Apart from skilled and curious mixologists, who else knows about bitters, that underappreciated collection of “secret” potions on the backbar? Within this category are complex spirits that stimulate the appetite, aid digestion, and make a good drink much better. Bitters deserve to be recognized for what they are: indispensable adjuncts in the bartender’s arsenal for creating liquid pleasure.
Bitters fall into two categories: “herbal,” or “potable,” which people drink as aperitifs or digestifs , and“aromatic,” which are too bitter to be consumed by themselves but form the backbone of classic and neoclassic cocktails.
Valued for their medicinal properties in earlier times, herbal bitters were primarily concocted in monasteries or by alchemists. Production was small, and recipes were closely guarded secrets. As the art of distillation became more sophisticated, bitters production passed from the monks to pharmacists and enterprising distillers, whose nineteenth-century products became the basis for many of today’s commercial bitters.
Exact formulas for individual bitters continue to remain hushed. Broadly speaking, bitters are distilled spirits flavored or infused with combinations of up to 40 different herbs, roots, barks, aloes, spices, and blends of botanicals. The spirit is aged---occasionally in oak casks---for an undisclosed length of time to allow the flavors to blend and soften, after which it is strained, bottled, and labeled.
Each kind of herbal bitters has its own style and emphasis. Some stimulate the appetite; others neutralize excess acids or bases (alkalis) and help digestion. Some such as Fernet Branca are bracingly bitter; others like the German Goldwasser, with tiny bits of gold floating in the bottle, are lusciously sweet and often mistaken for a liqueur.
Italy produces the widest variety of herbal bitters, called amari. Most fall into the bittersweet category. Ranging in color from mahogany to ruby red, smelling of butterscotch, apricot, or orange rind, they are consumed neat, with still or sparkling water over ice and the addition of some lemon juice or a twist of lemon rind.
In contrast to the herbal potions, aromatic bitters work their magic behind the scene, namely in a well-made cocktail, where a few splashes of bitters add balance and complexity. With the exception of Angostura bitters from Trinidad (developed in 1824 by Surgeon General Dr. J. Siegert, who was headquartered in the port of Angostura, Venezuela), almost all aromatic bitters are made in the US. Their origin may date to colonial times, but their prominence emerged with the birth of the American cocktail.
David Wondrich, the renowned cocktail historian, journalist, and author---and one who holds bitters in high esteem---nominates The Pegu Club Cocktail as his choice for the hottest new/old drink. Created by Audrey Saunders, noted mixologist and owner of the Pegu Club in New York City, the bitters-laced cocktail is her version of a 1920s’ signature drink of the Pegu Club in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar), a hot spot for British army officers and foreign travelers.
The Pegu Club Cocktail
2 oz. gin
1/2 oz. orange curaçao
1/2 oz. fresh-squeezed lime juice
Dash of Angostura bitters
Dash orange bitters
Lime wedge for garnish
Combine the gin, orange curaçao, lime juice, and bitters in an ice-filled shaker. Shake well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with wedge of lime.
Aromatic bitters made in the US:
Urban Moonshine Organic Bitters Burlington, Vermont
Bittermens Very Small Batch Bitters Brooklyn, NY
Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Rochester, NY
(said to contain Angostura bark along with other spices and citrus oil)
Fee Brothers Mint
(a quick fix for Mint Julep)
Fee Brothers Orange
(flavored with oil of bitter orange)
Fee Brothers Peach
(contains bitter almond oil)
Peychaud Buffalo Trace Distillery, Kentucky
(a New Orleans classic; essential in the Sazerac)
Regan’s Orange No. 6 Buffalo Trace Distillery, Kentucky
(a spicy orange bitters with cinnamon and clove)
Branca Menta (Italy) Gammel Dansk (Denmark)
Fernet Branca (Italy) Echt Stonsdorfer (Germany)
Frenet (Italy) Zwack Unicum (Hungary)
Averna (Italy) Montenegro (Italy)
Campari (Italy) Nardini (Italy)
Cio Ciaro (Italy) Nonino (Italy)
Cora (Italy) Ramazzotti (Italy)
Lucano (Italy) S. Maria al Monte (Italy)
Goldwasser (Germany) Jägermeister (Germany)