Winter Cocktails Made with Bitters, Herbs & Spices
By Connie Leaf
Originally featured in the Winter 2016 issue of Thirst Colorado Magazine.
My cocktail creation process is always in some sense inspired by the changing of seasons. Like a mindful chef would do with seasonal, wholesome food, I let what’s around me inspire my work.
As the golden aspens gave way to snowflakes, our bar team started thinking about winter cocktails that can be built in high volumes as efficiently and consistently as possible. We collaborate on how to achieve that perfect balance between the flavor profiles of the base spirit, sweetener, and the bittering agent that both lifts and binds the aforementioned two together. The cold winter months are dominated by warming spices, and to quote David Kaplan, founder of the revolutionary New York City bar Death and Company, “bitters are a bar’s spice rack.”
The revival of bitters behind bars aligns with the reinvention of pre-prohibition classics. In fact, the first known written definition of the word “cocktail” from an 1806 newspaper from Hudson, New York, includes bitters as one of its four critical components (the others being any base spirit, water and sugar). Before acting as a flavoring agent in cocktails, bitters were patented, proprietary medicine blends going back to London in the 1700s. Bitters lost favor in the 1980s with the rise of packaged, pre-mixed powders and syrups. Daiquiris were no longer made with muddled strawberries and freshly pressed lime juice but by the push of a sticky button and a carton of chemicals. We cocktail enthusiasts welcome back the aromatic bitters with open arms, even imitating and recreating them in our own kitchens.
This season, I’m inspired by the aromas of cooked dark fruits, oak note undertones of caramel and vanilla, and warming spices like cardamom and cinnamon. Barrel-aged grain spirits and savory herbaceous liqueurs come to mind when trying to achieve balance and warmth in a winter cocktail. I work down the street from 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirits Company, right in the heart of Vail Village, and had the idea to incorporate their Sage-Infused Peach Vanilla “Alpenglow” Cordial in a variation of the classic Manhattan. I poured the cordial in place of sweet vermouth. It’s much sweeter than your typical Italian vermouth used in a proper Manhattan, so I reduce the amount needed. I’m using Peach Street Bourbon from Palisade as the base spirit, and three dashes of the classic Angostura Bitters to both balance out the sweetness of the cordial and bridge the vanilla peach and sage flavors to Peach Street Bourbon’s 92-proof heat.
The craft distillers at Peach Street are self-proclaimed “creative perfectionists” and “artisan experimenters” who produce the highest quality Colorado-based straight bourbon. With its intense spice notes, cinnamon, and vanilla on the nose, and thinner-than-normal mouth feel, Peach Street is the perfect Colorado bourbon to complement my sweeter variation of a winter Manhattan.
My first attempt was well-balanced and enjoyable, but the sage did not shine through as much as I had hoped. I infused the bourbon with fresh sage leaves to enhance the herbal component already found in 10th Mountain’s cordial. It’s a delicate herb that, if over-infused, would impart more bitterness than I wanted, so only 21 grams were needed for a whole bottle of bourbon. That seemed to do the trick. My bar guests love this winter variation on the classic Manhattan.
Connie Leaf bartends in Vail at Sweet Basil Restaurant. She has an unwavering passion for hospitality through food and beverage, and she enjoys skiing fresh powder and hiking.