My Latest Obsession: Rhubarb Bitters
I don't often have buyer's regret—perhaps that's because I don't buy all that much—but sometimes I have failure-to-purchase regret. I see something I covet (usually in the specialty-foods or kitchen equipment store) and then I pass it by, thinking I'll get that later, no need to spend the money now. And then I get more and more obsessed. This happened to me recently with rhubarb bitters, and The Rhubarb Bitters That Got Away.
For a while, you could buy Mark Buettler and Jason Rowan's Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters at Fromaggio in Essex Market, including a fresh rhubarb-based bitters made with local organic rhubarb. I saw the rhubarb bitters at Fromaggio a few times, and, determined to keep my cheese bill from skyrocketing, I figured I'd pick them up another time, perhaps for a summer cocktail party. But when I stopped by recently, there was only one bottle left (Sriracha, not rhubarb.) As Jennifer Strom of The Lo-Down reported, "Demand for their bitters has outpaced their home-office equipment, and they are ramping up production and packaging to meet it." Hopefully there will be bottles back on the shelves soon.
Fee Brothers has been making rhubarb bitters for a few years now, using "natural and artificial flavors and extracts." Their version is lightly floral, with hints of cherry candy and clove. Mike Dietsch calls for them in his intense Cynar-based spin on the margarita, and Sam Meyer at the excellent blog Cocktailians suggests a spin on the Kamikaze with handmade strawberry vodka, rhubarb bittters, lime juice, and Cointreau. But for me, they don't quite satisfy, perhaps because I wish I'd grabbed the Hemispherical Bitters when I saw them.
In the meantime, there are a few other truly delicious options for making rhubarb cocktails.
Fresh Rhubarb Syrup
When rhubarb is in season, it's a cinch to make your own rhubarb syrup. Just clean and chop some rhubarb until you have two cups, then simmer with a cup of water and just a bit of sugar. You want it to be tart—you can always sweeten an individual cocktail if needed.
This vivid magenta elixir is delicious with seltzer or dribbled over ice cream, and it's also quite tasty mixed with ginger beer, dark rum, and lime (let's call it a Late Spring Dark and Stormy.)
Gran Classico Bitter
If Gran Classico isn't on your radar yet, it should be, especially if you're a fan of Campari and Aperol (and even if you're not.) Like Campari, Gran Classico is a Bitter of Turin, based on a recipe created in 1860s Italy. A number of roots, herbs, and other plants are infused to make this intensely aromatic aperitif, including bitter orange peel, gentian, rhubarb, and wormwood. Because wormwood (usually associated with absinthe) was banned in spirits in the US from 1912 to 2007, this deliciously bittersweet dram faded from popularity until it was rediscovered by California importer Tempus Fugit.
It's delicious stuff, with a candied orange aroma and rich apricot, marmalade, honey, and yes, rhubarb flavors up front. It's sweet but remarkably balanced, with a slightly mentholated bitterness on the finish that makes it drinkable on its own. It's less sticky-sweet and aggressive than Campari, and its complex herbal notes make it a wonderful partner for gin. Gran Classico Negroni? Yes, please. (Be sure to use good, fresh vermouth, like Dolin.)
We also like Gran Classico mixed with a little of that homemade rhubarb syrup, bourbon, and sweet vermouth in a variation on the Boulevardier. The honeyed character of the Gran Classico latches right on to the bourbon; it's a cocktail we'll be making until our bottle runs dry.