Bitterness Is Sweet on Occasion

Speaking of obscure drinky-winkies, let us now discuss bitters. Bitter, of course, is one of the four basic tastes—sweet, salty, and sour being the others. It comes from old German—it meant bite, and the Germans totally understood biting. Bitters, generically speaking, are a group of alcoholic preparations dating back to the early days of distillation, days when drinking was considered medicinal. Which, of course, some of us still practice and preach.

I rarely drink spirits myself, thinking that wine is a comparatively healthy (and more subtle and rewarding) way to imbibe, but I do like a touch of the bitter now and then. This can come in the form of concentrated bitters, the stuff that comes in the little bottles, and bitter cordial digestifs, the stuff you pour a whole gnarly glass of.


Almost anywhere you order a drink with bitters you get a dash of Angostura. This is a fine herbal concocton, created in Venezuela in 1824 by a German M.D. and intended as a digestif. I'm sure you know the bottle, a little steak sauce-sized thing wrapped in white paper.

Anyway, Dr. Johan Siegert was an adventurer, and in 1820 he left Der Fatherland to fight Spanish imperialism in Venuezela with Simón Bolívar. The great Bolívar knew a physician when he saw one, and he appointed Siegert his Surgeon General in the town of Angostura.

Angostura was, of course, a tropical place where the men came down with fevers and parasites and stomach disorders of the most unpleasant variety. A keen student of nature's medicinal herbs, the Doctor spent four years perfecting an herbal tincture he called Amargo Aromatic, or aromatic bitters. Angostura is also a port on the mighty Orinoco, and as such was a port of call for sailors from all over the world—the sea sick, the malarial, the syphilitic, and, of course, the hung over. And so the fame of Dr. Siegert's remedy sailed far and wide. In 1867 Dr. Sieger formed a business with his son Carlos, and soon afterward brought in his brother Alfredo. The dapper and debonaire Don Carlos was justifiably proud of the family tonic and took it to exhibitions around the world. It was exhibited in London in 1862, where it was hailed not only for its restorative properties but also for the way it improved the taste of gin. Cocktails would never be the same.

Cocktails made with Angostura bitters include the Old Fashioned, the Pansy Blossom, the Jockey Club Cocktail, the Vanderbilt Cocktail, the Cabaret Cocktail, the Saratoga Cocktail, the Stone Fence, the Swizzles Cocktail, the Thistle Cocktail, the Smiler Cocktail, the West Indian Cocktail, the Widow's Kiss, the Dandy, the Chicago, the ever-popular Manhattan, and its cousin, the Rob Roy, a favorite of my late stepfather, Don Camptbell, traditionally enjoyed on St. Andrew's Day. The classic champagne cocktail, whch improves dubious vintages, consists of a lump of sugar saturated with Angostura, in a saucer glass which is then filled with bubbly.

The 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, compiled by head bartender of London's Savoy Hotel, recommends the Spencer Cocktail made with Angostura Bitters, orange juice, apricot brandy, and dry gin: "Very mellifluous: has a fine and rapid action: for morning work."

My favorite bible of bibulous behavior, The Gentleman's Companion, notes that "Angostura was originated as a tonic, a simple to ward off fevers, miasmas, tropical swamp mists, and the general assortment of mauve willies that beset Nordics under the equator…" The author concludes his praise of the formula thus: "No Amateur worthy of name can have a bar of note without a large bottle of these peerless bitters at elbow. They are absolutely essential to creation of scores of the world's best-mixed drinks: drinks which without such aromatic pointing up would be short-lived, spineless and ineffectual things."

Today Angostura bitters are made in Trinidad and Tobago, and it is not only an essential product for any complete bar, but an important element in Caribbean cuisine. Less famous but no less historic is another small bottle of bitters called Peychaud's which was created, and is still manufactured, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Peychaud's Bitters is a pink concoction that is much harder to find than Angostura, and it figures in far fewer cocktail recipes, but it can be enjoyed plain with soda or tonic, or in a variety of cocktails suited to that absinthey taste. Peychaud's was the formula of Antoine Amadeee Peychaud, a gentleman apothecary who emigrated from Haiti in 1795, and who apparently brought the recipe with him from that magical and mysterious isle. Monsieur Peychaud began dispensing his bitters for medicinal purposes in glasses of brandy at his shop. It wasn't long before one Sewell Taylor, a friend of Monsieur Peychaud, began dispensing the bitters as well, at his own dubiously dubbed establishment, the Sazerac Coffee House at 13 Exchange Alley, in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Dubiously dubbed because apparently far more spirits than coffees were served there. When that establishment changed hands around 1850, the new owners altered the recipe of what would be regarded as America's first cocktail, by serving the bitters with rye whiskey and absinthe rather than brandy. Thus was born the classic Sazerac Cocktail. The Sazerac is properly made by coating the inside of an old-fashioned glass with absinthe, if you can get it, or Pernod, or Pastis, to which is added the long shaken and strained mixture of two ounces of rye whiskey, and 3 or 4 dashes of Peychaud's on a crushed sugar cube. A thin curl of lemon peel should be added as a garnish.

For more serious bitterness, one can drink glasses of the stuff. Bitter is, after all, one of the main flavor groups, and certain philosophical gourmands believe all of these should be contained in each meal. There's a great little Italian soda made by San Pelligrino called Chinotto that comes in small bottles. During periods of abstinence I have quelled my craving for alcohol with this bittersweet beverage. I dump one of the little bottles into a glass and fill it with soda. It's like a virgin Campari.

Campari is probably the most popular brand of bitter beverage. It is, as usual, a secret recipe—this one formulated by Gaspare Campari in the Piedmont of Italy, in 1860. Over sixty ingredients combine to produce that famous taste, including orange peel, rhubarb, ginseng, pomegranate, bergamot oil, and quinine. I have numerous friends who drink the stuff, but for me it was always an ingredient in the Negroni Cocktail, a real festival of bitterness I enjoyed frequently during my last divorce. My way, it's a jigger of gin, a jigger of Campari, and a jigger of sweet vermouth, shaken until your arm gets tired, served straight up in a martini glass with at twist. I should add that is often an ingredient in sorbetto and it really works well, even poured on orange or grapefruit ice.

Personally, I'm not a cognac or grappa guy. Life is too short. But sometimes after dinner I will have an amaro, one of those biter Italian concoctions that have lasted so long they must be good for you. My wife turned me on to Averna, and she swears it has seaweed in it. Whatever is in there discourages you from swilling it. It's a sipping thing, and with that taste it has to be doing some good. There's a rather nice golden-colored bitter called del Capo from Calabria that advertises 29 herbs. Jagermeister is actually one of the world's most successful amari. Its secret formula contains 56 herbs and spices to aid digestion, quell a cough or, if you drink too much, turn you into Kid Rock.

Probably the most intriguing bitter of all is Fernet-Branca. It's really bitter. Hardcore. Over the years it has been touted as a remedy for stomach upset, menstrual woes, fevers, and hangovers. In the 19th century Fernet-Branca was touted as a remedy for cholera. It is said to cause worms to leave one's digestive tract, and the first taste may give you a hint why. This shit is bitter. It contains a potpourri of 27 herbs and spices, including aloe, cardamom, Chamomile, gentian, saffron, cinchona bark, myrhh, and rhubarb, among the less nasty. Supposely it even has St. John's Wort in it, the hippie Prozac. It certainly tastes like medicine, enough so, apparently, that it was still allowed in the States under Prohibition. But it also has some of the good qualities of medicine. To the extent that in 1978 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms demanded that its opiate content be reduced to trace levels. Does it work? Well, Dr. Fernet lived into his hundreds. And people don't get cholera much anymore. One thing I'm sure of is that if you stick wth this 80-proof digestif, you won't get too drunk. It was a big favorite of my late friend, the great artist Mati Klarwein. I'll bet he had a pre-78 stash. Anyway, I am currently seeing what it can do for laryngitis. I still sound like a butch Harvey Fierstein, but I feel better. It might just be my imagination, but I think the stuff works.

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Dangerous Books for Men

Sometimes I worry about my seven-year-old not being an avid reader, seeming content to watch TV and films and otherwise entertain himself without dipping into literature of his own volition. I have even gone so far as to buy Pokémon cards and books, hoping that his inexplicable interest in this vile cult would get him to read more. (It actually has.) Fortunately, boys are curious about certain things, such as volcanos, supernovas, war, geysers, sharks, snakes, man-eating animals, glaciers, polar regions, and, for some reason, penguins. So I was delighted to discover The Dangerous Book for Boys, a book by two Brit bros, Conn Iqqulden and Hal Iqqulden.


Nicely retro in its swashbuckling design, this book is a treasury of all things that separate the boys from the girls, theoretically, such as knot-tying, battles, table soccer, treacherous mountains, rockets, secret code, dangerous insects, tree houses, flags, and pennants. Well, I admit it, I partly bought it for myself. In any case, it's working. He's reading it!

The Dangerous Book for Boys is such a big hit that it inspired a spin off, The Daring Book for Girls, which to my dismay has no chapters on garter belts or Nabokov, and a satire, The Dangerous Book for Dogs. Ha, ha, by the way.

But this did get me thinking. It got me in touch with some interests I may have neglected. Well, not all that much. I actually have a secret hobby of picking up books that are not exactly fashionable but which offer a certain adventurous perspective. So let me name a few of them.

To most people, Halliburton means that evil corporation once run by Dick Cheney that represents the worst side of the military industrial complex; the company responsible for running the Iraq oil industry (into the ground), for the "clean-up" after Hurricane Katrina, and the company that made the study responsible for the privatization of war under the neo-cons, and the rise of such mercenary operators as Blackwater.

Well, to me, the number-one Halliburton will always be Richard Halliburton (1900-1939), an extraordinary character who was perhaps the most popular adventure writer of the 20th century. After Lawrenceville and Princeton, the young Halliburton decided that instead of taking a job he would swim the length of the Panama Canal. For starters. Halliburton decided that he wasn't meant for a desk job and that traveling to the world's most exotic spots was the life for him, and he managed to make a living at it through a series of best-selling books and the lecture circuit.

Halliburton's first volume, The Royal Road to Romance (1925), finds our hero climbing the Matterhorn out of season, getting arrested for photographing the guns and fortifications at Gibraltar, sneaking onto the grounds of the Taj Mahal after-hours to take a midnight dip, and climbing the Great Pyramid of Cheops, among other memorable jaunts.


In The Glorious Adventure (1927) the impetuous Halliburton first climbs Mount Olympus looking for gods and finds only shepherds; he then follows more or less the route of Odysseus across the Mediterranean. He swims the Hellespont, and visits Troy, Tunis, Malta, Stromboli, Sicily, and various other Mediterranean spots, trying to retrace Homer's legendary itinerary, although frequently with picnic basket and champagne bucket.

In New Worlds to Conquer (1929) our Ivy League hero heads down to Central and South America, diving to the bottom of the Mayan Well of Death in search of skulls, swimming the Panama Canal and wandering around Devil's Island.


In The Flying Carpet (1932) Halliburton goes modern, picking up a biplane and a pilot (also possibly bi) and flying around Europe and the Middle East, visiting Morocco, Algeria, the Sahara, Egypt, Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and then India, Nepal, and Thailand (still Siam then), and winding up with the headhunters, the proverbial wild men of Borneo. In Tehran Halliburton runs into another American adventurer, William McGovern, author of To Lhasa in Disguise, and they decide it would be most amusing to be incarcerated in a Persian jail. Through the Shah they arrange to be imprisoned "without favor," except not having their heads shaved and being pardoned "when we felt sufficiently punished," and they hob-nob with the cream of society, which happens to be imprisoned by the dictator.


In Seven League Boots (1935) Halliburton duplicates the feat of Hannibal, crossing the Alps on an elephant. He visits the killer of the the Czar and his family on his deathbed and learns the truth of the Romanoff's demise, and in the Caucuses he finds the oldest man in the world who turns out to be an alcoholic. (He took to drink in 1803, he claims!) Then he becomes the first non-Muslim to make the hajj to Mecca and live to tell about it.

It's all great stuff. Not only would these adventures be impossible to duplicate today, for reasons of politics, as well as the extinction of cultures, habitat, and the wonders of the world, but these books are written very much under the pressure of the white man's burden, with an attitude and vernacular as extinct as the Tasmanian Wolf. For the most part the antique violations of political correctness are simply amusing. That's the way it was, and through their bred-to-rule eyes we get a very realistic picture of the way things work, even if Halliburton's accomplishments are mostly staged stunts. Occasionally one also gets a hint that there is more to this adventurer than meets the eye. He seems to have wanted to escape the confines of western society for reasons that are never addressed explicitly. Halliburton, it seems, is one of nature's bachelors, and no doubt he frequently found strange cultures more hospitable to his inclinations than the one he grew up in. (It was rumored that among Halliburton's closest intimates was the flamboyant silent screen star and lifelong bachelor Ramon Novarro.)

Halliburton's disappearance was as spectacular as his appearance. In March 1939 he set sail in a Chinese junk from Hong Kong, headed for San Francisco, ignoring warnings of an impending typhoon. In the midst of the typhoon the junk was spotted by an ocean liner, the S.S. President Coolidge, to which it managed to get off a wire of his last words: "Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here instead of me."

Now that's the way to go. Live fast, die young, and have your good-looking corpse eaten by the fish. That kind of adventure is simply no longer available. Even for employees of today's Halliburton and other corporate adventurers. Get drunk and shoot up some innocent civilians today and you're likely to wind up with immunity. It's even harder to see the inside of a Middle-Eastern prison, unless you're hired to waterboard the wogs.

Another of my favorite adventure reads is a book found in a "free" pile in an antique store: Congo Kitabu (Random House, 1964) by Jean-Pierre Hallet. Jean-Pierre was the son of the Belgian painter Andre Hallet, who specialized in African scenes, and he was brought up in the Belgian Congo. He entered the service of the Belgian government and worked as an administrator until the Congo became independent in 1960. He lived among the Efe pygmies, by whom he was officially initiated into the tribe (quite an honor for a man of 6'5"), and he taught them to farm. He was also initiated into the Masai, after killing a lion with a spear.

Hallet loved Africa and Africans, both human and animal, and he devoted his life to helping them. During a famine Hallet took to dynamite fishing in Lake Tanganyika, and he provided tons of fish to feed starving pygmies, before he blew his right arm off when a stick of dynamite exploded prematurely. After that incident he drove himself 200 miles to a hospital on a treacherous dirt road.

During his years in Africa Hallet saved many animals that would have died otherwise, and he accumulated one of the greatest collections of African art. Hallet died in 2004 of leukemia at the age of 76, and his collection was auctioned on behalf of the Pygmy Fund.


Congo Kitabu is a great true-life adventure, but it is also one of the best books in explaining the state of colonial Africa at the time of Independence. There's an amazing chapter on the events of 1960, when Belgium left the Congo—thousands of people running through the streets chanting "Dependence! Dependence!", a perfect expression of the cruel ironies that would follow. I also wholeheartedly recommend Hallet's other two books: Animal Kitabu (Random House, 1967) and Pygmy Kitabu (Random House, 1973). Hallet was enchanted by the pygmies. When he first encountered them the other tribes, such as the Hutu and Tutsi, famous for the Rwandan genocide that took place later, did not even regard them as humans, but Hallet explains how this oldest line of homo sapiens has much to teach its taller brothers.

All of this armchair adventure is bound to make a guy thirsty, so that's when I pull out my leather-bound copy of The Gentleman's Companion: Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask (Crown, 1946). Delightfully written by Charles H. Baker, Jr., this "exotic drinking book" is ostensibly a collection of cocktail recipes from the definitive and original to the recherché and occult. Here you will learn to make such concoctions as the Antrim Cocktail, "found in the quaint little Overseas Club in Zamboanga on the Island of Mindanao"; Ernest Hemingway's Reviver; the Sahara Glowing Heart Cocktail "from the hands of one Abdullah, an Arab Muslim wizard back of mahogany at the Mena House Bar, near the pyramids of Ghizeh"; the Mexican Firing Squad Special from La Cucaracha Bar, Mexico City, 1937; the World Famous Quarantine Cocktail, "No. 1, favorite in Manila"; and The Swiss Yodeler, from Villa d'Este, Lake Como.


There are many dozens of recipes in this book, but the most intoxicating thing about it is the spirit in which it was written. Surely it was composed under the proximate influence of intoxicants; but it never crosses the line into decadence, always upholding the convivial nature of imbibing while decrying loutish behaviour: "We prefer firmly to go on record that we find scant humour in dipsomania, or in potted gentlemen who in their cups beat wives, or in horny-handed toilers of any class who fling their weekly pay chits onto the public mahogany while tearful mates and hungry infant mouths await by a cold hearth."

No, it's civilization we're talking about, boys. Any civilization worth having is bound to entail some adventure. Sure, it's dangerous sometimes, but are we not men?

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The Best- and Worst-Dressed Leaders in the World, Continued: Part Three


Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil


The boss of Brazil has good style for a guy verging on portly, and he demonstrates that tailoring can counter many physical shortcomings. His beard works for him, camouflaging an incipient secondary chin and giving him a paternal aura. His three-button jackets work to reduce the impression of his gut and give him verticality and, wisely, he rarely unbuttons. He has natty tendencies; we can tell from his ties and fine semi-sheer hosiery. He dresses wealthy but his is the "Worker's Party." He understands that being presidential means speaking everyone's language and appealing to both wings of politics. I think that must be why he parts his hair in the middle.


Akihito, Japan


I know they have a Prime Minister, Yasuo Fukuda, but I prefer to think of the Emperor as the head of state. The Prime Minister looks pretty much like any other salaryman. The emperor, however, looks pretty darn imperial. And if you think about Akihito and, say, Prince Charles, there is a lesson to be learned. Maybe all countries should have two heads of state. One of them should be responsible for things such as taste. I'd feel comfortable if the architects had to answer to a man like the 125th occupant of the Chrysanthemum throne.


He is a man of taste and knowledge. Compare his sihouette and trouser break to that of the American Vice President.


Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan


If you think that clothes don't make the man, or the head of state, think about this: Recently opposition leaders in Pakistan have offered to accept another term in office for President Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999, if he is willing to be inaugurated in civilian clothes. The fact is that Mr. Musharraf looks so much better in civvies that if he's smart he'll just avoid uniforms altogether, although he might, like President Bush, put on a flight jacket once in a while. He looks very professional and confident in a suit. Hey, if I were introduced to him as a urologist, I wouldn't hesitate to let him stick his finger up my butt. Whereas in uniform, well, he looks a bit like a headmaster, kind of uptight.


Look at Mr. Pakistan among his peers, enjoying himself here in a striped shirt and sky-blue sport jacket.


Just the kind of guy you'd enjoy across the high rollers table in Vegas. Civvies are obviously good for the guy's head. See, you can change.


Than Shwe, Myanmar

Talk about change. No wonder things are so uptight in what we used to call Burma. Look at the head of the military government.


If you ask me, the problem is the uniform itself. It gives a guy ideas. I know it's not easy to go cold turkey when it comes to the gold braid, but maybe he could lose some of the "fruit salad" on his chest and switch to a nice, soft beret or a snappy baseball cap with scrambled eggs on the brim. He might find less flaming effigies around Yangoon.

Don't miss: Part One and Part Two in Glenn's series

Related: "Vladimir Putin Would Like His Shirt Back," by Glenn O'Brien

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The Best- and Worst-Dressed Leaders in the World, Continued: Part Two

Hassanal Bolkiah, Brunei


The Sultan of Brunei obviously loves movies like The King and I, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and Aladdin. His over-the-top clothes rule the old-fashioned way—spectacle. How many potentates can you say are profoundly influenced by Bob Mackie and Edith Head? Give the man a variety show and some dancing girls and maybe he could become an emperor.


Hugo Chavez, Venezuela


Sure, Curtis Sliwa did the red beret first. But Chavez does it better, with a predilection for all things red and a nice post-Fidel take on fatigues.



King Mswati III, Swaziland


The second of 210 sons, the king succeeded his father as king at the age of eighteen. He has twelve wives and two fiancées. He also has a lot of suits and ties, but he seems to understand that fashion is magic. He knows how to do casual with sumptuousity and he's got great tribal ju-ju-wear chops.



Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Dubai


The President of the UAR and Ruler of Dubai is usually seen in traditional Bedouin style. He does it well, wearing exquisite djellaba that look like they were made by Romeo Gigli or John Galliano. Too bad he's not more of an influence. But that beard—well, sometimes more is more. Shave it or grow it.


Jens Stoltenberg, Norway


The Prime Minister of Norway is the Derek Zoolander of the EU. He's almost too good looking. He's fashion forward, with the narrowest lapels in NATO. He walks around with two days' growth. He wears cool shirts and ties and has better hair than John Edwards. He might pay 400 kroner for his haircut, but here that's only $73.


Don't miss: Part One and Part Three in Glenn's series

Related: "Vladimir Putin Would Like His Shirt Back," by Glenn O'Brien

Got a question for the Style Guy? Click here to ask it.