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It's The Little Things That Make All The Difference

Before finalizing the bitters recipe I had one last question I needed answering. How much did it matter whether I used neutral spirits or bourbon for the base of my aromatic bitters? Actually two questions, because then I wanted to know if there was a considerable difference could I adjust for it in the recipe so that I could use neutral spirits, which are cheaper.

So I made two identical batches, one with 100 proof neutral spirits made from grapes and one with Wild Turkey 101, which I have been using regularly for the last few months. As I was doing the last step, adding my sugar syrup, I tasted a bit of each straight out of the jar. I was surprised by how much brighter and more distinct the flavors were in the neutral batch.

When they were finally ready, Dan and I grabbed the club soda and did a side by side taste test. It was pretty clear the batch with the neutral base tasted better. The flavors were more distinct and it was a bit more bitter than the muddled, slightly sweeter tasting Wild Turkey batch. Which to me was great news, no only did I not have to modify my final recipe I also could use cheaper, easier to source booze as a base.

But then we made Old Fashioneds and everything changed. The neutral batch didn't blend as well and tasted quite harsh in the drink. The Wild Turkey batch on the other hand seemed to brighten the whole drink and really bring it together, the way bitters should. Just to make sure we brought a sample of each kind of bitters over to a friend's house for dinner. I made 8 Old Fashioneds, half with the neutral bitters and half with the Wild Turkey bitters, otherwise they were identical. I didn't tell anyone what they got, but did give each couple one of each so they could taste both versions and give me their honest opinion. There was no question, the Wild Turkey based bitters was preferred.

So while I'm certain the actual brand of bourbon makes little difference, I've tried Bulliet, Rittenhouse Rye, Evan Williams, and the Wild Turkey 101 without being able to distinguish, it must be bourbon for the base of the aromatic bitters.

This does mean my recipe is finalized, but now we are tasked with finding a source of bulk bourbon that will still keep our costs in line. There are options out there, but far less choices. Oddly enough, this little experiment has also left me feeling more confident in my end product. I'm making something I'm not only proud of, every ingredient is truly there for a reason.

Lemoncello

The first time I tasted lemoncello I was traveling in Italy just after graduating college. We had stopped for a few days in a town called Riomaggiore, part of the Cinque Terre on the Mediterranean coast. After finding a place to stay and dropping our stuff, we headed to the main bar in town to get a feel for the place and to cool off with a beer. After hanging out for a bit and making friends we also met the owner of the bar. Upon returning after dinner, most of the same crowd was back, we were introduced to the after dinner custom of a glass of lemoncello. This particular lemoncello was made across the street by the bar owner’s mother. It was tart and sweet, bursting with the flavor of fresh lemons. It also went down quite easy.

Further on in our travels we stayed for a few nights on the Amalfi Coast, an area known for its lemon groves. I remember quite vividly a walk we took from a hilltop town we’d visited back to our hotel. The entire way we followed a steep footpath through the lemon trees. The air smelled of sweet citrus and every once in a while we’d catch a glimpse of the Mediterranean through the trees. That night we stopped into a bar for a lemoncello. The old man who ran the place couldn’t quite accept that we just wanted to enjoy a drink and didn’t want to eat. A plate full of olives and bread arrived at our table along with our second glass.

It was a few years later that my aunt started making lemoncello for the holidays. I had since tried some at various bars in the states, but most of it was too cloyingly sweet or tasted of bitter “natural” flavors. Hers was the closest I’d ever had to what we enjoyed in Italy.

After Dan and I moved in together I made my own batch for the holidays. Dan loved it. I believe he drank most of the first batch by himself within days. I now try to keep at least a liter bottle in the refrigerator and thankfully he’s learned a little restraint, but for a while I was making a 2-liter batch every few weeks.

While you can get good tasting lemons year round, we are currently in the prime of citrus season. I do believe you get a fuller, sweeter flavor when you use in-season lemons right off the tree. There are also advocates of Meyer lemons and this is definitely the time of year for those, but I will caution you. I’ve had some amazing lemoncello made with Meyer lemons, but I also made a batch that was extremely perfumey and to both Dan and my taste, unpleasant. Make sure you know the flavor profile of the lemon’s you choose before you commit.

Lemoncello 

1.75 liters 80-90 proof vodka (I use the cheap stuff, no need to get fancy)
9 lemons
5 cups sugar

Zest the lemons removing as little pith as possible. I use a potato peeler to make zesting less tedious and I’ve also found that having big pieces of peel keep the end product clearer with less filtering.

Then juice your lemons, setting the juice aside.

In a 4-quart saucepan over low heat, add the vodka, sugar and lemon zest. Heat slowly, stirring till the sugar dissolves, being carful to not let the temperature go above 120°.

Once the sugar is dissolved, let cool slightly (5-10 minutes) then add all the lemon juice. Stir to mix.

Put the mixture into a sealable glass container. You’ll need one that will hold about 2.5 liters. You can also split the mixture up, but make sure to divide the lemon peel evenly between the two containers.

Let the mixture sit for a least two weeks, then strain.

Serve chilled and remember every two ounces is equivalent to a shot of vodka, because it certainly won’t taste like it.

Whiskey Primer

When I say I’m a bourbon fan, I often get asked “How is bourbon different from whiskey?”

In the simplest terms bourbon is a distilled grain spirit made from at least 51% corn in the U.S. Bourbon originally comes from the area around Bourbon County, Kentucky and has a history much richer than 18th century farmers just wanting to get drunk, but that’s another article. Its sweet, spicy character comes from the charred, new oak barrels that it must be aged in. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the US, but is most closely associated with south and as long as there’s 51% corn, the rest can be any combination of grains, however barley, wheat and rye are the most common.

Corn is the sweetest of the grains, with wheat coming a close second. Bourbons like Makers Mark are an easy introduction since they are high in corn and wheat, thus sweeter and a little easier to sip. Rye adds sharpness and more spice; Bulleit and Four Roses are classic examples of high rye bourbons. Barley is used for the enzymes mostly, but can contribute a bit of a malty note.

So how does this all make bourbon different from whiskey and scotch?

First, all bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbons. In other words whiskey is the larger category that includes more specific designations like bourbon.

Whisk(e)y can be made anywhere in the world from any grain. The regulations on ageing, process, and recipe vary from country to country and depending on what you want to put on the label. It’s these distinctions that give you a bit more of a clue, like single malt is made from only one malted grain, most often barley. American whiskeys are generally a mix of corn, wheat, barley and rye, but you’ll find some that are 100% wheat, corn or rye on the shelves. Irish whiskey must be distilled in Ireland and aged no less than 3 years in wooden barrels.

Scotch, another very popular type of whiskey, is also a sub-category like bourbon. To be labeled scotch it must be distilled in Scotland and aged a minimum of 3 years although most are aged at least 3 times as long. Scotch also has a very distinct flavor from the malt that is peat smoked, giving it that smoky, mossy taste, however this is not required to be a scotch.

In other words whiskey can have a lot of variation depending on where it’s made and who’s making it. Added flavors and colors are also permitted in many types of whiskey.

The best way to find out what you like is to start tasting and ask questions. When something catches your attention, look at the label and find out how it’s made, what makes it unique, then search out other whiskeys that are made similarly.

Off To Work I Go

It’s official, I have a day job and at a startup no less. I’m as excited as I am nervous. The job is a great fit; I’ll be supporting small business owners with my marketing and community building skills. The team is young and full of energy and while I bring a lot to the table I’m certain I’ll learn a ton too.

However, being the planner and control freak that I am, I’m already a bit nervous about my changing schedule. I don’t want to let things go, but realize that my new commitment will most likely take more of my time and energy in the beginning than even I can imagine. If I want to keep up with bread baking, granola making, canning projects and of course blogging and bitters, I’m going to have to be much more productive in the evenings and weekends than I have been. I’ve always functioned better when I have a lot on my plate; downtime makes me lazy, where a packed schedule makes me efficient. So I’m looking forward to it, but currently my mind is running amok and making me a little anxious.

On the other hand knowing that a steady paycheck is soon to be mine, along with benefits, has taken a noticeable weight off my shoulders. My paychecks will double our income, giving us a lot of wiggle room. And while Dan and I have already started daydreaming about a few luxuries we can now afford, we’ve already mapped out a budget that puts most of my paycheck toward credit card debt and into savings. Right now working toward buying a house is more important to us than a bigger wardrobe and fancy dinners.

So during this last week of unemployment I’m going to do my best to tie up loose ends while still getting in a little playtime. Then for the first few weeks of my new gig I promise to be gentle with myself and not create superwoman to do lists. Instead I will let myself settle, get used to new hours, new ways of using my brain, and get used to working in a team again. I will strive to find balance, but know that it may take some time. 

So for the next month or so you may be hearing less from me. I'm pretty sure I can get at least one post up a month, but we're also getting close to beginning the licensing process for The Bitter Housewife and while it looks pretty straightforward I anticipate a lot of last minute research.

Here's to new adventures!!

Spring Seed Planting

With the East Coast being pounded by layers of snow and ice, I thought it was appropriate to gloat about our San Francisco weather. Our days are in the high 50's to low 60's with barely a cloud in the sky. So it's time to get the spring planting underway. 

Fava beans are hands down one of my favorite foods and I was so excited that a fellow community garden member gave us use of her plot for the winter so that we could plant favas and kale. The idea of almost 50 square feet of favas had me quite giddy. They came up beautifully, got to be about 3 inches high and then the whole plot was nibbled down to the ground by some rodent. Needless to say I was crushed.

So now that it's spring and time to plant another batch of favas along with peas we've decided to start them in the security of our back deck and let them get to fighting size before we bring them over to the garden. Our attempt at peas was also thwarted by the same hungry rodent or at least friends of his. 

I took a look at the planting calendar I put together and decided to also get some rutabagas and tomatoes started. I've never done tomatoes from seed before so this year will be an experiment. I'm planning on starting them indoors and once they sprout I'll keep them outside during the day in direct sun and take them in at night to keep them warm.

Dan and I are determined to make this a successful garden year and I'm going to grow myself some favas.