As the current cocktail boom continues glibly along its merry way, and it becomes more socially acceptable than ever to spend $12 on a well-made old fashioned or a Manhattan at dinner, it’s not surprising to see more liquor manufacturers and distilleries producing their own in-house lines of mixology ingredients. After all—why simply suggest to bars and consumers to use your product in cocktails, when you can give them all the tools to make a cocktail with your name on it? It only makes sense.
Enter Old Forester, that venerable, well-traveled bourbon, which can claim to be both the oldest surviving bourbon brand on the market today (147 years in 2018) and the first that was sold exclusively in sealed bottles. In its base form (the 86 proof), it’s one of the dependable bottom shelf bourbons you can feel good about seeing a bartender pull out of the well. In its classic bottled in bond (100 proof) format, it’s a great everyday mixer, sipper and cocktail base. And in its premium Whiskey Row line (we wrote about all three here a while back), it’s truly a mixologist’s friend—I am particularly partial to the 100 proof bottled-in-bond and the 115 proof Prohibition Style.
Now, the brand is expanding its lineup once again with what it was originally calling its “first ever non-spirits product” for the brand—only to find that Old Forester apparently sold a collection of jellies in the ‘60s. But this IS the first non-spirits release since that time, and they’re calling it “Cocktail Provisions.” It amounts to an array of unique bitters, syrups and tinctures with all sorts of potential cocktail applications. Specifically, they’ve created three types of bitters, two syrups, and a tincture.
After inquiring, the distillery was nice enough to send us a few of these to experiment with. Unfortunately we didn’t get to try them all, but here are my findings with the few I got to sample.
Immediately, one of the things I like about this series is that they don’t appear to be simply trying to replicate readily available products on the market with their own versions—they all appear to be fairly unique concepts. Case in point is this old fashioned syrup, which I must admit, I was expecting to be fairly standard for the style—sweet, citrusy, suggestive of Angostura bitters, etc. I’ve already got another syrup like that, and to be frank, I don’t really need another one. I was surprised, then, to find that this one was actually fairly different.
For one, it’s not nearly as citrus dominated as I expected. I mean sure, there’s some lemon-orange citrus oil-type notes present, but the first thing that instead jumped out at me was brown sugar and sweet cherry. It wasn’t until later that I noticed this syrup is made with all three of the packaged Old Forester bitters, which explains some things (more on that in a moment). It’s not quite as sweet as expected, either—instead, you get some caramel/brown sugar sweetness/richness, coupled with hints of cherry/red fruit and a bit of cinnamon spice. The sweetness is still there, and increases a bit as the drink warms, but that just makes me think that this would likely work well with a drier, spicier rye as well. On the tail end, I’m getting some spice notes here as well—black pepper and cardamom. It makes for a really pleasant old fashioned, and one with more individuality than I saw coming.
Old Forester is also offering an Oleo-Saccharum Syrup, but I wasn’t able to sample it. They both run $8.50 for a 2 oz bottle, which seems a little small, given that each bottle only makes four cocktails. One wishes they might have packaged these in larger bottles than the bitters, for the sake of value.
I was at a bit of a loss as to what “Bohemian Bitters” was supposed to mean, but I wasn’t expecting a little story about the Old Forester Master Taster’s Czech grandfather smoking a pipe as inspiration. Nevertheless, that’s the root of this little bitters bottle, which describes its profile as “cherry tobacco.” Made with sour cherries, clove, wild cherry bark, gentian root, anise, smoked black pepper and cacao nibs, it’s clearly inviting you to walk on the darker side, so I tried it out in a variation of the Revolver Cocktail—typically made with bourbon, coffee liqueur and orange bitters. Swapping rye in for bourbon (I was already out of Old Forester), I constructed the following:
2 oz rye whiskey
1/2 oz coffee liqueur
2 dashes Bohemian Bitters
The results were pleasant: Roasty and with hints of fruit, like a very lightly flavored coffee pod. As I expected they probably would, the smoky tones of the bitters played well against the roast of the coffee liqueur, and the cherry poked its head out now and then to say hello—in the future, I might up the amount of bitters (or just measure my dashes better) by a little bit, but I can see any number of potential uses for this bitters. I should mention, by the way, that in terms of actual “bitterness,” they didn’t seem quite as bitter as Angostura to me.
Old Forester is also offering Smoked Cinnamon Bitters (“baking spice & smoke”) and Hummingbird Bitters (“citrus & floral”), but I wasn’t able to sample these. Suggested retail price is $11.50 per 2 oz bottle—a little expensive, as pretty much all bitters are these days, but as you no doubt know, those little bottles last practically forever. All in all, I’d consider one of these a more obvious investment than the Old Fashioned Syrup, given how long you’ll probably be using it.
This brings us to the oddest entry into the Cocktail Provisions series, which is the Salt and Pepper Tincture. Made with bourbon barrel-smoked sea salt and black pepper, it’s a water-based tincture that “adds slight spice and dimension, and tames bitter notes without texture of salt and pepper.” Basically, Old Forester’s argument here is that if we season our food, why not our drinks?
In execution, the jury is still out as to how well that will work. Sampled on its own out of curiosity, it’s clear that this tincture is certainly strongly flavored: Quite briny, and with a corresponding spicy smoke note. As an experiment, I tried adding some to the old fashioned I had already made with Old Forester’s syrup, but it was hard to detect much of a difference, other than a subtle addition of savory/spicy quality. It may be that this isn’t the kind of cocktail that the Salt and Pepper Tincture is made for—if anything, it feels like this could be home in something like a paloma, or a margarita—salt is a natural pairing with tequila, after all. I’ll be looking for a more natural application for it, although I’m not sure I’ll find it. Regardless, the Salt and Pepper Tincture retails for $7.50 for a 2 oz bottle.
All in all, though, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the unexpected nature of these cocktail ingredients. None of them were really what I was expecting, and both the syrup and the bitters I tried could easily find a place in my regular bar rotation. Here’s hoping that these Cocktail Provisions will also find their ways into bars and into the hands of professional bartenders, who will put them to better use than I’d ever dream up on my own. If you’re interested in picking them up for yourself, they’re all available here.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident booze geek. You can follow him on Twitter.