Thursday, June 4, 2009

Taking the Bitters with the Sweet

Bitters are among the least understood elements of cocktail culture, but you can tell a true cocktail geek by how many bitters they have on hand. One to three indicates an amateur, three to ten an aficionado, and if any of them are homemade, you may be dealing with a cocktail obsessive.

What are bitters?

Bitters are seasoning, the salt and pepper of cocktails. They are not necessarily bitter and should not be confused with the Italian aperitifs, like Campari, that are sometimes referred to as bitters and actually do have a bitter taste. Cocktail bitters are used sparingly, only a few drops per drink, and vary in flavor profile; they generally run from 35% to 45% alcohol, though some have much less than that. Recently, with the rise of mixology, there has been a proliferation of new and interesting bitters on the shelves of liquor stores and bars.

How do you use bitters?

As noted above, numerous cocktails call for bitters, and if you have any new or unconventional bitters, the first way to try them is in one of those cocktails. Slip a few orange or mint bitters in where you would traditionally use Angostura, and see what happens. It's all about experimentation.

Which bitters should I buy?

Well, it depends how much of a cocktail geek you are and what drinks you want to make, but here are a few I would recommend, in order of importance (in terms of drink-making versatility).

Angostura Bitters

If you have only one bottle of bitters, you must have Angostura. This secret Trinidadian formula is what most recipes mean when they say to add bitters. It is the key seasoning to many classic drinks, including the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned, the Pisco Sour and the Champagne Cocktail.

As with most bitters, the ingredients are strictly confidential, but Angostura has a beautifully spicy aroma in which you can detect cloves, dried flowers and other potpourri elements. Its flavor is so ingrained in me that it's hard to disassociate it from a Manhattan or Old Fashioned. When I taste the bitters, I taste the cocktail by association.

Peychaud's Bitters

Peychaud's Bitters from New Orleans is the second bottle you should buy if you want to expand your bar. Peychaud's is the essential ingredient in New Orleans' signature drink, the Sazerac as well as some more obscure New Orleans cocktails. The brand is, in fact, owned by the New Orleans based Sazerac Company. Peychaud's has a bright, red color and an anise/licorice flavor.

Orange Bitters

Angostura and Peychaud's will make you able to make a wide range of drinks. If you want to expand even more, the next thing to pick up is a bottle of orange bitters. Orange bitters can be switched out for Angostura to create a lighter flavor with a hint of orange. As opposed to Angostura and Peychaud's, which are proprietary recipes, there are a number of orange bitters on the market, including versions by Angostura and Fee Brothers as well as Regan's Orange Bitters.

Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters

Having Angostura, Peychaud's and orange bitters will allow you to make pretty much any drink in any book. What happens, though, when you want to play around and make something a bit more experimental? That's when you reach for something different, and for me, that's Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters.

Fee Brothers is a Rochester, New York company that makes a large range of bitters, including mint, peach, orange and rhubarb. The Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters are a relatively new product, first introduced in 2007.

The most prominent flavor in the Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters is cinnamon, with hints of allspice and clove. It has a somewhat bitter finish. Used in a Manhattan, the Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters give the drink a nice spicy kick which plays well with the other ingredients.

I'd be interested to hear if any of you home (or professional) mixologists have any favorite bitters or favorite drinks that use bitters.


Anonymous said...

FYI - Angostura now makes Orange Bitters. It's in stores/bars through-out S. Florida (where their U.S. headquarters are based out of).

H. C. said...

ON Network's Cocktail on the Fly have a nice primer video on bitters. As hostess Alberta Straub says, "bitters make it better."

I'm very partial to my Peychaud and Fee Bros. Orange; and I just tasted that Whiskey Barrel one two days ago... amazing stuff!

sku said...

Anon, have you tried the Angostura Orange? I haven't yet and am wondering how they compare to Fee's and Regan's.

HC, nice video, thanks for the link. Bitters do, indeed, make it better. I too am partial to Peychaud's, but I think it's great that there are lots of new bitters coming out these days.

augustgarage said...

Most of my friends prefer Regan's for orange bitters, though I haven't done the comparison myself.

I only have Peychaud's at home right now which lately I've been using frequently in a variation of the Tart Gin Cooler (see:

I also had a great unnamed drink some time ago using I think, peach bitters. Can't remember what else was in there...