Monday, May 15

It's Better With Bitters!

Salt is to food as bitters are to ______.

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).

Peychaud's Bitters

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.

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)
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.

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

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]

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.

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:

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,
sugar, water and bitters it is vulgarly called a bittered sling...

Bitters is the defining ingredient of the cocktail.

32 comments:

Dr.Cocktail said...

Had you seen this?

http://www.martinirepublic.com/item/i’m-very-bitter/

It's just a little extra embellishment on the orange bitters portion of your treatise.

bar.mix.master said...

I had not seen your article. It is a very thorough review of Orange Bitters. I thank you sir for posting it here.

Lonnie Bruner said...

I was in Belize in February. One of the locals offered me his homemade concotion which he was calling "bitters". He said it would cure any cold or flu I had, and would make me a tiger in bed. It was a black liquid in an old water bottle and there was some sort of leafed branch inside. It tasted like aniseed liquor.

Anyway, it was interesting that it's a local elixir--strongly believed---in some countries still today.

Jamie said...

You forgot to include Boudreau's Bitters. ;)

http://spaces.msn.com/jbou2/blog/cns!35874CECB7AA3588!1839.entry

Nice to see you bloggin again....

Darcy O'Neil said...

Welcome back to the blogging world.

Rick said...

I'll third that... good to see you back!

The Gentleman's Companion also has recipes for aromatic and orange bitters. There is also a mention of hellfire bitters which I haven't looked into.

Anonymous said...

Your listing of Robert Hess's House Bitters recipe doesn't specify the sugar and water amounts...

bar.mix.master said...

Thanks everyone... it is good to be back. I will attempt to post a lot more frequent.

On the sugar and water amounts... I don't have anything more specific. I would suggest playing with it. Experimenting with the amounts is most of the fun. As a general guideline I would say use an amount of water that fills the Mason jar being used. As for the sugar... start with a cup. If the end product is not sweet enough for your liking, make it two cups in the next batch.

Mike said...

Ditto and what a blog entry! I think I need to read it again.

Reid said...

I've got a bottle of Collins Orange Bitters I picked up at my local liquor store, which neither you nor Dr. Cocktail mentioned in your posts. Is this a rare brand, or just not worth mentioning?

Here's a link just to prove I'm not crazy:
http://www.kegworks.com/shoppingcart/customer/product.php?productid=19711&cat=546&page=1

Anonymous said...

The Collins stuff is supposed to be quite nasty. I haven't tried it myself, so that's second-hand info.

On the water/sugar: there's an earlier recipe that Robert was working with (search Google for 'robert hess house bitters', and select the *Cached* version of first drinkboy.editthispage.com link) that used 2:3:1 cups of rye:water:sugar. Given the 8 cups of rye in this newer version of the recipe -- where did you get it, by the way?? -- that would correspond to 8 cups of rye, 12 cups of water, and 4 cups of sugar.

Holy hell, that results in a LOT of bitters. I'll personally probably cut this down to the "original" liquid proportions and adjust other ingredients as well (i.e. divide all by 4) when I give it a shot.

As for rye types, what are you planning on using? Old Overholt (80 proof and fairly cheap), or either of Rittenhouse Rye 80 Proof or Rittenhouse Rye 100 Proof (also both cheap) seem like good choices. Old Potrero 18th Century (125 proof) and 19th Century (90 proof) are both way to expensive for me to consider mixing as experimental bitters. Any other suggestions?

Dr.Cocktail said...

Collins Orange Bitters IS nasty. It is so very *chemical* my liver is getting paranoid it'll get cancer from the stuff.

--Doc.

julia said...

don't y'all have any suntory "hermes orange bitters" over there? they are the best i've had.

misplacedmtnman said...

I am currently trying to obtain some Boudrea's Bitters and some Hermes Orange Bitters but have not discovered where to purchase them. I have all the others you mentioned. There are also Stirrings Blood Orange Bitters that can be found at Stirrings.com but I don't believe they contain any alcohol, a very disappointing discovery.

I make my own bitters as well. I have brewed Grapefruit, Key Lime, Lemon, Cranberry, Blueberry, Raspberry, Vanilla, Peach, Apple and Pineapple.

I am extremely and obnoxiously BITTER!

misplacedmtnman said...

Oh, and there are also Underberg Bitters from Germany available at www.wallywine.com

tfistano said...

And don't forget that since most bartenders don't know what to do with the stuff, they'll often give it to you for free. Call me crazy, but I like a shot of Angostura as a back for a pint of beer.

I go to LeNell's (www.lenells.com), for all of my bitters needs. If she doesn't have one she's been able to help me find it.

Anonymous said...

The bitter truth bitters are new out there! The-bitter-truth.com

stephan berg said...

if you like manhattans and old fashioneds,
then you should try our "Old Time Aromatic Bitters" from THE BITTER TRUTH:
this is a german bitters maker.
www.the-bitter-truth.com

nice blog!!!

Anonymous said...

Hi,

I'm looking for something to substitute bitters. I can't recall ever seeing Angostura or something similair in the shops (although I must admit I didn't pay much attention). J├Ągermeister, Uderberg and Fernet Branca would probably be quite easy to come by where I live. Do you think they'd make a suitable substitute?

bar.mix.master said...

While those are herbal liqueurs I would not use them as a substitute for bitters.

Seek out actual bitters and compare. If you like J├Ąger in your Manhattan better than aromatic bitters then that is your choice. Cocktails is about experimenting and mixing it up.

There are some links at the bottom of the article for places to buy if you can't find any in your area.

thanks

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Anonymous said...

I know of a seller on eBay who occasionally carries Hermes Orange and Aromatic bitters. He goes by “timerto” and his store is called “tokyobaron”. I have his permission to pass on his email - esonares (at) yahoo (dot) com - if you wish to contact him. You can also order directly from his website:
http://www.tokyobaron.com/bottles/_hermes.php
He also sells the incredibly hard to find Hermes Violet.

Anonymous said...

When I was in the Dominican Republic there was a very bitter drink called "Mamajuana" and it was perported to cure all that ails ya and give men "night strength" It was a mixture of barks and leaves in an old Brugal rum bottle. They sold the bottles all over the markets. It was quite bitter and strong(rum, not my main drink but I could see using it as a bittering agent.
In St. Vincent there was a very popular drink called "Mauby" , very bitter but people drank it like soda, hell the local brewery or Hairoun beer, brewed and bottled Mauby for local consumption.

Anyone heard of either or these? Oh I have seen mauby concentrate in a west indian store.

Anonymous said...

Do bitters, in general, have a shelf life? Should they be stored, after opening, in a refrigerator?

bar.mix.master said...

Over a long enough time anything will spoil. However bitters have a high alcohol content which slows this process. A bottle of bitters does not need to be refrigerated and should last for a very very long time. I personally have tasted bitters that were over 10 years old and they tasted fine. I know some of my fellow mixologist has some samples of even older bitters.

Anonymous said...

I recently had to throw out a bottle of Angostura bitters. It had changed colors and "separated." I have no idea how old the bottle was - might have been 20 years or more...

Thanks for the fascinating and informative article. I have some Peychaud's (and absinthe!) for Sazeracs and Angostura for Manhattans (two of my favorite cocktails), but I had never thought of adding bitters to any others. I love the SAT analogy at the beginning of this article and am going to try to keep it in mind when mixing. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Nice site, interesting, well written, well researched, dear to my heart as we try to reinvigorate the cocktail hour. That said, it is marred by the unnecessary inclusion of the four letter words. Somehow it seems less than gentlemanly.

Anonymous said...

Amargo CHUNCHO a Peruvian Bitters is now available it is very good and it has a different aroma and taste, it is made with roots, flowers mand barks from the Peruvian Amazon I understand that has chinchona a red peruvian bark.
It's a very nice change when you use Bitters in a cocktail. perucooking,com has it .
thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I tried that amargo chuncho, the site correct address is www.perucooking.com
They are really good in many drinks i have substituted with amargo chuncho. thanks for the recipes too. Ivette

Ruby Ricciardi said...

While in a little shop named Sweet Stuff in Caserta Italy last year, my nephew bought me a bitters drink. It was clear, and had a lemon slice floating in it. I loved it ! Once back home, the local Italian Deli had it, but at $2.00 a tiny bottle, and as often as we drank it, it was too expensive and they didn't keep it in stock. So, I made my own. Club Soda + 5 shakes of Angostura + lemon slice replicated the drink perfectly !
Ruby in Florida

Maggie said...

hi, i make my own orange and grapefruit bitters frequently, but am interested in making peach as well. any ideas on a method? i will use the pits, but i'm concerned about how much, if any, fruit or skin i should use...help!

Anonymous said...

There is a new distillery in Canada. In Victoria, BC...a company called Victoria Spirits..they make a wonderful new gin,and have recently started making a new bitters...mmm..
Only just discovered bitters recently..should be common knowledge!