Webster’s dictionary defines a dash as: “a small quantity of a substance, especially a liquid, added to something else.” It’s also the amount of bitters necessary to make a cocktail more complex than figuring out the length of a piece of string. We here at The Cocktail Novice know that bitters are necessary for completing classic cocktails such as the Manhattan, but we wanted to know more.
So we decided to crack open the Google-box and in true beginner fashion attempt to unravel the mystery of this curious concoction.
The Story So Far…
Made up of a combination of alcohol infused plant extracts, fruits, spices, barks and other earthen delights, the name “bitters” (as you may have guessed) is derived from the taste of the end result.
It Cures What Ails Ya!
Tracing its history back to the dawn of the cocktail, bitters were originally marketed as a medicine. In the early 19th century if you had a bellyache, take some bitters. Sore throat? Bitters. Ingrown toenail? Bitters. This stuff cured everything…or so they said.
The gig was up in 1906, when the Pure Food & Drug act required any products claiming to fix what ails you actually have the proof to back it up. Crazy.
A Cocktail Original
Bitters had been showing up in alcoholic drinks previous to the PFD, and sophisticated marketers were able to parlay the products more “inebriating” qualities into a bigger business. In fact, in the early 1800’s it was written the first cocktails were described as a blend of “liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” To my novice ears, this sounds like an Old Fashioned and you should probably go make one.
Arguably the most popular of all the bitters brands, Angostura first arrived on the scene in 1824. Created by a German doctor during Venezuela’s fight for independence, Angostura was originally (of course) a tonic to aid in stomach discomfort.
Boasting a whopping 44.7% alcohol by volume, this stuff will more than likely get you hammered pretty good if you drank it straight. In reading the label, these bitters are mostly made of herbs, spices, and water and are highly concentrated. Ironically enough, when tasted you actually get more of a sweet/spicy aftertaste. However, this is not an open invitation to gulp it down. A few dashes in your favorite cocktail is more than enough to provide a great balance and taste.
You’ll know Angostura Bitters by their ridiculously oversized and annoying label.
New Orleans claim to bitters fame comes from Peychauds. Concocted by Haitian immigrant Antoine Amedee Peychaud, this tonic is very similar to Angostura, but A LOT sweeter and lighter feeling. It’s also bright red and reminds me of cherry snow cone syrup which makes me want to down it in one gulp.
Peychaud’s most commonly is used in New Orleans’ official cocktail, The Sazerac, along with rye, absinthe and sugar. Sazerac, by the way, is also a brand of rye whiskey that my fellow Cocktail Novice, Bill Rowland, has been scouring the East Coast for. If you find it, tell him where and he will buy you a bottle for your trouble.
Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Bitters is actually made with Angostura bark which is NOT present in the Angostura brand’s recipe (that Angostura is named after the town of it’s birth). While Fee Brother’s is very similar in color and body to it’s competitor, the big sell here is it’s noticeable cinnamony notes. Many purists tend to shy away from Fee Bros as the heavy duty allspice and cinnamon flavor actually changes the taste of some of the classics like a Manhattan. Fee’s biggest claim to fame is their Orange Bitters, which is a sweeter version made with Seville orange peels, cardamon and burnt sugar.
Over the last year of so, bitters have been getting the craft treatment. Like beer before it, independent “brewers” have been taking bitters to the next level. As discussed we are using herbs, fruits, roots and alcohol to create your basic bitter. The craft movement is now adding more off the wall flavors like coffee, Mexican mole and chocolate. I’ve even seen a lime jalapeno. Not even sure what I would use that in. Some of craft bitters new guard include: Bittercube, BItter End and Hawaii Bitters.
So Why Do We Need Them?
It dawns on me that we set out to really understand WHY bitters are so important, especially if they are used so sparingly. I couldn’t quite figure it out so, I tested it. I whipped up this here Manhattan…twice. One with bitters, one without.
Practice makes perfect. That’s my motto.
The first version (sans bitters) tasted good with just sweet vermouth and Bulleit Rye, but was super strong in whiskey flavor with a fair burn. The second round (with bitters) was much more balanced with a touch less whiskey burn and easier to enjoy. In short, I didn’t say “sheeeeeeeit” after the bitters were added.
So I guess that’s it. Cocktails, like most things in life, need balance. Bitters are balance.
The Bitter End
Bitters are an essential player in any bar game, especially the home bar. In fact, when I started my personal home bar I bought four bottles: Bulleit Rye, Tito’s Vodka, Tribuno Sweet Vermouth and Angostura Bitters. The Tito’s was actually the first of the gang to die (more on that later), but that doesn’t mean I haven’t used the bitters more than once. A little tidbit from the above test- five dashes in a Manhattan is perfect! We’ll be attempting to make some homemade bitters and will share all the details when the time comes. Until then, keep knocking back the whiskey sours!