Knowing Your Bitters

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too strong on its own, this unique ingredient adds a bite to drinks

by josh perilo

joe, one of the bar regulars, looked up after taking the first sip of his drink. he smiled from ear to ear.

"this is fantastic!" he cried. "what's different?"

"new brand."

"well whatever it is, don't change it back!"

joe had been ordering ginger ale and bitters over the past several weeks, and we had recently changed the brand. while switching a particular brand of vodka or gin might flag the attention of an expert, most people wouldn't notice. believe me, i've seen it for myself. bitters are a different matter, however.

to understand why types of bitters are so dramatically different, it's important to understand what they are in the first place. starting in the 19th century, bitters were concoctions created by pharmacists and used medicinally, usually for an upset stomach. the proprietary blend of natural ingredients that were thought to calm the stomach (among them angostura bark and sarsaparilla root) was muddled in a liquid that was usually derived from a neutral grain spirit. alcohol was used because the essential oils from the medicinal ingredients infused quickly and easily. after the mixtures became popular in medicine, they began to be served after meals in restaurants as digestives because of their ability to settle one's stomach.

today bitters are still often made using a base of alcohol, though not always. each bitters will taste completely different because the exact blend of herbs and botanicals used to make them are always trade secrets. there are some bitters that are marketed as potable in and of themselves, like campari, but many older and more historical brands tend to market their products as "non-potable," which is to say that they are used as additives in cocktails but not meant to be drunk on their own.

of the major brands on the market, the best-known and most ubiquitous bottle is angostura bitters. this little brown bottle sheathed in an oversized white label is most likely the bitters at your local pub or restaurant, and has probably not been touched in weeks. while it is a recommended ingredient for both a manhattan and an old fashioned, many lazy bartenders will forgo the dash or two that they think is superfluous. it is not! angostura bitters, distilled in trinidad, has a powerful flavor that tastes unlike anything else. there are notes of anise seed, sarsaparilla, pepper and tar. on its own, it is, admittedly, too much. added sparingly to a cocktail, however, the flavors spread out and make a more subtle statement. insist upon their use the next time you order a manhattan.

harder to find, but worth the search, are peychaud's bitters. these bitters are different starting with their appearance. while angostura's product is a dark brown, the peychaud's is a bright red. hailing originally from new orleans, these bitters are lighter in flavor as well. clove, peppermint and lavender flavors lead the way here. this delightful elixir is delicious as a couple drops in a club soda all by itself, or in its more traditional use, as a part of the new orleans signature sazerac cocktail.

not all bitters are imports from far-away lands. we have our own storied product from upstate called fee brothers bitters. fee brothers, started by brothers owen, john, james and joseph in the 19th century, have their own unique blend for what they refer to as their "old fashion bitter." dark in color like the angostura, it is less harsh, with warm flavor notes of cinnamon, cola and allspice. it is unclear as to whether fee brothers uses an alcoholic base for their bitters, as they do not indicate an alcohol percentage on their label (which they are not legally required to do, as their product is marketed as "non-potable"), but their bitters are delicious all the same. in addition to the old fashion, they also have other flavors of bitters, including mint, orange, peach and rhubarb.

while not exactly an essential for your home bar, bitters are certainly a great addition for the mixologist who wants to keep it authentic.

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