Restaurants + Cocktails

Honest John | The Bitters Truth

1/28/2019 | Darby Doyle

Ever ponder the roots of that saying about taking a nip from a flask “for medicinal purposes”? The idiom originated during Prohibition when individuals could apply for medicinal exemptions to the national ban on alcohol, harkening back to a time when booze was prescribed for its antiseptic and analgesic qualities, and even earlier as a cure-all for everything from indigestion to infertility. Oh, History, you ironic smartass.

Similarly, medicinal bitters were developed centuries ago by healers, apothecaries, and herbalists who used alcohol distillate bases to extract the presumptively curative or preventative properties present in plant materials like roots, herbs, fruit peels, veggies, etc. After steeping the various ingredients for days (or even months), the resulting potent plant extracts had a distinctively bitter flavor profile. So, you’d take a few drops of bitters, add some liquor for oomph, a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down (we see you, Mary Poppins), and you’ve got the makings of one of America’s earliest cocktail concoctions: the Old Fashioned.

It’s a damn pleasure to see classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned being resurrected with pride from the ashes of shitty muddled fruit and soda-topped nightmares circa 1980. And as this century’s cocktail connoisseurs started researching long-forgotten bitters recipes to up the wow factor of their drinks, a rush of new bitters producers emerged. We’re pleased as punch that a few of them originated right here in Utah.

At one of our favorite broody and moody booze emporiums, {the rest}, owner Sara Lund collaborated with the bar’s tenders and chefs to develop original bitters recipes to support their extensive drinks program, with flavor profiles like black walnut, lavender, sarsaparilla, and lemongrass-cardamom, to name a few. Says Sara, “I was frustrated with what was commercially available: murky bitters made with glycerin and who knows what else. We decided to start from scratch with a pure alcohol base,” of neutral spirits and whiskey, and they sourced high-quality organic plant ingredients from a farm in Oregon. Immediately, customers noticed the difference in their drinks made with the house bitters, and it was then that Sara was inspired to incorporate the brand as Honest John Bitters in 2016.

True to Sara’s passion and perfectionism for all things aesthetics, the packaging and presentation of Honest John Bitters is as superlative as the contents of each bottle (which are available for purchase at {the rest}, as well as many of our favorite stockists such as Harmons Markets, Caputo’s Markets, The Store, and local distilleries). With cityhomeCOLLECTIVE contributing writer Darby Doyle (c’est moi) assisting with word wizardry and graphic artist Brent Courtney’s designs, Honest John’s branding evokes times past, when bitters were mysterious curatives peddled by alchemists, physicians, and traveling snake oil salesmen who crossed their fingers behind their backs as they touted the cure-all powers of bitters to gullible “honest Johns.”

Recognizing that many patrons at {the rest} and beyond were curious about how to up their cocktail game at home, Sara, along with barman extraordinaire Adam Albro, developed a series of classes held at Sara’s super swank Sugar House events venue, U West. They graciously invited a cadre of curious cocktail enthusiasts from our COLLECTIVE to join a class featuring Honest John Aromatic Bitters and focused on making the absolute embodiment of a perfect Old Fashioned, from sourcing spectacular ingredients to practicing industry-savvy techniques. Next on the roster for February 16th? One of our favorite flavors for everything from buttercream frosting to coffee to cocktails: Orange Bitters. Albro will also share tips and techniques for making that pre-Prohibition beaut of a beverage, the Bijou cocktail. For recipes to inspire your own home bar conjuring, check out their website and register for classes under the "techniques" tab.



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