense when it took weeks or months to cook up a small batch of bitters, or vinegar, or oil, or perfume.

A number of different shapes cropped up for dasher bottles over the centuries. But all were remarkably similar in form and function: a vessel with a small hole.

It has been said that one of the original designs for the bitters dasher—and the one on which modern dasher decanters are based—was the shaft of a feather inserted through a cork. This made a secure seal on the bottle and an accurate dasher spout from the extended feather shaft. Others were even more rudimentary. Liquid was dispensed through a hole in the cork.

One such bottle sold at an American Bottle Auctions sale on 1 June 2010 for $64,960 USD. It was a Powell & Stutenroth “Favorite Bitters” bottle—patented in 28 July 1868—and rated 9.7 out for quality. There was one noted flaw that should make sense to any bartender: The original cork was intact, but there was a small hole through it. Well, of course there was. (What were the ingredients in Favorite Bitters? It contained “sasparilla, dandelion, wild cherry, buchu, cubeba, orange peel, gentian, columbo, and sassafras.)

Much cheaper and far more useful behind the bar are vintage Hazel Atlas bitters bottles with classic metal and cork dasher tops. These frosted glass bottles can be found online for as little as 20 euros. Slightly more expensive, but perhaps the most ornate bitters bottle ever made are the glass Angostura bottles from the 1920s which were overlaid with silver leaf and vine patterns.

Although we now have plastic disks built into bottles and metal and cork facsimiles of early feather-and-cork dashers—and we may soon have a tenth of the number of bitters available a century and a half ago—there is still no standardization in the quantity of a dash.

Depending on the bottle, the amount can range from a few drops to more than double that amount. And dashers are not the only way we get dashes behind the bar. Many a modern-day bartender has been taught to cover the large hole on the speed pourer spout to create a dash—or to cover the small hole to dispense a splash. Occasionally, bars have resorted to making inexpensive dashers from condiment containers such as hot sauce bottles with metal screw tops by tapping a nail hole through the lid and screwing it back on the bottle.

While the inaccuracy of these various dashes will leave the precision mixers measuring their bitters with pipettes and eyedroppers until an acceptable solution is reached, the rest of us can enjoy one point of imprecision for the sake of tradition. And if a drink tastes better one day than it did the day before? It’s likely that the bitters dasher favored you with a little extra.

—Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown

[This article was originally published in German in 2010 in Mixology Magazine.]

© MIXELLANY LIMITED 2012

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