Joe Fee holds a bottle of Fee Brothers Black Walnut Bitters.
It seemed inevitable that bitters would make a comeback. After too many years of ultra-sweet "Sex in the City"-induced cosmopolitans, a great many cocktail lovers are suffering from sugar shock.
Bitters offer a blessed balancing act, using herbs to temper a sweetness in some cocktails that all too often is cloying. It also is used as a digestif, said to settle the stomach. But the big plus of bitters is the way they add live and a greater depth of flavors to your cocktail.
Few people could be more excited about this interest than Joe Fee, whose family founded Fee Brothers four generations ago. The Rochester, N.Y.-based company makes a series of cocktail mixes, cordial syrups, brines and coffee flavors, but it is known to many for its vast array of bitters, which come in flavors, from cherry to mint.
Fee, who is in town for the inaugural San Antonio Cocktail Conference, knows that the resurgence of interest in old-fashioned, handcrafted cocktails has also boosted a renewed interest in bitters. And he's here to spread of the gospel of what they can add to cocktails and cooking alike.
Lovers of cocktail recipe books, both old and new, know that many a libations writer cautions against using too much bitters in a drink. It's good advice when you're starting out and don't know your own tastes, but it also helps to sample your drink and adjust the bitters until you get the desired result. It's like adding salt and pepper to food. Some recipes call for more than a dash of salt. And there are cocktails that call for up to an ounce of bitters, Fee says.
"Everyone's tastes are different," he says.
The company's top seller is Old Fashion Bitters, which Fee says is the equal of Angosturra, another well-known bitters, and a necessary ingredient in a Manhattan. It's followed closely by orange bitters, a dash of which can make a dry martini even more perfect. Other flavors include peach, lemon, grapefruit, rhubarb and whiskey barrel-aged. This March, a gin barrel-aged orange bitters will be introduced.
But Joe Fee is more interested at the moment in another new addition: black walnut bitters, a flavor he developed himself. His sister, Ellen, who usually is in charge of development, took a pass because she's allergic to walnuts.
One taste of the black walnut bitters is filled with a pleasing nuttiness as well as a spicy tone, a touch of cinnamon and, of course, vanilla, which Fee calls "the salt of the flavor world." Add a dash or two to a good bourbon or tequila for added dimension, he recommends, or use it at a tiki party in everything from rum pineapple drinks to tropically flavored food, especially pork dishes.
Each bottle of Fee Brothers bitters, which can be found at Spec's and Twin Liquors among other local stores, comes hand-wrapped in paper, which gives the product a personal touch. It also makes the bottle look a little like Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. But the paper prevents the flavors from fading. Bitters will never go bad, no matter how old the bottle is, Fee says, because of the alcohol in it.
The San Antonio Cocktail Conference continues through Sunday. For information, click here.
The following are a few cocktail recipes that use bitters:
3 cucumber wheels
1 1/2 parts Hendrick's Gin, a cucumber gin
1/2 part fresh lime juice
1/2 part simple syrup
2 healthy dashes orange bitters
Brut sparkling wine
In a mixing glass, muddle two cucumber wheels. Add gin, lime juice, simple syrup, bitters and ice. Shake well and double strain into a cocktail glass. Top with sparkling wine and garnish with the final cucumber.
Makes 1 cocktail.
Adapted from Hendrick's Gin
1 lump sugar
Dash of Fee's Old Fashion Bitters
2 ounces brut sparkling wine
Soak sugar cube with bitters. Place cube in champagne flute. Fill with sparkling wine. Garnish with a twist of lemon.
Makes 1 cocktail.
1 teaspoon Fee's Peach Bitters
1 1/2 ounces gin
Shake bitters and gin with ice. Strain into a 3-ounce cocktail glass. Garnish with 2 mint sprigs.
Makes 1 cocktail.