The Bitter Southerner rose from the germ of an idea spawned in a bar in New Orleans, over a fine Southern cocktail (a Sazerac, if we remember correctly) made by a fine Southern barkeep named Chris Hannah. So from our beginning we have paid tribute to the role the bartender plays in facilitating conviviality among civil people.
We’ve asked bartenders around the South to give us a cocktail they would name The Bitter Southerner. We’ve collected their recipes and numbered them, in keeping with an old cocktail tradition.
We have published five of those recipes.
The Bitter Southerner No. 1, from Jerry Slater of Atlanta’s H. Harper Station — a powerful drink based on high-proof bourbon and sorghum syrup.
The Bitter Southerner No. 3, from Paul Calvert, then of Paper Plane in Decatur, Ga., and now at the Ticonderoga Club in Atlanta — an easy-drinking riff on the Sazerac.
The Bitter Southerner No. 4, a rum and cane syrup concoction from Abigail Gullo, the 2014 Eater Bartender of the Year for New Orleans, then behind the bar at SoBou and now at Compere Lapin.
The Bitter Southerner No. 5, a bracingly complex drink based on Georgia-made rye whiskey and cola-flavored amaro from Miles Macquarrie of Decatur’s Kimball House.
The Bitter Southerner No. 6, a strange and wonderful mix of gin and yellow beets (that’s right) from the immensely talented Tiffanie Barriere of One Flew South in Atlanta.
Did you spot something missing from that list?
There is no Bitter Southerner No. 2. That is, until today.
The subject of the very first feature story in The Bitter Southerner was Greg Best, a Southerner by choice who was then behind the bar at Holeman & Finch Public House in Atlanta, and who is now, with the aforementioned Paul Calvert, at the city’s new Ticonderoga Club. We asked Greg to make The Bitter Southerner No. 2 for us years ago. But he left Holeman & Finch before we had a chance to publish the recipe. So we left his drink a mystery for two years.
But now, with Best and Calvert teamed up at the Ticonderoga, we can finally reveal The Bitter Southerner No. 2, a stout, no-frills, bright red, icy pleasure — a drink for the long haul.
The base of The Bitter Southerner No. 2 is apple brandy. Specifically, you want Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy, 100 proof, bottled in bond. Easily available and in the mid-$20s range, Laird’s Straight is the most reliably tasty, full-strength apple brandy you can find.
Do not substitute with Laird’s Applejack, which is a blend of 35 percent apple brandy and 65 percent neutral spirits. It’s a lovely product but has a completely different flavor profile from the straight apple brandy. You want a pure apple brandy, aged in oak, for the BS No. 2.
There are two ingredients that will add bitterness to the drink: one is a simple bar spoon of Herbsaint Legendre, the other — and this is where The Bitter Southerner No. 2 gets weird — is a whopping ¾ ounce of Peychaud’s Bitters from New Orleans. Not a dash, not two dashes, but ¾ of an ounce. In all our enjoyable drinking research, we have yet to encounter a recipe which requires that much bitters. We even checked in with Esquire magazine cocktail columnist and “Imbibe” author David Wondrich, and even he could come up with only two recipes that dare use bitters in such quantity, and both are recent creations, the Gun Shop Fizz from Cure in New Orleans and the Trinidad Sour from Giuseppe Gonzales of PKNY in New York City.
“It’s very rare,” Best says. “It’s not a normal kind of thing. But we’re not the normal kind of people.”
The bottom line is that the combined power of the 100-proof brandy and the 70-proof bitters make The Bitter Southerner No. 2 “a cocktail and a half,” in Best’s words. This one will punch you.
The slight addition of Herbsaint Legendre puts even more of New Orleans into the drink. Some backstory on Herbsaint: In 1934, two New Orleanians who had learned to make absinthe in France during World War I, J. Marion Legendre and Reginald Parker, began to make an approximation of absinthe. They called it Herbsaint. After the U.S. absinthe ban was finally lifted in 2007, the Sazerac Company, which now owns the brand, reintroduced Legendre’s original 100-proof absinthe recipe and called it Herbsaint Legendre.
As Best’s partner Calvert told us when we used the Legendre in The Bitter Southerner No. 3:
“If you’re using ingredients in very small amounts, they need to have a strong and aggressive flavor profile. Herbsaint Legendre has that. That, and the bottle is gorgeous.”
Both points apply here.
Three more ingredients round out The Bitter Southerner No. 2: lime juice, cane syrup and tonic water.
For the lime juice, squeeze fresh limes and strain the juice to make sure it’s free of seeds and pulp. For the cane syrup, just grab a bottle of cheap light cane syrup from your grocery store, then put equal parts cane syrup and water into a pot on the stove. Warm it up gently and stir until the ingredients come together. Once they’re fully incorporated, take the diluted syrup off the heat and let it cool.
As for the tonic water, keep it simple and cheap, Best says.
“Top it with one ounce, no more, of cheap-ass tonic water,” Best says. “No high-end, bespoke tonic water. You can’t do it with the high-end tonic. It brings the drink too much structure. This drink needs to be sweetened and made gentle by a little dance with a trailer-park girl in the parking lot.”
In other words, mass-produced tonic water is the ticket here.
To conclude, we asked Best if he thought The Bitter Southerner No. 2 is a seasonal drink.
“No,” he replied firmly. “This is a year-round drink. This one is for the long haul.”
We like simple things with staying power. Herewith, your full instructions …
Into a mixing glass, pour:
1 ounce of Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy
¾ ounce of Peychaud’s Bitters
1 bar spoon of Herbsaint Legendre
½ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon of diluted light cane syrup
Fill your mixing glass with ice cubes, all the way to the top. Cap it with a shaker tin and shake it for a good 30 seconds or so.
Strain the drink into a highball glass filled with fresh ice cubes.
Top it with precisely one ounce of cheap-ass tonic water.
Garnish with pinch of sea salt.