Bitters in, bottoms up at boot camp

A class with cocktails: That’s how Taylore Ransom and Erik Rozolis of Janesville spent a recent Saturday afternoon in Madison.

For them and about 30 others, at least one hour of lessons in history, science, folklore and mixology ended with hands-on lab work and a kit to continue it at home.

Ransom added cherry bark vanilla and cocoa nibs to vodka. Rozolis used the same alcohol but added molasses, sarsaparilla and cinnamon.

All was the culmination of a bitter experience. Oops – make that a bitters experience.

Managers at Avenue Club and the Bubble Up Bar teach others how to mix alcohol with botanicals during Bitters Boot Camp, which also delves into the long evolution of bitters.

The influence of bitters on a cocktail depends upon which ingredients – allspice to star anise and far beyond – are added to alcohol and how long the infused mixture steeps. How the bitters is used counts too.

Students sampled four versions of the Old Fashioned cocktail during these gatherings, adding bitters to alcohol as instructed. One sample contained the classic Korbel brandy. Another had J. Henry Bourbon, made in Wisconsin. Two contained different kinds of artisan-batch bitters: One was added to gin, the other to rye whiskey.

All of these variations are on the Avenue’s bar menu. Evan Ackers, bar manager, deconstructed the Old Fashioned from simple syrup (sugared water that perhaps is flavored too) to garnish (the closer you get to Green Bay, the more likely that drinkers favor pickled veggies or mushrooms over the traditional orange slice and cherry).

Liz Stolz, general manager, covered the influence of bitters on Wisconsin culture.

Students munched on house-made chips and onion dip, then nuggets of beer-batter fish and cheese curds, while hearing who opened the first supper club (Lawrence Frank, in Beverly Hills), why Catholics started eating fish during Lent (an Edward VI edict started it off), when the Avenue opened (1956) and how many Old Fashioneds have been sold there (about 250,000 since 2012).

Recommended combinations – orange, coriander and cardamom, for example – were revealed, plus recipes as starting points for students to make their own bitters.

Most were introduced to bitters through the Old Fashioned long ago. An exception was Gina Steward of Madison, who moved to Wisconsin from Indiana in November.

“I had my first six months ago, in Puerto Rico,” she said, and meant it. That makes the Old Fashioned her new personal favorite.

Bitters Boot Camp for the public happens monthly at the Avenue Club, which also books the event for private groups of eight to 50. Expect to set aside two hours, maybe more. The cost is $35 ($25 without alcohol).

In the Avenue’s bitters collection is Bittercube Bitters, which began business in 2009, making one-gallon batches at a time. Now a batch is 210 gallons, and the company in 2018 moved into a larger Uptown Milwaukee neighborhood.

Visit the bar for an introduction to products in research and development. Seasonal and traditional cocktails are available too. Thirty-minute tours happen by appointment and end with a cocktail.

Product descriptions resemble wine notes. Consider the Bolivar bitters, inspired by a recipe in a 19th century cocktail guide: “Versatile and aromatic, with floral notes of chamomile and jasmine, plus cinnamon and dried fruits on the finish.”

Bittercube produces eight types of bitters, plus limited-edition varieties. Products are sold in one-ounce and five-ounce containers, and as a six-pack assortment. Online are cocktail recipe ideas.

Nelsen’s Hall on Washington Island, at the tip of Door County, reaches its 120th year of business this spring. Co-owner Doug Delaporte says he goes through 80 or 90 cases of bitters and 10,000 Bitters Club membership cards per year.

The restaurant-bar is known for its intake of Angostura bitters, and anyone who drinks a shot glass filled with bitters automatically earns club membership. The shot-downing dates back to Prohibition, when owner Tom Nelsen got a pharmacist license to sell bitters as a stomach tonic.

That means no bar in the state has legally been in operation longer than Nelsen’s. The Bitters Club began after a nephew inherited the bar in the 1950s.

Angostura bitters are made in Trinidad, the recipe is a tightly guarded secret and production tours of House of Angostura are a top attraction. The campus also has a rum distillery, bottling plant, museum and collection of 700-plus kinds of butterflies (the collection dates back to 1921).

Tours happen on weekdays, require a reservation, last at least two hours, include product samples and cost about $10.

Why Angostura? That’s the name of a little town in Venezuela where ancestors of the product’s inventor lived. He began the company in 1824.

A globally popular liquor with 56 botanicals (cardamom to zitwer) has a Wisconsin connection. The licorice-scented herbal blend is Jagermeister, the biggest taxpayer in Wolfenbuttel, a sister city of Kenosha.

The 1934 recipe for the aromatic liquor has not changed. From start to finish, it’s 15 months of grinding, mixing, soaking, filtering and hundreds of quality control checks for each of the 660,000 hunter-green bottles that are filled per day.

Factory tours are popular, last 90 minutes and require a reservation that should be made before leaving home. Cost is about $22. The company, about 150 miles west of Berlin, began as a wine wholesaler.