Technically a cocktail isn’t a cocktail without a dash of bitters. Without the bitters, your bittered sling is just, well, a sling. Bitters emerged from the apothecary shops of Venezuela and New Orleans, originally conceived as a cure for stomach maladies and other ailments and it wasn’t long til the fine men of the Royal Navy were adding a dash of bitters to their gin to produce the medicinal Pink Gin.
Now a dash of bitters is a pre-requisite of nearly every drink you’d care to mention. So if every barman needs a bottle of bitters to hand, where to begin?
Angostura is the best-known brand, and you’ll find a bottle of this curiously mis-labelled concoction on the back bar of every drinking establishment you enter. Named for the town of Angostura in Venezuela, these are the original cocktail bitters and as good a starting point as any. Originally made as an antimalarial for the independence fighters of 1821, Angostura’s main notes are of cinnamon and cloves and it works well in almost any cocktail, and also, allegedly as a cure for hiccups.
Beyond Angostura, Peychaud’s bitters emerged from New Orleans in around 1840. This blend is lighter and sweeter than its Venezuelan cousin, and was originally mixed with brandy to act as a stomach tonic. Now it is more famous for its crucial involvement in the Sazerac. Its nutty vanilla and anise flavour means it is ideally crafted to bring out the liquorice flavour of absinthe.
Further along the scale we begin to enter the wonderful world of flavoured bitters. These form the rank and file of tiny apothecarial bottles you find on the shelves of the finest cocktail bars. Many are home-made, but many more come from a number of resurgent bitters manufacturers. The third most important bitters style is orange, useful for any citrus based drink. Other flavours for greater experimentation include rhubarb, cherry, peach, lemon, creole, chocolate, celery and dandelion & burdock.
You will find these and more at Fee Brothers, The Bitter Truth and Dr Adam Elmegirab.
Harking back to the golden age when travel was a luxury and every air passenger had access to a well-stocked all inclusive bar, young bitter upstarts, The Bitter Truth have also packaged up a marvelous taster tin of their fine aromatic delights.
Of course, let’s not pretend there’s any chance of getting a tin of these wee beauties past airport security these days, but still, let’s close our eyes and transport ourselves back to the magical era of transport for just a few minutes.
The tin contains 20ml bottles of the Celery, Orange, Creole, Old Time Aromatic and Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters along with a recipe card which gives a little background and a recommendation for each brew.
Old Time Aromatic Bitters – A strong combination of cinnamon and gingerbread gives way to a hint of aniseed, and is recommended for the Manhattan.
Orange Bitters – A bitter orange and nutmeg concoction which the fine gents at The Bitter Truth recommend for your Dry Martini.
Creole Bitters – The classic Peychaud’s nose of bitter sweet aniseed emenates from this bottle, and the recommendation is that you add it to the Improved Brandy cocktail (Brandy, Absinthe, bitters and sugar).
Celery Bitters – Powerful celery and ginger notes dominate this brew, and the suggestion is that this should replace celery salt in your next Bloody Mary.
Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters – The closest match to Angostura, these have a rich fruity nose with an air of cinnamon. A fine tribute to the legend, Jerry Thomas, and ideal for your Old Fashioned.
A grand addition to any home bar, these wee gems open up a world of possibility for your cocktail concoctions. Travel the world of fine drinking without leaving your sofa.