Christmas traditions come and go, one of my favourite of recent years (and long may it continue) has been the British Library's Christmas themed offering, especially the short story collections. I love a good short story collection at any time, but particularly at this time of year when I don't feel like I have a lot of reading time.
I also feel that a good anthology is a fairly safe present - as long as you get the genre right you can't really go wrong. This years offering is 'The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories' edited by Martin Edwards who has found some absolute gems. It's a fairly dark collection by earlier British Library standards - 'Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech' is particularly bleak, and 'Blind Man's Hood' crosses over into ghost story territory in the best Christmas tradition, and I like that too. It's a balance to the sentimentality of the season.
I wonder if the resurgence of interest in golden age/classic crime and the renewed interest in classic cocktails and their ingredients is in some way linked? Perhaps both or symptomatic of the same kind of nostalgia for the (mostly imaginary) certainties of the past. Or maybe it's that both are more or less a good thing and there are enough people who appreciate that.
Either way Cocktail bitters are making a very welcome reappearance. If you're really keen you can make your own. I'm not tempted to do this, mostly but not only because I wouldn't get through them quickly enough. Bitters still aren't the easiest thing to find in the high street though. Marks & Spencer's keep trying, but they generally seem to end up being reduced to clear (at least around here). A good independent wine merchant, especially if they're good on spirits, will probably have a decent range, otherwise it's the Internet.
Bitters are useful though, and go far beyond the Angostura variety. Because you only use a couple of drops you don't particularly need to worry about the relatively high alcohol content, add a dash to a mixer for a very low alcohol reasonably grown up tasting drink. They're a god send for improving a mediocre gin, or whisky for that matter, and originally their use more or less defined something as a cocktail (rather than a flip, sling, julep, etc).
The Bitter Truth make a couple of sets that contain 5 different bitters in 2cl bottles. They're not especially cheap (I think with postage my travelers set cost about £18) but good value considering how far they'll go. I like these sets for the variety they give - it's a tin of possibilities that is actually perfect for traveling with. The Traveler's set has orange, celery, Creole, old time aromatic, and Jerry Thomas' own decanter bitters - orange bitters feature a lot in old cocktails, celery bitters in a few contemporary ones - all of them have their points.