Cocktail 101

All the basics of the bar.

Cocktail 101: All About Bitters, Part 2

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[Photograph: Angostura]

Last week, we dipped into a little bitters history. Today we'll look at the two champions of the bitters field: Angostura and Peychaud's.

Angostura

History

The granduncle of all cocktail bitters, Angostura was developed in the 1820s by Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, a German doctor in the employ of Simón Bolívar during the latter man's liberation of Venezuela from the Spanish Empire. (Who says history's boring?)

Siegert was looking to provide a medicinal tonic for Bolívar's troops, so he concocted a mixture of herbs that he called amargo aromatíco, or aromatic bitters. He first produced these bitters in the town of Angostura, a trading post on the Orinoco River. Sailors arriving in Angostura often suffered from seasickness and took Dr. Siegert's remedy to settle their stomachs. This nautical trade, along with forceful marketing by Siegert's sons, eventually helped cement Angostura's worldwide brand.The Siegert family later moved its operation to Trinidad, where it branched out into rum production.

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The Pink Gin [Photograph: Michael Dietsch]


Flavor Profile

As an aromatic bitter, the base flavor is a bitter root. In the case of Angostura, it's thought to be gentian; the Angostura formula is secret, though, and no one from Angostura will confirm the ingredients. Other flavors you might encounter are clove, tamarind, and cinnamon.

Angostura is not, by the way, the only aromatic bitters on the market. Also look for Fee Brothers Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters or The Bitter Truth Old Time Aromatic Bitters. Peychaud's is also in the aromatic style, but I've chosen to discuss it separately.


Tastes Great in...

Aromatic bitters taste great with aged spirits: whiskies, rums, and brandies. Try them in an old fashioned, a Manhattan, or a Rob Roy. They're also good, perhaps surprisingly so, in a Pink Gin or a Champagne Cocktail.

Peychaud's

History

Peychaud's bitters also have a long history behind the bar. Developed in 1838 by Antoine Peychaud, a New Orleans apothecary of Creole origin, Peychaud's bitters carry on the tradition of bitters as a medicinal tonic. Peychaud used a family recipe brought to Louisiana by his father, who had fled Haiti 45 years earlier.

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[Photograph: Jonny Hughes]

The younger Peychaud served a brandy toddy as a vehicle for his bitters. Years later, in 1850, the Sazerac Coffee House opened in the French Quarter. Named for a now defunct brand of cognac, Sazerac de Forge et Fils, the coffee house served a branded cocktail based on Peychaud's toddy, the Sazerac, with the house cognac and Peychaud's bitters.

Thanks to phylloxera, the blight that nearly destroyed France's wine and brandy industries in the late 19th century, Sazerac de Forge et Fils disappeared from New Orleans and was replaced in the namesake drink by rye whiskey, and such is the makeup of the Sazerac today.

Unlike Angostura, which was and still is made in the Caribbean, Peychaud's was bound by law to cease manufacture during Prohibition, but returned after repeal in 1933.


Flavor Profile

Moderately sweeter than Angostura. Slightly fruity. Hints of Christmas spices and anise.

For 172 years, Peychaud's stood alone in its flavor profile, but last year it was joined on the market by The Bitter Truth's Creole Bitters, designed to be similar to Peychaud's but less fruity and more herbal.


Tastes Great in...

A Sazerac, of course—either the now traditional rye recipe or the original cognac version. Two other New Orleans classics are also fabulous with Peychaud's: the Vieux Carré and the Cocktail à la Louisiane.

Next week, we'll look at some of the various orange bitters that are on the market. In the meantime, what are your favorite uses for bitters? Do any of you use them in cooking?


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.

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