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Cocktail Bitters

This photo shows that a variety of bitters are just as important as spices are to chefs. (© fedorkondratenko/123RF photo)

Bitters to mixologists are like spices to chefs, they add depth and flavor.

This guide gives a little background story on the history of bitters and how they came to be part of cocktails. It reveals the major players, including several in the orange category, along with detailed notes on what they taste like.

History of Cocktail Bitters

In 1806, a New York newspaper editor published the ‘first ever’ public definition of the word cocktail. He said, “A cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters. It is vulgarly called bittered sling.” So the bitter element, is by very definition, a big part of what cocktails are.

Many types of liquor have bitter flavor profiles, but they are not ‘true’ bitters. The difference between them and what gets sold as Cocktail Bitters is potability. Meaning that you can drink Campari, Vermouth, Jagermeister, Dubonnet and others straight up as aperitifs before dinner, or as digestifs after dinner.

Bitters like Angostura and Peychaud’s get consumed in drops and dashes in cocktails. They are not intended to be consumed straight. They are classified by the government as alcoholic nonbeverage products. Because of that, they don’t have to pay hefty taxes, or incur as many import and export restrictions.

Bitters are made from plants that have long been known for their medicinal properties. Common botanicals include angelica root, allspice, cinnamon, clove, anise, nutmeg, bitter orange peel, hops, Chinchona bark, Cascarilla bark, gentian flowers and all sorts of nuts and berries. Almost all bitters were originally medicines designed by apothecaries, or chemists and used to cure a wide variety of ailments.

So how did Bitters end up in cocktails? You have to go way back to the ancient Egyptians. They added rosemary and pine resin to wine for medicinal purposes. Adding the botanicals to liquor was a way to get people to take their medicine, which was too bitter to take on its own. After a while, people developed a taste for bitters, and started adding them to drinks, even when they weren’t sick.

Later on, around the year 1550, bitters were already touted as a cure all, especially for hangovers when added to sweet fortified sherry known as Sack. 300 years after that, in 1850, Bitters were used to keep armies invigorated, prevent disease like malaria and provide relief for any sort of digestive problem.

So back in the day, when you went to the doctor for stomach aches, constipation, digestive problems, or lack of appetite, they sent you to the chemist, or the apothecary to get medicine, which was usually a form of bitters. Since the cure tasted awful, people began adding it to booze, or perhaps it was just an excuse to have a shot of booze, because they had to “take their medicine.”

Most bitters contain high levels of alcohol. It acts as a solvent to extract and dissolve compounds from plants that water cannot. It’s also a great preservative. Plus the alcohol made people feel better, because it numbed the pain.

Since most bitters in the year 1920 were potable, they didn’t survive prohibition in the States. The only ones that did survive were either very bitter like Angostura Bitters, or didn’t contain any alcohol. In fact, cocktail bitters containing alcohol almost died out completely, when back in 2004 there were only three surviving commercial brands.

Thankfully those dark days are over. There has been an explosion of new interest in bitters and bitter makers onto the marketplace. You’ll still find Angostura in just about every supermarket, but look to the internet and your local specialty food store, for a wide variety of this essential cocktail ingredient.

Angostura Bitters

Angostura Bitters have been available commercially since 1824. It was developed by an army surgeon general, as a tonic to relieve the soldier’s digestive problems. Some of the early advertisements claimed it could cure hiccups, diarrhea, sluggish stomach and disorders of the digestive organs. It could also cure sea sickness and settle the stomach just as ginger is known to do.

The product is named for the town in which it was first produced and does not contain any Angostura bark. The ingredients listed on the label are; alcohol, water, sugar, gentian, natural flavorings, caramel color and added color.

It is one of the most iconic brands and an essential ingredient in many cocktails including the Old Fashioned, Champagne Cocktail, Manhattan, Planter’s Punch, Pisco Sour, Rob Roy and dozens more. It is one of the few bitters with alcohol content to have survived the great American prohibition.

The aroma is bursting with clove, cardamom and nutmeg. There are strong notes of burned tree bark, ginger and caramel, with hints of bitter orange peel.

The taste is mostly cinnamon and clove with an intense bitterness and astringency that dries out the mouth. It’s woody, earthy and smoky, with flavors of gentian flower, burnt caramel, cola (kola nut) and bitter orange.

With so many flavors and aromas going on, every receptor in the nose and mouth start dancing. The digestive juices are stimulated as the anticipation of food is revealed. It’s no wonder Angostura Bitters has stood the test of time and remains an essential cocktail ingredient.

Peychaud’s Bitters

Peychaud’s is an American aromatic cocktail bitter. According to the label, Peychaud’s is made of water, alcohol, herbs, spices, caramel and certified food color including FD&C Red #40.

Originally, it was designed by an apothecary (a pharmacist or dispensing chemist in today’s lingo) as a tonic. It was used as a stomach remedy and cure all, for all sorts of maladies. It was usually mixed with cognac at the pharmacy, so customers would take the bitter medicine. The taste became familiar and people started wanting their every day brandy laced with the stuff.

The bitters have the scent of citrus, licorice, cedar, old rubber, cherry and gardenia flowers. The taste is somewhat sweet, high in licorice, clove and gentian root. The bitterness is not overwhelming as its well balanced, between the floral notes, sweetness, alcohol and woodiness.

When dashed into cognac or fine brandy it changes the aroma completely. It doesn’t overpower it so much as it harmonizes. It opens the cognac much like adding a bit of water, but almost smells and tastes like a fine cherry brandy, with the woodiness of fruit from mature trees.

Orange Bitters

In the last couple of decades there have been many newcomers into the long vacated orange bitters space. It was like a long drought. It was so long in fact, that most recipes calling for orange bitters were rewritten to exclude them. Thankfully those days are over.

With all the new orange choices, bartenders and mixologists can rejoice and once again make the classic recipes that called for orange bitters. But since there is no one standard in the orange space – like Angostura is to regular bitters – the only option is to try them all and experiment with them in cocktails, to discover what you like best.

Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters

The Fee family have made bitters for many decades. They have a number of bitters and other flavorings and continue to add new products to their line every year.

According to the bottle, the flavor of their orange bitters is principally from the skins of oranges grown in the West Indies. The ingredients are water, glycerin, oil of bitter orange terpeneless, gentian and other natural flavors.

The appearance is slightly milky. It’s almost the color of young whisky, but there’s no alcohol in these bitters, which means that it doesn’t have to fit the legal definition of being non potable, or an alcoholic Nonbeverage product.

The aroma an intense and bright tangerine orange. There’s an an underlying earthiness from the gentian root. There are also notes of clove, coriander, and cardamom, with a hint of butterscotch.

The opening flavor is a bright with bitter orange peel. The glycerin coats the mouth as the flavor becomes very woody in nature. It’s quite buttery and pleasant.

The finish is not overly complex. It’s well balanced with a harmony of mulled wine spices like clove, nutmeg and cinnamon. Overall, it’s clean, light, refreshing and light on the bitters, just enough to tickle the taste buds.

Regans’ Orange Bitters No6

Regans No6 was developed by the late Gary (Gaz) Regan. He was a renown mixologist, bartender and author, who back in the early 1990s, was having trouble finding an orange bitters that suited his taste.

After 5 versions they thought the recipe was perfect. However, No5 was rejected by the TTB (USA Tax & Trade Bureau) for being too potable, or not bitter enough. After years of testing, research and rejection, Orange Bitters No6 was born.

The label claims that it’s, “The finest orange bitters for man or beast.” The ingredients are water, 45% alcohol, bitter orange extract, herbs and caramel.

The appearance is perfectly clear, compared to Fees and Angostura, which have a slight milkiness to them. It also has the darkest color of the three, being a deep dark gold approaching that of aged cognac.

The aroma is that of a good Curacao, much like Cointreau. It also has strong overtones of cardamom, with a hint of cedar and nutmeg.

The initial taste of Regans is hot and peppery. The promise of the Cointreau doesn’t carry through to the flavor, because there’s only a few minor orange notes. It tastes more like the pith that’s between the fruit and the rind, which isn’t a bad thing, considering that it is supposed to be a bitters.

The finish is a strong cardamom, along with a pine resin like quality. The bitterness of the cinchona bark is prominent, but balanced with caramel, so it’s not overbearing. It’s just not very orangey in flavor compared to others, because of the pepperiness.

Angostura Orange Bitters

Angostura has long been the iconic brand in the bitters space. In many recipe books, the word bitters is synonymous with the brand. This Orange Bitters is their first new product offering in many decades.

The label states that this Trinidadian citrus essence, is the marriage of two varieties of oranges, one bitter and one sweet. The ingredients are: glycerine, water, 28% alcohol, natural flavors, spices and caramel color E150D.

In appearance, the color is very similar to the Fee Brothers. It is sightly deeper gold, but it’s not as opaque or cloudy.

The scent is not bright tangerine like Fee’s. Instead of a being a perfume, it’s more dark, like a cooked orange syrup, or canned mandarin fruit. The caramel is heavy and very noticeable, along with strong notes of cinnamon and cardamom.

The flavor has a very strong citrus opening, followed by strong cinnamon hearts candy and clove, giving way to floral elements, orange peel and oak. It is quite bitter in comparison to Fees, but not as bitter as Regans.

The finish is complex, almost like the product was aged in old sherry casks. It’s heady with cinnamon and bitter orange peel, yet it remains harmonious and balanced with a lingering essence of cloves and spices.

The (Orange) Bitter Conclusion

Angostura has a moderate orange scent reminiscent of fresh orange peel, but the caramel almost overpowers it. The flavor is woody and very strong in clove aftertaste. Use it when you want a medium bitterness with a lingering spice.

Fee’s is has the most orange scent and flavor, but it’s the least bitter. Use it when you want a bright orange essence, but not much in the bitter department.

Regans has the most character in the scent, like a cross between Grand Marnier and Cointreau, with strong cardamom notes. It has the least amount of orange flavor of the three tested, but it’s peppery and the most bitter. Use it for the Cointreau scent, or for hearty bitter element to balance your cocktail.

All that said, the story doesn’t end here, because many bartenders mix the different bitters together, to create a ‘house special’ orange bitters. For example, a well publicized combo is to mix Fee Brothers and Regans 50/50 for fresh orange flavor combined with sturdy bitter character. So as you can see, the orange bitters story is still being written and we’ve only seen the first chapter. The rest is going to be a wonderful adventure.


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