Review: Orange Bitters

IMG_7393In the quest for the perfect Martini, there is one ingredient that can take yours to the next level.

They say the step from excellence to sublime to a mere ineffable something. Perhaps I just made that up, but I agree with myself.

Usually when I’m test-running a bar for the first time I’ll ask for a straight up, very dry Tanqueray Gin Martini. Its the basic comparison I use to test their mettle against other bars I’ve experienced. There are no distractions, no fancy ingredients, no craft Gin mojo to get in the way.

In theory, they should all taste the same, but they don’t for various reasons, and on occasion, one really sings like Sade. Why? Often its the merest hit of Orange Bitters, one of the old school Martini ingredients from way back when.

Happily, its now readily available in the shops and online after being pretty much impossible to get.

So this time round I’m looking at some that are east to get in Australia.


How its Made

Happily, its not out the realm of possibility for you to make some at home if you like the idea of mixing booze and ingredients together and experimenting. Essentially, you infuse dried ingredients like peels of Seville oranges, cardamon, caraway seed, coriander and perhaps caramel or burnt sugar in an clear alcohol base (vodka can be used in a pinch) for a period of time, a few weeks maybe, and then strain. Voila!

Of course something that simple is an art, still it may be worth a try.

It is worth remembering that Bitters was originally a medicine, to assist in the digestion especially and appeared in well before the C17th, so its intentions are good. There is something homeopathic about them.

IMG_7368Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters (150ml)

Tasted by itself, this offers a distinctly Orange hit with a not unpleasant bitter finish- exactly as advertised, not complex like its Barrel Aged companion, just a pleasant experience all round. Recommended. This is 9% ABV Price range, about $15.00


Fee Brothers Gin Barrel Aged (150ml)

There is something seriously old school about this product, and it really floats my boat. It has been aged in Old Tom Gin barrels based on oranges from the West Indies. It offers a much more complex palate, is more bitter than its sister in the range, and reminds me of Xmas Pudding. Its darker + richer, but rather addictive, use sparingly and its in limited release.  It is 9% ABV and price range, about $30.00


Angostura Orange Bitters (100ml)

No, this isn’t the stuff you use to make a lemon, lime and bitters with. Its from the same company in the Caribbean though where they understand what makes for a nice drink in the heat. This is REALLY bitter straight up, with some burnt notes + caramel at the end, and it lacks the complexity of the above labels and is 28% ABV. Price range, about $15.00


The Bitters selection at Lily Blacks in Melbourne.

The Bitters selection at Lily Blacks in Melbourne.

Using Bitters

First up just try some on your finger to get a taste before dashing away. Remember, less is more here, you’ll only need a few drops. When mixing my Martini, as I’m letting the mix stand for a moment after stirring, and I’m doing my garnish, its then I’ll put a few drops into the glass.

I did try it in the mixer with the Gin + Vermouth but it got rather lost. The pouring of the cocktail over the garnish + bitters seems to doe the trick.

You’re not after a orange cocktail or something that will mask the Martini complexity. What it does do is round it out subtly, give you a slight citrus note, and particularly if you’ve a more mainstream London Dry style Gin it gives you a nice refinement.

Bitters would be wasted though in a heavily flavoured Craft Gin though.  In the same way as a choice of garnish can reveal a particular botanical in the Gin, a bitters can reveal new dimensions, that je ne sais quoi, so let them guide you.


Also Look Out For

Locally in Australia, there is Only Bitters that offers an interesting + exotic range (such as Filthy Dirty, Lolita, Cherry Bark Vanilla and Lem-Marrakech) via mail order.

There are also others labels you can explore, such as Regans Orange Bitters No. 6 (one of the originals) and Bittermans from the USA which I’ve noticed is available from from Wig’s Cellar in Melbourne city, along with  Mister Bitters (Australia), Bad Dog (USA), The Bitter Truth (UK) and Peychauds (USA).

Some bars can get creative with other types of Bitters (such as the pictured Lily Blacks) so if you’re getting a tad bored with your usual, then time to try some alchemy.

Review: Blood Moon Tonic

BloodMoon Tonic From Melbourne comes another great example of the spirit of collaboration here in the world’s cocktail capital.

Regular readers will be familiar with my survey last year of some of readily available Tonic waters in Australia, and a quick history of how it came to be developed for medical reasons in the support of colonialism by the French + British et alia.

There is are some very good reasons why a Martini drinker should care about this key ingredient in a Gin + Tonic.

Come scorching summer season that we get in the antipodes it does get way too hot to enjoy a Martini in comfort… so that where a decent G+T comes into play. Also, as a drinker of quality gin, you’ll want to treat it with respect and ensure that the tonic is the same quality as the spirit.

So a little while back I was sent a sample bottle of Blood Moon tonic syrup that was being crowd funded via Pozible by Melbourne local Karolina Partyka.  At the time of writing she had exceeded her target by well over 100% and will be releasing three versions: Traditional, Unsweetened and Native Botanicals.  She developed the mixes with some input from local bars + friends at West Winds Gin.

When tonic water was first developed (see my post about this) it was first seen in this form, a cordial that was then diluted as it usually quite bitter as a result of its main ingredient Chincona bark (for the quinine). It was a medicine after all.

Mr Schweppes came along in the late Nineteenth Century and carbonated water was born and the rest is history….but back in the day if you were Bombay and lining up for anti-malarial dose each day, you got a big spoon of the brown stuff, with some limes for flavour.



Tasting Notes

So for those used to the clear tonic water you’ll need to shift gears when using this and get used to a coloured drink. Using it is pretty simple: you add soda or mineral water and voila, tonic water!

I was given the traditional version, and to quote Karolina “based on a centuries old recipe, the Traditional Cinchona Tonic Syrup uses real cinchona bark, citrus, herbs, spices, and a little floral touch to create an intriguing syrup.”  I detected cinnamon and perhaps cloves in the mix and it has a lovely nose and isn’t bitter, quite neutral in sweetness too.

The advantage of a drink like this is that you can either have an intriguing and spicy (think  of a light + chilled mulled wine) non-alcoholic drink, or add your dash of gin.  I might experiment with it in a Martini perhaps too.

I opted for Tanqueray to see how a less flavoursome gin would work and you could still taste the spirit, it wasn’t lost in the mix.  A straw poll among the guests whom I was testing it on at sundowners all gave it the thumbs up. So there.

Note, I would suggest an unsweetened soda like Fever Tree, not a generic commercial soda, or quality mineral water in order to let the subtle flavours come through.




I under the tonic syrups will be commercially available very soon in late 2014, so tune into them via the links below for more information.


Floriade 2014

IMG_7246For the uninitiated Floriade has been a major floral festival in Canberra for 27 years and attracts over 400,000 people during its 30 day program.

So when I was invited to present a couple of sessions on the art of Martini making, I felt honoured. My brief was to provide a general introduction on how to make the cocktail for a general audience over 30 minutes.

It is one thing to do a masterclass for aficionados or professionals, and another for a random audience.

The organisers called the session, Shaken Not Stirred, which of course is a Martini no-no, but I was able to put everyone on the straight + narrow.

Thinking this was a great opportunity to introduce people to Australian craft Gins, I reached out to my pals at Nip of Courage and they didn’t hesitate to provide some bottles of the McHenry & Sons from Tasmania, Stone Pine from Bathurst and Botanic Australis for North Queensland for the occasion.

It is easy to forget that for most people the Martini is both exotic and often a bad experience. Too often they have drunk one that’s badly made and it puts them off for life. For a cocktail that’s simplicity itself, it is notoriously hard to get a good one, but as we know, once you’ve had a great one, you get it.

So I planned my session around the basics of Gin + Vermouth, garnish options, a few tales of great Martini experiences (inspired by some of the stories in Mr Moorehouse’s work, Martini: A Memoir) and aimed to keep the tone light + fun – I wanted them to be able to walk away keen to try it at home, or be confident in ordering one in a bar.

Choosing readily available products, I made a version of the three Gins on offer. Lucky door prize guests could choose which one they wanted and I then improvised a version them that best showed off that Gin.

IMG_7224The McHenry & Sons is a new clean style that is reminiscent of Tanqueray with a hit of lime citrus notes, so its quite versatile. I used a few drops of orange bitters in one version and a light dose of Noilly Prat.

For the Botanic Australis, being so rich in flavour, just a hint of vermouth sufficed, whilst the Stone Pine, sitting in the middle of the flavour spectrum, could be used for a wetter style (1:4 ratio), and I also showed how to use a Lillet Blanc glass rinse to add a roundness to the cocktail for those who don’t want it too astringent.

I varied the garnishes between simple olives or lemon twists, but outlined how they could use things like rosemary, fresh thyme and the like. Naturally I also emphasised how critical it was for everything to be super chilled in preparation for cocktail hour.

Sample bottles of each were passed around so they could smell the basic ingredients before the magic happened in the mixing.

With about 30 people in the morning (10am is a bit early for gin even for me) and about 70 in the evening session the atmosphere was great and I think I channelled a little Liberace and put on a bit of a show, which was a lot of fun.

It was quite a mixed audience and the questions were often about where to get the stock, and happily those who sampled the Martinis loved them!  Phew. 

About half hadn’t had a Martini before, and most had never had any Australian Gin, so it was wonderful to see many go away inspired to make a Martini part of their lives. Mission Accomplished.


Download the Handout

I also prepared this Martini Handout (PDF) for everyone that came along that gives the basic steps in crafting a Martini, and a few tips!

Feel free to try it out and report back.




You can watch a cheap + cheerful production excerpt of the evening session captured on an iPhone here via YouTube.


Good Food Month: Private Dinner Canberra, October


Pod Food at Pialligo

Pod Food at Pialligo

A gourmet dinner experience with craft Gin cocktails to match? Oh yes!

I’m delighted to be working with the talented team from Pod Food and spirit distributors, Nip of Courage to present this very special evening on Friday October 24.

With a perfectly dry Martini on arrival mixed by yours truly, guests will experience a degustation dinner with specially crafted Gin cocktails to match.

I’ll be sharing my expert insights on the premium Australian craft Gins we’ll be using and all things related.

Its going to be a swell evening, so please book now directly with Pod Food, there are limited places, and tickets just $100.00 per person.





Floriade 2014: Shaken not Stirred Presentations

floriadeI’m thrilled to announce that I’ve been invited to present two sessions on Friday 26 September at this year’s Floriade festival in Canberra!

I’ve been asked to demonstrate how to craft the perfect Martini.

There will be two sessions: one at 10am to 10.30am (never too early obviously) and the other at 7.00pm to 7.30pm as part of the Nightfest program.

The sessions themselves are free to attend, and run for 30 minutes, and will be in the Inspiration Hub, but you’ll need to purchase tickets to get into the Nightfest session, there is no charge during the day.

Three lucky participants will get to try the Martinis I create each session.

Once you’ve bought your ticket for Nightfest you can just come along, no need to RSVP, but get there on time!


I’ll be working with some special Australian craft Gins which are provided with the generous support of boutique spirits distributors, Nip of Courage. Thanks! xx

Hope to see you there!








How To Videos: in the pipeline….suggestions sought

cropped-img_0732-e1383518834934.jpgAs  promised in my recent post I’m going to produce several videos for those of you wanting to make the perfect Martini at home.

I’ll be covering all the basics, plus some of my own tips of the trade, and I’m after suggestions as to other things you’d like me to cover too.

So please add some suggestions below, or comment via facebook or twitter.


Also, I’m open to which Gins you’d like me to work with, so feel free to suggest which ones using this list as the basis.

Looking forward to your input.

Work in Progress: 14/7

IMG_5601Just a quick update on some of the things in the pipeline you can look forward to on the blog.

          • A ‘How-to-make The Perfect Martini at Home’ video due to popular demand.
          • A review of the new Gin from Tasmania, McHenry + Sons.
          • Details of my guest appearances at Floriade festival in Canberra on Friday 26 September.
          • Details of a special one-night-only craft Gin experience in Canberra on Friday 24 October.
          • Plus, hopefully, a look at some of the newish Australian craft Dry Vermouth on the market to update my Vermouth survey,

At the end of the year I’ll be travelling to Berlin for a holiday and have lined up some Gin experiences there, so that will be fun!

Thanks for tuning in as always!

Review: 5 Melbourne Cocktail Bars

Since I’m IMG_5675on tour here for professional reasons, I’ve done my best to sample some of the best bars in the cocktail capital of Australia for you.

Before I give the scoop on five of them I’ve experienced, a general observation: the vibe in every bar I’ve been to has been positive, welcoming and they all care about their craft.

Being just a regular joe customer I’m consistently pleased how they look after you and aim to cultivate you as a regular.

They play the long game here in my experience.

The cocktail scene is buzzing with innovation, new local ingredients and even if its a casual vibe they’re aiming for in the fit-out they still know how to mix a cocktail.  Its just a question of find the bar that suits your mood, company and style.

I’ve been sampling widely the many bars about, and there are few top shelf ones I’m yet to experience like The Black Pearl, and The Everleigh, but in the meanwhile, so in no particular order, here’s a short list to get you going.



Lily Blacks, 12 Meyers Place, City

They didn’t know it at the time, but it was here I workshopped the recipe for the Centenary Martini a while back since they had all the ingredients I need to work out the mix…. they must I was bit of a lush on the night.

Tucked in an alley way off Bourke Street, I like this bar early in the week when its quieter.  Something of a deco vibe decor wise with the staff behind the bar looking the part in cashmere, pearls, and lovely makeup, or stylish beards plus some serious ink.   Cool, calm and collected.

They also love their bitters here and have a great collection, so if you want to explore the dark arts of these in your Martini, this is the place. They also place a huge bit of iceberg on the bar and chip away at it over several days for ice.  Website here.



IMG_5677Bad Frankie, 141 Greeves Street, Fitzroy

Only a few months old and its already making a splash with some bright young things going about the business of making a friendly neighbourhood bar.

From the get-go they decided to only stock only Australian products, so if you want to track down the craft Gins etc I talk about, this is the place.

Its very relaxed, food comes in the way of a jaffles, and they know their cocktail craft and offer some innovative talks using garnishes and bitters to add new dimensions to your Martini.

Facebook page here



 IMG_5640Bar Americano, 20 Presgrave Place, City

This is a bit special and it gave me one of the best bar experiences of my life.

By day a hipster, sit on milk crate in alley way set-up. By night in transforms to a speakeasy bar of wonders.

Standing room for about 10 people. No Photos. Period. Don’t even think about twitter.

One talented barman works magic with only a single spirit of each type (one Gin, one Vodka, One Bourbon etc) all in vintage decanters, so no labels. Close your eyes and let him do his thing.

You have a chat about how you like your Martini, a glamorous assistant brings you a bowl of nuts and glass of water and in moments you have one of the best darn cocktails of your life. She also takes care of the money side of things, so its very civilised.

With 1920’s jazz in the background you chat to the fellow drinkers from around the world, and life is good. Facebook page here

IMG_5982Eau de Vie, 1 Malthouse Lane, City

For me, possibly the bar cocktail bar in the country. It pushes all my buttons.

Impeccable table service, staff that remember you and what you like to drink, a beautiful environment in which to drink, interesting clientele and everything geared towards an excellent cocktail experience.

Martini’s shine here, they use liquid nitrogen to chill the glass, and you get your olives in an individual mini jar on the side. Talk to the staff, and let them take you on a journey. There are lots of details all the way around.

Last night I gave a order for about 8 different Martini’s (its a long story) each with a variation, and the chap listened, walked away, then came back in short while with a tray, and matched them perfectly to the guests, pouring them out in front of them.

There are private booths, buy your own bottle cabinets, great food to match the cocktails, and smartly turned out staff. Its hard to find of course, but look for the light above the door with no signage and be prepared to lose track of time. Website here.



The Gin Palace, 10 Russell Place, City

Something of sacred ground, and a pioneer in both cocktail craft and spirits in Australia.

I’ve always had exceptional Martini’s here, and with well over 200 Gins on stock it feels like going to the Louvre.

With table service, lots of nooks to sit and people watch plus jazz music that is not too loud, its rounded out by a polished and friendly service style, you cannot but love this bar.  Its also worth keeping an eye out for their special events.

A must-do experience for Martini lovers, and again, let them steer you towards the new stuff and expand your horizons. Website here


Lily Blacks


Bad Frankie


Eau de Vie


Gin Palace

Review: Lucky’s at the QT Canberra


SIMG_5836o there I was, in the dark, with my girl, with a drink.

When I consider a bar I try and get past my biases and judge it on what it sets itself up to be.

Regular readers may recall my reflections on the types of bars when I first experienced the QT Canberra a few months back when it launched.

On the night I was there the showcase bar, Lucky’s, wasn’t open, so I was keen to experience it when I was back in town.

Besides, its always best to wait a month or two before heading to a place, especially for reviewing purposes, its nonsensical to rate a place on its first day or week when they are out to impress, or haven’t got organised yet.


At the time I wondered aloud if their artistic aspirations for the guest experience could be achieved locally, and maintained at the standard the brand has set itself up to achieve, but I’m all for ambition and excellence in bar experiences.

So, its Friday night, I’ve been out of town for several weeks and haven’t seen my lovely wife for quite a while, so I’m a rather good mood. A quick response from the QT people via twitter made me choose the place over some of the other Civic bars I was considering and so here we are.

Through the barber shop and into the bar.

It’s loud, and its dark with spotlights effects that wouldn’t be out of place in the DMZ. A few roped off areas for groups and its just past 5pm and still plenty of empty tables. We’re greeted at the door and shown to a table. One is in the dark, the one next to it is under said spot light, not very romantic, so I opt for the dim version.

We’re informed there is table service and considered the drinks menu.

Then we wait.  We also get the torch app going to read the menu its so dark, and then give up and move to another table closer to the bar with some light.

We wait a bit more -say over 15 minutes- and eventually I head over to the bar (mind I can see the staff chatting away, presumably getting organised for the evening- I hope) and ask if I order. The nice chap says, ‘there is table service and they’ll be right over’, but then takes the order anyways, I have the impression its happened before.

IMG_5839So we wait some more, its not busy yet about 5.30pm now, we’ve a bit to catch up on, but its loud like I said, sort of night club volume, I presume to create atmosphere, but all it does it make it hard to communicate to each other and the staff.

As I looked about, I noticed that the promised table service wasn’t happening for many others (see pic left) with about a dozen people placing orders at the bar, noting also there were little lights at the bar so people could read the menus. Perhaps an after market modification.


IMG_5841Guests had occupied the our original table next to us and had their torch app out too in order to read- blurry pic left sort of shows this….  not the contrasting light vibe a few metres away.

Our drinks arrive after about 10 minutes and they are excellent (dry Plymouth Gin Martini for me, and barrel aged Old Fashioned for her, about $38.00 for both as I recall).

Really good cocktails- so full points there.


So there is design  and considered ambience, and then there is practicality and customer comfort. One is winning out over the other there in this case.

Oh, and what I can’t show you here, but if you head over to the Canberra Martini facebook page you’ll see a quick video of our wobbly table.


Underwhelmed is one word that comes to mind, not at all as advertised you might say.

So an off night, or a case of promises not kept by the brand that aims to be an exclusive and polished bar experience?