Thursday, September 8, 2011

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Bitter Disappointment from Japan

I’ve been working on a documentary project that requires a comprehensive representation of cocktail bitters. Given the burst of interest in the field and ever-increasing new producers, that imminently manageable — and largely historical — project has metastasized into a monster.

Monsters, I can handle. Work goes on. Heartbreak, however, wasn’t part of the plan.

One of the last bottles of Hermes Orange Bitters
When I discussed the project earlier in the year with San Francisco barman Neyah White, I asked him whether Suntory still made Hermes brand orange bitters. Stocks had seemed to dry up both online and in bricks-and-mortar stores. As West coast ambassador for Suntory whisky, White was in a position to know the status of the company’s products.

The brand was dead, he reported. There had been discussions in Japan to revive it in light of America’s resurging interest in cocktails, dice. It had become an extinct ingredient. Some time later, he wrote that he had secured for me a single bottle, used, only partially empty, but with a broken cap.

He wrote:
Last night in Tokyo, we hit the best Whisky Shop in the City...totally solid shop, vintage Chartreuse, vintage whisky (as in things bottled in the 50's and 60's), tons of Amari, 13 Ichiro's Malts, rums I have never seen, 5 Pimm's, etc., etc.. I ask politely about Hermes and the owner smiles sadly, goes to the back brings out his last bottle, it has a slightly broken top so he set it aside and never sold it. He says he is sad it won't come back and is hanging on to this as a sample. I say that is great.

We keep poking around and showing our appreciation for things we find and he grabs some glasses and pours all drams of Wild Turkey bottled in the 70's. Not crazy good, but very cool. One of the guys with us is Lincoln Henderson (former Master Distiller for Jack Daniels) and tells the owner how he is an old friend on Jimmy Russell and how this is some of the first stuff that Jimmy both made and bottled, pretty important really. The next thing I know a bottle of medicinal rye from 1927 gets opened and each get a nip of that. shockingly good, very maple-y.

To say thanks, I pull out .375 of St. George's Grappa that I had lugging around (I brought gifts for the Suntory folk, had extras) and present it too him. He promptly turned around and grabbed the Hermes Orange and gave it to me.

Where do I send it?
I’m no fool. I told him. When the package didn’t come, I assumed White simply hadn’t shipped it yet. But, in fact, he had. The shippers had misplaced it and the package languished for months. White eventually tracked it down.

I was so happy when that box finally arrived. Happy that I had my hands on such a thing and that Neyah White had thought enough of me to send his only bottle — and one with such a great story. This truly was passing on a kindness. I brought the small brown box inside, opened it, and carefully pulled back its first two flaps.

A potent orange aroma arose from the box mixed with something...else. Was it cardamom? Cloves? I closed my eyes and tried to place it. Almost instantly, the smell registered as “wet cardboard." My eyes shot open and I sucked air in through my teeth. Brad Pitt's line from the film Se7en springs to mind: What’s in the box? I grabbed a bone folder from the counter and, with trepidation, shifted packing peanuts aside. What’s in the fucking box? Even stronger smells of warm, wet cardboard and orange wafted out. Underneath the top layer: shattered green glass, a torn label, packaging material that had shriveled and shrunken into hard little knobs.

The only bottle of Hermes orange bitters I’d seen in years was splayed out, utterly destroyed. During its time in courier limbo, the bottle’s broken cap had slowly trickled bitters — drip, drip, drip — onto biodegradable packing peanuts. The peanuts did what they were designed to do; they began to shrivel and dissolve. With the padding reduced to a fraction of its original size, the bottle was freed to bang around within the box. All it needed was rough handling to crush its precious cargo.

Life, as it must, goes on, as does the bitters documentary project. But not with Hermes. Not today, anyway.

Goes well with:
  • A look at Chris Bunting's Drinking Japan. If I visit Japan any time soon, I'm taking his book.
  • And I'll probably do some more studying of Mark Robinson's Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook
  • If you are a modern producer of cocktail bitters and we haven't spoken about including your products, shoot me an email (moonshinearchives at gmail dot com) and I'll give you the skinny.


cocktailgeek said...

I have a bottle. Send me your address to


Marco Dionysos
Cocktail Geek

Matthew Rowley said...

Marco, we're back in business after the power outage yesterday. Thanks for the generous offer. I'll shoot you a note this weekend. Cheers!

Eric Smith said...

I enjoy your blog! Is tracking down a bottle of this stuff even more impossible. I will not give up!