Field Report: Denver Botanic Gardens class, “Herbal Aperitif: Happy Hour in the European Bitters Bar Tradition”

Last night I attended a class through the Denver Botanic Gardens, which really didn’t have anything to do with it beyond taking my $47, hosted as it was by personal chef Deb Whittaker, otherwise known as the Herb Gourmet, offsite at Z Cuisine (which simply provided the space, not the goods). Based on the description, I was pretty darn excited:

One of the reasons Europeans are slimmer & healthier than Americans is their love of herbal bitters, which they sip as herbal aperitifs & which help metabolize fats & aid digestion. Loaded with antioxidant herbs & spices from elderberry to cinnamon, bitters are lining the bar at trendy restaurants as an increasingly health-conscious public strives to redefine the Happy Hour. Swedish bitters & Angostura are household names, but every country has their favorites. Come taste a few of these elixirs, & make & take home a sample with your choice of herbs & spices to harness herbs’ curative powers. We’ll also try bitters combined with foods, including ice cream, as we talk about the health benefits of specific bitter herbs & spices. Recipes for using bitters in food, drink & daily life included…Come prepared for fun and food.

I did come prepared, & while I had some of the former, I got precious little of the latter. For nearly $50, eats were shockingly meager.

On the left is a bitter greens & Bosc pear salad, which was also, according to the printed menu, supposed to contain lemon Stilton & cinnamon walnuts, but didn’t, along with a dressing of “port & pomagranite [sic] bitters,” in which the former was replaced with agave syrup. On the right is a single coin of sausage in barbecue sauce spiked with Stirrings blood-orange bitters. (To be fair, I actually got 1 & 1/2 coins.)

On the right is a slightly underdone, 2-in. piece of butternut squash glazed with bitters butter; on the left, onions with blackcurrant jam & St. Germain, of which we got 1 spoonful.

And that there’s a bite of fresh pineapple topped with jarred gari, in lieu of the grilled pineapple with grated ginger & bitters drizzle listed on the menu.

We also got 1 spoonful of vanilla ice cream from the supermarket.

Granted, the emphasis was on bitters, & with those the instructor was rather more generous, generally leaving them on the table for us to sample as we wished (albeit while offering frequent reminders that too many bitters might overload our digestive systems). Favorites included

the aforementioned, nonalcoholic blood-orange bitters, nice & tart (though cane sugar is the 2nd ingredient after water, the citrus extract & gentian dominated on the palate); the Tribuno sweet vermouth, which I don’t know that I’d define as a bitter, despite the inclusion of herbs, as opposed to a fortified wine, but in any case tasted delicious, like a honeyed wine (as opposed in turn to a honey wine, which is strictly yeast-fermented honey & water); & Sanbitter, which I’d classify 1st & foremost as an Italian soda.

With the exception of the 1st cocktail, a mixture of Chartreuse, soda water & a dash of Fee Bros. bitters,

none were served in the manner listed on the menu; we received neither Fee Bros. with apple juice nor blood-orange bitters with orange juice & grenadine, nor did we taste Becherovka or Campari. However, we were presented with various, unlisted others, including limoncello, Pastis & absinthe courtesy of the absolutely lovely Lynnde Dupays, co-owner with her husband Patrick of Z Cuisine, who made herself available for part of the evening simply as a matter of personal graciousness, as near as I could tell.

Meanwhile, we discussed the difference between tinctures (single-herb extracts); cocktail bitters such as Angostura & Fee Bros., used for flavoring, not drinking; and aperitifs that may be mixed or drunk by themselves. We did not discuss the sometime distinction between bitters & liqueurs, nor did we touch upon the utility of digestifs (the fact that the instructor didn’t even know the word amari was a little disgruntling, though I agreed with her that kickstarting the digestive system before a meal is probably more effective than nudging it afterward).

Finally, we were presented with spice jars full of Absolut vodka along with an array of 10 or so ingredients—among them cardamom, angelica, dandelion, star anise & tangerine peel—& given the opportunity to experiment with our own concoctions. I added cinnamon & dried chipotle to mine,

& it’s already coming along nicely, if I do say so myself. And we were sent home with a 6-pg. sheaf of intriguing recipes for tinctures & cocktails, both historical & modern, involving everything from saffron & black walnut leaf to the new-to-me catechu & malva flower.

From 1 experience, I can’t say I’d wholeheartedly recommend the classes at Denver Botanic Gardens, but then, from 1 experience, I can’t say I wouldn’t. It wasn’t what it purported to be, but it wasn’t uninteresting. Fair enough?