Bitter cocktails for bitter singles — or anyone who's sick of Valentine's Day

Right around now, we hit peak Valentine's Day media saturation. It's everywhere, in magazines and TV commercials and every site you visit: blah blah blah, sweetness and light, fancy dinners and chocolate. (And if you're tired of reading about it, imagine how tired we are of writing about it.) What's a good old-fashioned cynic to do?

Well, you could drink.

Here's an antidote to all those strawberry champagne cocktails, those raspberry-chocolate martinis (shudder), those syrupy-sweet concoctions that seem to mark the season: three nicely bitter classic cocktails, plus three ways to put a new twist on them from the Remix archive.

If you're into bitter, Campari is your best friend. Mix it with soda water and add a lemon peel for the classic presentation; mix it in equal proportions with white wine for a Bicyclette; mix a classic Negroni (gin, Campari, red vermouth in equal measures); or try the Boulevardier: marginally more work, infinitely more taste.

The Boulevardier, remixed. - photo by Jessica Bryce Young
photo by Jessica Bryce Young
The Boulevardier, remixed.
Classic Boulevardier:
  • 2 ounces whiskey, rye or bourbon

  • 1 ounce Campari

  • 1 ounce sweet red vermouth
Pour all ingredients into a mixing glass with ice. Stir until well-chilled. Strain into a rocks glass with ice.

Spicy Boulevardier Remix:
  • 1 1/2 ounces Bulleit bourbon 

  • 1 ounce Apérol

  • 3/4 ounce sweet red vermouth

  • 1/4 ounce Hum liqueur
Pour all ingredients into a mixing glass with ice. Stir until well-chilled. Strain into a glass with one large or two medium lumps of ice. Garnish with grapefruit peel.

Grapefruit juice is another friend to the bitter, and throws sour in for good measure. Usually we mix grapefruit with blackstrap rum, but that tempers the tang with a molasses-y sweetness. Try a Salty Dog instead, or even better, a Peppery Dog. (Stick with yellow grapefruit if you're really bitter – pink and red are sweeter – but, please, fresh-squeezed.)

Classic Salty Dog:
  • 2 ounces gin
  • 4 ounces grapefruit juice
  • kosher salt
Fill a saucer with kosher salt. Wet the rim of a highball glass and dip into the saucer to coat with salt. Fill the glass with ice, pour in the gin, and top with juice. Stir and serve.

The Salty Dog goes Peppery - photo by Jessica Bryce Young
photo by Jessica Bryce Young
The Salty Dog goes Peppery
Remixed: Peppery Dog
  • 2 ounces Tito's Handmade Vodka
  • 3 ounces fresh red grapefruit juice
  • 1 ounce black pepper syrup (recipe below)
Stir all ingredients in a tall, ice-filled glass. Serve with a straw.

black pepper syrup:
  • 4 ounces whole black peppercorns
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 1/2 ounces sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
Crack half of the peppercorns with the blade or butt end of a heavy chef's knife. Add crushed and whole peppercorns to 3 cups of water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a lively simmer and reduce the liquid by half – about 20 or 30 minutes. (Note: The pepper vapors may make your eyes water.)

Remove pan from hot burner and allow to cool to room temperature, then strain out the solids. You should have about a cup and a half of pepper-infused water. Pour the liquid back into saucepan, bring back to a boil, add sugar and stir to dissolve, then remove from heat. When syrup in pan has cooled to room temperature, add lime juice, transfer to a clean jar and store in refrigerator.

Finally, strong black coffee is a timeless benchmark of bitterness. Cold-brewed coffee, stronger than its traditionally brewed, pressed or dripped brethren, plays well with other ingredients in cocktails, if you know where to start. Everyone knows about Irish Coffee (if you can call sneaking some Bushmills into your mug a cocktail); on the West Coast, Mexican Coffee is a popular take, with tequila and Kahlua. But Kahlua is, of course, sickly-sweet, and both drinks are generally mounded with whipped cream, which defeats the whole  
Remixed Mexican Coffee - photo by Jessica Bryce Young
photo by Jessica Bryce Young
Remixed Mexican Coffee
point of our bitter little drinking game here. Our Remixed Mexican Coffee is a better fit for the bitter, featuring the superlative artichoke-based amaro Cynar – sounds really weird, but give it a try. (If you don't feel like making the coffee yourself – here's how – find Stumptown stubbies at P Is for Pie or pick up locally roasted and bottled cold-brew from Lineage at East End Market.)

Remixed Mexican Coffee:
  • 4 ounces cold-brewed coffee
  • 1 1/2 ounces reposado tequila
  • 3/4 ounce Cynar
  • Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters
  • cinnamon simple syrup
First make the cinnamon simple syrup: Mix 6 ounces of sugar and 6 ounces of water in a small saucepan, add two large cinnamon sticks, and bring to a boil. When sugar is completely dissolved, set aside to cool.

In a pint glass, gently stir together the coffee with the tequila, Cynar and just a dash of cinnamon simple syrup (it won't make the drink sweet, I promise, just tie together the flavors). Pour into a rocks glass over one large ice cube and top with four dashes of bitters. Alternatively, to “lengthen” the drink, add ice to the pint glass along with another 4 ounces of coffee, stir again, top with a few more dashes of bitters and enjoy.

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