You’ve seen them at most of the cocktail bars you’ve visited. Your Bartender picks up an antique looking little bottle and proceeds to drop a few droplets of the bottles contents into your cocktail, you ask what that was and they say “bitters” but what are they exactly?
Bitters tend to be a combination of extracts from various botanicals – traditionally herbs, spices, flowers, barks and roots which are steeped in neutral alcoholic spirit. The result is a flavourful and intricate liquid which can be added to drinks with the aim of balancing out sweetness due to it’s “bittering”properties. It is said that they can be deemed the original ‘cocktail’ as they are a simple blend of a spirit, water, sugar, bitters and a garnish. They are often portrayed as potent cure all tonics which can be used to stop any number of ailments including an upset stomach and hot flushes, these are amongst many of the uses I grew up knowing of them. To this day my grandma’s upset stomach cure of Ginger, bitters and honey in warm water is my go to. The “roots” probably gentian are often attributed to aid digestion.
Upon tasting something bitter, your tongue starts a chain reaction which signals and activates the digestive organs and awakens the appetite. It’s for this reason that aperitif’s are often slightly bitter. Our bodies respond positively to bitter flavours and when used within cocktails, tend to heighten or open up the palate to more flavours. That little extra”thing” in a Pisco sour… thats the bitters.
Angostura is the name most synonymous with the word bitters. They are a very concentrated bitters based on gentian root, herbs, and spices and are actually 44.7% alcohol by volume. The bitters were first produced in the town of Angostura (now Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela), hence the name, but don’t actually contain angostura bark. The recipe was developed as a tonic by Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, a German surgeon general in Simón Bolívar’s army in Venezuela. Siegert was based in the town of Angostura and used locally available ingredients and knowledge of the local amerindians to concoct his now famous invention, perhaps aided a lot by the botanical knowledge of the local Amerindians.
Siegert began to sell in 1824 and established a distillery for the purpose in 1830.
The product was sold abroad from 1853, and in 1875 the plant was moved from Ciudad Bolivar to Port of Spain, Trinidad, where it remains and is one of the countries biggest exports. The exact formula is a closely guarded secret, with only one person knowing the whole recipe, which is passed on hereditarily.
Peychaud’s Bitters is a bitters distributed by the American Sazerac Company. It was originally created around 1830 by Antoine Amédée Peychaud, an apothecary from the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) who settled in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1795. It is also a gentian-based bitters, comparable to Angostura, but with a predominantly anise nose entwined with a touch of mint. Peychaud’s bitters is the standout component of the Sazerac cocktail.
The Sazerac is the drink most associated with Peychaud’s bitters, and was also born in New Orleans and was an homage to Antoine’s brandy toddy. Its historic name came about at the Sazerac Coffee House. Its original recipe called for French brandy, Peychaud’s bitters, sugar, absinthe, and water. As time when on and French brandy became scarce, rye whiskey was used and helped define the drink we know (and love) today.
Its said the popularity of bitters grew when Bolivar’s soldiers added it to soda water which was usually chased with gin. The mix was very popular and today is more commonly known as pink gin. Popularity later soared in the United States, where they have become synonymous for its use in whiskey cocktails: old fashioneds, made with whiskey, bitters, sugar, and water, and Manhattans, made usually with rye whiskey and red vermouth are often cited as the most popular cocktails in the world and Bitters play a big part in that.
So next time you see a bartender adding those little drops of magic into your drink, rest assured they’re not just being fancy (they are), They are adding depth and complexity to your drink, which is always a good thing.