The Bitter Truth

  • 29th February 2012

When people think of bitters they probably mean Angostura bitters, a concoction made of a rum base with the addition of herbs, gentian and what the bottle calls “harmless vegetable favoring extractives and vegetable coloring matter.” Like the formula for Coca Cola, only a handful of people allegedly know the recipe for Angostura bitters. The bitters are produced only in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The bottle is wrapped in oversized paper and is 45 percent alcohol by volume. Legend has it that the oversized label is the result of someone ordering a label that was too large for the bottle.

The taste of Angostura bitters isn’t so much bitter as it’s camphorish on the tip of the tongue. Bitters has an interesting history. A Dr. Siegert created it as a tonic while he was based in Angostura, a town in Venezuela, where he served as Simon Bolivar’s surgeon general. Given its alcohol content, bitters became popular very quickly. In 1875 the base of operations was moved to Port of Spain and has been there ever since.

Angostura bitters are famous for giving an extra kick to cocktails like the Manhattan. This famous cocktail is made of two measures of rye whiskey, one measure of sweet vermouth, a dash of bitters and a maraschino cherry. One version can be made with dry vermouth and an olive, or twist of lemon. Another version has both dry and sweet vermouth, but all versions have a dash of angostura bitters. Without them a Manhattan would be a pleasant if unexciting drink. The same is true of the Rob Roy, which is made from Scotch instead of rye whiskey.

Though Angostura bitters may be the gold standard of bitters, there are other bitters as well. Many began in the early 19th century as patent medicines meant to cure maladies like biliousness, colds, indigestion, dyspepsia and “salt rheum.” This is true even of Angostura bitters, which after all, was created by a physician. Some are still sold as “digestives,” as opposed to “cocktail bitters.” Digestive bitters like Pimm’s refreshing No. 1 cup are enjoyed by themselves after a meal, while cocktail bitters are added to drinks. They have flavors of orange, lemon, mint, grapefruit and nearly countless others. Many, like those manufactured by Fee Brothers, are aged at the bottoms of Tennessee whiskey barrels.

Other famous manufacturers of bitters are Peychaud’s, a New Orleans company founded in 1830 whose bitters are famous for being an ingredient in the Sazerac cocktail, which is featured in “Cocktail Bill” Boothby’s “The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them,” published in 1908. Bitters, Old Men offers flavors like Roasted Macadamia, Smokey the Pear and Gangsta Lee’n. Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Boker’s Bitters is produced in Scotland. Despite its Scottish pedigree and old fashioned name, it’s only been around since 2009.

Bitters are concentrated and few recipes call for them to be added in more than a “dash” or two. This is enough to give the drink the punch it otherwise would lack, but too many bitters would overwhelm the drink’s taste.

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