Serious Eats: Drinks
Cocktail 101: All About Orange Bitters
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Our miniseries on cocktail bitters concludes today with a look at orange bitters. Little known and nearly impossible to find until just a few years ago, orange bitters were at one time a staple of the bar and an indispensable element in many cocktails.
The origins of orange bitters aren't easy to track down. Cocktail historian David Wondrich has lamented that cocktail history is often murky because, after all, it's the history of stuff that happens while people are drinking, and the history of orange bitters may well be lost in the haze of one-too-many.
What we do know is that by the back half of the nineteenth century, several brands were in production and recipes appeared in publications written for druggists and pharmacists. (Recall that bitters were originally considered a medicinal tonic.) And in 1862, barman Jerry Thomas mentioned them in his How to Mix Drinks.
No matter the brand or recipe, the flavor of orange bitters comes primarily from the dried zest of bitter-orange peels. Usually, these are specified to be oranges from Seville or the West Indies (the latter of which are the same types of peel that are used in triple sec and curaçao).
Other ingredients found in 19th-century recipes, and still used today, include:
- Gentian root
- Cardamom, caraway, or coriander seeds
By the end of the 1800s, orange bitters were prominent in cocktail recipes, but perhaps their most famous use was in the original dry martini. (Aside: a "dry" version of any cocktail originally meant simply a cocktail made with dry vermouth, instead of sweet.)
Should you ever find yourself unstuck in time, ordering a cocktail in the company of swells lamenting the foreign policy of the Theodore Roosevelt administration, be careful if you order a dry martini. What you won't get is the abomination that passes for one today: a glass of ice-cold gin (or, worse, vodka) with an atomized spritz of vermouth. Instead, you'll get something closer to a 50-50 mix of gin and vermouth, flavored with several drops of orange bitters.
Other pre-Prohibition cocktails that incorporated orange bitters included:
Orange bitters remained a bar staple through Prohibition and shortly beyond. They began to decline in popularity in the 1930s, though, before going nearly extinct in the 1960s. They're only now beginning to rebound.
We find ourselves now in a sort of orange bitters renaissance, but it was by no means ever clear that this would happen. I credit a small handful of cocktail writers and bartenders for midwifing this rebirth. As recently as 2004, you could still find writers lamenting the absence of orange bitters.
So what happened to bring them back in these last seven years?
I trace the renaissance back to the late 1990s, when the cocktail enthusiast and writer Ted Haigh tried to track some down to use in the Satan's Whiskers cocktail. He finally reached the only remaining producer in the United States, Fee Brothers in Rochester, New York. Haigh was active in the AOL Food and Drink forums at the time, and made his discovery loudly known.
Even so, just a few years later, in 2002, William Grimes still had to lament the disappearance of orange bitters in his (excellent) book, Straight Up or On the Rocks.
The tide didn't truly start to turn until the following year, when longtime barman Gary Regan released his Joy of Mixology. Regan also lamented the demise of orange bitters, but he actually set out to do something about it. He began testing recipes to make his own orange bitters. The fifth iteration of his tinkering appears in Joy as "Regan's Orange Bitters No. 5."
Regan also partnered with the Sazerac Company, makers of Peychaud's bitters, to produce a commercial version. However, his formula had an odd problem: it was too drinkable, according to the bureaucrats at ATF. So Regan and Sazerac tinkered with the blend and came up with Regan's Orange Bitters No. 6. Regan's partnership with Sazerac meant that his orange bitters were available in any market that carried Peychaud's.
Soon after, The Bitter Truth, in Germany, introduced its orange bitters, and finally, in 2008, the venerable Angostura Company got in on tricks and brought out Angostura Orange.
Enough Already, How Do They Taste?
Well, that's the fun part. It's truly instructive to take each brand—Fee's, Regan's, Bitter Truth, and Angostura—and test each of them in cocktails. Even in a small dose, a dash, each brand asserts its personality.
Flavor profiling is usually tricky, since everyone's got a good opinion about how things taste, but in general I find the Fee's to be the sweetest and fruitiest, and the least complex. Now, don't misunderstand: they're not sweet like a soda, they're just sweeter than the other brands.
The Regan's are zesty and fresh smelling, like you've just twisted an orange peel over a drink. There's mild spice in the background, and the finish is less fruity than the Fee's.
The Bitter Truth bitters are complex and spicy—perhaps the spiciest of the four. Earlier, I mentioned that other ingredients in orange bitters include such things as cardamom, cinnamon, and coriander, and it's the Bitter Truth orange that best expresses those flavors.
Finally, the Angostura Orange has the strongest orangey scent and flavor of them all. The spice is there, too, but it's a little less pronounced than in the Bitter Truth.
Bitter Truth and Angostura produce orange bitters with the strongest flavors of the four. For this reason, I tend to use a little less of them in a cocktail than I do when I'm using Fee's or Regan's. I also find that I prefer each bitters in different drinks.
I love a mix of Angostura Orange and Angostura Aromatic in whiskey and rum cocktails. I most love that blend of bitters in an old-fashioned, especially a rye old-fashioned.
Bitter Truth orange bitters are fabulous dashed into a margarita. I love the way the spices blend with tequila. They're also good in citrusy rum cocktails, such as a daiquiri.
Regan's and Fee's are probably my favorite in a martini. I find that the BT and Ango both can overpower a martini unless I'm very careful when mixing. When using Regan's, though, I like to dash in a goodly portion.
What about you? How do you like to use orange bitters?
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.