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The Bitter Cup

Agatha Christie was the instigator. More specifically, it was the TV adaptation of Triangle at Rhodes, a Hercule Poirot mystery that combined the aspirational attractions of leisure on the Mediterranean, intrigue under parasols, and murder in evening dress. The center of the titular love triangle, when exhausted from lounging too long under hats too enormous, asks the waiter or admirer at hand to be a lamb and fetch her a pink gin. One night, her devoted husband waltzes across the hotel parquet with said cocktail. She downs it, she gasps, she clutches her bejeweled turban with a begloved hand—and voila, murder most foul.

While it would give me great pleasure to report that the pink gin was invented and championed by wealthy poisoners in foreign resorts, credit must go to the British Navy. Angostura bitters are said to have turned one’s daily ration of Plymouth gin into a cure for seasickness, and, the story goes, officers brought the drink from the outposts of empire to the English bar. Now, you can (theoretically) order it chilled or at room temperature, on the rocks or in a coupe, with bitters stirred in or swirled and discarded as a rinse. But I knew that I wanted my gin exactly as I’d seen it fall from Mrs. Chantry’s nerveless fingers: served up, in a little cocktail glass, mixed with enough bitters to give it the color of deep pink-tinted rust.

Drinks have aesthetic profiles that, in conjunction with the primary factors of smell and taste, help determine what we want in a particular mood, or season, or social context. Once, I joked that someone should invent a scotch that looks like a cosmo; a pink gin fills the need behind the joke, without doing criminal violence to honest whisky.

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Delicate, colorful, and floral; simple, bracing, and gin-forward, it is the perfect summer drink. Luckily for those in whom earthly joys might dull the pain of mortal blight and turn their eyes from heaven’s promise, it is nearly impossible to order.

My friend warned me when I first embarked on my quest. She had asked for a pink gin at several New York bars.

"Order something else," the bartender would bark, as he stirred organic mandrake root for a gin cocktail containing three different types of champagne. She ordered something else.

"Perhaps, B——," I said, patting her hand, "you are naively fixated on the name ‘pink gin’? After all, it has only two ingredients, and can hardly be difficult to make. The bartenders are intimidated by a drink they do not recognize, but by listing the parts without attaching a moniker, we shall evade their little qualms. ‘Be ye wise as serpents, et cetera.’"

Thus it was with the swagger of cunning and confidence that I strolled into the neighborhood’s ritzy cocktail bar, where the town’s wealthy and divorced smile at each other under soft lighting.

"Plymouth gin and angostura bitters, please." Watch and learn, my sweet B——, how to obtain the drink that dare not speak its name.

"We don’t have Plymouth." This I had not anticipated. But, like any covert operative worth her salt, I improvised. Hendrick’s was the sweetest and most floral substitute I could think of on the spot.

"You want it on the rocks?"

I was still flustered from the Hendrick’s crisis, and had furthermore neglected to consider the particulars of how I wanted my undercover pink gin served. I decided to improvise further. This, in retrospect, was hubris, and punished accordingly.

"No ice, please."

"You want it in a rocks glass, no ice?"

"Actually, could I have it up?"

"So you do want ice?"

"Yes—no—I mean—I just want it in the glass martinis come in."

"So you want a Hendrick’s martini?"

My voiced dropped a few decibels. The bar’s patrons, though scant, were now watching with interest.

"No, I want gin and Angostura bitters."

"What did you say?"

"I said I want it—"

She turned from the screen into which she punched her orders, and put down her shaker.

"Why don’t you start again and tell me slowly, clearly, exactly what you want." Her voice was calm, and only a tad too friendly.

I took a deep breath, and, without stopping for another, choked out the details of my order.

"So you want a gin martini stirred, bitters instead of vermouth."

I had meant to smuggle the cocktail into the lexicon of local mixology with an airy "Oh, this? This is a pink gin," not to pass it off as a debased martini. But I was a broken woman, and jumped at any cessation of hostilities, however shameful the terms.

"Yes," I whispered. I paid for it and slunk away without making eye contact again.

For unrelated reasons, when next visiting my comrade-in-gin, I suggested that we make the drink ourselves. Gin aplenty we already had, and cocktail glasses—lovely, fragile little curiosities—we found at a thrift store, but no Angostura bitters. The local liquor store did not carry them, and the proprietor seemed faintly, though courteously, puzzled by our request. Perhaps under some ancient Blue laws bitters had been outlawed on the grounds that they rendered the call of strong liquor a bit too musical.

However, this proved untrue the next afternoon, when we trekked across town to the wine store. As I had only threatened to faint from heat exhaustion four or five times on the way over, the rows of bitters lining the shelves beneath seemed to be virtue’s just reward. There were Aztec Chocolate bitters, celery bitters, every type and disgusting subtype of bitters imaginable—except Angostura. There was an alleged Angostura substitute, but in a drink with only two ingredients substitution felt like defeat. Besides, we did not trust the quaintly labeled bottle or its peddlers. The shop had lured us in with the promise of simple, sensible drinks for simple, sensible people; but in its bosom nursed the viper of faddishness.

Our only option left was the pub, and the nearest available was not the type where two customers asking for a glass of bitters might pass as one of the day’s many charming oddities. It was a sports bar, haunted by fraternity brothers, businessmen in salmon shorts, and other harbingers of misery. Forty-eight hours of failure, though, had lent our eyes a frantic gleam, and like two gunslingers bent on vengeance, we received a wide berth as we made our way through the saloon.

"Can you give us some Angostura bitters, ma’am?" I drawled, adjusting an invisible ten-gallon hat. Out of female solidarity I refrained from calling her "little lady."

"Just bitters?"

"We’d like to buy a bottle."

She cocked a crushing eyebrow, and I was a poor cowpoke a long way from home.

In the end it was the forces of law and order, not the bartender’s skepticism, that defeated us. Selling alcoholic drinks for takeaway consumption was prohibited in bars, and in vain did we point out that we had come on foot and were as sober as the grave. We returned home to lick our wounds and sip mournful gin-and-limes. The wanton destruction of one’s cherished hopes is no reason to invite scurvy.

Success, like bitters, often materializes once you stop looking for it. In a grocery store, on a trip to pick up cheese and other household essentials, we found our Angostura bitters, nestled between gourmet root beers. The pink gins with which we toasted our formidable detective-work that night were frosty, rosy; perfect in their gold-rimmed coupes. After the first round it became apparent, to mutual disappointment, that neither of us was trying to poison the other; but in no other respect did the savor of victory bear any trace of disappointment’s wormwood.