Serious Eats: Drinks
Cocktail 101: All About Bitters, Part 1
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Cocktail bitters. I like to describe them as the spice of the cocktail world. Why? Two reasons.
First, bitters are often literally made of spice (along with other ingredients)—these concoctions are infused with many things that you might already have in a spice rack in your kitchen. Dried roots (gentian), barks (angostura, cassia), seeds or pods (cardamom), flower buds and stigmas (saffron), fruits (dried lemon peel), and so on.
Second, bitters serve much the same role in cocktails that spices serve in food—they add depths of complexity and flavor to the final product.
Now, before I go farther, I should say, I don't mean to speak in this article of so-called potable bitters—that is to say, drinkable bitters. Potable bitters are bitter liqueurs that, although they can work well in cocktails, were originally meant to be sipped and enjoyed on their own. This category includes Italian amari (such as Fernet Branca and Campari) and bitter digestifs, such as Underberg. Paul Clarke has explored this category in depth, so there's no need for me to cover the same ground.
Instead, I'll focus entirely on non-potable bitters. They're called as such not because they're unfit to be consumed, but because they're so strongly flavored, they're considered a food additive and not something anyone would choose to quaff on their own. For the sake of concision and clarity, then, assume that any further mention of bitters refers to the non-potable variety.
A Bitter History
Bitters originally were formulated by physicians (or quacks posing as such) in the 1700s and sold as medicinal tonics. The idea was to take herbs and spices, preserve them in alcohol, and market them as a remedy for disorders of the circulation or digestion. Today, collectors buy and sell vintage ads and bottles for such defunct brands as Hostetter's Stomach Bitters and Burdock's Blood Bitters.
Many people still swear that the best way to settle an upset stomach is to dash some Angostura into a glass of tonic water or club soda and drink that down. I can't stand that myself, so I never drink enough of it to find out.
And apparently I'm not alone. Even in the 18th century, people seeking a cure started mixing their bitters with a bit of spirit to make them go down more easily. By 1806, the word cocktail was already in use to describe a mix of spirits, water, sugar, and bitters.
By the end of the 19th century, bitters were firmly in place behind the bars of such pioneers as Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson. In fact, many bartenders had more than a dozen brands of bitters at their disposal.
Bitters went into decline in the 20th century, victim to not only the dark ages of Prohibition but also changing drinking habits. And today, I'm aware of only two brands that have lasted straight through since the 1800s, aside from a nap in the dark ages: Angostura and Peychaud's.
We're fortunate these days to see a resurgence in bitters. Not only are more bartenders using them, but more brands and flavors are available now than at any time in decades.
The bitters renaissance started with veteran barman and author Gary Regan in 2005, when he introduced his Regan's Orange Bitters No. 6, and helped reintroduce a long-gone style of cocktail bitters. Gary's since been joined in the market by a number of new brands, among them A. B. Smeby, Brooklyn Hemispherical, The Bitter End, Bittermens, Scrappy's, Urban Moonshine, and The Bitter Truth. These upstarts join a little-known but venerable company that's somehow kept bitters on their production line since the 1950s: Fee Brothers.
Bitters makers today are reviving old styles—such as orange bitters, Jerry Thomas's Decanter Bitters and Stoughton's Bitters—and introducing new varieties, such as mole, celery, rhubarb, grapefruit, and maple.
Next week, I'll look at some primary styles of cocktail bitters, explain their histories and flavor profiles, and discuss important cocktails that use them.
For now, though, what bitters do you keep stocked in your home bar?
About the Author: Michael Dietsch writes A Dash of Bitters. He is an accidental bartender, boozologist, and bittered sling. He lives with a spirited female and crazy felines in Providence.