I always disliked the old SAT analogy questions, but I thought it an appropriate way to start this article. The answer if you have not guessed by now is cocktails. Having bitters in a cocktail give it that little bit of spice that brings out the favor in the other ingredients. They take a drink from ordinary to extraordinary.
The name bitters make people think that it is something they don't want in their drink but the elixir is not necessarily bitter. Bitters is simply the generic term for products made from angostura bark, mint, peach, orange, cascarilla, quassia, gentian, quinine, and other flavoring herbs/spices, prepared by infusion or distillation.
The bitters history...
The terms snake oil, elixir, or tonic were thought of in the same breath as bitters. In the beginning these concoctions would be used as medication. They lay claim to curing just about every type of infliction. A teaspoon of bitters in a glass of water is a cure for an upset stomach. You can actually still find bitters in some stores in the pharmacy, you know, next to those pills that make you "Lose Weight Fast!!!"
In 1906 the Pure Food & Drug Act was passed into law. This Act required products that claimed to have health benefits to have proof to back up it up. Imagine that! (12)
This Act put many non-marketing savvy brands of bitters out of business. However the ones with a little bit of a silver tongue slowly took the medical promises off and sold it on... well... the alcohol content. The trick was to not let "they" know that because it was right around this time that the temperance movement was in full swing.
Prohibition (a worse word than 'shit' on this site) started with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act in 1920. During this period hiding the fact you had in your cupboard was required by law. So, bitters took off. During this time bitters were that product that had really no proven medicinal value but yet sold like hot-cakes.
The Twenty-first Amendment was past in 1933 and the US was back in business. So production of things like Bourbon and Rum took precedence over the bitters. Many bitters company's folded at this point or focused on producing spirits.
Major bitters brands...
So, what is left? The survivors of alcohol history turned out to be: Peychaud (1793), Angostura (1824), and Fee's Brothers (1863). We also have a new commer in the Orange Bitters market in the form of Gary Regan's Orange Bitters #6 (1992).
Antoine Peychaud, a Creole immigrant, operated a pharmacy on the French Quarter's Royal Street in the 1830s. With his background as an apothecary, he was a natural mixologist. His friends would gather for late-night revelry at his pharmacy. Peychaud would mix brandy, absinthe and a dash of his secret bitters for his guests. Later this quaff would come to be known as the Sazerac. (13)Peychaud's bitters, which has a gentian base is slightly sweet with a spicy liquorish flavor. If you have never had a Sazerac I highly recommend it. The first sip will shock you, the second sip will delight you, and the last sip will knock you off your feet. I have this bitter in my cabinet just for this cocktail, well that and I live in the New Orleans area.
Angostura Aromatic Bitters
The legend begins with Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert. Originally from Germany, Johann Siegert, a doctor of medicine, left his homeland in 1820, the call of adventure ringing in his ears. He was bound for Venezuela, to join with Simon Bolivar in his fight against the Spanish throne. Bolivar then appointed him Surgeon-General of the military Hospital in the town of Angostura.There is a misconception that an ingredient in Angostura Bitters is Angostura bark. The bitters were actually named after the main port from which they were exported from out of the Caribbean. The only written recipe is hidden away in a vault in New York and the only confirmed ingredients are sugar and gentian.
Dr. Siegert was above all a scientist. A scientist with a keen enquiring mind. He had seen soldiers battered by the enemy from without and within, by severe fevers and internal stomach disorders. From the beginning Dr. Siegert was determined to wrest a cure from nature itself and after four years of trial and error, researching and analyzing the qualities of tropical herbs and plants, he finally arrived at a unique blend of herbs which he called “Amargo Aromatico” or aromatic bitters. The year was 1824. (14)
Angostura Aromatic Bitters is the most popular and most widely distributed bitter. Its popular oversized label makes the spice instantly recognizable. How the oversized label came about is not exactly know, but a common story is that one person went shopping for the bottle and the other the label. After they had discovered the error and because the Caribbean is such a laid back place... they decided to just go with it and have another drink. (15)
Fee Brothers Bitters
Owen Fee came to the US from Ireland in 1853 and started the American dream of his own business in Rochester, New York. With his wife Margaret and three children (James, Mary Jane, and Owen Jr.) the owned and operated a butcher shop. After Owen's death in 1855 the family turned the butcher shop into a saloon and delicatessen in 1863. In 1864 Fee Brothers Bitters was born. (16)
Fee Brothers Old Fashioned bitters DOES contain Angostura bark as one of its many ingredients. Beyond that the Fee Brothers have a variety of bitter flavors: Orange, Peach, and Mint. The brothers had quite a time sifting through the jugs, jars, and recipes of their father's recipes to come to what are now the four main offerings from the Fee Brothers.
The mass production of the Peach flavor came back as a request of Dr. Cocktail's (Ted Haigh) request, thank you Ted.
Gary Regan's Orange Bitters #6
Orange Bitters were actually more popular than Aromatic Bitters in there hay-day. In fact the original Martini had a touch of Orange Bitters in it. Gary's Orange Bitters recipe is very good and I highly recommend it.
Mardee [Regan] called me the Weekend Alchemist when, in 1992, unable to find a decent bottling of orange bitters, I set about making my own. Starting with a formula set down by Charles H. Baker, Jr., in The Gentleman’s Companion, the first batch was flavorful, but one-dimensional. It was time to visit a small store in Greenwich Village to grab some additional botanicals—the place where witches procure their potions. On my fourth attempt I had it. But the recipe wasn’t stable—subsequent batches didn’t work. Eventually Mark Brown, CEO of the Sazerac Company, Stanly Schwam, his trusty sidekick, and a whole team of Sazerac boffins labored hard on pinning down the formula you now hold. And finally, Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh came along and designed this beauteous label. I hope that cocktailian bartenders will put this product to good use. [Interview with Gary Regan]
Here are some pictures of the older brands of Orange Bitters.
Make your own bitters...
During the 1st century of the cocktail prior to prohibition many bartenders made and served their own bitters. They took pride in serving unique cocktails that could only be had at their tavern.
In many recipes there is a call for bitters without any specific brand named. In such a case you should use an aromatic bitters such as Angostura or Fee Brother's Old Fashioned. Or, if you are feeling inspired try a batch that you have made on your own.
The following is a basic recipe as given by the Professor Jerry Thomas:
40. Bitters, Aromatic.
2 3/4 lbs. of ground dried small orange apples.
1/4 lb. do. orange peel.
2 ounces do. calamus root.
2 do. do. pimpinella root.
1 do. do. cut hops.
Macerate for 14 days with 10 gallons of spirit at 45 percent (see No. 5);
press out the dregs, add 2 1/2 pints of brown sugar syrup. (See Brown Syrup, No. 8) Filter. Color dark brown with coloring. (See No. 88.)
See Darcy's Art of Drink website for the full Jerry Thomas How to Mix Drinks.
A more modern recipe is brought to us by Robert Hess (DrinkBoy). One of Robert's labor of loves is bitters and general cocktail history. He is a true cocktailian and we thank him for this close approximation to one of the original bitter brands, Abbott's Bitters.
House Bitters by Robert Hess
8 cups rye
3 tsp gentian
1 cup chopped ginger
16 sticks cinnamon
1/4 cup whole cloves
8 whole star anis
6 Tbs cardamon pods
- Place all ingredients, except for the sugar and water, into a large mason jar and seal. Store for 2 weeks, shaking the jar once a day.
- Strain the liquids/solids mixture through cheesecloth. Squeeze hard to extract as much juice into the reserved liquid as possible.
- Place the dry ingredients into a saucepan and add the water. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes.
- Allow to cool completely, then pour the water and solid mixture into another mason jar. Store for 1 week, shaking the jar once a day.
- Strain the water mixture through cheesecloth. Discard the solid ingredients, and add the water to the previously reserved alcohol.
- Put the sugar into a small non-stick skillet and stirring constantly over a medium-high heat, allow the sugar to melt and then turn to a rich brown color.
Quickly remove from heat and allow the melted sugar to cool for a couple of minutes.
- With the sugar still slightly warm, pour it into the water and alcohol mixture. It will probably crystallize at this point, but with continued stirring it will eventually dissolve.
- Allow this mixture to rest for a couple of days, then skim off anything that rises to the surface, and gently pour (or siphon) the clear liquid from the top into another container, trying to avoid as much of the sediment on the bottom as possible.
- Measure the amount of liquid you now have, and add half that same amount of water.
Give it a try, mix it up, and add your own ingredients you will truly feel like a chemist in your kitchen. The end result should be a liquid that when added to a cocktail can not be identified in and of itself, but simply adds a complexity that brings out the flavor values of the base liquor.
The bitter challenge...
We all have our favorite cocktails, but what if your favorite could be better. Hard to believe, but it could be true. I am of the opinion that cocktails are better with bitters. Just like I a little spice in my food, I like bitters in my cocktail. A cocktail without bitters seems bland and ordinary to me.
So here is my challenge to you. Take your favorite cocktail whether it be a Gin and Tonic, Black Russian, Martini, Cosmopolitan, or whatever and add a dash or two of bitters. Don't put so much it over powers the drink. Simply add just enough to spice it up and give it that unknown characteristic. Also, don't just try aromatic bitters give orange, peach, or your own mixture a chance.
To do this properly you really need to make your drink as normal, taste it, add the bitters, stir, and taste it again. Or if you want to compare side by side make two drinks. I think you will be surprised of the results.
Bitters can also be used in food recipes. Check out Angostura's website for some ideas.
Pay it forward...
Once you come to realize "It's better with bitters!" don't just keep this knowledge to yourself. Take a bottle of bitters down to your favorite bar and challenge the bartender to make a new drink using bitters. Obviously don't just walk into any bar, throw the bottle at the barkeep, and demand a drink. This should be a liquid chef that you have gotten to know and have had conversations with concerning mixology. It should be someone you believe shares your passion about cocktails.
You might just get a drink named after you, you never know.
The bitters source...
So you say you don't have bitters and you don't know where to get any? Well here are the sources that can hook you up:
- Peychaud's Bitters - You can also find it in nearly any grocery store in the New Orleans area
- Angostura Aromatic Bitters - This is the most common brand and you should be able to find this in nearly any where liquor is sold. Buy it by the case here.
- Fee Brothers Bitters - The best way is to just call them at (800) 961-FEES
- Gary Regan's Orange Bitters #6 - there is 12 to a case... trust me just buy a dozen.
In case there was any doubt...
As defined in 1806 a cocktail is:
Cock tail, then is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind,Bitters is the defining ingredient of the cocktail.
sugar, water and bitters it is vulgarly called a bittered sling...