I never thought of myself as someone who could pick up on all the nuance and subtlety involved in tasting or smelling things. I’ve never gone to some kind of professional tasting or sat down with a vintner, brewer, or what have you. I love cocktails and good food, and I know when it’s good because my mouth likes it. If you asked me to tell you the difference between two red wines though, I’d be dead in the water. This changed a lot on Tuesday night at Stars Restaurant downtown. Dale DeGroff’s bitters seminar, with the assistance of George Dickel whiskey, shed a light on parts of me that were only accessible through a little bitters, a little more whiskey, and a lot of knowledge.
After getting an initial warming cocktail from bartender Evan Christy and saying our hellos, we were seated. Before us was a row of five premade Manhattans, as well as five cups of bitters. The man of the hour, "King Cocktail" himself Dale DeGroff, started something beautiful. I’m not a bartender (and I fear my lack of knowledge on the subject), so I was just holding on for the ride. I quickly learned that this was an event for both the layman and the expert alike. The local bartenders attending would gain a great deal, as would I. Dale didn’t talk about what’s “good” or “bad” with bitters or simply try to promote himself—he took us on a journey filled with twists and turns and knowledge bombs that only someone with his experience would think to impart. We heard a little about his pedigree, but then we heard about the impact of bitters on the initial world of bartending. We heard about the kinds of flavors found in older bitters, and then we heard about stealing nutmeg to amass fortunes. There wasn’t just a flavor profile in the ingredients of bitters, but history as well.
And the flavor and smell of each bitter featured was made well known by interactivity. I used to always fear seminars as being like a normal day in my college photo course, which is to say four hours of slides. Dale is a smart man and clearly knows how to have fun, so he wasn’t having any of that. Going through our line of bitters, he invited us to smell them for awhile. We talked about what we were getting: Was it sweet? What flavors do we pick up? Did it remind us of anything? After that, we tasted them individually. Was it as sweet as it smelled? Was it dry? We were invited to compare them and then put them in their respected Manhattan glasses, where we went through the gamut of these questions again. This whole time, he invited the group to say what they were thinking or picking up. One moment stuck out for me, when he asked what we were picking up in The Bitter Truth Aromatic Bitters. I got this faint smell of licorice but thought, “I shouldn’t say anything, how could that be right?” Well, the answer was licorice. I realized at that moment that maybe it wasn’t that I couldn’t pick up on these nuances, but that I’m afraid to follow my instincts.
I remember the first time I had Jack Daniel's in college. I took a sip of it and mentioned to my friend that it tasted a little like vanilla. “Vanilla? What the hell is wrong with you?” he barked. But I tasted vanilla, and I realized at the seminar that it’s not about right or wrong, it’s about what I’m picking up. Doug, a man associated with George Dickel, talked to me briefly about this. He mentioned that sometimes, it’s not about your palette’s capabilities but about your experience. He knew a guy who would pick up stuff in the grocery store and smell it just to have the knowledge of it.
On the final bitters sample, Fee Brothers, when Dale asked what people were picking up, someone in the group rang out, “Smells like Fireball!” I found it instantly. While I was originally thinking cinnamon, I realized it was the kind of cinnamon flavor that mattered. It wasn’t that sweet cinnamon we were picking up in Evan’s cocktail, but, as Dale mentioned, it tasted like those Red Hots candies from the movie theater.
I realized that I had the ability to understand and appreciate the complexities of these flavors. The main ingredient in this seminar was experience. We learned new things but could apply the old. Much like some sort of epiphany or Matrix-style program upload, I left there with the ability to understand a Manhattan and its ingredients. More importantly, I learned what type of Manhattan I personally like. Dale DeGroff truly is a master, and it was nothing short of joyful being in his presence. And while we have some experts here, I can only hope we see more masters of mixology come through town more often.
Uncle George’s Cough Medicine
1.3 oz George Dickel Rye
3 oz Boiled Apple Cider with cinnamon, clove, star anise, and rosemary
A dash of Dale DeGroff's Pimento Bitters
Evan Christy of Prohibition, winner of this year’s George Dickel Iron Bartender Competition, created this festive, warm drink to bundle up with in the winter months.
Dickel & Lemonade
1.3 oz George Dickel No. 12
3 oz Lemonade
1 Lemon Wedge
Dale DeGroff’s Manhattan
1 oz. George Dickel Rye
.25 oz. Dolan Dry Vermouth
.25 oz. Martini Ross Sweet
A dash of your favorite bitters
Directions: Stir and serve.