Essential Ingredient

26 June, 2018

Back in the US, though, Prohibition almost wiped out the use of bitters in cocktails, although ironically bitters remained available during those dark days as it was ‘medicine’.

The best bartenders had left and, as Prohibition dragged on for 14 dreary years, even the mediocre ones retired. The art of elegantly improving a well-made spirit with a dash or two of bitters, a small amount of sugar and some ice almost became extinct – raw spirit was drowned in juice, sugar or soda.

Post-Prohibition, classic cocktails began to be made without bitters, and then the tiki-drinks craze, followed by the disco-drinks era, taught generations of drinkers that it seems you don’t really need bitters at all.

DEPTH, SPICE AND FLAVOUR

Do bitters really make a difference in cocktails? Yes they do – they add depth, spice and flavour, and a cocktail isn’t quite right without them. Bitters don’t necessarily make a cocktail taste bitter any more than salt makes food taste salty – both simply add flavour when used in the right quantities.

Bitters shine best and brightest in minimalist classics – Martinis, Manhattans, Sazeracs, and the like. You probably don’t need bitters in a Piña Colada or a Long Island Iced Tea – their flavours tend to get lost when used in drinks that are too large or too sweet, although New York bartender Giuseppe Gonzalez got around this with his Trinidad Sour cocktail by using a whopping 3cl of Angostura bitters in it.

Things did not begin to improve bitters-wise until the mid-to-late 1990s, when Dick Bradsell (in London) and Dale de Groff (in New York) began to champion true classic cocktails – strong, small, very cold, made with decent spirits, and bitters.

The bars they ran – notably Dick’s Bar in the Atlantic Bar & Grill in London and The Rainbow Room in New York – gained worldwide press, and the race was on to recreate all the recipes in all the old cocktail books that began to be hunted down in secondhand bookstores. And that meant recreating bitters.

Everyone had Angostura Aromatic, of course, or it could easily be found. Peychaud’s was findable too, at least if you lived in the US and knew someone in New Orleans, its greatest market due to its use in the Sazerac, the official cocktail of the Big Easy.

But where did one get orange bitters? Or Stoughton’s? Or Abbott’s? Bartenders around the world began making their own bitters, out of necessity and curiosity and because the hivemind of drinkboy.com and a nascent internet delivered recipes for doing so. The results were sometimes great, sometimes awful and often just…OK. Turns out, bitters require more skill to make consistently than anyone had thought.

Bar guru Gaz Regan made an orange bitters in his kitchen that he gave away to friends such as De Groff and, after having trouble getting the flavours consistent, Regan approached the Sazerac company, owner of Peychaud’s. Was it interested in developing his orange bitters commercially and marketing them? Yes. Yes it was.

Regan’s No. 6 Orange Bitters is now a staple at most bars, and bartenders sometimes apparently combine Regan’s with the orange bitters from Fee Brothers to make a hybrid orange bitters nicknamed Feegans. Another modern success story comes from Germany. Munich bartenders Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck started The Bitter Truth company in 2006, to make commercial versions of the bitters they had been making at home. It seems every cocktail bar worth its salt stocks Bitter Truth bitters, and the company recently revived the Boker’s/Bogart’s bitters, reputedly the bitters specified in the oldest known printed recipe for a Martini.





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David Williams

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