Known best for its bitters, Fee Brothers has been around for 150 years. We had a chance to go behind the scenes at the company's Rochester, NY headquarters.
'bitters' on Serious Eats
Resurrecting a defunct bitters brand took Peter Schaf and John Troia seven years of research and testing.
Back in my day, when you wanted to make a cocktail, and you needed some cocktail bitters, you went to the soda-pop aisle of your grocery and found the shelves dedicated to mixers for adult beverages, and if you were lucky, you'd see a bottle of Angostura right there sitting next to the lime cordial and the sour mix and the tonic water. These days, you kids are spoiled for choice.
When you start looking through vintage cocktail books, one thing you'll quickly notice are the names of obscure ingredients. Now, some of these ingredients are still in production—you might have to hunt a while; you might even need to have a friend bring a bottle home from overseas. But others are truly defunct, no longer made. What did they taste like? How were they made? Here's our guide to a few bitters, liqueurs, and cordials that truly have disappeared...and a few that are being revived by upstart brands.
Not that long ago, mole bitters seemed like an exotic and strange ingredient. But now they're all over cocktail menus and I have come to consider them a drink-mixing necessity. I've always liked the combination of chocolate and spice, but being able to use these flavors to liven up my cocktails has been a revelation.
Domestic vermouth is super-hot right now—there's a bevy of small producers making new vermouths using high-quality wine and a range of both traditional and experimental flavorings. But what about alternatives to classic bitter cocktail ingredients like Campari and Lillet? Enter Vermont's Eden Ice Cider, with their new bitter aperitif ciders.
A few dashes of grapefruit bitters can put a so-so sparkling wine cocktail into fabulous territory or turn a limp Paloma or Gin & Tonic into a bright and balanced thing of beauty. But even though grapefruit bitters have been called for in cocktail recipes since the 1860s, many liquor stores don't carry them. DIY to the rescue!
One of our favorite beverages around the Serious Eats office is bitters and soda. We've got a good dozen types of bitters in the Serious Eats liquor shelves—cranberry! Peychaud's! black walnut!—and just a few dashes can turn plain ol' soda water into something much more exciting. But what about bitters and soda? Like soda-soda, pop-soda, not soda water. Why have diet Coke when I could have diet rhubarb coke? Why cream soda when it's so easy to make creamsicle-soda?
Asking me to pick my favorite cocktail is sort of like asking parents which of their kids is the best. It's a hard question to answer, but deep in my heart, I know. Sorry, Sazerac and Martini, even though I love you so, the Manhattan is easily my favorite drink. So I was surprised that a simple change to this classic drink made me love it even more.
Whether it's infusing your own vodka or crafting the ideal elderflower cordial, you can tap into your creativity to make better cocktail components, made with all-natural ingredients, for cheaper than you'd buy at a liquor store.
Amaro is yet another item from behind the bar that started out as a way to cure what ailed us—it was once a treatment for everything from an upset stomach or colicky baby to cholera. Really, "amaro" (or amari, in the plural) is just a general name for a bitter, herbal liqueur.
Rhubarb is one of my favorite cocktail ingredients. When rhubarb season arrived, I ran to buy as much as I could from the market that's usually first to get all the seasonal produce. When I couldn't find it, I went to the manager in a panic. "We used to stock that," he said. "But nobody likes it, so we stopped." I then dramatically flung myself onto the nearest support beam and screamed, "Noooooo!" as if I just found out Darth Vader was my father. (He is not.) Luckily, the next store had a whole display of rhubarb and promised me that they would keep stocking it throughout the season.
Bitters are often thought of as the salt and pepper of the cocktail world, adding just a touch of spice to focus and deepen the flavors of a drink. It makes sense to use them sparingly—a 4-ounce bottle of Angostura can sell for $9 or more, and it's potent stuff, so a drop or two goes a long way. "But we're living in an age of extreme ingredients," says Theo Lieberman of Lantern's Keep and Milk & Honey in NYC, "everywhere you look, there's pork belly." So perhaps the time for the extreme use of bitters has come.
Every ingredient that conceivably can be made in-house is made in-house at Yusho in Chicago's Logan Square. Alex Bachman has put together a broad and endlessly enticing debut menu for Yusho that pays homage to several classics while also striving to break new ground. Here are 4 drinks we loved (plus the recipes to make them yourself!)
Orange bitters are basically my cocktail Superman. When I've screwed up a drink by making it too sweet or gotten so close to perfection only to end up with something flat-tasting, orange bitters have swooped in to save the day. Just a drop or two can add the right depth or bridge together ingredients that aren't quite living up to their mixological potential. But orange bitters are so much more than a way to fix a bad drink—they're an essential part of so many balanced cocktails because of their deep, citrusy, spicy, and complex flavor.
Part history, part project guide, and part recipe book, Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All with Cocktails, Recipes & Formulas manages to do what most do not: wrap up centuries worth of information about a single subject into one book you'll be eager to dig in and out of. Read on to learn more and win a copy of your own.
Mojitos are such a refreshing way to chase the sticky morning heat; but if you're like me, the last thing you want is a big mouthful of yard clippings every time you take a sip. And lot of mojitos are so cloying that they leave me even thirstier, rather than slaking a sticky throat the way a proper cocktail should. Clearly this wheel, while not needing reinvention, needed a little tuning.
We find ourselves now in a sort of orange bitters renaissance, but it was by no means ever clear that this would happen. 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.
These days, you can't move a millimeter in even the dingiest of contemporary drink dens without hearing that "B" word: bitters, bitters, bitters. But what are bitters really made of? And how can you go about crafting your own?
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.