by Ford Mixology Lab, New York
It’s no mystery that bitters are, well, a mystery to most people. So just what are they, exactly? To quote our friend Brad Thomas Parsons, author of the book Bitters, “bitters are an aromatic flavoring agent made from infusing roots, barks, fruit peels, seeds, spices, herbs, flowers, and botanicals in high-proof alcohol (or sometimes glycerin).” To the true bitters novice, we like to describe bitters as the salt and pepper of cocktails. Do you ever taste a dish and think that something is missing, and consequently add a pinch of seasoning? The same applies to cocktails. If a combination of flavors seems to fall flat, a dash or two of bitters may be just the thing it needs to bring all of the flavors together.
Once upon a time, we were invited to work in a bitters factory. Up to that point, we had known bitters as an end product, not possessing too much information about how they were made. Before our short stint as bitter employees (pun intended), we always imagined bitters being made in a large industrial facility that looked like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Imagine our surprise when we arrived to our first day of work, walked into a shared warehouse space, made our way into the basement, and were shown into a room the size of a closet. All of the bitters that this small, independent producer manufactured came out of this tiny workspace!
On an even smaller scale, many cocktail bars are making their own bitters for use in their original cocktails. Let’s say you walk into the hot new cocktail bar in your town and peruse the menu. Your eyes fall upon a line item such as “house made Earl Grey bitters.” Wow, that sounds fancy! What our experience as a bitter man (and woman) taught us is that bitters are very easy to make. Yes, it requires skill to determine the specific recipes and maceration (soaking) time, but the process is quite simple. So how did they do it? In the case of the Earl Grey bitters, they simply put loose Earl Grey tea and maybe some citrus peels or other spices into a jar of high-proof spirit and let them sit until the desired flavor and bitterness was achieved. Voila!
Last month, we had the opportunity to tour the massive Angostura distillery in Port of Spain, Trinidad. This was the Willy Wonka experience that we pictured when we held that first bottle of bitters in our hands. At the distillery, we were led into a pristine room with giant vats and told a story about how Angostura bitters are made. Ironically, the largest detail omitted was what they’re made from. The secret recipe for Angostura Aromatic Bitters has been carefully kept for 200 years — or has it?
In his book, Jigger, Beaker & Glass, originally published in 1939, Charles Baker claims to be in possession of a formula for “Trinidad Bitters.” Though he can neither confirm nor deny that the recipe he holds is the real deal, he writes, “We now append a formula for Trinidad bitters we had given us by a friend who lived in Port of Spain, and which dated many years back into an old publication he had discovered among some family accumulations in settling an estate. The old text claimed this to be the leaked-out secret formula for Angostura.” Armed with Baker’s book and some key ingredients including cinchona bark, citrus peel, cardamom, chamomile, cinnamon, raisins, and grain alcohol, you can try his leaked recipe at home.
Created in 1824 by Dr. Johann Siegert, Angostura Aromatic Bitters were originally intended as a medicinal tonic to cure digestive ailments. All Angostura bitters are manufactured and bottled in Trinidad, using the same recipe and ingredients they’ve used for nearly 200 years. Only three or four people know the formula, which so secret, in fact, that it’s kept in a secret room, and a $25,000 fine and jail time are imposed for anyone who tries to take anything from the distillery! Today, Angostura bitters are enjoyed in the cocktails of 175 countries around the world.
The use of bitters in spirits dates back to as early as the year 1806, when the first cocktail, the Old Fashioned, was presumably invented. By definition, a cocktail is “spirits, bitters, sugar and water combined,” as found in David Wondrich’s historical tome, Imbibe!, which leads us to the crucial point that a cocktail is not truly a cocktail without the presence of bitters. Bitters had been created as a medicinal tonic, and in the early 1800s, distilled spirits were safer to drink than water. At some point, a brilliant individual thought to combine the two, and the cocktail was born.
If there was ever an example of what an important role bitters play in a cocktail, it would be in the New Orleans cocktail from the 1800s, the Sazerac. The Sazerac is a cocktail based upon ritual, and the omission of (or substitution for) the specific bitter called for would transform this cocktail from a Sazerac to, well, not a Sazerac. To create this classic at home, you need just four ingredients: rye whiskey (though it was originally created with cognac), a sugar cube, absinthe and, most importantly, Peychaud’s bitters. Peychaud’s bitters were created in 1830 by Antoine Amedee Peychaud, a Creole apothecary, and are a gentian (a bitter root) based bitters that have a floral aroma, sweeter taste, and lighter body than the richer, more aromatic Angostura.
2 oz. rye whiskey
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
1/2 sugar cube
In a mixing glass, muddle sugar cube with a small amount of water. Add rye and Peychaud’s, and stir with ice for twenty to thirty seconds. Strain into a chilled, Absinthe-rinsed glass. Express a twist of lemon over the top of the glass and discard.
If the recipe for a Sazerac is a hard and fast rule, the recipe for the Old Fashioned is a little easier to loosely interpret. After all, Angostura bitters hadn’t even been created in 1806 when the first Old Fashioned was said to have been mixed! While Angostura is a perfect choice for this cocktail, we think the Old Fashioned is a great way to experiment with the unique flavors of bitters currently on the market. With cocktails increasing in popularity, more and more independent bitters producers are popping up, releasing flavors that measure on all levels of the obscurity scale. While some small companies are creating never before seen flavors such as Brooklyn Hemispherical Sriracha Bitters and Bitter Tears ‘Miss Piggy’ Bacon Bitters, other producers are reviving long forgotten recipes. Several years ago, Dr. Adam Elmegirab referenced recipes dating back to 1853 to recreate Boker’s bitters, a key ingredient in many classic cocktails listed in Jerry Thomas’s 1862 cult cocktail guide, How To Mix Drinks.
Old Fashioned Cocktail
2 oz. Rye whiskey or bourbon
Bitters (we like mixing chocolate and orange bitters)
Orange and lemon twists
In a mixing glass, saturate a sugar cube with bitters, a small amount of water or seltzer, and orange twist. Muddle. Add whiskey, and stir with ice for twenty to thirty seconds. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass over fresh ice and garnish with a lemon twist.
With all these new formulas on the market, just how many varieties of bitters does one really need? At minimum, we say any well-stocked bar should have a bottle of Angostura Aromatic Bitters, a bottle of Peychaud’s Bitters, and a bottle of Orange Bitters (try Regans’ Orange Bitters #6 or The Bitter Truth Orange Bitters). Beyond those three staples, the rest provide great fodder for experimentation.