You aren’t a bar unless you have bitters. That’s a like a kitchen without spices or sex with only that missionary position. Bitters are to cocktails what fire is to steak, but even more so. Steak tartare is delicious but technically, a cocktail is a spirit with bitters. To have a bar, you need Angostura, second are Peychaud’s, and third are orange bitters. After you see what those do for you cocktails, you’ll likely go batshit crazy collecting them like any bartender, then, you’re going to start making them. Before we go any further with bitters there are a three very important things to understand.
1. Bitters aren’t necessarily bitter and frequently they add sweetness to a cocktail. “But why are the called bitter?” good question reader, the etymology of “bitters” comes from “small concentrated drink.” Which brings up part 2
2. There are basically 2 types of bitters, this is more an FDA definition but I will list exceptions later. They are potable and non potable bitters. The easiest way to explain that is there are bitters that are generally low proof and meant to be drank as aperitifs or digestifs. And non potable bitters, these are meant as food or drink additives, and not intended to be drank alone, it could cause injury to your face. This is the one we’ll be focusing on.
3. Bitters also have two brothers named tinctures and essences. While bitters are concentrated mixtures, tinctures are high proof alcohol infused with a single flavor. The easiest way to make bitters is by mixing tinctures. An essence is one of two things, either the direct extract or the distillation of a single substance. Rose flower water, orange flower water or vanilla extract are the most common, but I have a prize in my collection that is the essence of Thai water beetle. I’ve also tasted some amazing wood (sandal wood, pine) distillations.
Angostura is paramount, dive bars have angostura, and your mom has angostura. Seriously, look in the pantry at your mom’s house, it’s there. Angostura is the most common bitters, you could say, they won the bitters’ war. Over a hundred years ago there were over a hundred commonly found bitters on the market. Though several have been reverse engineered by new modern bartenders (such as Robert Hess with Abbotts bitters and Jamie Boudreau with Bokers) Angostura remains steeped in mystery, as it’s a secret recipe. I did however make the recipe listed in Charles Baker’s The Gentleman’s Companion. It’s pretty accurate, so much so that when I made it I found that I had basically a lifetime supply. That recipe will be listed below. The real Angostura was invented in 1820, by Dr Johan Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert. It was invented to be used as a tonic to help the tummy. And it still does that for me today when I work long shifts in the summer heat and need to drink a lot of water with out hurting my tummy. That is the closest I’ve ever come to fighting off malaria and fighting for independence in 1821, in Venezuela (Angostura’s original purpose). Angostura tastes of cinchona, ginger cinnamon and cloves. I have been told that the over sized label was a mistake that was never fixed and later became tradition.
Angostura’s has stayed an essential behind the bar for “bar ginger” and the Manhattan. Bar ginger, is basically Sprite and Angostura; you can spice it up with a little muddled ginger, coke and fresh lime. The Manhattan is pretty much the best drink, and I’m going to take a minute to set two huge myths straight. Bitters don’t make a Manhattan bitter; Angostura adds spice and takes off the sweet edge of vermouth. Vermouth is nothing to fear either; a good Manhattan is 1/3 Vermouth. When a Manhattan tastes bitter, it’s because of the lack of vermouth. The water from the dilution masks the sweet notes in bourbon and rye. The higher the proof, generally the less sweet. An exception is the sentence I hear the often “I’ll have a Maker’s Manhattan, not too sweet.” Well then DON’T FUCKING ORDER MAKER’S! Understand when you say that you have become a brand whore. Outside of McCormick or Old Crow, Maker’s is a sweet bourbon. If you don’t want a sweet Manhattan, order a Manhattan with a dryer bourbon. Sorry about the rant, I just want you to get what you like. Angostura also stains clothes like nothing else can, makes your tummy feel better when drank with water or soda and cures the hiccups. The next time you hiccup, put 2 dashes of Angostura on a lemon and bite down, this works 90% to all of the time. Curing hiccups is really important because all credibility is lost when you hiccup during conversation.
Peychaud’s remains in bars because of the Sazerac, though the Sazerac is becoming a staple cocktail again, Peychaud’s still remains under used. And though others may be older, Peychaud’s was likely the one of the first bitters to be sold commercially, and internationally in 1840. Antoine Paychaud Senior invented it, though Jr made it famous and the necessary ingredient for the Sazerac Coffeehouse’s signature cocktail: the Sazerac. Like many early medicines, Peychaud’s was mixed with brandy as a stomach tonic. And perhaps similar to any medicine, it treats symptoms just as much as anything. Peychaud’s is very complex, it lightly tastes of vanilla and nuts, and there is a light anise flavor. Its bright red color adds fun to any cocktail, especially clear cocktails. Anytime you learn a classic like the Sazerac, try to learn another drink that time forgot like the Incognito, recipe below.
Orange bitters are the bitters of the original martini, assuming the original martini was the Martinez. I use Gary Regan’s Orange Bitters. Gary doesn’t care if you know the recipe to his bitters, he puts them in his book: The Joy of Mixology. But frankly, I like having a photo of that crazy beard on a bottle behind my bar. Orange bitters are very subtle, as such; I sneak them into drinks all the time, Lemondrops, Manhattans or Vespers.
While I try not to write too much about just me, when my interest in bitters spiked, I decided to start making my own. You’ll find most recipes require over a month and a great deal of preparation, for example Artofdrink.com has an excellent page listing standard bitters recipes, as does the back of David Wondrich’s Imbibe! If you are interested in making your own bitters the main advice I’d give you is to team up with others. Over the summer, I invited 15 other bartenders to all make their own bitters and exchange them at what I called the “Bitter Meeting.” This is a great way to get more bitters and learn more about making bitters without spending years practicing and having more than you’ll ever need. This is a sewing circle for bartenders, but let’s face it, making your own bitters is the core of cocktail nerd times. As for filtering, I do the chinois strainer then put bitters through a Britta filter. If you are in Seattle, I recommend Tenzing MoMo in the Pike Place Market to pick up anything you need to make bitters. Where to put them? Try specialty bottle.com . I’d recommend getting all of the bitters you can buy, and then trying to make everything you can’t buy. The reigning king of bitters and tinctures right now is the Tear Drop Lounge in Portland Oregon. They have over 50 different bitters and tinctures on the bar.
Aforementioned Drink Recipes
The Peach Monster - Phil Ward of Death and Company
2 oz Oban 14 Single Malt
.75 oz St Germain
4 Dashes Peychaud’s
Stir and strain
Incognito- Invented by J. E. Johnson
1 oz brandy
2 oz Lillet
.5 oz apricot brandy
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters
Stir and strain
Rinse rocks glass with absinthe
1.5 ounce rye whiskey
.25 simple syrup
2 dashes Peychaud’s
Stir and strain twist of lemon
The Martinez Cocktail Variation
1.5 oz gin
1 oz dry vermouth
1/4 oz maraschino liqueur
1 dash orange bitters
Stir and strain
And one from me:
SPF 10 (a mocktail)-Andrew Bohrer
6 oz Aloe
2 oz lime
1 oz orange
4 dashes Peychaud’s
Build over ice in a Collins glass
(FYI: a drachm is 1/8 of an ounce, or 60 grains)
Cinchona bark, 8 drachms
Orange peel 2 drachms
Lemon peel 2 drachms
Cardamom seeds, crushed 1/2 drachm
Chaomile flowers, 2 drachms
Bark cinnamon, 1/2 drachm
Raisins 1/4 lb.
Best grain alcohol 2 qts
Best grain alcohol 2 qts
All ingredients must be ground or pounded fine except the raisins, and these are first chopped fine, and then mixed thoroughly with everything else. Seal tightly in a 2 qt jar and pour enough of the finest grain alcohol obtainable, to fill-, which will be a scant 2 qts. Let stand at an even, fairly warm temperature for 6 weeks, stirring or shaking vigorously twice every day. Strain, then strain through a cloth; pressing at the last to extract essentials from the sediment. Stir and strain once more, and bottle for use. Andrew’s notes, I also tried using Tokay wine instead of Raisins, I liked the texture more, I also used a rum base. When I finished and I found the recipe too close to Angostura, I added, orange, lemon, beets, smoked tea, lavender and hibiscus.
Gary Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 5
8 oz Dried Orange Peel
.5 tsp Caraway Seeds
1 tsp Cardamom Seeds
1 tsp Coriander Seeds
1 tsp Quassia Chips
1.5 tsp Powdered Cinchona Bark
1/4 tsp Gentian
2 Cups Grain Alcohol
4.5 Cups Water
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1. Combine the dry ingredients in a large jar with alcohol and cup water
2. Ensure all of the dry ingredients are covered by the liquid
3. Shake the jar vigorously once a day for fourteen days
4. Strain the alcohol from the dry ingredients through a cheesecloth
5. Squeeze the cheese cloth tightly to extract as much alcohol as possible
6. Place the dry ingredients in a strong bowl or mortar
7. Reserve the alcohol in a clean mason jar and seal tightly
8. Muddle the dry ingredients with a pestle the seeds are broken.
9. Place the dry ingredients in a nonreactive saucepan and cover with 3 cups of water.
10. Bring to a boil over a medium-high heat, cover, turn the heat down, and simmer for 10 minutes.
11. Allow to cool, still covered (about 1 hour).
12 Return the dry ingredients and water to the jar with the alcohol and seal
13. Leave for seven days, shaking vigorously once a day.
14. Strain the water from the dry ingredients through a cheesecloth.
15. Discard the dry ingredients and add the water to the alcohol.
16. Put sugar saucepan and place over a medium-high heat.
17. Stir constantly until the sugar becomes liquid and turns dark brown
18. Remove from heat and allow to cool for two minutes
19. Pour the sugar into the alcohol-and-water mixture
20. At this point the sugar may solidify, but it will quickly dissolve
21. Allow the mixture to stand for seven days.
22. Skim off any bits that float to the surface and carefully decant the clear liquid to separate it from any sediment resting on the bottom
23. Measure the bitters; there should be about 12 fluid ounces
24. Add 6 ounces of water, and shake thoroughly
25. Pour the bitters into a bitters bottle. Store for up to twelve months